Thursday, December 20, 2007

Leaving Some Room

Over at Street Prophets, Pastor Dan provides, via New Testament scholar Paul Achtemeier, the perfect encapsulation of why I just can't buy in to certain notions. One notion is that it is incumbent upon us to ensure that all our doctrinal "i"'s are dotted and "t"'s crossed in order to be Christian. Another notion, one that does not at all seem related to the first, is that we have an obligation to act in accordance with high principle at all costs, ignoring political and historical reality, in the knowledge that at least "we" are high-minded and clear-sighted enough to so act and see where others are clouded by the messiness of the world around them. First the quote, then a bit of commentary.
The self-righteousness of those who believe that unless they do the good it can never be done is a fearful thing, and it is abroad in the world today. Much of the vilification visited by social reformers upon those who do not fully support, let alone upon those who question, their programs is the result of their feeling that unless their version of societal reform is enacted no redemption will ever occur. Such hostility toward those who disagree with their program for goodness bears eloquent testimony to the outcome of such self-idolatry which occurs with the loss of hope for God's future. That the Christian is not passively to accept injustice is patent from what Paul has just said about the Christian obligation to love, and hence to aid, one's fellow human beings. But unless that love is tempered by the hope of God's final redemption, it will turn into an instrument of ideological tyranny and fearful self-righteousness.

As regards the first notion, quite simply put, we will never get our theology, or our practice right. This does not absolve us of the duty to think through what we believe and why. It merely reminds us that, no matter how intricate, how much in keeping with the history of doctrine (or veering wide of that particular mark), how fruitful it is in winning the hearts and minds of others, ninety-nine percent of it is nonsense, having nothing whatsoever to do with who God is, and what it is God requires of us. Since the best of scripture can be described as "murky", and most of it can be described as "contradictory", one relies as one can and must upon what one believes is right as a guide to interpretation. Too often even the most thorough and pious exegete leaves aside much that remains in the text. So, at best, we do what we can, and leave the rest to God, trusting in grace to pick up the slack. Karl Barth said that all theology was only prolegomena, and he is so right.

Living with the tension of knowing that we are called to an impossible task - putting forward what can only generously be considered our "best guess" - is never easy. Often, it leaves us throwing up our hands. The criticisms of those who are so sure of themselves, both in their pronouncements and in their judgments rankle precisely because we wish we could be so sure. I, for one, wish I could. I cannot, not and be honest to what I believe. Yet, I know little else of what we can do, or at least I can do. So, I move forward as best I can, and when the end comes, if it resembles anything like tradition tells us it might, I can only hope that God has a sense of humor.

As for the other notion, this reflects my own frustration of living with another tension - knowing what is right to do, and knowing what it is possible to accomplish within the limits of how we now live. This reflects my own frustration over much of the earnest garment-rending of such persons as Arthur Silber, and Democracy Lover, with both of whom I agree to a large extent analytically. Prescriptively, however, I find both lacking. Exacting analytical clarity is not the same thing as practical wisdom. When faced with the many limits within which we now live, we are confronted with the conundrum that the best for which any of us can hope falls well short of what should be. To call this frustrating is to say not nearly enough.

Yet, we must always be aware of the reality within which we live, including its limits and liabilities. We will never live up to our own lofty ideals; nor will we ever get what any of us think is the perfect set of circumstances. All we can do is work with what we have. Accepting political and social reality as a "given", what Heidegger defined as the lebenswelt into which we are all thrown higgledy-piggledy, is part of being a responsible human being. In doing so, we also accept our own limitation, including our own limited moral judgment as well as our own limited vision. Again, we are not absolved from doing the best we can. Very often, however, the best any of us can do is far less than the best that either can or should be done. Believing that our vision is clearer than others, our knowledge greater or deeper than others, and that what is vouchsafed to us provides a burden for action that does not lie upon the shoulders of others is not only hubris in the classical, Greek sense of the term. It is also the sin of pride. To put it another way, it is the self-aggrandizing assertion that only I, with my wisdom and knowledge have the tools to correctly describe and prescribe what is the correct line of conduct. Even now, as the country spins into recession, the government is paralyzed by obstructionist Republicans and vapid Democrats, and our major media seem incapable of providing us with the information necessary to understand what is happening around us, we need to remember that even if none of this were the case, we would still have troubles, controversies, and problems.

Having limited knowledge, abilities, vision, and being limited by the options provided by the world around us does not leave us impotent, nor does it absolve us of the responsibility of doing what must be done. We should never let ourselves be fooled in to thinking that with us lies the sole hope of salvation. Rescuing our country from its current problems is a challenge all of us face; the solutions lie in the wisdom of the American people, as far as that term can be applied, and we trust it, and God's grace, to pick up the slack.

Virtual Tin Cup

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