Supporting Theological Reflection and Conversation that Strengthen the Ministry of the Church
Theology is engaged with words. Once we have deserted the solitary strategies of silence, and have decided to speak, words become inevitable and necessary. Words can do good things. But not all words work well. In theology, some words are appropriate; and some are unwise. Some words are illuminating; but others are misleading. Some words clarify; some words confuse. So, unless we are to remain mute, we are faced with choices. Which words help and which words hinder? Now, among the available options, there are many old and used wordswords inherited from those who have gone, and thought, before us. Some of these words are exhausted; some are fresh and able. And some words are the “big” traditional ones, words like God, grace, creation, covenant, salvation, and redemption. Such words may still speak, and well, though sometimes only in disturbing reverberations. They may ask us to pay attention, even if only out of respect for our elders. Among the available words and topics, it would seem, few have been more central to Jewish and Christian thought and language than the classic word “redemption.” But, for many, the actual meanings of the word are elusive and bewildering; and its various usagesin ordinary speech, as well as in theologyprove troubling.
Therefore, it is salutary that so thoughtful a theologian as Yale’s David Kelsey has undertaken to rescue a word that many had come to consider quite beyond reclamation. Furthermore, in so doing, he may also have given new meanings, and some validity, to the theological notion and task of “imagining.”
At its heart, the book Imagining Redemption is a skilled and passionate study of the issues of suffering, evil, and redemption. And, both in content and purpose, it straddles the customary distinctions between systematic and pastoral theology. As a theological reflection, it was prompted by an innocent question about the ubiquitous word redemption, “Will somebody please tell me what that word means?” And, in explicating the meanings of the term, Kelsey draws upon a horrendous story of what happened in a particular family as the result of a devastating event. Thus, in responding directly to the burden and force of evil and suffering as they appear in “Sam’s family,” Kelsey phrases the theological question, with lapidary focus, as “What earthly difference can Jesus make here?” This question suggests that redemptionthough its meanings may shift from situation to situationmay best be defined as “the fulfilling of a promise.” Thus, in answering his poignant question, Kelsey, mercifully, refuses to settle with “coping” as the answer. Stoicism, after all, is not a gospel. No, redemption requires some perceptible change; and this change does not come easily, nor without cost. And it is not simply personal and private. No, it is public and social! It is liberating and eschatological. So, Kelsey argues, God’s redemptive future is already beginning to happen among us, and we are already called to begin “living into it.” Thus, by redeeming us, God is fulfilling a promise. And we are already commencing our lives in that future. As we are summoned to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” we are being resituated, by our imaginings, into the future that God has promised. Hence, according to Kelsey, “To imagine redemption of any concrete situation, such as that of Sam’s family, is to include it within Jesus’ story.” In that story, life is given a new context. Furthermore, he affirms, that storythe Jesus story“illumines the stories of all humankind.”
All of this is bracing and instructive, and the stuff of myriad Christian sermons. And here it is suffused with a winsome fondness for narratives, especially for the exemplary narrative of the “Jesus story”! But, despite its lucid charm, the charm of a real imagining, even the Gospel story, taken alone, proves too abbreviated and abrupt. Indeed, even its own profound and cogent meanings are obscured and betrayed by isolation from the rest of the Abrahamic traditions. After all, the biblical narrative is longer and broader, more diverse and subtle, than even the Gospels alone. So, one may wonder whether it is really sufficientespecially within the Reformed traditionto imagine such redemptive promises without more obvious and constitutive attention to God’s definitive and abiding covenant with a people, the liberating event of the Exodus, and the Creator and Redeemer who is knowncanonically, at leastas the Holy One of Israel.
John E. Burkhart
PUBLISHED IN THE BULLETIN OF THE INSTITUTE FOR REFORMED THEOLOGY, FALL 2006, VOL. 6, #2.
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