The Flintstones bus

Robert Jenson

Theology as Revisionary Metaphysics: Essays on God and Creation, Robert Jenson, Wipf and Stock.

Revisionary metaphysics is revolutionary. It does not merely interrogate the way we think about things and the language we use; it challenges that way of operating and offers an alternative. Therefore, as the title of prominent American Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson’s book indicates, it is an appropriate label for what theology is at its core, or at least should be. Theology explicates the grand narrative at the heart of scripture that competes with commonsensical notions in the wider world of how the world operates and how we should live our lives. Jenson insists, against some, that the Bible does indeed ‘do’ metaphysics, and that when the Church uses biblical language, it is shockingly counter-cultural.

This book displays the same rigorous and evocative language on display in Jenson’s contributions to the classic two-volume exposition of Lutheran theology, Christian Dogmatics, which he co-edited. There, his section on Trinity begins with metaphysical questions – primarily, what do we mean when we talk about God? While proceeding in precise, considered language, he also manages to convey the sense of a theologian at play, delighting in the material. This balancing act recurs consistently throughout Theology as Revisionary Metaphysics. For example, after a discussion of Jesus as Logos in relation to God the Father, he adds, ‘so what to do? Here goes’. There is an easy shifting back and forward between the academic and the conversational, and between the fine elucidation and the neat summary, driving much of these essays forward.

Jenson has imbibed the more-than-implicit biblical (and wisely unscientific) notion that theology is more storytelling than academic exercise, both in style and content. Jenson, in his explorations of key metaphysical issues such as the nature of time and consequence, reinforces the idea that what we learn of God comes more from examining the history outlined in scripture, rather than deliberating about eternal, fixed characteristics of God, itself a harmful legacy of Christianity’s early entanglement with Greek philosophy. During a discussion of Hegel, he suggests that we should embrace the somewhat Hegelian idea that God creates a history, not a world as such, and that we should remind ourselves that this history is the whole story. All other stories we tell ourselves are subsets.

This insistence on history counters some heretical ideas about atonement. If God planned a history, rather than a world, then the conclusion of that story, planned at the outset, is the salvation enacted by and embodied in Christ. On the other hand, if our notions of creation centre on the creation of a world (or universe), we may come to the conclusion that that world was a flawed construction and Christ is a kind of subsequent remedy. Jenson chastises some of the Church Fathers for falling into this erroneous logic. Thinking through the implications of this erroneous view will make its illogic obvious: it is not in God’s nature to not bring plans to fruition completely.

Furthermore, God is a character in this story, a person. (Jenson reminds us of Luther’s statement that Jesus is redeemer and baby.) Jenson suggests that the Church is ‘dull’ when it is not talking about Jesus. Personhood is of course secondary to properties in that overriding discourse of our time, science, and Jenson alerts us to where scientistic thinking might influence our theological talk. There is always a temptation, partly from the Enlightenment, to tailor our theology to God’s qualities, which can lead to, for example, excruciating discussions about why God allows suffering. A focus on Christ naturally places Christ in the middle of that suffering, replacing the question of ‘why?’ with a ‘what then?’ Additionally, science searches for deterministic explanations, whereas at the heart of theology is a surprising dislocation of event and consequence, named by the Church and celebrated in the Lutheran Church in particular as grace. And this grace is not only the term for a once-off event; it is a quality that pervades the life of the Church. Relationships between the people of God are where the surprising, counter-cultural nature of God’s language is on show to the world.

A specific of this is the way the life of the Church negates, especially post-Enlightenment, the priority of the self. In the cartoon series The Flintstones characters take a prehistoric bus, but the bus itself is simply a bus-like structure without wheels and floor, and the riders hold this up while using their feet to propel it. This is an apt metaphor for what often happens in the modern church, where we can be simply a group of individuals pursuing our individualism in close proximity. But the participation in liturgy, which Jenson cautions we reject at great peril, attunes us to the corporate nature of our salvation, the collective nature of our unique history, just as modern Jews do not merely ‘celebrate’ Passover, but in a very real sense participate in it, with all members of their race.

We cannot escape the fact, says Jenson, that as such a polity, we are in opposition to the other polities of our time. The Church is, not by choice but by nature, political. One of the great delusions of our age is that the Church should be above politics, partly brought about by a hasty insertion of Luther’s thought into the contemporary secular setting. (What Christians tend to mean when they say this is that we should not favour Left or Right, but this is not the same as being apolitical.) Importantly, an implication Jenson draws out from Christianity’s counter-cultural nature is that when we debate in the Church how exactly our counter-cultural identity plays out, and how much concession, if that is the right word, we make to the world, we are doing important work. We must always consider carefully how the Church remains faithful to our identity that stands in contrast to the world. (But we must be careful here not to assume that Jenson is necessarily arguing for the status quo. A ‘revisionary metaphysics’ will challenge rather than uphold conventional thinking.) One can see how quickly metaphysical discussion can lead into practical application. This is a strength of this book, and it disproves the idea that metaphysics is interminable navel-gazing. Another strength is that Jenson, by focussing our attention on the Bible’s grand narrative, discourages the picking and choosing of texts, like arrows from a quiver, to prove our points as we debate how the Church’s identity should be configured.

Essays can seem like lesser works – provisional thoughts awaiting further clarification in lengthier exposition. But they can be explorations, pioneering work, unfettered experimentation. They can also be opportunities to clarify, restate, amend or refute. These essays are all this and more. They show how the proper practice of theology, even and particularly that of mainstream, evangelical Lutheran theology, entails the continual removal of the scales from our eyes, and the emphasis on the revolutionary nature of the entire biblical narrative.

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