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July 16, 2010

Learning How to Say "God"


I thought I'd post one more entry from the Stanley Hauerwas memoir - more for my own benefit than anyone else's. (Copying down ideas that are important to me longhand, or by typing them out, is a key way that I learn.) The following passage comes at the end of the book. Hauerwas is summarizing his work as a theologian - both in terms of content and method. Apart from the telling of particular narrative elements of his story, this may be my favorite section of Hannah's Child.

We talk of God in very casual, familiar terms, using the language of faith.

"In fact, faith is nothing more than the words we use to speak of God. And yet the God to whom and about whom we speak defies the words we use. Such defiance seems odd, because the God about whom we speak is, we believe, found decisively in Jesus of Nazareth, the very Word of God. Still, it seems that the nearer God draws to us, the more we discover that we know not what we say when we say, 'God.' I suspect that this is why one of the most difficult challenges of prayer is learning to address God."

Isn't "God," God?

"Disputes between those who believe in God and those who do not often turn on the assumption by both parties that they know what they mean when they say 'God.' This seems unlikely, since Christians believe that we learn to use the word 'God' only through worship and prayer to the One we address as Father, Son, and Spirit. Such a God is identified by a story that takes time, often a lifetime, to learn. Theology is the ongoing and never ending attempt to learn this story and locate it in contexts that make speech about God work."

He continues:

"Learning how to say 'God' is hard but good work. It is good work because the training necessary to say 'God' forces us to be honest with ourselves about the way things are. Our lives are but a flicker. We are creatures destined to die. We fear ourselves and one another, sensing that we are more than willing to sacrifice the lives of others to sustain the fantasy that we will not have to die."

As a theologian who always turns the corner into ethics (who God is shapes how we act), Hauerwas believes that our God-talk ought to affect our attitudes towards death and suffering - and through that, confront issues like how we practice medicine.

"The widespread confidence that medicine will someday 'cure' death is a fantasy. The attempt to develop and maintain a medicine so aimed, moreover, depends on the creation of wealth as an end in itself. A social order bent on producing wealth as an end in itself cannot avoid the creation of a people who souls are superficial and whose daily life is captured by sentimentalities. They will ask questions like, 'Why does a good God let bad things happen to good people?' Such people cannot imagine that a people once existed who produced and sang the Psalms."

He concludes by addressing the reality of suffering as a part of normal human experience. How do we respond to such suffering? With prayer or with a fight for control?

"If we are going to learn to say 'God,' we will do so with the prayer, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' This is word work...The challenge I have mounted against the accommodation of the church to the ethos of modernity is my attempt to help us recover our ability to pray to God, and to imagine what it might mean to be Christian in a world we do not control."

This is how we learn to say God.

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