Friday, March 07, 2008

A Good Sermon on the Mount Analysis

I usually tout my Icelandic heritage, but today I'm proud to be Danish too (only smidge, but hey ...). I came across this little excerpt from the Journals of Soeren Kierkegaard, and I think it nicely captures the kind of questioning and challenging (and draws the conclusion) that I shoot for in the study of Matthew that I'm "leading." See what you think:

Is God's meaning, in Christianity, simply to humble us through the model (putting before us the ideal) and to console us with "Grace," but between God and humanity there is no relationship, that we must express our thankfulness like a dog to a man, so that the adoration becomes more and more true and more pleasing to God as it becomes less and less possible for us that we could be like the model? Is that the meaning of Christianity? Or is it the very reverse, that God's will is to express that he desires to be in relations with us and therefore desires the thanks and the adoration which is in Spirit and in truth: imitation. The latter is certainly the meaning of Christianity. But the former is a cunning invention of us men in order to escape from real relation to God.
Once again, the Great Dane (or is that Hamlet?) has put his finger on the tenderest of spots -- a tenderness that continues to this day.

I spent some frustrating hours last week in convocations at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. Robin Lovin, the renowned ethicist at SMU, spent three lectures (and I don't know how many class periods and conversations) trying to convince his auditors of the continuing relevance ("now more than ever, perhaps") of the theological perspective of Reinhold Niebuhr (RN). I mean no ad hominem insult when I note that I was caught a little off-guard by the depth of his conviction that RN was dead on and that "Christian realism" is the path to follow in our crazy world. "Christian" comes from an "anthropology" that derives from the biblical account that, while humanity is most wonderfully created for communion with God and goodwill in its structure, that same humanity is most depravedly fallen and has trouble getting up. The "realism" that is urged on the faithful with that anthropology is the description of the world gained from the social sciences (and, he failed to mention, the ideologies) of the secular world.

In a short personal conversation, I asked Dr. Lovin how it was possible to accept the world's ways and perspectives in light of the very clear words of Jesus, for example in the Sermon on the Mount. Dr. Lovin very blithely dismissed that with "Well, Niebuhr would say that when you're faced with an impossible ideal ... ." At which point I cut him off and noted that that is a pretty big assumption. His only reply was, "Yes, well, but if it is ... ." Apparently for Christian realism it's obvious on its face that the Gospels are meant for some other reason than to to be taken seriously.

Give me Kierkegaard (and, I might add, Bonhoeffer and Hauerwas), then, over Niebuhr any day.

"Imitation" is the nature of discipleship and true worship -- this is a theme discussed in David Augsburger's book, Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor. I, as you might imagine, appreciate this take on the subject -- and especially that a "spirituality" that ignores the hard work of embodying one's relationship to God in relationships with others is a false (or certainly, inadequate) spirituality.


David Bruner said...

Hi, Dwight,

Thanks for this post. I would just add that this is not only a problem in relation to Niebuhr, but also in relation to certain strands of Lutheranism as well. Some folks in my neck of the woods (St. Paul) seem happy to see the sermon on the mount as strict second-use-of-the-law stuff, and worry that any talk of actually imitating Christ just winds up sneaking works righteousness in through the back door. Sigh. Of course, I'm with the Great Dane (and Bonhoeffer) all the way, but...


Anonymous said...

Hey, Dave, we're neighbors! Only a river separates us (and theological perspective may bridge that river). Give me a note offline,, and maybe we can work some of this out over a cup of Starbucks (or a draw of Guinness -- see earlier posts).

Bruce Graeme said...

O man ! (...) Do you feel that man's existence as it was yesterday, as it is to-day, is so delightful, so satisfactory, so blissful that there is no need to seek to alter it, to change it completely, to make it the opposite of what it is and more like that which, for centuries, we have imagined to be the future life in the world above ? Would it not be possible to transform this life, make this world more divine, and finally bring down to it heaven itself and its laws ?

This new life, this world at once earthly and celestial, is the Kingdom of Heaven ; and in order to make this kingdom possible we must celestialize, deify, superhumanize ourselves (incielare, indiare, trasumanare noi stessi) ; we must become like unto God, we must imitate God.

Giovanni Papini, "The Story of Christ" (p. 118)