Summoned to a Dialogic Life


Walter Brueggemann
Professor of Old Testament Emeritus
Columbia Theological Seminary

(Précis of his presentation to the 2008 Covenant Conference)

The God of the Bible is a covenant-maker and a covenant-keeper. But the matter is more complex than that. With Abraham God makes a covenant that is unilateral and unconditional. With Moses at Sinai God makes a covenant that is bilateral and conditional. The two traditions of covenant are not easily reconciled and signify that God can operate in more than one mode. Indeed, the twinned traditions suggest that God has an internal contradiction in God’s on-going relation with ancient Israel.

That contradiction means that God has some internal space in which to continue to redecide, always again, about covenant. It is evident, moreover, that God’s character, as given in these traditions, requires uncommon artistic imagination in order to voice and communicate the rich thickness of God’s disposition toward God’s partner. That internal complexity, moreover, issues in God’s external complexity as known and experienced in the life of the world. All of these factors—internal complexity, artistic articulation, and external complexity—indicate that the God of the Bible is a dialogic character who engages in an on-going complex transaction with God’ partners. It is a relation that remains open and unsettled, and stands at a great distance from the more familiar categories of God that are static in terms of “omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence.” This character of God requires as covenant partners very different kinds of folks in very different kind of communities.

The dialogical character of God requires that God’s partners—in synagogue and in church—should themselves be dialogical persons, that is, remaining open for new gifts and new commandments. This dialogical practice of faith is most clearly voiced in the book of Psalms that is a mix of hymns and laments of protest. The hymns present Israel as ceding its life gladly over to the rule of God. The laments of protest present Israel as claiming its life over against God and insisting on its own entitlements. Maturity of faith is the capacity to move back and forth between hymn and lament, between ceding and claiming. These actions are seen in the Book of Psalms to be commensurate with God’s own way in covenant.
It is obviously not easy to keep covenant and to remain in a dialogic posture. We can readily identify two temptations to move out of risk of a covenantal life into something safer. On the one hand there is a temptation to absolutism that I judge to be the conservative temptation, to settle things in clear certitudes so that there is no risky openness about the future with God. Such a temptation amounts to nothing less than idolatry, the production of a God who we are able to control.  The second temptation is autonomy that I judge to be the liberal temptation. It is to imagine that we are self-starters and not accountable to another. This amounts to atheism which in the Bible is termed the foolishness that imagines that there is no God.

The twin temptations to absolutism (idolatry) and autonomy (atheism) are always available to us. At its best the church resists such temptations and stays with the more demanding way in the world it, that as we relate to God in dialogical ways, so we may relate to our neighbors in the same way of faithful freedom. It is our common hope the church, in this context the Presbyterian Church, can resist those temptations and remain as God’s good faithful partners in which trust, obedience, and freedom are always the order of the day

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