Stanley Hauerwas and the university

In an excerpt from a new book about Stanley Hauerwas, Michael G. Cartwright examines the theologian’s writing about universities as unique communities of conviction.

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from a chapter of “Unsettling Arguments: A Festschrift on the Occasion of Stanley Hauerwas's 70th Birthday.

Many of [Stanley Hauerwas’] more recent essays have been collected in a remarkable volume entitled “The State of the University: Academic Knowledges and the Knowledge of God.”

Hauerwas describes it as his “first sustained attempt to explore systematically how Christians might understand our participation in the work of the university as well as the difference Christian practice might make for how the work of the university is understood.”

Unsettling ArgumentsWhile Hauerwas’s opening chapter in that volume traces historical developments in the university that have led to the growing “incoherence” of the university’s curriculum and the marginalization of theology as a particular discipline of study, he also warns readers about the dangers of adopting “a negative view of the current university.” Indeed, the “the university” does not exist in some univocal sense; rather there are universities -- and “every university will present a different challenge for the teaching of theology.” Virtually all of the essays in the volume, I think, pursue a more constructive agenda than those he wrote two decades ago. For example, in his fascinating essay on “Carving Stone or Learning to Speak Christian,” we find a more emphatic focus on the importance of locating the language of Christian convictions and truth-claims in relation to the habits and practices of the church, which comes closer to naming the community of conviction.

In a commencement address Hauerwas gave at the Mennonite Goshen College in 1992, he illustrates what it means to be formed as disciples of Jesus Christ by describing the apprenticeship in which someone learns a craft from the master. Yet here he spells out the importance of apprenticeship for the “craft” of moral formation in higher education through an extended discussion of the ways the craft of stone carving offers an example of embodied learning from which Christian universities can learn. And he contends that it is a mistake for educators to regard “thinking as something that goes on in our ‘minds’”; rather, “learning to think . . . is rightly understood as work done with our hands.” For those charged with the task of theological education, he contends, it is especially important to take seriously that the labor of “teaching and learning a language, particularly the language of prayer, is as physical as learning to carve stone.” This displays why the task of the theologian is not to make Christian language meaningful; rather, it is “to direct attention to those masters of the faith whose lives have been shaped by the grammar of Christ.” As students and faculty become aware of the significance of the lives of saints or exemplars like Dorothy Day and Jean Vanier, they learn what it means to be disciples of Jesus Christ. In other words, Hauerwas argues that if educators neglect living traditions of moral practice, the result will be merely an “education” in abstractions. While he does not accent it directly, this is very like the engagement [Craig R.] Dykstra has called for: Church-related universities engaging the communities of conviction that sustain them.

In continuity with his earlier writings, the essays of “The State of the University” place emphasis on truth and honor as sustaining the academic endeavors. However, I think Hauerwas gives more attention to the issues of stewardship of institutions and he displays more explicit awareness of his own role as a “university person.” In his remarkable essay “What Would a Christian University Look Like? Some Tentative Answers Inspired by Wendell Berry,” Stanley joins his voice with Wendell Berry, who has been a critic of the university, but retains a “profound love of the university.” Indeed, Hauerwas tells us, “I hope I am a Christian, but the university has been more my home than the church.” As a person who has “always served the university,” he explains how he thinks he has “used” and “been used by” the university.

The community of conviction he inhabits with Wendell Berry is one marked by the practice of “standing by words” as opposed to indulging in abstractions that evade truthfulness. Hauerwas shares Berry’s conviction that higher education must develop the capacity to ask “the two questions you cannot ask in the modern university . . . ‘What is the university for? and ‘Who does it serve?’” Pressing these questions unseats abstract notions such as the “the public” that are allowed to stand for the actual needs of particular communities that are located in place and time.

Hauerwas endorses Berry’s emphasis on “placing” higher education precisely so that actual communities are not forgotten and betrayed by the systems of knowledge production in the modern university that is so driven by the capitalist milieu of our time. Yet in considering what it would mean to have a “Berry-like university,” he marks out ways it would need “a church.” “Witness is constitutive of the character of what Christians believe. For the Christian witness to be truthful requires that Christians distrust all abstractions not disciplined by the Word that is Christ.” For the church, this will require that Christians stop trading upon the abstractions of hierarchical definition associated with Constantinianism even as they intensify their commitment to the catholic character of the church. For Christian faculty and administrators it is not possible “to think about the character of the university without thinking about the character of the church,” and we need to articulate statements of purpose that reflect such convictions…

Hauerwas takes his cues from Wendell Berry’s essay “Standing by Words” in the volume of essays by Wendell Berry published as “Standing By Words: Essays.” Hauerwas also makes this same point in “On Witnessing Our Story: Christian Education in Liberal Societies,” in “Schooling Christians: ‘Holy Experiments’ in American Education.”

As Hauerwas explains, it is crucial to grasp the distinction between “public” and “community” in Berry’s thinking. “Berry understands the term ‘public’ to mean simply people abstracted from any personal responsibility or belonging. Thus a public building is one that belongs to everyone, but no one in particular. A community in contrasthas to do first of all with belonging; it is a group of people who belong to one another and to their place.’”

[Thus Hauerwas, quoting Catholic political scientist Michael Budde, states:] “The purpose of ecclesially based higher education is to make participants more fully into disciples shaped by the priorities and practices of Jesus Christ; to help them discern their vocation as members of the transnational body of Christ; and to contribute to the mission of the church -- to help the church serve more fully and faithfully as a foretaste of the promised kingdom of God, on earth as in heaven.”

While Hauerwas is supportive of Budde’s (and others’) efforts to define the purpose of the project of “ecclesially based higher education,” he reminds us that one of the most intractable obstacles for that project is the incoherent way in which “the knowledges characteristic of the modern university” are organized. Hauerwas concurs with Budde’s judgment that normative assumptions widely held by faculty about what “higher education” is and is not often dislocate us from the communities of conviction that can properly place our quests for knowledge.

In sum, while Hauerwas, like Wendell Berry, has been formed by his own participation in universities, neither critic believes that universities are self-constituting endeavors, and neither will consent to the myth that universities can fulfill their proper ends while engaging in, [in Berry’s words,] “the rhetoric of nowhere.” It follows that taking into account the particularities of a given community of learning -- whether located in Georgetown, Texas or Rock Island, Illinois or South Bend, Indiana or Durham, North Carolina -- requires that we pay attention to the narratives, practices, and traditions within which its relationship to the Church is located.

At the end of this interesting essay, Hauerwas joins Berry in urging [. . .] faculty at Christian universities to have the courage and fortitude to “stand by our words.” More specifically, Hauerwas explains what it might mean for Christians to “stand by the Word” of Christ. Quoting Fritz Oehlschlaeger, who teaches at Virginia Tech, he observes that faculty must learn that “utility in meeting needs can never be a sufficient standard, as we cannot produce the very thing we need most.” This requires the kind of “active memory and recognition by the intellectual of the labor that sustains his/her ability to pursue knowledge” that Christians locate with respect to the Christian Eucharist. Indeed, says Oehlschlaeger, “[i]ntellectuals formed within a community nourished by the milk of Jesus seem much more likely to think [of] what they do as requiring a community to receive it…. Maybe there’s a role, then, for Christian intellectuals who might mediate among the disciplines and between disciplines and public in ways that would not occur to the market-driven knowledge-producers on today’s faculties.” As Hauerwas concludes his essay, “‘maybe there’s a role’ is hopeful speech.” Some readers may be impatient that Hauerwas should conclude so tentatively or puzzled by that he has used a faculty member at a non-Christian public university to help identify the virtue of hope in relation to the practice of the Eucharist. I would argue, however, that his invocation of the words of one of his interlocutors from another university is an apt and properly humble way to display his own commitment to the wider community of conviction that makes Christian participation in higher education possible. For Hauerwas, humility and mutuality are constitutive virtues, required for any community of conviction that would seek truth and honor. And once again Hauerwas situates his own practice with respect to the “intellectual labor” of those outside the particular university in which he is a citizen.

Ultimately, Hauerwas contends, the intellectual labors of those inside and outside the university have to be correlated in ways that do not succumb to the intellectual vice of abstraction. Or, put more specifically in the terms of my own critical response, the mission of each college or university has to be spelled out in ways that fit the particular location of each would-be community of conviction. As his most recent essays on the university indicate, perhaps some of us who have argued with Stanley about what it might mean to carry out the project of church-related higher education have wanted the wrong thing. We have wanted an account of the Christian university that would resolve the conundrums of moral formation or that would once and for all clean up the conversations about the mission and identity of the church-related college and university. Instead, what Hauerwas has done is to remind us that any attempt to resolve these questions that steps aside from the struggle for truth and honor in the context of particular communities of conviction is bound to be self-deceived.

This relates, once again, to my interest in identifying Stanley Hauerwas as a kind of “verger” in the academic procession of the university. Like the person who lifts high the institutional symbol of the church or the university that marches in front of the bishop or university president in the procession, Hauerwas is that colorful and sometimes argumentative figure in American higher education who keeps reminding us that, properly understood, Christian colleges and universities are socially embodied endeavors that exist in particular spaces and times.

In doing so, he is using his intellectual verge like a broom, clearing away obstacles that keep us from the kinds of intellectual labors that we have been called to do as Christians in the university, that is, in the particular universities of which various ones of us have become part. One such obstacle may be that the term “church-related” is used to evade real specification of the ways the church and the university are engaged in ongoing conversation and collaboration. Indeed, if we are to avoid such evasions, we will need to attend to the particulars of our various institutions.

[. . .] Stanley Hauerwas has given a quarter of a century in service at such an institution, service we can all learn from. So, although Duke University and (say) my own University of Indianapolis are very different institutions, both can be said to be “communities of conviction”; and it is possible to offer leadership in both -- indeed, such leadership is sorely needed. What is necessary is that we develop the skills and insight that can fit well within the various communities of conviction so that such leadership can be effectively carried out.

For instance, however much some might enjoy it if Hauerwas gave the kind of speech that he gave at Goshen College to the undergraduate population of Duke University, such an address would not fit the community of conviction that had its origin with Trinity College in North Carolina and has evolved into the research university that is located in Durham, North Carolina. This is true not only because the faculties of these institutions constitute different communities of conviction, but also because there is a different cast of characters occupying the stage of higher education in each of these institutions. To recognize such differences, I would argue, does not have to mean that we have to give up the conversation about what it might mean to embody Duke’s motto eruditio et religio, but it does require that we engage that conversation with a different set of tactics and stratagems.

So much like the “proper verger of the trust” who repeatedly has to clear a path so that the academic processional can proceed, Stanley Hauerwas’s “office” in American higher education has been to keep reminding us that it is simply not possible to act as if we can provide an abstract definition of church-related or Christian higher education that applies to all instances without remainder; rather, the charism(s) of each and every institution of higher education --understood in Dykstra’s sense as a “community of convictions” -- has to be spelled out in relation to the particular set of practices, narratives and traditions that constitute all such embodiments of the church-related college or Christian university. This is a significant contribution that we should not overlook in any of our attempts to characterize Hauerwas’s significance for the recovery of moral formation in American higher education.

Charles R. Pinches, Kelly S. Johnson, Charles M. Collier, eds., “Unsettling Arguments: A Festschrift on the Occasion of Stanley Hauerwas's 70th Birthday” @ 2010 Wipf and Stock Publishers, Eugene, Ore. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, all rights reserved.