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A couple of weeks ago, I spent my Wednesday lunch hour listening to Irish theologian and philosopher Peter Rollins–described by my friend David Dark who put together the event as “redemptively provocative”–talk to the small group assembled around the tables in a private dining room at the Vanderbilt Divinity School about his three books, How (Not) to Speak of God, The Fidelity of Betrayal, and The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales.
The crux of his talk can be summed up by this quote: “We are practical unbelievers and theoretical believers.” That is, we say we believe in and understand God, but more often than not we live as if there is no God in the way we treat our neighbors and the little decisions we make every day. Another point he made was that “everyone is allowed to doubt in a church, except for the pastor.” We are prone to put our trust in the pastor’s statements about God, the doctrines he is best able to defend, in place of working out our salvation “with fear and trembling” and looking for echos of the holy in our everyday lives.
Later that afternoon, as Pete’s words were swirling around in my brain, challenging my assumptions and forcing me to think about what and why I believe, I was reading Walter Wangerin’s Ragman and Other Cries of Faith and came across his essay on preaching. Wangerin, whose writing I was first exposed to here in the Rabbit Room, had this to say:
“It is not insignificant that my first apprehension of the love of God was granted in an experience with my father. Nor is it generally uncommon that God is apprehended in experience. Nor, in fact, can the divine and human meeting happen any other way. God is not a God of the pulpit, though the pulpit proclaim him. He is a God in and of the histories of humankind.”
“Despite what we may think, and despite the freedoms we experience in so many areas of our culture, we remain, where religion is concerned, a people of the priest. By those singled out for the office we meet and perceive our God: the meeting is a conscious desire; the perception is an unconscious shaping; the consequence, except the priest be careful, is the contraction of God and then God’s abstraction from the whole of life… Therefore, the shape of preaching most shapes our God. And what is the shape of so much preaching today? Why, it is the shape of the classroom: teaching. And teaching is always (in our consideration) one step removed from experience and from the “real.” It is an activity of the mind. It prepares for what will be; or it interprets what has been; it is separated from both. The God who is met in doctrines, who is apprehended in the catechesis, who is true so long as our statements about him are truly stated, who is communicated in propositions, premise-premise-conclusion, who leaps not from the streets, nor even from scriptural texts, but from the interpretation of the scriptural texts – that God is an abstract, has been abstracted from the rest of the Christian experience.”
“[W]hat, for heaven’s sake, is the incarnation, if it doesn’t announce God’s personal immersion in the events, the bloody events, the insignificant and humble common events, the physical and social and painful and peaceful and daily and epochal events of the lives of the people? In their experience? And isn’t the coming of the Holy Spirit the setting free of that immersion, so that it be not restricted to any sole place, time, or people, but breathes through all experience and temples in every faithful breast?
Of course. Of course. It is not hard to argue the immanence of God. Why, it is one of our doctrines.
One of our doctrines. There’s the sticking point. So long as it remains a doctrine alone, a truth to be taught, immanence itself continues an abstraction – and is not immanent. God abides not only in the church, but in the books in the church, and in the minds that explain the books, and in the intellect.
What then, Priests? Preachers, what shall we do that the people’s perception of God not be so much less than God himself?
Make something more of our preaching. Allow the preaching itself a human – and then a divine – wholeness: that the whole of the preacher be presently active in proclamation, the whole of the hearer invited to attend, and God will be seen as God of the Whole.
Or, to rush the point: tell stories.”
So, as Frederick Buechner cautions us under the entry “Stories” in Whistling in the Dark:
“If the God you believe in as an idea doesn’t start showing up in what happens to you in your own life, you have as much cause for concern as if the God you don’t believe in as an idea does start showing up.
It is absolutely crucial, therefore, to keep in constant touch with what is going on in your own life’s story and to pay close attention to what is going on in the stories of others’ lives. If God is not present in those stories, then you might as well give up the whole business.”