What it is to be a Christian

I suspect it is virtually heresy to say so in some circles. But I found the memoir of theologian Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child, odd. It’s certainly engaging, and I wanted to read it as I know Hauerwas is inspirational for some whom I admire. So I’ve been trying to work out why it feels as if something was missing.

The story of his bricklaying youth, his discovery of Christian theology and his painful first marriage is clearly and movingly told. You gain an understanding of his intellectual position – that theology is a form of practical reason in the context of a Christian community, which forms the individual’s virtues and character. In particular, he’s against ‘quandary ethics’, the widespread habit of seeing ethics as conundrums, and rather sees Christian ethics as ‘the ongoing training necessary to see that we are not fated.’

He does not believe in God so much as worships God, the point being that God must be revealed in worship because belief in God would imply a human ability to understand God – and that would be to replace the divine with the human. So theology is essentially reflection on a form of life, and his positions on various issues unfold as he forms the friendships of his life. He is well known, for example, for arguing that nonviolence is non-negotiable for followers of Jesus, as it’s the central meaning of the cross: if you believe the cross is God’s revelation of the way reality truly is, then you must be ready to suffer not kill. He also has arresting things to say about matters such as medical ethics: it should not just consider how doctors treat patients but how patients treat doctors.

But what I found odd was coming away with little feeling for what it means to be a Hauerwasian Christian – to be Christian as opposed to do Christianity. He confesses that he is not much given to prayer, and that counts for inner reflection too. So when it comes to feelings, he tends simply to flood: his mother was manipulative, his first wife was cruel, he always cries at baptisms. These are huge statements and they are mostly left hanging.

It also means that Christianity comes across not as a spiritual reality – there’s little sense of struggle and relationship with Christ or God, which you powerfully get when reading the autobiographies of an Augustine – but rather Christianity is a practical matter, a worldview that delivers policy.

This means, in turn, that when he repeatedly states that Christians must actually live as if Jesus died and rose, the call feels admirable, but strangely arbitrary. You learn about the how, though not much about the why.