Monday, September 18, 2006

Why did he say it?

I'll say it out loud: I love this Pope. I have long had enormous respect for his intellect, his literacy, his lyrical writing (or, perhaps. that of his translators). And I expect good things on the ecumenical front from him.

That's why I am stunned and confounded by the furor he created with his remarks in the "Aula Magna" of the University of Regensburg. What on earth was the point of his scandalous repeat of a scurrilous claim by a fourteenth-century Byzantine emperor to the effect that nothing good came from Mohammed? Oh, I recognize that somewhere in there is his desire to discountenance "forced conversion" or "spreading the faith through violence" (Benedict's words) because it is "unreasonable." But why the quote? Why this most inflammatory quote? Why this quote that does injustice to the good that has been fostered by and under Muslim rule in various lands?

He knew what he was doing: Benedict is way too smart to include something this harsh "by accident." And he must have known that it would cause incredible offense -- and, I add, not just to Muslims, because it is slanderous. And if it is, as he has suggested in his follow-up statements and semi-apology, a surprise that anyone would take take personal umbrage from his remarks in the context of an academic lecture, then I am forced to wonder whether he is way too naive to serve as the voice and spiritual head of a huge block of Christians.

And I think his advisers (and here I am, advising the Pope's legions!) had better look to the effects of his example. Already, the Catholic blogs -- including the Pontificator's usually admirable blog -- are filling with vile anti-Muslim and anti-Arab vituperation. Here's a sample from a response to one blog that echoed the ancient emperor's claim that Muslims have contributed anything to society:

Well, as a (formerly) non-extremist Catholic I can honestly tell you, the
over-reaction to the Pope's WORDS, following on from the treatment of that
Danish cartoonist, has left me feeling extremely hostile toward Muslims
everywhere and hoping that my church rises up to use it's far superior firepower
to wipe this ugly blemish of a religion from the face of the planet! Yes, that's
right, I, a non-hostile Catholic, has become so angered by these animals that I
now hope they DO bring their f***ing Jihad here and get wiped out once and for
all by my God-fearing, peaceful church.

(This was copied directly from the blog; the errors in grammar are original and the cute stars are, too.) Lamentably, Pontificator linked to the originial blog that inspired this reaction (the point of which was to agree with the orginal post), and that's how I came to read it.

I have heard (thanks to Vatican commentators in print and on TV) that this pope does not favor interreligious dialogue. I have no idea what that means. And I know that he intends to distinguish his approach vis-a-vis Islam from his predecessor's (which, apparently, he considered too lenient). And I can understand the need for honest confrontation with the thorny issues involving the interweaving of Koran and terrorism. (I think, too, that there is plenty of room for self-examination on the same issue regarding the Bible. There's a certain matter of Crusades, for example.)

But none of that requires or justifies the insertion into an otherwise rather rational paper (I think he'd appreciate the pun there) of a gratutitous and alarmingly simplistic (that is to say, unreasonable) slam against an enormously popular religion.

I hope someone can help me to see the reason -- which the Pope was touting in his lecture -- in all of this!

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Desire for Unity in the Church

Brother Pontificator (thanks to him, once again) put me on to this talk given by Fr. Thomas Hopko, late of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary. In the article Hopko, addressed a Roman Catholic (RC) society that seeks to foster dialogue between RCs and eastern-rite (presumably RC and Orthodox?) members. In the talk, Hopko makes what is for me the single most important statement about what is at issue in on-going theological/ecumenical dialogues. To quote him:

... [M]y opinion is that what is really required of the Orthodox most of all
above everything, is a real desire for unity…to want to be one, to suffer over
the division, to weep over it, to carry it around like a sword in your soul that
we who claim Christ and praise God in Christ (especially in this world which is
getting less and less Christian as the clock ticks), that Christians would be
He goes on to suggest, to lament that the Orthodox do not even feel that about disunity within the orbit of Orthodoxy -- let alone about the wider disunity of the Church. He accuses his own tradition, then, of not wanting unity.

And I think that that is true of all traditions. We have grown so hard-hearted with respect to the "unity" of the Church that we are perfectly content to pray for unity and do not one thing to try to achieve that or to allow the Spirit to do her work and get it done. (Yes, I do believe that we can impede the work of God in this world, which is why I take comfort in His eschatological promises).

What Hopko lays on Orthodoxy is true in spades of Lutheranism. (I could rant on, too, about its truth in Roman Catholicism -- I have, in fact, characterized its ecumenical posture as "Y'all can come on back to us anyday. But I'll stick to throwing stones in my own yard today.) We Lutherans positively relish in our "truth," in our "fullness," in our theological integrity. And we resist any effort to suggest that the unity of the Church is a big issue -- that to have the Body of Christ chopped up is a scandal of huge proportions. Oh, we cite the "satis est" of CA 7 (older translation: "... it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments. Nor is it necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere alike.") and see therein confirmation of our posture to stand firm since we (perhaps we alone) have the truth.

I did a little acting in college and one of the roles I really enjoyed was that of Johann von Staupitz in John Osborne's very Ericsonian play, Luther. (Without too much background, but based on some things I have read -- especially from David Steinmetz -- I'm inclined to think that the portrayal of von Staupitz was pretty accurate, even though the picture of Luther was way inaccurate,) As von Staupitz, I was charged with urging Luther "don't think that you -- only you -- are right." That's good counsel to us who follow in Luther's steps (supposedly) and bear his name.

Hopko rightly asserts that to pray for the unity of the Church and do nothing is blasphemous. That may be semi-Pelagian (as I guess Orthodox are allowed), but it's still correct.

I am increasingly convinced that the "unity" of the Church does not, pace CA7, depend on an institutional reunion. I think a kind of "communion of communions" is probably the way we ought to think. But we may not, even in such thinking, give up on the strenuous and often disheartening work of re-establing the One Communion among Christ's people.

In that spirit, Hopko invites us all to examine our consciences and the practices of our individual traditions.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

"Jesus Died for You"

Nothing highlights my theological naivete and incompetence better than intramural Lutheran disagreements. But I'm going out on another limb today.

At the urging of a dear friend, I have been reading (and in some cases, re-reading) Gerhard Foerde, late professor of theology at Luther Seminary and one of the most consistent and persistent exponents of a view of Lutheran theology that I find problematic. (Foerde's name should be spelled with that Norwegian vowel that is an "o" with a slash through it, but I don't know how to transliterate that. In my experience, most publishers simply print it as an "o," but the Norwegian in me takes umbrage at that. So I've done my best by using the convention for a German o-umlaut.) Now I have already admitted that I think there is much of value in Foerde's thought, but I am troubled by a insistent lack of room for "sanctification" or "growth in grace." It seems to me that his writing portrays the life of faith as a kind of Sisyphean circle of sin-forgiveness-sin-forgiveness, always returning to point "O" every day. But my friend (dare I name you, Paul?) insists both that I am being somewhat unfair and that there is, nevertheless, every reason for seeing things precisely that way (although he has denied my charge that Foerde runs close to antinomianism -- which is a very un-Lutheran path to trod).

Comes this sermon that I read last night: "Jesus Died for You" from the collection of Foerde's writings, A More Radical Gospel: Essays on Eschatology, Authority, Atonement, and Ecumenism, edited by Mark Mattes and Steve Paulson. I read the sermon because it's short and I thought that, because it's a sermon, it might give me insights that I miss from the more academic stuff I've read. Well, it gave me an insight all right, but not one that I am at all comfortable with.

Let me quote: "Jesus died for you. This is all he really did in the days of his flesh that is truly for you. He died. He refused to do anything else. ... So his mission was -- finally -- to die. And it was -- for you."

Surely, I immediately thought, that is not right! Oh, I have no problem with "and it was -- for you." Pro nobis, pro me -- what Christian thinker will deny that? But is it true that all the earthly Jesus (and there was no other Jesus, it seems to me -- although I'm wrestling with how to fit the human-Jesus into the Trinity after the Ascension) did that ultimately matters is to die?

Even if you give it the spin I did in the previous sentence, it's still all wrong, it seems to me. While the shadow of the cross lands across the manger, the birth of Jesus was "for you," too. The teaching, and healing, and exorcising, and excoriating, and eating with outcasts and sinners, and making wine, and forgiving sins was also "for you." And all of that is of a piece with his dying. The face of God shone forth in all of his life -- not just in his death. Oh, we cannot overstate the importance of the death, but we cannot divorce that death from the rest of his life -- any more than we can overlook that his death was ultimately meaningless without the Resurrection. (Foerde also seems to suggest in the sermon that the meaning of the Resurrection was simply to put the imprimatur on the death -- not on the man and the life!)

Lamentably, I think later paragraphs of the sermon highlight that he can't make his claim stick. He implicitly acknowledges that the death of Christ was perhaps an inevitable outcome of his life and living. "He dies. That is all he can do in the end." And that isn't nearly so problematic as the dogmatic statement at the beginning of the sermon.

Foerde concludes this way: "... So now, he alone gives us life, life triumphant over the law, sin, and death that threatens [sic] always to consume us. Jesus died to give us this gift. Jesus died for you."

But did not he also live to precisely that point? And if that "life triumphant" is a reality, does it not begin in the world where we live? Isn't it more than some airy dream "in the sweet by-and-by"?

I'm tempted to raise the question asked of me by my favorite skeptical interrogator while I was a pastor: "But of what earthly good is this Jesus?" On what seems to me to be a similar line (and I don't mean to be utilitarian): Why do the Gospels spend so much time on Jesus' life, if all that matters was his death? And similarly, doesn't this give credence to the claim that for Lutherans, what really matters is the crucifixion -- with the Resurrection as a kind of add-on?

Sorry, dear one, but I'm not convinced yet!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

A Literary Interlude

In anticipation of discussing the work with my fiction book group, I have finished my third or fourth reading of Robertson Davies’ masterful Fifth Business, the first novel in his “Deptford Trilogy.” (I am terribly conflicted about whether Wendell Berry or Robertson Davies, among the people I read regularly gives me the greatest joy. But perhaps I don’t have to choose.) I expect to have some more things to say about it, but this weekend as I was reveling in the story, my eye and mind were drawn to one particular passage that I have failed to pay much attention to. I think that oversight indicates some really sloppy reading on my part, because I think the paragraph I cite below highlights and focuses one of the major themes of the book. But I don’t want to say more than that now.

The speaker, Padre Blazon, is an ancient Jesuit priest who is a member of the Bollandist Society. (This is a real-life group that is dedicated to the collection of virtually everything there is on saints. The main character of Davies’ novel, Dunstan Ramsay, is a boarding-school teacher whose (a)vocation is research into saints, and so it is only natural that he should eventually be attracted to the Bollandists.) Padre Blazon charges himself with imparting some aspects of wisdom to the younger Ramsay (“Ramezay,” as he calls him). And below is one paragraph of his instruction.

Somewhat defensively, I suppose, I acknowledge up front that Davies is not a theologian (which makes him even more fun to read); that, in fact, Davies threw out much of the baby with the bathwater when he rejected the sour Calvinism of his youth; and that some of my own enthusiasm for the quote is that is comes from a character that Davies paints in a way as vivid and bright as Shakespeare paints Falstaff. (Having studied with Father Godfrey Diekmann, of blessed memory, at St. John’s Abbey and University, I rather hopefully picture that Godfrey might have been a little like Padre Blazon, had Godfrey lived well into his 100s.)

I’d be curious to hear/see what you make of it. I hope and think the paragraph makes sense on its own, cut from its context.

Thus Padre Blazon:

My own idea is that when He [i.e., Jesus Christ] comes again it will be to
continue his ministry as an old man. I am an old man and my life has been spent
as a soldier of Christ, and I tell you that the older I grow the less Christ’s teaching says to me. I am sometimes very conscious that I am following the path of a leader who dies when He was less than half as old as I am now. I see and feel things He never saw or felt. I know things He seems never to have known. Everybody wants a Christ for himself and those who think like him. Very well, am I at fault for wanting a Christ who will show me how to be an old man? All Christ’s teaching is put forward with the dogmatism, the certainty, and the strength of youth: I need something that takes account of the accretion of experience, the sense of paradox and ambiguity that comes with years! I think after forty we should recognize Christ politely, but turn for our comfort and guidance to God the Father, who knows the good and evil of life, and to the Holy Ghost, who possesses a wisdom beyond that of the incarnated Christ. After all, we worship a Trinity, of which Christ is but one Person. I think when He comes again it will be to declare the unity of the life of the flesh and the life of
the spirit. And then perhaps we shall make some sense of this life of marvels,
cruel circumstances, obscenities, and commonplaces. Who can tell? – we might
even make it bearable for everybody.

Although I didn't intend to add this, I can't resist one more paragraph. Later in the novel, Ramsay looks up Padre Blazon, who is in a kind of hospice, cared for by some nuns. At their parting, Ramsay asks his friend whether he has found a God to teach him how to be old (confessing that he himself had not yet done so). Padre Blazon responds with his old insouciance,

Yes, yes, I have found Him, and He is the very best of company. Very calm, very quiet, but gloriously alive: we DO, but He IS. Not in the least a proselytizer or a careerist. like His sons.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Lutheran Ecclesiology -- Part 1

I intend a couple of posts that will pick up on my earlier post, "Theological Exegesis: Part I," in which I tried to argue that the Bible is the Church's book. In order to make some sense of that for myself, I've had to look at my problems with the assertion. It makes perfect sense to me on an intellectual level, but I've discovered some inner-hidden-deeper-secret discomfort with it. And after some reflection I realize that it's not all my fault: I'm a Lutheran, and we don't have much of a base for dealing with "the Church" in any concrete way.

That realization intersects with my other complaint about the Lutheran tradition -- viz., that we don't really have a good way to talk about living out the life of faith in ways consistent with God's will. Here, the problems are two-fold: First, as I suggest above, we have a heritage built on an inadequate ecclesiology. Second, we have an almost rabid fear of calls to "holiness." It has become clear to me over the last few months just how interdependent these two weaknesses are.

I propose to vent a little on both of these issues, my venting's being prompted by my reading L. Gregory Jones' book Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis (Eerdmans, 1995). In that book, Jones convinces me that he speaks the truth. In fact, of course, I have long held the main principles he advances. But he does so in an almost systematic way that lays out the logic in a pleasing way. In addition, some nosing around in Liberation Theology has my mind swirling -- as does a quite challenging book barchbishop-future Archbiship of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (Pilgrim Press, 1984).

First, let's talk about the Church. Then, when work permits me some time to think, I'll pick up holiness. (That sentence is a study in potential misreading.) And then I'll try to pin the two together. Ultimately, I hope that this line of writing will help me to spell out some issues I have with "salvation." But we'll have to see whether I can get more specific than that!

The official documents of Lutheran identity, the "Lutheran Confessions" contained in the Book of Concord, say very little about the Church. Oh, with the creed, we confess that there is a Church and that she has been summoned into existence by God and that she is something of some importance and that for one "ecclesial body" (to use a modern term) to recognize another as "church," it is sufficient that the preaching be orthodox Gospel and that the celebration of sacraments be a faithful witness to (or a visible acting out of) the Gospel.

But while we Lutherans claim that "The Church" exists and we seem to claim that we know it when we see it, we never have set out just what that "thing" called "church" is. Oh, we sort of joke about Jesus' promise (taken, in my view, out of context) that "whenever two or three are gathered, there am I in the midst of them." (The context deals with discipline, not a worshipping disciple community, doesn't it?) And we play with the "metaphors" -- e.g., the Church as the "Body of Christ." (Not all of us believe that that is a metaphor, incidentally, in case you haven't picked it up!) And at least some of us will talk about her characteristics -- e.g., the Church's "synchronic" and "diachronic" character. And finally, some of us (lamentably, some of them have now gone to other churchly traditions) have wrestled with the so-called "marks of the Church." (There's a good CCET book available from Eerdmans on that.) But on a day-to-day basis, the identity and even existence of "the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church" make very little practical difference for most Lutherans.

Now I know next to nothing about history and even less about the history of Reformation theology. But I suspect that the reason that the confessions donÂ' make more of the Church is that there wasn't much to perorate about: The Reformers pretty much agreed with the Romans, or at least operated within the same thought sphere, about the nature and mission of the Church, and so they spilled little ink on that. They spent their time and resources on the disputed questions. Oh, that indulgence thing was an obvious insult to the nature of the Church and the Gospel she is intended to announce. (I'm going to get my friend Jim to recount the later Lutheran practice, however, of selling absolution.) Then, those nasty little Anabaptists and Schwaermerei caused some problems from within the ranks of the Reformation, and that required the mainstream Reformers to draw some lines (not always in such pretty tones, I'm afraid -- and not always fairly, either). But, again, those lines were inspired by challenge to the taken-for-grantedness of an understanding of the Church. Over all, there was disagreement over how to live in the Church and what to say about that living, not over the fact or nature or divine institution of the Church. (Just check out the placement of articles dealing with the Church in the Confessio Augustana: You'll see how early they are dealt with -- a clear indication that there was not much disagreement there. It's only abuses that get the ink later on in the confession.)

But that got us Lutherans into trouble when we had to come to grips with a world in which "Church" could not be taken for granted. Especially since the Enlightenment, with its meteoric elevation of the "individual" over against the collective, the nature of the "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic" has become a major problem. And Lutherans, who look first to the Confessions (well, the good Lutherans do, I suppose, anyway) to find counsel (at least when the Bible seems unclear -- although there are those who look to the Confessions to figure out precisely what the Bible means), could find nothing to help. So with typically fallacious reasoning, they decided that the issue was not all that critical. It's a kind of odd argument from silence.

We Lutherans -- and other Protestants, I think -- tend to do that. We did that with the mass, too: We overlook or ignore the fact that the reason Luther and his heirs didn't carry on constantly about the centrality of the mass in Christian life is that that wasn't in issue; it was abuses relating to what happened and how it happened that required attention. We have come to the conclusion, to the contrary of Reformers' intent, however, that what matters is preaching and singing; the mass itself is sort of a nice exercise in historical memory. I know of a major so-called "Lutheran" congregation in the Twin Cities where the eucharist is celebrated as a congregation once or twice a year -- and one of those events is Good Friday. If one "feels the need" for it more frequently, I guess you can go to a chapel for an after-the-fact add-on. It was like that when I worshipped at Duke University this spring, too: communion was an additional service after the "main service" -- which in that case, irony of ironies, included baptism and confirmation! (There, the new dean of the chapel is an Anglican, so perhaps he'll bring some sense to the project. But the chapel is Methodist, and so, even though the Methodist statement on the means of grace is remarkably clear and orthodox, the sacramental practices look to be on the loose side. Thus, I won't hold my breath.)

Back the to point: If Lutherans followed our own claims, we would look first to Scripture -- and as I have indicated earlier on this blog, that would mean reading the Bible with the eyes, ears, and commitments of the Church through history, not as a literary document that can be deconstructed in 21st century style, using "modern" philosophical inquiry as the critical apparatus to learn about the Church. And we would learn that "Church" (or in other synonyms, "the body," fellowship, community) is central to what it means to Christian. Looking at Corinthians, for example, highlights that the Christians there were not being Christian because they were broken up into little cliques. In the Ephesians segment for a recent Sunday (13 August) liturgy reminded the Ephesians that they were "one with each other." And deeper study reveals that the Church (oh, how like Hauerwas and Willimon this will sound) of Biblical times was its own culture -- not merely a convenient gathering of like-minded people, but an organism (to uses Paul's image, a "body").

Paul claims that failure to discern "the body" during the eucharist is a step toward eating and drinking damnation unto oneself. And I think that that's the situation we're in now. We Lutherans (especially of the Norwegian stripe in which I was raised) get all uptight about challenges to our congregationalism; we have little respect for and no little suspicion of a wider definition of "church." Lutherans more generally may acknowledge some wider reality than the congregation, but its title will be prefaced with the adjective "Lutheran." But, in defense of my fellows in the faith, we Lutherans are not alone: Roman Catholics, for example, will argue that they are the true church to which the other traditions may return at any time -- but in the meantime those traditions are of questionable merit. (Yes: I am accusing Roman Catholics in general, with their long and detailed history of ecclesiological study, of having an inadequate ecclesiology, too. That's one of the reasons that I both lament and question the recent rush to Rome by some of America's brightest Lutheran minds.)

Until we correct our ecclesiology -- repent and believe the Gospel as it applies to the Church -- we will have no success in developing a "theological exegesis" or gaining insight in to "holy living" or, in the final analysis, professing Christ faithfully. And I am not all that hopeful -- except that the Gospel requires me to hope. Thus, even though the new ELCA "worship resource" (with its TEN settings -- or supposed settings -- of the mass) is designed to sell to a pluralistic culture, so that every congregation can develop its own "style" and "sing with its own voice" (comments I've heard about the book), I remain skeptically -- even desperately -- hope-filled that the Spirit will not allow that further to diminish the low ecclesiology of the ELCA.

Part 2 awaits, but for today I fear I've made another long diatribe. I hope that doesn't prevent someone from clarifying what I'm trying to say or taking issue with what I do manage to get out.