Here is my Christmas letter to my friends for this year.
We tend these days to separate words and actions sharply. Words are just words. Words are cheap. What counts is action, and action can get on well without words. Good talk, bad talk—it’s all just talk, it’s all inconsequential. We don’t confer much credit for beautiful, noble talk, and we don’t assign too much blame on the basis of ugly or common talk. Talk simply doesn’t matter very much. We don’t teach or study rhetoric, because rhetoric is normally thought of as “empty rhetoric.” The two words seem to belong together.
But they do not.
In a persuasive writing course next semester in the Gerald Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan one of the texts will be Adam Garfinkle’s Political Writing. In his foreword to this book David Brooks notes that two functions of rhetoric are “organizing our views of reality” and “persuading people”—the latter, according to Brooks, being the more important and more achievable of the two. Organizing our views of reality is important! Max De Pree, in Leadership Is an Art, states that the first task of a leader is to define reality. To lead is to achieve insight into reality and to convey that insight to others in such a way as to inspire action. Action not grounded insight is unwise, and insight expressed in speech but not made fruitful in action is sterile, void. But neither sterile speech nor unwise action is normal. The norm—the canon or standard—is quite different.
Where do we get our norm, our yardstick? Three guesses, anyone, as to where I’ll look for that answer?
The first speech in scripture is God’s: “Let there be light.” And there was light. Light shone forth as a result of the speech. So the speech was already also action. It was creative speech. God’s speech in Genesis 1 separates day from night, water from water, sea from dry land. It organizes reality. God’s speech in Genesis 2 commands. God’s speech in Genesis 3 calls out, interrogates, and judges. Reflecting on this history the prophet Isaiah hears God saying: my word does not return to me empty but accomplishes the purpose for which I send it out. God is always speaking, and God’s speech is always also action. God’s speech and action, or better God’s speech-action expresses the truth of God’s being, God’s character. A “God” who does not speak, or whose speech is ineffectual, is not God.
In Genesis 1 God’s speech defines God’s creation of the human—male and female—as the terrestrial installation of God’s own image and likeness. Whatever else these words mean, they indicate that the human is to imitate God and is in some sense to serve as God’s delegate and viceroy, the symbol of God’s own presence. In Genesis 2 God assigns to the first human the task of naming the other animate creatures and of presiding over them as a steward. Thus the human is called to speak, and in speaking to discern, describe, and organize reality; to bless, persuade, command, interrogate, and judge; and to do so not independently and arbitrarily, without reference to God’s own character and purposes, and also not in vain, as a sterile verbal exercise, but rather truthfully, faithfully, and effectually.
The human who does not generate faithful, fruitful language is not God’s imitator and delegate and so is not really fully human. The human whose speech does not in any given situation express and effectively apply the the truth of humankind’s being under God, humankind’s character, is not being what he or she was created to be. This is why “thou shalt not bear false witness” is not simply an item in a list of naughty things one mustn’t do but rather is a warning against a common but catastrophic form of disobedience to the prior “you shall have no other gods before me” and the even more fundamental “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” Bearing false witness is a willful renunciation of the divine image and likeness.
In biblical thought, truth is essentially neither correspondence of words to empirically demonstrable facts nor coherence within a humanly generated web of words. Usually in human experience it should be both of those things, just as within the limited but useful Euclidean and Newtonian way of seeing the world a line should be the shortest distance between two points. But basically and essentially, truth is faithfulness to God’s character and gracious aims. It is a personal, moral, spiritual, and metaphysical attribute. This is why the psalmist says, “Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts” (51:6).
At Christmas we always reread John 1. In the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We have seen his glory, and that glorious presence is full of grace and truth. In the divine economy, there is no grace without truth and no truth without grace. According to the Gospel of John, the one whose coming we anticipate today and celebrate tonight and tomorrow and forever is not just a sweet baby who grew up to be a wise and good man but is rather the fully perfected embodiment and exemplar of all that we were called to be when we were created in the image and likeness of the creator. He is full of grace and truth. And unlike ourselves, he is not, except for the physical flesh that he took on for our sake—accepting it as a gift from his ever blessed, paradigmatically obedient mother—created by God. Rather, he is himself the very Word of God, the very rationality and utterance through which all that has being in space and time was called into being. For our sake he appears as the perfect accomplishment of the imitation of God that is our own calling, but in truth he was in the beginning with God, and was himself God.
That understanding of Jesus—the understanding that we glimpse in the prologue to John’s gospel—is the inner core of Christians’ understanding of their savior and thus constitutes the hidden interior of the message of salvation that they proclaim and also of the morality that they are called to enact in the world. For guidance with regard to what it means to bear faithful witness to Christ in ways that will be effective and intelligible in the world, they look to the deeds and words of Jesus, past, present, and future, as represented in the words of the New Testament. We do not spin our own notions of what John’s “word” and “light” and “grace” and “truth” mean. We accept the witness of the apostles as to what they actually did, do, and will mean in Christ. We do not separate between what they say he said and did in the past and what they say he is doing now and will do in the future, because in God future and present are as assured as past. We do not separate between his words and actions because his words and actions are in perfect harmony: his words already accomplish reality, and his actions always express truth.
And what does Jesus say and do? Here is a short list. I am thinking in each case of particular passages in the New Testament but will not pause to look them up and cite them: in his speech and action—in his performative speech and revelatory action—he praises God, teaches about God, commands deeper obedience to God, encourages and lifts up the downtrodden, blesses the poor and suffering, commands impossibly rigorous purity, denounces false purities, welcomes the impure, calls for sinners to repent, tells some sinners not to bother repenting because their condemnation is well deserved and assured, speaks kindly to those who are condemned by powerful religious people, offers grace through repentance to powerful rich people, and damns unrepentantly hypocritical religious people. He is presented as word of God, son of God, “son of man,” gentle good shepherd, as wondrous healer, as powerful caster-out of demons, as sacrificial lamb, as faithful and true witness, as brilliant and terrible conquering warrior, as judge of the living and the dead.
What a kaleidoscope! The New Testament defeats from the start any facile attempt to reduce the divine Word that is Jesus Christ to any one-dimensional symbol, to a safely supportive poster boy for any particular religious, social, or political (even in the best sense of that word) faction or sect. Beholding the glory of this Word, becoming a faithful follower of this Jesus, is the work of a lifetime of following without ever having arrived, ever having fully achieved. It involves imitating Jesus in all of his diverse speech-acts, including his acts of gracious blessing but also—with fear and trembling—his utterances of clear and severe judgment, because all of it expresses not only grace but truth, not only truth but grace. We are certainly called to offer comfort in his name, but we are not licensed to jettison elements of his speech that discomfort us and other people to construct a lightweight truth or a cheap grace of our own devising.
Here, then, is what I offer this Christmas to my friends who are Christians living in the United States:
We should honor and celebrate the provision of the First Amendment to the US Constitution that prohibits the making of any law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” If you want to call that “separation of church and state,” go ahead; so it has commonly been called. But let us not allow anyone or anything to effect a separation of ourselves from God, or to split us into two-part people, as though we could have a holy part that we cultivate in private and show in church and an unholy part that runs amok in our workplaces and in the world. With regard to participation in our political system, we have only two choices: participate as bearers of the divine image and likeness, bringing our Christian morals and aims with us; or do not participate at all. I respect those (Amish, etc.) who take the latter course, but I cannot take it myself or recommend it to others. To me, to choose nonparticipation is to choose silence over speech, which is about as incompatible with imitation of the God who speaks as the choice of darkness over light would be with imitation of the God who caused light to shine out of darkness. There is no corner or cave in the whole created cosmos into which the divine light is not meant to shine, and there is no subdomain of the world into which we are not called and commanded to speak in a way that bears apt, truthful witness to the character and purposes of our Creator, Redeemer, and Judge.
To all my friends without exception, Christian or not: Let us accept the task of using words truthfully and faithfully, actively and effectively, to discern and name the reality within which we find ourselves and to reorder it in ways that call a new, harmonious reality into being.
In sum, I wish you all a peaceful, joyful, and transformative Christmas and a new year in which our talk is not empty, false, or inconsequential but gracious and truthful—and powerfully effective for organizing our view of reality and persuading others in the name of all that is holy and good.
I close with a prayer:
Lord God, your speech called us into a being in a world suffused with your light and your love. Enable us to hear your all-accomplishing words and behold your all-revealing light in such ways that we may love you with all our heart, and our neighbor as ourselves.
Jesus Christ, son of God, light of the world, savior and judge, you did not think equality with God was something to hang onto for your own advantage but emptied yourself in order to take our sin and suffering upon yourself. Enable us to reenact your words and deeds in such ways that we may become instruments and agents of divine grace and truth, healing and judgment and blessing, in every corner of this world in which you have planted us.
Holy Spirit of God, just as you hovered over the deep at the creation of this world, so also you overshadowed the young woman who became the mother of our God. As you then also accompanied and empowered him during his embodied time on this earth, so also accompany, guide, encourage, and empower us as we seek to be accurate images, faithful stewards, and truthful heralds of his grace and truth.