I want to write here about how to write theology. I want to write about how to write theology because I think we have not thought hard enough about why it is hard to write theologically. By “we” I mean those of us self-identified as theologians. Many of us so identified may have written some theology, though I suspect we have often confused writing about theology with writing theology. I have the sense, however, that few of us have thought about the conditions necessary to write a theological sentence that has the potential to make a reader stop and rethink what they thought they think.
As the last sentence suggests, I want us to think about what constitutes a theological sentence that both reflects thought and is capable of producing thought. Theological writing is usually done in essays or books, but I hope to show that if we concentrate on sentences we may well learn something we might otherwise miss. Of course, sentences work in relation to other sentences, but by focusing on particularly well-wrought sentences I think we will be able to see how the grammatical form of a sentence is shaped by a politics.
To focus on particular sentences is not my idea. Though I have in the past thought about the importance of well-wrought sentences, it was only by reading Stanley Fish’s book, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, that I thought it might be interesting to use his account of what makes a good sentence to think about what makes a good theological sentence. Fish’s account of sentences involves strong theological claims. His book even ends with the climatic sentence, a sentence inspired by a sentence written by Gertrude Stein, that “sentences can save us. Who could ask for anything more?” By suggesting that “sentences can save us,” Fish does not mean that a sentence must have theological content if it is to save, but neither does his claim about the salvation offered by sentences exclude those sentences with theological content.
Before I introduce the case Fish makes for the significance of the well-written sentence, I feel the need to make some highly contentious general comments about where we are today when we try to do theology. My comments are designed to suggest that theological writing, and in particular the writing of a significant theological sentence, depends upon and reflects how Christians find themselves in the world. In particular, I will argue that a theological sentence that does its proper work does so just to the extent it makes the familiar strange.
Much of modern theology, however, has been the attempt to show that the familiar is just that – that is, familiar. That project has seemed necessary because of the widespread assumptions in our culture that strong theological convictions bear the burden of proof. One sign of this assumption is confirmed by observing theology is barely credible as an academic discipline in university curriculums. As a result, one way theologians have tried to secure academic credibility is by writing about what theologians past and present may or may not have said about God rather than writing about God.
Of course, theologians throughout Christian history have rightly thought it never easy to write about God. But the reservation to write about God among current theologians seems to me to be of a different order than the past emphasis on our inability to know God unless God makes himself known to us. Today, we tend to avoid writing about God because we are unsure that the God about whom we might write makes any difference in our lives and, consequently, in the sentences we use to write about our lives. We live lives that would make sense if the God we worship did not exist, so we should not be surprised that our theological writing reflects our lives.
Rather than bemoaning theology’s loss of status, I am one of those theologians who thinks the loss of theological credibility can be quite beneficial for the writing of theology today. Theologians now have nothing to lose, so we can do our work with the freedom that comes to those who have nothing to lose. We can write without apology. At the very least, that means we do not have to try to make what we believe acceptable to those who have decided that what we believe cannot be true.
I should like to think how we write as theologians would reflect our confidence in the One who makes that writing possible. That is one of the reasons, moreover, that the scriptures remain paradigmatic for how we are to write. Where, after all, could one find more great sentences than in the scripture?
That said, I often think how strange what I say about what we are about as Christians must sound to my colleagues in the university, as well as non-Christian friends. For example, I recently criticized a church leader for responding to a question about how Christians understand the status of other religious traditions for saying the following sentence: “We believe that Jesus is our way to God, but we believe that there are other ways to God.” I observed that it never seemed to have occurred to the speaker that Jesus is our way to God only because, as Augustine maintained, he took on our humanity without abandoning his godhead. He, therefore, became our path to God by being our Mediator. In The City of God, Augustine maintains:
“There is hope to attain a journey’s end when there is a path which stretch between the traveller and his goal. But if there is no path, or if a man does not know which way to go, there is little use in knowing the destination. As it is, there is one road, and one only, well secured against all possibility of going astray; and this road is provided by one who is himself both God and man. As God, he is the goal; as man, he is the way.”
The response by the religious leader that assumes that Jesus is just one way to God is, of course, one that is required by the grammatical regimes of a liberal culture that demands tolerance.
I hope this example helps us see that our ability to form well-wrought theological sentences depends on a particular (and peculiar) politics. The ability to write well theologically relies on a church to exist that makes such writing possible. Thus my often made claim that the first task of the church is not to make the world more just but to make the world the world turns out to have implications for how theology is written. Yet that perspective may underwrite the general presumption that theology is a discipline that cannot meet the intellectual demands necessary to be included in the disciplines of the university.
One can always say that theology is, like many subjects in the university, a very specialized subject requiring many years of training for anyone even to begin to understand what might lead someone to think it important to say a sentence such as “Jesus is the Son of God.” Just as one must learn the language of physics, so must one learn the language that is intrinsic to the discipline of theology. I have some sympathy with such a response, but I think when everything is said and done such attempts to make theology invulnerable to criticism does not do justice to the theological task. It does not do so because theology does not have a specialized subject matter.
The problematic status of theology reflects the decline of Christian practice in advanced societies and the accompanying unease that is now a characteristic of those who continue to count themselves Christian. I should say it is an unease seldom made articulate, and if made articulate it usually invites a quick denial. Nonetheless, I suspect many who count themselves Christian are not at all sure we would be Christian without the effects identified as “Christianity.” In other words, we worry that what attracts us to identify as Christians is not God, but the world that Christianity made. That world may be waning, but it is nonetheless sufficiently intact to still be appealing to many.
The worry I am trying to identify is close to Kierkegaard’s question concerning how it is possible to be a Christian in Christendom, but it is not quite the same. He took as his task to challenge the complacency of Christians who assumed that being Christian was not that different from being a Dane. The unease I am identifying is not that kind of complacency, but rather is closer to a sense of bad faith just to the extent that we are less confident than Kierkegaard’s Danes that even if we identify ourselves as Christians we can trust that identification.
One very attractive strategy in response to our lack of confidence and trust in our declarations to be Christians is to “get to the essentials.” For example, if we can convince ourselves or others that what is really important is to believe that God exists then we can make up our mind about the “other stuff.” If you believe in God, then whether or not God called Israel to be the promised people can remain up for grabs. Many theologians have legitimated this strategy by suggesting that Christianity has an unchanging core of beliefs and behaviours that are essential, but you get to make up your mind about the other stuff – stuff like whether Jesus was raised from the dead or Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit.
The “core” is often thought to be a set of moral commitments concerning justice and love. That is why modern theology has been determined by a concern for ethics, because ethics is thought to be what Christianity is all about. This is a particularly besetting temptation for those like me who represent a field called “Christian ethics.” Too often I fear “Christian ethics” is simply the name for a way of doing Christian theology without taking theology all that seriously.
I think the attempt to reduce Christianity to “the essentials” results in expressions of the faith, a kind of writing, that cannot help but underwrite the sentimentalities of our culture. Thus the wide-spread presumption expressed in inelegant sentences such as “God is love” or “I believe that Jesus is Lord, but that is just my personal opinion.” Such sentences could only be produced when the simple complexity of the narrative that makes us Christians has been left behind. What we need to say theologically is that the truth is in the details, and it is the details that produce sentences that matter.
I am not suggesting that there is a strict causal relation between the accommodated character of recent Christianity and the absence of strongly written sentences in theology. I do think, however, that strong writing in theology, and I suspect with writing in general, is more likely when those who do the writing are “edgy.” By “edgy” I mean they discover they cannot reproduce the grammar that sustains and legitimates the assumptions that the way things are is the way they should or must be.
I am not suggesting that the kind of strong writing I am advocating is not possible by those who find that for good or ill we are “stuck” in the most accommodated forms of Christianity. That is obviously not the case as we have clear examples of wonderfully wrought sentences by theologians and writers who represent what is usually identified as “mainstream Christianity.” It is hard to repress people who refuse to accept that the way things are is the way that things have to be.
Robert Jenson, for example, has written a sentence I think is exemplary for what a theological sentence should be. He begins the section on “The Triune Identity” in the first volume of his Systematic Theology with this remarkable sentence: “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt.” I will say why I think this sentence to be exemplary below.
But before doing so, I need to introduce Stanley Fish’s account of what makes a good sentence in his book, How to Write a Sentence. Fish writes in order to help readers write good sentences by attending to the craft of sentence construction. For that reason alone the book is well worth attention. But it turns out, as Fish acknowledges, How to Write a Sentence is a book that entails theological suggestions that I will draw out in order to show why I take a sentence like Jensen’s to be exemplary.
Stanley Fish loves sentences. In particular, he loves sentences like this one from the novel Enderby Outside by Anthony Burgess: “And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with these impurities which we call meaning.” Commenting on this sentence, Fish observes that words are just discrete items, but Burgess rightly describes them as “ordained.” That he does so makes clear that a sentence is constituted by what Fish calls an inexorable logic of syntax, a ligature of relationships that makes a statement about the world that we can contemplate, admire, or reject.
So understood, good sentences are not restricted to literary works but, according to Fish, can be found everywhere. For example, Fish calls attention to a wonderful sentence in the movie – a movie that is also one of my favourites – The Magnificent Seven (1960). In that movie, upon being asked why he plunders peasants, the leader of a bandit gang responds, “If God didn’t want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.” Fish observes that sentence has the form of proverbial wisdom in which the parallelism of the clauses “didn’t want” and “would not have” provides a sense of inevitability.
Fish argues that the pleasure derived from such sentences has little to do with their content. We delight in the structure of such sentences because they provide lessons and practices that organize the world into manageable units that can be inhabited and manipulated. Fish argues that writing well can be learned by analysing and imitating how good sentences do their work – thus the formula: “Sentence craft equals sentence comprehension equals sentence appreciation.”
According to Fish, a sentence is an organization of items in the world as well as a structure of logical relationships. Sentences are the form language takes to organize the world into manageable units that can be inhabited. What we know of the world comes through words. When we write a sentence a world is created which is not the world, but “the world as it appears within a dimension of assessment.” Therefore, when Fish uses the word “organization,” he means it in the strong sense that “the skill to produce a sentence – the skill of linking events, actions, and objects in a strict logic – is also the skill of creating a world.”
Influenced by J.L. Austin (and Wittgenstein, although he is not mentioned), Fish argues that language is not a handmaid to perception. Language is perception giving shape to what otherwise would be dead or unnoticed. Any idea that we can distance ourselves from language is false. We can only use it in one way or another. It is, therefore, incumbent on those who would write to know the repertoire available that makes possible what we can and cannot do with the language that inhabits us.
Fish has little use for the attempt to classify sentences by textbook divisions such as parts of speech, kinds of clauses, or by identifying grammatical errors. Instead, he insists that sentences are best understood as “logical forms that link actor, action, and the object of action in a way that makes available simple and complicated predications.” He even argues in the early chapters of his book, an argument he will later disavow, that if you want to learn to write a good sentence it is better to pay no attention to content and attend to the structure of logical relations that can be catalogued.
He thinks it useful to distinguish between styles of sentences, even though there can be no end to such classifications. He identifies three, however, which he thinks serve well as examples: the subordinating style, the additive style and the satiric.
Fish also has chapters on first and last sentences that are filled with his analysis of wonderful examples. I suspect that the argument for the significance of sentences depends on the examples he marshals. Such a judgment is confirmed, I think, by the last chapter of the book, tellingly entitled, “Sentences That Are About Themselves (Aren’t They All).” He begins the chapter by confessing that, as he drew close to completing his book, he became aware that the book stages a dramatic contest between what he calls the instrumental view of language – that is, language as a disposable vehicle of the subject it serves – and a view of language as a formal system that refuses to efface itself before the demands of content. In the final chapter he brings these two views of language together by calling attention to sentences whose content is their form.
I think it is quite interesting that, in order to show how a sentence at once says what is true but distances itself from its content, his examples become explicitly theological. They do so because, as he observes, the idea that truth is at once plainly accessible and wholly hidden is central to religious thought. For example, he calls attention to a sentence from John Donne’s Devotion that reads:
“My God, my God, thou art a direct God, may I not say a literal God, a God that wouldst be understood literally and according to the plain sense of all thou sayest, but thou art also (Lord, I intend it to thy glory, and let no profane misinterpreter abuse it to thy diminution), thou art a figurative, a metaphorical God too, a God in whose words there is such a height of figures, such voyages, such peregrinations to fetch remote and precious metaphors, such extensions, such spreadings, such curtains of allegories, such third heavens of hyperboles, so harmonious elocutions, so retired and so reserved expressions, so commanding persuasions, so persuading commandments, such sinews even in milk, and such things in thy words, as all profane authors seem of the seed of the serpent that creeps, thou are the dove that flies.”
Fish observes this is a sentence about itself or, better put, it is a sentence about its inability to characterize its addressee. This leads Fish to make explicit a theological point that has been implicit from the beginning – that is, only God means what he says so that what he says can be taken literally. God’s “literalism,” the fact that God’s intentions need no bridge to be actualized, means God’s speech – God’s sentences – need no translation. In contrast, we mortals live at a distance from one another as well as ourselves, and that is why we have to write sentences. Fish argues that is why Donne does not end his sentence with a proclamation of God’s “plain sense,” but rather uses mortal language to suggest truths it cannot express.
Fish notes that the power of language to gesture toward a reality its forms cannot present is not limited to sentences about God, but is also a characteristic of those who “profess the religion of art.” In particular, Fish calls attention to the work of Ford Madox Ford, who begins his novel The Good Soldier with the famous first line: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” The irony of that sentence is that Ford’s narrator, John Dowell, proves to be incapable of understanding the story he tells. Dowell, however, becomes everyman just to the extent – and here Fish appeals to Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time – that time makes sentences at once possible, necessary and incomplete.
For it is true that only mortal beings write and need to write sentences. We do so because we are mortal beings for whom death is a gift – a gift, as Fish writes, “of design and choice, of gain and loss, of hope and desperation, of failure and redemption, all modes of being that are available only to creatures who, like sentences (and novels) have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is the inevitability of death that provides life with a narrative arc.” Sentences are our way of making sense of our lives as creatures who can only grasp eternity by negative inference – that is, by imagining in time the negation of time.
Fish concludes his reflections on the temporality of sentences and the eternity that would make them superfluous by calling attention to Bunyan’s description in Pilgrim’s Progress of Christian’s response to being told he must flee from the wrath to come: “Now he had not run far from his own door, but his wife and children perceiving it, began crying after him to return, but the man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on, crying, Life! Life! Eternal life.” Fish notes this sentence names the reward it cannot bestow, making us recognize the price we mortal sentence makers are asked to pay as time-bound, death-determined creatures.
In a brief “Epilogue,” Fish expresses the hope that the discussion he has initiated with How to Write a Sentence will be continued. He is well aware that others will have sentences to celebrate other than those to which he has called attention. To appreciate sentences and to craft sentences is not, according to Fish, a trivial pursuit. It is through the exploration of our linguistic resources our lives are made. Recalling Gertrude Stein’s remark that nothing is more exciting than diagramming sentences, Fish comments:
“The reason diagramming sentences is completing is because the completing is being performed by the sentences themselves; they do it; all we have to do is attend. And if we attend faithfully, surrendering to the unfolding logic of predication, not only the completing, but the excitement of its having been done, will be ours by proxy. The reward for the effacing of ourselves before the altar of sentences will be that ‘incidentally’ (what a great word) – without looking for it – we will possess a better self than the self we would have possessed had we not put ourselves in service. Sentences can save us. Who could ask for anything more?”
How to Write a Sentence is not a book with theological implications. It is a theological book. Fish does not call attention to the theological character of the book, but he is well aware of the theological commitments constitutive of the book’s argument.
For example, in an interview about the book he returns to Stein’s remark about the “everlasting feeling” she gets from diagramming a sentence. He does so to call attention to Stein’s view that, if you start thinking about language in a self-regarding way you will not get anywhere because your ego, your ambitions, your projects will get in the way. But if you submit – an interesting word for Fish to use – by reading and re-reading a great sentence a better self is more likely to emerge.
Commenting on Stein’s views, Fish observes that she is making an explicit religious argument. It is so because the submission of a small self to a larger power so that the small self gives up its own providence is the message of many religions but in particular Christianity. Fish concludes, “sentences can send us in direction of something greater than they and therefore greater than us so sentences in a way perform their best office when they turn us in the direction of life, life, eternal life.
In Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopedia, Genealogy, and Tradition, Alasdair MacIntyre calls attention to Nietzsche’s remark, “I fear we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in grammar.” MacIntyre calls attention to Nietzsche’s comment to suggest that Nietzsche saw clearly what the critics of Christianity associated with the Ninth Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica did not see – that is, that their conception of rationality and language was itself theological.
How to Write a Sentence can be read as an extended commentary on MacIntyre’s observation about Nietzsche’s remark. In a similar fashion, Fish’s argument concerning the logical form of a sentence can be seen as an elaboration of Wittgenstein’s remark in the Philosophical Investigations, that “Grammar tells what kind of object anything is. (Theology as grammar.)”
I have no idea if Wittgenstein was responding to Nietzsche. I suspect he was not. I only call attention to their remarks to suggest the significance of Fish’s understanding of the significance of sentences. Of course, it is by no means clear that the God of which we cannot be rid because of our belief in grammar is the Christian God. Nor is it clear that the “effacing of the self” Fish celebrates as one result of surrendering to the logic of sentences can or should be thought to be equivalent to the kind of self-forgetfulness Christians associate with the worship of God. But if How to Write a Sentence is a subtle form of natural theology, I have no reason in principle to object to it.
Rather, my concern about Fish’s case for the significance of sentences, particularly in reference to theological sentences, is that he seems to think that the sentences he loves, the sentences he uses to exemplify what he takes to be great sentences, can and will be recognized as significant sentences by anyone – at least, they will be recognized by anyone who has read Fish’s book. I have no reason to doubt that may sometimes be the case, but I worry that Fish’s assumption that such recognition is possible fails to account for the social and political realities necessary for such recognition. I have the same worry about what makes possible the writing of such sentences.
One may well respond, as I suggested above, that gifted people are capable of writing and reading good sentences irrespective of the circumstances of their lives. I am sure that is true. Yet Fish rightly emphasizes that both the writing and the reading of a good sentence with appreciation is a craft that comes through training. What I worry about is whether he has explored sufficiently the conditions of possibility that make such a craft possible. His analysis of the sentences that he uses as examples is at once so exact and so effortless you can miss the fact that his analysis of what makes a sentence a great sentence is the result of a lifetime of training. Yet he does not expose – at least not in this book – the conditions that made it possible for him to write How to Write a Sentence.
In truth, I am not clear about what I am asking. I think what I feel missing in How to Write a Sentence, although it may be present in other of Fish’s works, is the kind of account with which I began this article. By characterizing the current position of theology and how that position is a reflection of Christian existence today, I was trying to suggest that good sentences and our ability to read them do not drop from the sky. Rather, they are the result of a lifetime of training necessary to produce a soul capable of seeing through the sentimentalities we use to hide our mortality from ourselves.
I believe, for example, that Robert Jenson’s sentence, “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt,” took a lifetime to write. I do not have the gift of exposition Stanley Fish displays, but I need at least to try to show why I think Jenson’s sentence is such an exemplary theological sentence. The crucial word is “whoever.” With that word Jenson resists the commonplace assumption that when someone says “God” they know what they are saying. I suggested above that the problem with much of modern theology is too often we confirm the familiar. “God” is a familiar name. Jenson’s use of “whoever” is grammatically necessary to make the familiar strange. “Whoever” calls into question the reader’s presumption that they know who God is prior to how God makes Himself known.
Jenson’s “whoever,” therefore, is best understood against the background of Karl Barth’s rejection of liberal theology. “Whoever” is a further elaboration of Barth’s great sentence, “God is God” – a sentence designed to avoid the presumption, so well identified by Feuerbach, that theological claims about God are our way of talking about ourselves. Jenson, like Barth, thinks Feuerbach represents the decisive challenge to theology because Feuerbach rightly saw that:
“in our communal life we discover and live by goods that are in fact valued among us, yet none of us finds fully available to him or herself: in consequent longing and resentment, we project the fullness of these goods on the screen of eternity, where such fullness may be conceived., and we then find our comfort and hope in what we there behold, that is, in our own communal values writ large.”
Jenson’s response to Feuerbach, his “whoever,” moreover entails a politics. Jenson observes that if Feuerbach is right that there is no antecedent one God, neither can there be one antecedent community of mankind. Feuerbach’s dream of a universal humanity that shares an eternal vision of the significance of humanity turns out to be parasitic on the faith he exposes as fraudulent. As a result, Jenson observes, the kind of unbelief characteristic of our culture has had to abandon the high humanism of a universal community knowing now only classes, genders, races and cultures.
If it is suspected that I am making more of Jenson’s “whoever” than can be justified, I can appeal to Jenson’s own understanding of the theological task. Theology for Jenson is thinking what to say in order to be saying the gospel. Theology, according to Jenson, is best understood as a “sort of grammar. The church, we must say, is the community that speaks Christianese, and theology formulates the syntax and semantics of this language.” “Whoever,” therefore, is the grammar appropriate to the God who has a history. Just as Fish suggested, time is at the heart of what it means for us to be creatures determined by sentences.
According to Jenson, the gospel not only must itself have a history, but the gospel itself is “an impeller and enabler” of history. Therefore, the Christian understanding of God emerges and reinterprets whatever antecedent religious or theological manifestations it encounters as a missionary community. “Whoever” indicates that the church is necessarily a missionary movement because the God who can be known only as the God who raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt, is known through witnesses. This remains true even in cultures which consider themselves “Christian.” Indeed, it is those cultures that the “whoever” is particularly challenging just to the extent that grammar calls into question the general presumption that they know who God is.
The parallel between Jesus being raised from the dead and Israel being raised from Egypt is the other striking characteristic of Jenson’s sentence. “Raised Jesus from the dead” is the grammatical remark that necessitates the doctrine of the Trinity. The phrase “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” is a compressed story gesturing to the total narrative of scripture in which God’s name is specified. “Raised Jesus from the dead” is the phrase that invites the opportunity to show how the quite different but interconnected aspects of scripture climax with this man’s triumph over sin-induced death. There can be no shortcuts to begin the ongoing task of comprehending what we say when we say “God” if Jesus has been raised from the dead.
That the reference to Jesus’s resurrection is mentioned prior to Israel’s being raised from Egypt is one of the reasons Jenson’s sentence is so striking. The reader expects a chronological order. Why does Jesus’s resurrection come before Israel’s exodus from Egypt? Using Fish’s classifications, Jenson’s sentence at once seems to be an example of the subordinate and additive style. There is a clear sequence of events, but their ordering seems haphazard. The latter judgment, however, must be qualified by Jenson’s use of the surprising word “raised” to describe Israel’s exodus from Egypt.
By the use of “raised,” Jenson gestures at once to the necessity that Christians recognize that God’s promise to Israel remains good and why the Old Testament must be read Christologically. I think Jenson’s commitment to hold both these claims in tension in the same sentence reflects the peculiar moment in which Christians find themselves. I doubt such a sentence would have or could have been written prior to the Holocaust. I need to be very careful about such a claim because it may seem that I am presuming to be able to read Jenson’s mind. I have no idea if Jenson may or may not have been thinking about the Holocaust when he wrote the sentence I find so compelling. What I am sure about, however, is a Christian reading of the Old Testament as suggested by Jenson’s use of “raised” is necessary if Christians are to even begin to understand our relation to Judaism.
According to Fish, sentences are logical forms that link actor, action and the object of action to make available predictions that would otherwise not be made. I take Jenson’s sentence to be exemplary of such logic. It is a sentence that promises that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is a God that demands recognition by being worshiped. This is not a dead God. This is not a God who created the world and retreated to a realm “up there.” This is the God who raised Jesus from the dead, which means this God continues to redeem. “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt” is a sentence that could only be written in a world in which Christians must learn again how to live, as Jews have lived for centuries – that is, out of control.
The logic of Jenson’s sentence does what Fish suggests a sentence, and in particular sentences about God, must do – namely, witness to the inability to do justice to its subject. We must write about that which cannot be captured by sentences. But we can tell the story of how God’s dealing with us makes possible sentences whose form and content are inseparable. After all, the question is not: does God exist, but do we?
“The question is not: does God exist, but do we?” is a sentence I wrote. I think it a good sentence. It is a sentence that expresses what I take to be the metaphysical implications of the observations Fish makes about our need for sentences in contrast to God’s eternity.
I try to produce similar sentences, which often earns me remarks such as, “That was a good lecture, but what I really liked were your asides.” Usually, the comment is meant as a compliment. It would be ungracious not to receive it in that spirit. But I worry that the remark might suggest there is no relation between the aside and the lecture. That may at times be true, but if it is true then it means I have not been doing my job. For whatever talent I have for the “one-liner,” the remark or aside must be made possible by the content of the lecture.
In order to elaborate on this last point, I am going to risk being self-indulgent by directing attention to some of the sentences I have written. I do so because, as their author, I should be able to make articulate the relation between how I was learning to think and the sentences that I came to write. It remains the case, however, that I am and continue to be surprised by some of the sentences I have written. I sometimes feel as if someone other than myself wrote them.
I have thought, however, that sentences were important if the general perspective I represent was to be persuasive. For example, I think the power of Reinhold Niebuhr’s work owes much to his ability to craft the well-formed sentence. “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary” is obviously a brilliant sentence that at once reflects Niebuhr’s anthropology and his subsequent political theory. It is a sentence, moreover, that I suspect created thought to the extent that Niebuhr had to go on to say more exactly what a “capacity for justice” entailed. Though I have a quite critical relation to Niebuhr, I owe him much for what he taught me about the importance of writing a good sentence.
No one sentence captures the way I have learned to think theologically, but the following sentences – sentences widely scorned – indicate central themes. “The first task of the church is not to make the world more just; the first task of the church is to make the world the world.” That sentence reflects the influence of John Howard Yoder and, in particular, his understanding of the eschatological character of the gospel. The sentence is, of course, meant to be offensive. Surely in this time when Christianity seems to many a faith with doubtful metaphysical commitments, it becomes important to emphasize the ethical idealism many Christians embody. Yet that is what I seem to be denying.
I do mean for the sentence to challenge the assumption that Christians are the same as everyone else, except for some reason they think it useful to go to church. Accordingly, it is very important that readers be attentive to the phrase “first task.” The sentence does not imply that Christians have no interest in justice, but it does mean that Christians have no idea what justice may entail unless we first know what it means to be “the world.” I want to challenge the presumption that the world cannot know it is the world unless there is an alternative to the world. Inherent, therefore, in the grammar of this sentence is a strong epistemological assertion with a definite politics. “The world” cannot know it is the world unless there exists a people who are not the world.
This understanding of the relation of church to world is captured in the sentence, “You can only act in the world you can see, and you can only come to see what you can say.” This sentence is a modification of Iris Murdoch’s remark that ethically what we do depends on the descriptions that make the world the world. Accordingly, the first response is never, “What should I do?” Rather, the first response is to ask, “What is going on?” Description precedes decision. Accordingly, the language we use to make the world the world is more significant than any decisions we make in or about the world.
These sentences are designed to be interrelated. As they stand, their grammar is meant to entail substantive commitments. Those commitments are implied by sentences such as, “If you need a theory of truth to have confidence that Jesus was raised from the dead, worship that theory – not Jesus.” That sentence is designed to show how the grammar of each of these sentences is non-foundational. What makes the world the world is its refusal to acknowledge that Jesus was raised from the dead. So the world turns out to be that which takes the time of God’s patience not to live in the light of the resurrection.
To live in the light of the resurrection is to refuse to use the powers that crucified Jesus in the name of achieving justice. Thus the sentences, “Christians are called to be nonviolent not because we believe nonviolence is a strategy to make war less likely, but because in a world of war as faithful followers of Christ we cannot imagine being anything else than nonviolent. It is a nonviolence, moreover, that may make the world more violent because the world will use violence rather than have the order it calls peace exposed as violence. “ These sentences, like all the sentences I have used to this point, is designed to make clear that Christological commitments are what makes these sentences not only possible but hopefully intelligible. They also are designed to challenge sentimental accounts of Christianity and, in particular, accounts of Christian nonviolence found in such slogans as, “Give peace a chance.”
One of my favourite sentences that does the kind of work I just described is a sentence I used to begin a sermon for a wedding in which I Corinthians 13 had been chosen as the text for the day. I began with the sentence, “Christians are obligated to love one another – even if they are married.” That sentence is designed not only to challenge romantic conceptions of love that are associated with the love between two married people, but also to suggest that the love that should characterize the relation between Christians is the love that we share through being incorporated into God’s very life.
I have hopefully supplied enough examples to suggest how certain kinds of sentences seemed to write themselves given how I was being taught to think by John Howard Yoder. I am tempted to call attention to some of the sentences in Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir to suggest they work in a similar fashion; sentences like, “I did not intend to be ‘Stanley Hauerwas’,” or ,”Most people do not have to become theologians to become a Christian but I probably did.” Perhaps these reflections are better left for a separate essay in which the genres of theology are explored. So I end with a prayer that I hope captures some of the lessons Stanley Fish has to offer.
Gracious God, humble us through the violence of
Your love so we are able to know and confess
our sins. We want our sins to be interesting, but,
God forgive us, they are so ordinary: envy,
hatred, meanness, pride, self-centeredness, laziness,
boredom, lying, lust, stinginess, and so on.
You have saved us from “and so on” to be a royal
people able to witness to the world that
the powers that make us such ordinary sinners
have been defeated. So capture our attention
with the beauty of your life that
the ugliness of sin may be seen as just that –
God, how wonderful
it is to be captivated by you.