Tuesday, April 26, 2016

What Am I Reading? George Hunsinger, “The Beatitudes”

I’ve been waiting for this book for over two years. I’ve had it pre-ordered on Amazon for over a year. I’m not sure why, but I decided to look it up last week to see if Amazon had a shipping estimate yet. When I did, I saw that there were two different listings for it. The one that I had pre-ordered was for a paperback, and its status remained unknown. But now there was another, a hardback, that – much to my chagrin! – was published back at the end of December!* Thanks to the wonders of Amazon Prime, I was able to get a copy in my hands expeditiously and I read it even more expeditiously. It was worth the wait!

George Hunsinger, The Beatitudes (New York: Paulist Press, 2015).

This is a very mature piece of exposition. Hunsinger has poured the gleanings of his career as theologian and churchman into producing a spiritually deep set of meditations. Here all his best theological tools are put not just to systematic but to practical, pastoral, and pious use. The exposition is seldom surprising for one who knows Hunsinger's thought well, but it is nonetheless often moving.

True to form, he also weaves social justice themes throughout and this gave rise to what I found to be some of the best and most spiritually stimulating material. Hunsinger displays a rhetorical sophistication that at times borders on the exquisite. Consider the following paragraph, which highlights the basic injustices in the contemporary world, and especially the last sentence (as usual, and throughout the post, bold is mine):

The vast majority of the world’s population suffers from lack of clean water, inadequate sanitation and hygiene, and an inferior diet. This ocean of misery, hidden in plain sight, goes largely ignored by the affluent world. The better-off know little of how ‘the other half’ dies. (12)

Wow.

On the very next page Hunsinger makes clear that these social justice issues that plague our world will succumb to no simple fix. Necessary is a whole new way of being. Here he is again:

Because of the magnitude of the problem, . . . initiatives by citizens, churches, and nongovernmental organizations, while indispensable, will not be enough. Large-scale structural changes are needed in the prevailing economic system or systems, so that these disastrous social results are not perpetuated. Church people who get involved at a personal level—as for example in a local soup kitchen or a hunger action program—often start asking larger questions, which can bring challenges of their own. “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint,” wrote Dom Hélder Câmara. “When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” (13)

And for those who are tempted to think that all of this is an interpolation of non-theological concerns that are foreign to the Beatitudes, allow me to share just one place where they touch down—the beatitude of the peacemakers who will be called God’s children. The primary theological insight that Hunsinger works with throughout is that the Beatitudes are first and foremost descriptors of Jesus Christ. Then, working out from Christ in concentric circles, they are descriptors of believers first and then a wider circle of not-yet- or not-obviously-believers. And then, finally, they are imperatives. In any case, here is what he has to say about peacemaking:

As Christ abolishes the division between Jew and Greek, so he also abolishes every unacceptable social contradiction. His cross has overthrown the domination between slave and free as well as between male and female. Whether openly or secretly, every movement for liberation has Christ at its center. He is its active source. (83)

There is much more that could be said about this wonderfully tidy theological treasury. For instance, each chapter begins with a reproduction of an evocative work of art, and the volume includes a study guide in the back that makes it easily accessible and useful in church educational contexts.

Do yourself a favor and tolle lege as soon as possible.

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* I hate to wreck the illusion, gentle reader, but DET doesn’t always publish in real time. It is not unusual for me to have posts waiting for months to be published. This post was written near the end of February, 2016.

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