One of the great Christian ethicists of our age is Stanley Hauerwas, retired professor from the Duke Divinity School as well as the Duke University School of Law. In 2007 he gave a lecture to young people as a part of a series of talks at Princeton on “Youth, Church, and Culture,” and the opening paragraphs must have made his audience wonder who this strange man was and why he was chosen to speak to them.
He opened with “I lecture and write often, but I am not sure how to write to those our society identifies as young or adolescents. I do not know who you are and I am a bit frightened by that unknown...I do not know how to “connect” with you...I quit teaching freshmen when I taught at the University of Notre Dame. I did so because I simply found it demeaning to try to convince 18-year-olds that they ought to take God seriously.”
Talk about trying to get the audience on your side. Yikes.
But I understand his point. Sort of. It can be frustrating to preach a message that is beyond your audience, as Hauerwas believes about college freshmen and the message of the Gospels. He is right that 18-year-olds “lack the resources to take God seriously” and by that he means they have yet to notice “that before you know it, you are going to be dead.”
As if these first paragraphs aren’t enough to furrow the brows of his audience members, he then references our age’s greatest philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and his belief that “one of the worst things our society does to the young is to tell them they ought to be happy...if you are happy, particularly when you are young, you are probably deeply self-deceived. Your appropriate stance is to be miserable.”
Hauerwas and MacIntyre agree that it is a “terrible time to be young.” Their sentiment is probably shared by a majority of the American population: violent protests in the streets, lack of trust in the government, a worldwide health crisis and so much more contribute to a rough time in which to grow up. But none of these were even on the horizon in 2007 when Hauerwas gave this address, and so his, and MacIntyre’s, reasoning is quite different.
Hauerwas, speaking for himself and MacIntyre, tells his audience that they live in a terrible time because they are “shorn of any clear account for what it means to grow up, you are forced to make up your own lives. But you know that any life you make up is not a life you will want to live.”
He suggests that the life we want to live is the life that is offered to us by Jesus - a life that centers on the Cross and leads to the Resurrection. For those of us who encounter young people and desire to help them to “grow up” this is a suggestion that we can latch onto. Young people searching for meaning will very often find this way of approaching the Gospel compelling. As Hauerwas noted at the end of his talk: “People are dying to be part of an adventure that will give us a worthy task. I think the Gospel is such an adventure.” Young people are by their very nature searching for a worthy task, and each of us are called by our baptism to help them in that most holy adventure.