Magazine article The Christian Century

Don't Exaggerate!

Magazine article The Christian Century

Don't Exaggerate!

Article excerpt

IN A MOVING tribute to her teacher Talcott Parsons, the eminent sociologist Renee Fox tells of how he warned, "Don't exaggerate." My antennae immediately responded. How often my marginal notes in hooks are simply "Evidence?" How often I have returned from worship and wondered whether the preacher of the day really meant, except under the license of hyperbole, what she or he had said. How often I have read and heard exaggerated claims about the efficacy of religious faith. How often versions of Paul Tillich's famous sermon "You are accepted" have been preached in my presence with the implication and sometimes outright claim that now one can live freely, at least with an internal freedom that is not nagged by guilt. The message "God is love; fear not" seems to carry the implication that because God is love one need not fear, or that if one fears, apparently one does not have faith that God is love.

A chapel service at Yale Divinity School decades ago comes to mind. H. Richard Niebuhr and I walked back to our offices after hearing a sermon in which it was proclaimed that if Christians have ulcers their faith is not whole. We fumed with anger at the certitude with which a falsity had been preached. Very recently my wife and I heard a similar sermon in which it was suggested that lower back pain might be due to failure to trust in the goodness of God. This came after we had received MRI results showing irreparable deterioration of my wife's spine.

There are certain words that clergy, theologians and students use very freely that always give me the intellectual shivers. One is "transform" or "transformation." Minimally, it means some change in form. Maximally, it is used to describe a thorough reconstruction or reorientation of whatever "form" one has in mind, a kind of total change of heart or of life or of social conditions. What is the evidence? Maybe "alter" or "alteration" would be more accurate terms. That there are warrants for maximal usage in the New Testament is clear; the affirmation that all things are made new, for example, cannot be missed. This simply directs the Parsonian warning to the Urtext of the tradition.

It is not that preachers and theologians are without resources to deal with what are apparent tensions, if not contradictions, in the religious claims that are made. One could write a book on the history of the verbal and conceptual ways in which the proclamation of the unconditional love of God can he made while acknowledging the reality of human pain and suffering, the devastation of the earth, the injustices of social orders, the mass murders of the innocent by evil persons authorized by idolatrous ideologies. Distinctions are many: between de jure and de facto, between the times, and more.

It may be pointed out that sermonic and good theological rhetoric is persuasive in intention, and so poetic, mythic, hyperbolic or just plain exaggerated speech is justified. I am no linguistic literalist. I believe that sermons and even theology should be prepared in such a way that people are not only informed but moved. The variety of hermeneutical theories that complicate our understanding of "objectivity" and legitimate a variety of "discourses" (as the current jargon puts it) are part of my instructional portfolio, and I have conducted seminars on books ranging from physical theory to poetry in which questions of evidence and various forms of expression have been the main item on the analytical menu, with specialists in the various fields participating. …

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