Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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The Church Cautious or Careless
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Prophets. Forty years ago I was introduced to this important book in my Introduction to the Old Testament class at Yale and found that it spoke to this first year M.Div. student in ways that the storied Germans von Rad, Westermann, Gunkel and company did not. Their tomes, as crucial as they were to Biblical scholarship, dutifully read and underlined, have not survived my multiple moves and winnowings over the years. But Heschel maintains in an honored place on my bookshelf, brought out from time to time to instruct, inspire and more often to admonish, not just because of what he teaches about the biblical prophets, but even more because of what he tells us of God.
Central to Heschel’s reflection is the notion of divine pathos seen not as an attribute of God but as an essential orientation.
To the prophet. . . God does not reveal himself in an abstract absoluteness, but in a personal and intimate relation to the world. He does not simply command and expect obedience; He is also moved and affected by what happens in the world, and reacts accordingly. . . . This notion that God can be intimately affected, that He possesses not merely intelligence and will, but also pathos, basically defines the prophetic consciousness of God.
Prophetic religion – which Heschel not only taught as a scholar but also enacted as a social activist – is defined, “not as what man does with his ultimate concern, but rather what man does with God’s concern.” Absent our sharing in God’s concern, “we know nothing about the living God.” To share “God’s concern” for Heschel is to grasp and attend to “God’s care for His creation.” It is “the prerequisite for being a prophet. All men [and women] care for the world; the prophet cares for God’s care. In the process of such redirection, the prophet may be driven to be careless about everything else.”
These words ought to haunt the church, often more cautious than careless, careful in the worst sense of the word, preoccupied with its own concerns and thus ignorant of the living God. A dear friend and mentor laments his sense of the church’s silence these days, albeit with brave exceptions. The United Methodist General Conference just concluded nearly two weeks of meetings at which they spent much time arguing over a national restructure plan while declining to open hearts, minds, and doors to gay and lesbian persons and refusing to put the teeth of divestment into their lament over the Israeli Occupation. Roman Catholic bishops in North Carolina sent out over 50,000 postcards last week calling on their members to vote to deny marriage equality to North Carolinians, enshrining bigotry in the state constitution. Grass roots Christians are organizing to offer a counter voice to the business and political community’s embrace of the NATO Security Summit arriving here in Chicago in less than two weeks. But a scan of regional church judicatory websites presents (with the notable exception of the Episcopal diocese) a bleak landscape of churchly activities offering little prospect of a resisting voice to the militarism that has been the hallmark of the Bush and Obama presidencies and their client states in NATO over the last decade. Has care for God’s care made us careless in Heschel’s sense? Hardly. Or are we just careful, hoping not to render more vulnerable the fragile foundations of mainline religion lest our institutional life erode at an even faster pace, yet in the process emptying our whited sepulchres of their remaining vitality?
Harry Emerson Fosdick, the dominant public religious voice on the Upper West side of Manhattan in the generation before Heschel took over his mantle, penned in his famous hymn, “save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.” In many ways, I think, it is not fear or comfort that silences the church these days. It is resignation. Lamenting our institutional decline and battered by the economic and political idolatries that dominate the nation, we swing between anxiety and ennui, not so much uncaring as resigned. Yet even this evokes divine pathos and likely divine wrath. For to care for God’s care is to remember that commitment is not feeling, and that hope is grounded in the fact that God hopes in us, not that the future can be determined. Silent complicity, the prophets (and Heschel!) remind us again and again, is always answered by God’s voice who cares too much to remain silent. In light of all we have silently tolerated over this past decade, that thought ought to make us tremble.
John H. Thomas