On Conversation between Discourses

On the possibility of conversation between distinct discourses

  • Robert Jenson

Do I then say that “E=mc²” and “The Son proceeds from the Father” work just the same way? I do not think I do. But I do say that insofar as either “E=mc²” or “The Son proceeds from the Father” is true, insofar as either has any purchase on something other than itself, they depend for this purchase on their situation in one total human cognitive discourse, which has no clear internal epistemological boundaries. To put it from the side that will make the point most offensively plain: if science does not belong to the same discourse as does theology, then science is a play of fictions.

I do say that no subregion of human discourse can be a normative paradigm of any other, not because they are so discrete but because their mutual boundaries are so blessedly ill-defined.

from Essays in the Theology of Culture (Eerdmans, 1995), 223-224.

  • Stephen Mulhall (drawing on Rush Rhees)

the image of a conversation suggests an account of any given mode of human discourse in terms of its own dialogical unity — with the multiple bearings of each branch of that discourse on other branches giving substance to the thought that each individual branch gets a purchase on reality by showing how the purchase it offers hangs together with (that is, is fruitfully intelligible to, and can itself render fruitfully intelligible) the purchase offered by other branches. And the same kind of account can then be given of the relations between these modes of discourse: their various ways of interlocking with one another substantiate the claims of each to register some aspect of the reality of things.

from The Conversation of Humanity (Univ VA Pr., 2007), 38.

Helmut Thielicke on the Hallowing of God’s Name

[48] My friends, doesn’t it strike you as it does me, that in the Lord’s Prayer there is not a single petition that asks God to make me a sanctified, devout, and stoutly believing man, not a single petition that asks him to help me make progress in ‘sanctification’?

In making this observation I am not venturing to say that we may not pray for these things. Nevertheless it is striking that a petition that relates to the growth of the inner man and spiritual progress is simply missing.

Expressed in other words, whereas we would think that the Prayer could say, and quite rightly say: “Lord, lead me to further sanctification of my life,” Jesus turns our attention away from ourselves, even from our pious selves, and concentrates it upon the Father. The prayer is not “May I be hallowed” but “thy name be hallowed.” What does he mean by this?

[49] Quite simply, he means to say that if I want to become a new man, I should not begin with myself, with my good intentions and my moral endeavors. This can only come to nothing, even though it is recommended by the philosophers, the moralists, and other honest people. …

[51] If Jesus does not teach us to pray, “Make me a consecrated, holy person,” but rather teaches us to say, “Hallowed be thy name,” what he is saying is this: “It doesn’t depend at all on your own exertions and your own inner progress; you can never set yourself up as your own goal. Everything depends on your being willing to honor God and let [52] him work in your life, simply to stand still and let him be the ‘holy one’ who will actually have first place in your life, above all men and all things. Then the other will come of itself. …

Again we say, the solution to the problem of our life (the problem of how we can become new men) lies not in ourselves but outside of ourselves, in the fellowship which we have or do not have with God.

from The Prayer that Spans the World

Hallowed Be Your Name

In Petition of the Self-Sanctification of God’s Name

Deploying theological categories as credible and capable resources for addressing any number of questions that vex our society and/or our subjectivity is an uncertain proposition. In the post-Christian West it’s taken for granted that religious discourse, if not yet altogether meaningless, is certainly in want of a raison d’être. So what is the theologian and pastor to do in times when talk of God, the church, and the gospel are heard as impotent to save? When the fear of the Lord and the obedience of faith constitute neither the beginning of wisdom nor the rule of virtue? When it seems religious discourse itself stands in need of, well, redemption?

When I rehearse questions like these to myself I admittedly feel caught between two lines of response, and I’m not yet sure how to correlate them. Both are on to something, but how to account for their respective contributions? This is my standing question. So without further ado:

SET 1

When words lose their meaning, it is not the words that are at fault, but the people using them.

  • from R. G. Rollefson Thinking with Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein: The Philosophical Theology of Paul L. Holmer (Pickwick, 2014), 67.

It is not that…words are mistaken, or that they are — in the glib modern sense — irrelevant, so that we need clearer and simpler ideas. Far from it. The problem lies in…speakers. There is not enough depth in us for [certain] words to emerge as credible; they have become external to us, tokens we use while forgetting what profound and frightening differences in the human world they actually refer to. …[T]he point of traditional doctrinal forms is…, we could say, to create a depth in us.

In the world as it is, the right to be heard speaking about God must be earned.

  • from Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology (Blackwells, 2000), 40.

SET 2


That prayer [hallowed be thy name] is not, we must note, first and foremost a prayer that the Church itself somehow establish the sanctity of God’s name. Quite the opposite: it is a prayer that God himself hallow his own name. … The prayer of the Church, its trustful cry that in this matter God will take up his own cause and demonstrate his holiness, is thus rooted in the “sanctifying of God’s name by God himself.”

  • from John Webster, Holiness (Eerdmans, 2003), 75-76.

A world enslaved to mistaken, idolatrous, and even murderous theological apprehensions seems to be too great a challenge for such a frail, divided, compromised community as the Church of Jesus Christ. And it is! That is why the Lord’s Prayer is a prayer! We disciples do not accept the hallowing of God’s name as a mission we can make ourselves able to accomplish. We beg for it as a gift we can receive in faith by grace. God’s reputation may be in tatters today among the nations and even among his own people, but God’s reputation is eternally secure among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and that is what really matters.

  • from Telford Work, “The Reputation of God,” in Ain’t Too Proud to Beg: Living Through the Lord’s Prayer (Eerdmans, 2007), 45.

Ezekiel 36:16-38

Synthesis?

Insofar as my disjunction has set divine and human agency in contrastive terms, Webster and Work have to be right, as a matter of fundamental theological grammar, to accord what I’m calling the redemption of religious discourse to God’s agency. Quoting Barth, Webster is able to speak of “an act [of God] that cannot be ours” (76). This line would seem to leave Williams and Holmer’s thesis without any work left to do. But we know Webster and Work would not endorse an account of competitive, zero-sum agency between God and humanity. So, first, that does leave me wondering what could count as an action of God that’s unmediated by human action. What might Webster cite as an example? Second, I’m wondering whether Williams and Holmer’s claim could be reimported through a back door (so to speak) on the basis of some Thomist-style model of double agency. It seems to me axiomatic that the concrete lives of Christians contribute in some way to the credibility of their claims. Something about having to earn the right to be heard speaking about God (however that’s imagined) rings true. Yet how doesn’t that concession put the onus squarely back on Christians and once again eclipse God’s agency in just the way Webster censures?

In Closing

if the word ‘God’ (with a capital ‘G’) has today become so burdened with inappropriate use, why don’t we simply discard it, and speak in some other way about the holy mystery which the word misnames? After all, it is not on a three-letter word that our hearts, identities and hopes are set. The short answer, I suggest, is that the long, and complex, and conflictual history of humankind’s engagement in the educational process of learning non-idolatrously to worship, learning wholeheartedly and without reserve to give ourselves to the truth, and flourishing, and freedom, to which we have been called, is simply too bound up with the history of the uses and misuses of this little word. However difficult it is to use appropriately, there is no other word which similarly signals that the truth and destiny and healing of the world infinitely outstrip the world’s capacities.

  • from Nicholas Lash, Holiness, Speech and Silence (Ashgate, 2004), 20-21. Cf. Theology on the Way to Emmaus, 55.

The body of Christ is the instrument God has chosen to rescue his reputation in the world.

  • from Telford Work, “The Reputation of God,” in Ain’t Too Proud to Beg: Living Through the Lord’s Prayer (Eerdmans, 2007), 45. In context, by “body of Christ” Telford is primarily referring to the Church, but given the drift of his essay it might be permissible to leave it ambiguous (either Church or Christ), or perhaps even take it in a conjunctive totus christus sense.