This is part three of my reflection on Walter Brueggemann’s Finally Comes the Poet.* You can find part one here, and part two here. While the parts relate to one another, they can be taken separately, so it’s not necessary to read the other posts as a prerequisite to this.
People come to worship. These people are you and me. We come with our residual ache, with our guilt and alienation. We come with what Brueggemann sees as two forms of religious reductionism, that keep us from letting go of our residual ache and experiencing communion** with God and one another (p. 48).
The first reductionism is what he calls extreme subjective consciousness (p.48). There is ONLY me. The world revolves around ME. This is especially true in the United States culture where we pride ourselves on our independence. We can do it ourselves, thank you very much. Although we are capable of caring for others, everything is about me, what I want, what I feel, what I perceive as important should be important to everyone. The sense of community is greatly diminished. We live in neighborhoods where we don’t know each other. There is little thought of the greater good, the greatest value is what’s good for ME. This reductionism leads us to build walls between us and our neighbors.
The second reductionism he calls extreme objective consciousness (p. 48). There is ONLY God. God is all powerful and always right. There can be no dissent because God is almighty. Because God is always right, if we disagree then we must be WRONG. If we disagree we must deny ourselves and submit. Injustice and pain are to be denied because this is the way God made things and we just need to accept it. If God didn’t want the status quo then God would’ve changed it. Because we are in compete submission to God, we cannot act to change circumstances because that would be unfaithful. Because we are forced to deny our feelings and experiences, this reductionism leads us to anger and rage at God.
Some might balk at the idea that submissiveness is wrong. Of course God is always right! We should never challenge God! But Brueggemann gives many examples where the faithful have challenged God. The Psalms are filled with challenges to the way God has set things up. Brueggemann reminds us of Abraham and Moses speaking out or challenging God’s decision-making (Gen. 18:23ff and Exodus 32:1-14, 33:13-16, 34:8-9, Num. 11:10ff). “Conversations of serious engagement with God are not conversations in which God must always respond on our terms,” but that doesn’t mean they’re forbidden or that God doesn’t take them seriously (p. 60). It is CRUCIAL for us to bring our sufferings, our hurts, our pleas, our displeasure, our COMPLAINTS even about God TO God.
“The preaching task is to guide people out of the alienated silence of exaggerated self, and out of the silence of denial and rage of an exaggerated God, into a serious, dangerous, subversive, covenantal conversation, a conversation that is the root form of communion. Communion is not possible where speech is destroyed either by selfishness or by submissiveness”(p. 49).
Then, “Praise happens… when the isolation and alienation and denial of rage are overcome enough to permit speech”(p. 68). Feeling heard is an indispensable part of any relationship. Even when things don’t go our way, being heard helps us maintain our relationship with the other. Praise is our ultimate destination, but when we’re in the midst of suffering praise is not easy. When we’re expressing our anger with God praise is not easy. It’s a journey, and sometimes that journey is L O N G. But by staying in conversation/communion with God and with one another we are carried through to praise. Staying in communion allows us to eventually get there.
“The sermon must be a modeling of a conversation in which all partners speak: the speech of good friends, the speech of parent and child, the speech of sovereign and subject, the speech of creator and creature…. The initiative for a new conversation cannot simply begin with the voice of God, for God is already eliminated in alienation or too large in suppressed rage. The new saving conversation must begin ‘from below’ in the cry of the oppressed, the grief of emptiness, the hurt of being forgotten”(p. 75).
I bristle at the idea that humanity must initiate this conversation/communion. What I think is that God is open to us the whole time, but our acknowledgment and verbalization of our alienation or rage finally enables us to see God, to hear what God has been saying to us all along – opens us to finally realize it. Like when the disciples recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:35).
I completely agree with Brueggemann that the sermon is a place for the modeling of a conversation. Once people see the pastor struggling with God, they can give themselves permission to do the same. Once people see the pastor struggling with his/her selfishness, it gives them permission to do the same. I’m not saying the pastor is to lay out all their burdens from the pulpit – that’s inappropriate – what the pastor verbalizes are common human conditions, allowing people to recognize that wrestling with God is ok, that confronting our own selfishness is ok, once in a while giving a suitable personal example when it fits. As a pastor, it’s my honor and privilege to help folks to start this conversation, this communion, with God and one another, and to keep it going. It’s not always easy, in fact sometimes it’s quite difficult and frightening, but always important. Even in the most loving relationships there are tough times. But it is essential to keep talking…
questions to ponder:
- Do I see myself as having an extremely subjective consciousness or an extremely objective consciousness?
- How can I confront my selfishness?
- Am I able to acknowledge when I disagree with God? When I’m angry with God? How do I express it?
- How have I experienced God in conversation with me? Have I felt heard? How am I in conversation with God? How does God hear me?
*Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation. Walter Brueggemann, Augsburg Fortress: Minneapolis, 1989.
**Brueggemann gives a meaning to the word communion that is wider than its common use in the Church. In liturgical traditions, communion almost always means “Holy Communion,” the Mass or the Eucharist. But Brueggemann sees preaching as a verbal making of communion with preacher, listener and God.