Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Christmas Nail

This is pretty cool, from the blog by Sister-in-Christ Cha. It's a healthy reminder that this Christmastide is no escape from the harsh realities of life.

I remember a Christmas card that showed a nicely drawn (roof-less) stable scene, but it was drawn in such a way that the bright moon caused the rafters of the stable to form a cross lying right across the baby in the manger. And the recent observance of the Slaughter of the Innocents reminds all with eyes to see and ears to hear of the lengths to which the world will go to deny Christ a place.

Perhaps we ought all get nails/spikes to hang on our trees!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Another Good Man Dies

I have learned that Fr. Dietrich Reinhart, OSB, the President of St. John's University in Collegeville, MN, died of lung and brain cancer a very few months after being diagnosed with the stuff. Fr. Dietrich (he chose this as his name to honor Dietrich Bonhoeffer!) was kind and very upbeat man. A historian by training, he was well aware of the importance of linking the history of the past to the history-in-the-making. And he seemed to be very effective with potential donors.

You may read a short obituary here.

May his memory be eternal.

And may the Lord grant him eternal rest andlet perpetual light to shine on him.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Communion of Saints

Consider this a reflection in line with my self-designation as a Lutheran-rite Orthodox (since so many of you find this an oxymoron!).

The Newsletter for the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology is out, and if features the banquet speech from the Center's last conference. (At our conferences, you get wonderful and inspiring scholarship not just in the talks, but over food, too!) This year's speaker was the Center Board's Chair, Robert Wilken, the highly respected and esteemed patristics and early Church history prof at the University of Virginia. He spoke on the communion of saints -- "Communion cum Santis," he entitled it.

It is Robert's contention (I never ever believed that I'd be in a position to call Robert Wilken by his first name!) that the "communio sanctorum" of the Creed ought to be more accurately translated as "communion with the saints" than as "communion of saints." He says:

That seems to have been the original sense. In the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, the author, possibly Tertullian, says that he has written an account of their martyrdom so that those who were not eyewitness can learn of them and "have fellowship with the holy martyrs (cum sanctis martyribus) and through them with the Lord Jesus Christ."

For Tertullian the martyrs were the saints -- extraordinary witnesses to Christ. The oiriginal sense of the phrase in the creed is not the fellowship of the living but the company of the departed. The saints are the honored dead in Christ.
If you listen with half an ear, you can hear Robert's complaint against the common Lutheran reading of the creed, which puts "holy catholic Church" is apposition to "the communion of saints." One grammar-noting professor of mine once pointed out that, in the Apostles' Creed, there should be semi-colons separating most of the items on the list in the Third Article, but that those two phrases ought be connected by a comma so that their identity is graphically displayed. But if Robert's reading is correct, and I find that he usually is (except when, in The Spirit of Early Christianity, he overlooked Ephrem to name Prudentius as the first Christian poet to be self-consciously a poet), then serial commas can separate/connect all phrases in the Apostles' Creed.

Here's Robert again:

We affirm with all Christians the close bond that exists between the Church of the present and the holy men and women of past generations, a bond that link[s] us to the apostles. The continuity of the Church over time is sustained not so much by theology [oh dear, say good Lutherans] as by persons [is he going sub rosa for apostolic succession of persons?] as the Church is built, according to St. Paul in Ephesians, not on the apostles' doctrine but on the "foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone. . ." (Eph. 2.20).
There's lots more that I won't quote, and I encourage you to get on the Center's mailing list to get your own copy. (I can probably dig up a precious few if someone wants one, but why not sign up for all our mailings? We won't tax your patience or mailbox with scads of paper.) It was a really lovely talk, meditation, lecture, and homily all in one.

And it highlights one aspect of the Faith that calls for a reformation in the Reformation tradition. Lamentably two of the most prominent Lutheran promoters of such reasonable and faithful respect for those-who-have-confessed-before did not remain Lutheran: Jaroslav Pelikan (of blessed memory, who put Robert onto this) went to the OCA and Robert is a serious and devout Roman Catholic. It is important for us Lutherans and Protestants to re-learn and re-claim what we have lost. The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church is not just universal in the sense of "synchronic" unity; it is also universal in the sense of "diachronic" unity -- that is, communion through time.

This Advent is a time to reflect seriously on what "coming" we await: It is the final, for-all return of him whose birth we shortly hymn. But it is also the final coming of that which has also already appeared -- viz., the communion with all the saints of God; the reunion face-to-face that we celebrate in spirit and in fact now. Just as Christ will come in bodily form to fulfill the promise of his 1st Century body, so the Body of Christ will be granted its fullness.

Thank you Robert for helping to make that clear.

Friday, December 12, 2008

R.I.P. Avery Cardinal Dulles

The American Roman Catholic Church -- well, just say the Church catholic -- has lost a great scholar and advocate. Avery Cardinal Dulles has died at the age of 90. Here is an obituary.

May his memory be eternal. And may the Lord grant him eternal rest and let perpetual light shine upon him.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

In Remembrance of Alexander Schmemann

Fr. Alexander Schmemann (may his memory be eternal) died on 13 December 1983. His writings and example, more than any other I venture, are responsible for my attraction to Orthodoxy, and I honor him and his memory. He coined the term "winter pascha" for the winter fast preceding Theophany, as is recounted in Thomas Hopko's book about the fast, The Winter Pascha. It is meet, right, and salutary that we remember this man by re-reading some of his words -- words that helpfully move all Christians to a proper celebration of the Nativity and Epiphany of the Son of God and to a proper sense of what it means to be the Church:

The purpose of Christianity is not to help people by reconciling them with death, but to reveal the Truth about life and death in order that people may be saved by this Truth. . . . If the purpose of Christianity were to take away from man the fear of death, to reconcile him with death, there would be no need for Christianity, for other religions have done this, indeed better than Christianity.

The Church is the entrance into the risen life of Christ; it is communion in life eternal, "joy and peace in the Holy Spirit." And it is the expectation of the "day without evening" of the Kingdom; not of any "other world," but of the fulfillment of all things and all life in Christ. In Him death itself has become an act of life, for He has filled it with Himself, with His love and light. In Him "all things are yours; whether ... the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours; and you are Christ's; and Christ is God's" (1 Cor 3:21-23). And if I make this new life mine, mine this hunger and thirst for the Kingdom, Christ is Life, then my very death will be an act of communion with Life. For neither life nor death can separate us from the love of Christ. I do not know when and how the fulfillment will come. I do not know when all things will be consummated in Christ. I know nothing about the "whens" and "hows." But I know that in Christ this great Passage, the Pascha of the world has begun, that the light of the world to come:" comes to us in the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit, for Christ is risen and Life reigneth.

Finally I know that it is this faith and this certitude that fill with joyful meaning the worlds of St. Paul which we read each time we celebrate the "passage" of a brother, his falling asleep in Christ:

"For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel's call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord" (1 Thess 4:16-17).

Thus, Fr. Alexander Schmemann in For the Life of the World, pp. 99, 106.

Amen. Amen. Amen.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Another Take on Church and State

Nicholas Cafardi has written a really nice summary of the problems that accompany the increasingly partisan, one-issue stand by many Roman Catholic bishops with respect to the American political scene. Since I have seen written and heard said the same sort of nonsense from Lutherans as I have seen and heard from RC bishops, I think this analysis is worth reading.

So I commend it to you.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Holiday "Gifting"

As "the holidays" (defined in cultural/secular terms) approach, our thoughts naturally turn to gift-giving. It's a respectable turn, even if we tend thereby to get sucked into the vortex of consumerism and excess. Giving is at the heart of the Christian life, and if it takes secular seasons to bring that to mind, well -- it's too bad, but "what is not against me is for me," I guess.

This year, consumer purchases will likely be down (except perhaps in my extended family), and I fear that donations to charitably organizations will be, too. So I urge you to resist Satan's temptation to be "mean" (as the older English would put it). And to that end I draw your attention to a few of my favorite opportunities to give which can result in the multiplying of your generosity.

First: At secular Thanksgiving, it is our congregation's practice to collect canned goods (and other non-perishables) for food shelves. A better idea is to give money to the food shelves. They are being tapped as never before, and many of them have remarkably (and troubling) bare shelves. Giving them food to stock is one idea, and I don't oppose it especially. But the food shelf managers can take a $20 contribution and (because they can buy wholesale, I suppose) turn it into about a $100 worth of food, I am told. Consider a sizable contribution of money to food shelves.

Second: It is possible to give in ways that don't cost money. One discipline I am developing is to go to the Hunger-Site related websites and clicking so that organizations give food to food shelves, mammograms to poor women, food to pet shelters, books to poor kids, and space for tree growth. Simply go here, and you'll be able to click to give a donation (it's free to you: sponsors pay "per hit") for mammograms. Then hit each of the tabs toward the top of the page and give to the other causes. It takes a minute and it really does accomplish some good.

Third: Give to the social-service agencies of your church (Lutheran World Relief, for example). They accomplish a lot of good with a minimum of overhead expense.

Fourth: Give to the United Nations directly. Go here for instructions on how you can donate directly to the Emergency Relief Fund. We have all seen news and heard stories of the extent to which the UN is strapped for cash to ameliorate the ills of humanitarian and natural disasters. Lamentably, nations (including our own) do not fulfill the promise and charter of their membership in the UN.

Finally: We have taken to giving contributions in the names of our friends in lieu of giving "stuff" to people who already have everything they need. Our favorite means to do so is the Heifer Project. Talk about gifts that keep on giving.

Of course, you may have your own pet projects (Habitat for Humanity, the Carter Center -- you get a very nice card from Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter every year if you do, your own congregation's efforts for helping others). The point is to recognize that difficult economic times (and usually even robust economic times) are one way Satan has of turning us from our duty and privilege to live lives of self-giving on the model of our Lord.

Thanksgiving may be a civic holiday and Christmas may have been hijacked by the Grinch of Consumerism, but we Christians can reclaim eucharist (= thanksgiving in Greek) and the mystery of the Incarnation by celebrating in proper ways. Spend time in Church and spend money on gifts of assistance to those who share with us the imago dei.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Glimmer of an Idea

My reading over a long time, recent conversations (and contests) over theological issues, some critical reflection on the liturgical practices of my own tradition in comparison to those of other traditions, and my general misfitedness have led me to this question (with overtones of schism, which I don't intend):

Might there be reason in a Lutheran-rite Orthodoxy? I'm not quite sure what that means: I think that the Lutherans (until the recent ELW) showed the most sense in structuring liturgy in a way that properly allowed for the inbreaking of the majesty of God (and, hence, set the proper tone of reverence and awe) while doing so in the mind- and culture-set of the West, which I find such problems in leaving behind. (Yes, I know that that means that I'm setting myself in the center and not being properly eccentric. But at least I'm honest about it.)

I think my chief complaint with my current status is that most of Lutheranism is so stuck in controversy and then without an awareness that polemic is not a good basis for systematic theological reflection that some of us Lutherans feel a need for something more stable. (That's a pretty ironic statement given the vast, sollid, and almost impenetrable Systematic Theologies that have issued from Lutheran theologians.) I am frankly more taken with the Eastern Orthodox orientation in theology than I am with the West's. But I experience such a culture shock when I worship with the Orthodox and I feel so out of place, that I realize that any crossing over would be extremely difficult. (And that doesn't even deal with cost of losing communion with my family and closest friends: Yes, Cha, I have put that too globally; there are various levels of communion, and oneness in Christ is possible even in the unacceptable experience of divisions in the Body of Christ.)

The Finnish Lutheran scholars have brought me to this point, I think. I don't want to swim -- the Tiber, the Bosporus, the Thames (and certainly not Lake Geneva!). But the discontent I feel might best be expressed by the phrase I have (I think) invented.

So like the kid who experiments with different nicknames, haircuts, and attitudes, I'm trying on the new moniker -- Lutheran-rite Orthodox. Nothing earth-shaking will happen, but perhaps I can feel more comfortable in the nest into which I was born and re-born if I change the nomenclature.

You Saw It First Here!

OK, so maybe you've seen or heard the Official Announcement of the next conference sponsored by the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology -- but I bet you won't get as enthusiastic a recommendation as you get here!

Reserve June 8 through June 10, 2009, for Vatican II: Its continuing Challenge to All Churches. This is a conference -- commemorating the 50th anniversary of the summoning of the Council by Pope John XXIII (may his memory be eternal) -- sponsored by CCET in cooperation with the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center and it will be held at the Center, close to Catholic University in Washington, DC.

Among the speakers with be keynoter George Lindbeck, who was an official observer for the Lutheran World Federation for all four sessions of the Vatican Council. (He tells of how remarkable it was -- and impossible now under today's academic rules -- that he was given a continuing leave of absence from his duties at Yale to allow him to participate for the duration of the Council. I can't say with any authority, but I'd bet that he put in more time at the Council than many of the Bishops!) Dr. Lindbeck has remarkable insight into the importance and meaning of the Council, and it will be great to hear him. (One of the most valuable experiences of serving on the CCET Board, and there have been many, has been the frequent opportunity to dine with Dr. Lindbeck alone and with company. The man is a giant -- and he may know everything! In fact, several of the other presenters, I think, did their PhDs under him, too.) For research: I'm not sure how many participants in that Council are still alive! This is a precious opportunity.

About the rest of the conference: Speakers will discuss the continuing significance of the Council for such issues in Church life as ethics, worship, ecclesiology (I can't wait!), ecumenism, and others. Presenters include Amy Laura Hall from Duke, Paul Gavrilyuk from St. Thomas (in St. Paul), Nicholas Healy from the New York St. John's, Matthew Levering from Ave Maria, Karen Tucker from Boston U, and the Center's own Michael Root from Southern Seminary.

The information will soon be available on the CCET website ( But trust me: You'll want to be at this. You can stay on the CU campus, get an early-registration discount (or a student or retired-clergy discount), a lovely banquest "experience," and a chance to rub shoulders with fantastic people. We always get the most interesting folks -- and I think, given the subject, the era, and the location, that we're going to have a good-sized crowd. Who knows, you may lunch with a bishop or cardinal (no promises, of course -- though our conference at St. Thomas welcomed Cardinal Cassidy from the Vatican and the one at Duke featured Cardinal-Archbishop George from Chicago) or the theologian you've been dying to read or a student from Norway who happens to be in the area and is interested in the topic. And, no, I am not holding out the chance that His Holiness will attend -- though wouldn't that be a hoot? Maybe we could ask him to deliver the banquet speech? It's not as though he doesn't have feelings about the Council and its aftermath!

If you come, we should arrange a luncheon for a face-to-face. You can always find me: I'm usually given bookselling duties for the Center, so check out the displays. (And that's another nice thing: In the past, Brazos has offered a really sweet discount on all their publications for conference attendees!)

I sincerely urge you to reserve the dates now and to watch the CCET website for registration opportunities.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Ecumenical Movement ...

apparently has a long way to go.

Check this out here.

This isn't anything exactly new, but it's lamentable nonetheless.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


Y-E-S: President Barak Obama.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Politics from the Pulpit

This issue has been festering for a while, so I am likely to express myself rather hotly. On this issue, I'm going to bare my soul a little more daringly than I have in the past. As you read what follows, keep in mind my disclosures: I am a progressive, but I am not a Democrat; I have a campaign poster for Obama on my computer desktop (and one on my lawn), but he was not my first choice for a candidate; I belong to a very politically progressive (sometimes, I think, mindlessly so) Lutheran congregation (with a very traditional liturgical life) from which I would bolt were the pastor to make any pronouncement that smacked of a partisan political endorsement or denunciation (even though his politics are similar to mine); I take the First Amendment (both halves) with utter seriousness. Now, on with the rant.

The Gospel is fundamentally political. That is to say that the Gospel has implications for the ways that people structure their individual lives and the societies of which they are members. Whether one's thinking runs to Niebuhrian "realism" (whose "reality"?) or Hauerwasian Church-as-polis, she recognizes that the Gospel's message has direct impacts on the ways one builds a world -- and that includes the way that she votes.

But it's a majorly big step to go from that assertion to the claim that one can thereby justify the religious endorsement of political parties or candidates or (perhaps, I'm not too sure about this yet) particular pieces of legislation. The Constitution provides for the voice of the religious (I'm not going to say "church" at this point, because I believe that the Constitution is dynamic enough to encompass Muslims, even though the original drafters had virtually no experience or thought of them) in the "public square." But it is also clear that that provision does not extend to the official endorsement of any particular religious point of view. And one aspect of that balance has been written into the tax code.

Religious properties and enterprises enjoy an amazing exemption from the levy of taxes (property, income, and the like) and even from numerous laws that otherwise would apply to the kinds of work, service, and projects that congregations undertake. But that tax exemption (as with other tax-exempt organizations) requires that the judicatory, parish, or preacher refrain from partisan activities. Thus, if a mosque or emerging group wishes to avail itself of the tax exemption on its income, the leader must refrain from political endorsements, the congregation itself must not actively participate as an entity or under formal santion of the entity in any activities that promote one candidate over another. (Similarly, the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University was revoked because of its racial-segregation policies. The place wasn't shut down, of course; it was just denied the advantages that inhere in being tax-exempt: For example, gifts from donors are not deductible on the donors' tax returns.)

In the past, "the government" has done little nosing into religious activity (except sub rosa surveillance and the like). But you may remember that in the last election an Episcopal congregation in California (I think it was) got blasted by the IRS because an interim priest had the audacity to compare Bush and Kerry's stands on the Iraq war and included some criticism of the Bush's stand. (What would God say? What would Jesus want ... ?) But the same diligence has never appeared to apply to the right-wing worlds of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and the like.

Recently a group of fools (they see themselves as "fools for Christ," but I don't think they're operating "for Christ") has determined to test the limits of the government's authority. Their practice was to endorse, from the pulpits in their official capacity as pastors, John McCain as the Christ-approved candidate for president. Their argument was that the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States granted them the freedom to do so and that under the First Amendment, their tax status could not be touched.

Well, it doesn't take a law-school genius to see the foolishness of the argument, and it doesn't take a theologian with a PhD from Yale to recognize the stupidity of their claim. Nothing in the First Amendment guarantees them a tax exemption. It would be perfectly within the purview othe protections afforded by the First to levy a tax on relgious enterprises. That the policy of this country is to exempt religious organizations engaged in non-partisan activities results in a privilege, not a right. I think that these goons will be brought up short and their true motives will be made clear. (Although, under the Justice Department as it has developed over the last eight years -- see the Inspector General's report -- since the endorsements were of the Republican, it would surprise me if there were discernable action.)

On a larger and more troubling scale is the Roman Catholic problem. (How's that for framing in the worst possible way?) Several Roman Catholic bishops have recently gotten away with partisan pronouncements, and Lisa Sowle Cahill notes in her commentary here. Because(apparently) by their lights the only political issue that God cares about is abortion -- despite the almost innumerable letters, statements, encyclicals, and pronouncements to the contrary from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops -- a few bishops have issued decrees that Catholic voters must vote Republican, that the Democratic party (despite its having the strongest anti-war group, the healthiest social safety-net policies, and the like) is the "party of death," and the like.

I'm curious about this program for two reasons. First, it seems to demonstrate the foolishness of calling the Roman Catholic Church "one church" (any more than one denomination) if its hierarchy are so polarized, so partisan, so unwilling to look to the range of the Bishops' teachings as to allow some of the bishops to go off half-cocked with nary a peninsula to stand on. Second, will the partisan statements result in any serious governmental inquiry. Is the Roman Catholic Church in the United States just too big to allow to fail? Is it too big to take on? Is the project too risky, given the power of the core conservative-and-Catholic constituency on the Supreme Court?

Cahill's rather bland analysis highlights the complexity of Catholic teaching on the way that Catholics should be involved in the civic life of their country. Her analysis grows out of the teaching of the Church promulgated by the papacy and the conference of bishops in this country. That certain bishops decide that they can go their own way must be really embarrassing to sincere traditional Catholics for whom a "cafeteria approach" to truth is not an option for Catholics.

And on a practical note, despite at least six years recently when the "pro-life" party held control of the government -- legislative, executive, and judiciary -- abortion laws remained virtually unchanged, did they? So much for the practical implications of violating American law, bishops.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

From Levinas ...

OK, let's be clear: I'm no philosopher. (The list of what I am not would fill several blogs, but for today, that simple disclaimer is sufficient.) But I ran across some E. Levinas today, and I cite a few lines in honor of Jeff, who's taken over directing the Phenomenology center at Duquesne. (To be a little less modest: I did study phenomenology for half a semester in grad school, but it was way over my head then -- and likely is now, if I re-set my cap.)

The relation between the Other and me which dawns forth in his expression, issues neither in number nor in concept. The Other remains infinitely transcendent, infinitely foreign; his face in which his epiphany is produced and which appeals to me breaks with the world that is common to us, whose virtualities are inscribed in our nature and developed by our existence.

(From Totality and Infinity, as quoted by Hans Boersmaa in Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross at p. 29)

I can place this is the general context of his thought (I have something less than a Levinas-for-Dummies idea of the trajectory of his thought on alterity, the Other, the Same, Face), and I find it lovely. His notion of hospitality, of the innate required-ness of hospitality for human life, seems very helpful for thiking about the ways we live consistent with the will of God. (Inasmuch as you have done this to the least of my brothers, you have done it to me -- for example.)

Does anyone out there have fondness for Levinas' philosophy? Are my instincts sound: Should I read more of him?

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Reading the Bible -- And an Update


Today (Tuesday, 14 October) His Holiness has expressed himself in the Synod of Bishops (apparently a rarity in such Synods) on the issue of the interrelationship of exegesis and theological reflection. Here is John Allen's report. As he notes, we may expect the transcript of the remarks soon. And I, for one, am eager to see them.

Theological interpretation of the Bible is, of course, not a new thing; it is the oldest thing in the Church's life. But there is a renewed interest in the matter: witness that practically every serious Biblical-studies enterprise is launching a series featuring theological commentary on the Scriptures. (I'm fond of the Brazos series, but there are a passel of them coming from other places, too.)

This all cannot be a bad thing, I think. Talk about an evangelical-catholic approach to the Church's intellectual and spiritual life!

The original post:

The Pope has summoned and has now convened a Bishops' Synod on the Bible in the Church. His Holiness apparently intends to join the synod for most of the time (two weeks?) it sits, which tells you something about his investment in the matter, I think.

John Allen, of the National Catholic Reporter, is right now my only source of information on the Synod. But his reports have made me itchin' to be there. Here is his summary of the presentation by the Pope's close adviser, Bp. Fisichella, on the interdependence on the Bible and the Tradition of the Church. We Christians are not, said the Bishop, to see ourselves as a people of the Book, but rather a people of the Word.

My Lutheran heritage boldly trumpets "sola scriptura" and we found our faith more on Luther's disputed dicta, "Unless I am convinced from the sure evidence of scripture that I am wrong, I cannot, I will not recant. Here I stand; I can do no other" than on the Confessions in the Concordia. But close reading and thinking about "sola scriptura" reveals that it cannot be understood to encourage literalism or "fundamentalism"; we must read the Scriptures in the context of the Church. The Tradition and Scripture exist in dialectical tension as authority in the Church's life. The Bishop is right: We are not a "people of the book."

Sidney Griffin made much the same point in his presentation at the CCET conference in Baltimore this summer. Islam is most assuredly a religion of the book: The Quran figures in the life of Islam much the way that Jesus figures in Christian faith. The Bible does not occupy nearly the same place. But I don't intend to unpack that here.

We read our book in the light of and in conversation with those who have read it in the past -- the authors of the various books, the Fathers, the martyrs and scholars through history. I personally resonate to the notion of reading the Bible having developed and "inner eye of faith," as one of the other presenters said.

For now, I simply commend Allen's report to you and encourage you to research it more deeply. This is commensensical stuff, the implications of which deserve exploring.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

I Wonder ...

Here's a theological question of significant weight: I wonder what it means (or perhaps says about me) that the most common repeat (spam) e-mail I get is not for the little blue pill or for the charms of some winsome beauty (male or female) or for the opportunity to open my banking accounts to the infusion of millions of dollar by just providing the routing and account numbers, but for a paw-and-nail care system for my pet (in my case, dog). Now, mind you, I haven't opened the things for fear of what lists that might add me to, so the subject lines may be misleading. But it's really fascinating to me. I don't know whether to be amused, insulted, intimidated for what. For now, bemusement is my attitude, I guess.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Welcome Back to Camassia

In case you don't read all the Comments, Camassia is back from her sabbatical from the blogosphere.

I'm not a great techy, and I don't put very much stock in "virtual communities" -- I need all the flesh-and-blood community I can get. But Camassia has bridged those worlds for me. She inspired our mutual friend Kate to suggest that I begin blogging; her blog inspired and will inspire me in more ways that I can list. And without the blogging, I never would have met her and another friend whom we met in the 'sphere.

I am delighted to return a link to her blog to my list of links (which I have been neglecting horribly, but will try to clean up over the next millenium).

Why I am not a universalist, even though I want to be

Why I Am Not a Universalist

(Even though I want to be)

After Reading Matthew 10-11

The people of God need not worry about the “eternal destiny” of others; they/we do not need to speculate or pontificate about whether those who do not confess Jesus will “go to heaven” or end up in “hell.” And it takes most of my energy and tongue-biting to make that assertion. For I am a would-be universalist, in the train of Origen, Ephrem (I think: Edessa and Nisibis were hotbeds of universalism), Barth, von Balthasar, and others. But I find that a theoretical perspective that I cannot justify from Scripture.

Concern for the eternal well-being of those who have never known Jesus, or who have heard only a false gospel, or who reject Jesus has seemed a natural concern from the beginning of Christian consciousness. Preaching about the “harrowing of hell” goes back to almost the very beginning. And already in the mid-third century, Origen had been declared heretical for positing that God’s grace would embrace all universally – perhaps whether all wanted it or not. Logic, furthermore, probably blended with love and compassion, raises the question of the fates of those who lived and died before Jesus. As recently as the Second Vatican Council one theologian concluded that Scripture requires that we accept that Hell exists, but it does not require us to believe that anyone populates it. (Rahner, I think.)

But as he so often does, Hauerwas puts the emphasis where it belongs: As Christians, we are perpetually (despite our growth in grace) childlike before the purposes and works of God. We are dependents who have been lifted up from our lowly states to that of blessedness. It is our task to get on with living out our salvation and to leave salvation to God.

Of course, we don’t just sit back and let it happen. As the Gospel of Matthew sets it up, we join the ranks of the apostles, whose mission (co-mission with Jesus) was to make known that the reign of God has drawn near in Jesus. We are called in order to be sent to proclaim “Repent!” and “Be of good cheer!” We are also authorized to pray for all who do not meet Jesus (in person or through his apostles) and for all who reject him.

The mission to proclaim the Gospel (as Jesus makes crystal clear in his commissioning of The Twelve, this proclamation is by word and good work) is urgent precisely because it is the offer of salvation – the announcement that time to fend off God is past; he’s at the gate, ready to enter. Regardless of one’s “universalism” tendencies, this urgency cannot be denied. It is written through the entire Scriptures. And if we worry for the eternal well-being of others, and we might rightly do so, then the mission is all the more urgent to get the word out. We may not excuse our own reticence, sloth, shyness, languor, or whatever through easy reliance on the specious (specious on Scriptural grounds) belief that preaching doesn’t really matter, that acquaintance with Jesus is nice but not necessary for salvation, that God will pull everyone in to is realm – kicking and screaming, if need be.

So it is a direct denial of the scriptural witness to assume that Jesus is incidental to the salvation of the world – its people and all the rest. It is also nonsensical to make such an assumption. At the root of such a hope is that God will ultimately ignore the wishes, the free will of those whom he draws in to the kingdom. And at root that is the hope that God will work violence on those who reject him.

For it is violence to force one’s will on one who knowingly and voluntarily rejects it, wants nothing to do with it, prefers another. To reference something I recently read: It is violence for a 40-year-old sincere and pious Fundamentalist Latter Day Saint to force himself through “celestial marriage” on a 14-year-old, even believing that to do so is to save her soul. And it is no less violent for God to grab someone by the nape of the neck and force him into the kingdom of heaven. And if it’s one thing God has shown himself to be in regard of his people it is non-violent. Despite all the ill for the world that has resulted, God has not forced himself on his people – Israel, the 1st century Roman state, the Church. Anything undertaken in his name that is violent – one thinks of forced conversions in areas where the Christian Church enjoyed civil control, too – is the exact opposite of what it claims to be. And the perpetrators are no more at peace in heaven than are the 40-year-old and older jackasses who justify molestation and rape with the words of scripture.

Fundamentally, there is no ground on which the Christian may sit in self-satisfaction that the word of God will proceed without her involvement. To be baptized is to be ordained to the mission of the Twelve – ordained, not to preach to the community of faith, but to bring the Good News in language and deeds to all those who need (and in many cases, have been waiting without knowing for) just that message.

Hauerwas contrasts (ala Matthew 11) the followers of Christ, who are infant-like in their dependence on Jesus and the other followers of Christ for their very survival, with the wise and intelligent, who hold power and blinding think they are strong and self-determining. And he says this about universalist concerns:

If followers of Christ … are those who are infants from the perspective of the wise and intelligent, that is, from the perspective of those in power, they will find that they do not need an account of the status of those who are not Christians. Rather, they need only to be a people whose lives are so captured by the Son that others may find that they are also captivated by the joy that animates the lives of those claimed by Jesus.
(Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 117)

As is so typical of Hauerwas, he doesn’t make it easy to feel that one has a grasp on this Christian faithfulness thing. It is tough to keep one’s focus on those one sees and knows, not worrying overly about the hordes elsewhere. But some of that is required. But we must also have the wider perspective and encourage those who know a call, a vocation to proclaim Christ where he is not known. We may rightly argue over the shape that ministry will take: Will it be a matter primarily of demanding that people “accept Jesus” or will it be a more subtle case of setting up schools and hospitals and waiting for them to ask the right questions? But we can no longer, if we ever could, ignore the urgency of calling and sending men and women to represent Jesus Himself in their proclaiming and salving and healing and exorcising and raising the dead. Their and our very lives depend on it.

This is not to say, of course, that our hopes must follow our logic. It is, I think, incumbent on every Christian to hope that what I have set forth above is not complete (which is easy to admit) and suffers from a narrowness of knowledge that will be corrected on the last day. It is my urgent hope that the Mighty ones – Origen, Barth, von Balthasar, perhaps Jenson – are correct in their conclusions that the grace of God is ultimately undefeatable. God has worked bigger surprises in the history of the universe.

And so we must live in the hope that God has it all in hand to save all this creation, with the loss of not even a sparrow. But we must also live as though the future of the world depends on us, the successors to the apostles. For when all is said and done, both perspectives recognize that it is only “in Christ” that salvation – “in this world and the next” – is possible.

Friday, September 19, 2008


In introducing their book on the Eucharist, Andrea Bieler and Luise Schottroff claim that the book "is about people who juxtapose in odd, sharp, and sometimes painful ways the texts of reality with the living traditions of the Christian faith that embody resurrection hope" (The Eucharist: Bodies, Bread & Resurrection, p. 3, emphasis added). I think they already fail to understand the Eucharist in a fundamental way. The "living traditions of the Christian faith that embody resurrection hope" are the texts of reality for the Eucharistic community. Tales, sagas, philosophies of death and sorrow are not the texts of reality for the Christian family. And it is precisely the point of Eucharist to act that basic assertion.

Now I suppose that the authors may not mean their statement in any ontologically or linguistically significant way. Perhaps they mean "texts of day-to-day experience" instead of "texts of reality." If so, one wishes that theology professors and their editors would practice the kind of precision in their writing and thinking that that they usually require of those who criticize their work! But to the point: It is the easy acceptance of alternative realities as "reality" that makes the Christian witness so ineffective, so incomprehensible to so many, so rejectable today.

My reading of Stringfellow, Bonhoeffer, Hauerwas, Hart, Cavanaugh (and recently Brueggemann) convinces me that we need to be more straightforward about a troubling truth about Christianity: Our theology implies a kind of temporary and incomplete dualism. Hart makes this point explicit in his The Doors of the Sea. And Stringfellow, I think, must assume it with his discussion (which inspired Walter Wink's) of the powers and principalities that battle against the intentions and works of God. There are powers, principalities, thought patterns, ways of living, problems, forces that work to thwart the creating-redeeming-sustaining work of God. They are called minions of Satan; they are "not of God"; they are death-dealing and -inducing. And they make life damned unpleasant. They exist in that they can work effects, but they have no ultimate existence and they have no power to win ultimate struggles. In fact, they have already been defeated. (Talk of "dualism" is not something with which I am very comfortable or very eloquent. But if one is to wrestle with "powers and principalities" language -- which I think is critical for Christians to do, with an eye to the widest possible scope of the topic -- then I think we have no choice but to do so.)

The powers and principalities are only partially real; they are not "reality," and their effects or their stories are not "texts of reality." They exist at all only in the absence of God (that seems to be a kind of Augustinian notion, I think, that I'm amazed I find convincing -- given my general suspicion of the man). They are real only in the effects they produce -- death, destruction, sin, alienation, and the like. And we must not discount that reality! After all, those powers and principalities took Jesus to the cross. And that was real enough, thank you.

But the story of death (which is Stringfellow's general term for those powers and principalities and all their minions) which names them and narrates the execution of Jesus is not the "text[] of reality"; the Gospel is the text of reality. Reality is that "death shall have no dominion"; reality is that Easter trumps Good Friday, Resurrection triumphed over execution, God wins out over not-God. If you want a text of reality, read the liturgy of the Eucharist.

"Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again." That is reality, not the incomplete (albeit at times horrible) minor coups of the contrary.

I would expect women who have been teaching graduate courses in eucharistic liturgy, and who emphasize in their book the eschatological dimensions of the Eucharist, to get that right.

What do you think?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


First a note: I have not been working on this blog much lately. I have any number of excuses -- Matthew class, work, hectic family life. I am also having a bitter time fighting off partisan-political complaints about the current era. (And while I don't apologize for my political decisions, I buy that Jesus doesn't support either candidate. Consequently, I am in tension between my knee-jerk reactions and my feelings of responsibility to be fair -- which usually means being unfair to my candidates.) But the bottom line is that I have been feeling less and less pontifical (I still envy Al Kimel's calling dibs on the title "Pontificator," but he at least has some substantial claim to it); I feel less and less confident that I have anything to say. And I think I'm in a thinking-burn-out zone.

So I'm going to fall back a bit and simply note good things I'm reading, along with any questions that may arise for me. And I'll continue to hope that I get meaty replies from the two or three of you who check in.

Today's tidbit comes thanks to Walt Brueggemann. I think he's a good writer -- and one with a lot to say (and most of which I agree with). I hope he stays healthy and productive for a long time.

In the current issue of Theology Today (a fine journal -- even if not of the quality of Pro Ecclesia), he writes a most timely article, "Prophetic Ministry in the National Security State." It's good reading (his styling is wonderful to read; it must have been honey to hear at the 2007 Festival of Homiletics). But I pick up on one little point.

He cites to Abraham Heschel (who will be in heaven -- that's all there's to that), who has written (in Who Is Man?) that "the loss of embarrassment is the quintessential loss of human capability" (Brueggemann's characterization of Heschel's point). In context, Brueggemann is exegeting Jeremiah 6, where Jeremiah castigates his society which has so perverted language that they hide the effects of their greed behind the claim that "all is well" -- i.e., "shalom." Bruggemann shows that Jeremiah says, as his great indictment -- a kind of coup de grace --, that the society has so deteriorated that "They do not know how to blush." Then he (Brueggemann, not Jeremiah) cites to Heschel.

That observation is ripe with connections for me. I remember that what brought Joe McCarthy down was the attorney's rhetorical question of him, "Have you no shame." And I wonder is this: Does this relate to the Genesis narrative? When the man and woman in the Garden, in Genesis, cover themselves with leaves, they explain to God that they knew they were naked and were ashamed. Does the Genesis author signal that, as depraved as the human condition was as a result of the Fall, the durability of the imago dei remained intact -- so that the ability of humanity to feel shame, embarrassment, acknowledgment of its/their less-than-should-be held out hope for humans?

With all the Bible's talk of pride, arrogance, self-importance -- the very opposites of embarrassment or shame -- are we called to shame, to embarrassment at our sin?

I know that linguists among us will want to make fine and broad distinctions between embarrassment and shame. But do they not root in the same emotional state? So can we not take them together.

Robert Jenson taught me that a quality of being alive is the ability to surprise. Here we have another fundamental human capability -- the ability to feel the need to hide one's face.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Ron Hansen

I read Ron Hansen's Marietta in Ecstasy and was swept away. It concerns a nun who is gifted with the stigmata -- or is she? -- and the complex psychological and sociological reactions that spawns in the nun and her community. It's a profound and lovely book. And, while I have had him on the back burner, I have intended to read others from his pen (ok: word processor).

I was interested, then, to see this interview with him on Christian Century's website. I knew that he is a Roman Catholic deacon who teaches at Santa Clara, but there's a nice look at his church involvement and the faith that undergirds his writing. (You will note that he promotes both 100 Years of Solitude and Lolita, which titles Virgil correlates with smart people at smart schools -- in short, the top 2 books that make you smarter! I've been trying to tell my reading group at Church that we need to read Lolita, since we've already read Garcia Marquez. So far, no takers. But that's another story.)

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Word for the Faithful on Judging

In clearing out some files, I found that I had copied this from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. For a variety of reasons, into which I need not go here, it seems a timely find. In fact, this caution about judging is timely at all times, I think.

When we judge, we encounter other people from the distance of observation and reflection. But love does not allot time and space to do that. For those who love, other people can never become an object for spectators to observe. Instead, they are always a living claim on my love and my service. But doesn’t the evil in other people necessarily force me to pass judgment on them, just for their own sake and because of our love for them? We recognize how sharply the boundary is drawn. Love for a sinner, if misunderstood, is frightfully close to love for the sin. But Christ’s love for the sinner is itself the condemnation of sin; it is the sharpest expression of hatred against sin. It is that unconditional love, in which Jesus’ disciples should live in following him, that achieves what their own disunited love, offered according to their own discretion and conditions, could never achieve, namely, the radical condemnation of evil.

If the disciples judge, then they are erecting standards to measure good and evil. But Jesus Christ is not a standard by which I can measure others. It is he who judges me and reveals what according to my own judgment is good to be thoroughly evil.
-- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, pp. 170f.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos

For the Dormition of the Theotokis:

Apolytikion (First Tone)
In birth, you preserved your virginity; in death, you did not abandon the world, O Theotokos. As mother of life, you departed to the source of life, delivering our souls from death by your intercessions.

Kontakion (Second Tone)
Neither the grave nor death could contain the Theotokos, the unshakable hope, ever vigilant in intercession and protection. As Mother of life, He who dwelt in the ever-virginal womb transposed her to life.

Today is the Feast of the Going to Sleep of the all-holy, ever-virgin, most blessed Theotokos, the Mother of God. An Orthodox friend asks why Lutherans are so skittish about Mary. And she also asks why the Lutheran propers for today are essentially the same in content as those for the Annunciation in March. I don't have a liturgiologist's answer to her questions. But, as you might expect, I do have some ideas that don't treat of the liturgical history.

First of all, contrary to the teaching of Luther, Lutherans have all but cut Mary out of our church's celebration and life. Oh, we have a few "Mary" or "St. Mary" Lutheran Churches (Europe has vastly more, at least in part, I suspect, because they were inherited from pre-Reformation times). But we look in vain for much evidence that she figures as prominently in piety as the Apostles and St. Paul blocks all hint of glow that may attach to her.

Part of it, I'm sure, is an earnest effort to remain Biblical, and there just isn't much to go on in the New Testament if you're trying to build a biography or hagiography for the Virgin. Lots of "traditional lore" has built up -- as a sometimes misguided response, I think, to the promptings of the Spirit to keep her prominent. And so we have holy legends about her parentage, her early life, her post-resurrection doings, and her death. But the Scriptures themselves don't give much of a toe hold for those seeking to integrate her into the life of the Church.

But Scripture does witness to her importance: "Henceforth, all generations shall call me blessed, for He who is Mighty has done to me great things." And that is an evangelical witness. She is, in her own words, blessed and importance because of what God has done (and does)to and through her. The witness of the early centuries of the Church also testifies to her importance. She has been declared the "Theotokos" over some objections -- the "God-bearer" or "Mother of God." So we can't and ought not ignore her.

I also hear a lot of concern raised from good Lutherans that we "don't need" Mary because we have a straight shot to God through Jesus. But I think that's a sign of a very low ecclesiology among most Lutherans. If these folks think that asking Mary for her intervention is a way to approach an essentially unsympathetic Jesus, then they don't know the Gospel of Christ. (But then, they may be projecting their own unacknowledged use of Jesus to approach an unsympathetic God -- just at another step removed.) But come on: We ask fellow Christians to pray for us all the time. And asking the heroes and heroines of the faith to join with our here-in-tangible-form saints to pray for us only makes sense if you have a good sense of the Church.

The Church is the gathering of believers where the Gospel is preached and practiced. As such it is synchronic and diachronic: That is to say, it transcends the one location where I stand to include all Christian gatherings going on in this era AND it comprehends all Christian gatherings through all time. Thus, in St. Paul's language, "we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses" who join with our prayers. That I call on my wife to pray for me makes no more or less sense than asking Mary -- and Matthew, Mark, Stephen, and Dietrich, for that matter -- to join her prayers to ours.

I think the Orthodox have a better handle on this than the Western Church. When I attended vespers for St. Seraphim of Sarov, I was stunned (finally!) by how much the Orthodox take for granted that the saints are with them. Leave it to the West to layer on issues of "merit" and "standing": We don't pray to the saints because they have special merit -- on this the Lutheran Confessions are correct. We pray to them because they are remembered more directly (and probably for good reason) by the Church catholic and are available on a more general basis to the consciousness of a greater number of the faithful gathered in one place. And pray to them we may and should -- and on this the Lutheran Confessions get it wrong when they discourage praying to the saints. (Given their time, there may have been warrant for such advice, but it is advice that doesn't hold up. But once again, the Confessions don't offer much in terms of an ecclesiology.)

The Reformation, the Enlightenment, scientism, and various other influences have given Lutherans problems with saints. It would be a worthwhile endeavor for the Church -- certainly the Lutheran branch -- to reclaim her heritage and integrate saints more completely into her life.

Monday, August 11, 2008


This comes from a mailing from the Ekklesia Project (begin here), specifically Co-ordinator Brent Laytham. It's short and to the point and summons me to join in the practice.


by Brent Laytham

One of the great joys of our EP Gatherings is eating together. We break bread with friends old and new, discovering at a common table our common life in Christ. That makes it all the more painful that many of us who endorse The Ekklesia Project cannot come together as one body at the Eucharistic table of our Lord. Several years ago, we spent an entire Gathering exploring that pain.

This year our Gathering explored another division that scars the body of Christ—race. Both visibly and invisibly, race and racism have divided us from sharing together at our Lord’s one table. Confronting that reality for three days has renewed my commitment to the Friday fast that EP endorsers commit themselves to. Heretofore, I have fasted because that’s what Methodist pastors do, and because it was a simple practice of solidarity with my sisters and brothers in The Ekklesia Project. But now, committed to “Crossing the Divide,” I am also fasting as a practice of judgment—judgment against my ongoing racism, judgment against our racially segregated churches, judgment against every failure to receive what Christ has already done—broken down the dividing wall of hostility (Eph. 2:14).

Today I fast, not just to be in solidarity with you all, but especially to hunger for the full unity of Christ’s church.

I am not a faster: I find that working in an office makes the growling of my stomache and the light-headedness that comes quite quickly do not make for good performance. But Brent's brevity and correctness give me pause, and I think I may have to explore this spiritual practice more. (After all, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus assumes that his disciples will fast.) Divisions within the Body of Christ are an ab0mination, and if anything is worth fasting about, that would be at the top of my list.

Monday, August 04, 2008

More on "The Ministry"

There's a nice opinion piece over on the Touchstone discussion site that relates directly to issues we've discussed here on ordained ministry. It expresses, inter alia, chagrin over what has become of the office of the pastor in the modern Western Church. I encourage you to read and reflect on it. It's time for a new Reformation in our understandings of the Church and her ministry.

Thursday, July 31, 2008


Here's the latest from Marty Center -- this time on spiritual practices. (In Theological Discussion -- a monthly reading and discussion group I facilitate at my church -- we're reading David Augsburger's Dissident Discipleship, an analysis of Anabaptist spirituality. If only for that reason, spirituality is on my mind, and I find that when coupled with the Matthew study, it makes for a rather unsettling examination of conscience with respect to how I live my life.) I quite resonate with the (implied) criticism of "flexodoxy," which I think is the predominate form of Christianity in this country. (Roman Catholics have long called it "cafeteria Christianity" -- take what you like and ignore what doesn't fit your taste.)

Sightings 7/31/08

The Order of Saint Oprah

-- Aaron Curtis

Is there incipient within the modern cult of the self a desire for a more constrictive way of life? Have those of us who live comfortably within the lax constraints of secular humanism discovered that we long for some rigorous "rule of life"? Some means by which to order a welter of consumer choices (including religion) into a more cohesive lifestyle? One might be inclined to pose such questions in light of the recent spate of "rule of life" experiments, such as A.J. Jacobs' year of "living biblically" or Barbara Kingsolver's year lived as a "locavore" (both of which were turned into bestselling books), or, most recently, one Chicago woman's self-imposed challenge to "design her life" in strict accordance with all of Oprah Winfrey's advice. But what this last experiment reveals, surprisingly, is not so much a desire for a more disciplined lifestyle as an inadvertent reaffirmation of a reigning brand of cultural orthodoxy.

At first glance, it would appear that the experiment undertaken by "Lo"—a pseudonym for "Living Oprah"—has, at best, only a tenuous connection to religious practice. This impression is reinforced by the blog she keeps to track her progress and by a July 10 Chicago Reader article on the project, which features an image of Oprah in a pose and garb resembling Chairman Mao, above the title "The Great Commander." Both the article and Lo's blog emphasize the political and socio-economic implications of this particular cult of personality, opting to leave unexplored the suggestion left by one blog visitor that Lo wear a "WWOD" bracelet, as well as Lo's own impression, after attending Oprah's show, that "it was like a church revival."

But there are two crucial respects in which Lo's "practice" bears an interesting resemblance to more traditional devotional practices. First of all, Lo has chosen to relinquish her power of choice entirely (what she eats, watches, reads, et cetera) and is committed to a faithfully neutral obedience (however much her initial intent may have been critically motivated). She asks, "Will I truly find bliss if I commit wholeheartedly to [Oprah's] lifestyle suggestions?" The true value of the experiment has less to do with the effectiveness of Oprah's advice taken piecemeal than with the change effected on the life of so absolute a follower. Secondly, the project's "faith" is invested in the possible results of predominantly physical practices—that is, without need of an attendant belief in their effectiveness. This bears a certain similarity to a strain of ascetic practice that insists on the power of bodily regimentation to bring about a desired change in one's "spiritual" orientation, rather than vice versa.

However weak these similarities may be to what some would deem "authentic" religious practice, they nevertheless serve to reveal the nature of the "religion" of Oprah's followers. Aside from some supportive advice for the struggling neophyte, the most revealing reaction to the "Living Oprah" project has been that of suspicion and even defensive hostility. On the one hand, Lo is violating an unstated but generally assumed norm of the community: Oprah is beloved as a personality at the center of an alluring communal identity and her authority is to be taken on faith; to test it in such a systematic and empirical fashion is to commit a form of sacrilege, or, at least, to miss the point entirely. On the other hand, and far more significantly, Lo's practice is suspect precisely because it diverges from the orthodoxy of this community. One visitor to the blog responded, "Why would you try to take someone that is only trying to do good things on this planet and make a mockery of her? … I watch Oprah. And take what is important to me and what touches my life. Whether it be medical advice, inspirational stories, her own personal actions or experiences, it's up to you to take from it what you need at that particular time." Here we have a perfect articulation of a prevalent form of modern spirituality that some, especially in orthodox and evangelical circles, have labeled "flexodoxy" —what theologian and scholar N.T. Wright describes as "free-for-all, do-it-yourself spirituality."

The prevalence of flexodoxy is not news. But it is surprising that, with Lo's experiment, the culture of flexodoxy should end up asserting its own orthodoxy—deciding for oneself what one needs, when one needs it. Those aspects of Lo's project that do resemble more traditional religious practices are precisely the ones that are most threatening to this particular "faith community", in which membership is based more on belief than on rigorous practice, and absolute obedience violates the norms of flexodoxy. By refusing the right of choice and by failing to see value in a sense of belonging rather than in practical effects, Lo is failing to live by Oprah's "rule of life" in its most fundamental sense.


The Chicago Reader story on Lo's project can be read at:

Aaron Curtis is a PhD student in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Note for those concerned: My understanding of Marty Center policy on re-publishing is that it's OK with proper credit, which I think I've provided.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Ministry

Lutheran Zephyr rightly takes on a situation in which a Lutheran pastor is touted, in the recent issue of The Lutheran, as the tour leader for a pilgrimage to Las Vegas. You can find his comments here.

This issue of Lutheran pastors' remaining on the clergy roster even though they are working at jobs or in positions that have nothing to do with word-and-sacrament ministry seems to need attention. According to the Augsburg Confession -- that quaint little document that doesn't have much to say to the modern church's structure, I guess -- the Lutheran Church ordains pastors to the ministry of and to word and sacrament. That is, the sole distinguishing mark of pastors vis-a-vis "the laity" is that pastors preach the orthodox faith and minister the sacraments in a accord with the orthodox faith. And as I understand matters, this was in response to a theology of ministry that placed those who were ordained on an ontological plane higher that a mere layperson. While we do not hold a merely "functional" understanding of ministry, neither do we subscribe to any notion that work done by a pastor is holier, more professional, or any other -er than the same work performed by a layperson.

I have found that the Confession is observed as much in the breach as in the observance. We all know all kinds of people working in secular positions, who are not serving ministries of word and sacrament in any sense that makes any sense, who are nevertheless carried on the clergy roster of the ELCA as "pastors." (Note: I don't have any problem with various kinds of lay people's being including under pension plan. It's a matter of the doctrine of ordination.) We have editors at publishing houses, teachers in colleges (I guess it's OK if it's a Lutheran school, but not OK if it's a state university?), "counselors" in social service agencies, various kinds of tent-making "ministries" where there is no congregation in the worker's line of service.

So my question is what is up with that?

The Lutheran Church has never had a very clearly defined doctrine of the ministry (even aside from whether ordination is properly confirmed without a bishop's hands). But I have understood that there is, in Lutheran theology, no provision for the "indelible mark" of ordination: Once one is not preaching and presiding, one is not a pastor. (In my own case, I specifically correct anyone who says that I'm a pastor who works as a lawyer or the like. I was a pastor; I am no longer a pastor. On the other hand, I do not believe that my "derostered" status relieves me of the my ordination vows -- and this is contrary to what some say. Thus, I feel that I must be careful not to teach anything that is at odds with the dogmatic heritage of the Church. If I get to the margins, I have to acknowledge where I'm getting on thin ice.) It is no disgrace to be a "former pastor." But, to the contrary, I think there is something unseemly in (whether literally or figuratively) continuing to wear a collar when one is not ministering to a congregation by preaching and presiding (and more than once or twice a year!).

Implicated here are all those synod and Chicago bureaucrats who maintain the title "pastor" but couldn't preach their way out of a simple Gnostic trap and who wouldn't know an anaphora from a spittoon; "youth" or "associate pastors" whose job is scheduling youth events and hosting overnights or programming hook-up events for young marrieds; congregational "administrators" and "visitation pastors" whose call does not involve preaching and presiding full time. All of this causes me to laugh derisively whenever I read old Lutheran attacks on the Roman priesthood: There was nothing in the pre-Reformation Roman Catholic clergy pool that has not been taken up by the post-Reformation Lutheran corps.

Heck, Lutheran pastors' lending their names -- on an occasional basis -- to treks to Las Vegas seems small change compared to all the collars I see running around -- full time -- doing things just as secular.

Still to come: My take on the failure of Lutheran ecclesiology. (I just have to reduce the manuscript from 50 pages!)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Ruth Manz, May her memory be eternal.

I have been remiss in not expressing my sorrow at the death of Ruth Manz, wife and collaborator of musician-extraordinaire Paul Manz. My friend Cha has posted a most fitting and inspiring tribute to her at her site, here. Be sure to listen to "E'en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come," for which Ruth Manz organized the lyrics.

Rest eternal grant her, O Lord;
and let perpetual light shine upon her.

Passivity vs. Participation

I'm contemplating closing down my blog because I don't pay close enough attention to it. But then along comes something, like Tuesday, and I'm glad to have a place to think things through in black-and-white.

I wrote in the "Acknowledgements" section of my family studies thesis that "an acknowledgements page is an author's place to boast of the quality of his friendships." I think that this blog, too, serves that purpose for me. Let me show you.

Tuesday evening Brother-in-Christ Paul paid a visit. We keep in touch by e-mail, but because of the geographical distance between us, we may see each other about once or twice a year. Returning from a holiday trip, he stayed over in the Twin Cities and spent an evening with my family and me. (The family went to be a lot earlier than Paul and I wrapped up our conversation!)

Paul has been ordained about 4 years now (I was the assisting minister at his ordination, so I feel a special investment in his ministry), and since then he has come to occupy a significant space in my heart and head. We differ, I think, fairly radically on matters of theological expression, but we are kindred spirits in our desire to uphold the classic faith (he's a little less interested in the ecumenical aspects of that faith than am I) and to articulate church's theology in clear, orthodox, serious terms. Paul is a modern-day Gnesio-Lutheran (I think he even styles himself that sometimes, but always with a twinkle in the eye, to which I reply that he sounds more like a Gnesio-Melancthonian than -Lutheran), whereas I am -- what? A dilettante, I suppose. Paul has the makings, and the initial training, to be a first-rate scholar (though I hope he stays in the parish because we need more scholar-pastors); I am a hobbyist. Paul is pastoral, friendly, and diplomatic; I am brash, too-old-to-care-much, and far-from-pastoral.

This time's conversation turned to the issue of grace in the Christian life -- something we both acknowledge is the beginning point for any conversation about the Christian faith. (In fact, I think I caught some Barthian sympathies for a reversal of the law-gospel order into gospel-first-then-law. But I won't press the lad on that quite yet. He did admit, of course, that his great hero and guide, Gerhard Forde, was influenced by and a great admirer of Karl Barth. So there you have it: Jolly good.)

Paul insists on a kind of classic Lutheran, though not an exclusive, emphasis on the forensic aspects of God's grace. I, as I make all too unclear on these "pages," think that an over-played theme. Paul dismisses my fondness for concepts of "participation" in Christ (and consequently, in the Trinity), which I note to him is Biblical-Paul-ine language, and instead urges Apostle Paul's talk of being "conformed" to Christ. On the surface, as I discuss below, that seems to be a wide divide -- and I think there are some pretty serious implications for opting for one or the other (which one, of course, need not do -- by my lights, anyway). But after reflecting for a couple of days, I think I'm beginning to see that Friend Paul and I may be divided by a common language. (Tip of the hat to Mencken.) We use a common Lutheran vocabulary, but we neither use the terms in ways the other person quite understands. And the more we talk, the more I realize that, while we have real differences, the differences are often at different places than I expect.

Of course, that latest insight is precisely the experience of those who engage in theological dialogue -- Episcopalians and American Lutherans; Roman Catholics and Lutherans, Lutherans and the Orthodox traditions. (I'm eager to see reports of the dialogue between Roman Catholics and the Disciples of Christ. That ought to be fascinating.) We need, on the classic debate model, to define terms and concepts carefully; we can't assume that "justification" means "justification" or that "no law" means "antinomianism."

But on to one issue that I'll continue to raise with Paul. I think there is a tendency in "classic" Lutheran theology to make two mistakes, missteps, or something of the sort. (And remember: I'm in this camp, so I speak out of love, not triumphalism.) First, I think the classic expression of Lutheran doctrine (and this is the result, I suppose, of battles in the Lutheran scholastic period) is too static to do justice to the Biblical revelation. And second, I think Lutheranism doesn't really have a theology of the Church (an ecclesiology), and that lack makes it difficult for us to speak of salvation in any but in rather static terms.

First, Lutheran talk is often static: Justification, grace, forensic judgments, and the like conjure up a universe in which human beings just sort of sit there and take it. We are acted upon for the sheer point of being acted upon. And so we are declared justified; we are showered with grace; we are assured of forgiveness. And certainly I have to problem with that kind of language as far as it goes. But "as far as it goes" is precisely my problem: I don't think it goes far enough to capture the biblical witness. This grace business, this justification stuff, this salvific action is not static; it is a dynamic power or process (not in the sense of process theology) that -- according to Jesus and Paul and significant others -- effects (not affects: in this, effects -- i.e., makes happen) what it offers and says.

Often I think of Lutheran "gospel" in these terms: (I didn't get a baptismal certificate; instead, mine is contained in a wonderful little booklet -- very fancy and very classy.) But suppose I got a nicely caligraphed baptismal certificate, such as are common today. I frame it and hang it on the wall. Now I know that I'm grace-filled; the certificate hangs on the wall as a nice reminder and as evidence. It's all done now; I'm free to go about my way, confident of God's love regardless of what I do. It's a sign of status: Dwight is a child of God, and he can prove it. And in this case, the status is permanent and irrevocable (at least, that's the point of most Lutheran preaching I hear). Grace is something done to me -- usually explained in past tense. And it's all very narrowly prescribed, very nailed-down, not very dynamic.

Oh, it's good news, of course. How really amazing -- one might say, big -- of God to reach out to me, a sinner. What wonderful news that he loves me and has taken me to himself (whatever that's supposed to me), contrary to all reason and justice, over the contradindications of my sin. So I will of course worship him every Sunday, firmly announcing my "Amens" to the prayers and singing the hymns with gusto.

But it's still rather one- or maybe two-dimensional. The certificate is a metaphor for my life of faith: It's a photograph, a snapshot, a painting on a wall. It's not a life; it's not a challenge (except to "believe" it so that it's true -- we won't go into the legalism of that kind of talk); it doesn't go very far. Oh, with due respect to my friend, we may be "conformed" to Christ: The Apostle talks of that, yes. But the sense I get from that language puts me in mind of a statue: It's molded to stand eternally on its pedestal; the clay or marble has been conformed to the sculptor's vision or intention. But where does it go?

I counter with what seems to me to be a more dynamic model for/of salvation. I can variously describe it, but an exciting word for me right now is "participation" in Christ -- especially in contrast to "conformed" to Christ. I suppose it roots in my affection for Eastern theology (where sin figures into the picture in different way), my respect for Anabaptist traditions, and my reading for the Matthew class. But this is a major theme in Apostle Paul, too, and I don't know why it doesn't get more play in Lutheranism.

I am drawn to this theological perspective, aside from its coherence with the Biblical narrative, because it excites me, it seems to have a point, it makes sense of all that "growth in grace" talk in the Bible and the liturgy. Instead of God's granting me a status, he inducts me into his life and mission. Instead of my baptismal certificate's hanging on the wall as a status marker, it is rather a draft notice, an induction order. (Of course, it is more invitation than "order" -- but put the best construction on what I'm doing.) This all carries more existential bite than the old preaching.

Following is an excerpt from an evangelical's book on the life of faith (Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement). At this point in his analysis, McKnight sets forth his idea that salvation involves being restored to the imago dei of Genesis. He uses the Greek work eikon to substitute for the Latin phrase (and the English equivalent, "image of God"). And here he sets out a description of what being God's eikon means:

To be an Eikon means, first of all, to be in union with God as Eikons; second, it means to be in communion with other Eikons; and third, it means to participation with God in his crating, his ruling, his speaking, his naming, his ordering, his variety and beauty, his location, his partnering, and his resting, and to oblige God in his obligating of us. Thus, an Eikon is God-oriented, self-oriented, other-oriented, and cosmos-oriented. To be an Eikon is to be a missional being -- one designed to love God, self, and others and to represent God by participating in God's rule in this world.
Now I find that really exciting talk. To be so graced by God as to be drawn into this life "in this world and the next" is, to my ear, total Gospel. That this graced-ness has a form also makes perfect sense for continuing to live in the world. It sounds like the Sermon on the Mount, and Bonhoeffer, and Hauerwas. But for that to make sense as Gospel, we must move on to a second practical weakness in Lutheran theology -- that of the lack of (or at least a diminished) ecclesiology. But that is for the next post.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Summary of the Witness of Jesus

Everything gets run through the prism of Matthew these days: You can probably imagine how I'm dealing with sermons on the Matthew pericopes. And my reading, too, gets the Matthean hermeutical lens.

Here comes Scot McKnight from North Park University in Chicago, and he nicely summarizes the questions, concerns, and conclusions in my own current thinking:

Christians believe that God really did atone for sins in Jesus Christ and that God really did redemptively create restored relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the world. Christians believe that this all took place in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and (the silent part of the story) in the gift of the Holy Spirit. The atonement, in other words, is the good news of Christianity – it is our gospel. It explains how the gospel works.

The bad news, the anti-gospel as it were, is that the claim Christians make for the atonement is not making enough difference in the real lives of enough Christians to show up in statistics as compelling proof of what the apostle Paul called the “truth of the gospel.” Does this new relationship with God really transform the individual? Does this work of Christ and the Spirit to forgive sins and empower Christians make them forgiving people or morally empowered people? Does the claim of the gospel extend to what can be observed in the concrete realities of those who claim to be its beneficiaries?

- Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), p. 1

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Are Many Christians Just Plain Dumb?

Here's a sad little tale, courtesy of the Marty Center and its Sightings newsletter. (Note that the author has a joint appointment in theology and computer science. I don't even want to think what that might mean -- even at St. John's!)

Sightings 7/17/08

Left Behind or Left in Cyberspace?

-- Noreen Herzfeld

As a teenager, when a friend first told me about the rapture, in which Christians will be miraculously transported to heaven while sinners remain on earth to suffer a variety of tribulations, I was quite sure that, sinner that I was, I was destined to be the one member of my family and friends who would surely be "left behind." My psychology teacher later assured me that considering oneself the "chief of sinners," as the apostle Paul did, was a normal response, since we each know our own peccadilloes far more intimately than we know those of others. Apparently, however, not everyone shares this proclivity. For forty dollars a year, those who are relatively assured of their own salvation can now leave a final e-mail to less fortunate loved ones who might be left behind during the rapture. A new web site,, allows users to compose a final message that will be sent to up to sixty-two recipients, six days after the rapture occurs. These messages might be used to pass on information, such as bank account numbers and passwords, but the site stresses the opportunity to leave a letter begging those who remain to accept Christ, a last chance with one's loved ones to "snatch them from the flames."

This raises a host of questions, both practical and religious. Is it safe to store sensitive financial information on such a website (answer: no)? Would the web still function after the rapture? Why not play it safe, save the forty dollars, and simply leave a stack of letters on your desk? is one of the latest attempts to market religion in cyberspace. Sites abound hawking a variety of religious books and wares. Beyond the crassly commercial, there are web sites for a wide variety of religious faiths and denominations where one can access religious texts, share experiences and prayer requests, initiate new spiritual friendships, or engage in ecumenical dialogue. As a resource for finding a quick answer to a religious question, the Internet is unbeatable. Web cams let one make a virtual pilgrimage to Mecca, the Wailing Wall, or Chartres Cathedral. Avatars in Second Life build virtual churches and synagogues and participate in religious rituals with one another. Each of these draws on the strength of the Internet as a medium that overcomes distance or physical limitations. The computer enlarges the neighborhood, giving opportunities to connect with or learn from a wide variety of people and traditions.

However, what computer technology gives to religion in terms of speed and broader access, it takes away through lack of physical presence. The sacramentality of the Christian faith, for one, calls us to move away from our keyboards and into the real world. In this world we cannot dismiss those with whom we disagree with the click of a mouse. We are asked to taste and feel and smell the world around us in its elemental richness. We learn what is, not what we wish were. Cyberspace is, in the end, an ambiguous place. We do not know if people in chat rooms are who they say they are. We do not know if an e-mail will really get forwarded on. As philosopher Albert Borgmann points out, "ambiguity is resolved through engagement with an existing reality, with the wilderness we are disagreed about, the urban life we are unsure of, or the people we do not understand." Computer applications may seem like a simpler alternative, but they are rarely as satisfying as the real thing.

So I think I'll save the forty dollars. A sealed envelope in my desk and power of attorney documents will cover my much more likely demise from natural causes. And as for worrying about myself or others being "left behind," Jesus' promise that "I will never leave you nor forsake you" is far more reassuring than any web site.

Noreen Herzfeld is professor of Theology and Computer Science at St. John's University, Collegeville MN.


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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