This coming Sunday (Sept. 14) I will try to apply Walter Brueggemann’s concepts of “Forgiveness and Neighborliness” to the epistle and gospel of the day, speaking during the 11 a.m. worship of Ormewood Park Presbyterian Church here in Atlanta. For other engagements in Georgia and Maryland, please scroll down to “upcoming events” on my homepage.
Whenever I read Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann, I am reminded of how much I do not know. Presently I’m reading The Covenanted Self, a book of his essays exploring the theme of covenant, edited by Patrick D. Miller.
“I understand covenant in our own time and place to be a radical alternative to consumer autonomy,” Brueggemann prophetically writes in the very first paragraph of the very first essay. Amen!
Drawing on Jewish wisdom, narrative, and liturgy, he asserts that “spirituality is the enterprise of coming to terms with the other in a way that is neither excessively submissive nor excessively resistant.” By “the other” he means both God and neighbor, and the “neighbor” is the church, the world, and we could say, the universe.
While acknowledging the possibility of presenting a “false self” to manipulate either God or people (what he refers to as “a life of bribery”), relations with God or others that have a “dual capacity to assert and to yield” [emphasis his] are “liberated, healthy, [and] evangelical.”
“My simple observation is that Israel learned to relate to this God of threat and gift by the sustained, delicate practice of praise and complaint. … I read the Psalter as a dialectic of self-assertion in complaint and self-abandonment in praise” [emphasis his].
Thus I suggest that covenanting (and spirituality) consists in learning the skills and sensitivities that include both the courage to assert self and the grace to abandon self to another. Such covenanting recognizes that both parties have claims to make, and that one must learn the right time in which to pursue and honor each claim, and then have the confident, unencumbered freedom to move in both directions. My sense about much of theological education is that we tend to be either piously deferential or brazenly self-preoccupied, but neither alone leads to a “true self” nor to a faithful covenant.
Further, this covenanting also occurs “within the self or among the selves,” an ongoing “process [that] admits of no settled self, because the self is always reengaging self in an ongoing covenanting exercise.”
That’s kind of a relief to hear.
You’ve probably seen the bumper sticker that reads, “May I be the person my dog thinks I am.”
With its understanding of original blessing, Celtic Christianity’s version could read, “May I be the person God thinks I am.”
Well, while not exactly The Three Faces of Eve, I find myself holding in tension my progressive, Christian, and reflective selves every day, not just when I write this blog. I daresay that’s true of most of you who read this. In homage to the late Joan Rivers, she advised, “It doesn’t get better. You get better.”
Covenant also means it’s never “all about us.” Referring to five major thinkers of the early 20th century who wrote independently of the same concept, Brueggemann writes:
“The dialogical principle” is the insistence that the self is always a self in relation, and therefore reality is at core a relational interaction: that is, no autonomous, fixed, self-sufficient self. Most radically the principle may even suggest that not even God may be understood as an autonomous, self-sufficient agent, but is always known in a relational interaction that impinges even upon the character of God.
Science reminds us that everything that is interacts continually. Spirituality asserts the intentionality of these interactions, and “covenant” is a good metaphor for this, meaning simply we belong to one another and there’s no such thing as “going it alone.”
A previous post citing Walter Brueggemann: “Bad Theology”
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