Image: KPB Stevens, Moses & The Burning Bush, linocut on paper, 2022.
A few months ago I reread Walter Brueggemann’s The Covenanted Self, and realized that covenant is a profound metaphor for the spiritual life. Metaphors for that life abound, and some of them have been incredibly influential in my life. I spent a couple of years investigating, and living within, the metaphor of spirituality as a love affair between the soul and God. The road metaphor that imagines the soul as traveling along different paths of suffering and joy has been important to me for a long time now. Yet in this season of my life the metaphor of covenant has come to hold sway over me. I find myself thinking about it all the time, and viewing my faith through its lens.
Covenanting isn’t a legal arrangement, or a set of deals that I make with God, my neighbor, or myself. In Brueggemann’s words, “covenanting (and spirituality) consists in learning the skills and sensitivities that include both the courage to assert self and the grace to abandon self to another.” It is a way of being. To covenant is to engage in a spiritual practice that is active and alive, a practice in which nothing is settled beyond some bare outlines of acceptable behavior. It is a process of testing and affirming relationships. It is soul work.
According to Brueggemann, there are three main entities whom we covenant with. The first is God, and in some ways God is the easiest to covenant with. Get good at covenanting with God, Brueggemann says, and you’ll develop the skills to covenant with your neighbor and with yourself. Our covenanting with our neighbors is more challenging because neighbors are more immediate, “so near, so visible, and so daily,” in Brueggemann’s words. Neighbors will get in your face whether you want them to or not. They will, inadvertently or purposefully, take some inner crankiness out on you. The expectations they will place on you are more often meant to serve them than they are to serve you. Their love is conditional and demanding.
But even though neighbors can be difficult, they aren’t nearly as difficult as our selves. It is very hard to escape from the self, and our selfhood is always with us, regardless of what we do. Each of us carries multiple selves within us. Sometimes they are aligned to roles. I have a priest self, a husband self, a father self, a friend self, and a self that only I know well. That private self, that self that is divorced from my many roles, is also faceted. There is the playful facet who wants to goof off, joke, dance, and escape from responsibility. There is the creative facet, who wants to write, to paint, to make some object or articulation of value. There is the “adulting” facet, the self who wants to be seen as competent and successful, who worries about processes and accomplishments. All of these selves are constantly acting up and jostling for dominance, and sometimes nothing more vital than the weather will determine which one gets to be in charge on any given day.
God, neighbor, and self is the basic framework of covenanting, but there is so much more to say. As I grow in my understanding of the metaphor, I begin to read the Bible differently, to understand my own choices and reactions differently, and to act differently towards my friends and my community. I hope to post more about covenanting spirituality in the weeks to come, and hope you will join me in my explorations.