Friday, September 04, 2009

More on Michael Root's Thesis

In a post, below, I commended a recent paper by Michael Root. In it, he analyzes a kind of development of doctrine in Lutheran theology. Lee commented, and I find that I can't fit my reply into a comment box, so I raise it again, here.

Brother Lee,

You assert that Michael Root misses "the main point: is homosexuality immoral?" Well, obviously, I think, that is not the focus of his paper. His point is to question how we go about answering that question, and he finds our modus problematic, to say the least. I don't know how he would answer your question: Ask him, on his blog. I suspect, however, that two arguments compete: First, if we can't agree on a "Lutheran" approach to answering questions, then we're just sharing opinions. And second, that suggests the need for a more formalized magisterium -- whatever you might want to call it.

No one denies the all-too-human failings of any tradition's magisterium. I don't think that any of my catholic-evangelical colleagues has delusions about that. To use an analogy: Trained as a lawyer and committed to respecting judicial authority, as my entry into the bar requires that I be, I nevertheless look with utter disdain on numerous of the decisions that have come out, even recently, of the United States Supreme Court. That disdain, however, by no means frees me from respect for the institution of the Court or from advising clients in light of its decisions.

The issue is one of authority. Authority need not be read as tight-fisted authoritarianism. In fact, the authority of Christ and of the so-called "office of the keys" should never be exercised in that way. But there is a need (in this the Church shares with all institutions) for someone to guide, commend, and correct the Church. American Lutheranism (at least, the ELCA variety) has never faced the question of how to structure our life in such a way as to vest someone (meaning, too, perhaps some group) with the responsibility of answering to no other source than God -- freed of public pressure, political correctness, mass hysteria in delineating the "boundaries" of God's word.

Do we want the proclamation of the word of God to depend on majority rule? I mean, do we really? It is such majority "feeling" that has resulted in the churches' adopting as their model of operation that of large corporations -- with the consequent concern for numbers and budgets and retirement plans and the yet consequent denial of the hard counsels of the Sermon on the Mount. It was such pandering to the majority that the US Supreme Court issued that debacle of an opinion in the Dred Scott case.

I think Michael is correct in implying that what the ELCA has now is a magisterium of how ever many members are in the ELCA -- everyone is his or her own deacon, presbyter, and bishop. That is part, I think, of what led to the Lutheran allergy to ethics, as you aptly term it. (And I read Michael to support me in that assertion.) For example, it's simply more comfortable to over-stress Gospel freedom than it is to try to maintain the existential and scholastic tension that the "simul" should carry.

I think the problem that Michael analyzes in his paper is especially concerning to Lutherans because of our self-proclaimed seriousness about the importance of the tradition (whatever we mean by that) in guiding our contemporary theology. Lutherans are not the only ones to suffer from a radical refocus in the way they do theology and the sources to which they point. But Lutherans live among the rare breeds of Protestants who claim such guidance from confessions and confessors -- serious Calvinists' being another example. How we make decisions about what to teach and preach and about how to live maters.

Besides, in following of our Lutheran bliss, we have allowed for quasi-magisteria, anyway. When we allow teachers to pick up relatively marginal ideas and thematize them into key points, then we provide each seminary prof a mitre and permission to play around with the Gospel. When we puts points of doctrine up to a vote at a denominational convention, then then we abandon the tradition of bishop, presbyter, and deacon.

The modern word is "accountability" and -- so as not to hang Michael with this analysis I stress that this is my reading -- the current ELCA lacks that accountability. A crowd of delegates, who don't even have to work for re-election to the next CWA, can't be held accountable for the decisions they make by 50%-plus-1. And the people of the Church cannot be held accountable when Church teaching -- and, yes, the teaching of 2000 years -- is overturned or determined by votes of that kind.

I think that the ELCA's way of handling the evolution -- if such it be -- of its teaching on homosexuality has been most unfortunate by both sides. The "left" spoke of "rights" and "justice" and such nonsense. (Reminder: "Self-evident unalienable rights" is not a Christian concept.) The "right" never did make a particularly compelling case on the balancing of Scripture and modern understandings. And a pox on both sides for being so cocksure.

Frankly, I lose much more sleep over the rabid capitalists I know -- especially those who wear clerical collars -- than I would think of losing for gay people. I think they much more obviously transgress and traduce the expressed will of God than do monogamous gay couples. Where's the outrage on the "right" over that? And why are so many gays eager for their own "rights" but ignorant of the needs of the poor and the other powerless?

But do you see how Michael's argument is spot on? You can complain about how a concern for the Great Tradition intersects with the obvious need for a magisterium (or a ministerium or something) when it gores your ox. But watch how it works to gore someone else's, and the objections must be tempered.

I regret that this sounds pompous, glib, and not very clear. But I think that it is fundamental to the Church to be ultra-senstive to its "use" of scripture and its appeals to authority. And that is what I hear Michael saying.

Keep faith,


Lee said...

Dwight, there seems to be some ambiguity in what you mean by an "accountability" here. You speak of having a person (or group of persons) accountable "to no other source than God -- freed of public pressure, political correctness, mass hysteria in delineating the 'boundaries' of God's word" but then lament that delegates to CWA can't "be held accountable for the decisions they make." But aren't the delegates also accountable to God? Do we have reason to believe that rule by a few is inherently preferable to majority rule? It's not--after all--as if any hypothetical magisterium would exist in a hermetically sealed sin-free zone, invulnerable to political pressure, personal prejudice, and partiality of vision. If someone wants to make the case for such a model of church governance, they ought to make it on the grounds that it will lead to better decision making, not try and convince us that it's possible to have leaders with a direct, unmediated understanding of God's word and what it requires. The church has long since blown its claim to that kind of blind trust.

I'm also a bit puzzled that you'd refer to talk of "justice" and "rights" as "nonsense," as though the Bible isn't full of language about God's justice. Or as if rights-talk didn't derive from Christian sources. As someone whose rights are already pretty secure, I don't think it's my place to admonish others to stop asking for theirs. I recognize rights-talk can be abused, but so can talk of people "sacrificing" or "bearing their cross," as we've seen all too frequently.

Christopher said...

Mark Jordan reminds gay people to mind the rhetoric of churchy-types. I have to say I find your words demeaning, unfair, and very close to bearing false witness toward an entire class of persons and all under the guise of concerns for catholicity, which of course, I am not a part in the accounting of those you attend: “And why are so many gays eager for their own "rights" but ignorant of the needs of the poor and the other powerless?”

You make a broad-swath accusation of gay persons that you would not make of other sorts of persons who find themselves in a vulnerable reality and are seeking to be treated simply as human beings, and more, as brothers and sisters in the Lord. That you can do this at all should tell you something from the get go. You seem to resent gay people quite a lot in you recent posts.

To make such a broad accusation toward a vulnerable minority buys into the thesis often made against such minorities when they “get uppity,” that really they don’t care about anyone else, are against the common good (where of course the common does not consider their welfare at all, and aren’t they the wealthiest among us anyway? Who are they to ask to be treated like us? It is a form of comfortable resentement and plays on others’ resentements and worse can lead to those persons getting hurt, especially in economically troubled times. Your resesentement takes on tangible forms in my life.

The way others of the Church treat us is not removed from the way we can find ourselves harassed, out of a job or housing, beaten up, raped, or murdered in broader society. And this happens daily in the USA, not just over there in Uganda. To use the same rhetoric toward us as the world tells me that many who are making claims about catholicity are in fact rooting their theology and catholicity in thinly veiled prejudice and resentement that they can’t put down someone or push around “those people” anymore without finding themselves rebuked. The fact that some of these scholars suddenly read scripture and tradition completely different than they do in other instances tells me even more that theology is being used to disguise disgust toward us.

Christopher said...

To focus your concern around gay people in this way uses us, is in fact abusive, and utilitarian and worldly to the core as practical theologian Adrian Thatcher warns:

Second, the churches are in danger of using people of homosexual orientation as a ‘site of conflict’ for oppositional politics which have a wider agenda. ‘Liberal’ and ‘conservative’ have little intention of listening to each other; more intention of clobbering each other. So the presence of lesbian and gay Christians in Christian congregations, itself surely a cause of rejoicing (given what Christianity has often had to say about them), and their obedience to the call of God to positions of ministry, has become an ‘issue’, around which there is to be much ‘debate’. Now the danger is that the attitudes of Christians to this ‘issue’ are taken as evidence of their ‘positioning’ over all other matters about which Christians find themselves in disagreement. This is itself to treat homosexual people as means to some other end, like lining up with apparently ‘progressive’ or ‘reactionary’ forces within the church, or the defence of a particular interpretation of the bible. Why should lesbian and gay people be used like this? We who behave this way are in danger of breaking the ninth commandment forbidding false witness against our neighbour (Exodus 20/16), and failing to see the plank in our own eyes before we take the speck from our brother’s.(Matthew 7/4-5)

Next time you go to the Altar-Table, I am putting before you that you have failed to discern part of Christ’s Body—that is God’s gay and lesbian faithful. Some of whom I know personally make most other’s social justice activities on behalf of other vulnerable and more vulnerable persons pale in comparison. Some of them are even Lutheran pastors. Several of them do incredible ministry with those without shelter and addicted persons here in the Bay Area.

You don’t get to use us like this anymore in your words. As Dorothy Sayers warns as WWII was underway, with the horror of ideas that took root then:

Every word—even every idle word—will be accounted for at the day of judgment, because the word itself has power to bring judgment. It is of the nature of the word to reveal itself and to incarnate itself—to assume material form….The habit, very prevalent today, of dismissing words as ‘just words’ takes no account of their power. It may for some time incarnate itself only in more words, more books, more speeches; but the day comes when it incarnates itself in actions, and this is its day of judgment. At the time when these words are being written, we are witnessing a fearful judgment of blood, resulting from the incarnation in deeds of an Idea to which, when it was content with a verbal revelation, we paid singularly little heed.

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