Monday, July 27, 2015

Wither Walter Brueggemann's Hermeneutic?

The biblical text, in its fullness, which remains beyond our capacity to exhaustively grasp, is the ultimate vocabulary upon which Walter Brueggemann stakes his identity.  At the same time, given the profound impact of secularism, anti-foundational postmodernity, and our post-Christian society and culture (fundamentalist/evangelical revival notwithstanding), from the point of view of perception and reception, imaginative construal may be one of the most dynamic hermeneutics available to many contemporary people in coming to grips with the revelation embedded in the Biblical text.  This may be particularly the case amongst those who have fundamentally challenged the precepts of the Christian faith and who have embraced one aspect or another of the secular city as their primary vocabulary.  There are many reasons why those who have had some level of decent Christian formation in their background who have left the primary vocabulary of faith, or who, even if, in faith they continue to adhere to its primary truth, have not heard an Authentic Word in a very long time.  Simply put, for many the assumptions of the secular city seem to be existentially primary and anything which fundamentally violates those precepts takes on the appearance of the unreal.  I haven’t done a formal study, but I bet there are many people in our UCC congregations, if not pastors as well, who at some powerful (and perhaps unconscious) level embrace the secular as their primary (at least at the level of a very potent penultimacy) vocabulary.

In my reading of WB, it seems that he is appealing in his many collections of short essays to these people as his primary audience, while secondarily, encouraging the evangelical sector to overhear the conversation.  For the former in particular, the eruption of the Spirit of God one verse, one miracle, or one revelation at a time within the epicenter of the secular city may be precisely the Word needed in order to break the logjam, however temporarily, of the secular assumptions that ground their primary vocabulary.  It is not as an absolute truth, but as a manifestation of the contemporary kairos that WB is skeptical of grand narratives as reflected in his ongoing dispute with Brevard Childs, even as, at some profound level, as Gabriel Fackre suggests, he adheres to the entire Story.  Gabe quotes the following WB text:

The Bible is inherently the live word of God, revealing the character and will of God and empowering us for an alternative life in the world. While I believe in the indeterminacy of the text to some large extent, I know that finally the Bible is forceful and consistent in its main theological claim. It expresses the conviction that the God who created the world in love redeems the world in suffering and will consummate the world in joyous well-being. That flow of conviction about God’s self-disclosure in the Bible is surely the main claim of the apostolic faith, a claim upon which the church fundamentally agrees. 

As Gabe states, “this of course is not the fullest summation of WB’s hermeneutic, but I think that there appears to be more in common and for conversation than has been suggested.”

            When WB refers to the dynamic of the imagination—the importance of imaginative construal—I hypothesize that he is referring to nothing less than the Holy Spirit in illuminating the disclosed Word to receptive listeners.  What he is implying, I think, given the current kairos, is that the third voice of the Trinity requires a certain primacy in order to break through the logjams of identities highly influenced by secular existentialism.  It is always the Word of which the imagination illuminates on WB’s interpretation, and on this there is no equivocation. What is at issue is the extent to which strongly formed Christian identities, particularly in mainline congregations will play a central or more marginal role in the total identity formation of believers.  While WB would like to see more, I think what he is saying, given the temper of the times is that there is little choice, particularly among the mainline, than to come to terms with this marginality.  Given this assumption it is through the imaginative dynamic encounter that the text may break in once again one verse at a time in the important work of “funding” postmodernity.  WB does hope that through an accumulation of these individual encounters something more coherent and stable will emerge at this time in the history of the west even as he remains highly suspicious of comprehensive theologies breaking in within the foreseeable future.

That said, it’s also limiting to leave things there, which at his best, WB does not, even in Texts Under Negotiation. For while WB speaks to an important some, there are important others even within the mainline for whom this message remains unconvincing and certainly unsatisfactory.  There is a thirsting too (however repressed, at least in certain UCC congregations) for what Gabe Fackre refers to as the “full-orbed” Word and the need to grapple with entire Story with the sophistication and nuance that he does in The Christian Story and The Doctrine of Revelation.  The critical message of Fackre’s work is that any substantial encounter with the Spirit itself requires a through understanding of and illumination by the Word, including a solid appreciation of the entire Story.

I don’t think WB would deny this, although he might wonder how that would occur in the given postmodern reality.  Certainly comprehensive Bible study needs to become a major congregational focus which is far from given in the current reality of mainline Protestantism.  In the process many of the imaginative encounters of which WB illuminates in his powerful narratives need to be experienced if there is going to be any revitalization movement within the UCC.  Broadly speaking, what is needed is not so much a dialogue, but at the least a very ongoing tripartite encounter between Walter Brueggemann, Donald Bloesch, and Gabriel Fackre (which includes the various schools of thought which their work together embodies) in order to substantially grapple with the many issues that are on the UCC table in the current era.

May it be so!

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