“Othering” with Grace and Courage

by sumpteretc

In an effort to gain more from what I am reading, I am experimenting with comprehensive note-taking. The following summary is from my reading of the first essay in The Covenanted Self by Walter Brueggemann.

Even though “covenant” has been variously understood, Brueggemann takes it as a “radical alternative to consumer autonomy.”
A. The One with whom we covenant became the subject of intense study in 1918 when Martin Buber and others called our attention to the One who is utterly inscrutable and yet vital to our being as persons. This concept of human relation to One who is prior to and wholly other than us was a radical departure from Enlightenment views of existence. This view, however, is foundational to Jewish faith, originating in God’s amazing promise and disturbing call to Abraham as well as His startling revelation at Sinai. The psalmist in Psalm 139 echoes this theme of a God who is wholly Other and yet eternally present. This omnipresence evokes fear, and so we erect barriers to avoid direct contact or relationship with this terrifying Other. But our denial does not allow us to escape from this awful reality; it remains the central issue of human existence.
B. Brueggemann finds parallels to this idea in the ego formation theory of child psychiatrist D.W. Winnicott. Winnicott departed from Freud in his assertion that ego is developed interpersonally in relation to a subjective other, in his context, a mother. For proper development of the self, the baby must experience a sense of omnipotence over an attentive mother. It is only after the child has fully experienced the mother’s attentiveness that it should begin to experience her as other—as a separate self. Barring this experience, the child will fail to differentiate itself from the mother and begin to mimic the mother’s moods in an attempt to gain her attention on the basis of her needs, rather than its own, creating a “false self.” When the child fails to master this interplay of mastery and self-yielding, it develops a self characterized by conformity, arrogance, or an odd blend, demanding conformity in some areas of life and a rigid control in others. The delicate and ongoing maintenance of the balance between the omnipotent self and the yielded self is difficult but very important. Our relationship with God and others is perhaps shaped by this relationship with our mothers; if we develop a false self toward her, it becomes impossible to present a real self to anyone. In Psalms 22 and 27, we see hints of this connection between the faithfulness of parent and that of God. Both of these psalms are in a context of abandonment by parents and in hope of intimacy with God. Abandonment by mother, whether by excessive authoritarianism or by excessive coddling, creates in us a false self that can not relate properly either to parent or to God; such a false self must be replaced by the God who takes us up from our abandonment.
C. Our first task is to come to terms with this God who is relational but on a level far above ours. Israel accomplished this task via the Psalter, in a cycle of praise and complaint—recognizing God as the One who gives Israel its identity as well as the One whose holiness separates Him an immeasurable distance from Israel. There is an almost irrational exuberance in the praise of the Psalter, as Israel celebrates its incommensurable God. But this praise is only expressed after Israel has voiced its bitter complaint regarding current circumstances and God’s failure to act. Until one has a true sense of self, there can be no self-abandonment, so Israel’s praise is unexpressed until they have come to terms with the hopelessness of their situation. So covenanting involves “both the courage to assert self and the grace to abandon self to another.”
D. Our second task is to learn to covenant with others. This is challenging enough on the small scale of friends and family; it becomes a formidable assignment when expanded to macro applications, involving international justice; issues of gender, race and sexuality; and theological interpretation. Unless we have developed proper covenanting skills with the One who is wholly other, we will likely struggle to have open relations with those who are even slightly different from ourselves. Paul speaks frequently to this issue. In his 1 Corinthians 12 discussion of membership in the Body, Paul does not say that we “join” the Body of Christ but that we are “members of each other”; and this membership involves an honoring of the least honorable. Because we have successfully covenanted with God, we have the capacity to abandon self and enter fully into the joys and sorrows of fellow believers. In 1 Corinthians 6 and 10, Paul, the perennial advocate of Christian freedom, urges us to restraint in the exercise of that freedom in the interest of the well-being of the community. The Christian community ought to be a place of freedom, but that freedom can tend to the advantage of the stronger party without proper exercise of love. Thus, Paul urges the stronger party to curb their freedom in favor of the well-being of the community. Self-assertion must at times give way to self-yielding; recognizing these times is at the heart of the covenanting task. In Ephesians 4, Paul urges the believers to maturity and unity. Mastering the covenanting process is not a matter of a snap decision; it must be worked at consistently and with intentionality. This requires speaking the truth in love—an honest love that will tell even painful truths. On the other hand, this honest love might cause many “not quite truths” to remain unsaid. Agape-bathed truth spoken will effect radical change in our communities. So, covenanting with others involves a give-and-take of self-assertion and self-yielding, a proper understanding of freedom and responsibility to the community’s well-being, and truth spoken in love.
E. A final task is covenanting with our own fractured selves. We see Biblical examples of this idea in the psalmist’s instructions to his soul, and in Job’s covenant with his eyes. Psalm 62:5 echoes the sentiment of Psalm 62:1 but in a mode of “self-encouragement.” The apparent truth is that our dominant self is in constant conversation with lesser, hidden selves seeking a say in our personality. Brueggemann finds in Jeremiah 31:10’s “scatter/gather” word pair an insight on this self-covenanting process. He connects “gathering” to the process of identity formation and self-assertion in complaint. “Scattering” happens when disruptive circumstances occur and the lesser voices in one’s mind begin to assert their presence. If the selves are successfully re-gathered, the person will have been irrevocably changed as the dominant self has been muted and other selves have pressed to the fore. This is an ongoing process, so that the self is forever in flux, scattering and re-gathering. Ephesians 4:22-24 and Colossians 3:9-10 speak to this process. While they suggest a one-time de-selfing and re-selfing that takes place at conversion, the Christian life is, in fact, a lifelong process of covenanting with our other selves. Colossians 3:12-15 gives us a picture of what that covenanted self might look like. A person covenanted with God and with others is equipped for the task of covenanting with self, a key task in Christian life and faith.
These tasks of covenanting appear threatening but are essential for our growth. The process is always dialectical: toward God, praise and complaint; toward others, joy and sorrow/truth and love; toward ourselves, a readiness to accept both scattering and gathering. All of these require the courage to assert oneself and the grace to yield to new and threatening forces. Our lives are like the Eucharistic bread; still bread after being broken, but somehow changed. A community of believers fully invested in the process of covenanting will be a powerful witness of Christ’s upside-down kingdom to a watching world.