Interview: Gregory Walter "Being Promised"

I was presented with the opportunity to interview Professor Gregory Walter, author of the new book Being Promised: Theology, Gift, and Practice. It is a wonderful book, full of insight - I highly recommend it.

Gregory Walter is Associate Professor of Religion at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. Like many of my friends, we have never met in person, but I in our online friendship I have learned from his passion for his ministry (and the cultural passions he and I share).

Here is my interview:

1) Thank you for this book. It is fair to say that this is straight-forward academic theology. The question that I know I will be asked by my colleagues: Why does this book matter for a parish pastor?

Christians, especially pastors, think, talk about, try to be faithful and act out of God’s promise.   Promise promise promise.  The book tries to answer this question:  what is a promise?   This book provides a critical theological vocabulary for talking about and practicing promise.  The way I consider promise and its power or its critical potential can be useful for any community trying to discern how to act or what the relationship is between God’s graciousness and the immediate needs of those among and around the community. 

Similarly, we are all embedded in a wide circle of gifts, some of them welcome and needed, others that are dangerous and full of damage.  This economy of giving, the needs of the world, are all the demands, calls, and hopes that show up in our hearts and on our doorsteps.  Because I develop promise as a gift in this book, I provide a way to show how God’s promise is credible amidst this circulation of gifts but also how it is radical, reorienting, and liberative.  We need to be reminded, I think, of our creatureliness in terms of the web of relationships and gifts that those webs bear.  And promise as gift in Being Promised addresses that.

But I also think it matters because the gospel is a promise, at least as articulated throughout the Bible. Robert Jenson, the instructor of my first theology class, a class I took when I was a sophomore in college, started the first day to define theology as that activity that occurs and is entirely devoted to this weird thing we call a promise.  Since then I was hooked and deeply interested in answering the question:  what difference does it make if the Triune God is one who makes a promise?

I won’t pretend Being Promised doesn’t make demands of its readers.  It is, after all a book about promise and not a promise itself!  But because it spans the practical, the liturgical, the moral, and the theological, I think there is something in the book for most every reader who has an interest in gift or promise.

2)   It seems to me that promise is inherently risky. What does it look like to brave that risk?

Friedrich Nietzsche has a picture of the ultimate promisor.  This is a person who has such strength that he (probably) can resist any change, has power to preserve the present, to be true to his word.  This person is can forget the past in favor of the pledge made, can shake off any guilt and worry in order to keep the promise.

This is not a promise that is risky nor does it require bravery.

A true promise, as I argue, is weak.  It is an adventure.  Making a promise risky but so is trusting one.  This means a kind of waiting on what may come, that which comes-to, advent.  This life is a risk, an opening, and a willingness to see what happens. 

The bravery to accept this risk is a kind of courage to embrace the fragility of one’s self and each other.  Mary Oliver has a line:  “I tell you this to break your heart, by which I mean only that it break open and never close again to the rest of the world.”  I think that is the risk of promise, which is to dwell in this life of Spirit that the Crucified One pledges.

3) Help me flesh out the eschatology of promise some more. How do we encounter the fullness of God’s promise? 

All eschatology is local.

I argue at the end of the book that since God’s promise is always other-directed, since the place of promise is always the place of the other, that any statements we make about eschatology or fulfillment are always bound to the neighbor. 

In other words, I think that a kind of cosmic or total eschatology is a bit over-hasty.  We might be able to articulate that from God’s promise but I think what we have biblically-speaking is the apocalyptic seer’s poetry, parabolic statements in the Gospels, and various wisdom sayings throughout Paul.  When taken from the perspective of promise, we have just a schema, a bare-bones skeleton that has flesh only when it is addressed to the neighbor’s needs, concerns, and injuries.

Eschatological claims need to be filled out in relationship to the way that God’s promise in Jesus addresses those local concerns.  Thus, it is not just enough to be a theologian of the cross, you need to be a local theologian of the cross.  And that isn’t enough either because the theology of the cross needs this promise in order to get the openness and spirit-breathed impossibility interwoven into the local scene.

We encounter the full gift of God’s promise in the Spirit, as I argue at the end of the third chapter on Pentecost.   This we have in bread and wine.  If the promise of Christ is Christ’s body and blood and we have that in the pledge, in doubled gift, we have it in the bread and wine.  Heaven is a place on earth.  And this place is a double place, as the last chapter shows, a place of paten and cup and of the neighbor.

4) You have invested some serious time and energy on this book. Having finished it, and putting it out into the world, what will you tackle next? What is your next project?

I wrote a fair amount on promise that I didn’t include.  I have been fashioning that material into a monograph on the sacraments and Christian practice.    A colleague at St. Olaf and I have been teaching comparative theology for five years now and we intend to write a short Christian-Hindu commentary on some of the Upanisads.  But lastly, I’d really like to write on Tolkien to advocate what my students alternately call Pipeweed or Faerie Theology.  A Elbereth Gilthoniel!

Thank you, Gregory Walter, for your time! Check out the book, and read Gregory's comments on the other stops on his blog tour!