Stanley Hauerwas is a blunt, controversial, and profane teacher whose Christianity is as unvarnished as his speech. The professor charges that the Christian Church in America has compromised so much with the modern world it is in mortal peril. As he tells his students, Hauerwas believes that the Church is losing its soul and it’s up to them to restore it by becoming like modern saints.
BOB ABERNETHY: Just before Christmas, I went to visit a blunt, controversial, and profane teacher whose Christianity is as unvarnished as his speech. He is Stanley Hauerwas, who charges the Christian Church in America has compromised so much with the modern world it is in mortal peril.
On a warm day in Advent at Duke University, the world can seem a comfortable place. But not to Stanley Hauerwas. He is a professor of ethics who tells his students -- often profanely -- that the Church is losing its soul and it's up to them to restore it by becoming like modern saints.
Professor STANLEY HAUERWAS: If Dorothy Day does not exist, if Mother Teresa does not exist, then, by God, it is all smoke and mirrors and we ought to hang it up and live like good stoics. If those, if those lives do not exist, it is all bullshit. It's just all bull.
ABERNETHY: Hauerwas says one reason he uses street language is to protest bland piety. Another reason, he says, proudly, is that he is the son of a Texas bricklayer.
Professor HAUERWAS: When you've been raised a bricklayer, I mean, you don't exactly say, "Pass me a brick."
ABERNETHY: Hauerwas is also profane because he is angry. He thinks too many Christians have forgotten what he calls the truth about the way the world is.
Professor HAUERWAS: God's world. It's God's. It's creation. That tree is there to praise God. It is not there for my use. It is there for God. I must learn to enjoy that tree as God's tree. That's the way the world is. It's creation.
ABERNETHY: As Hauerwas sees it, the modern world puts top priority on wealth and power and the Church, Hauerwas complains, has gone along, in comfort and sentimentality.
Professor HAUERWAS: Most Christians today think of themselves as kind of tingling masses of kindness. They think that's what Christianity is about -- being nice.
ABERNETHY: Hauerwas insists Christianity is not about feeling good or even doing good, but about being faithful to the New Testament message. He says American Christians have lost their enthusiasm.
Professor HAUERWAS: I think that Christianity is over in the West. Because wealth kills Christianity. The West is wealth. I think it won't be too long that we'll have missionaries from Asia and Africa coming here to remind us what Christianity looks like.
ABERNETHY: To describe and, they hope, reverse Christianity's decline, as they see it, Hauerwas and his friend Will Willimon, the Duke chaplain, wrote a book called RESIDENT ALIENS. Real Christians, they said, are like a surrounded colony in a nonreligious culture. But Hauerwas finds that not all bad.
Professor HAUERWAS: Christians are free to be Christians. Now that we are out of power, what's wrong with talking about Jesus?
ABERNETHY: Not surprisingly, Hauerwas has many critics, who attack him for being glib, superficial, and opinionated. Above all, they say, Hauerwas is wrong when he plays down the responsibility of Christians to try to change the world.
Professor HAUERWAS: You're right. I'm not being a responsible citizen. I'm not trying to make America work. I'm trying to make the Church work.
ABERNETHY: The Church, as Hauerwas sees it, should be the essential training ground for resident aliens. He cares so much about his own church, he dedicated his latest book to it, and then could hardly get through his presentation.
Professor HAUERWAS: I simply wanted to do something that says how deeply it has meant to me for you all to fall on me and how much our lives depend upon you.
ABERNETHY: Hauerwas believes being a disciple of Jesus means being nonviolent. He called one of his books, like the Quaker paintings, THE PEACEABLE KINGDOM. But beyond being nonviolent, this professor of ethics teaches few ethical rules.
Professor HAUERWAS: Everything has been lost when you ask, "What should I do?" 'Cause the first question is, "What should I be?" And our being comes from the development of habits and dispositions, called virtues.
ABERNETHY: Virtues learned in church?
Professor HAUERWAS: The problem as I see it is that the Church has simply lost the courage to be different.
ABERNETHY: And the way to change that, says Hauerwas, is through his students.
Professor HAUERWAS: I tell them I want to change their lives. I don't want them to make up their minds. I want to make their minds up for them. And I do that because why else am I there? I mean, I'm not there to give information. I'm there as a theologian of the church of Jesus Christ to transform them into ministers of the Gospel.
ABERNETHY: Hauerwas begins each class with a prayer.
Professor HAUERWAS: Dear lord, I am filled with anger born of frustration.
ABERNETHY: Frustration, Hauerwas charged, because the shortcomings of Christians are preventing the kingdom of God.
Professor HAUERWAS: I don't know how the world is going to come out. I know what we should be as Christians. And then, you know, then we'll see. Then we'll see.
ABERNETHY: At the same time that Hauerwas rails at the world and the Church, he also seems to enjoy his role as a modern-day prophet. Indeed, sometimes he even says he is happy.
Professor HAUERWAS: I mean, God has been so good to me. God has given me wonderful work to do. I mean, how can I be disappointed? How can you be given a happier life than I have been given?