Yes and then No

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I once asked my Doktorvater George Lindbeck about the great theologian at the University of Chicago, David Tracy. His criticism went like this: he was a man who never said 'no.'  By this he meant that everyone Tracy treated had a place in his system, was part of some larger dialogue, etc. Tracy was all both/ and and no either/ or, but ways on his own terms and part of his project, rather like some amoeba absorbing bits into himself. You have doubtless met folks like that in everyday life.

When it comes the Gospel, Paul tells us that in Jesus Christ it is always a 'Yes' from God (II Corinthians 1:19). And it is important that this be said first in all circumstances. But it then becomes clear that we can only grasp that yes, its import and implications, as we articulate what isn't being said. I am not talking about nay-saying grumpiness, but simply about clarity which requires differentiation. The theologian, Christopher Morse, at Union Seminary wrote a book called 'Not Every Spirit,' in which he claimed that Christian doctrine has in large part a 'fencing' function, as it disbars what we ought not to say.

In this regard I want to propose a way to read our propers. I have in mind first our preachers, but lay people as well. Ask yourself first, about each passage: how is this good news for me and us in Jesus Christ?  But then ask: if this is true, what, as a result, isn't? 

Let me give an example. In John 1:14 we read that the Word of God became flesh and tabernacled with us. It is not hard to hear a great 'Yes' in the divine condescension. But then we see in this decisive act the end of any claims to religious pluralism, to a parity among religions. And all versions of Gnosticism which denigrate the bodily creation are ruled out of court as well. These No's come in the wake of Yes. 

A positive spirit is a good thing, but not at cost of the distinctiveness of Christ's person and work in what is called the 'scandal of particularity.'  Hearing the 'No' that ensues actually helps us really hear the abiding 'Yes.'




Back to Niebuhr

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So finally (and thankfully) we have reached the end of this election season. Maybe it was my imagination, but my fellow voters yesterday were a subdued and somber lot, as well they should be. There have been not a few moments when our national "vaunt has been stilled."  I would not.  We all must pray for a renewal of the civic virtues presumed to some degree in our system.

At the very least we can say this:  we live in a country where the safeguard of free speech still stands, where the foolish or the venal is protected, even if it is decried. In the halls of academia one can no longer assume the defense of this. And of course across the globe it is endangered - witness say Turkey.  

I have been thinking recently about the specifically Christian support for this liberal aspect of our tradition. I believe it was Reinhold Niebuhr, the unofficial canon theologian of the American Cold War era, who said, in thinking about the dispersion of power, that human beings are good enough to make democracy possible and evil enough to make it necessary. Behind this was a distinctly Christian doctrine of the human person. In this our increasingly conflictual era may we hold on to both the commitment and its theological underpinning.




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Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.