Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Gilbert Meilaender writes a letter to his old friend Stanley Hauerwas .

Dear Stan,

I read your memoir, Hannah’s Child , with pleasure and had the sense that you must have taken pleasure in writing it. I started it on a Saturday and finished it before the weekend was over, so you know it carried me along. It’s a good story that you have to tell, though I will hardly do justice to the whole of it here.

Memoir is a complicated and very personal genre, as you acknowledge, and I have found myself unable to write a standard review of it. Moreover, I am mostly going to pass over some of the personal discussions in the memoir, simply because I think it almost impossible to find a good way to take them up. Some of the things you have written about certain people I would not, I confess, have written. For example, though it’s clear that you say it with deep affection, I would not have written, “Mother was a pain in the ass, but she meant well.” I’m pretty sure, from what you write, that she did indeed mean well”and, as you of course know, that counts for a great deal.

That said, I found the first chapter perhaps the most powerful in the book. In part, of course, this is because it sets out the fundamental theme of your memoir: a wife who cannot seem to become pregnant, who knows the story of Hannah and Samuel and prays that, if she is given the gift of a child, she, too, will dedicate her child to God’s service. But because, a week before your birth, your parents had seen the movie Stanley and Livingstone , you became “Stanley” rather than “Samuel.” Still, though, you were fated to be a theologian, even if, on occasion, haunted by that fact. Shall we not say, looking back, that your mother did more than mean well? She nudged”shoved?”you in a direction that has in truth become, for you, a place not of fate but of providential destiny.

But the theme of the first chapter, and, in many respects, of the book, goes beyond just this. “My father’s great gift to me, my mother’s great gift to me, a gift I did not recognize until later, was their willingness to let me go on.” You make this point in different ways at various points in the memoir, and I find it both unbearably sad and, simultaneously, a fact that should elicit from us admiration, praise, and thanks. Raised in Pleasant Grove, Texas, you have come”as you observe”a long way from there. This distance is geographical only in the least important sense. The really important distance is that you gradually made your way into a world of which your parents could have little experience or understanding. “I have,” you write, “spent my life in buildings built by people like my father, buildings in which the builders have felt they do not belong.” Not knowing the world you were entering and perhaps not entirely trusting it, what could your parents do? They could only trust you”and the God to whom you had been dedicated.

Of course, leaving home for a new world is in some ways a distinctively American theme. But it is also”and this is surely your point”the warp and woof of human life. It cuts very deep into our human nature, if you will permit me some Niebuhrian language. One of Kierkegaard’s finest passages reflects on the sentence: “He stands alone”by my help.” In that short sentence, writes Kierkegaard, “the greatest contradiction” is “overcome.” Thus, the child stands alone, but only because the parent’s hidden hand holds him. You, Stan, have reminded us here of what it means for parents to come before their children as God’s representatives”and what it means for children to honor their parents by learning to discern the help that is, as Kierkegaard says, “hidden behind a dash.”

There are lots of other interesting and compelling details in the memoir, and I mean to return to some of them eventually. First, though, you will not be entirely surprised to know that I have a few bones to pick with you. Let’s settle for two, which are not entirely distinct and which will bring to focus a significant theological issue.

First, I want to think with you about a matter that requires me not entirely to pass by some parts of the memoir, even though”as I said at the outset”I myself think it hard to find the right way to take them up. The account of your first marriage, to Anne”a marriage, you write, that was dominated for years by the effects of her severe manic-depression”is hard to read, and I am sure I cannot imagine what it must have cost you in countless ways. It is not surprising, therefore, that when, finally, that marriage proved impossible to sustain, you should have quickly fallen in love with Paula.

All honor to the depth of that bond and to the way it has obviously enriched your life. Still, though, may I pause to wonder over a couple of points that are, in the end, theological? (Your mother did set you apart to be a theologian, after all.) In doing so, I am not, of course, raising questions that you yourself would miss. “I was completely and totally in love,” you write. And then, three sentences later: “Of course, I was the guy who had argued that love was an insufficient basis for a couple to think that they should be married.”

Indeed, even more, you were the guy who rather liked to say that you didn’t believe in love”and now you found yourself, by your own description, drunk on love. At this point I think you might simply have acknowledged that your previously stated view about love, although capable of being understood correctly, had been overstated and in need of qualification. But, no, you plunge right on: “I continued to think that I was right about that, but I was also sure that Paula and I should be married”if for no other reason than that it would make our friends happy.”

I guess this is your version of Luther’s marrying Katie because it would spite the pope. But here is one place where the story you tell does not really persuade me. Marrying to make your friends happy? No, Stan, I think not. That is to confuse a pleasant by-product with a fundamental motive. But my real interest here is theological.

Eros is one of the natural affections. To be sure, even at its very best, when it is true, tender, and suffering, it is not in itself sufficient. It needs to be drawn into what is higher”into love for God and the fidelity that characterizes the bond between Christ and his bride, the Church, if it is to be made whole. Nevertheless, even in its natural state, eros is not to be despised. To come under the spell of eros is one of the most significant things that can happen to a human being, and we should neither disdain it nor deny its importance. As Mark Studdock reflects about his wife Jane in C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength , “When she first crossed the dry and dusty world which his mind inhabited she had been like a spring shower: In opening himself to it he had not been mistaken.”

Of course, although a man and woman fall in love, their love must still be transfigured and sanctified”redirected, that is, to God. Sometimes, even, it may have to be renounced or sacrificed. But let us never make light of what they have experienced or suppose it theologically unimportant. In short, Stan, your personal testimony to the goodness of natural love is, on this occasion, to be preferred to your teaching.

Now, though, comes the second and harder bone I have to pick with you, although it will bring us around to a similar theological point. “In some ways,” you write, “I felt as if my whole life had been preparation for September 11, 2001.” Let me say, before starting down this path, that in certain respects we are in agreement. I think that Americans, blessed as we are with security and liberty that many others in the world can only dream about, do not always remember how fragile life is in every time and place. Perhaps, then, we are more shocked than we should be when the rhythms of life are entirely upset by evil deeds.

Our shock is an indication that our Christian beliefs may not be shaping the contours of our lives as much as they should. Perhaps it’s also important to say here that, at least in my mind, you were not wrong to object to the sentence in the First Things editorial which said that “those who in principle oppose the use of military force have no legitimate part in the discussion about how military force should be used.” Whether it followed that you “had no choice but to resign from the board of First Things ” is less clear to me, but, of course, that was your call. (I am glad, though, that, in retrospect, you have stepped back a bit from a harsh review you coauthored in First Things of a book on war by Jean Bethke Elshtain. The review was not marked by charity, and it’s good that you, too, should now “regret the tone.”)

But the important theological issue comes out in your account of a disagreement with your longtime friend and former colleague, Robert Louis Wilken, another First Things editorial board member. You write that, after listening to a panel on which you had criticized the notion that we Christians could consider ourselves at war, Wilken wrote to ask whether you “disdained all ‘natural loyalties.’” He was angry, as you put it, “that I failed to acknowledge the ways in which our relationships with others bind us to protect them.” You write:

I responded by acknowledging that I do disdain all natural loyalties. Moreover, I refuse to accept the presumption that patriotism is a “natural loyalty.” I also suggested that he, too, must recognize some limit to “natural loyalty,” else why would he and Carol have had their children baptized. I assume that the light of baptism reconfigures the “natural love” between parents and children. After all, we and our children are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus. At the very least, this means that we might have to watch our children suffer for our convictions.

I want to examine this paragraph just a bit, because it brings into focus my theological point. The first thing that seems clear at least to me is that it is not true that you disdain all natural ties. No one can read what you have written in this memoir about your son, Adam, or about your marriage, later in life, to Paula, and suppose that you disdain either of these natural ties. No one can read what you have written in this memoir about your parents and believe that you disdain all natural ties. One of the chief emphases in your work over the years has been the importance of being a people capable of speaking truly. “Recognition of truthful speech,” you write in this memoir, “begins when readers identify the words they encounter as an honest expression of life’s complexities.” But when I read the paragraph I just quoted, and set it over against what you write in the memoir about several important natural ties, I must judge the paragraph to be inadequate to “life’s complexities.” You didn’t intend it to be false, of course, but it is.

Not everything in it is false, though. Surely you are right to say that the fact that Robert Wilken and his wife brought their children to be baptized meant that they acknowledged limits to the bond between parents and children. I can’t imagine that Robert would disagree with that. But notice what you then write. You write that baptism “reconfigures” this natural love. True enough. But “reconfigures” is a long way from “disdains.” When, in baptism, the natural bond is reconfigured, it is taken up into our love for God, there to be transformed and sanctified. But not left behind, not simply discarded, and surely not disdained.

You have, as I noted in the first bone I picked with you, learned to take eros more seriously than your theoretical commitments seemed to make possible. I think you might also”should also”learn to take patriotism and the bond between fellow citizens more seriously. This would not require that you relinquish your pacifism, although it might call for a little thought in that regard. But it would surely require that you not disdain the bonds through which God gives us particular neighbors to care for. Indeed, I suspect that your academic colleagues at Duke are more likely than your fellow Christians to approve the disdain”and, insofar as that is at all true, you yourself should have reason to pause and think again.

I do not want to end on that note, however. There is much else in this memoir that is both interesting and delightful. For one thing, you have not lost the capacity to produce your characteristic one-liners. Describing Augustana College, where you first began to teach, you offer a description of the students that, alas, rings all too true to me. “They were in a generalized way Lutheran, which meant in some vague way that they thought they were Christian. At least one of the missions of Augustana was to reinforce that vagueness.” Recounting your meeting with Jim Burtchaell, who came to Augustana to talk with you about a possible job at Notre Dame”on a Saturday morning when you were dressed in your normal Saturday garb of “shorts, a shirt with no sleeves, tennis shoes with no socks.” You recall: “Years later Jim told me that when he saw me on the steps of Old Main he prayed: ‘Dear God, please don’t let it be him.’”

More substantively, the discussion of your education at Southwestern and Yale, and then of your successive teaching positions at Augustana, Notre Dame, and Duke”all intertwined with the ups and downs of your personal life”is not only interesting but also instructive. How nice that you lift up the influence of Julian Hartt on your thought, which I had not known but which rings true.

For all the richness of the education you received at Yale, though, the pages in which you recall John Score, your philosophy teacher at Southwestern, are to me the most striking account of your academic formation. They make clear that all we need for first-rate education is a thoughtful teacher well schooled in his discipline, a genuinely interested student, and important texts. For all that, of course, anyone who supposes that an academic life is chiefly one of leisured reflection and friendly conversation need only read your pages on teaching at Notre Dame and at Duke to begin to see how intensely politicized is the contemporary university.

In the course of these discussions, you offer some of the clearest descriptions I have seen of your way of “doing” Christian ethics. Having learned (primarily from Wittgenstein) that “description is everything,” you gradually came to see ethics as the effort to think through what is needed to make truthful description possible. The answer comes very near, it seems to me, the heart of your work. What we need, you write, are “agents habituated by the virtues necessary to avoid the lies unleashed by our desire to avoid suffering the suffering of others. Descriptions, moreover, are not just ‘there’ but interconnected. The interconnection is called ‘a story.’”

The topics of friendship and work recur throughout the memoir, and they often make it come alive. (Friendship, I cannot resist noting, is generally regarded as a “natural love.” It is not Christian charity; yet, you certainly do not disdain it on that account.) At least humanly speaking, it was often your friends who sustained you through very difficult times.

But also, and, I think, importantly, you were sustained by your work. There is in the memoir none of the romanticism about work that can quickly become far removed from life and hard to believe. There is, instead, a tough realism that I very much admire. Raised by your bricklayer father “just to get on with it,” you have honored his memory precisely by doing so. Treating theology as a craft and a calling has been, it seems to me, enormously fruitful in your life and has, in turn, honored the memory of both your father and your mother.

In the end, of course, I cannot say whether you have really succeeded in finding what you were seeking in this memoir: the pattern that gives shape and unity to your life. Without in any way diminishing the pleasure I have had in reading what you have written, may I say finally that it matters not whether you’ve found it. The God who alone, as Augustine says, can catch the heart and hold it still knows us better than we know ourselves. He will not fail to detect the pattern and finish the story. Thank you for beginning the telling of it.

Your friend, Gil

Gilbert Meilaender, a member of the First Things editorial and advisory board, holds the Deusenberg Chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University.