Posted by: Dan | April 11, 2006

Faith seeking Understanding

[This is a devotion I presented for a class today. Our reading was from “A Theology of Liberation” by Gustavo Gutierrez. I am mostly just pulling together a bunch of topics I have already referred to on my blog.]

In the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus inaugurates his public ministry with this quotation from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favourable year of the Lord.

I can't help but think of these words when I read Gutierrez.

When describing theology as critical reflection upon ecclesial praxis, Gutierrez provides a rather biting quotation from George Bernanos who says:

God does not choose the same men to keep his word as to fulfil it.

This is a damning critique of many of us who pursue theology. We seek to understand right doctrine, we seek to ensure that the gospel of Christ is not corrupted, yet we often fail to realise that faith gains understanding through praxis. We can only begin to understand the crucified Christ of our creeds when we journey in intimate relationships with the crucified people of today and bear on our own bodies the brand-marks of Jesus. We can only understand the gospel when we understand how it is good news to the poor. If we are not proclaiming release to the captives and freedom for the oppressed it just shows how little understanding our faith has.

The Spirit of the Lord was upon Jesus to do and say what he did and said. In the same way the Spirit of the Lord is upon us. As Tom Wright says:

The Spirit is given so that we ordinary mortals can become, in a measure, what Jesus himself was: part of God's future arriving in the present; a place where heaven and earth meet; the means of God's kingdom going ahead. The Spirit is given, in fact, so that the church can share in the life and continuing work of Jesus himself.

Continuing the work of Jesus involves a path of downward mobility. It means being empowered by the Spirit of the new age, in order to carry a cross and travel the road of suffering love. It means, as Paul writes in Colossians, that we, in our bodies, and in the body that is the Church, make up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. Such a calling will inevitably lead us into the experience of godforsakenness. This is an experience that von Balthasar knows well. He writes:

There are legitimate experiences of absence within this ever-present world of God's grace, but they are forms and modes of love. Such were the experiences of the prophets of the Old Covenant, of the Son of God on the cross and in the darkness of his descent into hell; such are the experiences of all those who, in their several vocations, follow the Son. These are the redemptive paths of love as it traces the foot-steps of sinners in order to catch up with them and bring them home.

As theologians, as those possessed by a faith seeking understanding, we cannot simply rely on our intellect, on our texts, or on our professors. We will learn the nature of our faith when we begin to embody that faith in the call issued by Christ and the Church to journey with the scattered sheep, to trace the foot-steps of sinners in order to bring them home. Kant has dared us to think for ourselves and, for better or worse, we have accepted his challenge. Gutierrez has dared us to act and I hope to God that we accept his challenge.

Sheep that are scattered are not simply cute little animals fumbling around in the hills. Sheep that are scattered are sheep that get slaughtered. I know this because I journey with scattered sheep — abandoned children — in the inner-city. I watch them as they are slaughtered and I know that the only reason why this happens to the degree that it does, is because the people of God, including many of its leaders and theologians, have abandoned them. And these sheep have been abandoned because these people have a faith that lacks understanding.

And when faith lacks understanding exile looms on the horizon. As Isaiah, himself an advocate for the poor, concludes:

Therefore, my people go into exile for their lack of knowledge.

The Israelites thought they were being faithful to the Lord. They were fasting and tithing. They were observing the appropriate festivals and the Sabbath. They were worshipping YHWH. But they had neglected the poor and so their faith lacked understanding. And this had devastating consequences.

Let's pray.

Lord, you tell us that, if we ask of you, you will grant us wisdom. And so, Lord, we ask that you would provide our faith with understanding. We do not ask for this understanding apart from the call you issue for us to journey with the crucified people of today. And so, because you continually tell us not to be afraid, we pray that you would give us the courage to take up our crosses, to pursue downward mobility, and to follow in the footsteps of Jesus who, because he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped; but emptied himself taking the form of a slave, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Lord, we pray that you would teach us to be obedient to the point of death. Lord, we pray that you would teach us what it means to love as you loved — and what it means to lay down our lives for those we love. Lord, have mercy and make us both keepers and fulfillers of your Word.

Finally Lord, we conclude this devotion by praying the prayer that the Church has prayed for 2000 years. We pray as you taught us to pray:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors;
and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one.
For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

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