Reading Together: Retrieving a Theological Sense of Being Human

As the last key note speaker of the conference Re-Imagining Human, David Jasper (Theology and Religious Studies, University of Glasgow), founding editor of the journal Literature and Theology, concluded:

‘For me the study of literature and theology is the most serious thing I have ever been engaged in. It has been a task of retrieving a theological sense of being human, but before one can even begin to do that one must begin by retrieving a sense of being human at all, without which we are nothing. Before we can recover any sense of God (whatever that might mean or in whatever language), we must elect to engage in a constant mutual release in forgiveness of one another in order to remain free. My old friend Bob Detweiler, may he rest in peace, … a man who knew suffering, once described this release as best found in what he called religious reading, which
“might be one that finds a group of persons engaged in gestures of friendship with each other across the erotic space of the text that draws them out of their privacy and its stress on meaning and power.”
And it is in this space that we might begin to find the consolations of religion speaking again. Detweiler suggested we recover two German terms once used by Meister Eckhart but taken up also by Heidegger: Gelassenheit and Geselligkeit. Gelassenheit: “a condition of acceptance that is neither nihilistic nor fatalistic but the ability – and it may be a gift – to move gracefully through life’s fortunes and accidents, or to wait out its calamities.” Geselligkeit: sociability, or togetherness.
            Reading together texts which resist all attempts to simplify and manipulate we may learn again to live through a religious tradition into a form of theological humanism which has recently been outlined by David Klemm and William Schweiker in which it is neither God’s will nor human flourishing that alone offer any sufficient measure for human life. Yet brought together they offer guidance in the human responsibility for integrity of life.  I am not sure that we have succeeded very far in persuading anyone in either church or academy of the profound importance of what we have tried to do. But, in our various ways, we must keep trying. I return sometimes to the end of the book of Job and try to place myself in Job’s position:
“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42: 5b – 6)
The point of God’s great outburst is not that there is no meaning, or even that meaning is a human category, but that it is beyond our reach, only to be accepted. The end of Job, as Muriel Spark well understood in her novel The Only Problem, is neither a frame nor a finished form but a story that holds its secrets and hides its causal links, a story not to be accepted simply nor refused, but which prompts endless questions to God and to ourselves. If it pains it also restores, and it enables us to move on, to craft our own story from memory, in Kierkegaard’s phrase in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, it keeps “the wound of the negative open.”'

[Extensive quote with the permission of the author.]

Jasper’s lecture Retrieving a Theological Sense of Being Human was delivered at Re-Imagining Human, the 17th Conference for the International Society for Religion, Literature and Culture, hosted by  Anthropos Research Group, Faculties of Theology and Arts, KU Leuven, 18-20 September 2014.