Saturday, June 18, 2011

An Uneasy Christian

There are only a handful of books that I have wolfed down. Improvisation, The Reason for God, The Prophetic Imagination, **cough** The Da Vinci Code. I read quite a lot, but I read slowly, and I like to have several books on the go. But as soon as I started reading Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir by Stanley Hauerwas, I left aside every other book. When I got the urge to read, Hannah's Child was on the receiving end, and no other.

As a young man, it is his experience as a young man that stayed with me throughout the memoir. Hauerwas could not come to think of himself as a Christian, despite his Christian heritage and dedication to Christian learning. This experience enabled me to name my own: I am a Christian, but I have no idea what that means. Well, "no" is an overstatement, because after glimpsing the life of Hauerwas and friends, I'm beginning to understand a little of what it means when he declares at the end of the book, "I am a Christian". And I can see what I see in Hauerwas in the people I see as Christians amongst family and friends. I just could not name it until now. It is called love.

There is much else I could write, but a passage from the book will say it all better than I could. It is a wonderful example of the way Hauerwas thinks, and the way he relates. The setting is a round table discussion between faculty members.

There were probably fifteen of us. We introduced ourselves to one another by describing what we studied. The biologist talked of his fascination with butterfly wings. Barbara Herrnstein Smith made clear why relativism is true. A biochemist described the research he hoped would have therapeutic outcomes. I was one of the last to speak. I began by confessing that some of them might not regard me as a proper academic because I was not a free mind. Rather, I served a church that told me what I should think about. I offered the example of the Trinity, noting that, as far as it is possible to do so, I am suupposed to think about that. I then observed that it is clear to me who I serve, or at least who I am supposed to serve. I concluded by asking my colleagues who they thought they served.

We had a good discussion, but they did not address my question. The next day, however, I ran into Frank Lentricchia from the literature program. In fact, we met in front of Duke Chapel. Frank and I had come to Duke at the same time, but I did not know him well. I was drawn, however, to his naturally abrasive character. Frank said, "I've been thinking about your question. I know who I serve. I serve myself." I responded, "God, Frank, I hope that doesn't mean you have to do what you want to do." Frank recognised a sermon when he heard one. Drawing on my experience at Notre Dame, I told Frank that with a name like Lentricchia he had to be a lapsed Catholic. I suggested that he needed a priest and that I knew just the one - Mike Baxter, one of my graduate students.

The three of us had dinner. Frank, in his inimical way, asked Baxter, "What have you been up to?" Mike said that he had just gotten back from a retreat with the Benedictines at Mepkin Abbey. "Really," Frank asked, "what was it like?" Mike said simply, "They were happy." Frank replied, "I have to go there." He did. The rest is history, as Frank himself later recorded it in an article in Harper's. In ways that are not entirely different from me, Frank will probably always be an uneasy Christian, but hopefully God takes pleasure in our unease.

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