Tuesday, August 03, 2010

An Unsettling God

In his 2009 book, Walter Brueggemann has written a forceful critique of modern culture using an unadulterated model of the Old Testament God. I find his books compulsive reading in any event, but this one may be his best.

'At the root of reality is a limitless generosity that intends an extravagant abundance . . . . This insistence flies in the face of the theory of scarcity on which the modern world is built. An ideology of scarcity produces a competitiveness that issues in brutality, justifies policies of wars and aggression, authorizes an acute individualism, and provides endless anxiety about money, sexuality, physical fitness, beauty, work achievments, and finally morality. . . .

'At the center of realitiy is a deep, radical, painful, costly fissure that will, soon or later, break ever self-arranged pattern of well-being . . . . It cannot be helped, and it cannot be avoided. . . .

'This insistence on the reality of brokenness flies in the face of the Enlightenment practice of denial. Enlightenment rationality, in its popular, uncriticized form, teaches that with enough reason and resources brokenness can be avoided. And so Enlightnment rationality, in its frenzied commercial advertising, hucksters the good of denial and avoidance: denial of headaches and perspiration and loneliness, impotence and poverty and shame, embarrassment and, finally, death. In such ideology there are no genuinely broken people. When brokenness intrudes into such an assembly of denial, as surely it must, it comes as failure, stupidity, incompetence, and guilt. The church, so wrapped in the narrative of denial, tends to collude in this. When denial is transposed into guilt—into personal failure—the system of denial remains intact and uncritized, in the way Job' friends defended the system.

'The outcome for the isolated failure is that there can be no healing, for there has not been enough candor to permit it. In the end, such denial is not only a denial of certain specifics—it is the rejection of the entire drama of brokenness and healing, the denial that there is an incommensurate Power and Agent who comes in pathos into the brokenness, and who by coming there makes the brokenness a place of possibility.' (pp. 171-172)

I couldn't help thinking of the spiritual marketplace as I read Brueggemann. I think it was St Teresa who said that it is important to tell people not what they want to hear but what they need to hear, that to do otherwise is to betray the relationship. How far her notion is from today's reality, along with the idea that there might just possibly be tendencies in ourselves we need to work on if we are not to self-destruct and take others with us. Contemporary spirituality often seems to me like a form of plastic surgery: no matter how destructive the person's behavior they are to be encouraged, affirmed, made to feel 'special'. To actually identify the problem for many people seems almost inconceivable: look (behold!), covetousness (or lying, or lack of integrity, or misogyny—fill in the blank) is a huge problem for you at the moment. Not only is it affecting your behavior and relationships adversely, it is driving you to make bad choices for the group. Worst of all, it is destabilizing you: you have no centre.

Most people would be outraged that anyone could see, much less identify, the melanoma that is eating away their flesh under their botoxed plasticine cheek. According to some recent sociological studies, almost no one would have any pangs at all that they were damaging the community, since they regard the community as something to be manipulated or exploited if indeed they have any idea of community at all. As Brueggemann says, the notion of brokenness as a place of possibility is alien to the praxis of an Enlightenment mindset. There is nothing wrong with the great me; there is definitely something wrong with everybody else, and any means is justifiable so long as I achieve my covetous (fill in the blank) end. It is the entitled I who is being wounded by this slander; the community comes second, if at all. And why should I repent and change if there is nothing wrong with me? Suck it up, world. And so we go on our morally bankrupt way, lying to our selves so often that we wouldn't recognize the truth if we fell over it.

If readers consider this an extreme view, then they should read the spiritual letters of Nicholas Ferrar of Little Gidding. He knew that it is the truth—often unvarnished, sometimes even, according to our lights, brutal—that will set the soul free. He is ruthless in the only way it is acceptable to be ruthless; he pays his listeners/readers the compliment of assuming that they are serious about their engagement with God and the human community, and the radical dispossession that requires. Growth into God is about change, it is not about becoming ever more firmly entrenched in tendencies that are destructive to oneself and everyone else. It is about struggle and pain, not about being spoon-fed with pleasant experiences. Simultaneously it is about peace and joy, but if this peace and joy are of God, they will impel the seeker to greater vigilance and greater openness to change by effort and by receptivity; he or she will find the Word wherever it speaks, through the most humble and unexpected of people and events.


Blogger it's margaret said...

Oh --thank you. I needed to read this in more ways than you might possibly imagine.

God bless you.

1:39 am, August 14, 2010  

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