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Because God Is: A Tribute to Robert W. Jenson (1930-2017)
I first met Robert Jenson in the fall of 2007, just after I had begun my doctoral studies at Princeton Theological Seminary. I had become friends with two other students, and one day one of us observed that a world-class theologian, whose books we were strongly encouraged to read, lived a mere half a block from the seminary.
“What if we just went over and talked with him,” one of us asked. “Would he want to talk to us?”
We contacted him and were given a set date and time to come to the Jenson home. So, we went. When our time was up, Jenson asked if we were available at this time every week. We answered yes. “You will come then at this time every week.” I’m still not sure if it was an interrogative or an imperative.
For five years we went to the Jenson home every week for what can only be described as an event, the unifying event of our theological formation. But there was nothing fancy about it. We sat in the Jensons’ living room doing theology.
I say “doing” intentionally. Jenson was never magisterial. From day one he treated us as equals. That prompted sheer terror at first. He did not come down to our level. We had to operate at his. We weren’t there to sit at his feet, we were there to do theology in communion with each other and with the saints, to argue and discuss and reflect on the Triune God and his doings with creation.
We did not have to agree with him. In fact, he sometimes nearly forced us to disagree! But we had to defend our claims, and he was quick to spot flaws. Nothing was free from criticism, most of all Jenson’s Systematic, which we read with him at our initiative rather than his. My copy is full of marginal notes where he remarked that he could have put this far better, or where something is lacking precision, or where he simply no longer agreed with what he’d written.
Reading the many tributes that the digital age quickly makes available, it is clear that “Jens,” as he insisted his friends called him, is regarded with unique esteem. The dust jackets of his books pop with accolades like “a master teacher, his books rightly carry the label of being classics,” “America’s perhaps most creative systematic theologian,” “the ‘best’ theologian in America,” and “the greatest living theologian in the English-speaking world.”
His impact may have extended well beyond the Midwestern, Norwegian pietism in which he was raised, but it ever remained part of Jens. He thought little of the praise he received and was always a little embarrassed by it. He did not care about acclaim, but the subject matter. So, instead of adding to the accolades, I want to tell the story of a human being who infected those around him with a love for Jesus Christ.
Rubbing shoulders with giants
Jens lived an active and productive life. A seminary and college professor over a period of nearly 50 years, he first taught at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, before moving to Oxford University, Gettysburg Seminary, and St. Olaf College. He then spent seven years as the director of the Center for Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey, before retiring in 2007.
He wrote and edited several dozen books, including a much-praised two-volume Systematic Theology, and over 100 articles and chapters. He was a pioneer in the ecumenical movement; he helped to spearhead the initial Episcopal-Lutheran dialogue, served the Catholic-Lutheran dialogue for over ten years, and, with his close friend Carl Braaten, founded The Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology and edited the Center’s influential ecumenical journal, Pro Ecclesia.
Jens was ever an activist as well. He was there in Washington, DC, in 1963 when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. And he joined the protests against the war in Vietnam, which he regarded as unjust. “What else could a minister of the gospel and professor of theology do in such times,” he told us.
In his own words, from a brief 2007 autobiography: “I gave speeches in hostile places; parents would not let their children associate with our daughter; etc. And after it all we experienced the same downer as others did: we thought there should be a straightforward move from opposition to segregation and unjust war to opposition to killing unborn children as desired, but ‘the movement’ and our political party went another way.”
He once told me that he remained perpetually puzzled as to how those who protested racism and unjust war could support abortion, more puzzling still was how those who protested abortion could support policies that promoted racism and unjust war.
His ecumenical work and bafflement by cultural-sociological-political developments led to friendships with Richard John Neuhaus and others associated with the magazine First Things. Even though he never was comfortable with that group’s “neocon” ethos, Jens counted them as allies in battling against modern culture’s slide into postmodern nihilism. Jens’s characterization of “modernity” bears repeating:
The entire project of the Enlightenment was to maintain realist faith while declaring disallegiance from the God who was that faith’s object. The story the Bible tells is asserted to be the story of God with His creatures; that is, it is both assumed and explicitly asserted that there is a true story about the universe because there is a universal novelist/historian. Modernity was defined by the attempt to live in a universal story without a universal storyteller.
If there is no storyteller directing history to its end, there is no story to tell. Nihilism results. In “a world that has lost its story” all that remains are unconnected and unnarratable episodes of self-possessed navel-gazing. Postmodernism’s children are the Jerrys, Georges, Elaines, and Kramers of Seinfeld, people for whom others are little more than temporary distractions from the meaninglessness of life.
That Jens and his wife, Blanche, so graciously gave their time to us still amazes me. This was a man who, when he was a doctoral student, rubbed shoulders with some of the greatest theological, exegetical, and philosophical minds of the past century—Barth, Heidegger, Gadamer, Gunkel, von Rad, Bultmann, Pannenberg, to name but a few.
Jens went to Heidelberg for his doctorate and was assigned, by his director Peter Brunner, the topic of Barth’s doctrine of election. He subsequently went to Basel to study with the man himself. During his visit to America in 1962, Barth was asked by a reporter from The Christian Century “if anyone had grasped the real center of his thinking.” Barth replied there was at least “one ... a young American.” Jens cut his professional theological teeth on Barth, a fact reflected by his first two books (the second a veritable classic in Barth studies). But he was never a “Barthian.” He was persistently too Lutheran, too shaped by the liturgy and structures of the ancient church, and too concerned with culture to go all the way with Barth.
As for Heidegger, Jens never ceased to wrestle with him, taking what he found useful. But he never failed to get in the comment that Heidegger was evil, one of the theorists behind Nazi nihilism (a fact affirmed by the publication of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks).
Theology as if the gospel were true
Jens once told us—with his typical audacity—that a proper theologian was a cannibal, eating and digesting whatever ideas and concepts one could find that would serve to elucidate the story of Jesus Christ. This is just another way of saying, “all truth is God’s truth.” But Jens’s shocking turn of phrase makes the principle unforgettable.
That was the sort of teacher and writer Jens was. He made things clear so they could hit home—sometimes too much so. In speech and prose, he could be so direct and terse that we often had to beg him to embellish things, to say it again by saying more. Jens delighted in saying things plainly and directly. If he has a literary analogue, it is Hemingway: short, to the point sentences, formed as though all the adjectives had dropped out of the English language.
After our first year with Jens, he suggested that the three of us needed to learn some philosophy. He proposed that we engage in a survey of the history of metaphysics—among many other things, I learned a new definition of the word “survey.” We began with Heraclitus and Parmenides before moving to Plato, Aristotle, Proclus, and Plotinus. Next we read the Patristics, then the Medievals, Early Moderns, and Idealists. We finished, a year later, with Heidegger, Dorothee Sölle, and Barth.
Jens described Barth’s Church Dogmatics as “the first grand system· of Western metaphysics since the collapse of Hegelianism, but a thoroughly revisionary one … an all-encompassing, flexible, and drastically coherent Christological interpretation of all reality.” Jens disagreed with Barth along with the others we read, and he made sure we knew it. But Barth, he told us, missteps aside, had the right idea. All created existence finds its meaning and purpose in the person of the crucified and risen one, Jesus Christ.
The reason why Jens insisted that we make our way through the history of metaphysics was because he insisted that Christian theology be performed fearlessly. Christians can—indeed must—stand boldly shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Aristotle and Hegel. We need not be wowed or cowed by the wisdom of the world. We ought to learn whatever there is to be learned from the world, but we do so with a purpose: to better point to and tell the truth, the story, and the promise that Jesus is.
Jens’s contribution to theology and church could well be described as an answer to the question: What if the story and promise of the gospel are true? By “true” he meant, “true in the dumb sense,” the sense in which we use it in day to day speech.
This exemplifies Jens’s theological method, an approach that goes against the grain of much of modern theology, which assumes that much of the Christian faith’s truth claims are only apparently or at best figuratively true. Jens suggested that it just might be possible to rethink everything—not just theology, but philosophy, culture, art criticism, etc.—on the basis that the eternal, infinite Word of God is Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of Israel. His work, taken as whole, is such an attempt.
Theology with a future
Last April I received a phone call. Jens had been to the doctor. Cancer. After some hard conversations, a decision was made. He was 87, already quite weak, surgery was not an option. He was sent home to die. It could be months, it could be a week. So, again, we went.
As we walked to the house, we talked about what we could say to encourage him. We were brought upstairs to see him. He was very weak. We told him what we had been doing. One of us, not me, soon had to address a group of incoming theology students and asked: “I have to answer the question, ‘Why we study theology.’ Jens, what should I say to them?” Jens had said little up to this point; the pain meds were doing their thing. But, with this question, he sat up a little and said, “Well, I think the answer to that question is actually quite simple. We do theology because God is.”
While this statement has beautiful completeness to it, the story is not over. Something essential is yet missing.
If you knew Jens, you know Blanche, his wife. They frequently attended academic conferences together—a rare, brave act in the academic world. Jens repeatedly stated that Blanche should be named co-author of all of his books, since every page, every sentence was the result of her critical eye.
In his analysis of postmodern nihilism, Jens wrote that in the postmodern ethos, promises are “inauthentic,” they simply cannot be made, because to promise is to commit to a future, and thus to a story that has a telos. But this is the very thing that our present world denies.
Jens wrote that we now lived in a world in which “the impossibility of promises is … our daily experience. And in this matter, we have a paradigm case, in which the whole situation is instantly manifest and which I need only name. There is a human promise that is the closest possible creaturely approach to unconditional divine promise, and that is therefore throughout Scripture the chosen analog of divine promise: the marital promise of faithfulness unto death.”
Without Blanche there would be no Jens. The two of them exemplified what it means to be co-workers for the gospel. Jens said again and again that Blanche was “the mother of all my theology.” So, I close with a message for Blanche who mourns the loss of her beloved husband: Know that the story you and Jens wove has a future; we want you to know that you are the grandparents of our theology.
Matthew J. Aragon Bruce is visiting associate lecturer of theology at Wheaton College.