Within the realm of Christian theology (both as academic discipline and as reflection that fuels the life of the church), a great deal depends on the intellectual frameworks that are brought to bear on particular issues. As in the sciences, the same data can give rise to differing conclusions depending on the analytical framework to which that data is subjected. Since, in the humanities, “data” generally means texts, it follows that persistent concerns over hermeneutics — why do we read certain texts in certain ways? — have at their core the (correct) sense that the kinds of questions we ask of the text matter. They matter for how we understand the text, and they matter for how our readings will affect others.
Preachers … have an especially high stake in being able to discern the frameworks that will yield the most compelling readings of these texts.
Preachers, who must choose the questions that they bring to the weekly lectionary readings with one eye toward the integrity of the texts themselves and the other eye focused on the salient issues present in the lives of their congregants, have an especially high stake in being able to discern the frameworks that will yield the most compelling readings of these texts. This is particularly true if one wishes to treat the four lectionary texts — as I will do in this essay — as one sustained argument presented for the worshipping congregation’s prayerful reflection on a given Sunday morning. The fact that the four texts under consideration in Advent 1C are also in a unique position to “frame” the congregation’s experience of an entire liturgical season lends even more importance to the preacher’s task of identifying theological frameworks that will evoke experiences appropriate to the church’s historic and contemporary understandings of “advent” — the arrival of hope.
All of which is to suggest that, before we turn to the texts themselves, we do well to ask: what are the theological frameworks that underpin the anxieties — individual, social, and even ecclesial — to which theology must address itself if it is to convey the gospel in our day?
I’d like to suggest one: a key anxiety among churches and their parishioners today has to do with the interplay of internal and external validation of hope.
While that phrasing might seem cumbersome, it boils down to a fairly simple dilemma: if the gospel, particularly in advent, is sent by God through the preacher to convey hope, then a longstanding and multifaceted question in theology has to do with whether that hope finds its validation primarily from within the individual/church’s experience, or whether validation of that hope is so unlike human experience that it can only “arrive” (advent) as something basically foreign to our own ways of being?
Examples of how this dilemma has arisen within the tradition are legion; I’ll confine myself to one influential episode. The Reformed twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth rose to prominence in part because of the ferocity of his attacks upon Protestant theology of the previous century, particularly its great progenitor Friedrich Schleiermacher. Schleiermacher, in Barth’s view, had removed theology and preaching from its grounding in statements about God and had relegated it to commentary upon human religious experience (note: when one hears complaints these days that theology has become entirely too “subjective,” then this is largely Barth v. Schleiermacher redux). Barth, who understood the fall of humanity to have deeply damaged our capacity to “experience” God’s grace rightly, believed that the gospel was foreign enough to human experience that it could only arrive as a disruption to our existing capacities for spiritual knowledge. This disruption was God’s revelation, and it was salvific precisely in its dissimilarity to human experience. If we are to experience genuine hope, it must come precisely from “without.”
Meanwhile, as many Lutherans know, Barth’s later contemporary Paul Tillich critiqued Barth heavily for placing too great of a separation between revelation and human experience. For Tillich, revelation could not answer questions that were not already being asked by those living out the human condition, and he accused Barth of believing — in simplistic and dogmatic fashion – that one could not even know the right questions to ask about God and humanity until revelation supplies the answers to those questions. Such a view, according to Tillich, treats the hope of the gospel like a “rock” thrown at the human condition rather than as the salutary answers to deep human longings. So where Barth emphasized the disconnect between the hope of the gospel and human subjectivity, Tillich insisted that theology and preaching emphasize a “correlation” between human questions (particularly those emerging from philosophy and the sciences, as well as everyday human experiences) and the answers supplied by theology and preaching.
This seemingly “academic” (in the pejorative sense) theological debate between two giants of 20th-century theology actually has had fairly concrete consequences for the church, particularly in the training of seminarians. Throughout the twentieth century, seminaries and divinity schools began dividing themselves according to whether they trained their theological/ministerial students more along Barthian lines (emphasizing the disconnect between true gospel revelation and human experience, with the former trumping the latter in cases of conflict between the two) or Tillichian methods (stressing the need to connect the church’s teaching to contemporary facets of human experience, and perhaps revise church doctrines to the extent that they no longer speak to experience ). This divide was manifest, not only at university divinity schools (as in the famous “Yale versus Chicago” debates of the late twentieth century), but also among the seminaries of the ELCA and its predecessor bodies.
A substantial portion of the anxieties that plague Christians as individuals and churches can be mapped along this same [internal/external] divide.
Thus, whole generations of preachers and teachers emerged with preferences strongly influenced by one side or the other of the external/internal divide. This may help explain why, as I suggested earlier, a substantial portion of the anxieties that plague Christians as individuals and churches can be mapped along this same divide:
Those planning worship and liturgical experiences continue to struggle over whether the emphasis in liturgy should be on providing an experience in which worshippers “recognize” their own tastes in liturgy (thus making worship “relevant” or “contemporary”) or whether liturgy should seek to provide a stark contrast to contemporary modes of experiential consumption (a mindset that generally favors retaining and even celebrating “traditional” liturgical patterns in intentional defiance of more “modern” innovations).
In recent debates over human sexuality, a pattern has emerged whereby those advocating greater inclusion of LGBTQ individuals in the church have pointed largely towards the need to have theology reflect the growing awareness of culture that discrimination against these individuals is wrong; meanwhile, those opposed to church actions such as blessing same-sex marriage contend that Biblical and ecclesial prohibitions against homosexual practice are normative PRECISELY in their being “countercultural,” that is, alien and external to the spirit of the age.
As the religious marketplace of spiritual options proliferates, questions of how individual experience can or should be disciplined by external authority become paramount. Consider the ongoing debate as to whether Lutherans, like our Roman Catholic brethren, need a recognized “magisterium” of some sort to provide a living adjudication of theological/doctrinal matters. Or the vexed question of whether and to what extent the Lutheran Confessions — documents produced under very particular sixteenth-century circumstances — can continue to norm Lutheran theology and practice in our own context(s).
These and other examples suggest that variations on the opposition between internality and externality, recognition and foreignness, haunt a great deal of the church’s thinking today.
In the so-called “apocalyptic” discourse of Luke 21, the problem of externality immediately asserts itself. Our collective experience in recent years has given us good reason to be suspicious of apocalyptic imagery in that it so easily lends itself to abuses: disdain for “worldly” matters, belief that the earth’s mortality (that it “will pass away,” vs. 33) lets us off the hook for caring for God’s creation, and the fostering of sharp divisions between those who will be “saved” at the time of judgment and those who will not. This last danger is exacerbated by the fact that the 1 Thessalonians text finds Paul — the authentic, early Paul — alluding to final judgment at the time of Christ’s parousia and the apparent need for Christians to be “blameless” at that time (vs. 13).
Within the thinking of the “liberal” theology that has dominated large swaths of the theological landscape of Protestantism in recent centuries, apocalyptic discourse was often explicitly targeted as an outmoded and unhelpful remnant of past “supernaturalist” worldviews; meanwhile, while much liberation theology has seized upon biblical images of apocalyptic travail (that which must be “escaped,” vs. 36), it has often done so while implicitly agreeing with liberal theology that such images should be translated into categories more amenable to our own experience, such as “social justice.”
To the extent that the ELCA is a church body — and Metro Chicago is a synod! — whose theological underpinnings tend to prioritize precisely the things threatened by overliteral or “fundamentalist” readings of apocalyptic (such as care for creation, eschewing sharp divisions between the “saved” and the “unsaved,” and social advocacy to change the worldly conditions of the oppressed), the temptation is to domesticate this gospel reading in order to make it seem less foreign and more palatable, to “soften” the advent of Advent by putting the congregation on more recognizable footing. This can be done by minimizing the aforementioned element of judgment implied in the conjunction of the Luke/Thessalonians text, or by emphasizing a soteriology that counters otherworldliness by stressing the parousia as primarily an advent of God’s worldly reign of justice. Such strategies would strongly favor the “internal” or “experiential” side of the internal/external divide, and in some contexts they might well be homiletically fruitful.
However, several dangers attend such domestication. One is simply the crisis of plausibility; I daresay that many congregation members, even those not formally schooled in theology, can tell when a preacher is taking an uncomfortable text and rendering it “safe.” The second, and perhaps more serious danger, is to miss the opportunity to reflect on the other side of the divide — that is, the ways in which troublesome texts, in their very alterity, might validate Christian hope, the hope to which the season of Advent bears witness.
Here’s what I mean: the Reformation tradition has stressed both the danger and, to a certain extent, the inevitability of idolatry in even the most well-intentioned piety; Calvin went so far as to call the human heart a “factory of idols.” If we take seriously our tendency to create idols of even the most seemingly praiseworthy goals — social justice, soteriological inclusiveness, etc. — then we are in a position to be thankful for the fact that the lectionary includes and even highlights scriptural texts that do not immediately fit comfortably into our experience (or even our desired experience). To borrow the language of much contemporary philosophy, there is an irreducible alterity, an inescapable “otherness,” to much scriptural discourse, including that of Jesus himself. Rushing to tame that discourse so that it becomes comfortably relevant to contemporary experience always runs the risk of becoming an exercise in conceptual calf-making. The very foreignness of biblical idioms — both in their imagery and, in many cases, their theology and ethics — lends credence to our belief that they are not simply projections of our own wish-fulfillment or social norms.
This suggests that the preacher’s quite understandable desire to preach in such a way that the texts speak to the contemporary experience of parishioners might benefit from a healthy dash of externality in the form of refusing to domesticate that in scripture which is foreign, and perhaps even offensive, to that very experience. Indeed, Luther himself was a master exegete in precisely this regard. Often lost in discussions of Luther’s law-gospel distinction, as well as his notoriously low estimation of fallen human reason, is his view that human reason finds comfort and recognition primarily in works-righteousness. It is justification by grace through faith, and indeed God’s decision to show mercy where condemnation would be warranted, that is most offensive — foreign — to our rational sense of justice. In other words, God is at God’s most bizarre when choosing to show mercy.
The stress on the salvific importance of God’s being external, foreign, “strange” is upheld by the other Advent 1C texts. For instance, Paul’s aforementioned mention of “blamelessness” in Thessalonians is not technically an injunction (“be blameless”); rather, it is a prayer (“May God strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless”). Blamelessness here is not an achievement, it is a gift tied to God’s own identity. And indeed, the externality of righteousness is the foundation of the Jeremiah text (and indeed, foundational to subsequent Jewish piety): God’s very name becomes “The Lord is our righteousness” (vs. 16). Meanwhile, the implied narrative of the psalmist’s prayer takes its power from the fact that the God who demands righteousness (vs. 9-10) is the same God who forgives Israel and thus grants the nation hope — from “without,” not within, the nation’s own merits.
We affirm with Luther that at no point is God more different than us than when God chooses to justify those sinners whom reason and “justice” would condemn.
Thus, these texts invite the preacher and the congregation to consider the “advent” of Christian hope — or at least that hope’s validation within our own experience of the human condition — as an intervention of that which is strange, even as we affirm with Luther that at no point is God more different than us than when God chooses to justify those sinners whom reason and “justice” would condemn. From that theological foundation, the preacher might consider the ways in which we are invited to live into the strangeness of such mercy, and how such hope from “without” does not simply invalidate human experience but rather transforms it into a way of living that may well seem “foreign to life as usual” — and be all the more salutary for God’s world in its strangeness.