How to (Not) Retire Theologically

Stanley Hauerwas

On June 30, 2013, I retired from the faculty of the Duke University Divinity School. I am now an emeritus professor. I have a continuing appointment in the Divinity School at Duke as a senior research fellow. That means I get to keep my office for at least two more years in exchange for being “available.” Availability means if a student or colleague wants to talk to me I will be more than happy to talk with them. Not a bad deal.

   But I have to say I am increasingly coming to the judgment that I do not like to think of myself as retired. Indeed I do not like the language of retirement. But I was the one who decided to “retire” so I have no one to blame but myself. I was, after all, in my early 70s. I had taught for over 45 years. I had directed over 70 dissertations. It seemed time to “move aside.” I do not regret that decision.

   But to decide no longer to teach is not equivalent to “retiring.” I am a theologian. How can I retire from being a theologian? I am often asked what I am planning to do in retirement. I can only respond: I do not have any plans for my retirement. Why should I have plans for my life in retirement when I have never had any plans for my life? I have done what people asked me to do and as far as I am concerned that way of living has worked out well enough. I think it true that I never “planned” my life.

   Of course there are many things I wanted to do. I wanted to be an academic. I discovered that I wanted to be a good teacher. I also wanted to write and write well. But again that was more a discovery along the way than a well-defined project with which I began. I wanted to have something to say that might be of help to me and others. In retrospect I am somewhat surprised by what I discovered I had to say.

   I wanted to be an academic, a teacher, and a writer because those roles made it possible for me to be a theologian. I think one of the reasons I wanted to be a theologian is I thought, and continue to think, that theology is a discipline that takes over your life because the subject matter of theology is life-changing. I cannot imagine, therefore, what it might mean for a theologian to retire. 

   For these reasons, and likely for other reasons not yet identified, I do not like the concept of retirement. Walter Reuther, the great labor leader, suggested retirement is the time in a person’s life when one is too old to work but too young to die. That is why I suspect retirement for many seems like “a little death” due to the loss of a sense of worth associated with a job well done.

Retirement: A Brief History

   Of course, one of the frustrations of the job I have had is you are never sure that you have done it well. To be a theologian comes with a kind of ambiguity that means you are unsure whether what you have done is theology, not to mention whether it is theology done well. Nor can you ever be sure, even if you think you have done theology well, that that is the end of the matter. To do theology well means you have a sense that you are never finished. 

   So, I think the idea of retirement is not a good idea – not only for theologians but for anyone. Once there was no retirement. In the ancient world no one “retired” because “old age” was not thought to be a reason to quit working. Of course work was quite varied, but it was assumed that the elderly would continue doing what they had done most of their lives. 

   Old age became a different reality with the economic developments we call capitalism. Once work was determined by economies of money, a problem was created for the elderly. That problem quite simply was how to get the elderly out of the way to make room for younger and more energetic workers.1

   Retirement was the name given to social policies aimed to encourage older workers to stop working in order to provide a place for younger workers. German chancellor Bismarck, in the 19th century, is usually given credit for making the state responsible for supporting people who had reached the age of 65 in their retirement. 

   Bismarck not only thought this to be an important economic policy but also a way to instill in workers loyalty to the state. That, of course, is the kindest way to describe Bismarck’s policy. For in effect he was trying to find a way to provide an alternative to the attraction of socialism among the working class in Germany. In 1882, by an act of the German parliament, workers were given the opportunity to retire in the hope they would as a result look on the state as a benevolent benefactor who cared about their lives.

The Uncreative Years?

   It is quite interesting that the public policy that established the practice of retirement preceded attempts to establish the contours of aging through the biological and psychological sciences. In 1905, however, William Osler, an extremely influential doctor and scientist of the day, identified the biological ages he thought determine our lives. According to Osler, after our youth we have before us our creative years that fall between the ages of 25 and 40. After 40, we live through the “uncreative years” in which little can be expected from us. His “science” nicely confirmed the new economic realities in which the young were given special considerations. Osler’s scheme justified the social policy challenge of how to get the elderly out of the way for those who are in their creative years.

   The answer, pioneered by the railroads in America, was a social policy that paid them to retire. In 1935, it was suggested that those willing to retire should be paid $200 a month. The railroad pension plans became the paradigm for the later creation of Social Security. Once Social Security is in place, retirement is no longer a lifestyle choice. Rather, it is increasingly assumed that older workers have an obligation to retire.

   Though Social Security is generally celebrated as a good thing, it was not always regarded positively even by those who might be freed from physically demanding jobs. Many who received pensions from the railroad, as well as those who later got Social Security, were ambivalent about losing their jobs. People usually want to work even if the work is not all that interesting. What they often miss is not the work itself but the people with whom they worked.

Moral Strangers

   In 1960, builder Del Webb tried to remedy the sense of loss associated with retirement by creating Sun City in Arizona. Sun City expressed Webb’s creative idea that after a life of work a person should be rewarded with a life of leisure. Florida and Arizona became destinations associated with the formation of cultures for the elderly that were based on play. The result not only isolated the elderly from those who “have to work,” but the elderly now were identified as those who have to work very hard at playing. The resulting isolation of the elderly indicates that we now live in a culture that believes we have no stake in developing people of wisdom and memory necessary for the sustaining of good social orders.

   Perhaps the climax of these developments was the creation of the American Association of Retired Persons as a lobby on behalf of the elderly. The elderly, the retired, have now become an interest group to lobby Congress to get their fair share of resources to which the young might lay claim. No longer can the elderly and retired be thought of as people who have wisdom crucial to the discovery of the common good across generations, because now the old and the young are fundamentally moral strangers to one another.

   This admittedly potted history of retirement as an idea and social policy may seem to have little to do with what it might mean to retire as a theologian. But I think this history is important because it reminds us that retirement entails a politics. If a theologian cannot retire, this means a theologian serves a very different politics than that represented by recent social arrangements.

Growing Old in Christ

   I think it quite fascinating that there is nothing in the New Testament about retirement. It surely never occurred to Paul to think, “I’ve done the best I can but I am never going to get those Christians in Corinth to straighten out. I am tired of traveling and controversy. I think it is time for me to retire.” Nowhere in the New Testament is there a hint that the early Christians think there is a time when they might retire as Christians or from being Christians. I do not think this was only due to the early death of many Christians. Rather I believe Christians could not conceive how their lives could make sense if they did not assume they had particular responsibilities and obligations as they grew old in Christ.2

   In particular those who were lucky enough to “grow old in Christ” had as one of their responsibilities to share the vulnerability of the body with their brothers and sisters in Christ. They well understood that we are creatures whose lives move always toward death. Accordingly, to grow old does not grant permission to be free of responsibility. Rather it obligates the elderly to live lives shaped by their baptism so they might help those who are not yet old learn how to grow old and even die. Often that means no more than to be bodily present, but to be so present means if you are a Christian you never get to retire.

   That retirement is not an idea or practice applicable to our lives as Christians, however, may seem irrelevant for the role retirement plays in our lives given the jobs and work many have to do. No one as far as I know has suggested that anyone can or should retire from being a human being, much less a Christian. Rather, retirement is only relevant to the work or job we do. Retirement can be a godsend for those who do hard physical work that is difficult if not impossible to do as we grow older. Retirement is a welcome relief for many whose jobs often seem to be quite meaningless or boring. I have no reason to deny retirement can be a quite positive alternative in such circumstances. But I do not think that is the end of the matter.

   That retirement is the only alternative for many who have jobs that give little satisfaction is surely not a sufficient response to work so conceived. Rather, what is needed is a sense that even jobs such as picking up the trash should be meaningful if we remember that those who do such work are performing a vital service for the community. The problem is not that the work is “meaningless” but rather that we have no way of gesturing how important such work is for the common good.

   For others, of course, there is the opposite problem: their work is so consuming they cannot imagine a life without it. This may be particularly true of those whose jobs are a constant challenge to the imagination. I suspect it is also true for farmers and builders. People engaged in such activities find retiring difficult because to no longer do what one has come to love can seem to be a loss of self.

   Another form of this problem is associated with those whose work is generally regarded as so significant that any thought of quitting implies a loss of status for the one doing the work. This seems true particularly of positions that make the holder of the position “well known.” American politicians and entertainers seem prone to this stance. When public figures retire, this can signal a loss of control that makes it impossible to ensure they will continue to be seen. If they are not seen they are not sure they exist. They may as well be dead. These are complex matters with a thousand variations, which suggest that retirement is no simple act.

Fame, Power, Loss

   Indeed, these last observations I find particularly relevant for my retirement. For better or worse, without trying, I have become a contradiction in terms, that is, I am allegedly a famous theologian. But I have wanted to make a difference in the world of theology and even more in the world of the church. How that can be done without taking oneself more seriously than is appropriate is not easily negotiated. Self-deception looms.

   Yet I cannot deny, given my ambition to make a theological difference, that retirement can and does feel like a loss. I do have the modest ambition to make every Christian in America aware that as Christians they should have a problem with war. By retiring I feel like I am losing some of the power I had to enact that ambition. To be sure, the power I think I am losing I may never have had, but it does not mean the feeling I have lost power is any less real. At the very least it means I no longer have students whom I hope to try to recruit for the task of convincing Christians we have a problem with war.

   When asked what I plan to do in retirement I usually say, “I will do what I have always done.” I will get up, read a book, and write. Reading a book and writing is my way of saying I will continue to think about what I have always thought about, which is the difference God makes for the living of our lives. The exploration of that difference is never finished, which means the theologian always has something to do. I take that to be a great gift.

   This does not mean that the theologian’s relation to that work does not change. Because theologians are never sure they have competence, and competence may just be a description of what it means to have a soul, they must say the same thing again and again, only differently. That means they must constantly rethink what they have thought. This has everything to do with the wonderful simplicity of what we believe as Christians, but that very simplicity requires thought. That is why theologians can never retire. They never know enough to retire, but more importantly they must think about that which they are never sure they understand. 

Karl Barth, Performance Artist

   Karl Barth’s life and theology cast light on this subject of retirement. He is surely one of the great performance artists of Christian theology. He was so because he discovered that theology cannot help but begin and end with a truth that has been given to it only by God through the church. That is why “theology cannot appear as a quest for truth or a philosophy of general truth,” he writes. “So far as theology bows to the truth of revelation, it understands that the different world views which are designated ‘truth’ are, at best, only relative, tentative, and limited truth.”3 Rather, for theology truth is to be found in the worship of God and in particular the sermon, which enables the church to serve the Word of God so that the world may hear time and time again the Word in this particular time and place.4

   Hearing the Word at a particular time and place means, according to Barth, that the problem of language is always at the forefront of theological work. The question of what form should the Word take so that it might be heard as the Word of God remains central to the theological task.5 Theology must, therefore, always begin and end with revelation, with the Scriptures, and not with personally achieved psychological or pedagogical assumptions, so that God becomes apprehensible.6

   That Barth so understood the theological task helps account for his lack of concern for not finishing the Church Dogmatics. In the preface to Church Dogmatics Vol. 4, Part 4, he begins by reporting that over the last years he has been asked often about the non-appearance of the remaining parts of the Church Dogmatics. He replies by calling attention to the “not inconsiderable bulk” of the Church Dogmatics that already exists as an opus imperfectum. He notes that most of the medieval Summae as well as many cathedrals were never finished. 

   Mozart, due to his untimely death, was unable to finish his Requiem. So not to finish is a testimony to our finitude. Barth concludes by pointing out he had argued in Church Dogmatics 2/2 that perfection or completeness is an attribute that can only be ascribed to God, which means “it is better not to seek or to imitate perfection in a human work.”7

   In an interview close to the end of his life, Barth responds to a question about the relation of his theology to Mozart by declaring, “I am not ultimately at home in theology, in the political world, or even in the church. These are all preparatory matters. They are serious, but preparatory. We have to learn to stand in them, but we have also to learn to look beyond them.”8

The Final Word: Jesus

   The interviewer, who quite understandably seems taken aback by Barth’s disavowal of being at home in theology, attempts to make Barth confirm who the interviewer thinks Barth is by asking Barth to say something about “grace.” Barth responds by first observing that “grace itself is only a provisional word” – a remark that only a theologian as accomplished as Barth can make. He explains, “The last word that I have to say as a theologian or politician is not a concept like grace but a name: Jesus Christ. He is grace and he is the ultimate one beyond world and church and even theology. We cannot lay hold of him. In him is the spur to work, warfare, and fellowship. In him is all that I have attempted in my life in weakness and folly.”9

   Barth retired from teaching but could not retire from the subject that had gripped him from the beginning: Jesus Christ. Barth did not have to finish the Dogmatics because he had confidence that we had seen the end in Christ. For Barth there was nothing absolute or finished about the work represented by all 14 volumes of the Dogmatics.10 That is why Barth was a great theologian.

   I have not done theology in the systematic way Barth did theology, but I have tried to take seriously the need as he stressed to get the order right because I think the order – beginning and ending with the centrality of Jesus Christ – has everything to do with our ability to discover the difference God makes for how our lives are lived. To show the difference has been central to everything I have done because if we are unable to show the difference we will lack the ability to know, much less show, why we believe what we believe as Christians. 

A Never-ending Adventure

   To try to show the difference means not only the way you do theology can never be finished but you cannot stop doing it. You cannot stop because what you have said makes it necessary to respond to the problems that are created by what you have said. If you have said anything well you will discover new challenges you had not anticipated. You may not be sure how to go on but you must try. This can be very tiring because like most people I would like to find a place to stop, or at least rest for a bit.

   A form of rest is available if you understand rest to be activity in which the end and the means are commensurate. Theologically the name for rest so understood is worship. Worship, moreover, is but another word for prayer. The work of theology is a second-order activity that depends on the actual existence of a people who have learned to worship God. Too often, particularly in recent times, theologians have proceeded as though theology is an end in itself. I am not suggesting that worship is immune from theological critique, but the critique will be possible only on the basis of a more truthful worship of God.

   That I cannot stop doing theology given the way I have done it also accounts for the range of my work. I confess when I think about the diverse topics I have addressed it not only makes me tired but it elicits in me a sense of embarrassment. I am not smart enough to know what needs to be known in order to address questions that range from the nature of personal identity to the ethics of war. But I have a stake in both of those topics, and many more, if I am to do the work I take to be the work of theology. This very essay, an attempt to think theologically about something called “retirement,” is an example of how theology is self-propagating if it is an outgrowth of worship. For when one worships the Triune God, one becomes keenly aware of the inescapability of him. There is no sphere of human life that evades theological implication, because we were made to worship him. 

   The good news, at least for me, is I am not dead yet, so I continue to have good work to do. But even more important is the fact that there now exists those who graciously describe themselves as my students who can do the work far better than I have done.

   The work of theology is never done. That is very good news. The work of theology can never be done alone. That is even better news.

Stanley Hauerwas ’65 B.D., ’67 M.A., ’68 M.Phil., ’68 Ph.D. taught at Notre Dame for 13 years before joining the Duke Divinity School faculty in 1983. His book A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame, 1991) was selected as one of the 100 most important books on religion of the 20th century according to Christianity Today. Other books include Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir (Eerdmans, 2010) and Without Apology: Sermons for Christ’s Church (Seabury, 2013).


1 The following account of the history of retirement is gleaned from many sources. For a short but, I believe, accurate account of the idea of retirement see Mary-Lou Weisman, “The History of Retirement, From Early Man to A.A.R.P.,” New York Times (March 21, 1999).

2 This is a dominant theme in most of the essays in Growing Old In Christ, edited by Stanley Hauerwas, Carole Bailey Stoneking, Keith Meador, and David Cloutier (Eerdmans, 2003).

3 Karl Barth, God In Action (Wipf and Stock, 2005), p. 47.

4 Barth, God in Action, p. 55.

5 Barth, God In Action, p. 55.

6 Barth, God in Action, p. 56.

7 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4/4 (T & T Clark, 1969), p. vii.

8 Karl Barth, Final Testimonies, edited by Eberhard Busch. (Eerdmans, 1977), p. 29.

9 Barth, Final Testimonies, pp. 29-30.

10 Raymond Kemp Anderson, An American Scholar Recalls Karl Barth’s Golden Years As a Teacher (1958-1964) (Edwin Mellon Press, 2013), pp. 13-14.