Response to Jerome Ross’s “Is Such a ‘Prophetic Theology’ What We Need Today?”
George Kimmich Beach
In his response to “The Prophetic Theology of James Luther Adams,” Jerome Ross delineates six features of a “prophetic” as distinct from a “liberal” theology. He also invites us to consider that Adams’s thought is “ideologically akin to my theological mentor, Martin Buber.” Ross provides, then, several avenues for a fuller development of prophetic theology, not only as found in Adams’s own works but also as linked to other creative thinkers and to contemporary concerns. My responses to Ross will, I hope, stimulate others to carry the discussion forward.
First, then, Ross enumerates several “relevant features” of prophetic theology: “dialectical,” “dynamic” (or “temporal”), “critical,” “inclusive” (or “holistic),” “anti-hierarchical,” and “spiritual” (or Spirit-centered). This is an insightful way of highlighting what is distinctive about a prophetic theology, and how such a theology is relevant to the existential challenges that we face today. Each of these features could be developed at length to clarify the connection between particular historical conditions and theological responses to them. “Democratic faith” and “restorative justice” come to mind as examples of concepts that connect social condition and theological response in a prophetic theology.
There are, I suspect, numerous points at which features named by Ross could be productively explored. In relation to the “critical” feature, he notes that prophetic theology “resists cultural idolatries” in the name of a faith that seeks “redemption of the time and creation of new gestalts.” Thus prophetic criticism necessarily calls up the need for cultural creation, as distinct from the “bread and circuses” (consumerism, drugs, etc.) responses that are prevalent today.
Ross notes that the priestly tradition in the Pentateuch universalized God’s “existential turf”—the actuality or “realm” of God’s presence. Here Ross peaks my curiosity, since I had always associated the priestly tradition with the religious legalism. Knowing that he is a scholar of both Testaments, and especially the Pentateuch, and that he has developed the “kingdom ethics” of Jesus, I look forward to learning more from him. While Adams’s prophetic theology is thoroughly Biblical, it lacks specific reference to the Priestly Tradition in the Pentateuch. His references to “priestly” and “prophetic” functions in contemporary ministry often set them in opposition, with strong preferential treatment for the “prophetic.” But in Adams’s dialectic this is not necessarily his last word. He once spoke of the pedagogical method advocated by the famous Shakespeare scholar, George Lyman Kittredge: “Perpetrate a lie, then qualify it.” Indeed, when Adams said that, while the priest proclaims God’s presence, the prophet decries God’s absence, he was, in effect, qualifying his own pedagogical “lie”! The link between these themes, Ross suggests, is Adams’s “radical laicism,” embodied in his principle of “the prophethood of all believers”: every person of faith has a vocation, a calling both within the religious community and to the community at large.
Ross gives us what Jim Adams would call “a meaty paragraph” on the Biblical prophets, reflecting a number of the concepts found in Adams’s own essays; notably, their independence from monarchies or the state. In fact, each of the four characteristics that Ross ascribes to the Biblical prophets could be expanded and placed in relation to contemporary prophetic theology. Ross comes, then, to the entirely Adamsean conclusion that “religion is socio-political, entailing an ethical demand in all phases of life.”
Is Adams still relevant? Ross “unequivocally” affirms that “prophetic theology is what we need today!” He finds that in many respects Adams’s thought is similar to the thought of Martin Buber. I have myself been deeply affected by Buber’s thought, especially his fundamental recognition that we are changed by the quality of the relationships we enter into. At their deeper level our relationships reflect the alternatives, “I-it” and “I-thou.” Our I-thou relations participate, in Plato’s sense of the term, in the Eternal Thou. This is an inherently relational concept of God; to worship an “It” is to worship an idol, as the Psalmists said, a lifeless object, not the living God. Fleshing out Buber’s thought, Ross provides several “meaty footnotes.” In one he says, “Because God is absolutely transcendent with conditioned immanence, there is a glimpse of the Eternal Thou in every single Thou.” While Adams only occasionally refers to Buber, he nevertheless reflects his influence when he speaks, as he does repeatedly, of human bonding and mutuality, and of authentic covenants as rooted in affection. Adams’s God, like Buber’s, is an active, relational reality, a “community forming power” that is absolutely transcendent to—and sometimes realized in—history.
Ross cites Buber’s “basic theme”–“All actual life is encounter”—and goes on to invite a creative encounter between Martin Buber and James Luther Adams. He suggests a fundamental agreement between them regarding “the essence of biblical theology,” namely that its prophetic tradition represents “a journeying with God toward the redemption of the world—the kingdom of God.” In an age when we are so captivated by real and imagined dystopias, we are likely to ask: Can faith ask so much? But prophetic theology asks us in turn, Would you give yourself to a faith that asked less?
Adams spoke of W. H. Auden as a “theologian-poet.” When Ross speaks of “the redemption of the world” I am reminded of Auden’s startlingly unequivocal affirmation, culminating his Christmas oratorio, “For the Time Being”:
. . . and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God’s Will will be done, that, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.
Prophetic faith is not an exercise in self-righteousness. Those who would challenge others must first challenge themselves. Martin Buber said, “We can be redeemed only to the extent to which we see ourselves.”
February 4, 2023