Learning about Providence from Hannah's Child

By Michael G. Cartwright

photo courtesy of jimforest via C.C. license at FlickrProvidence is not a word found in the working lexicon of most leaders in American higher education -- even at church-related universities like my own.

Providence is also not a word used extensively by Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian who has had much to say about the state of the university in recent years.

Hauerwas, of course, has famously denounced Constantinian appeals to providence in the name of the nation-state and is sharply critical of the ways Americans have invoked this category to bless imperialist aspirations throughout the world. He also knows well that we Americans in both the church and the academy have a bad habit of invoking providence to escape history rather than to confront the consequences of our actions.

As a former student of Stanley's and co-editor of the The Hauerwas Reader, I like to think I know his work fairly well. After reading his recently published book, Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir,though, I have concluded that anyone who assumes Hauerwas is lukewarm about providence is simply not reading him carefully. In fact, this volume might be the best place to learn what Hauerwas thinks about how God makes provision in our lives.

In part this is true because of the rich way Hauerwas uses biblical narrative in this book, particularly the story of Hannah and Samuel. Recalling the plea of the barren mother, Hauerwas' own mother regarded his birth as a gift from God. He was raised with the awareness that his life, like that of the boy Samuel, was inextricably tied up with the story of God.

Hauerwas wisely does not attempt to draw extensive parallels between his life and that of the prophet. However, his story does resonate with Samuel's struggle to learn to listen for the voice of God. And I found his reflections on 1 Samuel in the beginning of the memoir to be particularly instructive.

One can read through several chapters of that Old Testament text without encountering an explicit reference to God, but no one can read the saga of Samuel without getting the point that in the messy world of Eli, Samuel, Saul, and David, God is the agent who makes life possible. And no one who reads Hannah's Child will come away without recognizing that the author knows his life has also been made possible by God.

First-time readers of Hauerwas are often puzzled to discover that he does not attempt to make apologetic arguments for Christian teachings, such as the belief that in the context of Christ's kingdom, God makes our lives possible. Rather, he leads his readers to recognize theological wisdom in practice. As he explains in "The State of the University," the theologian's task is "to direct attention to those masters of the faith whose lives have been shaped by the grammar of Christ." Hauerwas does not claim to be a master of Christian practices. In this book, though, he testifies in convincing ways about how his life has been shaped by these practices.

The last two chapters of Hannah's Child spoke most to my own life experience as a leader in the church and the academy. I was encouraged by Hauerwas' testimony to what he has learned about patience and prayer, particularly during the past decade, which has been marked by the war on terrorism. As he makes clear, patience and prayer are practices he finds particularly difficult, precisely because they are "played out within the two institutions that have defined my life: the church and the university." And he has learned to appreciate how it is that "the patience and time it takes to build and sustain institutions like the church and the university are themselves an alternative to war." Such resolve makes explicit his reliance on God's providence, because these are not practices that can be justified by utility and consequence.

I also was encouraged by what Hauerwas had to say about prayer in the context of his daily work, especially since he has decided to retire in three years. As he approaches the end of his career, this awareness of "last things" has given him new insights about the relationship between his work and God's providence. "Humility is a virtue that rides on the back of a life made possible by having been given good work to do," he writes. Sustaining the virtue of humility requires the kind of gratitude that is made possible by prayer, but prayer is a practice that he readily admits does not come easily. Even so, he has come to appreciate the fact that beginning with his mother's plea to God to give her a child, his life has indeed been made possible by God. And he recognizes that the prayers of God's people for him throughout his life -- and, one day, after his death -- are as well.

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