As published in the 2015 Bexley Seabury Magazine

{ Roundtable discussion of Fully Alive by Jason Fout

 

THE TEXT | Fout, Jason A. Fully Alive: The Glory of God and the Human Creature in Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Theological Exegesis of Scripture. Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015.

 

In late April, Roger Ferlo and Ellen Wondra reflected with Jason Fout on ideas he presents in his recent book, Fully Alive. Excerpts from their conversation follow.

FERLOWondraFout

L-R: Roger Ferlo, Ellen Wondra, and Jason Fout

JASON | In this book, I took on Barth and von Balthasar in particular because I think they got so much right about God’s glory; they ended up repairing a lot of the received theology to that point. But in their ideas about humanity in light of God’s glory, I think they missed a step. For them, the human response to God’s glory is obedience to commands.

I suggest, as Paul Ricoeur does, that we are radically dependent on God, yet also completely free. I further suggest that God’s glory is relational and is worked out in creation, in part through human relationships. In our obedience to God, we exercise critical faculties, like discernment, judgment, and questioning. These faculties contribute to (rather than distract from) a responsive and creative obedience. Without them we would be less than the fully alive human agents God intends us to be.

ELLEN | In part, Jason, you open up the possibility of talking about the inter­dependencies that pervade human life without compromising human agency, but actually enhancing it.

ROGER | Right. You are never isolated. You’re always acting in relationship, exercising responsive creative obedience, listening to the community around you, watching for an expansive sense of who God is and who you are. Stating the need for us to discern, judge, learn about learning, question faithfully, and perform—that’s very different than what you call straight-line obedience: I say–you do.

ELLEN | Your take not only makes the human-divine relationship noncompetitive, it also makes the individual-group relationship non-competitive. Showing how personhood is inherently relational and not fundamentally individual takes a lot of the anxiety out of the dichotomy between person and group or person and God.

JASON | Exactly right. We are individuals, yes. Still, we have all sorts of debts and relationships that constitute us as persons, apart from which we wouldn’t be who we are.

ROGER | We’re talking about the integrity of a person in relationship and that for me is very powerful—giving and receiving—not incurring or expecting obligation. Creating a culture of reciprocity, of abundance.

ELLEN | To use some of Jason’s language and language from some Trinitarian texts, things are so enlarged by this action of giving and receiving that they just overflow.

It’s that wonderful psalm about oil pressed down, running through Aaron’s beard. It’s so extravagant. Things just keep getting bigger. More, more, more. Fundamentally, it’s just plain joy.

ROGER | Teaching can feel that way. For those who love to teach, it comes down to conveying to students, this work is yours—take it! Teaching does nothing for me, except it gives me the satisfaction that you’ve changed, gotten something new. That for me is a very powerful moment.

At Bexley Seabury, when we talk about forming a culture of reciprocity and teaching-learning cohorts, that’s what we really mean. Especially with adults, teaching only has power in reciprocity. Unpredictable and not in your control. We generate, but we don’t control.

ELLEN | Yes. Simply put, we are saying, this is what we have to offer; now, what are all of us going to do with it?

ROGER | It’s walking in the way of the Torah, rejoicing in wisdom. It’s unmotivated, not instrumental wisdom. Wisdom for its own sake, for its own beauty.

ELLEN | To your point about teaching, Roger, if we say that learning and teaching is all about my having knowledge and pouring it into the student’s head, all kinds of things don’t happen. The same thing happens in church. If we understand teaching about God to be I-know-it-and-you-don’t, the amount that gets missed is just enormous. It’s tragic. It’s horrible.

ROGER | I’m reminded that our national culture has, more and more, translated teaching and learning into completely instrumental terms. Without cash value, teaching and learning don’t matter. This is haunting the liberal arts and defund­ing humanities teaching, and this has long-term effects on the civic culture. Everything gets reduced to a zero-sum game—one winner, no surplus.

JASON | Exactly, and completely contrary to everything in the book. Conversation is so important. It creates expanding circles of access, or overflow. In a conversation you have something to contribute, but it can never be one-way. That’s a monologue.

ROGER | That’s mansplaining.

JASON | Yes. Conversation requires both contributing and receiving what others bring without controlling the exchange. I’m often quite surprised by how conversation goes in the classroom, especially because adult learners bring their own wisdom and experience. Yes, I also have something to contribute and the syllabus guides us, but the students contribute inestimably to conversation, to the learning.

ELLEN | I completely agree. But I want to go back to mansplaining, because I think it’s exactly the right term. The way that we conceive of God, of learning, or teaching is very much from on top. We didn’t always give students a chance to work with the material. Now we do. And if we try to interfere, our students won’t let us. They will tell us to be quiet, so that they can talk and think. So, the discussion opens up. That means congregations open up.

JASON | I don’t address it in the book, but one implication might be that the church certainly has things to say, but the church’s being in conversation might lead to some surprises. At times the church might be most fully itself when asking what God is doing in the world, rather than saying it already knows.

ROGER | I’m reminded of what Wayne Smith, the bishop of Missouri, wrote* about what he did or didn’t do during the Ferguson crisis, a very eloquent, moving statement. He said my job was not to speak; my job was to let others speak and for me to listen. It was not an absence, not an abdication, but an acknowledgment of a conversation into which he came late.

ELLEN | Real listening requires a constant re-opening of the self toward the other. Allowing one’s self to be truly affected, comprehensively, goes back to the thesis of the book—that we are radically dependent on God, and that opens us up, frees us for mutually dynamic relationships with others. That’s the glory of God!

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* George Wayne Smith, “Blood Cries Out from the Ground: Reflections on Ferguson,” Anglican Theological Review vol. 97 no. 2 (Spring 2015): 255-263.