Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The PB has a dream

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, is an elegant person with superb skills in many areas. Theologically, however, she is a puzzle. Lately she has been speaking frequently of "the dream of God." Where does this idea of God "dreaming" come from? It is a thoroughly anthropocentric notion transferred from human beings to God. The old men who dream dreams in the book of Joel are not God. The vision of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 61, which she often cites, is not a dream. God does not have a dream. God has a purpose. And his purpose, as no prophet makes more clear than Isaiah, cannot be thwarted by any failure of human beings. God is not lying around dreaming, waiting for us to bestir ourselves. God, as Isaiah tirelessly proclaims, is on the move.

Another word the PB likes is "task." She often talks about "our task" as Christians. This is not a Biblical concept. If we are to speak theologically, we will use the words "call" or "vocation," because it is implied in such words that there is an agency that does the calling (Latin vocare, to call). A "task" is burdensome, something that is laid upon us that we must be exhorted laboriously to fulfil. A vocation from God is a gift that makes us joyful and free.

Martin Luther King said "I have a dream," but he never said that "God has a dream." With his unfailingly Biblical speech, he brought his dream into alignment with God's purpose. The Spirit of God used the strength of King's preaching to plunge his hearers into the mighty current of God's rolling river of justice ("Let justice roll down like waters"--the prophet Amos). It was part of the power of King's preaching that he hewed close to his source--the Bible and its verbal constructions which always proclaimed God as the author of all power and all justice--in other words, as the subject of all the sentences. And it was the power of his life that he so clearly and so consistently understood himself as a called person, sinful and tormented as he was.

True preaching today is hard to find. We hear, instead, "evocative" (Will Willimon's word) addresses that create a mood--a "dreamy" mood in this case. Or we hear harangues. I heard one on line recently, from a famous pulpit. It was undoubtedly pleasing to those who shared the preacher's strong views about fundamentalist religion in the public sphere. But there was not a shred of Biblical proclamation in it, no moments of revelatory power, no glimpse of the purpose of God, no kerygma at all--which meant that no one could come away from it uplifted, lightened, smiling and free. One could only come away angry at one's benighted fellow humans who were such blots on the landscape. True preaching of the Word of God, however, contains good news not only for the right-thinking and right-acting, but for all the others. That is a true test of preaching. Let us now praise famous men: Will Campbell has always insisted on that true test throughout his life, as he maintained his ties with "rednecks." Desmond Tutu has become distressingly sloppy in his theology of late, and he relies too much on shtick now; however, the drama of his entire life, culminating in the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has been kerygmatic. In the midst of horrors, he has been a living illustration of God's embrace for perpetrators and victims alike, an embodiment of God's justification of the ungodly (Romans 4), and for that he will be honored for ever.