Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Comment on "Brueggemann's swing and a miss”

I have left the comment below on the August 5, 2009, post, “Brueggemann's swing and a miss,” on the blog, “Cyber Spirit Café”

Walter Brueggemann is the most respected Old Testament scholar active today, so his comments carry great weight, but his ambivalent crusade against historical criticism of the Bible gives the appearance of floundering: He writes that historical criticism undermines the church’s “textual memory.” However, it’s not going away, even if we bury our heads in the sand. The question is how should the church deal with historical criticism?
The presence of historical criticism in the life of the church has long been a preoccupation of Brueggemann’s. I was particularly struck by this in an otherwise magisterial review of Jon D. Levenson’s, “Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life” in the February 6, 2007, issue of “Christian Century.” In the review, Brueggemann writes that Levenson makes three main points. The first is “…faith in resurrection, when we have the courage to overcome the intrusiveness of Enlightenment rationality, is vigorous and central to both Jews and Christians.” I was so struck by this idea of overcoming the Enlightenment that I wrote a letter (unpublished) to the “Christian Century” about it. In it I ask, “How do we overcome the intrusive Enlightenment?” I go on to assert that, “Surely, we won’t by going down the dead-end road of fundamentalism.” I then offer a method by which moderns can embrace the frankly supernatural resurrection without abandoning rationality. This is the idea suggested by Paul Ricoeur’s “hermeneutic circle” in “The Symbolism of Evil.” He suggests that we moderns have lost our immediacy of belief, but we can aim at a second, post-critical naïveté in and through critical thinking. By interpreting, we can hear again. In hermeneutics, the symbol’s gift of meaning and the endeavor to understand by deciphering are knotted together. In the circle: “We must understand in order to believe, but we must believe in order to understand.”
Another idea may amplify this. Don Cupitt, the English theologian, has written in “Radicals and the Future of the Church” that the church is needed because “It is a theatre in which we solemnly enact our deepest feelings.” In the theater we usually naturally and easily suspend disbelief to enter into the world of the actors who by speech and action on stage in turn evoke in us actions, feelings, experiences and thoughts. So, likewise, during a religious service we may also suspend disbelief, and have religious feelings and experiences. In fact, following Schleiermacher, it is via our feelings aroused by worship that the Holy Spirit comes to us and guides our actions. This is in keeping with the classic Christian idea that Word and Sacraments are objective. We have the promise that if we attend to them, God is present to us through them. So, those worshipping should be intentional about entering the realm in which the Spirit is promised to be available to us. In worship we should seek the Spirit’s presence to strengthen us in our lives. So the questions to ask about the Biblical narratives are not about their historicity, albeit these questions are fascinating, but rather about whether these narratives are vehicles for the Holy Spirit to enlighten and enable good works in our lives. Of course, the Holy Spirit is Other. When we enter into worship, we are following the Spirit’s lead; we cannot control what happens. It is this very lack of human control that permits us to glimpse fleetingly and incompletely something of God. Thus we trust the promise of God’s resurrection knowing full well that it cannot be accommodated within rational thought. Like everything important in life, we trust the promise often with only the dimmest comprehension or certainty.


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