Preaching Ironically
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"Preaching Ironically: Thanks, Reinhold Niebuhr and the Prophets"

By Dr. Martin Marty

Reinhold Niebuhr believes that the ironic interpretation of life is the normative Christian philosophy of history. I once wrote a book called, The Irony of It All, which was an interpretation of America in the decades on either side of the nineteenth century.1 Ironically, the period that in all the history books is called "liberal," "modernist," and "progressive," is the period in which every strong conservatism was born. Pentecostalism: New Year’s Eve 1900, and Azusa Street, 1906; Conservative Judaism started in 1903; Proto-fundamentalism and the fundamentalists come out in 1912-1915. So while they are talking about the progress of the world and the modern solutions, all these other things are getting born. And they are getting born in part because of the modernisms.

Thus irony can be discerned in the apparently fortuitous incongruities of life, which are discerned to be not merely fortuitous because you yourself have a hand in them. By contrast, the woman falling down the stairs; the person being submissive; people who are just plain victims of bad stuff; Oedipus and all the people of the plays of Sophocles – that’s tragic, but it’s not the Christian interpretation of life. Presbyterians (if you Presbyterians will forgive me the caricature) may think such incongruities to be either tragic or pathetic. But it’s not pathetic because the person or group bears some responsibility. Its not tragic because the responsibility is based on unconscious weakness, whereas here we are talking about conscious resolution.

So let’s examine some of the features that make up the ironic interpretation of life that, I think, leads us to a way of preaching. For a start, you can’t have irony unless you are partly the agent of what goes wrong. The woman who decides to have her wedding in the park and gets rained on is not responsible for the fact that it just rained. So that’s not ironic. But when you set out to do something, and you’re called by God to be an agent of it, but in history it turns out somehow differently, then it’s ironic. I’ll give you an illustration from my nation of how this might work. I was very much in favour of and worked for the Welfare Program of the Great Society when Lyndon Johnson was President. I tried to help elect people for it; I was a part of many movements for it; not a bit ashamed of being part of it because it did a lot of good things. But, ironically, the program also bred dependency: it bred kinds of corruption that had to be addressed. It needed reform, so now we’ve reformed it.

You should hear the ironies in the newest thing we’re doing with faith-based ventures. To explain briefly what is going on: of voluntary associations, per capita the religious groups have by far the finest record for delivery of human services. They care the most. I assume this is true in your nation as well as in ours. In Hamilton tonight, if somebody is being fed, if AIDS patients are being visited, if Alcoholics Anonymous need a roof over their head, or whatever, the odds are strong that the churches, or people motivated by faith, are more active than anybody else. In the United States, Robert Wuthnell finds 54% of adults in regular voluntary activity: 60% through religious institutions, 70% explicitly saying they are doing it out of religious impulse. So, why not enhance it using governmental funds? Some of this has been going on for a long time in carefully structured ways: Catholic charities, Lutheran Immigration Relief Services, and the Salvation Army, for example. But there’s an irony here. Charles Colson’s Prison Ministry can’t get you on a new course unless you get born again. Among the groups I’ve studied, the best program for getting people off drugs in Mississippi is run by an African-American pastor. He gets young people off drugs, and it’s a beautiful thing. But he says, "I can’t do it unless they get born again. I’ve got to get them immersed, etc." If you’re a Jew in Mississippi and your tax funds are going to do that, you’re not quite so sure. Now the newest irony is that the people most in support of the programme are getting nervous. The editorial in today’s New York Times, by Pat Robertson, says, "We’re not so sure." Because who’s lined up there first? The Nation of Islam. The Unification Church. That’s not what we had in mind by faith, says Robertson!

So, in this reading of history, there has to be a good intention which then it doubles back on you just enough that it goes somewhat wrong. Every time you preach you’re going to be talking to people whom you will be sending out to do things that come out differently than you planned.


Niebuhr on Irony

Niebuhr says four things about irony. First, it’s ironic if your virtue has just enough vice tucked into it that it’s going to ruin it; if virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect. Niebuhr would say, in other words, in the spirit of the prophets, that redeemed people, sanctified people, virtuous people, all inescapably have vice in the midst of their virtue. And there’s enough of it there to keep virtue’s effects from being all positive. If you think about that, how often it’s the case with all the bad things that good people do in the name of the good. So first, virtue.

Second, it’s ironic if strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt the mighty. My hunch is that most people in the churches you serve – most people that I go to church with – would have this as the least of the four that we’re going to talk about, because I don’t think they see themselves as all that strong. Yet for Niebuhr this was really important because the Soviet Union and the United States were both strong: they were the two superpowers; they had the weaponry; they had the bomb; they had the funds to back it up; and that led to vanity. That’s what the prophets are always busy about when God talks to Israel and says, "Who do you think you are?"

But in so far as this plays a part in our lives, I think it does come into our preaching world. Let’s take your own health as an example. I’m talking about a person like me or you. You can undertake various disciplines: follow them all and become strong. I do a little walking myself, or a little treadmill when I really want to be self-punishing. Why? Because I want to be strong. You go to the bookstore and you take that wall that says, "Holistic," or "Self-Help"; you try it all and become strong. But because of the vanity to which that strength may prompt you, you overlook the fact that you are still mortal. As we say on Ash Wednesday, "Remember that thou art dust." Certainly you must encourage people, congregations, communities to be strong, which means having the power to effect something in the world. But the ironic always knows this other side.

Third, it’s ironic if security is transmuted into insecurity because too much reliance is placed on it. Last June, the Los Angeles Times had me write an editorial about how investment banking people were crying because there was no talent left; because everybody was going to the Dot Com world where they could really make it big, instead of being mere investment makers at several hundred thousand a year. There were articles about how kids weren’t even finishing college because why get a college education if you can pile all this up without one? High Tech stocks were the future! Well, I read four newspapers this morning, and one of the lead stories was: "Dot Com People Running Back to Old Employers." They’re all saying, "I didn’t know how much I liked the old company till – what was it? – security transmuted into insecurity because too much reliance was placed on it."

Nowhere do we read, "Don’t venture; don’t take risks." But if you place your reliance on it, then, "the Lord who sits in the heavens laughs, and holds them in derision" (Psalm 2:4). I don’t think the Lord has to laugh at the heads of nations as much today as at the heads of corporations and our financial agencies. Who cares about nations these days? When the Asian markets collapsed in August of 1997, at least our nation quickly pitched in. Old enemies became good friends, because we didn’t dare let them go down. Because you need security in the market: forget about human rights and everything else we’ve ever talked about. Remember the parable of the man who built the big barns because he wanted to store more? "Now I am secure," he said, but the Lord replies, "This night your soul shall be required of you" (Luke 12:20).

Two weeks ago I wrote a column about a prayer book by a British Methodist that I once owned and lost (I now own three because people take pity on me and they like the book as much as I do) called, He Sent Leanness.2 The title is based on a line from Psalm 106, where the Psalmist, speaking for God, says, "the people wanted freedom and goods." Then the prophet intervenes: God gave them freedom and goods, manna and quail in the wilderness, and still they bitched and whined. So God sent leanness, "he sent leanness into their souls." Modern translations say they developed a "wasting disease." Isn’t that a good description of our cultures? We have this security; we really do have freedom; we really have the goods. In fact the general standard of living for four-fifths of the people in North America is undreamed of by humans elsewhere in history. For a time we’re secure; then we’re less secure again for a while, after which we’ll get secure again and finally vanity will end up seeing its own limits.

Number four, it’s ironic if wisdom becomes folly because it does not know its limits. This certainly hits the pastoral world, the preacher world, the theologian world. One of my pin-up boys for this is Bishop Eunomius of Cyzicus (d. 394), who said, "I know God better than God knows God, because God is so busy being God he doesn’t have time to think about it, and I’m a theologian and I get to think about it." Or Kierkegaard: "To be a theologian is to have crucified Christ." If you adopt the world’s wisdom, which is a folly, and think you don’t have limits, then you imagine that you’ve figured out God. You’ve figured out where it’s all going. Much of the spirituality of our time is of that character: "We really have figured it out and if you just follow this wisdom all will be well." Three or four years later the books that write that are forgotten because the folly of the advice comes through.

Niebuhr says, "Irony is always in the eye of the beholder." We see the irony as beholders, picturing it, as it were, from God’s perspective in Psalm 2. God, who sits in the heavens, laughs at our vice that turns the virtue wrong, our weakness that turns the strong things wrong, our insecurity that turns the security wrong, our folly that turns the wise things wrong. Every time we preach we’re impelling people toward virtue, toward strength, toward the right kind of security, toward the right kind of wisdom, but always implanted in us, especially in us as groups, is something that leads our nations, our corporations, our universities to go wrong. You dissolve this, says Niebuhr, partly by becoming aware of it, but that still doesn’t quite do it. Why? Well, the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear that everything is going to go wrong to some extent – if you’re an agent – is to say, "I’m not going to be an agent any more," or, "what fools these mortals be, that they really thought something could come of this." And so you have to have some second stage.

You can try this humanistically before you get theological. This year the New York Public Library had a huge exhibit on utopias,

and invited the New York Times music critic and its architecture critic and myself to do a lecture that was to become a third of a book. It takes about a year to do a third of a book, 40,000 words at least. It takes me a long time because I know nothing about utopia; in fact I have always despised utopias. Somebody asked me, "Why are you wasting your time on utopia? We know what you think of utopias, you’re a Niebuhrian; why are you wasting your time on it?" In thinking it through, what occurs to me is that if you don’t try it, you don’t learn new things. Same thing with the book on Shaker furniture that my son and I did:3 the Shakers were utopians. They didn’t have children because they thought they were already in the telos, the second coming. They thought that the Kingdom was already here. No sexual relations at all: pure living, simple living, utopia.

I was involved with one utopia called Minnesota Experimental City. It was in an era when in the United States there was a lot of utopian thinking. Harvey Cox’s book, The Secular City, was an all time best seller that told us that as soon as we get rid of symbol and myth, get enough guitar players and good architects and civil rights workers, the Kingdom will have come.4 Three years later he was back with a better book called The Feast of Fools.5 These were written just before New York burned and Detroit burned and Watts burned, just before the U.S. committed troops to Vietnam, just before everything went bad. But we were building Minnesota Experimental City. Fifty-eight corporations put up four million dollars for our study. Buckminster Fuller – Mr. Twenty-First Century – was on the panel; Harrison Brown (Lyndon Baines Johnson’s doctor, head of the Mayo Clinic); and then they salted it with a few humanists who would ask the human questions.

We were to build a city – utopia – of two hundred and fifty thousand people. It had to be at least seventy-five miles from any other urban centre. It would be built around a branch of the University of Minnesota; 3M and all the other big firms would have a base there. We thought through everything. It’s cold up there, how are you going to play tennis all year, and how are you going to keep people from arthritis cramps? Well, Buckinster Fuller said, "nothing to it, we build a one mile square plastic dome." How do we get on with pollution? Well, we owe you a ride on an elevator in a building, so we owe you horizontal transportation in our Minnesota Experimental City. You get to the edge, and we’ll take care of you from there.

We thought of everything, and then they started asking the humanist questions. What about the aged? Do they get kicked out when they’re old, not productive? Will there be many non-whites? Do you build a fabricated ghetto, or do you have kids grow up not knowing there are poor areas? So it just started crumbling, and we thought that Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota was going to become the next president and he didn’t, and that sort of hurt us politically. We were building around the S.S.T. and then learned that it couldn’t fly over land. Folly, insecurity, strength, hidden defects: all four things are there.

Buckminster Fuller figured that one out too. He came to the next meeting four months later and said "The Experimental City was going to be the Minnesota Floating City. It would be off the coast of New Delhi one year, then you tow it off the coast of Cape Cod another year." It sort of lost the interest of the Minnesota group, and then the new president’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, who was in charge of cities, he liked it too much! So we backed off and it died. But out of it came a group, City Innovation, which has been of tremendous help in conceiving the cities of tomorrow and how to do them.

I can’t resist one little humourous side of this. The real theorist behind this was a great technocrat, Athelstan Spilhaus, who could never see something without asking how technology could improve it. When he retired from Minnesota to Florida, the golf course people complained that metal tees were always there and were grinding up the mowers. And he thought, "I have a good idea." He compacted manure into tees and therefore when you just leave them there, they’ll disintegrate and they’ll fertilize the greens. What he didn’t know was that a lot of guys in the locker room pick their teeth with their tees! So, there’s just enough folly inside our wisdom.

But, having seen things go wrong, good may still come from it. You learn from your error, and you learn from what you did after the error. A lucky lad is the one that’s four degrees too hot, or the specimen is a day old, or somebody forgot to put something into the formula, and then people gather and say, "But even so, look at that," which is how we got penicillin. Numbers of discoveries come when something goes a bit wrong and you say, "But even so, look at that."

Now carry that over into the biblical world. Niebuhr says, "If you want to adopt an ironic perspective in your preaching, you dare not be so hostile as to deny the element of virtue in the efforts of people." A lot of things go wrong in human endeavour, but before you can say, "Even so, look at that," you have to have tried it. That’s why I don’t like literary irony: it’s satirical, it’s sarcastic, and it doesn’t allow for the wonderful things that high school custodians, grade school teachers, and homemakers dream up. It’s the wrong kind of irony. But neither are you so sympathetic as to discount the flaws, like the preacher who just sells out.

The ironic interpretation sees redemption beyond the ironic outcome. It sees this taking place under a judge, who (putting Niebuhr exactly) laughs at human pretensions but is not hostile to human aspiration. That is my most important line, so I’m going to say it again. The God who laughs at human pretensions is not hostile to human aspiration. Babel, the tower of, went wrong. All four features are here: virtue, strength, security, wisdom; let us make a tower reaching into heaven... But that didn’t say nobody should ever again build a tower, or a wall, or a house. "Seek the welfare of the city to which I am sending you." All this happens if the word of justice is tempered by mercy, which is what happens in the Psalms. Judgement is translated into mercy.

Divine jealousy appears only when we don’t see our limits: the prophets are on this theme again and again. "I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet’s son," says Amos, but he’s very clear in Amos 9:7, that God is not a national God who plays favourites in this way. Dan Jacobson, a South-African, Freudian, Marxist, atheist Jew wrote a very nice book once called The Story of the Stories 6 in which he says that the God of Israel was a human projection. They invented him, but boy did they do a good job. They overshot. Most nations invent gods that just whomp all the other nations, but God holds Israel to a higher accounting. You know the rabbinic prayer, "O Lord, we thank you for having chosen us, it is so wonderful to be an elect people, O that your divine favour may fall upon us, but next time when you’re looking for a chosen people could you choose somebody else?" "Who do you think you are?" says the laughing God in Amos 9, "Who do you think is taking care of the other nations?"

God is always calling Israel to responsibility. God does not deny the validity of human aspiration, but calls them to be responsible: to build a people, to come to a promised land, to develop a temple, and the fields, and so on. Hosea personalizes this – the grief of Hosea – in his own personal life. We don’t know quite how to interpret this, but he says, "There is no knowledge of God in the land; people are destroyed for their lack of knowledge." They thought they were wise but they didn’t have the divine knowledge. Or Micah, with his love of country and indignation over its injustices. Here we get a very clarified ethical religion. He’s the preacher; he’s the prophet, and suffers for it. Today, we don’t kill the prophets, we invite them to dinner. They get to write best-selling books.

I learned this early on with my first book, in Eisenhower era, the same year that Peter Berger wrote a book and Gibson Winter wrote a book. Three crabby books and all the reviewers reviewed us together as three young prophets. We were at a conference later as three prophets for the price of one and Peter Berger said, "Marty, this is kind of embarrassing, but do you have charge cards?" Well, I laid out American Express and an oil company. "You’re not a prophet," Berger said, "If you’ve got charge cards, you’re a part of the system. If you’ve got a pension plan, you’re part of the system. If you’ve got tenure, you’re part of the system, prophets burn all their bridges to the system." There’s Micah all over again: "What is required of you but to do justice, love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8).

All this is to say that God has put us into the world and holds us responsible, so we must act. We must use the best we have by way of knowledge, intelligence, strength, security, and virtue, but knowing that there’s enough in us that will make for an ironic outcome. Then you ask, "But even so, look at that; even so, what then?" Because the same God who holds us responsible also blesses our aspirations.

I think that any time we want to preach a prophetic message, it’s very hard to do, pretending we stand above everything. Some people have the credentials to do it. Some of the civil rights people; some of the South-African pastors I’ve known really burned all the bridges to our society and then they could truly thunder the way the prophets did. The fact that we don’t have those credentials doesn’t let us off the hook from calling ourselves, our people, the agencies of which we’re a part, our churches, our nation, to that same judgement under the laughing God who is also the merciful One.

Thank you.

Footnotes Dr. Martin Marty