A Conversation Among Friends
January 18-19, 2007
left to right: John Wright, moderator, George Lindbeck, David Burrell, Stanley Hauerwas.
Nazarene Theological Seminary hosted gathering of great theological minds this past week. Stanley Hauerwas, George Lindbeck and David Burrell gathered to publicly discuss the question “Is the reformation over?” Me and a couple of friends went to listen to them and I have to tell you I was pretty blown away. All three have ties to Yale and Burrell and Hauerwas were at Notre Dame together. They’ve all maintained a friendship, catching up with each other all over the world as they travel, write, speak and teach about theology, ethics, philosphy, ecumenism and more. All of these guys have been widely read and are giants in their fields.
Lindbeck went first. He told stories about being a young theologian coming up in the Lutheran Church. He’s the son of Lutheran missionaries who became enamored by his Catholic cousins and the Catholic church by extension. He went to Yale to study medieval philosophy, not because he was interested in it but because he wanted to study the contemporary Catholic Church and that was the prescribed pathway. In 1949 he went to Paris to get his PhD. Can you imagine being in Paris as a student in the wake of WWII? Later, while teaching at Yale, he was asked to be one of 3 official observers to the Vatican II Council. He told a lot of stories of being behind the scenes as the Catholic Church answered some of the final issues from the reformation protests.
He told great stories. One story in particular was of a closed door audience with the Pope and all of the other observers (I think he said there were 41). He said John XXIII stood up and addressed them off the cuff in French. The pontiff told them when he was a boy, every morning he would wake up and his mother would tell him what to do and he would do it. Then at school he’d wake up every morning and his teachers would tell him what to do and he’d do it. Later the same was true of his professors. After he became a priest it was the head of his parish, then the bishop, then a cardinal and as he worked his way up there was always someone who would tell him what to do when he got up in the mornings. Then he became Pope, which of course got a big laugh – who tells the pope what to do? Then he recited Lamentations 3:23 “great is his faithfulness, his mercies are new every morning.” He explained that this council was the result of his obedience to God whose mercies are new every morning. What a great story.
David Burrell went next. He did similar life/history story telling. He’s probably the one with the most wit. Here are a few quotes I wrote down:
“There are two kinds of people in the world: those who NEED certitude, and those who search for truth.” His point being that the world needs more of the latter.
“Doing theology is being an apprentice to the master.”
“Graduate studies is as much networking as it is education.”
“There are a lot of unscrupulous adults making money off the youth culture.”
Much of what Burrell is now working on is a dialogue between the Islamic, Jewish and Christian faiths. His thesis is basically that if one engages in dialogue with other faiths and the goal is this need for certitude, it will be a disaster. But if the goal is to search for the truth, then those sort of dialogues are incredibly helpful. Gaining understanding only brings one closer to the heart of God. He now lives in Jerusalem and teaches there, working to create this dialogue among Abrahamic faiths.
“Justification by faith is a Christological move, more than an Anthropological move.”
“I distrust conversion so deeply because it is such an invitation to narcissism.”
About his days at Yale and Notre Dame and his long friendship with the other two men: “We weren’t trying to change the answers to the old questions, we were trying to change the questions. And doing that requires a lot of reworking – especially of yourself.”
Christianity is discovering “a unity that God has given us, that we have not made.”
“Scholarship is habit, linguistic habit.”
Speaking about the way John Paul II died: “I wish he would have died sooner…he ended up a prisoner to the Vatican. It’s one of the great tasks before us to reclaim our own deaths from modern medicine.”
About his friendship with the other guys: “We’re not friends because we’re desperate, but because we share a common joy. And the world is desperate fort hat joy.”
He said in the Methodist church everyone thinks ordination of homosexuals is their big issue. He says their big issue is adultery. “Our congregants are so messed up and because we don’t work for a living, we’re supposed to help fix it all. We’re so taxed and stressed and essentially lonely. We carry so much pain, and we go home to our spouse…and no spouse should have to love somebody that much. We just long to be touched and often we find that touch in the wrong places.”
His parting shot was “Be not afraid, don’t be afraid of speech. It’s a great gift we give to help people not to be robbed of their speech. Jesus is lord, let me show you all of the things you need to know to live with that one. That is why, and you’re not going to believe I’m going to say this, you can’t read the Bible enough, because that’s where you get the grammar. And we’re all gonna be dead before you know it…so it’s up to you now.”
In their closing sessions they were all three together in discussion. I didn’t take that great of notes on this part because I was just enjoying watching them all. I most remember Lindbeck saying that perhaps what is happening today is that God is destroying the church bit by bit so that he can build it up again in his own image. “We meet Christ most deeply when we live deeply in our own tradition. The best ecumenists are those who live most deeply into their own tradition.”
All in all I was really struck by their hope and optimism. Lindbeck said at one point, “One of the great advantages of getting to live for a long time is that one learns to distrust completely any predictions of the future.” These are all men who have world class minds and educations. They are more widely read than any 10 people I know. Because of their work and acclaim they have access to behind the scenes information about the church and theology on every continent. Becuase of their field they are well versed in the current trends amond Protestants, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Musilims. If there is cause for cynicism, these guys would find it. But they spoke of hope and goodness and the prevailing nature of the Kingdom of God. I was really encouraged by my time with these three amazing scholars and writers.