Theologians should strive to become “public intellectuals” if they want to improve society, renowned theologian Stanley Hauerwas DIV ’65 GRD ’68 told a packed room at the Yale Divinity School Tuesday.
Hauerwas is a professor of theology at Duke University and the author of numerous influential books and articles. The talk was organized by Divinity School Assistant Director Christian Scharen, a member of the Center of Faith and Culture, a Divinity School organization which aims to infuse religious tradition in issues of broad public interest.
According to Hauerwas, the greatest plight of the modern university is that it has lost its connection with the outside world. He said currently the humanities, and especially theology, do not attract the public’s interest.
Hauerwas said because of the disconnect between intellectuals and the rest of society, only the sciences, such as medicine, whose achievements are immediately apparent in everyday life, are of any interest to the public. The humanities have been reduced to a “narcissistic endeavor,” for which intellectuals have no audience but each other, he said.
“Medical schools are so much more interesting than divinity schools,” he said. “People do not feel that their salvation is threatened by inadequately trained priests, but they do feel that their lives are threatened by inadequately trained doctors.”
Yet theology is very important, Hauerwas said, because it helps the individual survive in a “world without hope.” Hauerwas attributed the appeal of his books to the fact that he tries to connect theology to reality.
“I hope that the reason why I’m read is that I am relentlessly realistic,” he said.
Hauerwas said he tries to approach the reader and encourage him or her to find different ways to think, especially about politics, which he considers the most profound indicator of how well a society is functioning. He said he trusts the reader and believes that after reading his work, the reader will apply and extend Hauerwas’ ideas and become part of a general project of improving society.
“I don’t want my work to be perfect,” he said. “I want it to be an invitation saying, ‘If you think that what I’m doing is wrong, you should do it better.'”
Hauerwas addressed several specific issues such as the current debate over whether mental retardation should be prevented before birth. He said sentimentality is the greatest threat to Christianity, leading Christians to believe that they are obliged to raise children who will not suffer.
“Yet by treating retardation as a cancer-type thing which needs to be cured, we end up eliminating the patient,” he said.
Addressing current politics, Hauerwas said it is a fantasy to think that we are ridding the world from evil through war, and he characterized President Bush as a “pathetic Christian.” He said religious fundamentalism is extremely destructive for society, and patience is important for Christians today.
“In a world as unjust as this one, when people are dying of starvation at this moment, patience means taking the time to read books,” he said. “We need to recognize what matters and gain a sense of what we are all about.”
Heather Templeton DIV ’05 said she was impressed by the connections Hauerwas drew between Christian theology and the real world.
“I have loved him since I was an undergraduate,” she said. “He is the reason I studied theology. He makes it real.”
Jeff Pierce DIV ’06 said he was very pleased at the tone of the speech, as well as the content.
“It was delightful to listen to him,” he said. “He unapologetically uses colloquialisms and profanity in trying to show the relevance of authentic human wrestling with the question of faith. He says what needs to be said.”