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Hopeful Realism: Reclaiming the Poetry of Theology

By Douglas F. Ottati

Pilgrim. 1999. 134 pp. $14.95. ISBN 0-8298-1322-5

Reviewed by James G. Kirk


If you are looking for a book to use this fall with your adult education class, look no further! This is a wonderful resource that lends itself to an eight-week class on "How a Church Can Engage the World."

What’s more, Ottati has already field-tested most of the material. As he explains in the acknowledgments, “The chapters of this book began as lectures at churches, colleges, seminaries and ministers’ associations.”

Ottati begins with three guiding convictions: theology works with the church’s poetry, such as symbols, images and patterns found in Scripture, tradition and life, that clarify life in its true depth and circumstance. Second, theology tries to help persons and communities interact with current situations and realities in a way that is faithfully responsive to God. Third, the result of this poetical and practical approach is a picture of “life- before-God and God-before-life” he calls “hopeful realism.”

For example, hopeful realism is leadership that is not surprised by defeats, tragedies and terrors — leadership which sometimes needs to restrain evil and limit the powers of persons, groups and institutions by dispersing and balancing powers; leadership which all the while retains a sense of optimism that good may abound.

Hopeful realism is theology that acknowledges our significant but limited and dependent powers and capability. It expects diminishment, conflict, fragmentation and death, but does not fail to look for enlargement, reconciliation and life. It recognizes destructive bents as well as promising possibilities. It summons all to repentance and to an ethic of faithful participation.

Using Otatti’s book as a text, those who take a class on “How the Church Can Engage the World” will want to discuss the implications of such a leadership and theological perspective. They will also become acquainted with a God who goes out from Godself in initiating, sustaining and renewing the true communion with God in community with others that is God’s saving purpose. They will meet Jesus Christ, the teacher who continues to instruct, the leader who continues to guide and the power who continues to empower. They will meet the Holy Spirit who goes out to turn, to renew and to guide persons into new community.

They will deal with original sin that shows how people are unavoidably devoted to the wrong things or the right things wrongly. They will become familiar with such terms as “musement,” “formica-zation” and a saving faith that breeds participatory confidence. They will be drawn into Ottati’s table conversation on how the church can engage in inter-religious dialogue, and deal with the church’s continuing faithful participation in the world even though it’s no longer the “most influential kid on the block.”

They will come to realize that those in the church cannot say or think God without at the same time saying and thinking world, that in Jesus Christ sin’s dominion is broken and human powers and capacities begin to be realigned, that the motive for morality is thankfulness to God’s faithfulness, and to know the reconciling truth that in Jesus Christ no person or community is either alien or strange.

The church is called to a ministry of reconciliation which will mean care and compassion; joyful celebration and prophetic criticism, patience and daring; reflection and action; love and justice; and the ultimate realization that the church does not bring in the kingdom by its own efforts, because the work of reconciliation is finally God’s own work.