A Disjunctive Prayer
On Sunday I preached from Revelation 21:1-6—a passage that I would guess is among the more well-known and well-loved in all of Scripture. It speaks of a new heaven and a new earth where the old order of things has passed away. No more tears, no more death, no more pain… It is a world that seems too good to be true. It is a world that scarcely resembles the reality that Revelation’s first hearers/readers were familiar with. Or that we are familiar with. For as long as it has been around, there has been a disjunction between this text and the lived reality of those who read it, hear it, and hope for what it promises.
This disjunction is, I think, beautifully expressed in a prayer from Walter Brueggemann’s Prayers for a Privileged People that I read this morning. It is called “Dreams and Nightmares”:
Last night as I lay sleeping, I had a dream so fair… I dreamed of the Holy City, well ordered and just. I dreamed of a garden of paradise, well-being all around and a good water supply. I dreamed of disarmament and forgiveness, and caring embrace for all those in need. I dreamed of a coming time when death is no more.”
Last night as I lay sleeping… I had a nightmare of sins unforgiven. I had a nightmare of land mines still exploding and maimed children. I had a nightmare of the poor left unloved, of the homeless left unnoticed, of the dead left ungrieved. I had a nightmare of quarrels and rages and wars great and small.
When I awoke, I found you still to be God, presiding over the day and the night with serene sovereignty, for dark and light are both alike to you.
At the break of day we submit to you our best dreams and our worst nightmares, asking that your healing mercy should override threats, that your goodness will make our nightmares less toxic and our dreams more real.
Thank you for visiting us with newness that overrides what is old and deathly among us. Come among us this day; dream us toward health and peace, we pray in the name of Jesus who exposes our fantasies.
I hear in Brueggemann’s prayer the voice of a man who considers himself much more moral than the world – as moral as God, or perhaps even more so. He does not sound real to me.
In seminary, reading Brueggemann was allowed by our theologically radical faculty, although with some reservation and suspicion. Even though his language sounds somewhat conservative they could tell that he, like them, did not really believe that there is a God and because he, like them, was concerned about social justice. He also seems to be allowed in evangelical circles, at least those circles that might be described as left of center within evangelicalism. I think he, like Hauerwas, may have a certain plausibility within evangelicalism – he at least sounds conservative and he provides a kind of cover for evangelicals who are concerned about social justice. The cover is needed to avoid giving the impression that one is not really evangelical.
In seminary, among the theologically radical faculty, his approach to biblical scholarship was considered borderline evangelical/liberal. Some feared his approach would admit literalism through a back door.
Most people who try to find a position acceptable to both sides in the religious culture war find themselves as targets of each side. Brueggeman is an exception. Both sides let him stick around. But they keep an eye on him, or at least the radicals do.
Must everyone be either conservative or liberal, evangelical or radical, concerned about literalism or social justice?
I sure hope not! 😀
As usual, we hear very different things in Brueggemann, Ken. I don’t hear any moral superiority whatsoever. I hear grief and I hear hope.
I’m not sure what to make of how your seminary faculty would have evaluated Brueggemann. My first question would be something like, “on what basis do they presume to discern and articulate what people ‘really’ believe?” Maybe I’m naive, but when I hear folks like Hauerwas and Brueggemann talk about their belief in God alongside their commitment to social justice I’m inclined to believe them.
Like Michael, I think it is possible for one’s faith to transcend some of the distinctions we are fond of making. Indeed, I think this is what Christian belief and practice, at its best, must strive for.
Michael: It is mostly clergy that are caught up in this fight. The rest of us have more flexibility.
Ryan: I am not sure why the faculty viewed Brueggemann the way they did. I actually liked Brueggemann when I first read him, party because the faculty marginalized him. I am not sure whether he believes in God or not. I think he conceals his beliefs, or at least he has in his works that I have read. Similarly, I am not sure he really believes in social justice, at least not in the way the advocates for social justice believe in it that I have known.
I think Hauerwas openly admits his lack of belief. I heard him say it in a talk he gave at Duke. It is like I admit my own disbelief. Interestlingly, in seminary the radicals suspected me of having belief. Occasionally I catch myself believing, but it is too rare.
Do you believe in God? When you read Taylor’s book, A Secular Age, did you identify with those in modernity who do not believe, like me, or did you identify with those who still believe? Do you live in an enchanted world?
Yes, I believe in God. When I read Taylor’s book I identified with both sides, to be honest. I feel the force of post-Enlightenment skepticism but certainly not enough to abandon belief in God.
As I’ve said in previous posts, I don’t think the point of it all is to ratchet up our levels of cognitive certainty with respect propositions “God exists.” We live in an ambiguous world where epistemological certainty is unavailable. Whether I feel full of faith or doubt on any given day is unreliable and fleeting criteria. The important question, for me, is not “what do I believe (i.e., what propositions do I affirm?) but “to what will I commit?” I realize the two questions are related, but as I think a commitment to follow can be acted upon even when cognitive doubts arise (as they inevitably do).
Do I live in an enchanted world? Well, probably not in the same sense that the medievals did but I’m certainly open to enough enchantment for hope to take root 🙂
For me, belief in God does not come often. I am referring here to belief as a kind of reflex, one that does not involve propositions, or convictions or commitments.
My main operative belief is secular and modern and atheistic. And I think my commitments largely reflect that operative belief. I wish it were not so, although if the price of the alternative is a loss of freedom, then I opt for freedom.
I think when we limit what/how we believe exclusively to what comes reflexively we are at the mercy of whatever plausibility structure we happen to find ourselves in (whether it’s modern, secular atheism or anything else). Maybe we are acting less freely than we think we are in modernity…
It is true.
Re: “Maybe I’m naive, but when I hear folks like Hauerwas and Brueggemann talk about their belief in God alongside their commitment to social justice I’m inclined to believe them.”
From a radical perspective, and even a mere liberal perspective, belief in God has been associated with oppression. That is why belief in God and a commitment to social justice can seem like a mismatch. In addition, the common commitment to social justice seems to have as much of a connection with humanism (and disbelief) as with Christianity (and belief) – the exclusive humanism that Taylor describes, for example.
I think that Hauerwas has a commitment to a kind of social justice, but certainly not to the kind to which the faculty and students at my seminary were largely committed. They considered him to be conservative and more concerned with virtue than with justice. (We studied him as an example of a conservative approach to morality.) They were perhaps sympathetic to him only because his communitarianism has something like a common enemy: the bourgeoisie.
Brueggemann was optional reading in an Old Testament class. His works were allowed readings and were discussed I think because he showed a kind of liberal sentiment. His work was nevertheless suspect because he did not use radical hermeneutics like Gottwald, for example. The faculty (and students) favored sociological interpretive methods and feminist deconstructions over the more classical interests of Brueggemann. So, Brueggemann was considered relatively conservative – or perhaps, a sympathetic member of the bourgeosie, or maybe even a liberal bourgeosie with some repressed radical sentiments.
Sounds like a fairly intellectually restrictive environment.
It was. I much prefer the university environment.
The restrictiveness at the radical seminary was rooted in their moral concerns. They were trying to fight oppression, to overturn oppressive, unjust structures.
My concern with this post is it’s contextualization. Revelation 21,(1-6) married to a notion (albeit real)of conjunctiveness along with Mr. Brueggemann’s prayer leads the reader to very different concerns and conclusions then does a continued reading of Rev. 21, (7-8).
My understanding of “conjunctiveness” is this. It’s purpose serves to glorify God, in that only God can reconcile the vast chasm between what is and what, one day, will be.
In so far as humanity is concerned it is better to see the discord as a consequence of our fallen and imperfect nature, as we dispair over outcomes. We are called to humility, confession, repentance and renewal. Sack cloth and ash is the right dress for a “disjunctive prayer”. In the end, our only option as true believers is to faithfully endure, trusting in His love.
And when it is all too much, when a sister or brother is crushed by the sometimes unbearable weight of living, we are called to carry them. To take up their suffering as our own. To share in Calvary.
To in some small way give back something to Him who gave so much to us.
I don’t see anything in Brueggemann’s prayer that would preclude a “sackcloth and ashes” posture. Are you saying this is the only appropriate response to living in the chasm between is and ought?
May I interject:
I think that something like this (sackcloth and ashes) is what Luther and Calvin said, and was a big point of the reformation, even though it is there in the Roman tradition as well.
Brueggeman’s prayer does not preclude it, but it does not reflect it either. The prayer focuses only on what Taylor named “human flourishing.”
Taylor points out how this emphasis on the sackcloth and ashes posture coupled with grace freed many people of anxiety over their sins and over the power of Satan.
Paul: I think you might enjoy Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, if you have not already read it. He deals with all of this.
Ryan: BTW, why did you not include verses 7 and 8 in your sermon? (Taylor suggests that preaching related to such verses, especially 8, is one factor that contributed to the shift to humanism.)
I didn’t include 21:7-8 in my sermon for the entirely unremarkable reason that I was following the lectionary texts for November 1.
It is interesting that those verses are left out in the lectionary reading. Taken together, verses 1-8 follow a pattern seen in Psalms, the prophets, and in Deuteronomy – the righteous will be saved and the wicked will be punished. What does it mean to break the pattern, I wonder.
Ken, I know I’m taking you out of context but with regard to oppression, it seems to me radical and liberal philosophies are as causual as religious ones.
Oppression like a lot of other dispicable behaviors seems to be “bred in the bone”. Perhaps the better perspective isn’t that certain worldview’s are oppressive. (My contention would be that they all are.) But rather which worldview, is better positioned to recognize and remedy it’s inherent repressiveness when it inevitably occurs.
Yes, I think we are forced to make that choice. That is perhaps why radical Christians stay with Christianity.
Hey Ryan, yeah I would say that as I interpret this prayer it precludes an “ashcloth and sack” posture.
The prayer from the point, “When I awoke” and beyond makes no mention of personal culpability and subsequent responsibility to amend the quality and character of the “nightmares”. Further, it seems Mr. Brueggemann’s prayer can be construed to mean that he is as concerned with the personal effect nightmares have on him as the effect they have on those people for whom such nightmares are a reality.
I get no sense of the outrage, shame and scandal we ought to feel as “privileged people”. Both with regard to the affront such nightmares are to God and His creation and to the people actually doing the suffering.
I really want to like this guy. Praying is a good and beautiful thing. But like Ken, Mr Brueggemann’s prayers, at least the two we’ve covered, don’t speak to my sense of the truth.
Worse still they speak to me more about the moralizing sensibilities and concerns of the “all too comfortable” and not to the real truth of suffering as it is humanly experienced.
Sorry, I had more to say but it was time for me to go with Dad for the Chinese food I had promised him earlier in the day.If you expect angels to watch over you, you’d better take out your 82 year old Dad when he gets hungry. :)….
Thanks for the reading recommendation Ken. Not sure I’ll take you up on it though, unless you think the book will inform me missionally. I know whose team I’m on, I just need help with the play calling.
Ryan, with regard to a right “disjunctive” prayer process, I think that anytime we don’t first contemplate and meditate on our own sinfullness (the metaphoric world of sack cloth and ash, so to speak) we run the great risk of not speaking the truth or hearing God’s truth spoke back to us.
Does every prayer have to be of the “sackcloth and ashes” variety? Does every prayer have to begin with/include personal culpability? Are you assuming that Brueggemann does not acknowledge his own contribution to the pain of the world? This is only one prayer, after all, and I really don’t see how it communicates the lack of appropriate penitence that you detect.
Paul: I think the book helps me understand where we are in modernity and how we got here. It can inform missionally in that sense. Maybe you will have a chance to browse it sometime at a bookstore.
Re: Ryan’s question as to whether the sack cloth and ashes approach is the “only appropriate response to living in the chasm between is and ought?”
Certainly it is not. Although Paul has a great deal of history and theology to support his position on the importance of sackcloth and ashes, and although many saints and theologians agree that it is ultimately the only position, there have been many contemporary theologians who have searched for and presented alternatives. The radical theologians at my seminary represent one such set of approaches. The works of other liberal theologians represent others. I don’t believe these approaches work within classic evangelicalism or Roman Catholicism. They have had limited success in liberal protestantism. Humanism or various forms of secular radicalism seem to be more plausible ways for many people.
Personally, while I want no fight with the great saints and theologians who testify to the importance of sack cloth and ashes, I too seek another way. So far, I have been unsuccessful, but I still try. My intuition is that the way involves our relationship with the rest of nature more than it does with each other. It is only an intuition, or an intuition and a hope. It is not an argument. Taylor helps me understand why I seek what I seek, even while he pursues another way. Ryan, and the discussions at his blog, also help me understand.
No, Ryan I didn’t say that every prayer should be of a “sack cloth and ash” nature. God has ALL the perogative.
I was just saying that, as I sense the truth, any prayer regarding the divide between what is and what should be ought to reflect our own contribution to the division.
In Catholic culture our communal prayer experience at Mass is prefaced in this way…
I confess to Almighty God
And to you my brothers and sisters
that I have sinned through my own fault
In my thoughts
And in my words
In what I have done
And in what I have failed to do…
Mass and the Eucharist are the Apex of Catholic expression. It is a supernatural engagement between ourselves and our Lord Jesus Christ, animated by the Holy Spirit, mediated through the Church.
Similarly, every prayer experience I have ever had where I was acutely aware of God’s actual presence, was deeply and sincerely penitential in nature.
God makes himself known as he sees fit. I can only share with you how He makes Himself known to me.
I guess I’m a little confused. You acknowledge that every prayer does not have to be of the “sack cloth and ashes variety.” But you criticize the one I quoted because it isn’t.
I’m aware of the prayer you cited – it is a great prayer that I pray many days myself. But as I have said in previous discussions, it seems a bit odd to criticize an isolated prayer from a person you don’t know because it doesn’t express all of the proper elements that you think a prayer ought to have. I don’t know about you, but my prayers are different at different times in life and in response to different events, joys, struggles, etc. I assume the same is true for Brueggemann.
I have a question for those here who wish to answer 🙂
How do you feel (personally) about God when faced with the reality of suffering in this life?
I know it’s a common question, but I am curious about what your answers might be.
When faced with the reality of suffering in this life I feel sad and powerless. I hope then more than ever that God is real. God is our only hope in the end, if we have any hope at all. But I guess I don’t have any feelings about God that I don’t have at other times. I love the idea that God, the one in the Bible, is real and I love his passion for Israel, his unconditional, unsolicited promise to Abraham and Sarah. I suppose it is that passion that I love the most. Beyond that I love this life and want to believe that it is happening in a cosmos created by the God that has such passion.
Ken, thank you. That has to be one of the most honest answers I’ve heard in a long time. You have a brain and you use it:) even better, it seems you know how to use your heart too.
I believe real intelligence requires the use of both head and heart and that revelation comes from that union.
Re: “revelation comes from that union.”
Thank you for the encouragement.
Hi Deborah. I suppose my response would be similar to Ken’s in some ways. I, too, feel sad and powerless. To be honest, suffering often makes me angry—with myself, with my fellow human beings, with the parameters of our existence, with God… Yet suffering is also easily the one feature of life on this planet that makes me cling to my belief in God more than any other.
Like Ken, I have a deep love for life and for beauty, for goodness, for peace, and for truth. Suffering is the overarching feature of our experience that threatens all of our ability to think about and contribute toward these things. Having said that, I think it is too easy for me to simply blame God for allowing a world with such pain to come into existence. I must also acknowledge that I contribute to the pain, error, and injustice of the world.
One thing I have (slowly, fitfully!) learned over the years is that blaming God for suffering or trying to ignore God because of it doesn’t do much to improve the situation! The reality of life stays the same, but I cut myself off from the only source of hope for a better world there is. I don’t suddenly find suffering easier to bear if I imagine a godless world. Far better to bring to God all of my questions, confusion, contrition, anger, and love, in my opinion.
“Far better to bring to God all of my questions, confusion, contrition, anger, and love, in my opinion.”
that is sooooo true!
Hey Ryan, sincerely my brother, I take your concern over my comments seriously. It is not my intention to offend the person of Mr. Brueggemann, or those who find comfort in his prayer.
I simply offer that, as I understand God the Holy Spirit communicating to me, particularly with regard to suffering, with regard to the chasm between “is and ought”, the first right step, the first true prayer, is a penitential one. It isn’t the last word or the only word but I believe unequivically it is where our journey to understanding God’s truth about our suffering and our right response to it, begins.
With apologies to yourself and by extension Mr. Brueggemann, any examination or study of suffering that does not make this distinctive clear, is in my opinion, errant.
…”We deserve this punishment; this is payment for what we have done, but this man has done no evil.” (Lk 23:41)…
…”Remember me when you enter your Kingdom” (Lk 23:42)…
…”Truly, you will be with me this day in paradise.” (Lk 23:43)
God’s response to this sincere attitude is always, always a complete forgiveness of sins.
Only in this state of forgiveness, mercifully given, contritely received, is a person able to embrace the fullness of conversion. Only then can we become conduits of His grace rather than conduits of suffering.
I find myself in agreement with much of what you’ve written here Paul. But once again, this is not an “examination or study of suffering.” Nor is it a conversion manual. It is a prayer. I certainly don’t feel compelled to express myself in theologically comprehensive terms in every prayer I utter and I’m guessing you don’t either.
Moreover, there is nothing whatsoever in Brueggemann’s prayer above that indicates to me that he does not value repentance or that he does not acknowledge his own sinfulness appropriately. Having read most of his prayerbook now I think I can safely report that he considers himself to be a sinner just like the rest of us.
Ken, my brother, I came across this quote in my reading this morning.
…the contemplative does not know God through his creatures. The contemplative knows creatures through God. (St. John of the Cross)
Thank you, Paul. It is true.
Hi Deborah, thank you for your question. Like all truth it is simple, profound and requires urgent attention.
I am not sure what has saddened or angered me most about the suffering I have experienced, or have shared in with others. The circumstances themselves or some of my responses to the circumstances. I do know this; I have healed more quickly from awful circumstances, than I have from awful responses.
In an earlier time my present situation would have been described, as it was so beautifully and poigniantly by St. John of the Cross, as a “Dark night of the soul”. In modern language it is commonly referred to as a mid life crisis. Sub conscious experiences and conscious realities, as they do for all, are converging for me. The lasting impression of this experience, through the good and bad of my life, is that my work to date is incomplete, my responses to life to date, have been on balance less than they should have been. It is my sincere objective to open my life more fully to God so that my present, now and ongoing into the future, becomes the “more” and not the less.
It is in this context then,that I seek a new response to suffering.For I remain intuitively convinced that my “lessness” is made significantly so, by my complete misunderstanding, perhaps even total ignorance, of the devine perspective on human suffering.
I cannot offer you a definitive answer at this point other than to say that I am currently, in a meditative, discursive way and prayerfully in a more silent contemplative way, trying to wrap my head and heart around the following notions.
For many people the path to God is a path of suffering. Can the means then, be justified by the end?
And perhaps more radical still, the idea that in some true and meaningful way when I allow myself to think that some of my suffering has been cruel and unjust, or for that matter think that anyone elses suffering is cruel and unjust, I not only gravely misunderstand but I offensively scandalize His sacrifice on the cross.
I hope that helps.
Thank you again, for your question, my sister in Christ.
I realize in re reading my answer to you that my response was incomplete. How do I feel about God, with regard to suffering? Either way, suffering or not, I’m in. I love Him. I love him poorly, truly, wholly incomplete, in acute need of His Spirit to sustain my love for Him, myself, you, them, creation.
I’m in too 🙂
Ryan, I think after all this time we are finally having a more fraternal conversation.
It is very likely that the single biggest impediment to our fraternity has been the emotional nature of my rhetoric. I get excited easily. Particularly when I think the conversation isn’t WWJD. Pretty humble, eh! 🙂
As for Mr. Brueggemann I will gladly trade his prayer book and U2 music for a daily missal and the music of the Tragically Hip. 🙂 🙂
On a more serious note I think perhaps you touch on the core issue with regard to your discontent with me. I do and deliberately so, look to make conversation here theologically comprehensive and conversional. (BTW, I love the way you phrase things and I “riff” you all the time)
Both as a means of strengthening my faith and hopefully the faith of others as well. From a purely secular perspective such action seems selfish and innappropriate, after all this is your blog not mine. From a spiritual point of view though, if done spiritually, selflessly, the action is at least theoretically defensible.
It is fair comment to say that on several occasions my practice of the theory has failed miserably. I don’t come by selflessness easily, if at all.
I guess the over arching imperative for me is that if discussions here or elsewhere aren’t really moving towards the essentials of faith for the purpose of mutual conviction and conversion, why do we do this?
I mean I know it is more satisfying and uplifting than wathching tv or the persuit of other banalities but in a very real sense, for me at least, I would still see the activity, without a conversional context, as something of a waste of time.
Forgive me for so doing but I feel convicted by the Spirit to move conversation towards sin and suffering, almost exclusively. I have this sense that for the faithful and perhaps particularly for those gifted with some ability to communicate the gospel, it is our lack of understanding with regard to the devine perspectives on sin and suffering that are undermining the Spirit’s ability to make something more coherent and uniform out of the plethora of Christian voices.
Some things I am more sure of. You have been an important voice to me, as has Ken, as today and once in the past, has been Deborah. My participation here has brought fruits of the Spirit into my life. It is not trolling for trolling’s sake.
I hope to be able to participate here regularly, should you continue to wish it also. However should you wish me to respond within the parameters of more specific guidelines, or not at all, I will make my best efforts to comply.
Of course I have no objections to your or anyone else’s participation here, nor do I object to conversations going in different directions than I may have expected or intended. Sometimes I think it would be helpful to signal more clearly if you wish to move the discussion in a distinctly different direction. Without those signals, I’m left wondering how, for example, quoting a prayer that I thought simply reflected an expression of grief at the state of the world and hope in the God who nonetheless holds it could provoke an excursus on the importance exhibiting proper penitence. It’s not always clear to me how you get from A to B.
Having said that, I think it’s important to also acknowledge that even if you think conversion/mutual conviction ought to be the goal of every dialogue, others may not share this view (especially if they’re not sure they ought to be the object of someone’s conversion attempts :)). I happen to simply enjoy dialogue for dialogue’s sake sometimes. I think the world is full of things that are just flat out interesting to talk about without having any kind of specific agenda in mind.
Do I hope people’s faith in Christ will be strengthened because they visited this site? Absolutely—and I appreciate hearing from those who find this forum valuable! Do I hope that some of the things that are discussed here could possibly be a part of someone’s journey toward conversion? Of course! Do I think every conversation has to include/lead to a few specific emphases? No, I don’t.
“Sometimes I think it would be helpful to signal more clearly if you wish to move the discussion in a distinctly different direction”…
The least I can try to do. Let me know if you think I’m going off the rails.
Thank you for your generous response.