Doing Theology in A Covenant Community

Craig B. Anderson

An Address to the House of Bishops (II)
March 1993
Kanuga, North Carolina

Catch only what you’ve thrown yourself, all is mere skill and little gain; But when you’re suddenly the catcher of a ball thrown by an eternal partner with accurate and measured swing towards you, to your centre, in an arch from the great bridge building of God: why catching then becomes a power – not yours, a world’s.  – Rainer Maria Rilke

Shortly after I began teaching at The School of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee in 1977 I had the opportunity to share, through a series of conversations with Terry Holmes, a growing dissatisfaction with a “professional model of ministry” and the all too pervasive “triumph of the therapeutic” within ministry that is characterized by a reduction of pastoral care to pastoral counseling and undergirded by the extra-theological authorities of psychology and personality theory. Those conversations and Terry’s insight, scholarship and concern were formative for me as a young theologian and seminary professor. In searching for alternative theological models for understanding ministry, I came across an article in the late 1970s by Walter Brueggemann entitled. “Covenanting as Human Vocation,” (Interpretation, Volume 33, 1979). The article was one of those experiences of existential truth that I described earlier this morning, the “ah-ha” experience of revelatory truth that Brueggemann provided a metaphor and theological image for reflecting not only on ministry but a more complete understanding of humanity in relation to God. Brueggemann’s notion of covenant as a metaphor was “the ball” (thrown by an eternal partner).

In building on the insightful narrative theology that Mark has just shared with us as a way of understanding “Torah as descriptive of Episcopate” and in light of the critique that I provided this morning in the form of a metaphor and method for guiding our life together as a House of Bishops, during the next few minutes I would like to share with you some implications of “covenant existence” and Torah as regulative for our life together. I shall do so by rehearsing what Brueggemann suggests as six characteristic actions of those in covenant communities. Given these actions, I shall attempt to contextualize, under the rubric of “meaningfulness,” his insights in relation to the House of Bishops. It is my hope that such reflection may disclose some truth and direction for us in anticipating objectives #2 and #4 for Kanuga II in the face of the four hypotheses as descriptive of our present but changing experience.

Brueggemann begins by noting that in covenant existence “a characteristic response to YHWH who makes all things new is to hope rather than to despair. To hope is to live in the sure and certain confidence of promises and to function each day trusting that God’s promises and purposes will not fail.” Hope, Brueggemann notes, is not something done at the margin of life when all other resources fail but is definitional for persons in covenant with God. He goes on to suggest in a very provocative way that “despair and its psychologically acceptable form depression, are in fact, covert acts of atheism in which we conclude that nothing can happen apart from us and no one is at work but us.” In recalling last night’s discussion and some of the other conversations that I’ve had with many of you both individually and in my small group, I have sensed a good bit of hope but also a certain degree of cynicism. Cynicism in the extreme becomes despair. I mention this because the four hypotheses that have been descriptive of our life together are depressing and could be a source of not only cynicism but despair. I mention this also in calling us to move beyond such cynicism in recognition of the hope that binds us together as a covenant people and the recognition that God remains with us as the initiator and creator of covenant. God does so even when we break covenant and are disobedient by participating in covert acts of atheism in despair.  Both the work of Jürgen Moltmann and Wolfgang Pannenberg remind us of the importance of hope and its centrality for understanding human personality and its role in reconciliation and healing. Theologically, our ministry is grounded in the eschatological hope and the certainty of God’s covenant promise embodied in the New Covenant in Jesus the Christ.

Second, Brueggemann continues by noting that in response to the Divine Logos, the New Covenant and the Incarnate Word, we are called to listen and yield to the Other. Such listening is active and such yielding, rather than passive acceptance, is a readiness to be directed and led by YHWH. When we would prefer to have it our own way, to retain the initiative and prefer to self-define rather than being defined by the creator of covenant. As Brueggemann states, “listening to the voice of another with seriousness is… a decision to live by grace, to let us be impacted and defined by that other voice.” We heard this clearly this morning in recalling the prophet Jeremiah, who perhaps of all of the prophets levels the prophetic indictment, “you did not listen” (Jeremiah 5:21;7:13;11:10;13:11;22:21;25:4,8;29:19:35:17;36:25). Brueggemann notes that, “not listening, always speaking, always retaining initiative, always insisting on self-definition, is another mark of atheism, for it is based on the surmise and fear that there is no one but us and only our voice can prevent the terror of cosmic silence.” In this afternoon’s Eucharist, we heard the call of Isaiah, “Hear Oh Israel!” In listening we rediscover that the Lord our God is one God and we are called to love the Lord our God, with all our heart and soul and mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. This summary of the law, as we all recognize, cannot be realized unless we are willing to listen and yield our will to the will of the Other so that we might be in communion with others. We have started to listen to one another as covenant partners in a new way in our small groups, and Bible study. The opportunity to reflect and share in a quiet place like Kanuga and an atmosphere of growing trust promotes such listening.

Third, in response to YHWH, who holds us accountable and responsible, Brueggemann notes that a faithful human action is “obedient answering.” Obedient answering consists in actions which may be summarized as the doing of justice and righteousness, loyalty and graciousness. It strikes me that such obedient answering requires a movement away from contractual captivity to self-interest toward an openness and awareness of the marks of mature obedience as articulated in Mark 14:36, “not my will but Thy will be done.” It further strikes me that this notion of obedient answering is at the core of our recognition, realization and insight that we cannot be Bishops individually without being Bishops together. Such is the nature of covenant existence, of Torah which informs, directs and upholds our common life and ministry.

Fourth, in the face of a covenant-making God, Brueggemann states that a faithful human action is to “rage and protest.” To accept the blame for everything is not to take God seriously, whereas to protest is to take God seriously. Today’s psalm and passage from Isaiah make explicit the need for us to respond at times by raising a clinched fist and objecting in asking why. From Isaiah, we recall YHWH’s invitation, “come reason with me. Make an argument with me, take me seriously, don’t forget me.” God’s invitation is not only to the nation Israel, but to us. Brueggemann says that rage and protest are really forms of trust and an acknowledgement that finally we must come to terms with YHWH who is the originator and creator of covenant itself. To protest is to take YHWH seriously. To protest and to argue theologically is to take one another seriously as sisters and brothers in the House of Bishops. An implication of this for me and I hope for you is that we will not turn loose on Clarence Pope or Jack Spong or any other bishops in this House, but take them with utmost seriousness as covenant partners in a willingness to argue, to share and to self-disclose. While I’ve been speaking a good bit metaphorically today, I mean this literally; I am bound to them and to you by the vows and promises I made in becoming a Bishop and by the vows and promises that were made for me in my baptism which I later confirmed. We are ordained to deal with one another and stand by one another in an awareness of the root of the word that defines our vocation, religio, which means that we are bound or woven together.

Fifth, in face of a covenant-making God, Brueggemann suggests that a faithful human action is to “grieve, not to complain but to lament,” and to care enough to acknowledge loss, limit, brokenness, and to address it to someone in the hope that is will be answered. Such grief is perhaps the deepest way to realize self-disclosure and our need for vulnerability with one another as members of the House. I suspect that our cynicism is disclosed in our tendency to complain about one another rather than seeking reconciliation with one another prompted by hope.

Sixth and finally, and perhaps primarily, Brueggemann notes that “a faithful human action is to praise God, to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.” Praise in this sense is not a means toward an end, “it is the end itself; it is the spontaneous, grateful yielding over of self to the one who is the faithful covenant partner.” In this sense doxology is the most faithful act of getting one’s mind off of oneself and fully on God. To quote Abraham Heschel, “the singing of doxology, the practice of surrendered gratitude, is the last full measure of humanness in which the creature of God is fully turned toward the creator who stays by the creation.”

Our bible study, and our ordering of life in common prayer are hopeful signs for us as Bishops. Our willingness to set aside time for prayer, study and reflection and to resist the contractual demands for instant gratification are further signs of hope for our life together. I continue to be amazed, surprised and delighted by the gift of God’s grace in the revelation of Jesus and the New Covenant community in terms of the appropriateness of the Daily Office lessons during Kanuga I and II. In the context of meaningfulness and truth as existential and regulative, God’s word has informed our time together by forming us as covenant partners.

The foregoing characteristics as articulated by Brueggemann, by their very nature are liturgical, public, communal and deeply personal actions. I would like to suggest that they are also indicative of ways of doing theology in a covenant community, ways that could transform and transfigure our life together as a House of Bishops. These six characteristic actions could aid in turning our focus from who we are to vocational questions, calling us to service wherein we find true identity by losing ourself in recalling who and whose we are. Having noted some of the potential implications of covenant as a metaphor in doing theology together, let me hasten to cite three aspects of covenant existence that challenge our contractual ways of our being together.

First, covenant existence is by nature and by definition conflicted. The gospel by its very nature brings conflict because it is offensive. It offends, addresses, and challenges our contractual ways of being in the world by calling us to redemptive existence and a willingness to surrender self-concern to concern for the other. I often reminded my students at Sewanee of this by suggesting that since the gospel is offensive, they didn’t have to be! We are not called to offend or to judge one another but to take conflict seriously and to recognize that it is a part of community and a characteristic of covenant existence. What covenant promises is not equilibrium, the status quo or resolution but faithfulness or hesed in the midst of conflict whereby YHWH stands with us and by us and works through us. Furthermore, unlike contractual existence, which demands that everything be resolved before entering into a contract, in covenant we come to community with everything yet to be resolved and not by six hundred contractual resolutions!

Second, covenant is precarious. Brueggemann notes that it brings with it dangerous freedoms in the presence of the other. This precariousness is further evidenced in the fact that we receive our identity not only from the Other, but from each other. If you doubt this, think of times that you have had to explain the actions of members of this House of Bishops to others in the Church! In the face of such precariousness the question is, can we replace our contractual need for control with trust as a mark of covenant existence?

Third and finally, it strikes me that covenant existence as conflicted and precarious means that we are called to believe in each other, to believe in the vows and promises that each of us has made even when they cannot be proven. To put proof in the place of trust is to reduce covenant to a bargain with the slippage of grace removed and the possibility of forgiveness forgotten. Such contractual existence removes the dangers but also removes the surprises, the gifts and the potential for unextrapolated newness. Our tendency is to reduce covenant to contract and then to break contract. The challenge before us is to resist the pressure of contractual existence both within and without and to provide leadership for the covenant community that we call the Church.

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