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against theological triumphalism

June 4th, 2005 by isaac · 2 Comments

So, I’m back in Santa Barbara for the summer spending time with my girlfriend and friends around town. I jumped into a home group at church where we get together every week and study the texts and teachings that will be addressed in upcoming sermons. Well, in this past week’s study a quote from J. I. Packer prodded my thinking. He wrote, “We should avoid like the plague any talk that suggests that we have enlisted God on our side, and now have him in our pockets.”

I think this is a re-occuring theme for me this past year. (e.g. read this post.) Here’s the issue: how are we supposed to talk about the mystery at the heart of the christian faith without reducing God to our finite concepts? As Packer puts it, how do we keep from enlisting God on our side, from protecting our conceptions of God—keeping him in our pockets—from the hope of God’s unceasing revelation of the hope of his reality made new every morning? How do we talk about God’s gifts of faith, hope, and love that we know to be true when we also confess our inability to know how wide and deep the reality of God truly is? How do we talk about this Jesus whose very nature we confess as a paradox: fully human and fully divine. He is both/and not either/or. Or how about the Trinity? Three in One and One in Three. My mind is stretched to the breaking point when I try to imagine what exactly it means for the one God to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. What does it mean to have confidence in convictions whose very nature disrupts our confidence? That really is an open question for me. I feel the writer of Hebrews messing with my confidence when he writes, “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Our faith is built upon a hope; our certainty floats on what we can’t see. I proclaim as historical fact that which others are free to deny as hoax: that Jesus Christ was crucified, buried, raised on the third day, and now reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Our foundation is faith, nothing more or less. My confession of Christian belief is open to other perspectives of the same Mystery that may unsettle my conceptions. These tensions of faith reach back into the early church which provided (it was probably more passive than that) space for the mutual habitation of the task of doctrinal formulation alongside a sort of critical theology called the apophatic tradition. This tradition of Christian enquiry exemplified in a figure like Pseudo-Dionysius helps us explore the tension of declaring anything about our mysterious God whose “thoughts are not our thoughts,” as Isaiah puts it, while at the same time witnessing to what we have received as truth—that is, the gift of the One who is the Truth. This is the critical perspective that Packer invites us into. His warning guards us against dogmatic triumphalism. It recognizes the fluidity of human life, the way our speach never quite captures mystery. It’s a note of warning, as Rowan Williams puts it, “against the idea that we could secure a firm grip upon definitions of the divine.”

So, where do we find sure footing for our need to speak about the unspeakable? How do we express our restlessness as our hearts reach for the perpetual satisfaction of God’s divine banquet? What am I supposed to do with my hunger for more, for consummation, for the eschatological fulfillment of God’s salvation that I taste, although fleetingly, in the present? In his very readable book, Paradoxes of Faith, Henri de Lubac finds possibilities for provisional and finite human utterances that grasp at the divine without turning into prideful attempts to assume the security of the heights of Babel—that is, the illusion that we can see God from God’s perspective. He calls us to “criticize everything we say of God and the things of God in human language, though we must continue saying it.” As we speak with honesty, confessing our fragile grip on language, “we should be able to glimpse” marvels that come to us as we unsettle our secure, familiar formulations. When we lay aside our illusions of control of the divine—putting God in our pockets—then we open ourselves up to new vistas from which we can see a God whose grace is continually poured out for us in unexpected places, a grace that is made new every morning. “We are too desirous of being set at ease,” writes de Lubac, “and we do not consent to being taken out of our usual element. That is why we make a petty religion for ourselves and seek a petty salvation of our own petty proportions.” Uncritical confidence in our definitions of God close us off from the explosive new reality of God’s salvation, a reality that always exceeds the reach of our imaginations. God offers us a knowledge that opens us up to that which God still wants to give us. God’s grace is without end; God gives us knowledge that promises more to know, an infinite expanse to explore.

So, how do we avoid theological triumphalism? I think de Lubac points us toward a way of speaking that does not turn toward silence at the ineffable, but always attempts to put into words what always lies beyond our words. But that doesn’t mean that the words, that our speach is replaceable. (Our words are not transcendend, but transfigured by the Word who is made flesh). Rather, our words invite the possibilty of a conversation that vulnerably approaches another and asks for the perspective of the divine that only that person, in all their unique humanness, can offer. The self-deception that flows out of our ability to describe only what we see from our finite perspective needs the unsettling vision of someone else, articulated experiences that reveal that there is more for us to see. The reality of God and his creation is far too expansive for us to be satisfied with our own judgment. God is a reality that invites further exploration, more discoveries. The Christian life is an unceasing journey into God’s gracious embrace; it is a wandering into the love of God that affirms our finitude while calling us further up and further into his infinity. As Augustine puts it in his City of God, the Christian is always “on the way”—always traveling and imminently arriving. Any glimpse of the reality of God that stirs us to speak about what we’ve seen to be true shouldn’t necessarily be an opportunity for a confidence in our knowledge of the way God works that closes off further gifts of God’s gracious knowledge. The satisfaction of God’s grace is not static. It both satisfies all our longings, all our restless quests to fulfill our hearts’ desires, and promises depths of love beyond our wildest dreams. St. Augustine says it best: “God both satisfies you and fails to satisfy…. If I say that he satisfies you, I fear lest you wish to depart as if you were satisfied: as if from lunch, as if from dinner. Therefore what do I say? That he does not satisfy you? I fear again lest I would say: he does not satisfy you, you seem to be in need, as if you appear more empty and there was something less in you which ought to be filled. What, then, say I say, except what cannot be said, what can hardly be thought? He both satisfied you and does not satisfy you.” This is what de Lubac calls “perpetual satisfaction.”

Every discovery of the divine reality should not be reason for triumph; rather, every taste of divinty should simultaneously satisfy our longing and call us to seek out others who can join in discovering the promise of the More, of the gift of grace that exceeds our finite reception—that is, our hands can’t hold all that God has to offer. Those friends we find as we travel in the Way (Acts) that is always on the way (Augustine) are the gifts God gives us to expose the pre-mature satisfaction of our knowledge of God secured by finite senses. Thus, the Christian task is to learn how to see our limited perspective as reason for joy because it draws us to others in whom we find the glory of the Body of Christ—that network of relationships that is our personal relationship with Jesus, the endless exploration of God offered in our sisters and brothers who show us the wonderful mysteries of God personhood. That is the reality of the mystery of our divine likeness.

Tags: theology

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jason // Jun 4, 2005 at 5:42 pm

    I’ve always liked this idea of not putting God in a box, of letting God be bigger than my conceptions, and hopefully, in so doing, not fall prey to Feuerbach’s accusation that we in religion we merely project ourselves onto the cosmic screen.

    However, that said, I find it easier to say than do. I wondered as I was reading this what practices a church would engage in to nurture this commitment to the ineffable name of God. How does one give a sermon, or a prophetic word when one is never sure that it is true? Also, there is a tension if I am the listener of such a word. On the one hand, I am open to hearing and seeing God in the other, but also know that the other always speaks of God in “limping metaphors” (to use C.S. Lewis’ term).

    “it is a wandering into the love of God that affirms our finitude while calling us further up and further into his infinity.” I wonder about this idea of “wandering.” Honestly, it sounds so aimless and blind that it’s not something I want to see myself doing. I much prefer the language of journey, where I at least feel I am going the right direction, though I admit that I often feel more like a confused wanderer than a purposeful sojourner.

  • 2 isaac // Jun 6, 2005 at 4:30 pm

    Jason, thanks for the comment. Thanks for pushing my line of thinking toward concrete practices. It is so easy for me to leave my thoughts open ended, without any mention of what we can do at church. I think your post a few months ago called “Open Source Sermons” might be on to something. Maybe if worship services provided a holy space for communal discernment of the Word. Like at the Mennonite fellowship in which i participate, in that service there is a time after the preaching for those who heard the Word to say whether or not they heard the gospel. So the preacher is not set up as the all-knowing one who stands above the laity and educates from on high. Rather, the focus of the service becomes the way the community recieves the Word. This practice seems to affirm the multiplicity of the body and the ways we need each other to hear all the ways the one God speaks to us. It also displays the way the preacher is one of the priests among all the others, and shows how she or he must answer to this congragation for a mis-spoken word. Isn’t this what the “priesthood of all believers” is all about?

    Now, this is not to say that i think you have to grow dissatisfied with the church in which you find yourself, for whatever reason. Here’s an idea that might make room for what my Mennonite fellowship has to offer at SBCC. Why not suggest that the small group discussion over the assigned passage or topic that will be addressed in the sermon actually follow the sermon. I mean, church meets in small groups during the week that follows the sermon and discerns together how that Word may speak. This might create smaller sites of communal discernment in the midst a large church that doesn’t make room in the sunday service for the church to participate in the proclamation of the Word.

    You astutely picked up on my “wandering” eschatology. Yeah, i guess i am trying to understand the relationship between teleology and eschatology. Or, better said, I wonder if the post-liberal (e.g. Lindbeck, Hauerwas, and narrative theology/ethics in general) read too much of Aristotle’s teleology into what the Bible has to say about eschatology. I say this all very tenatively since i haven’t yet done the hard biblical work to make claims. All i have is a hunch. I wonder if Christian eschatology should follow in the path of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness on the verge of entering into the promised land of Canaan. If we are honest (and it sounds like your feel that “wandering” sounds like a more truthful description than a “journey”), we don’t really have an exhaustive vision of the eschatological consummation of history. (I think we would both agree that John’s Apocalypse doesn’t give us too much to go on, if we want to read it like Hays does). And i think the possible danger is that we form our eschatological vision to fit into a teleology that makes us focus on some sort of future that we have no control over. Maybe this is where Philip Pullman’s tirade in “His Dark Materials” helps us see something about ourselves that we can’t see on our own. He unrelentlessly undercuts a pie-in-the-sky religiosity, a christianity that uses heaven like a hammer (or a Super-ego, to use Freud) to force pious folks into their proper domesticated role under ecclesiatical authority.

    All that to say that i like the way “wandering” captures an immersion in the moment, in the present and the presence of friends and strangers who happen to encounter us. Instead of shaping all our activity according to some conception of a future left to the whim of our imaginitive constructions, why not concieve of the Christian life as a patient dependence on the gracious moments of God’s eschatological providence breaking into the present? So, the whole of the christian life is shaped by a dispossesion of future for the sake of learning to see what God gives us now. But all this is open to disproof by some good biblical exegesis.

    In the meantime, i think imminent eschatological hope is the theme breaking through a bunch of my posts: e.g. “disruptions,” “finding God with/in neighbor,” and “the restless rest of the infinite abyss.”