The Wonderful Laicity of God

Greater than Guilt/20 - Biblical humanism is an endless education for liberty

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 03/06/2018

Piu grandi della colpa 20 rid“If your heart does not wish to give in If it feels no passion, if it does not want to suffer Without making plans about what will follow My heart can love for the both of us”

Luisa Sobral, Amar pelos dois (English version by Igor Caldeira)

When we try to respond to a vocation, our existence moves between the memory of a great liberation and the waiting for the fulfilment of a great promise, between memory and hope. Everything takes place between these two banks of the river, and the great task of living is to learn to stay in the ford, without succumbing to the temptation of nostalgia for the bank from which we come or to the one telling us that the landing place was only a mirage. You don’t get overwhelmed by the water and dragged away by the current until you cling to the invisible rope that binds the Red Sea to the Jordan. Also because the closer we get to the other shore, the thinner the piece of string we are holding on to becomes in our hand.

David recovered the ark and transported it to Jerusalem, his new city. He thus reconnected his reign to the first Covenant of the Fathers, to the exodus from Egypt, to Sinai, and linked his name to the name of the origins. But a great collective project does not live only by elaborating and redeeming memory, it also has a vital need for a new promise that opens the future while anchoring it to the past, because no dawn is bright if we do not glimpse the arrival of noon. But while our origin is a gift and inheritance, and therefore we can only welcome it and receive it, seeking the legitimization of the future in today always exposes us to the risk of manipulating the past to turn it into an ideological deposit of a future that we want to build instead of waiting for it. David also feels this kind of fear and temptation. “Now when the king lived in his house ... (he) said to Nathan the prophet, »See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent«” (2 Samuel 7:1-2). David’s Jerusalem has no temple. Other cities in Israel did. David wants to give his God a house in his new city. The prophet Nathan, who appears here, responds, “Go, do all that is in your heart, for the Lord is with you” (7:3). Nathan is a court prophet, he knew that the Lord was with David, and he advises the king to simply do what he wishes to do without directly asking YHWH about it. This is an ordinary practice in prophecy when the prophet uses the past and his common sense to answer a question about the present and the future. But David's question was not an ordinary one, because it regarded a pillar of his people's identity. Therefore, the professional skills (of the prophet - the tr.) alone could not suffice: an epiphany was needed to understand a deeper truth: “But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan, »Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord: Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling’«” (7:4-6). But... The word that YHWH addresses to his prophet is introduced by a 'but'. Nathan is the prophet by David’s side; he was probably given his post as prophetic adviser to the king soon after Samuel's death. His function and profession suggested him to follow the King's wish right away.

But Nathan is a real prophet, as the rest of David's life will reveal it to us. And here comes a second dimension of the word. He is told - perhaps in a dream - another truth, a word that is bigger and different from the first one. True prophets are different from false prophets because they know that they carry two different voices, even though both come out of the same mouth. You become false prophets when the two voices end up coinciding - the prophet becomes a god, and often manages to convince others (and himself) that he really has become one.

Nathan, on the other hand, knows how to distinguish the two voices, he orders them hierarchically, and the next day he has the courage to tell David the opposite of what he told him the day before. He is not an adulator kind of prophet, he is not afraid to make a bad impression by being contradicted by YHWH, nor is he afraid to tell David things that are different from what he wanted to hear (that almost sums up the difficulty of practising true prophecy). The new oracle tells David (and us) something fundamental for biblical faith, and for every faith.

YHWH revealed himself as a voice, a free and uncapturable voice. From the beginning he had assured his presence (shekhinah) in the present time of the people. Like manna, his presence satiated only their daily hunger and could not be accumulated unless they wanted to have it rot - that is the sense of biblical hope, and the value of gratuity (charis, gratia) in every faith-trust. We truly trust someone to whom we are bound by a pact until we hope that the next day he will come home again having been given the freedom not to do so, without ever ceasing to surprise us every time we see him return. But the day we build a system of guarantees and controls that prevent the other from not returning, in those non-free returns our relationship starts dying. Biblical humanism is an endless education to this freedom, which will culminate in a crucified one who dies without guarantees of his resurrection for those who were under the cross. There was only one great hope, which continues to make us see crucified ones resurrect if we do not stop frequenting the Golgothas of our land (too many people cannot see the resurrections because they have lost sight of the places where the crucifixions happen and where the stones roll: in the 'fancy living rooms' no gardener will ever call us by the name).  

The construction of a new temple was the most natural and religious act for David, common sense and his devotion pointed him in this direction. But the biblical God is not the god of the common sense of devout kings or religions. The relationship between YHWH and the temple has always been ambivalent and problematic, an expression of the ambivalent and problematic nature of the relationship between the Bible and religion. The Bible has generated several religions, but its primary purpose is not the construction of a religious discourse. What’s at the centre of biblical humanism, instead, is faith, hence a collective and individual relationship with a spiritual God - different from idols. And as a relationship, biblical faith is dynamic, historical, evolutionary, surprising, competitive and contradictory. Religions need temples - the Bible can do without them, and it has managed without them. The Bible is interested in emphasizing the truth of a God who is greater and different from every temple and religion. And so the generation that passes between David's enquiry about a temple and its actual construction by his son Solomon, that void in Israel’s history is the language with which the Bible wished to express the difference between the temple of God and the God of the temple, the gap between faith and religion embodying that faith, the freedom of YHWH with respect to the houses that we build for him to tell him what must be his home and his territory fenced by us. To remind all religions of the book that that different God cannot be monopolized, that he cannot become the private property of a people or any religious community. All religious violence arises when one forgets the existence of this 'middle generation', that time without a temple, the gap between the question about a house and the answer to it. The land of the temple thus comes to coincide with the land of God; the roof of the temple becomes the measure of the freedom of God - and ours. It is in this surplus that the beautiful secularity of the biblical God lies, who prefers to 'move about in a tent' to the robust and stable cedar of the temple. The stabitas loci is not an attribute of the God of the Bible - the wandering of God allows our stability not to become religious prisons.

God, through Nathan, responds to David's request as follows, “the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house” (7:11). What a twist. It is David, us, who need a house and a blessing. David is given a different and special blessing, a new and wonderful promise: “And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever” (7:16). Forever. In this new promise there is no 'if', which was at the centre of the first Covenant with the Patriarchs and with Moses, where the contractual structure committed one part to faithfulness on the condition that the other part was also faithful. What we have here instead is an unconditional covenant on God's side - “When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him” (7:14-15). I will not depart from him.

Many of life's great promises are and must be reciprocal and conditional. Families, businesses and communities live off pacts and 'if-s' that give seriousness and stability to our homes. But, if we look at them well, we discover that beneath the 'if-s' and conditions of our covenants there are promises with no ‘if-s’ or conditions. A marriage is a pact of reciprocity which stays alive if everyone does their part and is faithful. Wedding vows, however, are not a meeting of 'if-s', because if we said to the other 'I will love you forever if you love me forever', we would leave the realm of the wedding pact and precipitate into a commercial contract. That ‘forever’, at the time it is pronounced, does not know ‘if-s’. There is a dimension of unconditional freedom that underpins our conditional reciprocity, because if it weren't there our pacts wouldn't be strong and free enough to last. Human beings are greater than their reciprocity, we are freer than our 'if-s', we know how to love more than the conditions we put for our love. Because of this we (sometimes) manage not to die when we discover that our ‘forever’ did not meet the ‘forever’ of the other, our pacts have gone wrong, but we have tried to resurrect, once again. Or when we continue to walk anchored to one another forever, even if we are convinced that on the other side no one is keeping to that promise made in our youth. And, perhaps, in the end we will discover that the rope was so thin to almost break, but there was a hand to pick us up, because by continuing to walk we reached to just one step from the new land and we did not notice it.

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