Sumpteretc's Blog

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Category: What I’m reading

The Daily Voice of Faith and the Covenanted Self

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.

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“Othering” with Grace and Courage

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.