BEING PROMISED: THEOLOGY, GIFT AND PRACTICE, BY GREGORY A. WALTER
Dr. Gregory Walter serves as Associate Professor of Religion at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. We have never met in person, but met through some mutual friends we share on a Facebook Group for ELCA pastors. When my grandparents died a couple of years ago and we traveled back to Illinois for the funeral – Greg sent me a personal note sharing that he and his family had prayed for us on our journey. Let’s just say, “I’ve been a big fan of his ever since.” That is the kind of “gift economy” Greg outlines in this book – a gift is shared (I’m praying for you); that gift is received (in my case accepted and valued); and a new relationship is formed in the response.
Being Promised takes up this “gift economy” too often glossed over by many Protestants: God gives – we receive – we respond. With the “gift economy” language introduced and discussed in the book, congregations and their leaders can actively engage one another in the concrete realities of life and faithfulness – without slipping into two dangers: works-righteousness on the one hand (earning the gift centered on our own actions); or apathy (God does everything so I’m not doing anything) on the other. Ours is an active faith – made alive to us through the word and sacraments rooted in community – brought forward into every other aspect of our lives in service to our neighbors.
RELIGIOUS CONSUMERISM AND THE GIFT ECONOMY
We live in a time and context when many people are leaving congregations or have never connected with them for a variety of reasons. Too often we consider our faith an individual enterprise – “What is in it for me?” or “What do I get out of it?” There is a consumer approach to religion in Western culture, and if we don’t like what you are selling, we move on to other things or become spiritual entrepreneurs, figuring we can do better on our own.
Yet even in a changing world, there are many people who love God, love the church, and make faith an everyday part of their lives. People still ensure their children are baptized (or take that journey for themselves), make sure milestones like first communion and/or confirmation are observed, and get their children involved in things like Sunday School, a Christmas Pageant or youth group. Weddings, funerals, and other events mark “life passages” (as our current hymn book calls them), providing ongoing opportunities for people’s lives to be sustained, nurtured and engaged in faith and faith practices in a congregational life rooted in a community. People connected in congregations worship weekly, and give generously of their time, financial resources, and expertise to not only keep these cloisters of believers going, but to lead them, discerning God’s activity among them, and joining God’s mission in and to the world.
The difference between religious consumers and grateful believers is the “gift economy” Walter outlines in Being Promised. Faith is not a commodity like so many other things; to be collected, used, or thrown away after its apparent value has worn off for individual consumers of it. Instead, faith is given in a promise; one that many people shrug off as well-meaning or “nice” because they underestimate its individual value. Faith is realized communally in the hoped for future – offered in the promise of Christ crucified and risen. This promise is the pearl of great price, the treasure buried in the field, a mustard seed that sprouts from something tiny into a shady tree for we who are tired. The wisdom of the world observes the kingdom of God as “foolish” but we understand the cross opening a new world to us as the power of God’s salvation (1 Corinthians 1:18).
Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
As congregations we are called to share these promises, discern, communicate, and engage others – in word and sacrament; discernment and prayer; service and vocation as we each take upon us the yoke of the crucified and risen Jesus, knowing that in him our burden is light.
GEOFF SINIBALDO INTERVIEWS GREG WALTER.
GS: Is a non-response to the gift still is a response to that gift?
GW: A non-response, I suppose, a shrug of the shoulders and a “meh,” walking by someone who has offered us a present or another round of drinks is a rejection of the gift. We are obliged to give, receive a gift in turn, and return it. These three obligations are formulated out of the anthropological data and are part of what makes a gift reciprocated. Without these three obligations gifts do not travel in circles. To reject or fail to respond to a gift is to opt out of the circle, to say “this economy is not for me.” To opt out of the circle of celebration of birthdays at the office or the food drive is to say “I don’t belong to this group.” A non-response or rejection is no return. It is a declaration of war, if the rejection is serious or it is a “opting out.” Now, we might say that some gifts carry with them more serious efforts at inclusion or exclusion. The fourth round of drinks is getting to be a little much anyway, but to step out of the first is serious. It all depends upon what the force of the gift is.
GS: What about the rejected gift? Is the promise still true (something) if it is believed to be nothing?
GW: Here I think my construction of the promise as a doubled gift matters. The promise, comprised as it is of two moments, can be doubted and rejected. Unlike a gift, a promise can be delivered and fulfilled though no one believes it. This rejection does not mean that God will not fulfill the promise. Rather, it simply means that the promise and the God of promise have no legitimate name or credit in this particular place and among these people who reject the promise. In order for God to be God for this people, there must be belief. Faith is not a nothing! But lack of faith does not mean that God will ultimately fail. But if the promise is a promise, it has to be risky and so neither does it mean that God will ultimately succeed either. Both qualifications are necessary for the promise to be worthy of the name. If the promise is just an illusion and God just straightforwardly gives in spite of rejection, faith is unnecessary to this sort of God. I think in a very important way, God is God by faith since God is the God of promise. I tried to spell some of this out in an interpretation of Luther’s statement “faith makes divinity” from his 1531/5 Galatians commentary in a recent essay (“On Martin Luther’s Statement, “Fides Creatrix Divinitatis” dialog 52 (2013): 196-203)
GS: You assert that the Spirit is a weak promise uniting past, present and a desired/hoped for future.
Would you say the Spirit is the center of time? Creator of time? Enabler of time? Intruder of time?
GW: These are all great names for the Spirit. Surely the Spirit’s descent, the mark and oil of the Spirit resting on our heads from our baptism, is a further gift of the Spirit distinguished from the Spirit’s activity since the creation of the world. I think the advent of the Spirit at Pentecost (which I think is better understood as John puts it rather than as in Acts) is, as Basil the Great writes, the Spirit giving no less the then entirety of the Spirit’s self to the body of Christ.
GS: I like the connection you make between the Spirit and the cross received from a one-time event to the specific crosses lived in our lives. I also enjoyed the statement that the Spirit comes from an unsettled future. (I think Robert Benne called it the “open-future”.)
Would you say there are any specific; concrete futures promised other than possibility received in desire and hope?
GW: I think there’s a sharp way to divide Christians on the way we think about hope and the future. Paul’s apocalyptic saying in 1 Corinthians 2:9 is much beloved (and archaically but beautifully put in the KJV) and important: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” This verse combines the iconic and an-iconic. Some are an-iconic, meaning that they refuse to accept any pictures or depictions of the future. Some are iconic meaning that they understand that a hope that is without an object of some kind is no hope at all. Parts of the book tend toward the iconic and parts tend toward the an-iconic.
One of the more amazing things about the book is that when you search for it, it appears in the company of the small but steady books and pamphlets that Christians produce on “biblical promises,” catalogs of what God has promised in the Bible or amalgams thereof that spell out exactly (or roughly) what sort of life heaven will offer, the character of that city’s pavement, and the kinds of relatives we can expect to see. That sort of hope is I think more of a hope that deserves to be countered with the iconic and a full dose of Pauls’ statement.
If there is a picture of the concrete future that I think is promised to us, it is the future of the Crucified One, the one who appears with wounds that neither fester nor heal.
GS: I enjoyed the Law/Gospel explanation of Holy Communion: Betrayal and Assurance; (“betrayal” marked in history by his disciples, and by our failure in the present; – “assurance” of the promised community that serves the neighbor; continually repeated.)
Can you spell out a similar outline for Holy Baptism?
GW: I suppose it takes a Lutheran pastor to detect out the use of law and gospel in a text where that distinction does not appear in so many words!
Part of my approach to the Eucharist is by taking the framing of the Last Supper and the Verba (“In the night in which he was betrayed…”) themselves. I could have started with other phenomena or passages to explicate the Eucharist but I wanted to think of promise and promise-making and the place of the gift, so the framework I employ in Chapter 5 of the book made the most sense to me.
Baptism has a far more possibilities to take as the starting point. There are the narratives of baptism, the icon of Jesus’ baptism in the Orthodox tradition, the conceptual reflection on baptism in Paul and the Pauline writings, even the apocalyptic reflection on baptism in the great host dressed in white in John’s Revelation.
So, I outline baptism and promise in this way:
Let’s take the Titus text from Luther’s Small Catechism as our entry point. This text reads: “By the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ, our Savior, that, being justified by His grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (An aside: this text was the hardest of all the pieces of the Catechism to memorize when I was young. I think it is all the clauses that trip me up.)
I would identify the actions of baptism: washing, renewing, justifying, and adopting. This is as good a baptismal text as any, awash as it is in Pauline baptismal technical terms.
It is at this point that promise makes an entry — each of this is promissory in character and hence can be considered as doubled and extended gift. This means we could consider how baptism is the place of justification, how this place is the renewal of the Spirit, continued life in Pentecost, and heirs and so partakers in the body of Jesus in the Eucharist. The bite that my analysis offers, think, is that the down payment, the focus of this legacy that is promised to the adopted, is nowhere else in the washing and chrism. This is that which is the place of baptismal hope and return.
Water! The return to water is the return to the abundant outpouring of the Spirit. The place of water is a push toward the neighbor.