Two Narratives Parted in a Wood, Especially as Seen in Preaching

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Below is the final chapter, that I decided not to include in my pastoral letter



   This essay began with a practical occasion, the question of same-sex marriage approved in the Episcopal Church, and it will conclude with some more practical commitments.  But the vocation I have described must be wider than one issue. I have already mentioned how a welter of other questions are before the Church: the triune Name, communion for the unbaptized, the offense that atonement - and sin - terminology, and the term ‘Lord,’ pose for some. The list goes on, but these are not best understood, seriatim, as ‘issues’ which we campaign for or against.  Nor do things line up perfectly: some who favor the marriage revision oppose the other changes, for example.  Moving past the one presenting issue complexifies the problem before us and requires us to ask some wide-ranging questions.   Here is a more general, but no less important, question:  how did we get here? How can there be such divergences in our understanding of things we hold in common?  To be sure, there have been debates and conflicts in the Church since Paul wrote his epistles. To be sure, disagreements are influenced by many factors, political, social, psychological.  People don’t just sit down and get to their commitments by syllogism.  But modes of thinking that are in the air do have their effect, and that is what we want to reflect on in this chapter.  Whence our differing modes of theological approach?

     Throughout the centuries of the Church’s life, preachers and teachers have interpreted the stories and instructions of the Bible. And because it was God’s Word, they assumed that it was true, and more profoundly so than other writings; it could be simultaneously true at different levels and in different ways. It could convey a reliable account of something that happened, but at the same time tell us something about who Christ is, something about how things will be at the end, and something about how we, in turn, ought to think and act.  This is called the ‘plenitude of sense’, that is, the multi-leveled fullness of the Bible’s truth. So, Jesus heals the leper. At the same time, the story tells us how we will hope for transformation to the perfect wholeness on the Last Day, and, in the meantime, how conversion has healed my feelings, or memories, or intentions. It is easy to see how these senses pop up in different degrees in sermons, as they should. 

      But an important shift takes place in the modern era. Perhaps it was under the influence of science, or changes in the social order. It comes to be assumed that God is unknowable, and our own knowing is limited to the things of time and space. (To be sure, the ancients agreed with both these, but also believed He made Himself known in a way ‘accommodated’ to our condition).  If there is such a gulf fixed between knowing God and knowing ourselves, then what is religion to do?[1]

       At this point I want to introduce the figure of Friedrich Schleiermacher, a German Protestant writer and teacher in the early 19th Century.  He was apparently a stubborn sort - I once read that he insisted on lecturing, at the University of Berlin, at the same hour as his ‘rock-star’ rival Hegel, as a result of which he had only a handful of students.  But his writings caused wider ripples, The most famous was titled On Religion: For its Cultured Despisers.  In the title he sets forth his goal, which is surely recognizable to us, to put in a good word for religion to an elite which thinks it is beyond all that.  It was as if he were saying ‘don’t reject it all so easily, it isn’t really saying what you think…no, it’s saying something much closer to what you already think, if only you would learn how to hear it.”  But, as you can see, the danger is that one might end up reducing the Word to its context in order to ‘save’ it.

       Schleiermacher, in his later writings, showed how theological terms, Trinity, atonement, judgment, were really terms, not about God per se, but about us as we experience ourselves in light of the infinite.  This is not so very different from how  traditional preaching described something happened inside us similar to what happened in the story outside of us.[2]  The trouble is that this is no longer one ‘sense,’ alongside the narrative and the theological senses, but it now takes center-stage.  The Bible is really about us, albeit, as we face toward God. That is a revolution as dramatic as the Copernican, though it has, as I have noted, a dimension of truth in it.  Traditionally, the resurrection of Jesus happened, though how it did so, and the full dimensions of its doing so, we grapple to understand, and as a result, we can see how our minds and hearts are ‘raised’.[3]  But now ‘resurrection’ is a symbol for new hope springing up in my life. This application to ourselves becomes the main thing. 

      Schleiermacher primarily found in traditional language about God a description of our hearts, our inner states.  Again, this was not altogether new, for the pietists (the early evangelicals) were interested in the states of the heart, relevant as they were to conversion. Think here of the emotionalism of revival religion.  The change was that the effects had become the main thing. In fact, Schleiermacher described himself as a ‘pietist of a higher order,’ a kind of uptown revivalist[4]. It is easy to see where this trajectory would lead. Consider for example how many preachers have translated the language of salvation into psychological terms, in the baldest sense making salvation into affirmation, insight, or emotional maturity.  Don’t get me wrong, where the Holy Spirit is at work, people are healed, including their emotions or memories.  But there is a loss where the preacher tries a one-for-one correlation.[5] ‘Seek first the Kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.’[6], but that doesn’t mean those added things are the Kingdom sought.

       I am making some sweeping generalizations, and things don’t usually break down into ‘either/ors’ so neatly in life. But there remains something to what I am saying. I have given this section the Frostian title, ‘two narratives diverge…’  You can see how this different way of interpreting does map out a distinct, though related, alternative story lines, one dealing with our own transformation, for which the Biblical story becomes, at worst, a kind of colorful fable.[7]  You can see how all of this requires of us as preachers and hearers a sense of order and proportion, to keep first things first, to make sure ‘what the Lord has done for me’ is most of all about Him.

         Now the description of our inner states, of our feelings, is not the only type of ‘re-narrating’ that took place.  Another trajectory re-described salvation in more societal and political terms.  This has come to have more liberal and more radical sub-categories, but the idea is the same:  The Biblical narrative may be best translated as liberation.  Clearly liberation is a Biblical idea, with his prime warrant in the Exodus narrative. And there are plenty of examples of the moral sense of Scripture having powerful political effects which we would applaud.  It was from Scripture that the evangelical energy for abolition was derived, from Scripture that the earlier voice of protest against the dehumanization of indigenous people in the Americas of de las Casas was raised.[8]  Liberation theology began from within the matrix of Roman Catholic doctrine and theology in figures like Gutierrez or Boff, and found expression in some like Rene Padilla among evangelicals; these are all serious Christian voices.[9]  Still, it runs the risk of offering an underlying narrative, what the story is ‘really’ about, politically, that overwhelms the Biblical ‘grand narrative’ itself.  We all have at times heard this kind of preaching too.

       The great Reformed theologian in the 20th Century, Karl Barth, once said that ‘speaking about God is not speaking about the human in a loud voice.’  The human is all we know, except…for the revelation of God we are given in Scripture.  Of course preaching must seek out examples that are human, like its hearers- until we discover those Martians, it’s the only option we have.  But preaching is not simply self-help, or political organizing, creative writing, of a higher order.  It attends to describing, as best it can, what the passage tells us about who Jesus Christ is, which invariably leads to who He is ‘for us.’ Then we do indeed have ‘all these things added unto’ us, political, psychological, contemplative, but none of them quite as we expected.

[1] For those recalling their college philosophy days, I have in mind the change that Kant’s philosophy of knowing brought about.

[2] the technical term is the ‘tropological.’

[3] Colossians 3:1

[4] cite

[5] The term is that of Paul Tillich, a 20th century theologian influential for our Church; he was more subtle than this, but what followed in his wake often was not.

[6] matthew

[7] The philosopher Hegel said the Bible was ‘picture thinking,’ which, when properly decoded, led to…his own system!

[8] cite

[9] cite