“God: Initiating and Sustaining Conversation“
A Review of
An Unsettling God:
The Heart of the Hebrew Bible.
by Walter Brueggemann.
Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.
An Unsettling God:
The Heart of the Hebrew Bible.
Paperback: Fortress Press, 2009.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
Walter Brueggemann’s An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible describes first of all a God-in-relation, YHWH understood as he is in dialogue, most especially with Israel, but also with human persons, the nations, and all of creation. Locating God’s primary identity not in unilateral commands or creeds, but rather as an engaged dialectical partner, Brueggemann identifies God’s covenanting act as one in which he is an “available agent who is not only able to act but is available to be acted upon” (9). Indeed, the agency of Yahweh is seen to be inviting a reciprocal act of participation and conversation from the dialogical partners, suggesting that the response of Yahweh’s chosen people – in attentiveness and discernment – extends the possibilities in the work of reconciliation.
Israel’s identity then, as a people, is also best understood as it is in relation: “If we are to identify what is most characteristic and most distinctive in the life and vocation of this partner of YHWH [Israel], it is the remarkable equation of love of God with love of neighbor, which is enacted through the exercise of distributive justice of social goods, social power, and social access to those without leverage” (29). The demands of justice and holiness are fulfilled within the gathered community of Israel, as they are in relation themselves and with Yahweh. God, as characteristically in relation, places Israel, and consequently all of creation, into a dynamic role in the narrative of God-in-history. In fact, God’s dialogue partners are “invited, expected, and insistently urged to engage in a genuine interaction that is variously self-asserting and self-abandoning, yielding and initiative-taking,” (65) all of which may be characteristics of any good conversation, but when extended to Yahweh as a partner, it becomes the narrative by which God is known as embodied on earth.
Brueggemann models this back and forth of conversation in a similar structure for all of Yahweh’s partners, roughly centered on brokenness and restoration, in which Yahweh and the partner both have generative roles. Yahweh’s unique relationship with Israel is characteristic of this dialectic, as Israel is: “1. created in love for glad obedience; 2. scattered into exile; 3. restored through YHWH’s pathos-filled love for obedience and hope” (164). Human persons, the nations, and creation all trace similar narratives/dialogues in their relationship with Yahweh, initiated by God, then existing in various form of exile or despair, complaining and petitioning to God, who answers restoratively.
The dialogic posturing with God and within the gathered community may be the most insightful guide for our church communities, particularly in light of several alternatives cited by Brueggemann, such as “legalism,” “unbridled technical knowledge,’” “scarcity,” or truly “any version of reality that relies finally on sociopolitical or military explanations” (132). As such, one important emphasis in An Unsettling God is on discernment, as a defining characteristic of humanness, meaning “to pay attention to the generous mystery that drives reality, and to know how, in respectful and constructive ways, to channel that generous mystery toward the well-being of the earth and of the human community” (73). Or, likewise, described as wisdom:
“Wisdom is the critical, reflective, discerning reception of YHWH’s gift of generosity…Wisdom urges careful husbanding, so that resources of creation may be used for the protection, enhancement, and nurture of all creatures. Wisdom is the careful, constant, reflective attention to the shapes and interconnections that keep the world generative. Where those shapes and interconnections are honored, there the whole world prospers, and all creatures come to joy and abundance… this ordering of creation, with which human wisdom may resonate, has an ethical dimension to it, which H. H. Schmid terms righteousness… Israel’s testimony holds that public worship is a context within which the generosity of creation can be received and enhanced” (141, italics original).
This description seems to me to suggest some of the complexity of the dialogic nature Brueggemann attributes to Yahweh’s nature, in which all of the creation, the nations, human persons, and especially God’s gathered people are marked by their relation as participants in the divine conversation. It likewise locates this dialogue within the scope of the created world and the human community, and furthermore, as Phil Kenneson has suggested, asks that “by the grace of God, we live in such a way that our lives are incomprehensible apart from this God.” The Unsettling God points to a God who is present and engaged, participating at every turn in the world, initiating and sustaining conversation, and ultimately reconciling all things.