a model for public theology: covenant

I’m currently re-reading Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination for the Bible class I teach at University of Portland. It’s a good introduction to the basic contours of prophetic theology as exemplified in Moses, then Jeremiah & Isaiah, and finally Jesus.

What just struck me–I’m on the chapter on Solomon, whose regime represents a royal consciousness of consumption over against a prophetic consciousness of covenant–is that there need be no real consensus of faith or belief for one to act covenantally with respect to one’s brothers and sisters in our secular society. Does that make sense?

In other words, I often balk at formulating my desires to behave compassionately in religious terms. Rather, I buy into the liberal, secular philosophy behind social action and justice. This philosophy is sometimes accurate (to divine truth), but sometimes not.

And how one conceptualizes one’s motives and actions is how one experiences them. (For proof, see Wittgenstein.)

Evangelicals tend to be vague when explaining their motives for social justice: “We love because Jesus first loved us.”

Well, yes. There’s nothing incorrect here. But I, for one, need depth. I need a complex narrative and conceptual structure to help order and encourage my motives, attitudes, and behavior.

So I’m proposing that we can draw on the ancient Israelite theology of covenant to complexify and flesh out our theology of social action. I imagine Old Testament scholars (Brueggemann among them) have been doing this for years, but I haven’t seen the fruits in common Evangelical discourse.

It would aid me significantly to view my secular brothers and sisters as co-members of a covenant, thereby deserving of a certain respect and compassion above and beyond that which a theory of “rights” might afford.

(This is, in practice if not also in theory, how we view fellow believers. And who has not noticed how one approaches a fellow believer–even one theologically or morally disagreeable–with significantly more respect and compassion than a non-believer? How can Christianity expect to be viewed as anything but another tribal commitment if this is the case??)

Moreover, I think if Christian values and Christian theology are going to function to revive and revitalize Western culture to any extent, it must be ideas such as this one that are wielded for the task.


One response to “a model for public theology: covenant

  1. Addendum: The above is not to say that similar theological models have not been used in the past to accomplish the same goal. I don’t know much about Abraham Kuyper, but my instinct is that precisely this is what he was interested to do with the Calvinistic idea of “common grace.” (If anyone knows about this, please feel free to elaborate.)

    Further, I feel that this represents a trend in my thought. I’m much more comfortable seeing Christians as imbedded in the world, as one (slightly tweaked) class of people among all peoples–not as overlords of belief, meting out their truth and wisdom and compassion and justice as if it were totally transcendent to the truth and wisdom and compassion and justice of other peoples or other belief systems.

    Note that I do NOT consider this pluralism. It’s a distinction in quantity, not quality, from the typical Evangelical emphasis on the other-worldliness of Christian truth, wisdom, et al.

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