Fireground, Adelaide Hills

What guides a new story?

This post is reflecting on an article by Stanley Hauerwas, on the ABC Religion and Ethics page. It is titled "Reflections on learning how to speak Christian." His article is worth thinking through because of the issues it raises.  One the one hand:

... the most important part of writing and speaking Christian is what is not said.... theologians are often tempted to say too much because the reticence of scripture, the refusal of scripture to tell us what we think we need to know, drives us crazy.

I sometimes think that the work of historical criticism, essential work for helping us read the scripture faithfully, is a rage against the silences of scripture. Why do not the Gospels tell us what Jesus is "thinking?"

Reticence, however, is a hard discipline to learn, not only for theologians but for those in Christian ministry. Ministers are constantly tempted to say too much. They are tempted to use the appearance of Christian speech in an effort to say more than can be said....

Confronted by a sudden and unexpected death of a "loved one," it is natural to use the phrase, "they have gone to a better place." It is hard to resist that language, not only because ministers want to help, but because that language helps them not feel helpless.

Some agnosticism and humility is needed! We often make up "comfortable stuff" to fill the gaps in "what Jesus was thinking," as Hauerwas puts it.  Somehow our story gets put in Jesus' mouth and has him saying things which of reflection he probably would not have said, even if he lived here and now. (Eisogesis is the reading into the text of things that are not there.) We need to tell our story, but also to be clear about what is from us, and what is in the source tradition.

Hauerwas goes on to complain of a

... prominent figure in my church ...asked how she understood the Christian faith in Jesus in relation to other religious traditions. She responded by saying that Christians believe that Jesus is our way to God, but other traditions have their way to God....

It seems to have never occurred to her that Jesus is  [not (sic)] our way to God because he is the Son of God. A generous interpretation of what she said might think she was trying to indicate how, given the essential union of Christ's humanity and divinity, a union necessary for our salvation, Christ as the Incarnate Word is our way to God.

But, unfortunately, she made no mention of the Incarnation. Her response was, of course, the response required by the speech regimes of a liberal culture that before all else demands that we be tolerant.

The acknowledgement that others have other ways to God - even though it is not at all clear who the god to whom they have a way to is - is a speech act necessarily learned by Christians to ensure we are not identified as political reactionaries.

This raises intriguing questions for me.  I am aware of a faith group where anything goes, it seems, when it comes to being religious.  To say this group is identifiably Christian is, well, stretching a point. Jesus barely gets a look in. But many in that group would suggest that "the essential union of Christ's humanity and divinity, a union necessary for our salvation, Christ as the Incarnate Word is our way to God..." is a meaningless statement in today's world.  It reflects a world view that no longer works.

I have some sympathy with their sentiment. I think that in some mouths, words like those above from Hauerwas, do reflect a world view that no longer works. They are a traditionalist respouting of past stories. Certainly they are incomprehensible to most people, if not explained at some length.

Consider what James Sanders says about the task of biblical translation.

There is an overall observation one can make, in fact, about all tradents, ancient and modem, of biblical texts. A tradent was/is one who brings the past into the present, specifically a biblical text. All scribes, translators, commentators, preachers and teachers of the biblical text were/are tradents. Another word sometimes used instead of tradent is traditionist, that is, one who engages in his or her time in the traditioning process of a community text, such as the Bible. A traditionist is not a traditionalist; the two should not be confused. Whereas a traditionalist wants to make the present look like the past, a traditionist, or tradent, tries to bring the past into the present in an understandable way. James Sanders (My emphasis)

Sanders says (above) "A traditionist is not a traditionalist; the two should not be confused."

In attempting to live out a progressive christian faith, traditionalism is the dying faith we are reacting against, or by which we are offended. But traditionism is necessary if we are to remain Christian. The distinction is crucial. Otherwise we become something other than Christian. Our revitalising of Christian faith will fail simply because it is not Christian. This is fine if we are not particularly concerned with remaining Christian, but we ought not then pretend to be Christian.

Hauerwas shows the way to proceed here, even if he seems to be overly conservative at other points.

To belong to a church that is an alternative to a nation state that has co-opted the word "god" as a means of legitimating the violence it calls peace, means to insist that it makes all the difference that when the church says "peace" the peace that is said requires that we also say "Jesus" rather than just "god."

Jesus is what/who makes the difference. We cannot "speak Christian" without constant reference to that witness of the early church to Jesus, which we call the New Testament. We must constantly seek to bring that past into the present and see where it leads us. In doing this, we may no longer grant some earlier insights validity.  But the exercise is necessary. What did the people before us mean, when they said things like, "the essential union of Christ's humanity and divinity, a union necessary for our salvation, Christ as the Incarnate Word is our way to God..."? How would we rephrase that in our language? What truth does each of the words still carry?

If we will not undertake the discipline of study of the tradition, and if we are afraid of being seen as a traditionalist, then we risk becoming far worse.  We risk giving in to laziness of scholarship.  We risk not seeing the deep insights of our tradition because we write them off too quickly. We risk the loss of our Christian identity. In the name of being progressive we will risk becoming just as ignorant of our tradition as the conservative who will not face the implications of scholarship.  The retelling of the faith as our own story cannot be a retelling by simply avoiding confrontation with the tradition.


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