Thursday, May 12, 2005

Speaking Truth to Power

I figure that if I have little to say, giving a highfalutin' title to what I do say raises the stakes.

I have been relatively quiet of late because I'm working on an adult forum series that I'm giving on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. I'm putting most of my effort into that (along with planning to lead a discussion of Watership Down -- about which I wrote earlier).

The consequences of my work on the class is that I'm becoming increasingly uncomfortable with being a Lutheran. The main strains of Lutheran theology strike me these days as entirely too at- home in the world and too focussed on an "otherworldly" Gospel -- i.e., one that's so heavenly minded that it makes no earthly sense. (This all makes me extremely uncomfortable, because when I was ordained

For example, on a Lutheran listserv, in a discussion of "ethics," a brilliant scholar and pastor ended a post with "After all, no Lutheran could be a pacifist." That escaped with virtually no comment or argument (one poster noted that he considers himself both Lutheran and pacifist, but the discussion went immediately to joking about his typos in the post). On the same strain, a teacher of ethics noted that there is no content to the the Gospels' (or Gospel's) "moral principles," so encouraged looking to Aristotle for guidance in how to make ethical decisions. Aristotle apparently provides clear, objective canons, while there is nothing similar in the Bible. Yet another said that Jesus offers no guidance on economic policy, so the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA ought not be offering guidance to President of the United States on budget priorities. (Several think that government has no role in feeding the poor or healing the sick; that should be done by individual christians. The Church has no standing to impose its standards on the state. Curiously, or course, many of these same people scream about the "fallacy" of the separation of church and state -- so go figure.)

I frankly don't get it. What's not clear about Jesus' teaching and example? Is it really so hard to discern a way to live from Jesus? And is it just wishful thinking to see in Jesus' calls to discipleship, his teaching (see the Sermon on the Mount/Plain), and the like something more than just moral principles, precatory language, suggestions?

Worse than that, I suppose, is a kind of classic Lutheran rap: Jesus said all these things to drive us to despair so that we can hear the gospel -- which apparently deals (in all its promissory nature) only with the future and has nothing to say about here-and-now. For the here-and-now, look to the state and to the market. (Yes, if one is a Lutheran, one may justifiably lead a corporation and declare bankruptcy and turn your pension obligations over the Federal government, so that your corporation may be saved and the retirees get shafted. Jesus doesn't care about that. He wants to know if you "believe.")

I think it's Robert Brimlow who says that the Christian community is called to be such a unique (gospel-defined) counterculture in USAmerica that he thinks we ought not even vote, because to vote implicitly entails the agreement to go along with the outcome, regardless of how immoral one considers that outcome to be. Talk about the opposite extreme from Luther's "two kingdoms" or "two realms" (for the politcally correct among us). And yet, while I don't go quite that far, I find his argument and his passion compelling and convincing (though I'm not quite ready to give up my franchise, although lately I've found little to vote "for" as opposed to "against").

It is for me a perplexing business. I'm not a triumphalist; quite the contrary: I look to the cross and resurrection not just for "salvation," but for meaning. But in its typically Lutheran manifestation, I find the whole teaching quite shallow and unsatisfying.

With the help of N.T. Wright, Bill Cavanaugh, Robert Brimlow, Michael Budde, Stanley Hauerwas, Rodney Clapp, Reinhard Huetter (who was a Lutheran, but who is now a Roman Catholic -- none of the others is a Lutheran), and other contemporary thinkers, (I have to look again at Bill Lazareth) I have become increasingly dissatisfied with any theology that looks to "salvation" or "life" or whatever from Jesus as postponed to some time after death. Salvation begins even now, with the announcement of Jesus' messiahship. And the call from Our Lord is not just to "believe" him (or even "believe in" him), but to follow him, to obey him, to emulate (or "imitate") him. His benefits (while certainly not fulfilled or experience in their fullness) are even now apparentm Jesus as postponed to some time after death. Salvation begins even now, with the announcement of Jesus' messiahship. And the call from Our Lord is not just to "believe" him (or even "believe in" him), but to follow him, to obey him, to emulate (or "imitate") him. His benefits (while certainly not fulfilled or experience in their fullness) are even now apparent.

More to come. (Here's a tip of my cards, though: While I am disgruntled with being a Lutheran, I don't see that there's anyplace else to go.)

But now for something different:

From the Sojourners fellowship, comes this well-written and -thought commentary by a Calvin College senior on the College's naming Pres. Bush as its commencement speaker. I appreciate her insights into what it means to be "pro-life."

Christians are called to be "pro-life," and I don't see any way around that. When Jesus said, "I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly," I think he did not intend to limit that to our having a great time in heaven. Nor do I think that he meant to limit abundant life to his followers. This is another of those cases in which I think Jesus is clear, and I am told by my Lutheran heritage that it is "complicated." (Why else does the Lutheran Church health plan provide for payment of abortions?)

I look with interest on the rise of a "pro-life" faction within the Democratic Party. Bravo! At least some get it, I guess.

'Til later.


Eric Lee said...

Thank you for this post. I'm currently reading through Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship for the first time and this post expresses the same spirit as his chapter 3, title "Single-minded obedience." It's pretty amazing how close they are.

I have been doing some book blogging on it, and the relevant post on that chapter is here, if you're interested.

Also, this got cut off:

"(This all makes me extremely uncomfortable, because when I was ordained"... ?

Jim said...

We all know that you're a closet Anglican, Dwight, as is your sister.

So come on out and join us in the via media, where you can be simultaneously strange, right, wrong, and somewhere in the middle, and still fit right in!

Lee said...

If it makes you feel any better, my (Lutheran) pastor has recently been giving sermons that sound downright Hauerwasian. The other night he said that Christains are "resident aliens" in this nation and, riffing on the Pope's "dictatorship of relativism" line, he said that the counter to relativism is following Jesus' counsel of suffering love, loving our enemies, and opposing war and capital punishment!

Sadly, he's leaving our church in a week. :(

Also, I wonder if the so-called Finnish interpretation of Luther might provide a theological framework that could avoid the pitfalls of strictly otherworldly gospel? As I understand it, the Finns see Luther as having much more in common with Eastern Orthodoxy and its emphasis on "theosis" and union with Christ.

Whether such an understanding will catch on in the US is another matter, though...

Maurice Frontz said...


Who is (was) your pastor, and where is he going?

Dwight P. said...

OK, I've been a way a while, but I want to encourage people to continue to post in my blog. To prove that, here are some comments to the recent commentators.

Eric, thank you for your compliment; to be told that I have gotten the Bonhoeffer "tone" is high praise. I'll take a look at your blog. Are you reading the Reggie Fuller translation or the new "authoritative" edition from AugsburgFortress? I've found the newer edition to be absolutely enlightening.

Yes, something did get cut off, and I'll search my mental warehouse to see whether the missing limb can be found.

I am, indeed, an Anglophile and an Anglicanphile (?): I live in no closets, than you very much, Jim. At this point, though, I cannot see swimming the Thames, for that tradition seems as bonkers as mine. I may as well chafe against the relatively weel-defined issues in a tradition I know from the inside, than get diaper rash in one to which I am a newcomer.

Lee, my condolences on having to give up as a pastor one who seems to have his collar on straight. (And my best wishes to him. With Chip, I'd be interested to know who it is -- if only so I can pray for his well being.)

I think that the Finnish school, the more they write, make it easier and easier to connect with a kind of Hauerwasian-Bonhoefferian synthesis. All see that faith is more than a headtrip (i.e., intellectual feat of believing something that is unbelievable) or a hearttrip (feeling all the right stuff); it is a life trip, life-long, life-encompassing. It is not grand and heroic; it is quotidian (which is why Bill Cavanaugh talks about consumerism in Sojourners and it sounds like Gospel -- which it is).

Read the Finns; I think it's there. (I think, though I'll have to check, that a prof at my alma mater Seminary, Gettysburg, has just produced the sort of original piece of work in the Finnish tradition, Tuovvo Mannermaa's work on life in Christ. It's really powerful.

Thank you all for your insights. Keep them coming, and I will better for it.

Eric Lee said...

Dwight, you're welcome. I'm reading the Reggie Fuller translation, as far as I know. They just has R. [something]. Fuller inside, with some modifications by another guy. I didn't see "AugsburgFortress" anywhere on that copyright page. I got my copy at Borders, the one that typically looks like this.

Lee said...

Our pastor's name is Will Miller and he's heading to an urban congregation in San Diego - he's always had a passion for urban ministry, so I'm happy for him (though sad to see him go!).

Dwight, you've inspired me to dig in to the Union with Christ anthology of Finnish Lutheran scholarship edited by Braaten and Jenson that I've had sitting on my shelf (after Jean Laserre's War and the Gospel which is next up!)

Dwight P. said...

Eric, Yeah, you're readding Reggie. He was a bible scholar and very serious Anglican/Episcopalian -- a real marvel and a great gentleman. He was credited with rushing the book into print after the manuscript became available in German because he felt it was that important.

Unfortunately, he wasn't working with the best manuscript and I think his English is a staid. Some day, look at a copy of the AF translation (a translation of the authoritative German edition of Bonhoeffers Werke. It is eye-opening in the AF edition to see all the footnote material about where Bonhoeffer got this particular idea or what idea he was rebutting with that (based on notes in his own copies of books!)

Lee, yeah; read Laserre. (He was a friend of Bonhoeffer's you know; they met at Union Sem in New York on Bonhoeffer's first foray into the New World). Then, the Finns will be even more exciting, as you see how it "interfaces" with Laserre's thought (although Luther was certainly not a pacifist, and Laserre certainly is -- in fact, he made Bonhoeffer one!) And thanks for the note; I'm going to look up the Laserre work, since I've read nothing of his.

Dwight P. said...

I realize that I did not finish "all this makes me uncomfortable because when I was ordained," so here's the rest of the sentence.

This makes me uncomfortable because when I was ordained I vowed not to preach or teach in contraction of the Word of God or the Lutheran Confessions. To the extent that what I am saying is at odds with what is (actually) in the Confessions, then I am being untrue to my vows. (And while I am no longer "rostered," I do not believe that that status in any way pre-empts or nullifies the vows of my ordination. Consequently, I can no willy-nilly advance an idea that contradicts the Confessions than I can deny that Jesus is not raised -- although I would certainly argue that the latter is much more important than the first.)

At this point, I salve my conscience in believing that what I advance -- even the stuff I advance tentatively -- is a fair and legitimate interpretation of the Lutheran Confessions (even the Apology and FC).

That's where I was going.