From The Peaceable Kingdom
Just as narrative is a crucial category for the knowledge of the self, so it is for our knowledge of God. “God,” we must remember, is a common name, to which we can ascribe attributions only as we learn of God through a history. This, of course, follows from the basic theological claim that knowledge of God and knowledge of the self are interdependent. But once the formal nature of this claim is fleshed out in terms of narrative, we see its implications for the Christian life. Not only is knowledge of self tied to knowledge of God, but we know ourselves truthfully only when we know ourselves in relation to God. We know who we are only when we can place ourselves – locate our stories – within God’s story.
This is the basis for the extraordinary Christian claim that we participate morally in God’s life. For our God is a God who wills to include us within his life. This is what we mean when we say, in shorthand, as it were, that God is a God of grace. Such shorthand can be dangerous if it is mistaken for the suggestion that our relationship with God has an immediacy that makes the journey of the self with God irrelevant. Grace is not an eternal moment above history rendering history irrelevant; rather it is God’s choice to be a Lord whose kingdom is furthered by our concrete obedience through which we acquire a history befitting our nature as God’s creatures.
To learn to be God’s creatures means we must learn to recognize that our existence and the existence of the universe itself is a gift. It is a gift that God wills to have our lives contribute to the eschatological purposes for creation. As creatures we cannot hope to return to God a gift of such magnitude. But we can respond with a willingness to receive. To learn to be God’s creature, to accept the gift, is to learn to be at home in God’s world. Just as we seek to make a guest feel “at home” in our home, so God seeks to have us feel “at home” by providing us with the opportunity to appropriate the gift in the terms it was given – that is, gratuitously.
The impossibility of reciprocity for God’s gift is not without analogies in our common experience. We cannot return our parent’s love except as we receive it and love other similarly. Also each of us are recipients of favors strewn through our lives. Some are given anonymously; others we do not even notice. As Kenneth Schmitz notes, “I cannot make use of the simplest technique which did not have to be discovered and brought to excellence by nameless craftsmen; so that most of my benefactors remain unknown to me. Some of us can name a few generations of our ancestors, but before long the chain of those who have helped to give us life fades away into obscurity.” Indeed, to gratefully inherit a tradition is but to recognize and honor the chain of actual benefactors who have sustained the skills and stories that provide us with the means to know and live our lives as God’s creatures.
Christians and Jews are traditioned people who believe that they have been invited to share a particular history that reflects the God who has brought us into being. To know our creator, therefore, we are required to learn through God’s particular dealings with Israel and Jesus, and through God’s continuing faithfulness to the Jews and the ingathering of a people to the church. Such knowledge requires constant appropriation, constant willingness to accept the gift of God’s good creation. As Christians we maintain that such appropriation is accomplished in and through our faithfulness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We believe that by learning to be his disciples we will learn to find our life – our story – in God’s story. In the process we find our life in relation to other lives; we discover that as Christians our lives are intelligible only as we acknowledge indebtedness to the people of Israel, both in the past and in their continued presence.
To sum up, the emphasis on narrative as theologically central for an explication of Christian existence reminds us of at least three crucial claims. First, narrative formally displays our existence and that of the world as creatures – as contingent beings. Narrative is required precisely because the world and events in the world do not exist by necessity. Any attempt to depict our world and ourselves non-narratively is doomed to failure insofar as it denies our contingent nature. Correlatively, narrative is epistemically fundamental for our knowledge of God and ourselves, since we come to know ourselves only in God’s life.
Second, narrative is the characteristic form of our awareness of ourselves as historical beings who must give an account of the purposive relation between temporally discrete realities. Indeed, the ability to provide such an account, to sustain its growth in a living tradition, is the central criterion for identifying a group of people as a community. Community joins us with others to further the growth of a tradition whose manifold storylines are meant to help individuals identify and navigate the path to the good. The self is subordinate to the community rather than vice versa, for we discover the self through a community’s narrated tradition.
From this it can be understood why the stress on narrative is a correlative to the claim that every ethic requires a qualifier. No ethic can be freed from its narrative, and thus communal, context. To the extent that practical reason seeks to avoid its inherent historical character, it relinquishes any power to enable us to order our lives in accordance with our true ends. We thus become alienated from ourselves; we lose the ability to locate the history of which we are a part.
Third, God has revealed himself narratively in the history of Israel and in the life of Jesus. While much of scripture does not take narrative literary form, it is perhaps not incidental that the gospels do. In any case, scripture as a whole tells the story of the covenant with Israel, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the ongoing history of the church as the recapitulation of that life. This empirical observation is not merely an interesting one; this notion of the essential nature of narrative as the form of God’s salvation is why we rightly attribute to scripture the truth necessary for our salvation.
Of course, we cannot be brought to understanding without training, for we resist at least the part of the narrative which describes us as sinful creatures. We can only know God by having our lives transformed through initiation into the kingdom. Such a transformation requires that we see the world as it is, not as we want it to be – that is, as sinful and ourselves as sinners. Thus the story requires transformation as it challenges the presumption of our righteousness and teaches us why we so badly need to be reborn through the baptism offered by this new community.