Two questions during my dissertation defense last week I think I fumbled a bit. The first one was put to me by Kenda Dean who asked, in essence, “How is God revealed to human beings?”
She asked this because in my dissertation, I am critical of the way that “practices” have been emphasized in practical theology over the past couple decades. This is primarily, I think, because of the preeminence of Stanley Hauerwas as Theologian Of The Americas, and because of the direction that Craig Dykstra has taken the Lilly Endowment (and its tens of millions of dollars).
I don’t have anything against practices, per se, being core to our understanding of the church. I do, however, think that Dykstra, Hauerwas, Dorothy Bass and others have overdetermined the power of practices at telling us who we are and, more significantly, who God is. In fact, I don’t think that ecclesial practices tell us much, if anything, about God.
What practices do, I submit, is show us how human beings organize our experiences of what we understand as the divine. We pray, we sing, we take communion, we dance, we recite poetry, we listen to sermonators. These practices all tell us what we think about God. The whirling dervishes think something very different about the divine than do the frozen chosen.
While Kenda may or may not agree with me on that point (she’s a pretty strong proponent of practices), her question was, “Well, then where does God show up?” This was the first question of the defense, and I mumbled something about this and that, but I think that my answer was insufficient.
In the defense, I come out as a panentheist (no great shocker there). In her question, Kenda pointed to this and wondered, if God is everywhere, where is God specially revealed. That’s a great question.
After the defense, Peter Rollins helped me clarify my thoughts. “God is an event,” said Pete, “And liturgical practices are the ways that human beings organize their experience of the event they call ‘God.’” That was close to my answer, but I was lacking the articulation of God as Event. I don’t know how Princeton faculty, who tend to be Barthian, would have responded to that, but it is closer to my own view.
That still leaves open the question about God as Event having special encounters with creation — those things that theologians traditionally call “special revelation.” Be it the parting of the Red Sea, the conversion of Paul, or that moment that you received the glossolalia, those moments are either myth, psychological delusions, or the inbreaking of the divine. I’m currently working on a better answer to that.