The William Stringfellow Project: A Summary of Stringfellow's Theology

Before I start reviewing books as a part of The William Stringfellow Project I think it might be helpful to provide a brief summary of Stringfellow's theology. Such a summary could serve as a reading guide, allowing us to gather quotes from Stringfellow's books under some thematic headings.

As I see it, we can summarize William Stringfellow's theology under four theological themes: Resurrection, Incarnation, Word and Sacrament.

Death is the great theme of Stringfellow's writing. Phrased positively, resurrection is his principle focus. However, for Stringfellow resurrection is not about the immortality of the soul or life in the hereafter. Stringfellow tends to bracket those issues. For Stringfellow resurrection is about the experience of life--a victory over death and death's works--right here and right now.

More, for Stringfellow the great drama of life and history isn't the victory of good over evil. In fact, such a struggle tends to only create more evil. For Stringfellow the great drama and struggle is the victory of life over death. Life in Christ is less about being good than about experiencing life in the midst of the Fall.

The great sign and symptom of death's rule in the world is the estrangement we experience in the Fall. Estrangement between people and God, between a person and their own self, between people with other people, between people and institutions, and between the institutions themselves. For Stringfellow the biblical language of "idolatry" and "the principalities and powers" names the estrangement between people and institutions and between the institutions themselves. Again, for Stringfellow the powers are not evil. They are fallen. That is, their proper relationship toward God and the human beings working for them is disordered, oriented around death, around the survival of the institution. Thus, to serve a power--to work for the survival of the institution in the face of competing powers--is to engage in a form of idolatry, service rendered to the power of death in the world (incarnated in the survival/"success" of the institution/idol).

Still, as fallen rather than evil, there are times when the powers are more or less oriented toward life and God. Working for the powers isn't evil and really can't be avoided. The issue is one of idolatry. Thus living with the powers and working within them requires discernment and moral vigilance.

Finally, if the sign of death is estrangement the sign of life and resurrection is reconciliation in Christ. Reconciled with God, ourselves, others, and the powers.

The second great theme of Stringfellow's theology is his consistent rejection of the division between the sacred and the secular, between the spiritual and the political. Stringfellow invokes the doctrine of the Incarnation to make this point, the fusion of the human and the divine, the mixing of heaven and earth, the participation of God in the day to day affairs of life--from the home to the marketplace to the neighborhood to the political arena. The Christian is to be a full participant in the affairs of the world.

For Stringfellow this means that the spiritual is inherently political. Life in Christ has real-world implications for how we negotiate our relationships with every other human being. More, because we live in the Fall--during the reign of death--we "live at the expense of others." This means that every decision in life is an inherently moral and spiritual decision. Everything we do affects other people, often for the worse. For example, if I work hard at my job at McDonalds I'm affecting the livelihood of those working at Burger King. We live and work at each other's expense. Everything we do is affected by this reality--from being an American citizen to punching the time clock to buying food to turning on the electricity to having a savings account to casting a vote. Thus, everything we do must be informed by Christ. There is no separation between life in the world and the confessions of the faith on Sunday morning.

When Stringfellow talks about the reconciling activity of God in the world he often speaks of the Word of God active and militant in the world. For Stringfellow the phrase "Word of God" is synonymous with God but he uses the phrase to resist idolatrous notions of God. That is, rather than allowing the word "God" to be a cipher we can fill in with our own self-serving preconceptions the phrase "Word of God" suggests that the initiative sits with God. We must listen. The Word is always coming to us. We don't speak about God. God is speaking to us. "Word of God" is meant to capture this reversal.

More, for Stringfellow "Word of God" captures the way God has spoken in the bible. Reading and listening to the Bible comes up over and over in Stringfellow's writings. This is perhaps surprising given that Stringfellow was a liberal Episcopalian. But Stringfellow was not a Biblical literalist or fundamentalist.  For Stringfellow the Word of God cannot be reduced to the Bible, these are not equivalent. In fact, to equate the Word of God with the Bible would be idolatrous in Stringfellow's eyes. However, the Word of God is often mediated through the biblical text. Bible study for Stringfellow was simply listening for the Word of God in the reading of Scripture.

Beyond the bible "Word of God" is also intended to capture the Logos, the Word of God definitively revealed in Jesus.

And finally, beyond the bible and Jesus, the phrase "Word of God" functions as Stringfellow's pneumatology, how he describes the activity of the Holy Spirit in the world. The task of the Christian is to discern and listen to the Word of God in every circumstance of life. Whenever and wherever life is encountered and enjoyed in the midst of death's works the Word of God is present and active.

The fourth great theme of Stringfellow's theology is that the witness of the Christian in the world, and of the church, is sacramental rather than moralistic or programmatic. The goal of the Christian life isn't to be good, pious, moral or righteous. The goal is to "live humanely in the Fall." When we live humanely in the Fall we become sacraments, signs of life in the midst of death's works. And as a sign we call others to participate in and enjoy this life. More, as the Christian is set free from the power of death the Christian is able to live for the sake of others, to give their life away in love. The power of death has been defeated in the life of the Christian. And that defeat is a sign to others. A sacrament.

This sacramental call is privileged over programmatic attempts at "good works." Stringfellow is all for social programs to aid the poor and disadvantaged. Again, the Christian's involvement in the world in inherently political. However, the Christian witness should not be reduced to these good works and social programs. More than anything else, the Christian should simply live with and among the marginalized of society as a sign of life and grace, as a sacrament of God's reconciling love in Christ. It is vital to feed the hungry, but bread alone doesn't address the estrangement of death in the lives of the poor and the rich. Only the gospel can address this estrangement.

The practical upshot is that the local Christian community reaching out to the poor doesn't have to alleviate world hunger, as if they could. More, that community cannot fully escape the Fall. Like everyone else they will exist, to some degree, at the expense of others. That is, the faith community can't escape its own complicity in various systemic evils (though it should always strive to be less rather than more complicit).

In light of all this, in light of meager successes and its own complicity, the loving community and the individual Christian is simply called to be a sacrament, a sign of life in a neighborhood and world surrounded by death.

That's the essential witness: Be a sign of life in the midst of death's works. Wherever you are, be a sacrament of life.


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