Hauerwas, Lindbeck, and Burrell

A Conversation Among Friends
January 18-19, 2007
left to right: John Wright, moderator, George Lindbeck, David Burrell, Stanley Hauerwas.
Nazarene Theological Seminary hosted gathering of great theological minds this past week. Stanley Hauerwas, George Lindbeck and David Burrell gathered to publicly discuss the question “Is the reformation over?” Me and a couple of friends went to listen to them and I have to tell you I was pretty blown away. All three have ties to Yale and Burrell and Hauerwas were at Notre Dame together. They’ve all maintained a friendship, catching up with each other all over the world as they travel, write, speak and teach about theology, ethics, philosphy, ecumenism and more. All of these guys have been widely read and are giants in their fields.

Lindbeck went first. He told stories about being a young theologian coming up in the Lutheran Church. He’s the son of Lutheran missionaries who became enamored by his Catholic cousins and the Catholic church by extension. He went to Yale to study medieval philosophy, not because he was interested in it but because he wanted to study the contemporary Catholic Church and that was the prescribed pathway. In 1949 he went to Paris to get his PhD. Can you imagine being in Paris as a student in the wake of WWII? Later, while teaching at Yale, he was asked to be one of 3 official observers to the Vatican II Council. He told a lot of stories of being behind the scenes as the Catholic Church answered some of the final issues from the reformation protests.

He told great stories. One story in particular was of a closed door audience with the Pope and all of the other observers (I think he said there were 41). He said John XXIII stood up and addressed them off the cuff in French. The pontiff told them when he was a boy, every morning he would wake up and his mother would tell him what to do and he would do it. Then at school he’d wake up every morning and his teachers would tell him what to do and he’d do it. Later the same was true of his professors. After he became a priest it was the head of his parish, then the bishop, then a cardinal and as he worked his way up there was always someone who would tell him what to do when he got up in the mornings. Then he became Pope, which of course got a big laugh – who tells the pope what to do? Then he recited Lamentations 3:23 “great is his faithfulness, his mercies are new every morning.” He explained that this council was the result of his obedience to God whose mercies are new every morning. What a great story.

David Burrell went next. He did similar life/history story telling. He’s probably the one with the most wit. Here are a few quotes I wrote down:

“There are two kinds of people in the world: those who NEED certitude, and those who search for truth.” His point being that the world needs more of the latter.

“Doing theology is being an apprentice to the master.”

“Graduate studies is as much networking as it is education.”

“There are a lot of unscrupulous adults making money off the youth culture.”

Much of what Burrell is now working on is a dialogue between the Islamic, Jewish and Christian faiths. His thesis is basically that if one engages in dialogue with other faiths and the goal is this need for certitude, it will be a disaster. But if the goal is to search for the truth, then those sort of dialogues are incredibly helpful. Gaining understanding only brings one closer to the heart of God. He now lives in Jerusalem and teaches there, working to create this dialogue among Abrahamic faiths.

Stanley Hauerwas went third. He was on pretty good behavior, but couldn’t help cussing some – which I just mention because the Nazarenes are so conservative about that sort of thing. Here are a few Hauerwas quotes:

“Justification by faith is a Christological move, more than an Anthropological move.”

“I distrust conversion so deeply because it is such an invitation to narcissism.”

About his days at Yale and Notre Dame and his long friendship with the other two men: “We weren’t trying to change the answers to the old questions, we were trying to change the questions. And doing that requires a lot of reworking – especially of yourself.”

Christianity is discovering “a unity that God has given us, that we have not made.”

“Scholarship is habit, linguistic habit.”

Speaking about the way John Paul II died: “I wish he would have died sooner…he ended up a prisoner to the Vatican. It’s one of the great tasks before us to reclaim our own deaths from modern medicine.”

About his friendship with the other guys: “We’re not friends because we’re desperate, but because we share a common joy. And the world is desperate fort hat joy.”

He said in the Methodist church everyone thinks ordination of homosexuals is their big issue. He says their big issue is adultery. “Our congregants are so messed up and because we don’t work for a living, we’re supposed to help fix it all. We’re so taxed and stressed and essentially lonely. We carry so much pain, and we go home to our spouse…and no spouse should have to love somebody that much. We just long to be touched and often we find that touch in the wrong places.”

His parting shot was “Be not afraid, don’t be afraid of speech. It’s a great gift we give to help people not to be robbed of their speech. Jesus is lord, let me show you all of the things you need to know to live with that one. That is why, and you’re not going to believe I’m going to say this, you can’t read the Bible enough, because that’s where you get the grammar. And we’re all gonna be dead before you know it…so it’s up to you now.”

In their closing sessions they were all three together in discussion. I didn’t take that great of notes on this part because I was just enjoying watching them all. I most remember Lindbeck saying that perhaps what is happening today is that God is destroying the church bit by bit so that he can build it up again in his own image. “We meet Christ most deeply when we live deeply in our own tradition. The best ecumenists are those who live most deeply into their own tradition.”

All in all I was really struck by their hope and optimism. Lindbeck said at one point, “One of the great advantages of getting to live for a long time is that one learns to distrust completely any predictions of the future.” These are all men who have world class minds and educations. They are more widely read than any 10 people I know. Because of their work and acclaim they have access to behind the scenes information about the church and theology on every continent. Becuase of their field they are well versed in the current trends amond Protestants, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Musilims. If there is cause for cynicism, these guys would find it. But they spoke of hope and goodness and the prevailing nature of the Kingdom of God. I was really encouraged by my time with these three amazing scholars and writers.

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  • Thanks very much for those notes. Do you know if there’s any audio available from the event?

  • I haven’t heard about audio yet. My guess is “no” but I’ll poke around and see what I can find out.


  • NJ

    “I most remember Lindbeck saying that perhaps what is happening today is that God is destroying the church bit by bit so that he can build it up again in his own image.”

    Amen to that. I had a similar thought recently, but more in the context of God using unlikely things to change the church. Like AIDS. Right now we’ve got leaders like Rick Warren and Franklin Graham intimately involved in helping fight a disease that was initially, and still seen by many, as a homosexual disease. Somewhat ironic considering the current battle about homosexuality within the church. And I also agree with the comment about adultery being our greatest issue. When something like 50% of marriages are failing – something Christ specifically mentioned as opposed to homosexuality, it seems that we have our priorities wrong. Especially in light of the incredible damage that divorce does to families and the children of these one time families.

    Great post Tim. Too bad SW didn’t cuss more.

  • You bring up a good point about Rick Warren and Franklin Graham. It has always seemed curious to me that the evangelical church is always so ready to vocally and aggressively condemn behavior such as homosexuality yet it will not deal aggressively with other personal struggles in the same unabashed manner. I seldom hear people getting upset because their church doesn’t take a stand against people who smoke cigarettes or eat too much fast food. It’s a difficult issue because I think you can’t just rationalize every destructive behavior – you have to have a robust doctrine of sin. But it seems like it must be tempered with a huge dose of reality in terms of the fact that we’re all in the same boat when it comes to sinfulness. To shun to homosexual while permitting ourselves to gossip, tell white lies, fudge on our income taxes, work constantly in our conversations to manage our own reputation, etc…it just feels a little off to me.

    There is a story Walter Rauschenbusch tells about a farmer who was fined by the government for sending milk to be sold in cans which were contaminated. He threw a cussing fit when they confronted him, and his church disciplined him until he made amends for swearing. But the church did nothing about the fact that he puts hundreds of children at risk by using contaminated containers. A social conception of the gospel would insist that he be forced to deal with both. The point is that personal sin is serious and must be dealt with, but social sin is really powerful and we rarely deal with that.

    My question is this: is it a social sin on the part of our society that we live in such affluence while ½ of the world’s population lives on less than a dollar a day? Is it a sin on the part of our country that evangelicals give less that 2.6% of our income to support churches and ministries while 34,000 children die every day around the world of preventable diseases? Is it a social sin that if you are born in America, you have a great chance of living to be 70 years old, but if you are born in Sub-Saharan Africa, your chances are less that 5%? Is it a sin that men in our country are cavalier about women’s rights when women do 67% of the worlds work, get 10% of the worlds income, and own 1% of the worlds wealth? I once heard Ronald Sider say “When I feed the hungry they call me a saint. When I ask why they are hungry they call me a communist.” Somebody needs to start asking the hard questions about these issues. Maybe the homosexuality issue can wait till we solve the fact that millions of people are in a desperate situation and we can actually help them if we want to.

  • NJ

    yes, you’re right. The kingdom of God is at hand. And that has significant meaning for every living human – even those who run the trains. Christianity cannot be lived in isolation or in a vacuum. It cannot be lived just on Sundays. And it really isn’t safe when taken seriously. It will (and has) been labeled communist, anti-american, and anti-establishment. It is radical – radical love. And it has, will and should challenge every social injustice.

  • gr

    Hi Tim: I’ve been enjoying your blog for the last few days. I found it while checking out the Heartland k10 website (I’ve been looking for a church that likes to think). Hauerwas is on the mark in his comment about our inordinate focus on homosexuality. As you’ve mentioned before, the divorce rate for evangelical Christians is actually slightly higher than that for the rest of the country. Yet many Christians have spent the better part of a decade, and considerable resources (both spiritual and financial) focusing on homosexuality. This is galling to me, as I’m kind of a traditionalist. I’ve spent the last 15 years of my life in a committed relationship with someone who happens to be male, like me. That relationship has enriched my life in innumerable ways and has, at times, sorely tested my patience (I’ll bet you can understand this, since you are married). But I’m pretty damn sure that I’m a better person for staying with that commitment. During those 15 years I have, sadly, seen many straight friends go through divorce. And yet I have to constantly hear fellow Christians treat my relationship as the moral equivalent of prostitution or adultery. I realize that my commitment to a lifelong, monogamous relationship will not sway most Christians to reconsider their interpretation of scripture as condemning all same-sex relationships for all time. But would the church even be having the debate about homosexuality if it were sincerely interested in discussing how two people can stay committed to each other in this throw-away culture of ours? If it is, I have a few modest contributions that I would like to add to that discussion.

  • This is a great post, thank you! I’m going to forward it along to my pastor (John Wright).

    “I most remember Lindbeck saying that perhaps what is happening today is that God is destroying the church bit by bit so that he can build it up again in his own image.”

    Reminds me alot of the book of Ezekiel, actually.

    Anyway, thanks again!



  • hey everyone…sorry i’ve not been on replying this week. i’m in class 9 hours a day right now. nj, you should come to h.k10 sometime. Matthew, i haven’t found any audio yet, i’m still asking.



  • Sorry in the last post I meant to invite gr to church, not nj. Not that nj isn’t welcome at church. everybody is welcome at church. I’m really tired.



  • This probably isn’t the place for this discussion but gr I’d like to hear your “few modest contributions”.
    I personally hope the church would be having the conversation. Just as I hope the church is discussing infidelity, divorce, et al.

  • gr

    Scott: I was referring to those sensitive issues (lust, pornography, a culture that idealizes wish fulfillment, non-supportive friends/family/employers) that all committed relationships, gay or straight, encounter at some point. I think these are issues that are best handled in an intimate face-to-face discussion, rather than on a blog, so I won’t go any further. My larger point was that I would love to be part of a church in which I could share my insight/concerns about these issues (even though I certainly don’t have them all solved). Unfortunately, most churches approach these issues via a simplistic cultural critique that doesn’t allow them to get beyond seeing all gay and lesbian relationships as manifestations of a “lifestyle” or a political “agenda” that must be repelled. I doubt that their approach helps heterosexual couples either (so, same-sex marriage is now constitutionally banned in Kansas: does anyone really think that heterosexual marriage is now stronger in this state?).

    By the way, I don’t mean to single out “conservative” churches: my experience is that “liberal” churches are often not a lot better at handling these issues: perhaps in their focus on the social gospel they are not well equipped to discuss intimate, personal issues; or, maybe they are so intent on defining themselves against the religious right-wing (i.e. not coming off as moral scolds) that they lose sight of the notion that personal freedom is not an end in itself, but should be directed toward higher goals, like truth, beauty, and goodness.

    OK…I’m starting to hijack Tim’s blog so I’ll stop here.

  • gr, great post. I now have a better understanding. This is a bit ironic but our church just started a new series yesterday titled ‘We’ve got issues’. Meaning WE individually have issues. It is an eight week series and we will be covering racism, war, environmentalism, wealth accumulation, morality and a few other issues. We started with racism yesterday and it was fascinating. Regardless of how people feel about the wedge issues in the church (homosexuallity and abortion I think are the two biggest) there are a plethora of issues not being discussed. I’m glad our church is.