Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Mea culpa -- now edited to reverse a mistake

Thank you to those of you good friends who check back for my ramblings. I have not been loyal to the blog, even though I have about 60 posts running in my head. The fact is that I have been busy: I have taken a short-term second job as a contract lawyer, and my time is filled with that work (not to mention the interminable demands for chauffering raised by my 14-year-old daugher!). In addition, my laptop died (again?) so that my time to ruminate online is restricted by the need to share the two remaining laptops in our home. (I'm hoping against hope that mine can be revived -- especially since we're now a wireless household and I can take the thing into the backyard and putz on it while enjoying nature's splendor.)

I'm in process of reading Cross Examinations: Readings on the Meaning of the Cross Today, edited by Marit Trelstad (who teaches at PLU). Much of the first section of the book deals with feminist/womanist critiques of "the cross". Now I'm not sure what they mean by "the cross" -- keeping in mind Juergen Moltmann's observation, "At the beginning of Christianity there are two crosses: One is a real cross, the other a symbol." The feminist/womanist scholars (and I'm only slowly getting a handle on the term "womanist") object that the cross has been used to justify a kind of passivity in the face of suffering that has led women to accept abuse, marginalization, low self-esteem, and the rest of the gamut of well-known issues.

Reading some of the essays raises for me the age-old (and utterly contemporary) question of the place of experience in theology. I have raised the ire of many of my friends who are women by suggesting -- no, insisting -- that God's name "Father" is non-negotiable. Despite the bad things that "fathers" have done, that experience in no way changes the biblical witness (a) that Jesus said to call on God as "Father," thus establishing "Father" as a name and not as a metaphor, and (b) that fathers are to be evaluated by the standards of love and benevolence of the Heavenly Father and not the other way around. Most of the feminists I read in the Trelstad book operate from a rather standard epistemology that posits experience first and doctrine second. That means that I develop doctrine -- and I argue, twist the biblical narrative -- to fit my experience. (Please be aware that I don't claim that approach is unique to feminists of any age: It has been a rather stock approach to the treatment of theology throughout the life of the Church. On a less significant level, Constantine finally gives the church legitimacy in the Empire and so the leaders of the Church -- which has a more concrete structure than it had before -- start dressing like leaders of the Empire. Of course, they also began to adopt more and more of the "leadership" mentality -- a development not unproblematic in our own time!)

In response, I want briefly to sound one tone, which I hope to meditate on more systematically over time. I was brought to this insight by my friend, C, who has flown the Lutheran coop -- something she thought she'd never do. (We'd discussed this in the past: Her husband and children are Orthodox, but she couldn't leave "Bach" behind. Well, she discovered that her misgivings were promptings of the Spirit. So after an appopriate period of discernment, she was christmated and is NOW -- a previous oversight had this read: "not" and that is most certainly not the case; she is as happy as clam there -- happily ensconced in the congregation that is the proud guardian of the icon I reference in my previous post.)

C has helped to see that "submission" is of the essence of Christian faith. Before anything else, the call of the Gospel is "Submit to God." From what I can tell, all of Lutheran theology has been aptly summarized by the phrase, "Let God be God!" (Thank you, Watson.) In fact, all of theology gets at that call. What got Adam and Eve in trouble? It was the failure to live securely in life given them by God. They felt the need for self-assertion; it overruled the very clear mandate from the Creator to submit to his rule and avoid the one -- only one -- tree. "Repent and believe the Gospel" is a call to submit to the judgment of God. It happens to be a gracious, forgiving, reconciling judgment. But the only way to appropriate that judgment is to submit to the jurisdiction of the Heavenly Judge. (See how I work my legal and theological training together.)

What does it mean to submit or to be submissive? I think that's an important question. I've raised it here in one or another context -- e.g., arguing that gay people must submit their own senses of justice and vocation to the discernment of the Church, which functions by virtue of the Holy Spirit, while praying for a more acute perception by the Church on the issue of same-sex relationships. But it is more than a question; it is a fundamental approach to the life of faith.

I hope to continue to talk things over with C because she has given me the "watchword" by which I can summarize my view of faith: submission. We will discover, I think, that to be submissive is not necessarily to be meek, passive, wallflower-ish, "non-agential" (to quote the nasty neologism formulated by the womanist scholars). But it is to acknowledge that one's will or one's experience or one's desires or one's "agency" is not the determining factor around which Christian faith revolves. The priority of the will of God is the sine qua non of Christian faith. Fortunately for us, that will is a benevolent, saving, reconciling, strengthening, upholding will. That's what makes the Gospel "good news."

In a future post, I intend to deal with Paul Althaus' The Divine Command (from 1966 -- a classic!) in which he distinguishes between God's command and "law" (in what he argues is the Lutheran sense of the term). Thus, the Ten Commandments are not "law" in the Lutheran sense (in fact, I have also learned from another source that Luther never once referred to the Commandments as "law"); instead they are the expression of God's intent for the Creation to which all creatures are called and from which no creatures are released. By my reading (and as I have claimed in talks I've given on the Ten Commandments -- delivered before I read Althaus), the Ten Commandments are a distillation of the will of God according to which we are summoned to live in freedom. In other words, they are indications of how to live the saved life we are offered. The life of faith is submission, inter alia, to life according to the commandments. But more on the Althaus later.

For now, I shall try to pay closer attention to this enterprise and to respond to any comments you make. I'll offer more on the meaning of submission (and on both the Trelstad collection and the Althaus monograph). Give me feedback.

Peace to you.

I SHALL NOT DIE, for I am within the Life. I have the whole of life springing up as a fountain within me. -- St. Symeon the New Theologian.


Chip Frontz said...

This faithful blog-checker is pleased with the renewed commitment - and also with the direction it's taking. Blessings.

A little grist for the mill - Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who I know we both respect and admire, would say about the same thing about submission and obedience to God. Yet no one could have ever accused him of being submissive to the powers of the world. If a preacher who preached "simple obedience" did not thereby encourage his fellow Germans to aid and abet injustice, then the entire accusation falls over on its own accord.

Dwight P. said...

Thanks for your comments, Chip. I think the point you make about Bonhoeffer is exactly the one to make. For him -- and by my account, for us -- the critical question is "To whom or what will we submit." Submission is not fatalism, which is a latent heresy deep in the heart of many Christians. In submission to the will, or grace, or call, or whatever of God, we may very well have to stand up to others who demand our submission -- an unruly government, an abusive spouse, a feckless immaturity, an inhuman economic ideology-in-practice.

A danger in our shared Lutheran heritage is the so-called "Two Kingdom" theology. It can too easily allow a kind of dual submission, with not much hope of trumping the one with submission to God. I think that was a piece of the mess made by the German State Church leaders (although I fully grant that their sinfulness was much more complex than that).

Complicating the issue is an easy slide into individualism: I am on my own in discerning the Word to which I must submit. I am free, then, to set my own standards, approaches, values, and the like. That is the danger of Lutheranism's weak ecclesiology. Unless the Church has some vital reality -- a "res" as we say in law -- then there is little, other than voluntarism, to commend me to the counsel of others.

Both of these issues rear their heads in the essays I was mulling over at the beginning of the post. Is it my experience through which I filter -- and adjust -- the Word of God? (I would argue that it's the other way around, and I shall have to set that out more systematically.) Does the "organized Church" (both an oxymoron and redundancy, if you think about it) have any authority over me and my decisionmaking? (I would argue that that is my primary reference point in this world, for there is no other "guaranteed" place to meet the Lord and run face-to-face to his ministrations. I think I've been pretty strong on the Church already, but there's more to come.)

Camassia said...

Does the book include anything by Sarah Coakley? I haven't read her, but I remember Jennifer blogging about a book of hers called Powers and Submissions that sounded like it was about exactly this topic.

Brian said...

Dwight... as usual I think you are right on. And given a recent experience I have had to dialogue in an interfaith setting, the Islamic notion of submission can be helpful here. Submission is solely to God... as Christians, particularly in America, we have lost this notion of submission or obedience, because we talk more often about things like liberty or freedom, and think then (wrongly) that submission is diametrically opposed to freedom. Instead when walking in the way God desires is the true path to freedom... of course one must be very careful not to twist notions of freedom and submission.

Then we can pray the first psalm and truly declare our delight is in the law of the Lord. Or we can rightly read the decalogue explanations in Luther's Small Catechism and see that Luther's explanations give both the negative (don't do x) while also providing a positive sense for true life to grow (but also do y).

In talking about submission, I also think there are incredible Barthian resonances in the revelation of God's Word.

And finally the Two Kingdoms language that has been used to characterize Lutheran political thought is really a misread of Luther (at least that's what I was taught). It is more appropriate to understand Luther's thought as centered on the three estates: family, civil authorities, church. But that is a bigger topic to broach than space here would allow I think.


Anonymous said...

"...but she couldn't leave "Bach" behind."

This is true enough. But for the record, as it turns out, Bach was only a symptom of a much larger condition.
Ultimately, my conversion (I'm not so sure I like that word, but it is what it is) came as a result of asking myself the question, "who am I?"

However, I might take issue with Brian's comment: "Submission is solely to God..." I think submission - at least as the concept has been introduced to me - is a bit broader than that. Submission to God is a good and safe place to start, though.


*Christopher said...

The problem with your approach Dwight is submission to God is often conflated with those in charge, and that can be deadly. As a gay man, I know to well the destructive side of Church life and blind submission has nearly led to my leaving Christianity all together. Your approach easily leads to an authoritiarianism that can be reified as God. Bonhoeffer's submission was in rebuke to most Church authority and the Church as a whole of his time and until that tension is placed alongside his recognition of authority, I will continue to distrust those who call for submission but themselves often come across as unsubmitted in their lording it over folks like myself.

*Christopher said...

I also addressed this here from a point of view that deals with the reality that not only my experience, but your experience interpret dogma as well and you may not recognize that your tendency toward authoritarianism because it justifies yourself in your being in general. Dogma itself arises from the ongoing life of experiencing God in the Christian community and cannot be so easily untangled. In other words, feminists and womanists have a point in raising the question of experience.

*Christopher said...

Which is to say that in your understanding there doesn't come across much of a sense that the Church could be under judgment in its treatment of gay Christians everybit as much as gay experience is need of testing.

Bag Lady said...

I’m singling out a couple of your phrases, and I know I might be missing your intent by isolating them outside your context, but here goes:

“…(a) that Jesus said to call on God as ‘Father,’ thus establishing ‘Father’ as a name and not as a metaphor…”

“…a rather standard epistemology [] posits experience first and doctrine second. That means that I develop doctrine -- and I argue, twist the biblical narrative -- to fit my experience.…”

The Bible says that Jesus said to call on God as “Father,” but aren’t there at least two other possible explanations for that becoming the doctrine’s terminology? 1) Jesus’ life experience as a Jew already handed to him the idea of God as more masculine than feminine; and/or 2) during the time over which the New Testament was written (never mind how far after the events took place) and the canon settled upon, again Jesus’ followers’ experience was that of a masculine (patriarchal) society, which by then had stepped back from the practice of women leaders in the earliest Church.

Wasn’t that using experience to develop doctrine?

Is it possible that the biblical narrative and resulting doctrine were heavily influenced by the experiences of the writers, editors and those who determined the canon?

In raising those questions, I’m not denying the necessity of submission, but if I protest submitting to something that could very well have developed in just the manner you decry—or go so far as to base my understanding of doctrine on my experiences, am I not following the original process of the overwhelmingly male, royal Church as it developed doctrine? (The “I” could easily be substituted with “we” when this process occurs in community, which seems to be the other requirement so as not to be categorized as an individualist.)

Dwight P. said...

Gosh, I've tried to respond about four times, now, and the response ends up pages long. So I'll have to do another posting, where I can justify the length.

Let me say a couple of things. First, Christopher, I have no where denied the pain and frustration that you and other gay people have had as a result of the perversion of a faithful understanding of discipleship into a power tool. Gay people are not the only ones who have experienced that, either. And that's wrong. I hope that is a clear enough statement to make my point: Submission is to God's will, not to man's ways (and way too often they have been "men's" not human's ways -- though I have to say that contemporary business studies show that women can be as Machiavellian as men, so maybe I should say "human's" ways).

The Church is ever in need of reformation because she is embodied, just as are we, and she partakes of the sinful with her saintliness, just as do we. But even in her mixedness, she is not our toy to refashion or remodel as we like. As the Body of Christ in the world -- and we as parts thereof -- we must approach our criticism (not matter how strongly enforced by our own experience) with humility, with openness, with love, with awe. And that's what I don't see in a lot of the movements to "remake" or "reimagine" the Church in our time. And that's what I argue for.

One of the implications, Bag Lady, of the Church's being embodied is that she is a cultural phenomenon. Language, attitudes, horizons, limits -- these and more are apt to change from age to age, and with them will change the Church's life. And so we can never rest on a kind of rigidity in which "the Truth" is nailed down in word and practice for all times and places. (One easy example: The King James Version of the Bible is no longer appropriate for use in the average home, because the average reader no longer understands either the vocabulary or the grammatical structure of Jacobian English. Oh, we English majors delight in the beauty of the "old prose," but how many of us know or remember that "prevent" meant to "go before"? So when the Psalmist arises and "prevents" the dawn, he's not applying some super-human power, he's simply getting up early.)

But again, the issue is, I guess, attitude. Will we approach the text of the Scriptures, the historical dogmatic utterances of Mater Ecclesia, the humanly-frail churchly structures of our day with a hermeneutic of suspicion or will we do so, privileging what has flowed down and allowing that to guide our reflection, our analysis, and even our criticism?

Brian, I want to talk about your stuff, but I'll take that on later, too.

Bag Lady said...

A phenomenon I've long noted -- not only in church -- is discomfort that seems to motivate a lot of Church re-making. More difficult is that this discomfort can masquerade as conscience.

Obedience and submission are necessary in order to see (or maybe feel) past the discomfort, before immediately assuming my discomfort must be eased by changing whatever triggers it.

If I humble myself to allow change to occur in myself, I would pray that I'm submitting to something that transcends the milieu in which it developed. Any rules that are specific about gender (for example) are rather suspect, for cultures change. It seems we too easily limit God to the culture that existed during revelation of His nature.

Anonymous said...

"I would pray that I'm submitting to something that transcends the milieu in which it developed."

I agree. This is where faith comes in. In what do we put our trust?

"It seems we too easily limit God to the culture that existed during revelation of His nature."

OR, we too easily try to manipulate God to fit into the culture in which we currently fnd ourselves.


jrpm said...

I think your reflections on the place of experience in the discipline of theology and upon our human resistance to submission are appropriately placed. However, I am aware that I have different reasons than the arguments you cite for my own concerns about the masculine references to God. I believe that I am rooted in the tradition in ways that retain theological integrity, though I am open to further conversation about this – and I’m picking up on some themes that Bag Lady has already mentioned.

At this point in my life, I am also unwilling to give up the “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” as the name of God. I am most aware of the tradition that has grown around it, focusing on predominantly male language and more “traditionally masculine” articulations of God’s character and relationship with humanity. I do not hold anyone to blame for this. I believe that when the God of Israel revealed Godself to the Hebrews, they articulated their understandings and engagements with God as they best understood them. This tended to focus on language of sovereignty and power and automatically reverted to male pronouns, despite the fact that God made man AND woman in God’s image (Gen 1:27). When the God of Israel was made human, to be the Jewish Messiah, that could only happen in the form of a man. And it only makes sense that Jesus’ relationship with the divine person who sent him would be that of Son to Father, since Jesus literally had a human mother.

After centuries and centuries of men as the dominant voices in interpreting (teaching and preaching) the revelation from God in ways that were patriarchally-marked from the very beginning of interpretation, I think that the church has not explored imagery used to describe God that would be considered more “feminine” or would connect more vividly to areas of life that have been traditionally in the women’s realm. My hope is that the orthodox Christian tradition, both men and women in it, would be intentional about expanding some of the scriptural language that we use to speak of God and our relationship to God. I give thanks to live in a time when women’s interpretive leadership is welcomed in so many more places and pray that the Spirit will work through our ministries to enrich the interpretive tradition in distinctively “feminine” ways, as well as working through the church and its pastors and lay people as she always has.

So that leads me to my own practices now. When I speak of the trinity as “God”, I am intentional about not using gendered language, because I believe that is faithful to the tradition. I will use the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, especially when I think it most theologically necessary. But I am glad to refer to the Spirit as “she”, since she’s certainly a person and the predominantly male language for all THREE persons makes me physically uncomfortable since I do not believe that God is gendered. And the language that we use – just as the liturgy that we practice – is powerful, formative and transformative in our lives. I want to honor that power in the name of our God, who created us, loves and forgives us, and invites us to life eternal and sanctification in the name of Christ Jesus.

I write this all to say: not all feminist arguments are rooted in experience and not all are bucking the concept of submission.

humbly offered...

Dwight P. said...

As I hope to discuss more soon, I think the problems that cause people to reject language about "submission" root in failures to submit. To wit: Some feminist/womanist writers reject notions of submission (to anything) because that idea has been used to denigrate, abuse, humiliate, and otherwise dishonor the imago dei is women. But that has occurred, not because of submission to God, but because those who so denigate, abuse, himiliate, and othewise dishonor have themselves refused to submit to the Gospel. Men, usually but not exclusively, proved themselves perfectly willing to apply culturally bound ideology under the terms of the Gospel, even though the Gospel (carefully read and interpreted) stood foursquare against what they were saying.

The Church has suffered because her preachers and teachers have been guilt of refusing to bow the knee to the example of Jesus' life, refusing to see and hear "in Christ there is neither ... male nor female," denying the fundamental equality of Adam and Eve at the creation despite the clear intent of the text. Why? Because those teachers and preachers have, for whatever reason, found it expedient to "submit" to the cultural mores of their times than to submit to the ever-new Activity of God (=Holy Spirit) which may have required them to adopt new attitudes and doctrines.

So, I say, it is not submission that is the issue; as humans, I think we are naturally prone to submit to something; The issue is "To What Do You Submit"?

That calls for an essay on Bonhoeffer, and if someone else (Chip) doesn't provide it, I may have to.