Unexpected Jesus: The Gospel as Surprise has just been published by Cascade Books. Click here to order a copy.
Dr. Craig Hovey says that his new book offers a theology of hope, waiting, and promise from the perspective of the resurrection of Jesus. It asks what kind of knowing is most appropriate if the God Christians worship is a living God and the Christian gospel is a surprise. "It took a lot of time for this book to come together," Hovey says. "There's a lot in it that simply required a great deal of thinking that couldn't be hurried. I can't wait to use it in my Christology class in the Spring."
1. You say in your introduction that, for Christians, knowing God is fundamentally different from knowing other things. How so?
As Christians, we always need to be on our guard against idolatry. We can certainly make an idol out of God if our knowing him is limiting and controlling. It’s obvious that knowing God is more like knowing a person than knowing a piece of information. And when you know a person, they can surprise you. If you are too surprised by what someone does, you might think you never really knew this person to begin with. Or they might be acting out of character, acting differently from how they usually act. And while we only know what a person is like by what they’ve done, so long as they’re alive, they’re free to act in ways that enlarge our sense of what they’re like. Especially because of the resurrection of Christ, we know that God is a living God. We never “have” God, nor is God at our disposal. We’re are at his disposal!
2. How are Christian virtues surprising and unexpected?
They come to us indirectly. Let’s say you wanted to become more humble. That’s a very hard thing to do, especially because it will mean you’ve now got to spend a lot of time thinking about yourself and what you’re going to do in order to become more humble. In the end, though, that’s just about the last thing a humble person does. So we need to be surprised by virtues like humility. There’s a long Christian tradition, going back to Thomas Aquinas, of speaking about certain virtues as being “infused” by God. These virtues are the “theological” ones: faith, hope, and love. The Catholic Catechism has a wonderful line in which someone about to be baptized, or the godparents, are asked “What do you ask of God’s Church?” And the response is: “Faith!” I think that’s beautiful. People are not only baptized on the basis of their faith. They are also baptized in order to be in a position to receive faith from God through their brothers and sisters.
3. What kinds of things make Jesus surprising, keeping him unknown and unexpected to us?
The best answer is simply the resurrection. If Jesus really is risen, then his life now is in the present-tense. This means he is free. I don’t think that Thomas, the disciple, represents doubt that someone can rise from the dead. I think of him voicing a much more troubling kind of doubt: we fear that God is still on the move. After all, didn’t we want him dead? It’s traditional for the congregation to join the crowds in the Good Friday readings, shouting “Crucify him! Crucify him!” If we’re honest, we’d rather take comfort in knowing that God can be kept down, kept at bay, contained, easily known in the same ways that we know facts. “He is risen!” is extremely frightening. I’ve thought a lot about this topic, inspired by the extraordinary work of Robert Jenson. If people aren’t reading Jenson, they really ought to.
4. What do you mean when you say “Jesus is most fully himself when he speaks to us out of his hiddenness”?
I mean that this is when we’re most likely to get the real Jesus rather than a projection of ourselves. We really do require the element of surprise to awaken us from our idolizing. For example, asking “What would Jesus do?” is obviously a great question. But I worry that sometimes it can be asked in a very dubious way, as a religious cover for what is the most reasonable thing to do. That’s what it means to use God’s name in vain. Of course, Moses hid himself from God on Sinai, but only from his face. As Gregory of Nyssa said of Moses, it is right that he got to see God’s back—that’s what any disciple sees. The disciple sees the back.
5. Do you see our culture as being too concerned with knowledge and skeptical of mystery? If so, how?
Yes. We are heirs of many kinds of rationalism, of ways to control our world and each other as much as possible. Science and technology are some ways that we attempt to render life predictable. It’s true that there is also a kind of spiritualism in our culture that seems to embrace mystery. I admit I’m deeply skeptical of it. It strikes me as a form of religious commercialism that is mostly embraced by the wealthy. Poor people do not have the luxury of worrying about how to arrange the furniture in their homes according to Feng shui.
6. How can Christians know and trust God personally without tailoring him to our own ideas?
It’s very difficult. But if knowing God is like knowing another person, we literally need to struggle to know God through our encounters with others. Christians should have confidence that Jesus will be found within the church because the church is the body of Christ. And people in church are going to surprise us! But we also look for him outside of the church as we come to terms with the fact that the church cannot contain him.
Let me also say, though, that there is a reverse danger. I think it’s a mistake to overemphasize God’s otherness, especially if that language leads us to imagine God being pushed away from us. Augustine talked about God being closer to us than we are to ourselves. He is not hidden far away, but impossibly close. If we can wrap our minds around that, we’re much less likely to mistake God for our own best selves.
7. Doesn’t the Bible tell us explicitly who God is and what his plans are?
Not exactly. For example, Christians and Jews have typically recognized that God is doing something very interesting in giving his name to Moses in Exodus 3:14. It’s usually translated something like “I will be who I will be.” Now that’s not exactly telling us who God is with any precision! Notice that God is not simply making a promise. God literally is the promise that he makes. God will also be its fulfillment. So there’s certainly some knowledge that’s being communicated here, but it seems to me that it’s much more: it’s invitation to the kind of faith that trusts and hopes when the only thing that is certain is God’s promise.