What a Roman Catholic, neo-orthodox, existentialist, evangelical, liberationist Christian learned at Vanderbilt Divinity School
MDiv ’10, recipient of the Wilbur F. Tillett Prize for Theology
Hello, I’m Justin Rosolino, and I’m a Roman Catholic, neo-orthodox, existentialist, evangelical, liberationist Christian who has been heavily influenced by Eastern Orthodox theology. I am hopeful I just made everyone in the room feel both included and confused… that seems to be my life’s story.
In fact, I think one the most accurately descriptive statements that I can make about myself is that I have never been blessed with a good amount of ‘common sense.’ I seem to have a talent for making bizarre choices and muddying things up along the way. I don’t know, maybe it’s this post-modern distrust for all things linear, neat, narrow and common sensical that made me so attracted to Johann and Christoph Blumhardt, two Lutheran pietists whom I discovered I during the Karl Barth class with Professor DeHart.
In his earlier writings, Barth speaks of the Blumhardts almost with a sense of amazement and delighted confusion—it’s kind of like reading a tweet by the Jonas Brothers about the Beatles— Barth seemed just awestruck by the Blumhardts, and this made me really, really curious. I began reading up on the Blumhardts and their peculiar understanding of the Christian life and the Kingdom of God. The more I read, the more I found myself both perplexed and deeply moved by their unique answer to the perennial question, ‘What is the Christian life, and how shall we then live it?’
I had long been frustrated and dissatisfied by many of the more popular answers to that question: on the one hand, there’s the idea that the human individual is basically autonomous, independent, reliable, and ultimately capable. So it’s on me to earn my redemption, to drag the Kingdom of God down to earth one willful heave at a time. Well, this usually doesn’t work out that well. Better people than I have tried to drag the Kingdom into being, and yet here we are, still waiting.
On the other hand, there’s this sort of radical antinomian idea of the Christian life that denies human agency altogether: you know, God is totally sovereign, impassable, immutable, so the most we can do is enjoy the ride and wait for God to do God’s thing. My problem here is that this sort of theology smacks of a “pie in the sky, in the sweet by and by” kind of spirituality—you know, if God’s not expecting anything out of us, and we can’t really do anything meaningful anyway, than I don’t know about you, but I have some serious napping to catch up on.
But then, what I saw in the Blumhardts—and in Barth’s reading of the Blumhardts—was another way, a both/and, an enthrallingly hopeful paradox. Somehow, they seemed to find an intense joy in the cognitive dissonance of it all—knowing that the Kingdom of God has not been fully and exhaustively realized in the present, but nevertheless, human beings may partake in the joy of the Lord and become—genuinely, really—the friends of God, fighting for the things that God cares about in the world, living in gratitude, response, and anticipation. In my humble opinion, this is not ‘common sense.’
There’s a strange sort of freedom that the Blumhardts are talking about, an understanding that Jesus did not come to reveal a New Law, but as The Word of God’s favor and friendship—indeed, the Word of God’s very own Self, given for the world. It’s this unique understanding that allowed the younger Blumhardt to become an active socialist, to be intimately involved in worldly affairs, struggling for the cause of justice, but struggling without the bitterness or resentment that normally accompanies self-propulsion and stubborn, self-reliance. This is the paradox of “waiting and working,” of acting in the world while resting in the future embodied, secured and revealed in Jesus Christ.
What I continue to find so riveting in the Blumhardts is their announcement that there is a real Kingdom of God—not merely in a metaphorical sense, not an asymptote hovering above the horizon of idealism, never to be reached or tasted or touched. No, the Kingdom of God is at hand, and it is coming, and it is the deepest thing in life…deeper even than reality. The Kingdom is not something that I bring into being or actualize through my own efforts, nor is it a Platonic form that glistens harmlessly in the ether. It is to be tasted, touched, and worked towards as we await its coming. As Calvin said, it is a Kingdom where the fundamentally operative law is the rule of love, of being for the other, in intimate friendship with God.
So, for me, Vanderbilt Divinity School has stoked the fires of my Roman Catholic, existential, liberationist evangelical faith. That may sound weird—probably does. But what I learned from the Blumhardts, and from Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Kallistos Ware, and Dorothy Day was that God can be known and experienced personally—not merely as a concept, a zeitgeist, or a distant deity in the clouds, but as savior, lover, empowering Spirit, transcendent Other, and intimate friend—and in God’s generosity, we may participate in the struggle for love and justice in this world, watching and waiting for the Kingdom that has been revealed in Jesus but not yet fully realized.
And I want this Kingdom. And I want God. This is supposed to be good news, after all. And if we want it, if we want God’s good news—even if we only want it a little—we shouldn’t be ashamed to ask for it.
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