With Bright Shining Faces
By Cynthia Rigby
W.C. Brown Professor of Theology
Instructor for TH.104, “Introduction to Systematic Theology”
We’re all in our places with bright shiny faces!”—isn’t this what schoolchildren once chanted when their teacher entered the room, at the start of a new day? My father recalls that he was not only required to begin class with the right attitude, but also with the right posture. Apparently, he would get smacked with a ruler if he
wasn’t sitting straight up, in the center of his seat. (I can assure you that your new professors at Austin Seminary won’t be quite this coercive!)
While “shiny faces” are not a requirement for “Introduction to Systematic Theology” (Sys. I), they do have some relevance to the start of a new year, and a new class, at Austin Seminary. As Christian believers, our lives are supposed to reflect the hope we have in Jesus Christ. As theologians called to bear God to the world, our work is not tedious, but our greatest joy. Yet too often our life together, and our witness to the world, is absent concrete manifestation of the hope that is in us. Too often, we theologians-in-training are viewed as being sober and distant, struggling to untangle irrelevant theological points rather than to articulate that which matters most. “Why don’t our faces shine?” Karl Barth once asked. “Why are the faces we show each other at best superior looking, serious, questioning, sorrowful, and reproachful faces, at worst even grimaces or lifeless masks, real Carnival
masks. . . ?”#1
In contrast to this, Barth reminds us that the shining faces of Christian believers testify to the character of God’s reign, known to us in Jesus Christ. When we remember the promise of God’s coming Kingdom, our very lives serve to minister to others. Barth writes:
If the light, the joy, and the laughter of God’s children really pressed for outward manifestation and became visible, our fellowmen [and women] around us would notice it. … It would be a sign that there are different and far better things in store than they are wont to see. It would give them confidence, courage, and hope. They would be relieved . . . because such a bright face would be the reflection of heaven on earth, of Jesus Christ, of God the Father himself.#2
In this passage it is clear that Barth is not recommending that we put on the false smiles of obedient schoolchildren. The last thing this world needs are more Christian believers walking around with what Barth calls “Carnival masks” (I think, for example, of Homer Simpson’s ingratiating neighbor, Ned Flanders). Rather than putting on pietistic smiles that serve to distance us from others, Barth is here suggesting that Christian believers be transparent about what they believe and the impact it has on their lives.
This is, of course, easier said than done. It is much easier to put on false faces than it is to be vulnerable to one another and to the world. The illusion of transcendence can be accomplished by sheer will and a little talent. Incarnation, on the other hand, can’t be faked. If we are to shine, we really must hope. And if we hope, we are inevitably made vulnerable not only to transformation, but also to pain. In a world in which the reality of God’s Kingdom is often far from evident, to insist on believing that all tears will be wiped away is to be constantly disappointed. Ironically, then, the “joy and laughter of God’s children,” when authentic, can only be coupled with grief and sorrow. No wonder we wear masks, instead of shining faces! We want to avoid the burden that comes with hoping in the face of hopelessness.
In light of all this, I wonder: what would it mean to have “bright, shining faces” at this start of a new school year at Austin Seminary? What would it mean to engage the introductory theology class, for example, as those who risk hope? Recognizing that to hope is to be disappointed, it shouldn’t surprise us that there are times when good theological work provokes frowns, fidgetiness, and even tears. Contrary to some suspicions, this is not usually because the reading assignments are too long, because you haven’t written a paper in fifteen years, or because your faith has somehow been placed in jeopardy. Rather, the pain comes precisely because the theological enterprise puts us in touch with that which is real, true, noble, and beautiful. We frown because the world we find ourselves in just doesn’t, by comparison, measure up. We fidget because we recognize our complicity in systemic structures that perpetuate an existence characterized by power struggles rather than by grace. We weep because, as people of hope, we refuse to accept that the suffering and sin which surround us are consistent with God’s creative and redemptive intention.
It will encourage us to remember that the discomforts inherent to the theological task are always and only known in relationship to the hope that is ours as followers of Jesus Christ. As theologians, we look from the context of the Christian tradition, through the “spectacles” of Scripture (Calvin), to the One who reveals the very character of God. When we have our eyes on Jesus, we are able to see what is, from the divine perspective, the “real reality” (Barth). We know, then, what should be true here, on this earth, in relationship to our daily lives. We are empowered to reach out to others, as those who are servants, bearing the Good News. Our faces shine not because we are trying to impress a teacher, or God, or ordination committees, or folks who know we are studying theology and are watching us to see what kind of difference that makes. Our faces shine not as indication that we have transcended this world with its pain and suffering because we have access to another world others cannot see. Rather, our faces shine because we see the One who reveals the reality of heaven precisely in the context of this world, the world that God loves, the world with whom God has vulnerably entered into solidarity.
Even as the theologian struggles to articulate the Good News of God’s presence, he or she yearns for this presence to be made more visible. As children of the One whom Jesus invites us to know as Parent—“our Father”—we stomp our feet and demand that the promise made to us be kept. “Thy Kingdom come (already)!” we pray. With bright shining faces we watch, we pray, we expect, we hope. And— because our faces are bright—we also grieve. We grieve that the Kingdom has not come. We repent of how we have lived in ways inconsistent with its coming. “Thy will be done,” we pray, our stomping foot staid, our hearts and hands ready to participate in bringing to the reality of this world that which we believe is the reality of God.
What will it look like, then, to begin Sys. I with “bright shining faces”? Perhaps our good posture, at the start of this course, is our recognition that living into the hope that is ours is an ongoing process. To will ourselves shiny is to risk putting on a mask. It is to give up on an incarnational ministry in which we, our eyes on Christ, offer comfort to others. To recognize that God is at work in us, enabling us to live lives that manifest our hope, indicates, on the other hand, our willingness to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2). As we “work out” with the doctrines of our faith, we will in this class seek to participate ever more deeply in that which has both laid claim to us and promises to transform the world. We will look to Christ and be open to the joy and grief that comes with genuine hope. We will strive to discern and articulate the presence of God’s Kingdom in our midst. We will insist that this Kingdom come to fruition and reflect on the role we are called to play in its coming. We will desire to shine, believing that God is at work in us.
All in all, I suppose, the start of school would be a lot easier if we simply required everyone to smile and to sit up straight! But then we might never have the joy of knowing—and sharing—heaven on earth. I look forward to our journey together.
1 Barth, Prayer and Preaching, published in London, SCM Press (1964).
2 Barth, Prayer and Preaching, 123-124.