By Mother Miriam, CSM
After last summer’s General Convention, many Episcopalians may struggle to remain obedient to church authority when asked to respect decisions that challenge the Faith held since apostolic times. Is there a better frame for the issues of human sexuality that have gradually polarized the Episcopal Church into factions instead of a Christian family?
Walter Brueggemann’s Interpretation and Obedience: From Faithful Reading to Faithful Living (Fortress Press, 1991) caught my eye, as that is exactly the right balance I want to give to God. It is an extended meditation on “obedient interpretation” and “interpretive obedience.” Using his expertise in Old Testament studies, he wrestles with the question of being faithful to biblical authority in a modern cultural context far different from ancient Near Eastern cultures of Israel, Egypt, and Babylon.
Obedient interpretation in the social context of the Western church is to see how the Bible authorizes, evokes, and permits a world that is an alternative to the deathly world of our dominant value system. … Interpretive obedience is an act of imaginative construal to show how the non-negotiable intentions of Yahweh are to be discerned and practiced in our situation, which is so very different from the situations in which those intentions were initially articulated. (p. 1)
I admire Brueggemann’s willingness to engage thinkers who present very different principles and ideas. The engagement of rhetoric allows for a third way of thinking. This is not the frustrating, idealistic Hegelian cycle of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. He aims for a transformative human understanding and obedience of God’s will, applicable to the modern situation.
The place of imagination in adapting our self-referential views of the world with that of the real world is an interesting study of alternatives. We can see it as a third option in young children’s attachment to toys, blankets, even imaginary friends with names. In this imaginative world, they safely sort through their thoughts, desires, and observations to see different possibilities, interests, and worldviews. Imagination illustrates, but it does not directly create. Only when the will is engaged does creation take place.
What is Brueggemann suggesting here that we might apply within ecclesial disputes? On each side of a disagreement, individuals move between concerns for self and perceptions of the real world.
The same agile movement occurs in cultural religion, which moves back and forth between tyrannical orthodoxy and absolute morality on the one hand, and therapeutic indulgence and satiation on the other. The dominant religious alternatives among us are a forceful urging to “get with the program” of patriotism and ideology and a soapy reassurance that we all are OK. What is lacking in that dual picture of religion are the recognitions that holiness dwells precisely in ambiguity, that brothers and sisters who are such a troublesome inconvenience to us are in fact the means and shape of life for us, and that life with, from, and for sister and brother is the only life God gives us. (p. 13)
Brueggemann illustrates his point with lengthy exegeses of Job and Isaiah. Standing before God for an explanation of his disasters, Job takes the “third position” outside of his declared righteousness. “He will encounter; but he will not submit.” God also takes the third position. The wonderful poem beginning Where were you when doesn’t answer Job. It simply states the magnitude of God in comparison to Job.
Breuggemann contrasts the whirlwind encounter of Job (38-40) with Isaiah’s description of God (Isa. 40:12-23). If I didn’t have a Bible in front of me, I would be hard-pressed to distinguish between the writers. “Who has cleft a channel for the torrents of rain, and a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land where no man is?” (Job 38:25-26a). Or “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance?” (Isa. 40:12). In one profound verse immortalized in Handel’s Messiah, Isaiah prefaces his similar declaration of God’s infinitude of power and sovereignty over creation. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young” (Isa. 40:11). This is the point where imagination and experience meet and wrestle to find the third option. Brueggemann is explicit, even as Isaiah is:
The third world is imaginative, but it is imagination of a particular kind, rooted in news of a God who acts, speaks, lives, cares, and frees from and beyond our nightmarishly constructed worlds, beyond our conformity that pretends security, our loneliness that fakes a self without worth or dignity.
Job sees only two choices: to be or not to be. But the voice of God expresses a different world altogether from the finite world of Job and his friends where only a simple dichotomy of reality reigns: good is rewarded and evil punished. God opens a vista beyond human hope. Only Job and the prophets, specifically Isaiah, gladly submit to this God who is always greater than human understanding.
Brueggemann did a careful study of child-development psychologists Paul Pruyser and D.W. Winnicott. They suggest a child matures from an early dominant world of self to a more realistic world of “social expectation and performance, inhabited by demands, requirements definitions, quotas, and the powerful interests of other people” (p. 9). He concluded that our modern technocratic society lives a dualism of economically driven realism and self-driven indulgence. A religion of harsh conformity that crushes or a religion of indulgent self-interest that harbors selfishness seem to be the only alternatives. What could be imagined as a third option?
If one is grounded in the belief that God and the kingdom stand for what is always greater than any parallel fabrication of man, be it Babylonian empire or a secular Western culture, then earthly powers of domination and isolation are rendered powerless. Pain and fear are rendered powerless. They become stepping stones to a place where the last shall be first and the first, last; and where those who lose their lives gain them, and the blessed are “those who are prosecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10).
In another way of expressing the third option of theological imagination, Hans Urs von Balthasar claimed in his seven-volume series The Glory of the Lord that all time — past, present, and future — converges and centers upon the incarnation in its entirety and specifically upon the cross and resurrection. Brueggemann also suggests that in the story of Israel we find our story transposed, as Christians have been doing for more than 2,000 years. St. Irenaeus is esteemed for his interpretation of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection recapitulating the Israelites’ release from bondage at the Passover and their return to Jerusalem from the Babylonian Captivity. Where Israel failed in living into relationship with God through the covenant, Jesus through absolute obedience to the will of God upheld the creation’s side of the covenant. Today’s cultural story for the Christian, therefore, is also recapitulated and redeemed through Christ in the crucifixion and resurrection (cf. Col. 1:15-20).
Can we do better than that? Can we see parallels of this — perhaps in Christ standing in silence before Pilate and the rabble with no answers for them? They were simply incapable of understanding what he had already said and done in his three previous years of itinerant ministry. At the least, we can live contemplatively by the paradox that Brueggemann expresses as “the odd practice through which we may become who we have already been but have never yet dared to be” (p. 24).