I had the opportunity to hear the Rev’d Fleming Rutledge speak today. Her presentation was entitled “What happened to Theology?” I went out of curiosity and because I have read two of her books in recent months. Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ(2018) accompanied me as I prepared and preached Advent in 2018 and last week, I read Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ(2015). I found both books challenging theologically and at times off-putting but engaging with them is time well spent. I had the same reaction to her presentation today.
One of the biggest challenges for me is simply her Barthian presuppositions. She contrasts Christian (biblical faith) with religion. The former originates with God; the latter with humans. I struggle with this for two reasons. First, because of the nature of scripture itself. Without going into a lengthy discussion, holy scripture is a compilation of books, deemed authoritative by human decisions, written by humans, using language which is also a product of human culture. Thus, revelation is necessary mediated through humans and to speak of God being the subject of theology, or that “scripture is the story God is telling of Godself” is true on the one hand, yet at the same time, it is also being told and preserved by humans.
Secondly, to contrast biblical (Christian) faith with religion is problematic in our religiously plural age. Does it result in a privileging of Christianity over against other religious traditions? Does it privilege Christianity over “not-Christianity” (ie., Judaism) in reading scripture? Does it overlook or ignore all of the ways in which the various forms of Christianity, historically and in the present are similar to other religious forms? Indeed, is it necessary for her project to make such distinctions?
One of the things she stressed today was the importance of learning and living in the biblical story. Whether or not I accept her views of the nature of revelation, I do agree that scripture tells the story of God, and that by wrestling with the story contained in scripture we encounter God, we learn about God’s relationship with humans, and we learn about human beings as well. To read scripture, to immerse oneself in scripture, is to immerse oneself in a conversation with God, in which God does the talking, but as we listen, we are compelled to ask questions, of ourselves, of the world, of scripture, and of God.
One of the things I appreciated most about Crucifixion was that instead of laying out a theory of the atonement, Rutledge explored the many images that the New Testament uses to talk about the crucifixion. Many of these images are problematic and challenging, but in her exposition, she showed their power to convey something unique and meaningful, without asserting that any single one conveyed all of the meaning of the cross. In that work, she very much shows what it means to enter the story of scripture, as she teases out the many possible meanings of “sacrifice” for example. She insists, for example, that it was an image used by early Christians, and for us to understand the faith of those early Christians, and for us to be faithful Christians in the twenty-first century, engaging with the entire range of biblical imagery concerning the cross helps us understand our faith, and perhaps come to deeper faith. I will never again be self-conscious about loving the great Lutheran passion chorales, for example.
I was as challenged by her emphasis on apocalyptic themes in Advent as I was by her appeal to take seriously the full range of biblical imagery surrounding the cross. Advent emphasizes the Second Coming in its scriptural passages as well as its hymnody much more strongly than it does the Nativity. Apocalyptic falls in and out of fashion as culture changes, and for many contemporary mainline Christians, its association with a particular emphasis in conservative Protestantism makes it suspect. Still, while scholars may debate the extent to which Jesus himself was an apocalyptic prophet or preacher, the fact of the matter is that early Christians, beginning with Paul, were convinced of his early return, and Paul’s letters are written with an urgency reflecting the imminence of the Second Coming. His theology is shaped by that apocalyptic perspective.
At the heart of apocalyptic is both the sense of a cosmic struggle between good and evil as well is a firm belief that in the end God will make all things right. In our context, it may be that such a worldview helps us make sense of our world better than any other.
But to return to the theme of her talk, as I left I wondered whether Rutledge is fighting a losing battle. Given the changes in our culture, the decline of Christianity, the multiple claims on our allegiances, is the sort of deep engagement with scripture even possible? In her talk and in the question and answer follow up, she told stories of people who were biblical theologians, people who were soaked in scripture and able to see God at work in the world through eyes opened by an intimate relationship with the text. Is that even possible any more? Are the kinds of “biblical theologians” Rutledge calls for a nearly extinct species, destroyed because the habitat that gave birth to and nurtured them is now a barren desert?