Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Public School Education

A Lutheran listserv to which I subscribe has been going around (again: it seems to be a cyclical concern) on the issue of public education. A member’s congregation just opened a (still small) parochial elementary school, and he was (probably) justifiably boasting (in humble, Lutheran terms) and seeking prayerful support of the members. As a part of his post, he noted that the quality of the public schools had declined in his area and that this was his congregation’s way of trying to offer something better to at least some kyds. (On “kyds”: My mother used to insist on that spelling to distinguish humans from baby goats, and I have learned to love it, even if she has abandoned it.)

A fellow progressive responded to the post with questions and concerns about churches’ contributing to the abandonment of public schools, in essence leaving the public schools for those who can’t afford anything better or who have problems too complex for parochial schools to deal with. To that, someone else replied that his experience (having raised two kyds in the public system and now home schooling his third) is that the public school system is built on a faulty, irremediable model of schooling and that home schooling has been much richer for his youngest child than was the large public school for his eldest two.

The conversation struck a nerve with me (again). But I know better than to air my petulance on the listserv – having dredged up some pretty hostile responses the last time I tried. So I’ll use my soapbox to set out my questions.

I’m vitally interested in education (without any training to do the job): For years, while on the payroll of the Great Books Foundation in Chicago, I traveled around the country working with school systems on programs to discuss literature as a way of enhancing children’s abilities to read, to discuss meaningful, and to think critically. I know the Brooklyn offices of the New York City schools, and I am acquainted with Tupelo, Mississippi. I know Southern private and parochial “resistance” schools (amazing how many churches found the resources to establish lily-white schools to avoid segregation) and Bronx public high schools (where the teachers are some of the most bombastic people, let alone educators, that I can even imagine). Furthermore, for the past four years, my wife has worked in the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) system. (She was a school nurse, but has now returned to administration with a healthcare company.) Through her eyes (and the eyes of our daughter who is enrolled in the neighborhood middle school within the MPS system) we have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly in public education.

No one, I think, should deny that the public education system in our country is in need of reformation. (One of my Great Books horror stories: I worked with a group of teachers in Texas once who could neither pronounce “ogre” nor define it. And we were dealing with a second-grade story in the Great Books program!) But the need for reformation must include a sincere look at the reasons for the problems in education. They are not all due to incompetent, careless teachers and administrators (though, God knows, such do exist – as do careless and incompetent pastors and executives and … ). Where incompetency and even careless exist, we need to root it out.

But there are causes of problems that don’t lie at the feet of those in the educational system. We grossly underfund education. (Can we finally abandon that shibboleth, “You can’t fix education by throwing money at it?” The last time I checked, all American corporations think they can fix their problems by paying gazillions of dollars for a chief executive. Why should education be any different in a capitalist system – itself an issue for discussion? If we don’t pay much, we don’t have a right to expect much, right?) We under-respect those who devote long hours and a lot of their own personal money to the education of kyds. (I am still rendered speechless by the remarks of a previous Bush Administration Secretary of Education in which he characterized the public school teachers’ unions as “terrorist organizations”? If that doesn’t ring of disrespect for the entire system, adjust your hearing aid.) Most school systems are administration-heavy and support professionals-light, but much of that is because Federal and state governments mandate ever more service, standard, and reporting requirements that must be handled at the administration leve.

And one of the major issues in the “decline” of public education (which characterization I think I buy) is the requirement that schools be all things to all children in the midst of a society that is falling apart. Schools in my areas – and certainly it is worse in other urban areas – function in loco parentis -- i.e., as parents, guardians, social workers, legal advisers, nutritionists, parole officers, health care providers, psychologists, et. al. – before they can even begin to try to teach anything. And that is most clearly not the fault of the schools. Even in progressive Minneapolis, Minnesota, we have nearly countless kyds who come to school without having slept the night before: They may not have had a place to sleep; they may have been kept up by gunfire around their homes; they may have been kept up by battle between their parents (those few who happen to have two parents in the home). And if they haven’t slept, they most certainly haven’t eaten breakfast. My wife regularly had little kyds coming to school in the mid-winter without coats, without the medication they needed to function (because their parents “forgot” – or, more likely, didn’t care). She brought several ChiPS petitions (i.e., juvenile protection cases) during her first weeks on the job. And at her school (not untypically for “inner city” schools), a typical year saw a 75% turnover in student population because of parents’/families/’constantly changing residences.

While the public system has no control over those variables, they are required to deal with them by providing services for the children, by giving them the same tests that are taken in schools where all the kids are “above average” and are fed nourishing meals three times a day. Please don’t get me started on “No Child Left Behind” – which is really an effort by the present Administration to kill the public school system in order to channel the funding into elite, private “choosy” and “chosen” schools (where, you can bet, there will be no “bad influences”).

Despite all this, however, there may still be a good argument that public schools are not serving and cannot serve children and, therefore, ought to be abandoned. (This is often expressed as a kind of whiny “My child is being held back because of the need to serve all those dumber kyds.”) I confess that I sometimes wonder how much more my child would “learn” (academically) if she were not exposed to the social ills of a fully modern city social system – and she goes to a very successful public school (actually one of – if not – the top middle schools in the local system). I recognize that it is hard for children to learn in settings where children have not been taught the value of shutting up once in a while; where “f***” is the most frequently used word in any given day; where … . Well, you know. (Amazingly, these same graces seem to characterize their parents – especially the white, secure-middle-class, activist, pro-education parents. They themselves are incapable of sitting still in a choir concern, so how can we expect more of the kyds? But I digress.)

But at the same time, I also believe, as a matter of civic and religious conviction, that universal, (relatively) free, public education is something that we must provide. I think it is essential to democracy and to learning to live together. It is, in a way, a microcosm of where kyds live and need to learn to live.

The public school system is one of the few forces for equality in this country. It provides an essential element to worldly success, education – i.e., training in how to read, write, count, reason critically (sometimes), converse, get along with people of a variety of types. It is also critical to the democracy experiment to have a relatively (well-)educated populace with the ability to listen, understand, and reason – which the school systems are designed to provide.

Public education has proven, I think, to be a great equalizer in society – not by bringing down the elite, but by providing that essential element I mention above for those who otherwise have not won the genetic lottery and been born to positions of privilege. And, besides, where else would my toe-headed daughter find an intimate social entourage that includes two girls adopted from China, three YUPPIE off-spring, three African-American girls from low-income families, two mixed-race girls (one, the daughter of a single mom)? It is the American salad bowl writ small. (In case you don’t get the reference, Glazer and Moynihan, in Beyond the Melting Pot, discarded the image of American as a great “melting pot” in favor of the image of the “salad bowl” – all ingredients mixed together without losing their individual identities. It’s a great image, I think – and more accurate now than when they wrote.) Does that mean that it overcomes the social stratification that continues to plague this country? Of course not. But it helps moderate the sinister influences of that stratification by providing means of moving in and out of different layers.

As a Christian, without formally endorsing democracy (which I think I do, nevertheless) or the capitalist system (about which I hold grave misgivings) or the present stratified state of American society (which I think is very nearly unsupportable), I think Christians are called on to care for all their sisters and brothers – within and without the Church. That means feeding, clothing, housing, healing, forgiving, defending – and educating. There is, of course, strong biblical support for education (although I think it is almost all “religious” or faith education, but for a “people of the book,” that implies reading). But there is also the broader issue of working in the place where one is planted for the well-being of that place. And that means, in our time, providing for kyds (at least) an education that will serve their integration into society as functioning members regardless of the metal of the spoon they were born with in their mouths.

I know that the “welfare state” is under attack; indeed, in some quarters it has been discredited and denounced. Nevertheless, the vision of a society that cares for those who cannot, for various reasons, care for themselves is a noble vision, one which Christians should subscribe (whether capitalists or not). We are heirs to the prophetic tradition – and the prophets railed and railed against nations (make that “holy nations,” since they railed against Israel and Judah) that did not practice a faith in which the poor were offered preferential treatment. In modern times, educating all our people – indeed, even requiring education – is an element of that vision.

Of course, reform of all institutions is an on-going necessity and that is no less true of education than of any institution of society. In this country, there are (and have been through modern history) constant efforts to reform education, to make it more “effective” for the kyds who must learn, to make it more “accountable” to the society, to make it more appropriate the needs of children. Lamentably, the powers that be (notably the federal government) seem always to couch their efforts to camouflage their efforts to destroy public education with claims of making schools (how?) or teachers (huh?) or students “accountable. The “No Child Left Behind” charade (and here I go again) is no exception: It punishes those very schools facing the most challenges (usually those with substantial populations of non-English-speaking students and students with physical and intellectual disabilities) by withdrawing the most needed commodity for dealing with issues they face – viz., money for staff and programming.

I think Christians are called to advocate for reforms that will improve education for all children – but especially for those most in need of educational efforts: those who are heart-renderingly poor; those in unstable family situations; those with physical, intellectual, and emotional disabilities; those who don’t speak English (and may not learn to speak it with facility within two years of coming to the States); those who are not “left brained; and the like. We must also recognize that “school reform” is not separable from social reform – which may, in my jaundiced view, involve reform of the juvenile protection and justice systems that treats children as of primary concern and not as chattel belonging to the parents. (There’s another soapbox topic.) It’s a complicated task, but in no sense are we freed from it: We have no option but to support the public school system.

But here’s my dilemma: I believe that Christians are called to constitute a “peculiar society” – i.e., a distinctly different society from the general, secular culture within which they live: The name of that society is “Church.” (Here’s the Hauerwasian coming through.) To cite a few examples, Christians are called to act differently from the average non-Christian Joe-on-the-street (no adultery, care for elderly, no stealing, no reciprocating violence done to us); we are called to speak differently (e.g., don’t bear false witness, no swearing, no cursing, speaking the truth); we are called to value life differently and to regard the relationship of wealth to happiness differently (no killing, observing Sabbath, giving all we own to the poor); we are called to supply a different valance to relationships and self-fulfillment (take up a cross rather than rest in a sofa). And I wonder whether the public schooling system undermines the chances of that’s coming to be in lives of our children.

In order for the church to constitute its own society or culture, we need systems of enculturation that are at least as strong as, and also usually in direct conflict with, those systems of enculturation at work in the society. And following closely on TV as a major force for enculturation, at least for young people, is school. School provides a compelling matrix within which our children can learn an entirely different set of values and behaviors from the ones we Christian parents (ought to) wish for them. The system of friendships, icons (flags, military hero portraits, sports-team trophies, and the like, for example), indoctrination (textbooks are really bad) and example is much more effective for most of our kyds than is church – even if church has a viable Sunday school and confirmation program – if for no other reason than that the schools get our kyds for six to eight hours, five days a week, 40 weeks a year, and the church may get them for two hours a week most of the weeks of the year.

So maybe the answer is to establish parochial schools where the Faith can be handed on, taught, explained, celebrated in the particular terms of our traditions. As one example, Lutheran schools in the Missouri Synod’s history generally have done a remarkable job of turning out people who are “well-educated Lutheran Christians” – with a good understanding of the full meaning of that phrase. Maybe it ought to be the mission of every serious Christian congregation to offer its own children an alternative to the secular and increasingly secularizing public school. And I’m not sure that I would oppose that suggestion IF it were clear that the school would be an education program of the church, and not just a “haven” from a racially, economically, gender mixed world and IF it were clear that no discrimination at all would be allowed on the basis of race, gender (I guess maybe I could support gender-segregated schools), disability, sexual identity, behavioral problems, and all the other issues that the public schools are forbidden to say “no” to.

Of course, because of the importance of public education, to have such programs would be an expense incurred by the congregation in addition to that of its duties to pay for the public education system, too. For as citizens, Christians are not relieved of the burdens of supporting the civic state. (Toward that end, I advocate dropping tax exemption for church properties other than church buildings themselves. And in the case of extensive church “plants,” I favor pro rating taxes to exclude only the area used for formal worship. The church does not benefit from the financial propping up of the state.) By my lights, “vouchers” which use public money to subsidize a student’s enrollment in a private or public school is a direct violation of this proposal. In this case, there is a direct cost to the public system of moneys that would otherwise be available for the benefit of the entire student body.

Advocates and administrators of parochial/private schools claim that they do not siphon support away from the public system. I’m not sure that that is correct. In Minnesota, for example, school funding is distributed on a per-student basis. Because some students are more expensive to educate than others, it is important to recognize as many students as possible in order to begin to balance the costs. If students leave the system, chances are good they are the least expensive to the system, so the costs go directly up. Forthermore, in Minnesota, the public system is required to provide transportation to private schools. That is an additional cost that the system would not otherwise have to bear.

Can we, then, establish parochial/church schools without thereby undermining the public system? I’m skeptical. By withdrawing “Christian kyds” the church would leave the public schools with those kyds that didn’t fit in anywhere else (and, as I said, are most expensive to educate). I know that it may be a stereotype, but I think the public schools would be left with almost all the troublemakers and few of the brightest and best who, for lack of a better word, contribute to the civilizing of the school. That’s how it now works – “facts on the ground”: Private schools are not required to take just any old kyd who comes along. So if you have a behavior problem, a physical disability, Down syndrome, an unstable family situation, a small bank account – well, the public system is better equipped to deal with you, so forget our pricey, effete, high-test-scoring private school. (And lest you think that doesn’t apply to religious schools, note that in Minnesota a church school revoked admission of a student when the school found out that the student was confined to a wheelchair because “we’re just not equipped to meet his needs.”)

So where do I stand? Well, I’m not quite sure, to be frank. I am absolutely (almost) committed to preserving free, public, universally available education for all children from age 3 through college (yeah, it’s my socialism showing through). I think reforms must be made, but they should recognize that much of what makes public education so problematic is that the general society is torn asunder. Without some expensive attention to restoring the social fabric, schooling will continue to be frustrating to most involved. And I, in theory, enthusiastically support congregations and wider groups that work to establish Christian schools for the purposes I set out above. (I’m not a big fan of “intelligent design” or the “god-givenness” of certain relational and social structures. So I consider those to be at least questionable grounds for setting up a school. Regular liturgies, schooling in prayer, serious Bible study, critical studies in history – those are some I could support.)But I think one critical issue becomes that of admissions: Who’s going to get it? Only those who can pay? Or those who pay according to their means? Or all comers? Only physically and intellectually able? (If not, it is from the beginning unjustifiable, I think. To deny admission to disabled students is to shift, unfairly and unconscionably, the cost of their care to the secular society.) And equally problematic (potentially), will all comers be accommodated – including non-Christians?

I realize that the education of the young is a big deal – it certainly is for me. And I realize that parents are charged to care for their children. But I wonder whether this issue of public-school education is not one of those painful points where the theology of the cross hits the road, becomes complicated because of facts on the ground. For the reasons I set out, I think the burden of proof is clearly and heavily on those who would withdraw support from the public system to justify their cause.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

No Comment Necessary, But Prayer Requested

From the "news of the weird" department (and also the "Greatest Blasphemy of the Day" bureau) comes this tidbit:

It sure does make being a Christian respectable when we have nutcases like the Rev. Mr. Robertson running around calling for the assassination of world leaders -- at least implicitly in the name of Jesus!

Monday, August 22, 2005

A guest viewpoint

A friend of mine, Jim Pike, is a (new) pastor in California. (That means that I now have ten relatives and two friends in California. My roots are growing.) He wrote a neat, succinct criticism of "left behind" kind of theology. I like it, and I commend it to you. The commentary is here.

Jim is one of the group blogging at Old Cheshire Cheese (link is in my Links column). He needs to get chugging on that again, but I will give him this: Establishing a new ministry is probably more pressing than setting out his thoughts on the internet -- even if those thoughts are bound to be insightful and important.

The issue of apocalypticism is intriguing and clearly wildly popular -- in books, movies, TV series, conversations between strangers. (I think it no accident that more people are reading "Left Behind" than are buying Bibles. We just don't seem to want to be bothered with good old fashioned orthodoxy, do we? Better to have dash and flash.) A lot of "mainline" churches are faced with the difficult process of responding to the phenomenon -- and most are punting. It's easier to put the books in the library and let whoever wants to read them read them without comment than to educate the congregation (which usually means first educating the pastor) about Revelation, Daniel, and the rest.

But I think it is wrong to follow that path. For one thing, it is a false gospel that is being preached. If people are proclaiming in the name of God and/or the name of Christ that this is the way God works, they are misrepresenting the True God -- and that is blasphemy. For another thing, it's also cynical, because it pretty much admits that education and proper proclamation don't really matter. (Of course, that also denies the significance of the Christian Church, a reality that is also blasphemous.)

I appreciate Jim's comments because of the concision with which he gets to the matter clearly and cleanly. I also appreciate the work of Craig Koester, whose course on Reformation I have extolled in previous postings.

It's not as though there aren't good resources to help congregations deal with this issue. I hope more will get with the agenda.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

R.I.P. Gerhard Forde

The Lutheran Church has lost a most important theologian and churchman. Gerhard Forde, long-time professor systematic theology at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, died yesterday, 9 August. I will not attempt any sort of obituary, but I reproduce this obit from the Sem:

Gerhard O. Forde (1927-2005)

Luther Seminary gives thanks for the witness and wisdom of Professor Emeritus Gerhard O. Forde, who died Aug. 9, 2005. For almost 40 years he shared his passion for the Reformation with generations of pastors and lay leaders. "I have tried through the years to present the integrity and truth of the tradition, especially as found in Martin Luther, in a way that is interesting, compelling and exciting," he said at his retirement in 1998.

Gerhard Forde joined the Luther Seminary faculty as lecturer in church history in 1959-61. After moving to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, as assistant professor of religion in 1961-63, he returned to the seminary as instructor in 1964 and was promoted to professor ten years later.

His teaching career began at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn., where he was instructor in religion in 1955-56.

He received the B.A. degree from Luther College in 1950, attended the University of Wisconsin for one year, and then earned the B.Th degree from Luther Seminary in 1955. He earned the Th.D. degree from Harvard Divinity School in 1967. Forde also studied at Tubingen University and was the Lutheran tutor at Mansfield College, Oxford University, 1968-70. He also spent sabbatical years at Harvard (1972-73), Strasbourg (1979-80), and the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, St. John's University, Collegeville, Minn. (1988).

A member of the American Academy of Religion, Forde had also been active as a member of the board of dialog, A Journal of Theology; the Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue; the commission for the new Lutheran Church; and the editorial board of The Lutheran Quarterly, new series.

His publications include:

  • The Captivation of the Will: Luther vs. Erasmus on Freedom and Bondage (Lutheran Quarterly Books, 2004)
  • A more radical Gospel : essays on eschatology, authority, atonement, and ecumenism (Eerdmans, 2004); edited by Mark C. Mattes, and Steven D. Paulson.
  • On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (1997)
  • Theology Is for Proclamation (1990)
  • "Forensic Justification and Law in Lutheran Theology," Justification by Faith, Lutherans and Catholics in dialogue VI (1985)
  • "When the Old Gods Fail," Piety, Politics and Ethics, Reformation Studies in Honor of George Wolfgang Forell (1984)
  • "The Work of Christ" and "Christian Life," Christian Dogmatics (1984)
  • Justification by Faith: A Matter of Death and Life (1982)
  • Where God Meets Man (1972)
  • The Law Gospel Debate (1969)

    A festschrift, By Faith Alone: Essays on Justification in Honor of Gerhard O. Forde, (Eerdmans, 2004) has also been published.
I've read a lot of Forde, and not all of it made me comfortable. But all of it made me think and admire his skills as a scholar and writer. I did not agree with some of his most significant theses: I thought he provided no room for sanctification in his picture of justification by grace, and I deeply regret his involvement in the WordAlone movement. And he was frequently at loggerheads with the most important theologians in my life -- including Jenson and Braaten -- so I was not inclined to be kind. But even I cannot and couldnot deny the almost magisterial importance of his work and witness. (I even cited him frequently in the classes I led.)

Gerhard Forde was of that generation of post-World War II students who went off to graduate school and returned to remake the face of American Lutheranism. When that story is told, Forde will figure prominently in it.

He was a faithful servant of God and of His Church, and his death is -- as is death itself -- lamentable.

Eternal rest, grant him O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon him. Amen.

Sex and Authority: An Illustration

I'm sorry, but I can't pass this up. My dear brother in the faith, Rob, has instilled in me (something I regularly forget) the importance of expositing one's theories and assertions with examples. In my effort to specify this thesis -- that the two "camps" to the Lutheran Church's wrestling with same-sex relationships and ordination come at the question from fundamentally different worldviews and epistemologies -- this came up this morning and seemed a perfect device for illustrating the thesis.

I heard (former) Bishop Lowell Erdahl (late of the Saint Paul Area Synod) interviewed on public radio this morning (I don't know whether it was a local insert or a national feed). He was talking about the ELCA's upset over the same-sex issues. (Funny: No one is talking about the new "worship resource" -- Renewing Worship -- and all the power that the Presiding Bishop wants to centralize over its adoption or over the proposal to go into full fellowship -- including sharing eucharistic fellowship -- with the United Methodist Church. Go figure!) And in the process he made a most revealing statement.

The Bishop, toward the end of the interview, summarized in terms roughly these: "These [i.e., gay] people are just faithful people who want to be accepted into full participation in the Church." And I realized that he had crystallized what I have been trying to say in the past few posts. With all due respect for the Bishop, whom I regard as having doing some very good things, he has fallen into the modernist heresy, too. His statement provides a clear example of what I have been haranguing against in recent days. Here's what I mean.

According to the Bishop, and there was more in his comments to support this claim, we arrive at our own understandings of what it means to be "faithful" and then have the "right" to be accepted in the Church and to exercise that self-defined "faithfulness." So, if I am convinced, for example, that Jesus should not be called "God" or a member of the Holy Trinity, then so long as I am "faithful" to that principle, I should be allowed access to all levels of involvement in the Church. Similarly, if I decide that God MUST love all people and that he wouldn't "make" people in a way he didn't approve, then I must and can and should be loyal to that principle and fight for full "participation" in the Church -- which usually means two things: that I get the Church's formal approval -- read "blessing" -- on me or my preaching or my "lifestyle" and that I be granted admittance to the "hierarchy" -- usually defined as some sort of position of power (maybe because it has too often been used that way).

Now here's where I think the Bishop has it wrong. "Faithful" has, through the Church's history, been defined by the Church -- not by the individual. Yes, Luther said, "Here I stand," but he did so on the basis of a careful reading of Scripture and a very long tradition of patristic and post-patristic exposition and teaching. (Yes, contrary to the views of many Lutherans, Luther knew the Church Fathers -- and maybe Mothers -- and relied on their insights. He did not suggest jumping from Wittenberg to Jerusalem.) With respect to my examples, Councils of the Church have stated finally and authoritatively that "Jesus is Christ is God." In the man Jesus resided the fullness of humanity and the fullness of the Godhead. Consequently, to be faithful, one may and can not deny this and argue differently. By that analysis, virtually all the members of the Jesus Seminar -- including my one-time Bible teacher, Marc Borg -- are heretics. And by the standards of the Church through all times, so far as I can discern (and I acknowledge my limited knowledge of history), one's heresy bars one from participation in the life of the Church -- until one repents of one's sin and confesses the "faith" of the Church. Thus, to be faithful is to acknowledge, to confess, and to obey the teaching of the Church -- in the words of one Father, what the Church has everywhere and at all times believed. (Remind me to unpack that phrase; it can mean different things, and I don't mean to suggest that the Church does not develop or change her teaching.)

In parallel, the Church through her history has taught-- from the earliest times quite expressly -- that faithfulness involves eschewing all same-gender sexual contact. (I was surprised to come on very direct teaching from some of the great Fathers, Chrysostom among them, on precisely this point. It didn't need to be intuited; they said it.) That teaching has not changed through the vast bulk of the Church -- both in terms of years of existence and in terms of the numbers who subscribe it today. It is, then, to beg the entire analysis to say, with Bishop Erdahl, that [gay people in noncelibate, nonchaste same-sex/gender relationships] are "faithful." For by the very analysis of the Church through its entire history, those people, by very definition, NOT faithful.

I raise this only to note the difference in "orientation" (couldn't resist) between the so-called "traditionalists" and the so-called "progressives." The "traditionalists" -- among whom I count those of us who call ourselves "evangelical catholics" and "catholic evangelicals" -- believe that we draw our direction from the Scripture by way of the Great Tradition of the Church. That "Tradition" includes the teachings of the great theologians and spiritual leaders, the dogmatic definitions of the pre-schism Church, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit through humble discernment throughout the entire Church in times since the schism. So for us, "faithful" is a conclusion, not a beginning point.

It seems that the "progressives" look at it the other way around. For them, it seems to me, the definition of "faithful" is drawn out a different way. In some ways, it is a given. And then on that basis, the Church is called to adjust. I think that support for gay-lesbian relationships in the Church grew out of the developing social/secular approbation of those relationships (the sort of post-Stonewall adjustment in culture). Frankly, that is often the way developments begin to take place in the Church. Luther, e.g., was feeling some of the oats of the Renaissance and the access to sources long cloaked in darkness when he began first to exposit and then to translate the Bible. But the point is to decide who or what gets the presumption: Do we presume in favor of the Bible or in favor of culture? For the progressives, it seems, culture trumps. And so people are "faithful" on terms other than what the Church has taught -- in this case, apparently, faithful means wanting to be in the Church and, probably, loving Jesus. (And, of course, that can get us into the same circle where we are now. For how do we know Jesus except through the Church?)

Now, I have stated my thesis baldly and I don't want to be grossly misunderstood. I set matters out starkly in order to try to illustrate what I see as different "hermeneutical" approaches to theology (and ethics). I do not offer these comments as a judgment on gay people. (We are all under judgment for particular reasons and in particular ways, because not one of us fulfills the intention of God for his or her life. That is fundamental Christian teaching.)

I do not think that gay people are any more "faithless" than are the shysters, the crooks, the baalists at Enron, WorldCom, and all the other great example of massive fraud where the leadership paraded its "evangelical Christianity" on their sleeves and Hummers, even as they offered up the fortunes and futures of tens of thousands of employees and investors (not their own, mind you) to the false god, Mammon. In fact, too, the Bible has a more to say about economics than about sex -- and the entire Church catholic is less-than-faithful until it gets that message. Thus, as I have said before in this blog, I don't think sex is the biggest issue in our lives -- though it may be for some of the gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in the Church. I do not mean to utter hate speech, although some who arrive at the same positions I espouse mean precisely that. To them I must say "anathema."

I do not mean to bar gay people -- whether in same-sex relationships or not -- from the eucharist. Were I to do so, I would remain in communion with very few of my closest friends! So please, as you read this, keep in mind that I take no joy, frankly, in writing this. I would much rather come to the other conclusion! But for the reasons I have been trying to state, I can't come down there.

And I do not even mean that the Church can, must, or should ignore sincere, long-standing, monogamous same-sex partnerships. With several, I do not believe it is within the Church's authority to "bless" those partnerships; but we ought to develop ways to support and encourage same-sex partners in the same way we provide social supports to so-called "straight" marriages.

But I think faithfulness, in whatever pathetic minor manifestation we can manage, requires that we humble ourselves before the Church -- Church conceived of through time (diachronic) and all over the globe (synchronic). That means subordinating our lives, our minds, our bodies, our loyalties to her teaching. For it is in the Church that we know salvation. Reinhard Huetter explicates, in Bound to Be Free this recognition which I consider critical to the life and well-being of the Church: "The formation of the biblical canon of Scripture and the emergence of the regula fidei [the rule of faith] and the creeds are reflections from early on of the necessity of the gospel's normative specification." (p. 51) I think that that is what is at stake in the current revels within Lutheranism and other denominations: the gospel's normative specification.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Peter Jennings

File this under "It's my party, and I'll cry in I want."

I feel that I have lost a friend, even though I never met the man and knew only his public persona. But even if it makes me look like a goof, I mourn the death of journalist Peter Jennings, who died Sunday night of lung cancer. He was one of my heroes -- admittedly a clay-footed one. And I think the world was better for his having walked much of it.

Peter (the use of his first name is an affectation, I know) was a Canadian (who was granted dual citizenship in the U.S. a couple of years ago), and he never completely lost his Canadian vowels. That in itself would be a huge reason to love the guy. He was a high-school dropout, who never received his diploma or a baccalaureate degree), but he was one of the most successful autodidacts since Abraham Lincoln. (I have a dear friend who feels that because she didn't go to college she has to be up on everything in order to run in the crowd she does, which includes a lot of university people. Peter Jennings was like that, I understand; he didn't either sense or misuse his masterful intelligence.) He loved kids and frequently did shows that brought kids' points of view into play. Yes, he was divorced from a woman with whom he produced at least one child, and then he took another wife and produced a new family. He was, however, on great terms with his first child. He was the height of grace -- and no one looked better in a tux. And he was a perfectionist -- or nearly so.

I watched the ABC News tribute to him on Monday night. (If there was any world news, I missed most of it. Peter would have hated that.) But it was touching in the extreme -- and rightly so, as my wife noted. (Kathy liked him, too.)

I don't claim that there was significant theological meaning in the life and vocation of Peter Jennings, and that's not really my point -- to canonize him. Still, I think there was something, not unique, but significant about his dedication to his craft, his ability to connect with his audience, to understand the human meaning of world events, and his efforts to tilt his craft toward honesty and the protection of people -- not the cynical misuse of time and authority to sell products or push a political agenda (which is mostly what we see come from "news" outlets). He was one of the greats -- whom I shall miss from the evening news broadcasts, along with John Chancellor, Walter Cronkite (who, praise God is still in good health and still active), Chet Huntley.

Eternal rest grant him, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon him. Amen.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Some more on (homo)sex

That, I have a kind of love-hate relationship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America should be clear to all who have visited this blog. I was born and baptized into a predecessor body. I have seen my "home" traditions merge into larger entities with other Lutheran/ethnic traditions. (Actually, I was baptized into the Iceland branch of American Lutheranism, which eventually was taken into the Lutheran Church in America. I was raised, under-graduate-educated and ordained in the American Lutheran Church. I cheered the formation of the ELCA in small part because my two traditions would now be merged. I am emotionally invested in the existence of the ELCA.)

As a consequence, I hate to see turmoil in my home, just as I hate to see it in my familial home (even though I'm usually the one to cause it -- go figure). But I believe that turmoil roots somewhere -- either in something important (in which case we need to deal with it openly, honestly, and at whatever cost it levies) or in something petty (in which case we tell everyone to shut up). I think the issues of sex are of the former variety (as I said when I began this blog).

Sex is, however, a symptom of a deeper problem. Whether you call it a crisis of authority, or giving in to "culture protestantism" or whatever, the deeper problem needs to be faced squarely and honestly. And by doing so we will no doubt pay some cost.

The underlying problem is this: How do we make a decision about the faith? Do we look to history? Do we go with the current research? Do we do what we feel is good? What place does the Bible have in our discussion? How do we read and interpret the Bible?

I have long sensed that the reason that both "sides" in the homosexuality debates in the ELCA cannot seem to talk together is that they are using two different sets of language. And for my money, you can't carry on a dialogue in two languages when neither side really gets the language of the other side.

Here's an example (see, Rob: I do listen to you). In the previous thread, Melancthon comments

What I've come up with, for today at least, is that for me it [i.e., the question of blessing same-sex unions] isn't really a question of doctrine. It seems to me to be a clear case of doctrine getting in the way of the Gospel, and when that happens, doctrine must yield, at least in practice.

What I mean by this may not be clear because people who are on the opposite sides of these questions from me do not see the doctrine in any way obstructing the Gospel and they see those on my side as making a clear intrusion into something that is obviously in the realm of doctrine. To the extent that this last point is true, I think the people on "my" side are in error.

What I want to say is this, the way that gay and lesbians are actually treated in our Church is an obstruction to the Gospel. Some people (not all) hide behind "the traditional teaching of the Church" to justify their non-acceptance (rejection) of gay and lesbian Christians. This is a problem of practice, not of doctrine.
Now, I don't think that "doctrine" and "Gospel" cannot be understood apart from each other -- not in the Church, anyway. The Gospel has no content, no reality, no "isness" apart from the doctrine which defines that reality. And I think that we often and readily forget that "gospel" is not just whatever makes us feel good; Gospel has hard and fast content -- it is the experience of the presence of Christ, who is not just any old anaesthetic for whatever bothers us, but is the flesh and blood incarnation of God, who in his/God's existence is not just whatever I happen to imagine him/God to be.

Here's a negative illustration: My pastor once preached about the travails he experienced while traveling -- late flights, hot airports, low blood sugar, raging temper, and all the things we all know firsthand. He was, then, impressed when he raced up to the desk at the boarding gate, late and flustered, fearful that he would miss his flight. "And then the ticket agent spoke a word of Gospel to me," he said. "She said, you've got lots of time; go around the corner and get a sandwich."

"She spoke a word of gospel," he said. Wrong! At least, he is wrong if he's using the term in the Church's sense. Because the Gospel tells of and makes present Christ. Yes, I know that giving a cup of cold water is "doing Christ" to the neighbor. But the Gospel is not the water.

Don't get me wrong: It's good to give water. And it's good to calm down raging passengers and give them permission to relax. That's all very fine. But it's not Gospel. How do I know? Doctrine tells me so.

"Gospel" (at least in the peculiarly Christian use of the term) is what makes Christ present to the life and experience of another. The Gospel has content, specific stuff. "Gospel" does not refer or specify anything other than that. "I brought good wine" is really good news; it is not the Gospel. "Christ is Risen" is not good news to a lot of people, but it is gospel -- in fact, it is the very definition of gospel.

But how do I know that? Does "the Bible tell[] me so?" Well, only partly so. The Bible would get and has gotten very confusing for those who read it, but for the doctrinal decisions and definitions of the Church, made over time in light of changed or clarified situations, specifying how to read and interpret the Bible. (Reinhard Huetter makes this point really clear in his book "Bound to Be Free." I may be missing some important elements in explaining this because he has made it so clear there, that it now seems obvious to me.)

So it is that when Melanchthon, here, says that doctrine can get in the way of the Gospel, I may not disagree with him -- if he means what I mean. (Obvious, right?) However, if he means to designate as Gospel something amorphous, unincarnate, dogmatically neutral, (such as wanting to be kind to people whatever their conditions), then I do disagree. Of course, he is absolutely correct if he means "bad doctrine" (read: heresy) can get in the way of the Gospel. That's what the Church Councils saw and why they had to issue edicts, decretals, confessions, anathemas (don't know the plural) -- to set out the proper boundaries to the content of the Gospel. What is important is to designate Gospel, not as an adjective, but as a noun.

The Gospel has content; the crisis the ELCA faces roots in her refusal to call that spade a spade. In her effort to be popular (after all, we must grow congregations, you know) and "nice" and "inclusive" and "uplifting," the ELCA is moving away from what has always been Lutheranism's forte -- a strong sense of biblically grounded theology. Her dive into "culture or liberal protestantism" (about which I'll blog in a week, I think) is well meaning, perhaps, but deadly.

Sex is a symptom of that -- right now the hot-ticket symptom. As I confessed when I began this blog, I don't know why that is, but I don't doubt that it is. It may be that this is the most obvious situation in which two views of the Gospel and of the meaning of authority come head-to-head.

I think that much of the discontent with the sexual debate is the refusal for each side to explain its bottom line. The "traditionalists" or "conservatives" or "catholic evangelicals" (CEs) want to make clear that you don't just take the text of scripture and find passages that justify your position and then go off on your merry dogmatic way. They are, however, often coy about admitting that the upshot of their position is that the Bible is not the final authority for all matters of faith and life. (The Lutherans, of course, have always acknowledged that by requiring their ordinands to swear fealty to the "creeds and the Lutheran confessions." We've been a little lax on the councils, but they are implied.)

Of course, the "progressives" or "liberals" won't admit that for them the Bible isn't the last word either. They look at Bible passages and even compare them to other passages, just as do CEs and biblical critics. But the big difference is the honor paid to the history of the Church. For them, the historic witness of the Church is not determinative or even very important. They are often ready to pitch all of that on the basis of modern "scholarship" or new "paradigms." (I think of all the times I have heard Foucault invoked in discussions of Corinthians, for example -- and usually Foucault is cited as the unquestionable authority in matters of sex. How or why he can be so designated is sort of just taken for granted.)

So the question arises: How are we to make sense of the Faith? What is the Faith? Is it something we make for ourselves? Is it something we swallow, hook-line-and-sinker (such a good Minnesota term)? Are we free to re-interpret the scriptures based on new understandings? If so, what is the basis for that claim. And if so, how are we to determine what new thinkgs apply?

Sincere pro-gay-rights "advocates" I know will always begin with an assertion, not with a biblical text: "God is loving and expects us to be loving, so we have to bless same-sex unions" is how one friend puts it. "I couldn't believe in a God that doesn't accept gay people" is how another puts it. In both cases, support for the position comes from outside the Christian tradition. Sure, God is love; sure God expects us to be loving. But the entire history of the Christian church has denied that that love accommodates same-sex relationship (or at least practice). And it is at that point that the problems between the sides begin.

The Bible speaks of God as love; but the Bible also only speaks of same-sex love in judgmental terms. Jesus, of course, never once mentioned anything about same-sex love. But the Bible also doesn't speak about the Holy Trinity: That was a construct that the Church came up with as a way of making sense of the numerous passages where God seems to have different personae -- talk of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Spirit (of the Father or of the Father and the Son). Well, there is similar evidence (although not from a council of the Church) that same-sex practice was a serious violation of God's intention for the world. (I think Chrysostum preached in absolutely clear terms about it.)

Where does this put us? I'm not sure.

I am sure that the Bible will not settle the matter for us. It is possible, as has been demonstrated innumerable times, to put Bible passages together to justify virtually any position one wants to take. The development of thought obvious over the scope of the Old and New Testaments makes it possible to apply that kind of "trajectory" analysis from the end of the canon to today. (There was that interesting book of Robinson and Koester, Trajectories through Early Christianity, that really got me interested in the whole notion of arcs of development of thought and practice -- most of which I have difficulty applying here.)

When we get honest, we may discover that there is no way we can resolve some issues as a unified church. I rather expect that the issue of homosex is one of those. I don't mean to suggest that it is church-dividing, in the technical sense that one or the other party must pull up stakes and set up its own denomination (don't get me going on those!). But it does mean that regardless of how the ELCA Churchwide Assembly votes on the issues, we will not be a house undivided for a very long time.

I read some reports of the votes last evening at the Assembly. It sounds like the house was in complete disarray: No one seemed to know for sure what the actual issues on the table were or the import of the vote "yes" or "no." I think the use of parliamentary rules will not serve the assembly well. I am not sanguine that this will be a very healthy synod.

And it is because neither side will 'fess us and acknowledge the issues at stake.