Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A Guest Reflection

I haven't been doing my work for Versus Populum because I've been obsessing over a task I've undertaken in my church: I'm leading a four-session study of Genesis 1-3 -- one which tries to read the text anew and to unpack things that may be new to people. (I'm trying to avoid a "distillation" of the Genesis "meaning" into simple concepts such as "creatio ex nihilo" -- which, frankly, is not supported by the text -- or "Fall" -- which I think needs to be defined rather carefully.

It's a lot of fun -- even though it's proceeding in a kind of sporadic way: For various reasons, some involving scheduling and others resulting from God's gift of a foot of snow last weekend, we've ended up meeting every other week -- something that makes for difficulty in maintaing continuity.

The point, though, is that I've been thinking about little else than Genesis. I've been exploring the Hebrew, a real stretch for me in that I can barely decipher the script, let alone analyze the words. (Thank God, sincerely, for good lexical aids.) I've been reading von Rad (even though I didn't plan to read commentaries) and Colin Gunton and Westermann because they are scintillating and beautifully written pieces of work. (With respect to the Gunton work, which is basically a historical study of the Christian doctrine of "creation": I didn't anticipate getting excited reading about the Christian response to Thales and Plato. But I am.)

I'll get back to harumphing shortly, however. There are too many things going on.

For now, however, I can't resist posting (and I hope it falls within the fair-use doctrine in copyright law) this recent offering from the Marty Center at the U of Chicago -- it's biweekly e-mailed "Sightings," to which you can subscribe by following the link at the end of the piece. The Ted Haggart fiasco has given me a crick in my neck from shakling my head in amazement, outrage, open-mouthed shock at the stupidity of the deal. Here, Jack Stackhouse provides some good
insight into a decent, non-celebrity model for ministry that takes into account human frailty without adopting an everything-goes approach (which is where the American Church seems to be heading).

Without further ado:



Wounded Healers

-- John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

By now we've all heard the latest about Ted Haggard, former pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and former head of the National Association of Evangelicals. Brother Haggard -- and, as a fellow Christian, he is my brother -- was found to have been having sexual relations with a male prostitute in Denver. He resigned in disgrace, and has since been in counseling.

According to the February 6 issue of the Denver Post, the four pastors in charge of overseeing New Life Church in the wake of this disaster made a surprising -- to some, an astonishing, and to others, an absurd -- announcement. One of them, Rev. Tim Ralph of Larkspur, Colorado, was quoted as explaining Haggard's three-year relationship with the man in these terms: Haggard "is completely heterosexual. That is something he discovered. It was the acting-out situations where things took place. It wasn't a constant thing."

Columnists have had a field day with this recent announcement, of course, with many wondering what stresses could possibly drive a "completely heterosexual" man into the arms of a male lover. Others have simply gotten the story wrong, saying that Haggard is claiming to have been "cured" of homosexuality in just three months, rather than the years that might be expected for rebuilding such a basic component of one's personality -- if indeed such a thing is possible at all. The media circus continues.

In all of this, I am reminded of the late Henri Nouwen, the superb spiritual writer who taught at Harvard and Yale before spending his last years in pastoral service at L'Arche, Jean Vanier's community for the developmentally disabled. Nouwen also wrestled with homosexuality -- "wrestled" with it because his religious beliefs, like Haggard's, diagnosed it as a deformation of the personality.

Also like Haggard, Nouwen maintained a position of spiritual advisor to many. His sexual difficulty did not disqualify him from offering his
considerable gifts to others -- nor should Haggard's have kept him from pastoral service.

Unlike Haggard, however, Nouwen refused to engage in preaching or public activism against homosexuality. He avoided, that is, any risk of incurring the taint of hypocrisy, which is a far more serious problem -- in the Bible and in the public eye -- than is homosexuality.

Nouwen gave us the lovely phrase, the "wounded healer." Some have exploited this term -- as all lovely things are vulnerable to exploitation -- to suggest that you can be entirely comfortable with all manner of sins and still be a spiritual leader. You can be proud, you can be lustful, you can be greedy, you can wrathfully dismiss dissenting colleagues, and on down through the seven deadlies -- but hey, you're a "wounded healer" and darned popular -- in other words, "blessed in your ministry." So it's okay, right?

No, says Nouwen, by word and by example. Serve, yes, offering your God-given talents to make God's beloved world a better place. But serve out of consciousness of your wound, which means to serve in humility, in compassion, in patience. "There but for the grace of God go I."

Nouwen's insight is that, clergy or not, we must not wait to become perfect before we help others. We can help them, that is, precisely as fellow sufferers, with genuine fellow feeling -- but also with a strong and clear sense of our limitations. And even if you've never been a fan of Ted Haggard, nor of the populist celebrity-evangelicalism that he exemplifies, you can still cultivate sympathy for him, for his family, and for his church.

And, thanks to Brother Nouwen, we can also better recognize that our wounds may not be healed right away, nor even over months or years. According to Nouwen's theology, God may well allow some of those wounds remain a while -- for as we endure their pain, their shame, and their debility, we may be given the gift of remembering just how needy each of us is, and how great the possibilities of restoring love.

John G. Stackhouse, Jr., is Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College.
The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "The Earth Charter as a New Covenant for Democracy" by J. Ronald Engel. To read this article, please visit:
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


Chip Frontz said...

Hello Dwight - are you using Bonhoeffer's Creation and Fall at all in your reflections on Genesis 1-3?

Sister Eve Tushnet, whose blog I have found an invaluable resource, has asked why Protestants in particular wish to deny or "heal" homosexuality rather than accept it and deal with it as part of fallen existence, which she sees as the authentically Catholic approach. Far be it from me to short-circuit the question, which I think is an excellent one to ask. However, I'm sure that part of it would have to do with the lack in Protestantism of a truly objective concept of "means of grace," which of course we Lutherans share with Catholics and Orthodox. Without objective means of grace, Protestants must rely upon subjective feelings of worth and inner peace to have union with God. It was precisely because these feelings are subjective and untrustworthy that Luther insisted upon the objectivity of the Word and Sacraments upon which a Christian can rest securely amidst the storms of the devil, the flesh, and the world.

Dwight P. said...

I hate being revealed in my inadequacies. I am not using Bonhoeffer for one reason -- I tried to limit the number of new books that I bought for the course. All the works I'm reading are books that I've had for some time. And I know that I have Creation and Fall, but I can't find it. Consequently, I'm going to have to come to it when I find it and read it for my own edification.

I think Sister Eve has a lot to say, and I need to start reading blogs more regularly. I would like you to say more about your ideas about Protestantism's "lack ... of a truly objective concept of 'means of grace.'" I agree with what I think you say, but I'd like you to expand.

Do you want to do that here? You can be a guest poster. Or do you want to link to reflections on your own site?

In any event, thanks for stimulating comments.

Chris Jones said...


I'm struck by this aside in your post:

I'm trying to avoid a "distillation" of the Genesis "meaning" into simple concepts such as "creatio ex nihilo" -- which, frankly, is not supported by the text -- or "Fall" -- which I think needs to be defined rather carefully

First, why do you say that creation ex nihilo is "not supported by the text"? It seems to me that things which exist -- including any pre-existent "stuff" out of which God might be said to have created -- are characterized by form and substance, such that something which has a "form" but is without substance could be said to "exist" in a minimal sort of way, and something which has "substance" without form (i.e. an amorphous "blob") may also be said to "exist" in a minimal sort of way.

But the text says that the world was "without form and void". I take that to mean that it had neither of these markers of existence -- neither form ("without form") nor substance ("void"). It really sounds like ex nihilo to me.

Secondly, I certainly agree that "the Fall" needs to be "defined rather carefully". I should say that that is rather an understatement. But I disagree with you if you believe that "the Fall" is "a simple concept". On the contrary, it is an event and a condition which is rich with meaning and tells us not only about the meaning of sin, but the meaning of human nature and of grace.

If you are going to attempt to discuss Genesis 1-3 without discussing what it has to say about the difference between uncreated and created being (and the utterly contingent nature of the latter), and without discussing what it has to say about the human condition in relation to God, then I am left wondering what there is left that is worthwhile to say about it.

Chip Frontz said...

Dwight - I'll see what I can do. I'm trying to start blogging again, so I'll let you know if I come up with anything.

I do heartily recommend Creation and Fall to you, especially because it provides a rich illumination of Discipleship, which follows it chronologically in publication and may have been being written at the same time.

Dwight P. said...

Chris, I fear you misunderstand me. I'm sorry I wasn't clearer.

I did not mean to suggest that, in the history of doctrine either "creatio ex nihilo" or "the Fall" are simple -- let alone, simplistic. But to the ears of many, they lock us into a static doctrine or idea that may in fact be simple. Augustine, for example, I think may be legitimately criticized for locking "fall" into sex. And since his time, about the only sin that is blamed for the fall is sex. It's an effort to unpack what happened with a little more complexity than that that I'm leading.

To say that the text of Genesis 1 does not support "creation from nothing" (which is virtually undeniable on its own terms, I think)is in no way to disparage the good Christian doctrine of "creatio ex nihilo". It is simply to say that what the text does not say has required that we say more. (See, in parallel, the doctrine of the Trinity.)

(By the way, I'm not sure that the Hebrew text supports your philosophical categories. "Formless and void" = tobu wa-bohu. "Bohu" appears to be a made-up term to complement, rhyme with, and emphasize "tobu" -- at least according to linguists. "Tobu" is usually used of wastelands or deserts -- neither of which are really "formless" or "insubstantial.")

But I am of the opinion that to jump too quickly into dogmatic utterances before testing the text is what so often renders Christians prey to hostility or challenge. There is nothing wrong in knowing that "ex nihilo" did not play much of a part in Judaism and that it came into play in Christianity only because certain philosophical types (especially Platonists and Neoplatonists) insisted on pressing the issue. (Colin Gunton's -- of blessed memory -- book on the development of the Christian doctrine of creation is wonderful and has thrilled and influenced me on this.)

Similarly, there is little in the text -- and it certainly was not on the mind of P or the redactor -- to see Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as one of the "hands" God uses in creation (as I think Irenaeus put it -- other one's being the Holy Spirit). That we Christians so understand it and read it either out of or into the text is true, valid, and doxological. That doesn't mean that we don't have things to talk about without bringing that in from the beginning.

It's similar with another problem: that of the Fall. As a concept it figures little if at all in Old Testament theology. Further, it figures and is understood quite differently among the Eastern Fathers from its meaning for many of those same philosophers (aided by such theological-philosphers as Origen and Augustine) who had made "ex nihilo" important.

In short, I'm proceeding on the assumption that it's sometimes a good idea to read the story on its own terms before trying to interpret it. Both are important tasks -- and we're doing both in my class.

I hope that makes clearer that we have way too much to talk about in the mere four weeks I have been allotted to work this experiment.