Henri Nouwen on Writing

Henri Nouwen’s words here about writing resonate with me. In the excerpt that follows Nouwen describes the challenges that face him and his students in their writing. Even now the anxiety he describes lurks over the keys, and I wonder after all these years if this ever completely resolves. Years ago when this blog began, Kyle and I were happy for any chance to write something other than our dissertations! Times change. So much of our creative energy is now poured into classes, and what is left is carefully managed for a host of publishing commitments; what is left of mine after all that might find its into a poem but less often a blog post. As I pulled together seminar readings for my seniors, I came across these remarks from Nouwen and they have been a timely encouragement to continue writing on TF, even when there appears to be little time or creative energy for it.

Writing…is often the source of great pain and anxiety. It is remarkable how hard it is for students to sit Henri Nouwendown quietly and trust their own creativity. There seems to be a deep-seated resistance to writing. I have experienced this resistance myself over and over again. Even after many years of writing, I experience real fear when I face the empty page. Why am I so afraid? Sometimes I have an imaginary reader in mind who is looking over my shoulder and rejecting very word I write down. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the countless books and articles that have already been written and I cannot imagine that I have anything to say that hasn’t already been said better by someone else. Sometimes it seems that every sentence fails to express what I really want to say and that written words simply cannot hold what goes on in my mind and heart. So there are many fears and not seldom they paralyze me and make me delay or even abandon my writing plans. [...]

Most students of theology think that writing means writing down ideas, insights, or visions. They feel that they first must have something to say before they can put it on paper. For them, writing is little more than recording a pre-existent thought. But with this approach, true writing is impossible. Writing is a process in which we discover what lives in us. The writing itself reveals to us what is alive in us. The deepest satisfaction of writing is precisely that it opens up new spaces within us of which we were not aware before we started to write. To write is to embark on a journey whose final destination we do no know. Thus, writing requires a real act of trust. We have to say to ourselves, “I do not yet know what I carry in my heart, but I trust that it will emerge as I write.” Writing is like giving away the few loaves and fishes one has, trusting that they will multiply in the giving. Once we dare to “give away” on paper the few thoughts that come to us, we start discovering how much is hidden underneath these thoughts and gradually come in touch with our own riches (Seeds of Hope: A Henri Nouwen Reader, 29-30).

“Grace,” the Broadway Play

Grace.Broadway PosterI love teaching at a Christian liberal arts university! My reasons are many, but one of them is the opportunity for participating in events outside my normal teaching area. Last night, for instance, I was a respondent for our theater department’s Readers Theater. The play was the black comedy “Grace” by Craig Wright. Imagine the scene: listening to bright young actors read a compelling and revealing script then discussing its themes and characters with all in attendance. What fun!

The play is intelligently written and explores religiosity and faith, suffering and mystery, human relationships and longing (and more). The plot revolves around the slow unraveling of Steve, a highly religious Christian seeking to make it big in Florida, and the slow awakening of everyone around Steve. Even though Steve is a caricature of conservative, prosperity-Gospel Christianity, the play itself, in my mind, is not really about Christianity at all.

What does it mean to be human, together? What does belief entail? How are we certain about anything? In the midst of grief, confusion, and mystery, where can “grace” be found? For instance, there is a fascinating scene in which Sam, a scientist who doesn’t believe in God, tells Steve about space probes that gather and send data back to earth. Steve is ultra confident in God’s will for his financial prosperity, but as Steve’s life rapidly spins out of control his confidence wanes. Where is grace found? In the muck and mire of life what can he really know?

SAM: Space is a tremendous distance that you have to get information across in time. That’s the problem with space.

STEVE: Time.

SAM. Yes. How can we know what we need to know…in time – when what we need to know has to come from so far away.

STEVE: How can you?

SAM: You can’t. Ultimately. You can’t.

STEVE: Huh. That’s fascinating.

Steve is unsettled about Sam’s space probes because, for Steve, faith in God entails complete certainty about everything. For Steve, there simply is no mystery, nothing that remains inexplicable. Shortly later in the same scene:

STEVE: You talk about these distances you can never get across, “Oh poor us, space and time, its so far.” When you’re in the Lord, Sam, there is no space and time. Everyone knows everything.

Through a series of events which force Steve to “know” that he can’t “know” as suspected, Steve’s life quickly comes apart. As others awaken to mysterious “grace” in the midst of the tangible relationships around them, Steve refuses to listen or see what is happening at arms reach. What he can’t understand and can’t control he ultimately destroys.

I’m curious, if you saw the play on Broadway, what themes stood out to you? What was the overall sense of the play’s direction as you walked out of the theater? Did your view change after you mulled it over?

Punished Twice Over?

Having just characterized the two books For Calvinism and Against Calvinism as helpful introductions to the divergent perspectives on the doctrines of grace, I’ll add a caveat: one possible weakness in these volumes is that Horton is given more space for positive articulation and less for polemical jabs at Arminianism while Olson is given more space for polemical jabs and less for constructive exposition.

Perhaps, then, one more attempt to identify a problem in Olson’s case for Arminianism is permissible, this time with respect to the doctrine of the atonement.  Olson naturally opposes the notion of particular redemption and then argues that general redemption or ‘unlimited atonement’ is compatible with the penal, substitutionary dimension of Christ’s death.  He offers an illustration:

Just one day after his inauguration, President Jimmy Carter…guaranteed a full pardon for all who resisted the draft during the Vietnam War by fleeing from the US into Canada or other countries.  The moment he signed the executive order, every single draft exile was free to come home with the legal guarantee that he would not be prosecuted….Even though there was a blanket amnesty and pardon, however, many draft exiles chose to stay in Canada or other countries to which they fled.  Some died without ever availing themselves of the opportunity to be home with family and friends again.  The costly pardon did them no good because it had to be subjectively appropriated in order to be objectively enjoyed.  Put another way, although the pardon was objectively theirs, in order to benefit from it they had to subjectively accept it.  Many did not (Against Calvinism, p. 149).

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Restoring God’s Reputation?

olsonI’ve been reading through Zondervan’s two recent books by Michael Horton (For Calvinism) and Roger Olson (Against Calvinism), apt spokesmen for their respective views on the doctrines of grace.  Both authors eschew attempts to find that (illusory) middle ground between Calvinism and Arminianism and provide very helpful introductions to the issues at hand.

Olson ardently presses the question of how the God of Calvinism can be the one whom John characterizes as ‘love’ in his first epistle (1 Jn 4:8, 16).  Under the doctrine of predestination, the real question for Olson is not so much whether God could be just in unconditionally electing some and reprobating others but whether God could be said to act in love in so doing: if God could just as easily have unconditionally elected more, or indeed all, fallen persons and effectually called them to salvation, how is he love in choosing not to do so?  An Arminian account, Olson writes, with its doctrine of conditional election, is better-positioned to uphold God’s ‘reputation’ at this point.

This is certainly a pointed question for Reformed soteriology – and theology proper – but one that might be put to the Arminian view as well.  In explicating the Arminian approach to divine sovereignty, Olson writes,

[L]et it be clearly understood that those who appeal to divine self-limitation and passive permission as the explanation for sin and evil in the omnipotent, creator God’s world, do not say that God never manipulates historical circumstances to bring about his will. What God never does is cause evil. God may and no doubt sometimes does bring about some event by placing people in circumstances where he knows what they will freely do because he needs them to do that for his plan to be fulfilled.  Such seemed to be the case with Jesus’ crucifixion. Even then, however, it was not that God tempted or manipulated individuals to sin. Rather, he knew what events, such as the triumphal entry, would result in the crucifixion (Against Calvinism, p. 99).

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A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent (Walter Breuggemann)

“A New World Birthed,” Walter Breuggemann (Dec. 19, 2004)

Each of the Gospel writers begins the Gospel story in a different way, and Matthew does it with this remarkable story of the birth of the baby that is on the lips of an angel in a dream to Joseph. Before that, the part that I didn’t read in Matthew 1, is a long genealogy of 17 begats about father to son, son to son to son, all the way back to Father Abraham. TAngels Attendhe genealogy goes up till Joseph, except that Matthew plays a trick on us, because he traces this royal pedigree, but then at the last minute, in a trick, he tells us that Joseph is not really the father of this new baby, the one we celebrate at Christmas. There are some important things to notice about this narrative of the beginning of the Gospel according to Matthew.

The first thing to notice is that the whole message to Joseph happens at night when he was relaxed and his guard was down. And in the night we are told that the angel came and said to him, “Do not be afraid, for the child in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Now that is a mouthful. It is a mouthful from an angel, a messenger of God, one sent from heaven to earth, a message given from outside, not in human terms, not in earthly terms, not according to Joseph’s normal assumptions. The angel spoke in a dream, not when Joseph was awake and in control. So the first thing to notice as we move in these last days to Christmas is that the expectation of Jesus, according to Matthew, is outside all of our normal categories. Our business is not to explain this text. Our business is to be dazzled at Christmastime that something is happening beyond all of our calculations. This is a baby and a wonder and a gift that is designed to move us beyond ourselves.

The second thing to notice in this story from Matthew is that the baby has no father; and in this family, like every family, it is a scandal when a baby has no father. And Joseph was at the edge of scandal, but that is not the point. The accent, rather, is that the baby is from the Holy Spirit. Now we may set aside all of the silly speculation that has gone on about biological transactions and notice rather than this newness comes because God’s Spirit stirs among us. The Bible is largely a reflection on how God’s Spirit makes things new.

- It is God’s Spirit in Genesis 1 that creates a new world, a new heaven and a new earth. Continue reading

A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent (Karl Barth)

Karl Barth, “John 1:1-5 (December 22, 1918)”

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God;all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The Life was the light of the people. The light shines in the darkness….” We live from this truth. This light shiningshining light is like the air we breathe; we live from it without thinking about it. All that we know and have that is joyful, beautiful, and beloved comes from this shining light. But, like children who reject their parents, we can be ungrateful and forget the source from which we receive the best we have. Yet the source never ceases to flow, and we never cease to drink from it. We can indeed sit in a corner with the minuscule light of our own wisdom and righteousness, and act as if this little light were the only right one in the world, the one that should illuminate God and all other human beings. Even such minuscule lights would have no brightness at all, if it were not for that great shining light; without knowing it, we have kindled our little lights from that light….This shining light is given, and we live from it.

The light shines. We may hear this as a message of joy, good news, gospel for us and the whole world. We may proclaim it courageously and defiantly against all the darkness of our time; against the darkness in our own hearts, in our community, in our hospitals, mental institutions, and prisons; against the darkness in our conversations with one another and in the newspapers that we read; against all the darkness that darkens so many sickbeds and the beds of the dying; and against the pernicious darkness of our social conditions. Without hesitation we may proclaim against all darkness: the light shines. It remains true to itself; it remains what it is even in the deepest darkness, and that is why it shines. Because it is true, we may be courageous and defiant. There is no reason to doubt and despair, to give up, to think only somber and hopeless thoughts about ourselves, our community, and today’s world…..The light shines. This is what must be and remain most important, over against all that is otherwise true, all that otherwise occupies and fills our minds and hearts and causes us to be burdened with care. Continue reading

A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent (Rowan Williams)

Rowan Williams, “Advent: A University Sermon

Advent pulls the imagination in two directions. We turn our minds to the universal longing for God Rowan_Williams_1110959cthat is given voice in the Jewish scriptures, the yearning towards the ‘desire of all nations’; in the cycle of the great Advent antiphons that begin with O Sapientia on 16 December, the phrase come twice, in the sixth and seventh texts: O Rex gentium, ‘O King of nations and their salvation’. Christmas is the moment of recognition, the moment when what we have always secretly known is set out in plain and freshly terms. And at the same time, “Woe unto you who desire the day of the Lord” and “Who may abide the day of his coming? For he is like a refiner’s fire.” … Christmas is a beauty that is the beginning of terror: the Burning Babe, who has come to cast fire upon the earth, Before his presence, the idols fall and shatter.

In other words, Advent is about the essential ambiguity of our religiousness. We live, as human beings, in an enormous hunger to be spoken to, to be touched, to be judged and loved and absolved. We live – at some level – in the awareness that there are things we cannot do for ourselves. No human being alone can teach himself or herself language; no human being alone can know himself or herself loved. And the whole human race alone cannot assure itself of its worth or interest, its dignity and lovableness, its responsibility. When no reality over against us pronounces a word of judgement or a word a word of affirmation, how do we know we are worth judging? The twentieth century has been in full flight from certain conceptions of personal morality, but what age has ever suffering from so acute an awareness of collective responsibility? Who shall absolve us from the guilt of the Holocaust? Colonialism? The Enlightenment? The failure of the Enlightenment? Who could absolve us from the guilt of a nuclear catastrophe? The appalling moral anxiousness of our age is an oblique recognition that the human being as such waits to hear something; and when we have collectively denied the possibility of hearing something from beyond our corporate culture, we expose ourselves to deep worries about our humanness. [...]

We long to know we are addressed. And this is where the ambiguity comes in: we fantasize about what such an address might be; we project on to the empty space before us the voices we need to hear. Close Encounters of the Third Kind remains a haunting fiction – a story of extra-terrestrial visitation in which the ‘aliens’ turn out to have the ghostly shapes and faces of our lost childhood. The menacing stranger is, after all, only our forgotten innocence. It is a striking secular parody of the Christmas story, and one that points up the questionableness of our desire. What if our longing to hear a word spoken to us from beyond simply generates a loud echo of our need to be told we are all right, we have never fundamentally gone astray, we have never really left an undifferentiated Paradise? [...] Continue reading