Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Beauty of William Stringfellow.

Like most people, I first heard about William Stringfellow when I read Karl Barth's Evangelical Theology. Barth recalls his time in America by noting "I was with Billy Graham as well as with the conscientious and thoughtful New York attorney William Stringfellow, who caught my attention more than any other person" (ix). It was not until I attended AAR for the first time this past November in San Francisco that I finally purchased one of Stringfellow's books. I remember feeling a bit embarrassed as I realized that I had read almost a third of one of his books at the Wipf and Stock book table without paying first. Thus, my journey into the world of Stringfellow began. But it was not until I picked up Instead of Death that I realized why I appreciate this theologian as much as I do. One gets the sense when reading Stringfellow that he sincerely loves humanity. And he loves humanity as they are in all their simple fragility and complex brokenness. He is able to love so truly because Stringfellow understands that nothing separates him from the rest of his fellow humans beings. Indeed, Stringfellow knows his own weakness and offers a vulnerable theology that is nothing short of beautiful. These are some of my favorite excerpts from his work Instead of Death that I found the most memorable:
-- "Loneliness is the specific apprehension of a person of his or her own death in relation to the impending death of all persons and all things. Loneliness is the experience in which the fear of one's own personal death coincides with one's fright of death of everyone and everything else. Loneliness if not a unique or an isolated experience; on the contrary, it is the ordinary but still overwhelming anxiety that all relationships are lost. Loneliness does not deny or negate the existence of lives other than the life of the one who is lonely, but loneliness so vividly anticipates the death of such other lives that they are of no sustenance or comfort to the life and being of the one who suffers loneliness.

Loneliness is the most caustic, drastic, and fundamental repudiation of God. Loneliness is the most elementary expression of original sin. There is no one who does not know loneliness. Yet there is no one who is alone" (24-25).

-- "It is impossible to consider sex seriously in terms of the search for self without eventually confronting the promise of the gospel that the secret of personal identity for every person is found in Christ. It is just this - what it means to be human - that is the essential content of what the gospel affirms about sex. It is this and not the conventional denunciations, heard in so many churches, of sex as sin or of sex as something foul or dirty or animalistic. It is this and not surrender to the temptation to suppress sex and the subject of sex in the churches or, what is worse, the more common temptation to condone sex as long as it is discreetly practiced - condemning it only when it becomes a matter of scandal.

In other words, it is quite alright to mention sex in the sanctuary, just as it is also appropriate to speak with the Church of any other matter what occupies the attentions of the people in the world. The life and action within the sanctuary has integrity only insofar as it is concerned with and encompasses the life that takes place outside the sanctuary. Nothing that has ever been done in a bedroom, in the back seat of a car, or, for that matter, in a brothel is beyond the scope of the gospel and, therefore, beyond the Church's care for the world" (38-39).

-- "There really is no such thing as 'Christian marriage' as the term is commonly used. 'Christian marriage' is a vain, romantic, unbiblical conception. 'Christian marriage' is a fiction. There is not more an institution of 'Christian marriage' than there is a 'Christian nation' or a 'Christian lawyer' or a 'Christian athlete.' Even where such terms are invoked as a matter of careless formulation and imprecise speech, they are symptoms of a desire to separate Christians from the common life of the world, whereas Christians are called into radical involvement in the common life of the world. To be sure, there are Christians who are athletes and those who practice law, and there are Christians who are citizens of this and the other nations. But none of these or similar activities or institutions are in any respect essentially Christian, nor can they be changed or reconstituted in order to become Christian. They are, on the contrary, realities of the fallen life of the world. They are inherently secular and worldly; they are subject to the power of death; they are aspects of the present, transient, perishing existence of the world" (41).

-- "The biblical witness is always a witness of resistance to the status quo in politics, economics, and all society. It is a witness of resurrection from death. Paradoxically, those who embark on the biblical witness constantly risk death - through execution, exile, imprisonment, persecution, defamation, or harassment - at the behest of the rulers of this age. Yet those who do not resist the rulers of the present darkness are consigned to a moral death, the death of their humanness. That, of all the ways of dying, is the most ignominious" (101).

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