The Daily Voice of Faith and the Covenanted Self

by sumpteretc

My summary of the second essay in The Covenanted Self.

Life with God demands the dialectic of “full assertion of self over against God” and the “full abandonment of self to God.” Although it is necessary, it is often uncomfortable, particularly when we are in the undesirable position of complaining to God and then springing to our feet in joyful praise. For those accustomed to submitting to God’s authority, singing a positive hymn in the midst of negative circumstances may demand a profound act of denial. On the other hand, some of us may live lives of complaint, never able to yield or praise. A failure to find balance between these two poles will lead on either to a complete denial of self in search of God or to self-indulgence that creates God in our own image.
A. We want to examine the results of a life characterized by healthy handling of this dialectic. Dialectic, dialogic principles of philosophy have been discussed for nearly a hundred years now, but this important line of thought has been largely ignored in mainstream theology. Similar insights have come from the world of personality theory.
B. Brueggemann proposes that a life fully lived in this dialectic will result in a freedom-born obedience leading to communion. Obedience is vital because, after all, the relation is with the God who is wholly other, the God who issues commands. The Torah-centric nature of the Psalter points to the praise-lament dialectic as foundational for receiving and obeying God’s commands. Job’s friends provide an example of obedience out of a non-assertive resolution of the dialectic; they are graceless because they are unable to complain or bring their grievances to God. At the other end of the spectrum is Psalm 106, a perpetual lament and complaint with no room for praise, culminating in self-sufficiency. These twin temptations, to “graceless obedience” or to “praiseless autonomy,” both stifle our ability to live lives of joyful covenantal interaction.
C. The Old Testament testimony does not seem to find obedience to Torah the drudgery we sometimes consider it. Luther, Locke, Descartes and Freud (unlikely bedfellows) have championed a similar refrain: “Law is bad. Reject restrictive external authority.” Existential philosophy has been joined by “the therapeutic culture” and consumerism in declaring the self-sufficiency of the individual, without regard for the “other.” Sadly, this line of thought has invaded the church, resulting in power struggles with no “Other” left to adjudicate. So we are brought back to the counter-cultural Biblical view of the self, neither conformed nor autonomous, but in covenant with the One who commands.
D. Brueggemann thus seeks to explore Israel’s “receptivity” and “resistance” to God’s commands. Israel’s experience of Torah begins with their decision to go to Egypt for bread in time of famine. Sadly, the bread came with a command—“Make bricks!”—from a harsh taskmaster. When God called Moses at the burning bush, He never hinted at Israel’s freedom, only at their need for a new master (Exodus 5:1). Prior to the giving of Torah, Israel was instructed merely to obey God’s voice. Curiously, Israel signed on to this arrangement, agreeing to God’s demands before hearing them, in the belief that any master was better than Pharaoh. In response, God gives the Ten Commandments—three on relationship with God, six on relationships with others and one on finding rest. That’s the end of God’s direct commands to Israel; the rest of the law is mediated through Moses. But the Ten Commandments are sufficient to transfer authority from Pharaoh to God. Israel no longer must wonder about the character of their new Master; His nature is revealed in His commands. Furthermore, a new social order is introduced, not of hierarchical monopoly but of egalitarianism. Our familiarity with the Ten Commandments causes us to fail to see the revolutionary society they were introducing.
E. If current scholarly consensus is correct, the Sinai event was used in seventh century Deuteronomic thought to “authorize Israel’s covenantal tradition.” Under the Jerusalem monarchy, the call to Torah piety was a revolutionary counter-current to the prevailing monopolistic rule. Deuteronomy in particular is a case study in how Torah may be reshaped and expanded to meet new circumstances and to bring new areas under God’s rule. It was given in the moment of hesitation before Israel charged into the Promised Land. It serves as a manifesto to remind Israel of its fundamental sociological and theological differences from the people of the land they were entering. Moses’ claims are even more ambitious, though; he envisions Israel transforming society. So, Torah is crucial for Israel’s existence and its influence.
F. Somehow, Torah which was so powerful in Israel’s early history remained influential in its late history, the setting of the Psalms. Brueggemann proposes that covenant obedience is grounded neither in assertion and lament nor in praise and self-abandonment but in a healthy embrace of these two extremes. He gives four Biblical examples of this kind of obedience.
1. Abraham, in Genesis 18, engages in bold negotiations with God, treating Him almost as a peer; while in Genesis 22, he is so submissive that he is willing to sacrifice his only son.
2. Moses is presented as the ideal of obedience to God’s commands, but in Numbers 14 and other passages, he boldly argues with God, making Him do things He otherwise would not have done.
3. Jeremiah is the prophet who most boldly proclaims Torah demands, but also the one who most loudly complains, sometimes issuing praise and lament in almost the same breath (Jeremiah 20).
4. Job proclaims the Old Testament’s loudest complaints but some of its most glorious praise; God’s response is that Job has spoken what is right.
In each case, the character’s interaction with God is multidimensional, opening the way for joyful obedience to God’s commands.
G. Brueggemann’s purpose in writing is quite practical, as we live in a society vacillating between mindless conformity and existential self-autonomy. Because the church has lost sight of the dialectical nature of covenant, it tends to gravitate to one end of the spectrum or the other. What is called for is not necessarily behavior modification but at least a rational assent to the dialectical nature of obedience to God’s commands. It is perhaps the work of a lifetime to be able to love Torah in the way the psalmist did. A healthy pursuit of mutuality with an incommensurable God will, however, provide the context for an approach to Torah not as an obligation or duty but in joyful response. Brueggemann concludes with reference to two biblical texts and two modern commentaries on joy-spawned obedience.
1. Jeremiah 31:31-43. God promises to re-love His exiled people and to re-establish Torah with them, not as an external thing but as something they carry with them everywhere. Because God has come near, obedience to Torah is not an interaction with another but a fulfillment of the desires of one’s own heart.
2. Mark 10:17-22. Jesus’ command to the rich, young ruler is to leave mindless conformity to Torah and to enter into a real, live, give-and-take communion with a Person, grounding obedience not in obligation but in relationship.
3. Archbishop William Temple has said that true joy comes at the intersection of obligation and desire; Brueggemann adds that obedience best thrives in that particular joyful context.
4. Frederick Buechner’s stunning statement on vocation is, “The place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Karl Marx saw a deep alienation between self and work; a similar divide between self and faith exists in the modernist contest. We are challenged to bridge that divide—to embrace both assertion and abandonment and find between them a context for joyful obedience.