covenant life

Walter Brueggemann is one of a handful of pilgrims who have worked their way into my heart and mind and soul and life in ways that I can't anymore distinguish from the way "things really are".

This morning I read the first chapter from a collection of his addresses, "Disruptive Grace".

Brueggemann contrasts the two traditions of Abraham and Moses:

But there they are, these two traditions of Abraham and Moses. They are there together as the beginning point of covenant. Here is God's covenant to Abraham that is unconditional and unilateral. Here is God's covenant with Moses and Israel that is bilateral and conditional. They are there together, and that interface of contradiction may offer us the most work to do but also the most honest disclosure of the truth of our life. The full tradition asserts that all of our relationships including that with the Holy One, are an unsettled mix of unilateral and bilateral, of conditional and unconditional, and it is that unsettled truth of covenant on which I will dwell for these comments.

Conditional and unconditional, unilateral and bilateral - that's the internal tension of biblical covenant life.

As we read the text and ponder these offers, we tend to choose up sides, select our footage, notice our vested interests, and make our advocacy. The problem with that is that this God, in unutterable holiness, occupies and legitimates all of these transactions. In the biblical tradition that carries the good news of the gospel, it is the one God who is both unilateral in generosity and bilateral in requirement. It is the same God who can be inordinately demanding, crushing and reprimanding, and who can be graciously accepting, welcoming and affirming.

We thus enter into God's complex interiority....the God artistically rendered, the God rich in internal complexity, the God free in dialogical externality, the God saturated with fidelity and freedom...

Brueggemann writes beautifully in describing this complexity...

You will notice, if you take this sequence of markings of God's holiness - artistry, internal complexity, dialogical externality, and finally, fidelity - that this characterization of the covenant-making God flies in the face of a long-preferred orthodoxy of "omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence"... Such a God results in large measures of certitude in which everything is settled well ahead of time. That is the stuff of sovereign authority and of unchallengeable control.

But it will not work... most of all it will not work pastorally, for who among us in our ecstasy, and especially our agony, needs a God of certitude? For it is the ache of our heart and the yearning of our body that we should finally be attended to by one who is full of grace, and before grace, full of truth. The narrative of the God of fidelity lives in deep conflict with the syllogism of the God of certitude...

This God will not settle in certitude, for certitude is finally a cognitive category and not one that is thick with relationship. This God will not settle for certitude but is on the way with Abraham and with Moses and with all their fellow travelers.

Having established the need for dialog in the face of this complexity, Brueggemann then turns to the human soul.

Given that dialogical God who comes toward the world with fidelity and freedom that together constitute covenant, it is the Jewish proposal that human persons are constituted precisely for dialogical existence in relationship to this God of fidelity and freedom... [Freud]'s great insight is that the self can emerge in health only in a candid dialogic transaction with one who listens well and receives honestly.

He cites Buber and Levinas, and finally the Psalms, in support of this construct of the "dialogic covenantal self whose vocation is the glorify and enjoy God forever".

Finally, he addresses two alternatives to this dialogic life:

The dialogic self in its interaction with the dialogic God is called to a demanding, energizing way of living in the world. Given that dialogical life is a demanding way in the world, there is an endless temptation to avoid the recurring jeopardy of covenantal existence by embrace of one of two alternatives.

On the one hand, there is the possible flight to absolutism. Absolutism is an attractive, seductive alternative because it moves toward the nullification of the risks of dialogue into a flat, settled state of being... But from the perspective of the covenantal tradition, the lust for absolutism eventuates in idolatry, a flat, settled God without dialogic agency who cannot care or answer or engage or respond.

On the other hand, and in reaction against such absolutism, there is a flight to autonomy. Those who find absolutism too hard to bear flee from it and imagine an unencumbered self... Autonomy, the notion that one need to rely on or answer to no other, is the ground for a society that is endlessly acquisitive of the resources of other people and does so with unrestrained violence.

So the two alternatives to covenantal life are absolutism which becomes idolatry, and autonomy which becomes atheism.

What might true covenantal life look like?

Covenantal existence eventuates in a community of uncommon generosity and mercy, a community of fidelity and freedom, a community that is not seduced by absolutism and that is not left unrestrained by autonomy... So imagine a community of covenant, set down in a society of usurpatious absolutism and self-indulgent autonomy come to give self away, ready and able to receive more life from those who are unlike us, ready for fidelity that takes the form of freedom that is disciplined, ready for signs and acts and gestures of forgiveness and hospitality and generosity, more ready to support than to judge. There are, to be sure, in such a community, sanctions, but the sanctions are provisional and penultimate, because the relationships count for more than the rules.