Bishop David Bard reflects upon covenants in the context of the easy-living of summer.
BISHOP DAVID BARD
My doctoral dissertation advisor at Southern Methodist University was long-time professor of Christian ethics at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology, Dr. Joseph Allen. Dr. Allen did his own doctoral work at Yale with H. Richard Niebuhr, so I guess I could say that as an ethicist I am a grandchild of one of the preeminent theological ethicists of the twentieth century. I never quite thought of it that way before.
Dr. Allen was a wonderful dissertation advisor. His constructive criticisms of my work were always helpful, and always timely. I have known doctoral students who have waited inordinate amounts of time to get chapters of their dissertation back for further revision. Dr. Allen was unfailingly prompt, and his comments were typically insightful. One could easily say that he lived out his own articulated moral positions.
Joseph Allen did not publish prolifically. His major work in Christian ethics is his book Love and Conflict: a covenantal model of Christian ethics. In this work Allen developed a model of the Christian moral life in which “all moral relationships are understood to be covenantal relationships” (16). For Christians the basic moral standard is this: “as an expression of faith in the covenanting God, we ought always to respond with covenant love toward God and all God’s creatures” (77). Yet Dr. Allen understood the complexity of the moral life. We find ourselves related to others in multiple covenants, each of which makes claims upon us. We exist in the midst of multiple covenantal claims, that is, in situations of conflict. “The reality of conflict is highly significant for ethical reflection. Without conflict in these senses we would not encounter moral perplexities…. We live in the midst of a multitude of moral claims and thus in an intricate web of obligations. The problem is that we cannot possibly meet every claim.” (9, 82) Put in a more theological context, “Christians already know that they should love one another although they would benefit from further reflection about what that means. But even with more insight into their most basic moral standard, Christians would continue to face difficult decisions about what love requires under various kinds of conflict.” (10) When Dr. Allen agreed to be my dissertation advisor, we entered into a kind of covenant together, and he was very good at fulfilling his part of that covenant.
This is all pretty heady stuff for those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, and you are to be commended if you have read this far! Thank you. So here’s the connection between summertime, when the living is easy, and thinking about covenants.
One of the things that the differing pace of summer offers us is the opportunity to care for some of our covenants more intentionally, or in fresh ways. For many of us, the pace of our work is different in the summer, affording us opportunities to care for our covenants with spouses, family and friends more attentively. These are life-giving covenants that need to be cared for well. The more relaxed pace of summer that many of us experience, allows us the opportunity to nurture our covenantal relationship with God differently – more time for quiet, more time to appreciate the beauty of the natural world. As Christians, we trust that our covenantal relationship with God is the most life-giving and life-sustaining of all.
As you read this, I will be between two significant times of caring for my covenants as husband and father. This summer Julie and I have a daughter and a son getting married. By the date of this publication, our daughter’s wedding will be past, and our son’s wedding around the corner. My covenants here are a little complex, though I don’t believe there is a conflict between covenantal commitments. In both weddings, I will be both pastor and husband/father, and it is those latter covenants that will be getting primary attention, though I shall not neglect my role as pastor during the wedding services themselves!
Reflecting on the complexities and conflicts that come with our multiple covenants is helpful as I consider both theologically and morally the situation of The United Methodist Church, or as I think theologically and morally about pastoral appointments. I hope you don’t mind, though, if I lay such thinking aside a bit this summer as I tend to some very important covenants in my life
My hope and prayer for all of you is that this summer has and/or will afford you significant opportunities to attend well to some of the life-giving covenants in your life.