Theology on the Way to Emmaus

THeology on the way to Emmaus.LashIn Nicolas Lash’s volume, Theology on the Way to Emmaus, many of the themes we continually address here at Theology Forum are brought together in one volume on pilgrim theology. From the outset, Lash shows allergy to systematics as such, claiming that, “God elegantly orders our world, but we lose all truthful purchase on this claim if we forget that the manner of his action disrupts our easy use of all such concepts, for the focus of his ‘ordering’ is the disorder of Calvary; the appearance of his beauty the disfigurement of the crucified” (x). Using the disciples on the way to Emmaus as the governing illustration, Lash claims,

Those disciples, like the rest of us, had some difficulty in ‘reading’ their history, and the context of ‘recognition’, the occasion on which things began to make sense was, not some ‘religious’ event in a sacred space, but an act of human hospitality” (xii).

Criticism or Construction? The Task of the Theologian

Here, I will consider the first essay in the volume (title noted above), a title which Lash himself shows some hesitancy over. In answer his own question, Lash hopes to bridge the divide between academic theology and life, proposing a mode of theology that isn’t abstracted to the academy and yet doesn’t lose its ability to be critical.

In order to ground his approach to the question, let me quote him at length: “Patterns of human action embody particular conceptions, not only of what it is, but of what it might be, to be human: they simultaneously express both fact and possibility, actuality and hope. Patterns of human action – whether individual, domestic, social or political – thus symbolically express both what is and what might be meant by ‘humanity’…If human existence, as it is and as it might be made to be, is the contingent expression of the creative and transformative action of God, then patterns of human action are not merely symbolic but are, in principle, sacramental – expressive of the mystery of grace” (5-6). Therefore, the theologian takes part in the task of the Church, functioning in both word and deed, to declare this mystery of grace. Therefore, if we are to draw a line between criticism or construction, as theologians of the church we must step on the side of construction.

Theology therefore, is “giving symbolic expression to that meaning of ‘humanity’, that account of human identity, significance and destiny, which Christian faith declares…” Therefore, the task of theology is the business of the people of God – it is for everyone. Therefore, theology is not simply done in the academy, but nor is it done in the church, if by church we are referring to the church as an institution; instead, theology is done where people live, work and relate. This concept does not undermine the importance of academic theology, but repositions it away from a true expertise in its true object, God, and back to the field of systematics. In other words, it does not provide grounds for an elitism that all too often pervades academic theological discourse, but orients the vision of the theologian to a knowledge of God as incomprehensible mystery.

Theology therefore, as a pilgrim enterprise, is theology on the way. It never begins from scratch, explains Lash, but as it begins with God finding us, we are now able to move into the dark without being afraid of it. He states, “To put the point technically, to speak of God finding us has the merit of respecting the primacy of grace, whereas to speak as if we had found God is not only Pelagian but, by encouraging us to suppose that, having ‘found’ him, we now have only to ‘hang on to’ him, it reduces the ‘God’ whom we have found to a ‘possession’ that we have acquired – and this is just another form of idolatry” (11). Therefore, the claim that many of the laity make against academic theology is false, if their worry is that they make theology too difficult; Lash, on the other hand, wants to say that academic theology tries to make it too easy to appropriate God and his grace to our language and systems.

Theology therefore is constructive, but it must be critical, if by critical we mean a purification of our arrogance and idolatry and desire to constrain or simplify God. Theology is, as it were, a pilgrim trek. What constitutes this trek? We’ll see in future posts.

Any thoughts?


4 thoughts on “Theology on the Way to Emmaus

  1. Kyle,

    I haven’t read Lash, but from what you quote here it sounds as if theology’s task is to interpret the graced human condition. There are “patterns of human action” that “embody particular conceptions” of “fact and possibility.” So as a theologian, I would turn my attention to that “sacramental” field of experience, and offer descriptions of it as “expressive of the mystery of grace.”

    I suppose we could sneak Scripture into the loop at an earlier point. It could be part of the impetus for bringing about the particular form of life we are interpreting, so that anything I see in the graced experience is already given a shape by Scripture, before I ever start interpreting it. But I’d prefer a more direct route to Scripture. And isn’t “giving symbolic expression to that meaning of ‘humanity’, that account of human identity, significance and destiny, which Christian faith declares…” an unfortunate formulation?

    Just a thought. Thanks for posting this, very interesting.

  2. Kent: I don’t want to presume here. But you might like to include here, something like this statement:

    Readers might be interested in cross-referencing this discussion to a continuing discussion in part on “Emmaus,” and ending dualism. A discussion in part with the author of a notable book on God’s Word and the Words of men.

    This can be accessed by searching on this blog, for “Word of God,” Part4.

    Many “different” topics on this blog, are often deeply interrelated. Some cross-referencing might be useful. Our minds often move along associatively; and at times it seems that the “different” topics on this blog, often form one continuous conversation.

    In this case, again: many of us are looking to 1) end dualism; the “rift” between God and Flesh, word and world, heaven and earth, Religion and science. And 2) we find the specific incident on the road to Emmaus to be particularly useful in this respect.

  3. This sounds like what Martin Luther was about with his theology of the cross (vs. “glory”). Or what John’s theology of glory is about in his Gospel.

    To be a “pilgrim” theologian, is to be one of the “cross.” Gerhard O. Forde has a good book on this: On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation. Any arrogance and idolatry is vanquished there, and thus knowledge of God is grounded in our participation with Christ in God’s life, by the Spirit.

    This is what I see the “trek” looking like.

  4. Not bad. But our selection here seems 1) a little too optimistic about human thought; no doubt some of it, but not ALL of it, is good enough to be considered “sacramental.”

    On the 2) question of Criticism vs. Construction? I’m a great advocate of real life “work” and physical accomplishments. And being “constructive,” first a) in the sense of having an effect in the material world.

    Still, there’s a very common hazard here for the theologian or academic or cleric. Coming from a life of books, trying to suddenly enter the material world, there is a very common mis-step: we often end up merely trying to enact, make real, bookish ideas. But ideas, the preconceptions of things we get from books, sometimes work, but sometimes don’t work, in the “real world.” Or in other words, the physical life.

    So that – as I’m sure many of us have learned the hard way – entering a life of practical works in the world, being “constructive” in the sense of coming up with material prosperity, etc.., is not just trying to immediately enact our academic preconceptions among the People. It is just as much or more, a process of humbly learning from material life. And modifying our academic/bookish/priestly concepts, accordingly.

    As for b) being “constructive” in the sense of simply being positive? Here I’d note another common error that is superficially opposite, but actually related to the above: often people give too much respect to their preconceptions. And therefore, cannot criticise and correct them, as experience teaches them new and better ideas. Growing involves first, seeing and acknowledging /confessing sins and errors, in our “child”hood ideas of life, and of God.

    If we think we are perfect, we have no motivation to change or grow: how can you improve on perfection? It is only if we are willing to see and acknowledge our sins, and the sins of others, that we can begin to grow. And seeing sins of course, involves … criticism.

    The road then, to a more “mature” theology, a better view of God and Christ – one that might even one day give us a real “kingdom” – involves in effect, not just valorizing ancient theologies. Or valorizing ALL of human thought. No doubt it involves some tenative respect for them … alternating with real critical thinking. Even criticism in a negative sense.

    Being ready to see sins and errors, in our earlier and holiest theologies – as well as sins in we ourselves, and others, the life of “humanitiy” – is a necessary precondition to growth. If we think that we, or our ministers, are already perfect, there is no motivation or opportunity, to notice any possible errors. And to grow.

    This humility can be difficult especially for some ministers and priests; who are sometimes treated as absolutely holy and perfect. Or have been taught that their old ideas about God are infallibly perfect too. And so, to shake people from such “dogmatic slumbers” – as Kant called them – at times, a little shock therapy, real confrontation/criticism, is necessary.

    The Bible told us to “rebuke” persons with false beliefs.

    I personally appreciate those ministers who choose to be supportive and positive all the time; such ministers have a valuable function. At the same time though, real critical thinking skills, require even dramatic confrontations, to “unveil” old sins and errors. And move on down the road. To a better theology; to a “second” and better view of God.

    To view all theological opinions as “disfigured,” might help here; though we should be extremely careful about thereby accidentally valorizing disfigurement.

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