Teaching Stanley Hauerwas’s “Go With God”


Yesterday was our first day of discussion in Created and Called for Community (CCC). The students read Stanley Hauerwas‘s 2010 First Things essay “Go With God: An Open Letter to Young Christians on Their Way to College.”

After some conversation about how to read critically, I asked the students what this article was doing.  We would discuss what the article was saying eventually, but I wanted to start by identifying why Hauerwas decided to write this article.  What were the problems he was trying to address?

We concluded that Hauerwas was trying to address four major issues with this piece:

  1. Too many Christian undergraduates are losing their faith in college.
  2. Too many Christian undergraduates see college solely in terms of career preparation and the pursuit of wealth or, at the very least, a comfortable middle-class life.
  3. Too many Christians do not value intellectual work as a way of worshiping God.
  4. The Christian church is characterized by anti-intellectualism, which is why it needs Christian students to take their college studies seriously.

We identified the fact that Hauerwas wrote this essay in 2010.  Were the problems he identified in 2010 still relevant ten years later?  The overwhelming answer among my Messiah College students was “yes.” In fact, most students thought the problems Hauerwas identified were even more acute than they were a decade ago.

By this point, we were running out of time.  But we still had a few minutes to reflect on two key issues in Hauerwas’s piece.

First, we talked about what it might take to think about college as something more than the pursuit of a career.  What might it mean to understand college in terms of calling or vocation?  (We will pick-up on this theme later in the course).  Hauerwas writes:

In a world of deep injustice and violence, a people exists that thinks some can be given time to study.  We need you to take seriously the calling that is yours by virtue of going to college. You may well be thinking, “What is hethinking? I’m just beginning my freshman year. I’m not being called to be a student. None of my peers thinks he or she is called to be a student. They’re going to college because it prepares you for life. I’m going to college so I can get a better job and have a better life than I’d have if I didn’t go to college. It’s not a calling.”

But you are a Christian. This means you cannot go to college just to get a better job. These days, people talk about college as an investment because they think of education as a bank account: You deposit the knowledge and expertise you’ve earned, and when it comes time to get a job, you make a withdrawal, putting all that stuff on a résumé and making money off the investment of your four years. Christians need jobs just like anybody else, but the years you spend as an undergraduate are like everything else in your life. They’re not yours to do with as you please. They’re Christ’s.

We talked about the counter-cultural nature of Hauerwas’s view of college.  Some students did not feel comfortable with the claim that the college years were not “yours to do with as you please. They’re Christ’s.”  Some said God gave us free will.  But others pointed out that for a Christian, the goal is to bring one’s free will more and more in conformity with the will of God.

Second, we talked about cultivating friendship in college.  Hauerwas writes:

You can’t do this on your own. You’ll need friends who major in physics and biology as well as in economics, psychology, philosophy, literature, and every other discipline. These friends can be teachers and fellow students, of course, but, for the most part, our intellectual friendships are channeled through books. C. S. Lewis has remained popular with Christian students for many good reasons, not the least of which is that he makes himself available to his readers as a trusted friend in Christ. That’s true for many other authors too. Get to know them.

Books, moreover, are often the way in which our friendships with our fellow students and teachers begin and in which these friendships become cemented. I’m not a big fan of Francis Schaeffer, but he can be a point of contact—something to agree with or argue about. The same is true for all writers who tackle big questions. Read Plato, Aristotle, Hume, and John Stuart Mill, and not just because you might learn something. Read them because doing so will provide a sharpness and depth to your conversations. To a great extent, becoming an educated person means adding lots of layers to your relationships. Sure, going to the big football game or having a beer (legally) with your buddies should be fun on its own terms, but it’s also a reality ripe for analysis, discussion, and conversation. If you read Mary Douglas or Claude Levi-Strauss, you’ll have something to say about the rituals of American sports. And if you read Jane Austen or T. S. Eliot, you’ll find you see conversations with friends, particularly while sharing a meal, in new ways. And, of course, you cannot read enough Trollope. Think of books as the fine threads of a spider’s web. They link and connect.

I asked the students how they made friends during their first semester of college.  They mentioned that their friendships were built on a variety of things: sports fandom, musical tastes, common tastes in video games, membership on athletic teams, proximity to one another in the dorms, etc…  Very few students said that they were building friendships around the kinds of common intellectual pursuits Hauerwas describes above.  I challenged them to go back to their dorm rooms, find some CCC students who also read Hauerwas today, and go get some coffee and talk more about the essay. Some students seemed to be inspired by this idea.  Others thought I was crazy.

By this point it was time to go. Stay tuned. In the next several class periods we will be doing some reading on the history and mission of Messiah College.  Follow along here.

The Author’s Corner With Thomas Balcerski

BalcserskiThomas J. Balcerski is Assistant Professor of History at Eastern Connecticut State University.  This is interview is based on his new book Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King (Oxford University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Bosom Friends?

TB: Bosom Friends began as the first chapter of my dissertation at Cornell University. One of my central research questions since graduate school has been the role of bachelors, and more generally the unmarried, in U.S. politics before the Civil War. From bachelors, I came to the historical category of friendship, about which I wrote my first article, published in Pennsylvania History in 2013. In the dissertation, I looked at several examples of intimate male friendships in the antebellum period, but for the book, I decided to dig deeper into the relationship of James Buchanan of Pennsylvania and William Rufus King of Alabama. Given that the focus had shifted from a range of actors to just two individuals, I decided to write the book as a dual biography.

Famously, James Buchanan is our only bachelor president (or more properly, the only president never to marry, since Grover Cleveland was elected a bachelor in 1884). Less well known to history is William Rufus King, who was elected vice president under Franklin Pierce in 1852. King is perhaps most widely remembered for being the only president or vice president ever inaugurated outside the United States, having done so on his deathbed in Matanzas, Cuba. The pair, Buchanan and King, served together in the U.S. Senate from 1834 to 1844, during which time they often lived together. From there, the bosom friends separated, but their correspondence increased, which reveals a portrait of two Democratic bachelor politicians striving to obtain power. While both men lived, they wanted nothing more than to unite the North and the South in a bachelor ticket; however, it did not come to pass.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Bosom Friends?

TB: My book argues that an intimate male friendship shaped the political and personal lives of James Buchanan of Pennsylvania and William Rufus King of Alabama. I reveal the many intricacies of their conjoined lives and, in the process, help to clear up much misinformation about the pair.

JF: Why do we need to read Bosom Friends?

TB: The relationship of James Buchanan and William Rufus King is interesting both in a historical and historiographic sense. I find it fascinating how interpretations, both among academics and the general public, have changed about the pair. There’s no getting around the fact that, today, most people assume that they were gay and, further still, that they shared a sexual relationship. My book takes a different approach, as I read the evidence more carefully within the historical context of intimacy in nineteenth century America. For this reason, readers can expect a reassessment of what they think they know about manhood, friendship, sexuality, and politics in the era before the Civil War.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? 

TB: I credit an excellent high school teacher for my initial interest in American history. My class read Thomas Bailey’s American Pageant, and I was hooked. The narrative style, the memorable descriptions (John Adams as “frosty” lingers in my memory), and the idea that the past, somehow, actually mattered to the present made their impression upon me. I have always enjoyed the ebb and flow of the antebellum period—I like the contingency of events, the colorful characters who populated David Potter’s The Impending Crisis, and the sense that maybe, just maybe, the war could have been prevented. Beyond the graduate training that I received at SUNY Stony Brook and Cornell University, I realized that those initial passions for the causes of the Civil War are like a deep reservoir of historical research to which I come back to again and again.

JF: What is your next project?

TB: I am currently working on a history of the Democratic Party from its early origins in the Federalist era to its unraveling in the 1920s. Tentatively titled “The Party of No: When the Democrats Were Conservative,” I want to understand the longer history of an important question that I am often asked, a version of which: “When did the Democratic Party and the Republican Party switch their politics?” I think a study, part biographical of party leaders and part political history of the period, would help to explain the events that preceded this change.

JF: Thanks, Tom!

Friendship in Early America

JSHI just learned that the theme of the recent issue of the Journal of Social History is “Friendship in Early America.”

Here is the table of contents:

Janet Moore Lindman, “Histories of Friendship in Early America: An Introduction”

Gregory Smithers, “‘Our Hands and Hearts are Joined Together’: Friendship, Colonialism, and the Cherokee People in Early America”

Shelby Balik, “‘Dear Christian Friends’: Charity Bryant, Sylvia Drake, and the Making of a Spiritual Network”

Thomas Balcerski, “‘A Work of Friendship’: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Franklin Pierce, and the Politics of Enmity in the Civil War Era”

Janet Moore Lindman, “‘This Union of the Soul’: Spiritual Friendship among Early American Protestants”

Nik Ribianszky, “‘Tell Them that My Dayly Thoughts are with Them as Though I was Amidst Them All”: Friendship among Property-Owning Free People of Color in Nineteenth-Century Natchez, Mississippi.

A Lesson from the Scalia-Ginsburg Friendship

Scalia Ginsburg

Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader-Ginsburg disagreed on just about everything, but they were very good friends.  They would spend New Year’s Eve together.   They took trips together. From all reports they really enjoyed one another’s company.

I am guessing that such a relationship was possible because they realized that life is more than just ideology.  Scalia and Ginsburg knew one another not merely as rival constitutional thinkers, but as human beings.  They were more–much more–than merely the sum of their beliefs.

There is a lesson in there somewhere.

The Author’s Corner with Cassandra A. Good

Cassandra Good is the Associate Editor of the Papers of James Monroe at the University of Mary Washington. This interview is based on her new book, Founding Friendships: Friendships Between Men and Women in the Early American Republic (Oxford University Press, February 2015).

JF: What led you to write Founding Friendships?

CG: As an undergraduate, I came across a letter from Margaret Bayard Smith describing saying goodbye to Thomas Jefferson when he left Washington in 1809. She described her heart beating when she saw Jefferson, then holding hands with him for several minutes at a public reception. I was amazed and asked my advisor whether this was a sign that Smith and Jefferson were having an affair, but she explained that this was how people expressed friendship in that period. Even between men and women, I wondered?

That question really stuck with me, especially since some of my closest friends were (and are) men. It always seemed like there wasn’t good language—written, spoken, or even body language—for expressing friendship for the opposite sex without people assuming the relationship was romantic. How then, in a period when there were greater restrictions on women and far greater risks to their reputation, could men and women have been friends? As it turned out, it wasn’t just possible—it was common among elite Americans in this period.

F: In two sentences, what is the argument of Founding Friendships?

CG: Elite men and women in the early American republic formed loving friendships that exemplified the key values of that period: equality, virtue, freedom, and choice. These friendships were building blocks of new American systems of politics, gender, and power.

JF: Why do we need to read Founding Friendships?

CG: I hope this book will spark new discussions in gender history about widening the possibilities for relationships to study. I’d like readers to think about the many configurations of loving relationships people have formed in the past and can form today.

The film When Harry Met Sally is still a sort of shorthand in American culture today for the idea that men and women cannot be friends. Founding Friendships shows that this idea is rooted in the past and how we have told stories about love and marriage in America. There are real power interests behind constructing those stories both then and today.

Finally, Founding Friendships demonstrates that we have to include both men and women in our accounts of politics in the early republic. There need not be a strict separation between women’s history and political history; the stories of women and politics are closely intertwined. My work is certainly not the first to show this, but it comes at the definition of politics from a different angle and ties intimate personal relationships to power and politics.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CG: In high school I volunteered at my local historical society and transcribed the diaries of a nineteenth-century Quaker woman from my area, which at first I found terribly dull. Then I discovered that her husband also kept diaries, and each of them had about a dozen volumes covering decades of their lives. I created a small exhibit comparing the husband and wife’s perspectives on the same events—their courtship, farming, the Civil War, etc.—and I was hooked on early American history and culture.

I’ve come full circle now because, after working in museums and getting my PhD, I do historical editing and work with transcribing and researching documents for the Papers of James Monroe.

JF: What is your next project?

CG: While working on Founding Friendships, I came across a number of descendants of George and Martha Washington and wondered what role the family had played in the new nation. While George Washington didn’t have any direct descendants, he helped raise his step-grandchildren and a number of nephews and nieces. After his death, these men and women had to shape the face of the family in a culture that idolized Washington but feared inherited power. I’ll be looking at homes, objects, and writings, as well as popular discussions from the time, to tell the story of the family in the nineteenth century and explore how Americans viewed the intersection of politics and family in a republic. It builds on my interest in the close ties between personal relationships and politics in the early republic.

JF: Thanks Cassie.
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

Presbyterians in Love

I wrote this piece about five years ago.  I just remembered it today and thought I would post it again for those who missed it the first time.

Presbyterians in Love

Can Presbyterians fall in love? Okay, everyone falls in love, but when people think of Presbyterians they normally conjure up images of stoic Protestants whose kids eat oatmeal and memorize the Westminster Confession of Faith. Reverend Maclean, the Montana minister and father figure played by Tom Skerritt in A River Runs Through It, comes to mind. Presbyterians don’t “fall” in love—they rationally, and with good sense, ease themselves into it.

This was my image of Presbyterians until I read the correspondence of Philip Vickers Fithian. Most early American historians know Philip Vickers Fithian. He was the uptight young Presbyterian who served a year (1773-1774) as a tutor at Nomini Hall, the Virginia plantation of Robert Carter, and wrote a magnificently detailed diary about his experience. For most of us, Fithian is valued for his skills as an observer. His journal offers one of our best glimpses into plantation life in the Old Dominion on the eve of the American Revolution.

But despite Fithian’s ubiquitous presence in the indexes and footnotes of contemporary works of Virginia scholarship, most of us know little more about him than the very barest facts: He was born in 1747 in the southern New Jersey town of Greenwich. He was the eldest son of Presbyterian farmers but left the agricultural life in 1770 to attend the College of New Jersey at Princeton. After college he worked for a year on Carter’s plantation and was ordained to the Presbyterian ministry. In 1776 he headed off to New York to serve as a chaplain with a New Jersey militia unit in the American War for Independence.

Such chronicling—the stuff of encyclopedia entries and biographical dictionaries—only scratches the surface of Philip’s life. It fails to acknowledge the inner man, the prolific writer who used words—letters and diary entries mostly—to make peace with the ideas that warred for his soul. Philip was a man of passion raised in a Presbyterian world of order. He came of age at a time when Presbyterians were rejecting the pious enthusiasm of the Great Awakening for a common-sense view of Christianity. And while Philip was clearly a student of this newer rational and moderate Protestantism, he remained unquestionably Presbyterian. For he was a man stretched between worlds: one of cautious belief, another of passion and sentiment; one of rational learning, another of devotion and deep emotion. His struggle to bring these worlds together is seen most clearly not in his well-known observations of plantation life but in his letters to the woman he loved—Elizabeth Beatty.

Read the rest at Common-Place or get yourself a copy of The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in America to get the full story.

Should Teachers Befriend Students?

This is the title of a post by Sam Lamerson over at Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog.  Lamerson discusses this in the context of divinity school teaching, but I would like to broaden its scope a bit to include the teaching of undergraduates.

Lamerson cites Patrick Allitt’s book I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student: A Semester in the University Classroom.  Allitt, who I had the chance to meet and spend time with last October when he was on campus to deliver the Messiah College American Democracy Lecture, is largely opposed to the idea of professors making friends with students.

Lamerson writes:

Allitt starts off the book in the preface with an overview of his teaching philosophy.  While much of Allitt’s advice is worth its weight in gold, the one piece of advice that struck me as somewhat problematic was his statement about being friends.  He believes that it is a mistake for the professor to become friends with the student.  After admitting that being friends with students is a constant temptation, Allitt states that he must “resist it lest it compromise [his] judgment and impartiality.  Professors and students must not be friends (friends don’t give each other grades that have a vital effect on their futures).”

When I heard Allitt talk about this at Messiah College, I went home and pulled out my copy of Mark Schwehn’s Exiles from EdenSchwehn laments the loss of friendship in the college classroom.  He imagines an academic community in which “the rigors of work and the pleasures of friendship could be united.” (p.17). 

Schwehn adds:

Most faculty members are, however, deeply suspicious of friendships with students, for they instantly reduce all such friendships between persons unequal to one another in some respect to a kind of chumminess that is demeaning to both parties.

Yet for Schwehn, true friendship is possible in the collective pursuit of knowledge and virtue.  He writes: “the highest form of friendship between virtuous human beings, philia and inquiry, love and the pursuit of truth, enrich one another.  It is no wonder that so often the most durable friendships that human beings form arise in the context of learning together.” (p,63).

If you define friendship in terms of spending time together outside the classroom or socializing with students, then I have very few students who are my friends.  But if friendship is forged, as Schwehn writes, through the common pursuit of learning and growing, then I think I have befriended many students over the years.

And, interestingly enough, those students who I have befriended in this regard have been students with whom I stay in touch long after they leave college. 

To add to Schwehn and Allitt, I think the idea of loyalty is an important part of any kind of friendship that might exist between professors and students.  Over the years, the students who I have been closest to are those who have either taken multiple classes with me (implying that what I do in class has benefited their lives in some way, or else why would they keep coming back when they don’t have to) or have worked for me as a research assistant of one form or another.  I usually end up writing my best letters of recommendations for these students because I know them so well.  I take a vested interest in their lives and vocational choices. 

There is, of course, a danger in this.  Students call it “playing favorites.”  Fair enough, but I think I can honestly say that I am open to developing this kind of “friendship” with anyone who takes a legitimate interest in me, my teaching, my approach to American history, or my work.  Not all students do, and that is fine.  It seems that the initiation of this must be a one-way street.  I believe I am overstepping my bounds by trying to force my friendship on students.  (It also seems a bit creepy).  This is why I have a policy in which I do not “friend” students on Facebook, but do accept and welcome their “friend requests.”

A mutual loyalty develops between me and certain students which might be called friendship.  I become loyal to them in the sense that I take a greater concern for their success after college, take meals with them, provide a source of ongoing advice after they leave college and while they are here, and maybe even collaborate with them on scholarly projects.  At the same time, they often remain loyal to me by checking in regularly, letting me know when they are in town so we can have coffee or lunch, or answering the call when I am looking for help in doing my job as a professor, department chair, or scholar.

Perhaps it is my personality, but it takes a long time before my friendship with students is based on anything that might be called “equality.”  For many, I will always be the teacher and they will always be the student.  Some even insist on calling me “Dr. Fea” long after they leave college. I think they feel that is just too awkward to start calling me John.

In the end, friendship is possible with undergraduates, but it is, and must be, different from the kind of friendships that our students have with their classmates, roommates, and co-workers.

I am eager to hear from you on this–either here or on Facebook.

Teachers and professors:  Do you befriend students?  If so, what does that look like? 

Students or former students:  are you friends with your professors or former professors?  If so, what does that look like?