20 February 2009

On the way Stories Function: Thursday Readings, Week Six of Ordinary Time

I have been thinking about yesterday's readings. Remember, they are the post-flood story of Noah's family, and of God determining to be faithful and merciful to humankind despite their continuing sinfulness, and the story of Peter's proclamation of Jesus as the Christ which is followed by his rejection of the notion that Jesus, precisely as Christ, would have to suffer and die shamefully, ignominiously. Both stories have at their core people grappling with a changing concept of God, and the realization especially that God's faithfulness and mercy is greater than anything which human categories of justice, etc, will allow them to imagine otherwise.

What was especially striking to me was the way the first reading functions precisely as story. I have always been troubled by the notion of a God who changes his mind. Though stories involving this kind of apparent theological "nightmare" are prevalent in the OT, they were really troublesome for me at some points. What I came to see with a new freshness and power in regard to yesterday's first reading from Genesis was that this story functions in all the amazing and wonderful ways stories usually function. One need not see the details as literally true to understand what is being said or why. In fact, understanding the story as literally true may prevent one from hearing what is being said, or appreciating in a deep way how the story really functions!

The first thing we must realize about stories is that they create spaces where we can engage a world which is different from the one we ordinarily inhabit, and this includes different thoughtworlds --- inner worlds where beliefs and theologies differ, as well as seeing the material world around us through different persepectives and categories of understanding. Stories are places where we can enter in, suspend disbelief (or belief), intolerance, and biases (to whatever limited degree), and rub shoulders with ideas and characters we might neither have nor allow ourselves the freedom to experience otherwise. Stories, especially Scriptural stories, are the privileged spaces we can enter in order to entertain new possibilities for understanding God, ourselves, and our world. Similarly, they function as interfaces between worlds and world views, narratives which are told to break down barriers and create a SHARED space with others whose notions of the world might be radically different than our own. The storyteller is deadly serious in her purposes, and at the same time, completely free to bend and shape her material in order to invite the revisioning she wants to bring about.

And all this is what is happening in yesterday's first reading. Jews are telling a story in a world where everyone believes that God sends floods and other natural disasters as a judgment on human sinfulness; every natural disaster reinforces this sense. Over time this people have come to realize that their God is different than this. Instead he is faithful and committed to them no matter what they actually do, or in what ways they sin against him and others. They have come to see that their God does NOT abandon or destroy them but enters into covenant with them, and he will reaffirm this covenant again and again.(The climax of this growing insight is found in Ezekiel, where God reveals he does not act merely for our sake, but for his own. When people have sinned in every way possible and can never deserve God's love it is the ground of the surest kind of hope.) At the same time sin is serious business; the Jews know it is not merely dismissed, but that it effects all of creation and God's plans for it. They know too that sin is a costly matter for God himself. So, in a world where God's justice is still understood in a retributive or distributive way how do you get people to realize this is not the case? More, how do you get them not only to change their mind about this, but come to believe in a God whose hallmarks are creative mercy and fidelity? How do you get them to imagine a world where sin is taken seriously in a way which is costly to God while balancing these other foundational insights as well?

Well, you tell a story. The story of a God who does not take sin as a matter of course and could and should destroy the world because of it. The story of a God who continually creates not only out of primordial chaos, but also out of the chaos caused by human sinfulness, cosmic disorder, and even a local flood. The story of a God who is meciful and generous enough to "change his mind" so that creative mercy and faithfulness may win out.(God's change of mind also "saves face" for those who believe God is just in an all-too-human way still.) You tell the story of a God whose justice is not retributive, nor a matter of giving us what we deserve, but a matter of giving us what he wills and, in fact, what we can never deserve. A God who exercises sovereignty not with destructive power and threats, but with a love which is inexhaustible and creative, and with promises that this love will always be there for his own. We might be tempted to get hung up on the theological problems: a God who changes his mind is one of the big ones, for instance. How can God promise fidelity and yet be changeable? But if we realize the way a story functions we will let these kinds of details lead us instead to what is far more significant and challenging:

Will you allow your conception of God be stretched and changed? How about your concept of divine justice: will you accept a God whose justice IS his mercy, and who does not balance justice with mercy or vice versa? Will you participate in God's ongoing creation as stewards of the process? Will you enter into a covenant with this God in whose image you are made and whose covenant promise is part of the very promise of your own life? Will you not only enter into a covenant with this God but be the embodiment of a covenant which stands behind the whole of creation, and which is especially clear in the relationship between human beings and God? Will you allow God to be one whose sovereignty is revealed as self-emptying love and mercy, not a coercive power which threatens or intimidates? Will the irony of a God who is big enough to change his mind in the face of human sinfulness and intransigence help you to realize that it is God who is unchangingly faithful, and human beings who need to be big enough to change their minds and hearts? Can you believe any of these things? Commit yourself to any of them? Hear any of them as the good news they are? And if not, why not? Stories give us time for this kind of reflection, this kind of consideration --- without coercion or judgment.

The Gospel account yesterday does something similar. It describes the affirmation of a certain vision of God, a certain kind of Christhood or Messiahship and then justaposes an altogether more problematical vision, bigger, more challenging --- indeed, challenging in ways which would shake even the theology of the Jewish disciples to the roots: a God who is not only not a distant and uncaring judge, not only a God who cares about his creation and is committed to a costly faithful and merciful love of it, but a God who will enter right into the world as completely as he can and suffer and die the most shameful death imaginable for its redemption! Peter is the foil in this story. We watch and cheer him on as he echoes our faith (FINALLY!). We watch in silence as he voices our own unvoiced doubts about the necessity of Jesus' crucifixion and death, our own embarrassing concerns about the propriety of a God who loves so much as to die for us while we are yet sinners without first demanding repentance from us! We know deep down that his story is our own: for we too have a faith which only goes so far and is constantly challenged to be open to a less merely-human notion of God, a more awesome and unimaginable deity; we too are someone whose heart is dual, whose love is inadequate, and whose understanding is partial at best.

At liturgy we share these stories precisely because they are our heritage, but also because they call us to imagine and make our own something greater than we have yet accepted. They provide the space for hearing, reflecting, criticizing or applauding, accepting or rejecting a God who is ever greater than any we have yet TRULY known. In short, they are sacramental realities which become occasions of obedience, and we hope, the obedience of faith, for we cannot approach the altar otherwise. The challenge is to hear these stories not as "mere" stories, but as stories which function as only stories can by doing all the awesome things stories do; the challenge is not to insist on hearing them literally or dismissing them because they sound like theological nonsense at this point or that, but instead to recognize they are the privileged places where God resides and comes to meet us if only we will suspend disbelief (and all-too-human-belief) and enter in for a time.