The Dream of God: The sanctified imagination of Verna J. Dozier

The second of the three Black theologians I’d like to hear and celebrate this Black History Month is Verna J. Dozier. Dozier (1917-2006) was an educator by training and vocation. She taught high school for thirty years while leading Bible Studies for her parish in her spare time, and later taught courses in Bible at Virginia Theological Seminary. While race was not the dominant theme in her work that it is for most of the Black theologians I’ve looked at in this space, such as James Cone or Martin Luther King, Jr, there can be no doubt that her theological vision of what she calls “the dream of God” was profoundly shaped by her experiences as a Black woman: Dozier was raised in the Black church and attended a Historically Black University; in fact she attended Howard University when Howard Thurman was Dean of its chapel and Thurman was a major influence on her thinking and theological language. Her writing is similarly littered with lines from the Spirituals and Black poets and playwrights, and the dynamics between white and Black Americans provide ready examples for her descriptions of how Christianity has lost sight of God’s dream for humanity. Today I’d like to look at her best-known work, her 1991 publication The Dream of God.

Dozier understood her vocation to be that of Bible educator, and so it comes as no surprise that she begins by talking about hermeneutics, that is, how we interpret the written word. She believes that in order to be understood properly, Scripture needs to be approached in its broad strokes:

I think we must approach the Bible as we would a painting. First we stand back and see the painting as a whole, and then we study the details, because however great the details, they are not the painting (8f).

She sees this as being the approach the Scriptures themselves take:

The ancient Israelites were a people of cultic memory, and in song and story and liturgy they kept that memory fresh. It was their memory of special events that had shaped them — the story of a nomad ancestor to whom God had given a great promise, deliverance from slavery, preservation in the wilderness, conquest of a new homeland. The memory included the interpretation of these events that God was acting out for them, that they had a special place in God’s plan. … The Hebrews began with the big picture — faith in a God who acted on their behalf (9f).

This means that the Bible must be understood as a theological document. It is about witness to and faith in what God has done, not about history:

Because the Bible is a theological book, it is a book of wrestlings, not a book of answers. In each age the people have to struggle to hear the word of the Lord for their time, and sometimes their hearing is keener than at other times (18).

The biblical story is always to be prefaced by, ‘This is how the faith community that produced the record saw it.’ It is never to be absolutized as, ‘This is the way it was.’ The story always points the way to an understanding of God that is greater than the facts themselves. I think that any understanding of the biblical story that fails to see it as a human response only pointing to the dream of God is itself an idolatry (51).

So what then is this ‘big picture’ — “the dream of God” — all about? As Dozier reads the story of the Bible, it is a story of creation, of calling, and of falling, and it’s a story that continues to play out in the Church today.

First, looking at creation, Dozier grounds her theology in the freedom and love of God: “The world was brought into being,” she says, “because it is of the very nature of Love to pour itself out in creativity, creative forms, creative relationships” (14). God’s dream is of “a friendly world of friendly folk beneath a friendly sky” (25 and passim). It is the life of the genuine love that is “justice in action” (49), and is expressed in the vision of the Law:

Every fiftieth year — the year of Jubilee — everything is to be returned to its original state, all debts cancelled, all relationships restored. The land cannot be sold in perpetuity, for the land is God’s. They are not to oppress the strange, for they are to remember that they were strangers in the land of Egypt. The widows and orphans are to be protected. No interest is to be taken. Not only their religious life, but their economic life, their political life, their legal life, and their social life was to witness to a new possibility (48).

But the true love and true faith necessary for this dream to become reality require a free response by creation in the form of humanity. And so we come to the second trope of Dozier’s reading of the Bible: calling, or invitation. God creates out of love and invites us — freely and without coercion — to love in return. But this means that God’s dream is vulnerable. God’s very nature opens God up to the real possibility that humanity will reject the invitation to love (21).

And reject it we have. This third theme, falling, is a very common — if not universal — theme of Christian theology. But Dozier interprets it a little differently from how it is generally taught. As she sees it, humanity is always falling: God is always calling humanity to love and to radical trust and humanity is always rejecting that call. Of all our falls, Dozier sees three as being paradigmatic: First, Adam and Eve rejected God’s invitation in the Garden. Then, Israel rejected God’s invitation when they insisted on having kings like all of their neighbours. And then, the Church rejected God’s invitation by its continual compromise to the “kingdoms of this world.” Each of these falls is symbolic of a specific kind of rejection of God:

First we human beings succumb to the temptation to be God, to know absolutely what is good and what is evil. Then we decide that the kingdoms of the world have more to offer than the kingdom of God. From there it is a very short distance to proclaiming the kingdoms of this world as the kingdom of God (60).

This perspective on the Christian story suggests a radical continuity between the experiences of Israel and of the Church: “God was always offering the possibility of living in the kingdom of God in the midst of the kingdoms of this world” (3):

The new dispensation, the ‘people of the Way, as the first Christians were called, has missed its high calling even as did the first dispensation, the people of the Torah. … Both the people of the Torah and the people of the resurrection were escaping from God’s awesome invitation to be something new in the world (3).

This continuity does not imply that God was not doing something new in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Far from it. While the content of God’s call to humanity did not change, God’s investment in that call did. In Jesus, God goes “all in” on the invitation for humanity to participate in the life of the Kingdom of God. Jesus is “the Word made flesh, the definitive action of God for our age to offer human beings a new possibility for participating in the dream of God…” (74).

Yet, still, “Jesus of Nazareth is a troubling — and troublesome — figure, and it seems to me,” Dozier writes, “the church has never known what to do with him” (67). Christians have largely rejected God’s invitation to share God’s dream, preferring instead to do things the way they have always been done in the world, and often going so far as to equate the ways of the world with the ways of God. In one particularly scathing passage, she comments: “We live in a day when it would be equally offensive to those who bear the name of Christian to hear Jesus blasphemed as to see him followed” (74). Later, she complains that Christians have turned Jesus into an idol, choosing to worship him instead of following him: “Worship,” she says, “unless it is in the service of discipleship … is blasphemy” (75).

And so, Dozier believes, we are called to repent, to see anew with God’s vision, to dream God’s dream, and to follow the way of Jesus, if haltingly, every day:

The call to ministry is the call to be a citizen of the kingdom of God in a new way, the daring, free, accepting, compassionate way Jesus modeled. It means being bound by no yesterday, fearing no tomorrow, drawing no lines between friend and foe, the acceptable ones and the outcasts. (106)

She continues:

It is the task of the church, the people of God, to minister within the structures of society. … The people of God with kingdom-of-God ideas about money need to work in the financial and economic structures of our society. … The people of God with kingdom-of-God ideas about power need to work in the political structures of our world, the governments of town and city, state and nation….” The people of God with kingdom-of-God ideas about prestige need to work in all the structures of society that serve others. … There is no place where the people of God should not be, and wherever they are they are called to witness to another possibility for life (108f).

Yet, while Dozier’s judgment on the Church’s history is harsh, there is no arrogance in it. The long history of humanity’s falling, even and especially the often well-intentioned failures of the people of God to live into God’s dream, stands as a warning that we will not get it right:

Kingdom-of-God thinking calls us to risk. We always see through a glass darkly, and that is what faith is about. I will live by the best I can discern today. Tomorrow I may found out I was wrong. Since I do not live by being right, I am not destroyed by being wrong (109).

Faith always includes the possibility it could at any given moment be wrong, and that is why it requires courage. Faith is the risk that what I understand today calls for commitment of heart and mind and soul, even though at all times I know that what I understand today may be revealed to be wanting tomorrow (112).

The good news is that, even when we get it wrong, God is still calling us to get it right. God has not given up on us yet and God will never cease to invite us to dream God’s big dreams and to live them into being.

So then, Verna J. Dozier’s understanding of the dream of God invites us to capture God’s vision for a new humanity, truly freed and free to love — “a friendly world of friendly folk beneath a friendly sky.” We will fail, but what matters is that we try and try again. I can think of no better words to end this celebration of her thought than those with which she ends her book: “We have all failed the dream of God. The terribly patient God waits” (114).

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