William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theologian

Category: Theology (Page 2 of 6)

Christian Wiman Quotes: "O Thou Mastering Light"

I share the following quotes that struck me as I was reading Christian Wiman’s book, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. They come from the chapter entitled “O Thou Mastering Light”:

mybrightabyss“Life is always a question of intensity, and intensity is always a matter of focus. Contemporary despair is to feel the multiplicity of existence with no possibility for expression or release of one’s particular being” (p. 48).

“You can certainly enjoy life . . . you can have a hell of a time. But I would argue that [if] life remains merely something to be enjoyed, [then] not only its true nature but also something within your true nature remains inert, unavailable, [and] mute” (p. 59).

“Spiritual innocence is not naivete. Quite the opposite. Spiritual incense is a state of mind – or, if you prefer, a state of heart – in which the life of God, and a life in God, are not simply viable but the sine qua non of all knowledge and experience, not simply durable but everlasting” (p. 64).

“The void of God and the love of God come together in the mystery of the cross” (p. 68).

“The frustration we feel when trying to explain or justify God, whether to ourselves or to others, is a symptom of knowledge untethered from innocence, of words in which no silence lives, of belief occurring wholly on a human plane. Innocence returns us to the first call of God, to any moment in our lives when we were rendered mute with awe, fear, wonder. Absent this, there is no sense in arguing for God in order to convince others, for we ourselves are not convinced” (p. 71).

“The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone. We praise people for having strong faith, [but] strength is only one part of that physical metaphor: one also needs [the strength that is required for] flexibility” (p. 71).

“Perhaps the relation of theology to belief is roughly the same as that between the mastery of craft and the making of original art: one must at the same time utterly possess and utterly forget one’s knowledge in order to go beyond it” (p. 72).

“This is how you ascertain the truth of spiritual experience: it propels you back toward the world and other people, and not simply more deeply within yourself” (p. 75).

What is Communion?

“The Church does not perform the Eucharist. The Eucharist performs the Church.” – William Cavanaugh

What is the Purpose of the Lord’s Supper/Communion/The Eucharist?

That we might feed on Christ, be reconciled to God and to each other, and be strengthened for the living of the Christian life.

Some key Scripture: Luke 22:19-20; 1 Cor. 10:14-17, Matt. 26:27

o In our worship service, while preaching and the pastor plays a key part, it is not at the center of what we do. Rather, communion is, and this is what the whole service is built around. The Bible has a very similar, progressive and narrative structure, building up to and culminating in the Gospels. The Eucharist represents this same center of the redemption history and story of the people of God.

o Secondly, through communion — literally, “common union” — we understand ourselves as a people who are called into a new society, a new brotherhood and sisterhood, which is called to have a starring role in the drama of God’s communication of God’s redeeming love to the world. Our society is a society in which there is a great loneliness and in which it is difficult for people to have experiences of community and solidarity. Communion subverts and offers an alternative to this.

The Roots of Communion

Passover: was called the “Feast of Unleavened Bread.” Leaven or yeast was always a symbol of corruption to the Jews, and this very special Passover bread was to have no leaven in it. It symbolized the purity of Israel, redeemed by God’s grace. Then there was wine — a symbol of life and blessing.

“This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me . . . This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:23-25).

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body eat and drink judgment against themselves” (1 Cor. 11:27-29).

That is why the “passing of the peace” was introduced just prior to receiving Communion!

What is a Sacrament?

  • “Visible sign of an invisible reality,” or “outward sign of inward grace” — a reality that doesn’t depend on us, but that includes us nevertheless! Ordinary things, everyday things, are being transformed by God into the means of God’s self-communication. Sacraments are about God being present in and among and through the ordinary, transforming and fulfilling, not destroying it.

Table or Altar? (Transubstantiation, real/spiritual presence, or Memorial?)

  • It is significant that the doctrine of transubstantiation did arise until 800 years after Christ!
  • This is not a transaction (transubstantiation), but nor is it merely a ritual (memorial).  Here we gather, acknowledge the real presence of Christ in a powerful metaphor (consubstantiation), receive what is always available in plenitude, and are sent out.

Five Big Communion Themes:

I. The Incarnation: why Communion is a celebration of our embodied-ness/physical life (all five senses)!

  • solidarity/relatedness, suffering, non-dualism, sacred and profane joined

II. Dependence on God: how Communion is a celebration of our life-source

  • God is our food! (John 6:48, 53, 54) to participate in abundant life, first here and now, but also hereafter

III. Christ’s self-emptying example: Communion expresses how we are to live in the world as servants

  • goes back to the incarnation, but this particularly stresses modeling the way Jesus lived

IV. Journey of Thanksgiving and Response

  • with humble, repentant and grateful hearts for what God has done and is invites us into

V. Shalom! Communion celebrates being restored to right relationship w/ God through Christ’s incarnation, life, death and resurrection.

  • We know that our relationship with God, our fellow human beings, and the rest of God’s Creation, is not as it ought to be
  • Shalom means not only the absence of violence and oppression but also the satisfaction of every spiritual and physical need. The time of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God is one of healing, of sight to the blind, of the lame walking, of the poor being fed.

We are called (gathered) and empowered (sent) to witness to the Kingdom of God (God’s will done “on earth as it is in heaven”). The Eucharist is the hinge upon which this going and sending turns. So the life of the church, especially its worship and Eucharist, is a foretaste of the Kingdom that is to come.

Leander S. Harding, In the Breaking of the Bread:

“The existence of humanity in the Garden was a priestly existence, an existence of grateful offering to God. We fell from that vocation. We forgot who we were and what we were made for. We began to crave the world as a thing in itself. The Creation became an idol instead of a means of feasting on God’s love. Jesus has come to restore us to our original vocation. In and through him we now bring the world again to God, and the Creation, beginning with the bread and wine, again becomes the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. ” (p. 48).

“God wants all of life to be Eucharist for us. God wants all relationships, all human transactions, all our work, all our interaction with the rest of Creation to be Eucharist, a partaking of the life of God that causes thanksgiving to well up in us and draw our hearts to God and t a new unity with each other.” (p. 34)

“In this peace, the natural divisions of race, class, age, and social status that keep people apart are overcome. Even the categories of righteousness and unrighteousness, of decent and indecent people, are overcome.” (p. 43)

Von Balthasar Quotes, Theodrama Vol. 2 Part III

We shall not get beyond the alternatives of “lyrical” and “epic,” spirituality (prayer and personal involvement) and theology (the objective discussion of facts), so long as we fail to include the dramatic dimension of revelation, in which alone they can discover their unity. [Human beings] can address God, and [address each other]; the Church, too, can speak to those within and to those without. But this tension is resolved in the context of a third dimension that embraces it: in the context of God’s action, which challenges the believer, takes him [or her] over and appoints him [or her] to be a witness. A witness, moreover, in the early Christian sense: a “martyr” – bearing witness with his whole existence. Otherwise he is no real “witness to the truth”. . (p. 57)

We too are involved in this dramatic campaign, so much so that the “evil day” leaves us no time to speculate about the necessarily favorable outcome: all of us must transform the graces we have received from God into a divine armor (Eph 6:13) and use it as such…

For now, under the God-given “Law” (in all its forms) will be put forward as the presence of the divine in the world, and people will attempt to subject [humanity’s] freedoms to its abstract omnipotence. And, on the other hand, under the banner of a self-absolutizing pagan culture, people will play off the “lawless” (anomos, 1 Cor 9:21) and “godless” (atheos, Eph 2:12) freedom of the “autonomous individual” against the abstract Law… Law must prove obsolete in the person who fulfills it from within, out of the love of Christ (Gal 5:23; 1 Tim 1:9), and freedom must hand itself over as a prisoner to Christ, so that it can now truly receive itself back from him (Gal 5:1). (p. 83)

If the once-for-all drama of Christ is to be exalted as the norm of the entire dramatic dimension of human life, two things must happen simultaneously: the abyss of all tragedy must be plumbed to the very bottom (which no purely human tragedy can do); and, in it and transcending it, we must discern the element of gracious destiny that genuinely touches human existence (and not merely seems to touch it). Thus the dramatic aspect of existence yields postulates addressed to Christology, although they can only be meaningful if they have already encountered the revelation concerning Christ. First, there is the postulate that Christ’s being is of such a kind that he is able to descend into the abyss of all that is tragic – far beyond the ability of any tragic hero (who only bears his [or her] own destiny) – and hence that the tragic overstretching of his [or her] person must be absolute, that is, divine. (For “demi-gods” are self-contradictory.) The other postulate is that, precisely in this abyss of unsurpassable tragedy, the element of grace asserts itself, that grace which encompasses existence and can persist and penetrate into the conciliatory aspect of tragedy. Both together lead to the absolute christological paradox: in the horror of dissolution – under the weight of the world’s guilt and of forsakenness by God – we are delivered from the meaninglessness of the world’s suffering, and grace and reconciliation carry the day. John brings both aspects together in his concept of “exaltation” (exaltation on the Cross and exaltation to God’s presence) and “glory”. “Glory” is the manifestation of the Father’s love for the world in the Son’s bearing of the world’s sin: by an inner necessity, this pure obedience to the Father calls for the Father to glorify the Son and announces it in advance . . . (p. 84)

From this vantage point, once more, we can ask the question we asked at the beginning: Are our “eyes of faith” able to see the normative form, now unfolded into a drama, as a form? The answer can now be in the affirmative. Form is a meaningful unity in a multiplicity of organs; in its fundamental articulations – his Incarnation, his preaching of the kingdom and preparing of the Church, his suffering, his solidarity with the dead and reunion with the Father, his return at the end of history – Christ’s dramatic form is the simple self-presentation of a single attitude, which is the effective expression of God’s love for the world… (p. 87)

The New Testament relationship between heaven and earth can only be illuminated dramatically, not aesthetically or in a Gnostic and structuralist manner…

Augustine, it seems, does not entirely escape the danger of an aesthetic interpretation when, arguing against the Manichees, he addresses God in these terms in his famous prayer: O God, through whom the universe, even in its evil part, is made perfect, . . . as the lower things make harmony with the better.”: here the “lower” is applied to the earth and the “better” to heaven, and the two together – despite all the individual clashes – yield a whole, a perfect harmony, in such a way that the unity between the higher and lower is better than the higher on its own…

The danger of a Gnostic and structuralist interpretation lurks in the late Jewish Apocalyptic, which has its roots in the wisdom literature. According to this, everything that is the come forth at the end of time has already existed, hiddenly, in God (thus privileged seers were able t behold it); history consists simply in drawing back the curtain that conceals what is only provisionally veiled. In such a case anthropology would be merely the realization of a correspondence that already exists between the eternal and temporal [human]: “Living here and now in the Beyond”…

Nor is the possible to take up a standpoint (in salvation history) prior to or subsequent to the earth/heaven dichotomy, as Ephrem the Syrian attempts to do, with naïve boldness in his Hymns on Paradise . . . we cannot know in advance what the stage will look like at the end of the play… not mutilation but transformation… (pp 88-9)

Von Balthasar Quotes, Theodrama vol. 2 Part II

Only when we have mentioned what is common can we start differentiating. In the face of death, the gesture of renouncing all that is past can have different meanings. It can be an act of homage to what is passing away, under the eye of the God who abides forever – the gesture of the departing characters in Calderon’s Theatre of the World… On the other hand, it can be the mere recognition that the minus sign of nothingness before the brackets that contain finitude robs everything within those brackets of all value. And yet there are mysterious transitions between two extremes, particularly where the Absolute hovers, indefinably, between Nothing and Everything, as in the concept of Nirvana. Where the latter’s whole negativity is interpreted positively, the nothingness of the world’s being also acquired a twofold accent: all individual forms are leveled and extinguished as such; but between the vanishing forms a path can be found, implying something positive in the face of Absolute: a “path of instruction” leading out of the meanders and arabesques of mortal existence. Yet this path too, which already inscribes itself in the living forms, is only recognized by its negativity; it can be traced where finite form is negated and where we see through it to the Absolute that lies beyond. That is an essentially anti-dramatic principle, however, which is why no drama has arisen in India and the Islamic world comparable to Greek or Christian drama. There the epic holds pride of place. And since the Absolute does not come to meet the transitory world on its pilgrim path (for, at most, the latter is governed by the eternal law promulgated by the former), this path lies under the aegis of a “providence” that appears preeminently in the form of “fate”…

From this point on the periphery, we can go on to ask about the center: what kind of relationship must there between the world and Absolute, between humanity and God, if the leveling produced by transitoriness and death is not to cripple the dramatic dimension of existence from within? Or, in other words, if the dramatic is not to become a mere defective mode of the epic – a kind of still photograph of existence, cut out of the film which, in showing the ultimate demise of all the characters, will also relativize everything that has passed between them? Humanity cannot come up with an answer itself; it cannot do it by violently amputating all the factors which extend beyond the framework of the dramatic action – nor by pointing to the exemplary identity which would be required if a significant action were to be elevated into a manifestation and “deciphering” of the Absolute. At this point the Baroque theatre is right: all human drama contains the element of collapse, implying the leveling of all differences and paying homage to the indifference, impartiality, of the One God. Nonetheless, it is genuine theatre; consequently, for this to be possible, there must be some further factor in the concept of the Absolute…

But if the Greeks also had genuine theatre (leaving aside the somewhat analogous Japanese Noh plays), surely this other factor must have been present in their concept of God too? It must have been an idea of God which allowed him to take part – an inner, divine, absolute part – in the drama of mortal existence without threatening his absolute nature. Such an idea provides a link between early, mythic thought and Christian faith. But the former does not pass without a break into the latter: separating them lies philosophy, which opposes the notion that God can be moved and affected by the human drama. Even the Covenant God of the Old Testament cannot be interpreted as a direct mediation between mythos and Christian revelation; even the foreseeing, judging and compassionate God, the God who accompanies his people through history, is impassive vis-à-vis all human tragedy. Christianity alone provides a new approach: God has become human without ceasing to be God. (pp. 44-5)

Now the question must be addressed to Christianity: Can it legitimately claim to have found the trail that was lost ever since the demise of ancient tragedy? And can it really follow to the end, with its eyes open, this path along which ancient tragedy tried blindly to feel its way? For that is what it really claims to do. The tragic dimension of personal existence is not softened; in fact, it is wrenched apart to the very limit: in the Cross. In Christianity, this tragic dimension actually touches the sphere of the Divine, yet without swallowing it up (as mythology does) in the tragic destiny: Christian dogma has always rejected “Patripassionism”, that is, the idea that God the Father suffered in the same sense as the Son, even if – in the mystery of the Trinity – it directs its attention with hair’s-breadth precision to the point of contact between the suffering of the God-man and the nonsuffering of God. Finally Christianity sees it in a Catholic light, because, as an individual and personal tragic dimension – not “typical” or “symbolic” – it brings to light the significance and change of meaning of all intramundane tragedy. Thus the dramatic level becomes ultimate, not to be surpassed; it does not point to some prior “wisdom” or “teaching” or “gnosis” or “theology” that could then be recounted in the epic mode: it remains at the center, as drama, as the action that takes place between God and man, undiminished in its contemporary relevance. Herein, too, lies the meaning of the Catholic sacraments, which continually make the one event present; herein, in a more all-embracing sense, the meaning of the Church insofar as she is the re-presentation of the “drama of salvation” once for all on each particular occasion…

Within the drama of Christ, every human fate is deprivatized so that its personal range may extend to the whole universe, depending on how far it is prepared to cooperate in being inserted in to the normative drama of Christ’s life, death and Resurrection. Not only does this gather the unimaginable plurality of human destinies into a concrete, universal point of unity: it actually maintains their plurality within the unity, but as a function of this unity… (pp. 49-50)

Von Balthasar Quotes, Theodrama vol. 2 Part I

Humanity’s “concepts of God” always swing between two extremes. At one extreme, there is the mythological view in which God (or the gods) is embroiled in the world drama, which, with its own laws of operation, thus constitutes a third level of reality above God and humanity; at the other extreme, God is seen dwelling in philosophical sublimity above the vicissitudes of the world, which prevent him from entering the dramatic action. On the basis of biblical revelation, we can say right at the outset that God has involved himself with the creation of the world, particularly in the creation of finite free beings, without thereby succumbing to some superordinate fate. Thus God of theodramatic action is neither “mutable” (as in the mythological view) nor “immutable” (in the terms of philosophy). (p. 9)

It is true that, right at the center of our existence in the world, there is the ugly, the grotesque, the demonic, the immoral and ultimately the sinful –all that makes it hard and often impossible for humanity to believe that the world has a total meaning . . . In pre-Christian times, the boundaries between “the shekinah, the hidden, consuming glory of the Absolute . . . and the personified face of what is ultimately meaningless can be very close, as we can see from the grotesque, imposing grimaces on the faces of Chinese or Aztec gods and demons, which suggest that the meaning at the heart of the world is a mysterium horrendum and adorandum. But after the event of Christ’s Cross, humanity is presented with a choice: hearing the cry of dereliction, we must “discern” either hidden love (shown in the Father’s surrender of the Son) or the meaningless void. (p. 27)

Inevitably, most of the great interpretations of the world had the ambition of bringing the raging world drama into a unity with the divine stillness. So it has been ever since the Bhagavadgita and Heraclitus, for whom war was the father of all things and the world a heap of refuse. Yet through all the contradictions, we detect the rhythm of the eternal Logos: in the Stoics, who taught the wise person to be passionless in the midst of the storm of life’s passions; via Dante and Milton, to the “Prologue in heaven” of Goethe’s Faust… — and to Hegel’s “phenomenology of Spirit”, with its vast dramatic canvas, which has to be identical with the totally enlightened repose of his “great logic”. But the Bhagavadgita remains stuck fast in contradictions, and what we have in Heraclitus is a proud resignation that is already preparing the way for the Stoics’ flight from drama. In Faust (as in the Divine Comedy) the dramatic contradiction is negotiated with the aid of the guiding thread of a self-refining longing for the Absolute or a self-purifying Eros, and in Hegel an ultimate dualism hovers between the struggle of existence and a knowledge that surveys the whole. But neither the simple affirmation of the contradiction nor the flight from it nor humanity’s overcoming of it by “striving and exerting itself” (Faust) can explain the mysterious, apocalyptic simultaneity of liturgy and drama. This applies also to the religions of earthly “holy wars” in the name of Yahweh or of Allah [and, mistakenly, the God of Jesus Christ!] : they bring about no reconciliation; they only destroy, creating an empty space where the transcendent God can put forth his power…

Quite different is the holy war conducted in the Book of Revelation by the Lamb, who is also the “Lion of Judah” and the “Logos of God”, from whose mouth issues the sharp sword with which he smites the nations and who ”treads the winepress of the wrath of God”. Here there is no hiatus between worship and service and above all no hiatus between the powerlessness of being slain and the power of conquest – the latter comes by virtue of the former. What we have seen from the background – namely, that the Beautiful never overwhelms those who resist it but, by its grace, makes prisoners of those who are freely convinced – holds true when this background is concentrated in the figure who steps forth from it: it is the power of self-giving love that speaks in the tones of implacable judgment…

So our Aesthetics has already provided us with something like a criterion for the present theodramatic theory. As the Aesthetics developed, grace [Huld] showed itself as eternal love’s self-giving unto the Cross; there its triumph appeared and its eternal vindication (in the Resurrection). All we need to do is take what is implicit in our aesthetics and make it explicit in dramatic theory

Whatever has emerged from the depths of nonbeing, to set itself up in existence or dig itself in, will in the end be leveled, consigned once more to nonbeing. And initially, as we have said, it does not matter which view of the Absolute is being put forward: the nihilistic or materialistic view or the Buddhist or even the Islamic view. For in all these conceptions the Absolute is motionless: in the presence of its stillness, all the noise of becoming passing away must fall silent… (pp. 34-5)

 

Gilead Quotes, Part III

Let me say first of all that the grace of God is sufficient to any transgression, and that to judge is wrong, the origin and essence of much error and cruelty. I am aware of these things, as I hope you are also. p. 155

In Scripture, the one sufficient reason for the forgiveness of debt is simply the existence of debt. And it goes on to compare this to divine grace, and to the Prodigal Son and his restoration to his place in his father’s house, though he neither asks to be restored as son nor even repents of the grief he has caused his father…

I believe it concludes quite effectively. It says Jesus puts his hearer in the role of the father, of the one who forgives. Because if we are, so to speak, the debtor (and of course we are that, too), that suggests no graciousness in us. And grace is the great gift. So to be forgiven is only half the gift. The other half is that we also can forgive, restore, and liberate, and therefore we can feel the will of God enacted through us, which is the great restoration of ourselves to ourselves. p. 161

One of the ladies . . . got herself into a considerable excitement talking about flames, that is, perdition, so I felt obliged to take down The Institutes and read them the passage on the lot of the reprobate, about how their torments are “figuratively expressed to us by physical things,” unquenchable fire and so on, to express “how wretched it is to be cut off from all fellowship with God. I have the passage in front of me. It is alarming, certainly, but it isn’t ridiculous. I told them, if you want to inform yourselves as to the nature of hell, don’t hold your hand in a candle flame, just ponder the meanest most desolate place in your soul. p. 208

And what is the purpose of a prophetic except to find meaning in trouble? p. 233

The Lord absolutely transcends any understanding I have of him, which makes loyalty to him a different thing from loyalty to whatever customs and doctrines and memories I happen to associate with him. p. 235

Here is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, in comprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal. So how could it subordinate itself to cause or consequence? p. 238

There were two further points I felt I should have made in our earlier conversations, one of them being that doctrine is not belief, it is only one way of talking about belief, and the other being that Greek word sozo, which is usually translated “saved,” can also mean healed, restored, that sort of thing. So the conventional translation narrows the meaning of the word in a way that can create false expectations. I thought he should be aware that grace is not so poor a thing that it cannot present itself in any numbers of ways. pp 239-40

There are two occasions when the sacred beauty of Creation becomes dazzlingly apparent, and they occur together. One is when we feel our mortal insufficiency to the world, and the other is when we feel the world’s mortal insufficiency to us. p. 245

Gilead Quotes, Part II

Briefly, the right worship of God is essential because it forms the mind to a right understanding of God. God is set apart – He is One, He is not to be imagined as a thing among things (idolatry – this is what Feuerbach failed to grasp). It is sacred (which I take to be a reflection of the sacredness of the Word, the creative utterance which is not of a kind with other language). (p. 138)

I thought at the time it might have puzzled a few people, but I was pleased with it. I even wished Edward could have heard it. I felt I’d clarified some things. I remember one lady did ask me, as she was going out the door, “Who is Feuerbach?” And that made me aware of that tendency of mine to live too much in my own thoughts. Your mother wanted to name the cat Feuerbach, but you insisted on Soapy…

It could be true that my interest in abstractions, which would have been forgiven first on grounds of youth and then on grounds of eccentricity, is now being forgiven on grounds of senility, which would mean people have stopped trying to see the sense in the things I say the way they once did. That would be bar far the worst form of forgiveness. . . I’ve probably been boring a lot of people for a long time. Strange to find comfort in the idea. There have always been things I felt I must tell them, even if no one listened or understood. And one of them is that many of the attacks on belief that have had such prestige for the last century or two are in fact meaningless. I must tell you this, because everything else I have told you, and them, loses almost all its meaning and its right to attention if this is not established. (pp. 143-4)

There are two insidious notions, from the point of view of Christianity in the modern world. (No doubt there are more than two, but the others will have to wait.) One is that religion and religious experience are illusions of some sort (Feuerbach, Freud, etc.), and the other is that religion itself is real, but your belief that you participate in it is an illusion. I think the second of these is the more insidious, because it is religious experience above all that authenticates religion, for the purposes of the individual believer… (p. 145)

It seems that the spirit of religious self-righteousness this article deplores is precisely the spirit in which it is written…

There is indeed a note of sinful pride in the confidence with which the majority of people expressed their ideas about heaven. For although the Bible has much to say about final judgment, it offers no definitive picture of life after death…

I conceal my motives from myself pretty effectively sometimes. (pp 145-7)

Now [predestination] is probably my least favorite topic of conversation in the entire world…

[About theology,] to conclude is not in the nature of the enterprise…

I have always dreaded having to talk theology with people who have no sympathy for it. I’ve been evasive from time to time, that’s true. I see the error of assuming a person is not speaking with you in good faith. It’s not respectful, I know that, and don’t do it often. (pp. 150-3)

I believe I have tried never to say anything Edward would have found callow or naïve. That constraint has been useful to me, in my opinion. It may be a form of defensiveness, but I hope it has at least been useful on balance. There is a tendency among some religious people even to invite ridicule and to bring down on themselves an intellectual contempt which seems to me in some cases justified. Nevertheless, I would advise you against defensiveness on principle. It precludes the best eventualities along with the worst. At the most basic level, it expresses a lack of faith. As I have said, the worst eventualities can have great value as experience. And often enough, when we think we are protecting ourselves, we are struggling against our rescuer. I know this, I have seen the truth of it with my own eyes, though I have not myself always managed to live by it, the Good Lord knows.  I truly doubt I would know how to live by it for even a day, or an hour.  That is a remarkable thing to consider. (p. 154)

Quotes from Marilynne Robinson's Gilead

Gilead-Photo-1 When my father found his father at Mount Pleasant after the war ended, he was shocked at first to see how he had been wounded. In fact, he was speechless. So my grandfather’s first words to his son were “I am confident that I will find great blessing in it.” And that is what he said about everything that happened to him for the rest of his life, all of which tended to be more or less drastic. I remember at least two sprained wrists and a cracked rib. He told me once that being blessed meant being bloodied, and that is true etymologically, in English – but not in Greek or Hebrew. So whatever understanding might be based on that derivation had no scriptural authority behind it. It was unlike him to strain interpretation that way. He did it in order to make an account of himself, I suppose, as most of us do… (p. 36)

I got pretty good at pretending I understood more than I did, a skill which has served me through life. I say this because I want you to realize that I am not by any means a saint. My life does not compare with my grandfather’s. I get much more respect than I deserve. This seems harmless enough in most cases. People wan to respect the pastor and I’m not going to interfere with that. But I’ve developed a great reputation for wisdom by ordering more books than I ever had time to read, and reading more books, by far, than I learned anything useful from, except, of course, that some very tedious gentlemen have written books. This is not a new insight, but the truth of it is something you have to experience to fully grasp. (p. 39)

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One sermon is not up there, one I actually burned the night before I had meant to preach it. People don’t talk much now about the Spanish influenza, but that was a terrible thing, and it struck just at the time of the Great War, just when we were getting involved in it. It killed the soldiers by the thousands, healthy men in the prime of life, and then it spread into the rest of the population. It was like a war, it really was. One funeral after another, right here in Iowa. We lost so many of the young people. And we got off pretty lightly. People came to church wearing masks, if they came at all. They’d sit as far from each other as they could. There was talk that the Germans had caused it with some sort of secret weapon, and I think people wanted to believe that, because it saved them from reflecting on what other meaning it might have.

The parents of these young soldiers would come to me and ask me how the Lord could allow such a thing. I felt like asking them what the Lord would have to do to tell us He didn’t allow something. But instead I would comfort them by saying we would never know what their young men had been spared. Most of them took me to mean they were spared the trenches and the mustard gas, but what I really meant was that they were spared the act of killing. It was just like a biblical plague, just exactly. I thought of Sennacherib . . . and I said that their deaths were a sign and a warning to the rest of us that the desire for war would bring the consequences of war, because there is no ocean big enough to protect us from the Lord’s judgment when we decide to hammer our plowshares into sword and our pruning hooks in spears, in contempt of the will and grace of God. (pp. 41-2)

My grandfather told me once about a vision he’d had when he was still living in Maine, not yet sixteen. He had fallen asleep by the fire, worn out from a day helping his father pull stumps. Someone touched him on the shoulder, and when he looked up, there was the Lord, holding out His arms to him, which were bound in chains. My grandfather said, “Those irons had rankled right down to His bones.” He told me that as the saddest fact, and eyed me with the one seraph eye he had, the old grief fresh in it. He said he knew then that he had to come to Kansas and make himself useful to the cause of abolition. To be useful was the best thing the old men ever hoped for themselves, and to be aimless was their worst fear. I have a lot of respect for that view… (p. 49)

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Memory can make a thing seem to have been much more than it was. But I know she did look right into my eyes. That is something. And I’m glad I knew it at the time, because now, in my present situation, now that I am about to leave this world, I realize there is nothing more astonishing than a human face. Boughton and I have talked about that, too. It has something to do with incarnation. You feel your obligation to a child when you have seen it and held it. Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it. But this is truest of the face of an infant. I consider that to be one kind of vision, as mystical as any. Boughton agrees. (p. 66)

The Bible as God's Drama and the Incarnate Word its Key

[This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance Blog.]

“Probably nothing has contributed more to the misinterpretation of the biblical doctrine of the Word than the identification of the Word with the Bible.” – Paul Tillich

“We must then repeat that Scripture is not the Word itself, but rather the Spirit’s testimony concerning the Word.” – Hans Urs von Balthasar

When it comes to the place of the Bible in the 21st Century North American cultural landscape, one problem is obvious: Conventional Evangelical beliefs about it do not seem to stand up to intellectual scrutiny. Many Mainline Protestants, on the other hand, have long been accused of conceding too much of the Bible’s authority to its scholarly critics. With Christendom in the past and the promises of modernity now arguably in shambles, whether and how people of faith can restore sustainable confidence in their sacred scripture for the future remains a critical and mostly unanswered question. In response, I propose that one promising path forward may be found in the post-critical biblical hermeneutics of the 20th Century Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.

In von Balthasar’s “theodramatic” imagination, the Christian life is likened to the theater. History is a performance on the world stage. God is the author, the Holy Spirit the director, and Christ the lead actor. Human beings too have an important supportive role to play, as they are called to participate in God’s mission of redemption – to “dramatize,” as it were, God’s will on earth as it is heaven.

As has been suggested by others, I think the Bible should be read and seen as drama as well. In literary terms, the Bible is indeed a great narrative, and like any story, there are key moments that set the tone and determine the way that future events will unfold. The analogy isn’t perfect, but in this light, it can be argued that, while no less inspired or authoritative, the Bible and its interpretation can begin to function in a more dynamic, subtle and compelling way. And when this happens – remarkably! – whether one problematic verse or passage appears to conflict with the character of God as revealed in Christ no longer has the power to undermine the credibility of the entire biblical canon.

One of the main reasons for this is that, viewed as drama, the Bible takes on a shape and an organizing form rather than just a status (inerrant, infallible, etc). Hence, instead of predominately being read as a collection of propositional truth statements or moral guidelines, the structure of the Bible itself and the big story it tells becomes an enriching tapestry into which people get to be woven for the purpose of creating something beautiful and transformative. The problem though is that, without a key or high point to help us discern its overarching pattern, the otherwise revelatory, admonishing and redemptive texts of the Bible can become blurred and confused with the tragic, comic and obscure elements that are also strung throughout. This is why the climax of a drama is so crucial for distilling its most fundamental meaning.

Of course the climax is not all that matters. In fact, the other parts are essential for forming the whole, but the heart and the rhythm that tells us the story’s central significance is utterly lost without its culminating moment. The climax of a drama, therefore, is like the axis of a wheel out of which the supporting characters and events shoot like spokes in every direction. The climax is the key event that captures all others and reorients them into its orbit.

In the case of the Bible’s drama in particular, the climax occurs in the event of God’s self-revelation and dramatic action in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Moreover, this claim is also what distinguishes the Christian understanding of revelation from that of most other religions, but especially Judaism and Islam. God is shown, and God’s love is demonstrated, by dwelling fully in a human being (Colossians 1), and not first and foremost in a sacred text or law.

Balthasar is also fond of saying that “truth is symphonic.” That is, truth can only be wholly experienced and perceived when presented in more than one form. Hence, there are four Gospels, not one, and they can’t just be synthesized together without compromising the integrity of each one. As symphonic, however, there is a musical key, and therefore a harmony that can be heard between them. According to Balthasar, then, we must bring all of our aesthetic senses to the Bible for an adequate hearing and viewing. Furthermore, just as we must tune in our ears to hear the truth, we need the right scope and lenses for proper vision of it. The form of the Word of God has “plasticity,” Balthasar insists, and such that is only appreciated through a “field” of view:

“Only Scripture itself possesses the power and the authority to point authentically to the highest figure that has ever walked upon the earth, a figure in keeping with whose sovereignty it is to create for himself a body by which to express himself. But a body is itself a ‘field’, and it requires another ‘field’ in which to expand, a field part of whose form it must already be if it is to stand in contrast to it. Christ’s existence and his teachings would not be comprehensible form if it were not for his rootedness in a salvation-history that leads up to him. Both in union with this history and in his relief from it, Christ becomes for us the image that reveals the invisible God. Even Scripture is not an isolated book, but rather is embedded in the context of everything created, established, and affected by Christ – the total reality constituted by his work and activity in the world. Only in this context is the form of Scripture perceivable.”

But how will we know this form when we see it? How do we avoid arbitrarily relying on our own reason and experience when interpreting Scripture? Reason and experience are crucial, but they can’t be the highest measure of our faith. Something else has to function as a hermeneutical key. As already indicated, and as Balthasar has answered for us, the key is the climax of the drama itself: the person and teachings of Jesus, the one who fulfilled the letter of the written law by going beyond it in divine and human form.

In other words, because there are human and cultural fingerprints all over the Bible, there has to be a climactic light that illuminates each passage to show us the difference between its human and divine components. Karl Barth was another giant figure who stressed that the Bible must become the Word of God, which occurs when it is read and exposited by a faithful, worshiping community. Revelation is an event. It never belongs to an object or text as such. It approaches us more so than the reverse. This would partly help to explain why people are able to use and abuse the Bible for all kinds of distorted ends. Thus – and this is what has been so difficult for modern people – interpreting the Bible is not just an intellectual activity. It is the activity of the eyes, ears and heart in the light of faith, guided by the Holy Spirit and the key of the Incarnate Word. In this way, the church can learn to see and discern its role in God’s drama.

Von Balthasar on 'Seeing the Form' of the Word

We must then repeat that Scripture is not the Word itself, but rather the Spirit’s testimony concerning the Word, which springs from an indissoluble bond and marriage between the Spirit and those eyewitnesses who were originally invited and admitted to the vision. With such an understanding of Scripture, we can say further that its testimony possesses an inner form which is canonical simply by being such a form, and for this reason we can ‘go behind’ this form only at the risk of losing both image and Spirit conjointly. Only the final result of the historical developments which lie behind a text – a history never to be adequately reconstructed – may be said to be inspired, not the bits and scraps which philological analysis thinks it can tear loose from the finished totality in order, as it were, to steal up to the form from behind in the hope of enticing it to betray its mystery by exposing its development.

Does it not make one suspicious when Biblical philology’s first move in its search for an ‘understanding’ of its texts is to dissect their form into sources, psychological motivations, and the sociological effects of milieu, even before the form has been really contemplated and read for its meaning as form? For we can be sure of one thing: we can never again recapture the living totality of form once it has been dissected and sawed into pieces, no matter how informative the conclusions which this anatomy may bring to light. Anatomy can be practiced only on a dead body, since it is opposed to the movement of life and seeks to pass from the whole to its parts and elements. It is not impossible that certain relations within the canonical form itself may occasionally call for and justify such a procedure.

But one should first ask whether such attempts to work back ‘scientifically’ to real or alleged sources are not most useful when they once again demonstrate the indivisibility of the definitively expressed Word. With respect to our scholars, may we not credit the Holy Spirit with a little divine humor, a little divine irony? And would it be erroneous to find some connection between this divine irony and honor and the Gospel’s four-fold form? This would suggest that the unique and divine plasticity of the living, incarnate Word could not be witnessed to other than though this system of perspectives which, although it cannot be further synthesized, compensates for this by offering a stereoscopic vista.

And the divine irony would further suggest that the main fruits to be gathered from the very unfruitfulness and failure of the scientific experiment would be the very clearer exigency of returning to the one thing necessary. We must return to the primary contemplation of what is really said, really presented to us, really meant. Regardless of how distasteful this may be to some, we must stress that, in the Christian realm, such contemplation exactly corresponds to the aesthetic contemplation that steadily and patiently beholds those forms which either nature or art offers to its view. Inspiration in its totality is to be grasped only in the form, never in psychology and biography. And, therefore, if any kind of Biblical philology is to be fruitful, it must have its point of departure in form and must lead back to it.

Only Scripture itself possesses the power and the authority to point authentically to the highest figure that has ever walked upon the earth, a figure in keeping with whose sovereignty it is to create for himself a body by which to express himself. But a body is itself a ‘field’, and it requires another ‘field’ in which to expand, a field part of whose form it must already be if it is to stand in contrast to it. Christ’s existence and his teachings would not be comprehensible form if it were not for his rootedness in a salvation-history that leads up to him. Both in union with this history and in his relief from it, Christ becomes for us the image that reveals the invisible God. Even Scripture is not an isolated book, but rather is embedded in the context of everything created, established, and effected by Christ – the total reality constituted by his work and activity in the world. Only in this context is the form of Scripture perceivable.

H. U. von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics I: Seeing the Form, 2nd ed., trans. E. Leiva-Merikakis (San Francisco; New York: Ignatius Press, 2009), 31-32.

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