Monday, December 23, 2013

Personal possessive piety

Theologians love to worry about such things as personal possessive pronouns. It's what gets some of us going in the morning. As this post will show, I get particularly animated by whether it's the singular or plural form of the pronoun (or more strictly, the possessive determiner, but that really would be pedantic). I could go on for hours about it. (At this stage, some of my former students will know what's coming, and they are probably just about to hit the close-page button. But wait! There is a twist in the tale.)

A few years ago I got very agitated by the opening line of Shout to the Lord, i.e., 'My Jesus, my Savior...'. The song itself seemed inescapable - it was being sung in just about every worship context I had anything to do with. I still find it odd that so many worship services start with this song - and nobody even blinks that the first words of the gathered congregation are 'My Jesus, my Savior'. Perhaps one day I'll have the courage to turn to the person next to me and say, 'Excuse me, but I think there's been some misunderstanding; Jesus is actually my Savior'. Of course, the issue could arise with any number of songs - both contemporary and traditional. Yet perhaps the immense popularity of Shout to the Lord is no accident in in this age of consumerist religion.

For all that, there is a legitimate question to put to my frustration - and I've had it put to me often enough. Isn't there a place for individual confession of faith in our hymns and songs? Well, of course there is. How, then, can it be articulated? A recent reading of C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters has given me a new angle on this.

In Letter 21 to Wormwood, Screwtape celebrates the confusion they have caused by teaching Christians "not to notice the different senses of the possessive pronoun". Their success has been in obscuring
the finely graded differences that run from 'my boots' through 'my dog', 'my servant', 'my wife', 'my father', 'my master' and 'my country' to 'my God'. ... We have taught men [sic] to say 'my God' in a sense not really very different from 'my boots', meaning 'the God on whom I have a claim for my distinguished services and whom I exploit from the pulpit.

These remarks penned by Lewis (in a work which at many levels is a quite helpful critique of pietism) helped me to see that simply changing the singular personal possessive pronoun to the plural personal possessive pronoun only shifts the problem - it doesn't solve it. Certainly, shifting to the plural brings the language of piety into greater conformity to the forms of reference to Christ and God which pervade the New Testament, i.e., "Our Lord" and "Our God" and "Our Saviour" etc. (C.F.D. Moule's remarks in an earlier generation on the 'the corporate Christ' in an essay by that name come to mind.)

Yet our use of this corporate language is not immune to the failure to note the 'finely graded differences' in the use of 'our' that run from, for instance, 'our house', 'our nation' to 'our God'. The insidious nature of the conflation of the last two has been manifested often enough. And church history tells us that 'our Church' and 'our God' have often traded on the same sense of the possessive. The challenge, then, is not necessarily to favour 'our' over 'my'. Instead, it is to learn how to use each of these possessive pronouns in ways that reflect a sense that embodies our response to God's claim on us rather than any possessive claim we might make on God.

Perhaps such learning can only occur as we participate in the various practices by which we 'lose our lives'. After all, there is something fundamentally dispossessive about Christianity. I've been struck this Advent by how this theme of dispossession runs as something of a subplot in the gospel texts that are focused on preparation. Mary lets go of the limits of the possible (Luke 1:34-38); Joseph lets go of convention (Matt 1: 18-25); and John the Baptiser challenges Israel to let go of its sense of privilege (Matt 3:9-10). Perhaps Mary, Joseph and John are examples of those who succeeded in making those 'finely graded distinctions' in the use of both 'my' and 'our'.


Neil Sims said...

Thanks for the reminder of the Trinity College conversations, Geoff! It is good to hear in a fresh way your further reflections, especially the emphasis on dispossession. My thoughts on this are that we are removed from the centre, de-centred, so that what I have is not the focus.

PJtheoLogy said...

Great stuff Geoff. I have explained numerous times to congregations that the offertory was traditionally the bringing of the bread and wine, nto our giving of money to God. we constantly reverse the movement. The opening of the Christmas eve sermon this year reflects God's action not mine:

"The shepherds went out with joy. And this evening it would be my prayer that you too will go out with joy!

The same kind of joy experienced by the shepherds, the joy of encountering God!

This is not something I can actually give you, it is God’s business alone, but is my prayer that as you sing and celebrate communion and hear the story again you might have such an encounter."

Jesus is not mine to control, he is not my Jesus, or even ours (an idolatry of community perhaps) but simple is: Jesus. Thanks be to God.

Tony Johnson Joncevski said...

Geoff, this is excellent and thank you for sharing it. I enjoyed reading it very much and it has helped me to make sense of my own struggles with the personal possessives. I have oscillated both ways on the question and you have given me some much needed clarity. To be truthful, when I first started reading it I was getting slightly agitated as I thought I knew where I was being taken. I was wrong.

John Squires said...

Geoff, perhaps the twofold sense inherent in the Greek possessive might be helpful here. You'd know the classic "the love of God", objective in the sense of the love I (we) have for God (as object), or subjective in the sense of the love which God (the subject) has for me (us). In like manner, " my Jesus" could be the Jesus whom I approach, acknowledge, relate to, and ultmately 'own' (Jesus as object), or the Jesus who chooses to identify, approach, and relate to me (Jesus as subject). This might help to reinforce the gradations that are possible in the personal possessives??

Geoff Thompson said...

Thanks John. That is helpful. Would you think that precisely because it is possible to make those distinctions the absence of the term 'my Jesus' from the New Testament reinforces the social/corporate nature of early Christian experience? Or are there other issues at play?

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