December 11, 2019

Bruggemann: Our life with God — characteristically open and unsettled

The Mothership. Photo by Chris Davis at Flickr. Creative Commons License

Ah, when I need something to really chew on, Walter Bruggemann is always a good go-to.

I have testified here at IM to a journey of having learned something much different than what I was taught in my evangelical background. That is, that God and his people, particularly as portrayed in the Hebrew Bible, share a contentious, give-and-take relationship that is as filled with ambiguity, unsettledness, and mystery as it is with certainty.

Indeed, the biblical testimony even suggests that there is a mutuality in the relationship, which encourages us to think humans have some ability, through arguing and wrestling with God, to change things with God even as God, of course, has power to change things with people.

After all, is not the name “Israel” a testament to that? (see Gen. 32:28). “A people who wrestle with God and prevail” is the very definition of the community of faith in the Hebrew Bible. And, as we’ve emphasized repeatedly, this also characterizes the actual nature of those scriptures themselves — a vibrant, often contentious conversation about and with God and God’s people in the community.

For many Christians, on the other hand, the view is that the gospel of Christ has brought a sense of closure to this whole sense of uncertainty, lament, questioning, complaining, and disputing with God that characterizes First Testament religion. The answer has come. What questions can remain?

But is this truly what a life with God is like?

I’ve said enough. Chew on this.

• • •

I have repeatedly stressed that Israel deals with an incommensurate God who is endlessly at risk in mutuality. That is, YHWH is seen by Israel to be genuinely dialectical, always on one end of a disputatious transaction that may effect change in YHWH as well as in YHWH’s partners. We have seen this profoundly unresolved already in Exod 34:6–7. We have seen it regularly in the noun-metaphors used for YHWH. Most largely, we have seen this dialectical quality in the juxtaposition of what I have called core testimony and countertestimony. Israel’s transactions with YHWH are indeed characteristically open and unsettled.

It appears to me, granting the enormous difference made by a christological center in Christian faith, that the real issue that concerns us in Old Testament theology is this: Classical Christianity is tilted in a transcendental direction, which gives closure to YHWH and to YHWH’s relationships with the partners. There may be many reasons for such a closure; perhaps not least is the need of a derivative tradition (Christianity) to substantiate its claim against the precursive tradition (Judaism). For whatever reason, this tendency to transcendental closure compromises the genuinely dialectical quality of Jewish testimony. That compromise, moreover, is of crucial importance for what is possible and what is precluded in our discernment of God, world, and self.

I do not imagine that Christianity in its classical forms will yield much, soon, on this score. But there are hints that as Christianity in the West is increasingly disestablished, and so may distance itself from its Hellenistic-Constantinian propensity, it may move in the direction of its Jewish dimension of genuine unsettlement between YHWH and YHWH’s partners. There is no doubt that this drama of brokenness and restoration is shared by Judaism and Christianity. In Judaism, it is a drama of:

  • exile and homecoming,
  • death and resurrection,
  • Pit and rescue,
  • and chaos and creation.

To that set of categories of discernment, Christianity adds (decisively for its identity) crucifixion and resurrection. That of course is a specific move the Old Testament (and Judaism) do not make. The differential on this point is very great.

What strikes me more, however, is that these traditions are, in the main, agreed. That agreement is the basis for a genuine alternative to the nihilism of the modern world, a nihilism contained in the elimination of this incommensurate, mutual One in the interest of autonomy and self-sufficiency. This testimony of Israel, echoed by Christianity, not only gives different answers—it insists on different questions, wherein the answers offered are perforce thin and tenuous, but not for that reason unuttered. The intramural quarrels in the church, and the ancient alienations between Christians and Jews, are unconscionable, in my judgment, when this lean, resilient tradition stands as a fragile alternative to the embrace of the Nihil.

An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible (pp. 175-176)

Comments

  1. anonymous says

    “For whatever reason, this tendency to transcendental closure compromises the genuinely dialectical quality of Jewish testimony. That compromise, moreover, is of crucial importance for what is possible and what is precluded in our discernment of God, world, and self.”

    this

    • Dave Greene says

      Sorry but that quote sounds like it came out of a “Jargon Generator” of some kind 🙂

      • anonymous says

        “God and his people, particularly as portrayed in the Hebrew Bible, share a contentious, give-and-take relationship that is as filled with ambiguity, unsettledness, and mystery as it is with certainty”

        ” the biblical testimony even suggests that there is a mutuality in the relationship, which encourages us to think humans have some ability, through arguing and wrestling with God, to change things with God even as God, of course, has power to change things with people”

        this

      • IOW, there is no guarantee that if you “follow the rules” and “be a good person”, that God is obligated to “bless” you. Or that, if you are. “bad person” or “fall away”, that God will punish you. And it certainly doesn’t mean God wants us to have, or to take at any cost, political and cultural power in this world. God has guaranteed us the destination – He made NO promises about the journey there other than that He would be with us

        • Christiane says

          sometimes ‘blessings’ come in disguise and cannot be recognized except from a distance of many years into the future

        • Robert F says

          The present danger is that forms of Christianity have linked themselves to nationalist movements here and in Europe, if those movements prevail, those forms of Christianity may come into far more “political and cultural power in this world” than they currently have.

          • Robert F says

            And if these forms of nationalized Christianity do prevail with their linked nationalist political movements, they obviously will not exhibit the dialectical religious characteristics of Judaism that Brueggemann talks about in the above quote.

            • Headless Unicorn Guy says

              They will exhibit the religious characteristics of FUNDAMENTALISM, the more FUNDAMENTALIST the better. (Remember to factor in Holier-Than-Thou One-Upmanship, pushing the Faithful in the direction of more and more extremism as a matter of survival.)

              • Hug, get over the late great planet earth you live on

              • In my opinion, it is only in an environment of accepted and embraced political, social, and religious pluralism that a true dialectical spirit can be maintained by Christianity (and probably any other majority religion, including Judaism) for very long. Obviously, the issue is different for minority religions, which historically and in the present day have widely had no choice but to accept the terms set for them by the far more powerful majority religion of the societies in which they exist(ed).

        • “He made NO promises about the journey there other than that He would be with us”

          He did promise, “In this world you will have trouble…”

          • Robert F says

            In that regard, Christians are a subset of the whole human race, which is born to trouble.

            • Robert, you finally get it

              • I finally get what, that I haven’t been getting for a long time?

              • Isn’t it Christian fundamentalists who cry “PERSECUTION! PERSECUTION!” whenever they are not in control of, or experience undesired change in our society, rather than accepting it as the common fate of humanity that “You can’t always get what you want”?

                • Yes, Robert, yes. That mindset is tied up in their belief that if you follow God’s laws, worship him, ask for forgiveness when you fail, witness every chance you get, then you will be blessed. They may say those blessings are simply experiencing God’s love and His abiding presence, but what they really mean is that you will be blessed with success and happiness. If you aren’t successful or happy, if you experience the “common fate of humanity”, then it’s gotta be someone else’s fault.

                  • And further than that… if (the nation) follows God’s laws and worships Him, then (the nation) will be blessed. And if the blessings don’t come… well, there are Sinners in the Camp who must therefore be purged.

                    • Dave Greene says

                      “And if the blessings don’t come… well, there are Sinners in the Camp who must therefore be purged.”

                      And hence the… no, no, no – I refuse to go there on a nice day like today 🙂

                    • You guys crack me up! Sadly, there’s ugly truth in what you say.

                    • Oh, absolutely, Eeyore. We are in dangerous territory with the current bent of Christianity in the public forum.

                    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

                      And if the blessings don’t come… well, there are Sinners in the Camp who must therefore be purged.

                      If they don’t up the ante to “Purge Them or God WILL Punish Us!”

                      This was the distinct vibe when I was in-country in the Seventies and observing from the fringes in the Eighties. During the late Cold War, God had only one Punishment in the chute:

                      “GOD’S JUDGMENT FOR AMERICA’S SINS SITS READY AND WAITING IN THE NUCLEAR MISSILE SILOS OF THE SOVIET UNION!!!!!”

                      Add the idea that “Acceptance of HOMOSEXUALITY (and/or ABORTION)” is a nation’s Point of No Return in God’s eyes and you see where this is going, for both the variations of “We Have To Stop It Before It’s Too Late!” and “I will be in Heaven, laughing as the world burns”.

        • –> “He made NO promises about the journey there other than that He would be with us”

          Yes! This is truth!

          Having said that… I’m wondering if there isn’t a qualifier to that statement, a qualifier that, to me, is pretty dang clear in Isaiah, and perhaps a theme one could find throughout the scriptures. And the qualifier would be this: “…but if we keep going the route of pride and arrogance, He will be unable to protect us.”

          So maybe it’s more this:

          “He made NO promises about the journey there other than that He would be with us, but if we keep going the route of pride and arrogance, He will be unable to protect us.”

          • He also promised that even the gates of Hell will not prevail against the church.

            That those gates are deep inside the church’s boundaries, and that as a result they necessarily open up from the inside, presumably does not neutralize his promise.

            • Rick Ro. says

              –> “He also promised that even the gates of Hell will not prevail against the church.”

              But what if I’m the one opening the gates…?

              I also see a difference in that the promise you mention in that it is in regards to His church, whereas the other one is more individualistic (He will be with us on our journey…as individuals). The gates of Hell may not prevail against His church, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t do their damage to individuals who continue to be prideful and arrogant.

              • Robert F says

                I tend to think both promises are made to the church (defined as wherever two or three are gathered in his name) rather than to individual Christians. However that may be, your caveat about pride and arrogance still holds.

                • Robert F says

                  But then again, I tend to think there are always gathered together everywhere in his name two or three (and many more!), if the Communion of Saints is included in its number, and they are always present with us even as Christ is, and in fact with him.

      • Robert F says

        If the disestablishment of Christianity that Brueggemann talks about, and of which we are all aware, becomes great enough, all the “jargon” and theological niceties will evaporate, and we will be down to the brass tax of a minority religion struggling to faithfully exist in an indifferent, or even possibly hostile, society (or societies). With the disappearance of “autonomy and self-sufficiency” that Brueggemann mentions (as if it would be an unmixed blessing), will the religious hierarchy exert as much control as traditional Jewish hierarchies did over their communities during their long survival mode in Christendom? Will a ghetto mentality become the pervasive norm, as it did and had to among Jewish communities existing in hostile societies? Neither one of these outcomes would be a positive development, obviously, but they are more than just possible.

        But at present, we are seeing forms of Christianity both here and in Europe link themselves to nationalist movements, indeed, being intrinsic to some of those movements (Poland, Hungary, the US). If the nationalist movements prevail, and if those forms of Christianity share in their ascension, a new form of Christendom may rise as ugly or uglier than the ones of earlier eras, even more insistent on supposed implacable religious certainties, and certainly less Jewish. Let us pray that Christianity does not work its way into a position of supremacy and power that would be yet another institutional and spiritual betrayal of Christ; better that it should cease to exist than that should be the outcome.

  2. David Cornwell says

    “there is a mutuality in the relationship, which encourages us to think humans have some ability, through arguing and wrestling with God, to change things with God even as God, of course, has power to change things with people.”

    Our new pastor and I had a conversation about changing the mind of God. He promised to preach a sermon on this subject, which I’m anxious to hear.

    I have friends who think everything is already cooked, and we are just basically waiting for it to unfold.

    • –> “Our new pastor and I had a conversation about changing the mind of God. He promised to preach a sermon on this subject…”

      But he has to change God’s mind about not letting him preach on the subject first!

      😉

      • David Cornwell says

        I keep telling him to preach it. God is telling him not too. He’s waiting on his wife to decide. I think he wants a unanimous agreement.

    • –> “I have friends who think everything is already cooked, and we are just basically waiting for it to unfold.”

      By the way, the process of writing my sci-fi manuscript has really helped me see this whole topic in a new light. Yes, I had the basic story-arc in my head, and I even knew what plot points and scenes I would hit along the way, but there were other things that changed along the way as characters did things I wasn’t expecting. I even had a critique group talk me out of killing off a secondary character that ended up changing scenes that he wasn’t supposed to be in!!! And… they were RIGHT! His presence forced me to re-look at certain aspects of the story and actually fueled other great plot points and ideas!

      To me, the writing process is very analogous to God’s “plan.” Plot mainly set, characters mainly set… but He’s open to other ideas. Isn’t that why we pray and commune with Him? I can point to plenty of scripture that tells me He’s a better listener than anyone I know, so… is He listening or isn’t He?

      • David Cornwell says

        Yes.

        • I don’t know if he has read any Jung but that will rattle your cage if you seriously engage it. He, or you , might enjoy the challenge.

          • I think the flour, the sugar, the oil and the salt are prepared beforehand. What we do with them is God’s actual and genuine joy. Not the joy of watching a rerun. Each of us is a premiere. I feel sorry for a god who watches movies with no fear of the spoiler alert because he knows all the endings already. How could such a being be genuinely engaged with us? I know there are arguments to the contrary but….

  3. Off topic, but worthy of note – Damaris’ blog is getting attention from sustainability/resilience aggregators.

    https://www.resilience.org/stories/2019-07-30/feeding-the-world-2/

  4. Christiane says

    Karl Barth and Brueggemann both write about the ‘costly’ loss of lament in Christian prayer . . . . that there is a NEED for Christian people to call out to God in pain, to ‘confront’ God as in the way the blood of the martyrs calls out ‘How long O Lord, how long’

    I remember listening to the funeral sermon for Rachel Held Evans and the issue was spoken of there about ‘having the need to grieve’
    https://youtu.be/XyoxUwdSnzA