Goodness at the Beginning
This past week, guest author Peter Hartwig has written for the blog. Peter has an M.Phil. from the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge and is currently completing his M.Div. at Princeton Theological Seminary. He also serves as Theologian in Residence at National Community Church in Washington, DC. He is a good friend, a partner in ministry, and a thoughtful theologian. I hope that you will benefit from what he has to share. Today's thoughts conclude the short series.
In my early teens, I discovered theology quite unexpectedly. My father gave me a copy of Jürgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God. I do not recall why. It is not, I think, what most people give to their socially struggling teenager. But it worked for me. In Moltmann I found something that I did not know I had been looking for: conceptual reflection on the reality of God. Since then, I have never really been able to spend much of my time doing much of anything else.
As much as I came to and remained with theology for the love of God, over the course of my time in seminary, I began to realize that I also had found myself so captivated by this curiously singular field for less…pure reasons. At its best, theology is an exercise in loving response to God. At its worst, it is the attempt to figure God out and, in a way, put God under our control; it makes God only an object of study. Of course, these two modes are often difficult to distinguish when you’re out there in the wild reading Augustine or Kathryn Tanner or whomever it may be. But it can be most difficult to tell the difference in yourself.
If you have been following along, you know a good bit about me… probably more than you care to know. You know I bear an older brother’s share of anger at God, the anger that comes from believing that God wants something from you before you believe that God loves you. You might be able to imagine that it is hard to worship God when God appears tight-fisted and demanding. So it is probably not hard to see where the wrong kind of incentive to theology came from. I thought, perhaps, in Christology or the doctrine of God or in Pneumatology there might be an answer waiting. Maybe in a comprehensive survey of them all, I could make the God big map. With enough theologizing I could put everything in it place, I could assure myself that I was not in ultimate danger of God’s wrath. I could give myself some real certainty for where I stood with God.
I was looking for general theological answers to personal spiritual questions, you might say. I was asking the discipline theology to form my life of prayer, rather than inviting Jesus’ teaching on prayer to form my theology.
Jesus’ few teachings on prayer are centrally concerned with the goodness of the One Jesus called Father. Let’s go back to the biblical passage that began this little triptych of blog posts: Jesus’ teaching on prayer from in Luke 11. The core disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray. He responds with the Lord’s prayer, which begins, of course, by calling God “Father.” But he goes on:
"What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13)
Jesus seems to know that what we need in the life of prayer is a foundational affirmation of the Father’s goodness.
I suppose, from one point of view, Jesus comes across as theologically brash. Don’t you think that God is ever good-er than you are?! he seems to say. He might appear assertive and conceptual unsophisticated. But, from another point of view, there is grace in Jesus’ bluntness.
He knows, I surmise, that we need some sort of basis in the goodness of God before anything like prayer could be even imagined to be much of any use. If prayer is not a speaking to God, if it is only aurally processing our thoughts into the open air, there is little use in calling this practice “prayer.” Better to call it “reflection” or “mindfulness.” If prayer is pleading before a cold and indifferent God, then there is little use in praying at all. So maybe there is something quite deliberate and deeply needful in they very directness of Jesus’ words: “how much more will the heavenly Father…”
Jesus does not give a prolegomenon here. He gives no back-logic. But he does give us words, a list of requests, that we can only assume the Father is eager to hear: that God’s name would be glorified; that God’s world would be set right, God’s way; that God would sustain us, day by day; that God would forgive us precisely to the extent that we forgive; that God would not draw us into trying times; that God would rescue us from evil itself. Jesus gives us something to bring to God.
Jesus treats us almost in the way my Italian mother would, when I was a small child at family gatherings, place something small in my hands: a cookie, a flower, a card. “Go over and take this to Big Nanny.” Childishly happy to have the excuse, I would totter over to my great grandmother and present to her something I did not make, and that she did not need. She greeted the small gift, whatever it was, with joy. “Thank you, thank you!” She would smilingly take it from my hands and wrap me in her soft, wrinkled arms.
Jesus tucks a prayer into our hearts and points across the room. “Go over there to the Father, and give Him this.” Should we expect anything other in prayer than the joy of a father who brings us to himself and whispers in our ear, over the music of a family celebration: you are always with me and everything I have is yours.