Monday, December 16, 2019

Reflections on the Great O Antiphons (2011)

O Antiphons revisited





Latin phrases often evoke strange, and sometimes bizarre, associations for me. At Christ Church Cranbrook in 2011, as I listened to the choir chant the traditional Advent “O Antiphons”, these are some of the random thoughts that occurred to me, and I wrote down… 
O sapientia. O wisdom. O intelligibility. O logic. O sanity. O mathematical equations. O sentence structure and syntax. O coherence and structure and form. If objects are indeed intelligible, “does not the intelligibility of the object presuppose an intelligent ground?” (Bernard Lonergen)“O O O O that Shakespearian Rag—It’s so elegant So intelligent…” (T.S. Eliot) O sapientia, “quae ex ore altissimi prodisti, and covered the earth like a mist.’ (Ecclesiasticus 24:2) O O O O.
O Adonai. O mighty. O fire of the Burning Bush. O consumption unconsumed. O point dimensionless, at which Being emerges, unexplained, from Nothing, at this moment coaxing atoms into material existence from the vortex of whatever whirls at their center, at this moment spinning us off from the limitless center, spinning us off as atomic dervishes, whirling mightily, whirling on the seamless line where Nothing ends…
O radix Jesse. O root. O radish. O turnip. O beet. O rutabaga, O root vegetables of every kind, buried safely under earth and snow, beyond the need for retaliation or revenge, beyond the need to hurt or destroy in all the holy mountain, feeding us far into the winter, feeding us when all other food has failed, feeding us jam noli tardare – never tardy, rarely served in fashionable restaurants, barely noticed by government inspectors, ever abundant, ever prodigal, ever rooted/radix/radical/ and real…
O clavis David. O key. O combination to the lock. O password. “You open and no one closes; you close, and no one opens”. Sedentum in tenebris et umbra mortis… sedimented in darkness and under the umbrella of death… buried under yards of earth alongside the beets and radishes… buried, but here unearthed by the descent of a mighty silence, its power unlocked by chant, loud organ, and this clavis David…
O oriens- O rising dawn. O morning star. Directional orientation for every nomadic tribe, gravitational force without magnetism, center without circumference, beloved of navigators, goal of every compass, hope of the lost …(disoriented in thick woods, I came across my own boot-prints in the snow, consulted my compass, saw how lost I had become, saw, astounded, how much counterintuitivity would be required to become unlost again. From whence did all these benign themes originate? Hope for the lost…release of prisoners… kindness to strangers… peace among peoples… food for the hungry…water in drought-stricken places… a universal vision of gentleness and mutual peace… how did such notions come to swirl together with such force within the literature of one small middle-eastern country?... How do such far-fetched notions come to resonate so powerfully with us still?
O Rex gentium… O ruler of the unruly and the alien, the unbelievers and the unsaved…O rock and cornerstone…lapisque angularis…
Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in lapis lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird,
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instrument.
W.B. Yeats, Lapis Lazuli
We are the long-legged bird, lifted by the music for a bird’s eye view, lifted high above the angle of the rock, our lapisque angularis, which is our listening-post, our perch, our launch pad, and, if we ever hope to come to earth again, our landing-zone. 
O Emmanuel… O God-who-is with, with us, with it …with our children in an unknown future, with these singers in a flourishing past, with us witless pilgrims come from outer space, washed up unexpected on what Holy Isle? 


Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Nearest Kin by Kendell Soulen

R. Kendall Soulen, who teaches theology at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., has focused much of his work on Judaism and Jewish-Christian relations. His bookThe God of Israel and Christian Theology attempts to restate basic Christian convictions in a way that is not supersessionist or triumphalist in relation to Jews. His other books includeAbraham’s Promise (coedited with Michael Wyschogrod) and, most recently,The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity.

Over the past few decades, many theologians and church leaders in mainline Protestant churches have sought to overturn Christian supersessionism—overturn, that is, the tradition of believing that God’s covenant with the Jews has been superseded by the work of Christ, thereby rendering the faith of Jews either irrelevant or pernicious. How do you judge the importance of that movement for Christian theology?
It’s important because it’s about what we think redemption in Christ looks like. Does redemption mean that Christ gives us the favored place at God’s table while kicking some other poor wretch out into the street? Or does Christ’s table have room for old-timers and newcomers alike? The truth is Christians have mostly operated out of the first picture in our relationship with Jews. That’s done damage to Jews, of course, but it’s also distorted who we are as the church. Supersessionism is like a submerged resentment toward our nearest kin that infects all our social relationships. That’s why I think the work of overcoming supersessionism is so important. And by the way, it’s not only mainstream Protestants who have been doing it. It’s Catholics and evangelicals, too.

Many Christians—certainly many evangelical Christians—would say that confessing Christ as Lord is essential for salvation and for being at Christ’s table, and therefore Jews are excluded from the table. How would you respond?
It’s an objection that needs to be taken seriously. Paul himself raises it in Romans 9–11, where he discusses his kinfolk who have rejected the gospel. Paul concludes with a stern warning. The surprise is that the warning is not directed against Jews who reject the gospel, but against gentiles who presume to act as Jesus’ bouncers. That’s a bad idea, Paul thinks, because everyone who is now an “insider” was once an outsider saved by the grace of God. And even those who are presently “outsiders” to the gospel remain the objects of God’s love, not because they deserve it, but because God’s covenant faithfulness is stronger and more encompassing than human sin. It’s a warning the church still needs to pay attention to.

How do you judge the success of the antisupersessionist effort?
Substantial but incomplete. The church’s traditional theology of Judaism grew up over many generations, and I think it will take just as long to live into a more faithful alternative. Still, we have come a long way. In 1938, Pope Pius XI commissioned an encyclical letter to condemn racism in the wake of Hitler’s rise to power. It was never promulgated because of Pius’s death, but the unpublished draft gives us an idea of what many Christians believed at the time. The section on anti-Semitism charged “the Jewish nation” with collective responsibility for Jesus’ death, declared that Jews were doomed “to perpetually wander over the face of the earth” and advised the church to be on guard against “the spiritual dangers to which contact with the Jews can expose souls.” Compare that to the prayer that Pope John Paul II left at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2000. It read: “God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations. We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer. And asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant.” That’s quite a difference.
Can you offer an example of a Christian reading of an Old Testament text that is supersessionist—and then give a nonsupersessionist reading?
Sure. In Jeremiah 31:31–34, the Lord promises to make a “new covenant” that “will not be like the covenant that I made” when he brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt. The Israelites broke the old covenant, but the Lord will write the “new covenant” on “the heart.” A supersessionist reading will interpret this as though it referred to two different peoples or communities. Jews are the people of the old covenant, Christians are the people of the new. A nonsupersessionist reading will notice that the new covenant is between the same two parties as the old: the Lord and “the house of Israel.” The new covenant is the renewal and expansion of an old relationship, not a divorce and a remarriage. In the letter to the Hebrews, the author says the new covenant is better than the old, which is passing away. But like Jeremiah, the author of Hebrews thinks of the new covenant as an expression of the Lord’s fidelity to an ancient relationship.
The Apostles’ Creed makes no mention of Israel, and in the Nicene Creed, Israel appears only via a reference to Israel’s prophets in the section on the Holy Spirit (“who has spoken by the prophets”). For the sake of argument, is there a line you would want to insert in the creeds to stress the proper place within Christian confession of God’s revelation to Israel? How would it read?
Well, I’m in favor of writing new creeds, not modifying old ones. But it is interesting that the first article of the Apostles’ Creed has just one clause, while the second and third each have several. So for the sake of argument I would add two clauses: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, whose image is borne by every child of Eve and Adam, and whose steadfast love for Israel and the nations is without end.”
In The God of Israel and Christian Theologyyou refer to God as the divine consummator—that is, one who works to bring human life to its consummation or fulfillment. Through creation and through God’s covenants with Israel, God seeks to consummate a relationship with humanity. Why refer to consummation rather than redemption?
Because the importance of consummation is more frequently overlooked. Consummation is a way of talking about what God redeems for. It’s God’s overarching purpose for human life. Some biblical realities figure chiefly in God’s work as redeemer, such as Noah’s ark. Once the flood is over, the ark can disappear. Other biblical realities are intrinsic to God’s original goal for creaturely life, such as life in friendship with God and one another. Such realities have no “expiration date.” They are destined to be deepened and glorified forever. I think God’s election of Israel as a blessing to the nations belongs in the latter category. It is not only or even chiefly a way of rescuing the human family from sin, although it is that. It is even more basically about God drawing the whole human family, Jew and gentile, into a deeper friendship with God and one another.
Does this emphasis make God’s work of redemption a subcategory of consummation?
No, in the sense that God’s decision to redeem remains free and gracious in its own right. But yes, in the sense that God redeems for the sake of God’s desire for consummation. Consummation is the overarching plot of Christian faith, and redemption is the central subplot.
This way of putting things is not unique to me, by the way. Most Christian theologians would agree that the reality of evil and our need for redemption are not necessary ingredients in God’s original purposes for creation. God forbid. The difference is that many theologians let God’s work as consummator fade from view after Gen. 1–2, whereas I believe it remains important for interpreting the Bible as a whole.
The Christian doctrine of the atonement, at least in a traditional understanding, posits a breach between God and humanity that can be bridged only through Christ’s work on the cross. Do your nonsupersessionist theology and your references to God as consummator modify that assertion in any way?
I think it would be more accurate to say that traditional views of the atonement (e.g., Athanasius, Anselm, Luther, Barth, etc.) posit a breach that God bridges via the totality of Christ’s person and work, including Christ’s incarnation, resurrection and ascension, and not just via his suffering and death on the cross. If you can accept that revision, then the answer to your question is no, I don’t want to modify tradition. What I do want to modify is our understanding of what Christ’s “at-one-ing” means for the relationship between Jew and gentile. I think it means that Christ rescues this relationship from mutually annihilating curse and re-creates it as a relationship of mutual blessing that is a foretaste of the kingdom of God. I don’t think it means that Christ rescues us from the relationship itself by dissolving or rejecting Israel, as Christians have sometimes thought.
You have said that the Old Testament and God’s history with Israel are constitutive of Christian faith and should not be construed as simply background elements to Christian faith or preludes to faith. Can you give an example of how this conviction might shape a particular sermon or teaching or church practice?
The New Testament is wonderful at portraying the human condition “up close and personal,” as in the story of the woman with a hemorrhage, and again at a cosmic level, as with Paul’s discourse about resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. But a lot of life takes place somewhere between these two extremes, at what we might call the “middle range” of life. I’m thinking about realities like interfamily relations, economics, politics, battles, victory, defeat, migration, drought, childlessness, jealousy, theft, lust, murder, childbirth, betrayal, reconciliation. The Old Testament won’t let us forget that God wants to consummate and redeem this middle range, too.
A little story: At Pope John Paul II’s funeral, during the passing of the peace, Israeli president Moshe Katsav shook hands with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and Iranian president Mohammad Khatami. Later Syria’s state news agency issued a statement saying the handshake was a mere formality that had no political significance. But I think the gesture did have political significance, however unintentional. It was a sign of what the gospel aims to achieve at the middle range of human affairs, namely, reconciliation among earthly enemies. I think it’s precisely the Old Testament that helps keep this dimension of the New Testament alive.
In a sense, the church was defined by the apostle Paul as that assembly where God has put Jews and gentiles together in Christ—without erasing their distinctive identities. Paul assumed that Jewish Christians would retain their distinct identity as followers of the Torah commandments. What does it mean for the church that it exists today—and has for centuries—with a near total absence of Torah-observing Jews in its midst?
Jesus was a Torah-observing Jew, and Christians believe that he still lives in our midst. The same goes for most of the apostles, and they belong to the great cloud of witnesses that accompanies the church on its pilgrimage through time. So in that sense the Christian community has always been and always will be a fellowship of gentile and Torah-observant Jew, whether it gathers on the Nebraska prairie or in Papua, New Guinea. You could say it’s part of our ecclesiastical constitution.
But when the church lacks Torah-observant Jews besides Christ and the apostles, it becomes easier to forget this aspect of who we are. We think of ourselves as a homogenous community of Christians, a “third race” that goes beyond Israel and the nations and makes them obsolete. In reality, of course, the church remains gentile, but it falsely thinks of itself as generically human or generically Christian per se. And that can be a dangerous thing.
Would it be a good thing if there were more Jewish (Torah-observant) Christians? What would this mean for Jewish-Christian relations? Wouldn’t it make those relations more contentious in many ways?
Let me start with your last question: yes, it would be make things more contentious, at least in the short term. Traditionally, church and synagogue were like two glaciers that met in an Alpine meadow. Nothing could grow in between them, because they completely monopolized the real estate. Now, the two communities have receded somewhat, and all sorts of things are sprouting where before there was just ice. Some of those seedlings will disappear, some will adapt and thrive. I think messianic Judaism is one of those seedlings, and time will tell what becomes of it. I myself think that if it does flourish (and I hope it will), it has the potential to strengthen and renew both church and synagogue. In the meantime, though, I think gentile Christians need to take a long time-out from trying to dictate the affairs of Jewish Christians, whether messianic or not.
What difference does the existence of the state of Israel as a homeland for the covenant people of God make for Christians as they relate to Jews? Put another way: What significance, if any, does the state of Israel have for Christians as they affirm God’s ongoing covenant with Jews?
I think it’s a mistake to invest the state of Israel with theological significance per se. What has theological significance is the presence or absence of peace, justice and mutual blessing between all the families of the earth, and that includes Israel and its neighbors, both near and far. For centuries, Jews have lived in a world that has many sovereign homelands for Christians and Muslims. Now, Christians and Muslims need to find a way to live peaceably in a world with one homeland for Jews. Can Christians and Muslims rise to that challenge? I think that’s the theological test our communities face. Jews face a challenge, too, of course—of exercising national sovereignty in a way that makes possible a peaceable and flourishing Palestine. Might Christians, Jews and Muslims learn from each other, from our respective histories of successes and failures, about how this can be done in our age? I think we can, with God’s help.
The reference to homeland raises a further question about the land. A specific bit of geography is important in Jews’ understandings of their life with God more than any specific land is for Christians. How should a Christians understand this difference?
Is it really the case that Christians around the globe are less concerned with specific bits of geography than Jews are? Or is it just easier for us to take our relationship to “our” bits for granted in a way that Jews cannot? Judaism’s relationship to the land is indeed unique, partly because the scriptures teach that the land belongs first not to the people, king or state but to God. But from a biblical point of view, the same is really true of all lands. “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” Judaism forces Jews to reflect routinely on what it means to live faithfully in a land that belongs not to them but to God. I think Christians would benefit from more reflection along those lines.
Is there any possible theological downside to the antisupersessionist movement for Christians—or any caution lights you would post?
All theological movements have potential downsides. A danger that has faced many worthy theological initiatives of the past several decades—I’m thinking not only of postsupersessionism, but of feminist theology, liberation theology, postcolonialism, and the like—is that their sense of spiritual and moral urgency has sometimes led them to give up too quickly on the historic commitments of creedal Christianity. But it’s also dangerous to confuse fidelity to the gospel with the repristination of tradition and a refusal to repent and rethink. There’s a lot of that on the scene today, too, I’m afraid. The theological sweet spot is when discerning the signs of the times leads toward a deeper and more robust comprehension of the christological and trinitarian heart of Christian faith. I think that theologians who heed Paul’s warning in Romans 11 that Israel remains God’s beloved, too, are more apt to hit that sweet spot than theologians who continue to ignore it.
Copyright © 2013 by the Christian Century. Nearest Kin - R. Kendall Soulen on Christians and Jews by David Heim is reprinted by permission from the June 04, 2013, issue of the Christian Centurywww.christiancentury.org
Posted 19th August 2013 by Unknown
Labels: Scrap.Theology
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Wednesday, September 11, 2019

3 articles on traditioned innovation from Faith and Leadership


3 Articles on TRADITIONED INNOVATION FROM DUKE UNIVERSITY “FAITH AND LEADERSHIP”

A way of thinking and being that holds the past and future in tension, not in opposition, is crucial to the growth and vitality of Christian institutions. L. Gregory Jones explains the phrase he coined.
Monday, January 19, 2009
The church is stuck in a war between “We’ve always done it that way” and “The future is about leading change.”
Consider worship. In response to those ritual fundamentalists who insisted that nothing (especially music) change, innovators created “contemporary” worship services. But those services became so unfamiliar that people now long for opportunities to sing the “old familiar” contemporary songs, such as “Lord, I Lift your Name on High.”
In businesses and other organizations, including Christian ones, the traditionalists are so stuck in their ways that they drive reasonable people toward change for its own sake. People obsessed with change create such chaos that reasonable people long for some form of stability. And so the pendulum swings between traditionalist strategies and innovative ones, causing organizations and leaders, people and cultures, to suffer.
It is a return to Christian thinking that offers the best way forward.
A colleague and friend who studies social entrepreneurship helped me come to this conclusion. He wondered why, over the course of the last couple of centuries in America, the best socially entrepreneurial organizations had consistently been faith-based, especially if they developed significant scale and scope. He had in mind organizations such as Goodwill, Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity. He was thinking of faith-based hospitals, schools and, more recently, hospice organizations. Only in the last 25 years, he noted, had social entrepreneurship become relatively secular. What has happened in the church?
His question got me reading about social entrepreneurship, a relatively new area of scholarship and study in business schools. Amid a lot of ideas that had Christian resonance, I was struck by an emerging debate about “newness.” Can an existing organization do social entrepreneurship, or does it always require a new structure? It seemed to be a misplaced debate to me -- after all, Christian organizations and churches have long engaged in innovation within our existing structures. We have typically called it bearing witness to the Holy Spirit, the One who is “making all things new.”
Christian leaders are called to a particular type of social entrepreneurship -- one that does not force us to choose preserving tradition or leading change, but thinking about them together. We are called to “traditioned innovation” as a pattern of thinking, bearing witness to the Holy Spirit who is conforming us to Christ. I asked a New Testament scholar what came to mind when he heard that phrase. He said, “The New Testament. Indeed, the whole of Scripture.” The best way to interpret the book of Acts, or Paul’s account of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians, is a process of discernment rooted in traditioned innovation. How do we integrate the transformative work of Christ into our ongoing identity as the people of God rooted in biblical Israel’s calling?
In our thinking as well as our living, we are oriented toward our end, our telos: bearing witness to the reign of God. That is what compels innovation. But our end is also our beginning, because we are called to bear witness to the redemptive work of Christ who is the Word that created the world. We are the carriers of that which has gone before us so we can bear witness faithfully to the future.
Tradition is fundamentally different from traditionalism. Jaroslav Pelikan, in “The Vindication of Tradition,” characterized the difference when he wrote, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” People who bear a tradition are called to be relentlessly innovative in ways that preserve the life-giving character of the tradition.
We need not rely only on patterns within Scripture, or even the practices of the church, however, to appreciate the significance of traditioned innovation as a way of thinking. Biologists such as Marc Kirschner and John Gerhart, in their “The Plausibility of Life,” have compellingly argued that organisms must preserve significant features of their processes while changing others. A great surprise of modern biology, they suggest, has been how important conservation is to the process of adaptive change.
So also with institutions. We do not need radical change. The task of transformative leadership is not simply to “lead change.” Transformative leaders know what to preserve as well as what to change. We need to conserve wisdom even as we explore risk-taking mission and service. Too much change creates chaos. Transformative change, rooted in tradition and the preservation of wisdom, cultivates the adaptive work that is crucial to the ongoing vitality and growth of any organism, Christian institutions included.
Sometimes that will mean we innovate within existing institutions; at other times we will allow some forms to die so that other ones can rise up in their place. And at still other times we will give birth to new forms to address challenges and opportunities. But even our most dramatic transformations ought to be tethered to our most life-giving past.
There are few things we have “always” done in any particular way, and there are even fewer things that we want “always” to change. Perhaps we can do better than a cease-fire in these culture wars. Instead, transformative leaders should adopt traditioned innovation as a pattern of thinking that will help cultivate thriving communities. It would be a welcome change.
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Dean, Duke Divinity School

Mural of Nelson Mandela in Brooklyn
Understanding the New Testament requires grounding in the tradition of the Old Testament. The book of Leviticus and the Sermon on the Mount illustrate that the New is the fulfillment of the Old, writes C. Kavin Rowe.
Monday, October 26, 2009
Few ideas are more incorrect in popular Christian thinking than the belief that the New Testament essentially renders the Old Testament unnecessary. To be sure, it’s not usually said straight out like this. But one nevertheless can see it clearly in the common idea that the God of the Old Testament is somehow different from the God of the New (wrath vs. grace), or in vague charges of legalism slung at those who try to obey some of the Old Testament commandments, or -- most prominently -- in the overall failure of Christian churches to read and preach from the Old Testament on a regular basis.
In a way, these problems are understandable. Reading the Old Testament is hard work for Christians. And many leaders have much else on their plate. Still, it is literally inconceivable that the New Testament can be well understood without the Old, or that Christians could develop the depth of theological leadership we need without understanding the most basic relation between the Old and New Testaments. The New depends upon the theological traditions of the Old for its innovation. The innovation, that is to say, is not against its preceding tradition but is a fulfillment of that tradition -- even as it reorganizes the tradition’s theological purpose around the person of Jesus Christ.
Of the manifold ways in which we could show how traditioned innovation names well the relation of the Old and New Testaments, we will focus on only two: the book of Leviticus and the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew.
First, Leviticus: Contrary to our initial impressions of an overly precise or even burdensome legal code, the book of Leviticus is at its heart missionary theology. It displays the intricate patterns of life that constitute the Jewish people, that mark them off from the non-Jews and, therefore, allow them to witness by their practices to their election by the God of Israel. Leviticus was, in short, a gift from God to shape the Jews into his people.
To realize that Leviticus was the fundament of Jewish practice and not casuistic prattle -- as so many Christians now cannot help but to take it -- is to become astonished at the almost complete absence of these kind of legal regulations in the New Testament, most especially those concerning the sacrificial cult (such as the different kinds of sacrifices we need to make, when to make them, with what animals and for what sins). Indeed, with the exception of the theology of Hebrews, and aside from a few oblique references to sacrifice, the entire sacrificial cult is missing from the pages of the New Testament. On one level, of course, the New Testament authors simply assumed the importance of the Temple and its practices, as did Jesus himself (think, for example, of the beginning and end of the Gospel of Luke where there is a marked emphasis on the Jerusalem Temple). On another level, however, Jesus’ death is interpreted as the “once for all” sacrifice (Hebrews 10:10), thereby implying that the entire cult was in a sense oriented toward this one death. Sin offerings no longer are necessary because, as the Gospel of John puts it, Jesus is the Lamb whose death takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).
On the face of it, there is nothing in the intricacies of Leviticus, or anywhere else in the vast sprawl of the Old Testament, that could prepare for this. It is, quite simply, new.
Moreover, in Pauline theology and elsewhere in the New Testament (such as the book of Acts), the practice of the Law (Torah) no longer constitutes the primary socio-political or cultural boundary marker between Jews and non-Jews. Rather, being a disciple of Jesus Christ -- which of course entails joining the community that takes his name -- is the requisite criterion that now marks the people of God. Thus, in a twofold and profound sense, Jesus radically exceeds the Old Testament’s immediate theological range envisioned by the practice of Torah.
And yet the New Testament also claims that Jesus fulfills the Law and that there is no fundamental break with Jewish tradition. The transformation of Torah hence is tied more deeply to a unity in the purpose of God: to create a people who would be the light to the nations and thereby provoke them to worship the one true God. The same divine purpose that was at work in the giving of Leviticus has crystallized in Jesus. He is, as Luke formulates it both in his Gospel and in Acts, the light to the Gentiles. In Jesus Christ and the community that is gathered around its devotion to him, the moment for which Torah was given and exists has arrived. Jesus Christ, as Paul says, is the telos of the Law (Romans 10:4). In this case, drastic innovation discloses the inner logic and fullness of tradition.
Second, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): It is often thought that the six antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount provide examples of Jesus’ opposition to the Jewish law. In this common reading, “You have heard it said” is the tradition from which Jesus’ innovative “But I say to you” cleanly breaks. But this is simply false. It was not against the Law to require more than the Law itself required. In fact, nothing Jesus says runs contrary to the Torah in its written or oral traditions. What then is he doing? Matthew tells us explicitly just prior to the antitheses: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). The antitheses, then, actually are instances of fulfillment of the Law.
Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is paradigmatic for thinking about the link between a living tradition and the innovation necessary to keep it alive. Jesus discerned that the existing tradition (“you have heard it said”) was insufficient to the task at hand; the time had changed and the tradition as it presently stood no longer resulted in the formation of “righteous” people (“righteous/ness” is shorthand in Matthew for a life of discipleship in the kingdom; 5:20). What was needed in this new time -- the “Kingdom of Heaven” in Matthean parlance -- was a move into a more radical mode of life. Only so could the tradition stay in step with the telos to which it was oriented: thus “fulfillment” in Matthew means the way in which Jesus innovatively and faithfully extends Jewish tradition to accord with the change of the times -- the advent of the Kingdom of Heaven.
By being both innovative and faithful to tradition, we follow the pattern of the creating and redeeming God of Scripture, writes C. Kavin Rowe.
Monday, March 16, 2009
Churches, schools, businesses, families -- all areas of human life -- face the question of how to live toward the future in light of the past. Leaders will live out their answer to this question by the way they conceive of the world. Inevitably some will say “everything must change” and others,  that “things ought to be done as they always have been.” But neither is a real or even desirable option, for the world in which these pronouncements make sense does not exist.
Considered theologically, the future and the past belong together, tradition and innovation hand in hand. Traditioned innovation is a way of thinking and living that points toward the future in light of the past, a habit of being that requires both a deep fidelity to the tradition that has borne us to the present and a radical openness to the innovations that will carry us forward. Traditioned innovation names an inner-biblical way of thinking theologically about the texture of human life in the context of God’s gracious and redemptive self-disclosure.
The Bible is a vast, sprawling book replete with countless winding trails. Navigating its story is best done with a compass whose points are creation, fall, election, redemption and consummation -- the theological framework in which traditioned innovation gets its meaning.
Creation: Creation is the original innovation. God begins the world’s life out of nothing. Creation is thus the moment of givenness, that which provides the “tradition” upon which all human innovation is founded and dependent -- the giving of life by God. We cannot make ourselves. In the face of modern claims to self-autonomy, self-made people, radical freedom from limits and the like, the book of Genesis lays bare the fact that we are always preceded. All human endeavors enter the world in a context of a fundamentally prior reality. In this sense, failure to attend to the traditions that come before us and shape us is a failure to acknowledge the depth of our dependency as created beings.
The flight from givenness inevitably involves wreckage because it wipes away an essential feature of what it means to be human. The attempt at “pure innovation,” the doing away with all tradition, is ultimately an inhuman and impossible endeavor, one that shapes its practitioners and victims alike into something far less than human beings were created to be. Pure innovation simultaneously negates the givenness that underwrites human existence as such -- the fact that we are here at all, rather than not -- and the ethical demand of this givenness: the need to recognize our historically and materially deep ties to all created life. From first to last, human beings are tradition-dependent.
Fall: The narrative in Genesis of the fall powerfully illustrates that the givenness of creation is no longer simply good. It has become fractured by our refusal to acknowledge our ultimate dependency on the world God made and our attempt to become self-made creatures -- as the Bible puts it, “to know as God knows.” Recognizing the destruction that occurs when we deny our embeddedness in created life should cause us to be wary of attempts to dispense with everything in the past (regardless of the particular shape or kind of institution). “Everything” cannot change. We cannot rid ourselves of the world.
And yet, the fall also points directly to the necessity of innovation. Tradition is no longer sufficiently sustaining in itself. We cannot simply declare, in imitation of God’s view of original creation, “this is good.” And, therefore, we cannot fully rest. We must toil and move on. The character of fallen creation forces us to improvise, to try to move again within the goodness of God’s originating purpose. Innovation thus becomes a necessary way of life in a world of sin and shortcoming, of brokenness and the need for new life. Adam and Eve must make their way outside the garden.
Election: The election of Abraham illustrates paradigmatically how God responds to the way we have marred the goodness of the gift. Instead of destroying his creation, we can see God’s overarching response in the Old Testament in the calling of a people whose vocation is at once to embody the enduring goodness of the gift and to testify to the universal need for redemption. God does not, that is, simply scrap the world and make it all over again. Rather, God innovates. He responds to the brokenness of the world with a creative, new act -- indeed, one that could not, at least on the face of it, have been anticipated from the primeval history in Genesis.
This divine pattern of innovation on the basis of tradition is repeated throughout the Old Testament, perhaps most apparently in the giving of the Torah (Law). The Torah is the defining feature of Israel’s life. Israel would be indistinguishable from the nations without it. But this does not mean that the Law was seen as a static deposit of rules -- a kind of inflexible, unworkable and ultimately unlivable way of life. To the contrary, the mere existence of the book of Deuteronomy -- the name literally means the “second law” -- presses the point that to know the Law rightly is to grasp its fecundity for new situations. The Torah is living tradition. As even the author of Lamentations might have put it, the Law is not only tradition from of old. It is also new every morning.
Redemption: To think about redemption in the biblical sense is to see that this divine pattern of “newness without completely throwing away the old” culminates in Jesus Christ. According to the New Testament, God recreates the world in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Those who live in the pattern of life made possible by this death and resurrection participate most fully in the newness of the world. Whoever is in Christ, says Paul, is a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). In Christ, that is, the innovation of God is at its peak. In Christ, he remakes the foundations of human life in the very midst of the ongoing, long-running and everyday traditions of the world.
Yet the discontinuity -- the creation of a new world -- includes, rather than excludes, a continuity with what preceded Jesus. The Law and the Prophets testify to the coming of the Christ, even as that coming itself provides a new foundation on which the life promised by the Law and Prophets ultimately depends. Christ is not the “end (telos) of the Law” (Romans 10:4) in the sense of terminating it or displacing its reality, but is instead the deepest purpose or goal (telos) of the Law, that toward which it points or strives. In short, new creation does not abrogate the old but takes it up inside the new and in so doing remakes it. Tradition literally is made new on the basis of God’s innovation.
Focusing on redemption thus discloses a productive tension that marks all life until the end. To remain in what is already known of the tradition is to refuse the priority of new creation; and yet, that which is new includes the old. Radical innovation? Yes. Radical continuity with tradition? Yes.
Consummation: Consummation points to the hope that creation and redemption will finally coincide, that the world’s traditions will, as it were, catch up with the reality of a cosmos remade -- that God’s founding innovation and tradition will be one with his most radical innovation in Jesus Christ.
Thinking about traditioned innovation in light of the hope of consummation shows that tradition and innovation are not finally two different ways of being in the world. They are instead a helpful way to speak about the fundamental manner in which the Triune God graciously relates to the world he made and to which, in the face of its profound brokenness, he remains everlastingly committed -- anew. We cannot think, therefore, that tradition and innovation are opposites. In the Bible, tradition and innovation are realities of our common human life, inseparable aspects of participating in the world God made and is redeeming. Tradition and innovation go together in the divine purpose that leads toward the final restoration of God’s good creation.
To the extent that we both remain faithful to tradition and innovate -- even radically -- we will follow the pattern of the creating and redeeming God of Scripture, and will, therefore, flourish. This is not to say that the flourishing of human life will be apparent immediately to us in the present. After all, flourishing in the biblical sense is frequently counterintuitive. Israel wandered for 40 years in the desert, Moses never made it to the promised land and Jesus was killed -- to take only a few striking examples. But it is to say that the underlying and ultimate purpose to which our lives will be oriented will be in harmony with the work of the God of the Bible.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

In memory of Chris Nunn, friend and fisherman


Dearly Beloved mother, children, and friends of my friend Chris Nunn. It grieves me not to be present with you as Chris was a friend who deserves the highest possible honors and the greatest measure of respect. He would understand, as I hope you do also, that my prior commitment to preside at a wedding has to be precedence.
Chris taught me a lot about fishing and hunting, and every time I wade into the Au Sable or some other stream I am listening in my head to his running commentary on water conditions, what bugs are hatching, or some fish he had caught in that particular spot at some time in the past. Sometimes I could barely believe what he was saying- like the time he took me on a back road somewhere Up North and stopped his truck at a place where a small stream ran under the road through a metal culvert about 8 feet in diameter. Chris put a night crawler on a small hook at the end of my line and told me to let it drift down stream into the darkness under the road. Of course, within a few seconds I had caught a 9” brook trout.
How had Chris discovered this unlikely fishing spot? It seems he spent every waking moment on the lookout for places where brook trout, or pheasants, or grouse, or steelhead might congregate, places no one else would ever dream of.
Another such place was on the Black River, where Chris took his Dad and I one winter day in search of steelhead. Chris parked by a sign that read, “No trespassing. No Fishing.” “Don’t worry,” Chris assured us before heading off through the woods, “I know the guy”. Larry and I set off on a different path, looking for a place to access the river. After we had walked awhile a stranger came running through the woods behind us. “You guys are under arrest for trespassing and resisting arrest.” Resisting arrest? Larry explained that his son “knew the guy”, and the man said, “I AM ‘the guy’, and I have given permission to no one.” I guess he realized we were harmless because all he did was walk us back to the truck and then drive away. When Chris emerged from the woods he said, “what was all that about?” We told him it was part of his plan to get his father and his priest locked up.
That wasn’t really a plan on his part, but he DID try to pull a trick on Larry and the other old time hunters on opening day of pheasant season a number of years ago. On the night before opening day he called to tell me that he had purchased some farm-raised pheasants and released them in the field where we would be hunting the next morning. “Don’t tell my dad,” he said, “I want to hear what they have to say about “the birds are coming back almost like they used to be in the 1940’s”. Sure enough, the next morning the dogs were flushing an unusual number of pheasants as we walked across the field, and Larry was commenting about it and making reference to 1941 or 1942 when a pheasant flushed right in front of us, but before either Larry or I could raise our guns the dog jumped up and caught the bird in his mouth! “That is not a wild bird, “ Larry announced, “Chris, did you put tame pheasants in this field”? So the truth was out.
So Chris taught me a lot about hunting and fishing, but he also taught me about heaven. I don’t mean a place up in the sky, but as in “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” I mean when life is as it should be, and the walls that separate us are finally broken down. It seems Chris was always trying to organize the most epic of all fishing trips, an expedition to the most perfect fishing spot involving all the people he liked to fish with. One such place he talked about was a nameless stream somewhere in Canada where, he said, we would hitch a ride on a freight train through the wilderness and have them stop the train to let us off beside a bend in that stream, and we would camp there and fish for days until the train came back. “Jon”, he said with intense conviction, “those brook trout are 18” long!” That trip was too ambitious and too long for me to undertake, but I have formed a mental image of that place, where the brook trout are huge and a river runs through it. Now, of course, my mental image includes Chris, stirring up the campfire and watching for the rest of us to arrive. Larry is already there with him.
We don’t have to search for that place in the wilds of Canada because we are already there. In one place in his writings St. Paul wrote, “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” Neither height nor depth, time nor eternity, sickness nor even death can separate us from the love that Chris made known to us as a parent, a son, an outdoorsman, and a friend.
Thanks for letting me be a part of your gathering today. “Into your hands, O Lord, we commend your servant Chris. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.”


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