Why “Walking Theology”

kierkegaard walking quote

Theology is, of course, meant to be a walking form of life, even as it is     undertaken by Jesus. The two on the road to Emmaus are not going to end up in Emmaus and Jesus is certainly not going to Emmaus. The walk and the discovery unfold together, just as being a disciple of Jesus always does. The two, at first, have a set destiny, and then the talk becomes a destiny, as Jesus explains how the narrative journey of the Old Testament is an ongoing travel narrative in which this very walk figures as explanation. When they arrive at their evenings lodging it is at once a terminal point and a reversal of their journey – as afterward they head back to Jerusalem. They have walked nowhere in particular and only thus have they discovered where they are going. This comes at the end of their walk, and the “burning” lesson of the journey sets them on the edge of recognition. It is only when the travelers sit and Jesus breaks bread that they are able to ingest the lesson of who he is. The walk and the discovery go together as journey and sustenance must.

Paul is the walking theologian – always on mission, always journeying, never having arrived. The mission and the theology unfold together and the mission is ongoing as is the movement of the theology. Paul’s eschatology may allude to boxing and running, but his soteriology is walking – as Jesus walked. He arrives at this understanding in Romans 8, which stands in contrast to the agonistic disembodied cognition of Romans 7 in which he is portraying his pre-Christian self. The “walking” of chapter 8 arises due to “a mindset of life and peace” which puts to death the agonistic inward struggle characterizing the “body of death” of chapter 7. To walk as Jesus did is to embody his life so that the salvation is inherent in the journey.

The truth of the physical act is filled out in the theological metaphor, as the body is brought into harmony with self through walking, so too walking as Jesus walked is to overcome the alienation that is sin. The heavenly city that is come to earth in Revelation contains streets of gold, made for walking, so that perfect, heavenly harmony is a good walk on a good path.

The God/Man walking makes Aristotle’s philosophy, centered as it is on the Unmoved Mover, positively static and Platonic in comparison. Theology, likewise, that does not have a walking, moving, God cannot have the Creator God. The Unmoved Mover housed at the center of the Universe – is an indoor God who is going nowhere. But the Creator God walks in the garden in the cool of the day precisely because no Universe and no building contain Him. Where theology has preferred the Aristotelian Unmoved Mover, and attempted to shed itself of the “crudities” of a God who could enjoy a walk in the cool of the day, it has taken flight from the mortal capabilities of incarnate souls.

The “grand” problem addressed by scholasticism and the early Church councils was the attempt to reconcile two notions of deity. In the attempt to avoid the idolatry of a too earthy god, they may have missed the fact that idolatry for Jews was not that God might be brought to earth, but that he would be put at an infinite distance. Every good idolater understands that the idol, as Paul says, is nothing, but it is precisely this reified nothing, an infinite gap that cannot be bridged, that constitutes idolatry. The static, stationary, idol is a displacement – a reified negation. One communes with this god through dissolution, disembodiment, and melding into the likeness of nothingness. The Greek Unmoved Mover was simply a sophisticated summation of the supreme deity of every idolatry. Every high Brahmin and sophisticated Buddhist would agree with classical apophatic theology that god is without passion, without suffering, without emotion, and he is known only in what he is not.

The walking God in the garden, the “three men” walking and talking to Abraham, the God who led Israel on a walk out of Egypt, and the frightening God of Sinai, is a God who comes too close and is too uncontrollable. He is a God one wrestles with, sups with, and walks with. Better are the distant “eternal mysteries” of a self-forming Golden Calf emerging from the fire than the consuming God who bids to come into the forge itself for a walk about.

Perhaps the walking God seemed entirely too pedestrian and as a result preference was given to Anselm’s “Greatest Thought that Could Be Thought” – the name of the legless god housed in the human mind. Thinking this thought does not constitute movement or a walk, but as Anselm describes it the necessity to “close the door of the mind” and meditate. The Unmoved Mover would spawn disciples who, like a good daruma, would think until their legs fall off. At the end of his meditations in the Proslogion Anselm claims that his meditation has only produced “nothingness and darkness” and yet he equates this with God.

Where God’s transcendence trumped the incarnation, theology aimed at departure for heaven more than hope of a renewed creation. As long as theology had feet and the sense of pilgrimage it adhered to an embodied salvation, but where heaven is pictured as discontinuous with earthly embodiment the walk became secondary.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the great contemporary American Calvinist theologians centered around Calvin College are mountain climbers, most interested in ascent. They are Nietzschean in their attempt to attain rupture and departure. By way of contrast, Stanley Hauerwas has labored so hard on an incarnate theology that he has worn out his knees. His running theology may not have produced the breadth of a slower paced thinker but in his single-minded notion that Christianity is an ethic, a way, or walk, he has returned a great deal of American theology to its earthly depth. In this he is the heir of the first modern walking theologian, Søren Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard was concerned with the practical lived reality of Christianity, its ethic, as opposed to the infinite abstractions from Hegel’s nothingness with which his fellow Danes were infatuated. The how and not simply the what of knowing was essential:

“What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die” (Kierkegaard’s Journals & Papers).

Kierkegaard, perhaps more than any other “modern” theologian would return theology to its feet – as he describes it in Fear and Trembling, to walking in Abraham’s shoes.

(A key part of Forging Ploughshares is this weekly blog, “Walking Truth.” This was the second blog posted in August of 2014 from the original blog explaining, in part, the name of the blog.)

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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