Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Balkanization, continued

My previous post on the state of American Lutheranism has prompted some interesting comments, which you can read below (and please check-out Lee's extended reply at verbum ipsum). Two points have been raised. First, most agree that the ELCA no longer possesses a distinctive Lutheran identity. As lutherpunk says, "We really have become nothing more than bland American Protestants, absorbing all the worst from mainline Protestant culture". Secondly, some argue that it's possible to be faithful to the Augsburg Confession in other churches. Luthsem makes a good point by saying that he hopes "for a more ecumenical future with article 4 of the Augsburg Confession [i.e., justification] being the article which the church stands or falls on." I agree that all serious Lutherans should share this goal, as it would mean the ultimate fulfillment of Luther's Reformation project.

Luthsem's comment is interesting because, at first glance, it seems to me that the widespread dissatisfaction within the ELCA has very little to do with the doctrine of justification. Instead, what attracts people to other churches, especially the Roman Catholic Church, are their traditions, liturgies, and positions on social issues, not their fidelity to "the article on which the church stands or falls". The RC church is immensely appealing because, despite its faults, it provides people with a clear identity, which is something craved in this era of pervasive relativism. Conversely, the ELCA's identity has become quite diffuse, leaving many in the church without a clear picture of what the ELCA stands for. So, should we try to save Lutheranism by becoming progressively more "big-C" Catholic, or should we try to revive our own identity first (the latter process may involve restoring some "small-c" catholic elements as well)? In my opinion, this is the main question facing today's Lutherans.

Of course, our current "identity crisis" is a ridiculous and avoidable predicament, since one only needs to read a bit of Luther's writings or the Book of Concord to know what Lutheranism is all about - the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone. If we were to return this message to its rightful place at the center of our worship and preaching, then I'm convinced that our current identity crisis could be resolved. Of course, some would argue that, in the wake of Vatican II and the Joint Declaration, there really is no difference between Catholics and Lutherans on justification. If so, then we Lutherans have lost our reason for being, and it's only a matter of time before the lights go out. But if not, then our Reformation heritage demands that we preserve our Lutheran identity by making it clear (especially to ourselves) why we continue to be Lutherans. A revival of the ELCA will require that we mine our Reformation heritage, just as Roman Catholics continually draw upon their rich tradition. By doing so, we just might create a church that people are eager to call home.

Monday, February 27, 2006

The Balkanization of American Lutheranism

I just finished reading Mark Noll's 1992 article entitled "The Lutheran Difference", which provides an interesting sociological and historical analysis of American Lutherans. Despite the title, Noll admits that there are few differences between today's Lutherans and other American Protestants, and he concludes that they are "remarkably unremarkable... Lutherans may now and then have their eccentricities, but they are on the whole, and given their place on the immigrant curve, quite ordinarily American." Noll seems disappointed by his own conclusion, because he feels that Lutherans, with their unique theological and cultural heritage, may have a lot to offer Christianity in America. A similar point was made several decades before by Winthrop Hudson in his 1961 book American Protestantism:

The final prospect for a vigorous renewal of Protestant life and witness rests with the Lutheran churches... The Lutheran churches are in the fortunate position of having been, in varying degrees, insulated from American life for a long period of time. As a result they have been less subject to the theological erosion which has so largely stripped other denominations of an awareness of their continuity with a historic Christian tradition. Thus the resources of the Christian past have been more readily available to them, and this fact suggests that they may have an increasingly important role in a Protestant recovery. Among the assets immediately at hand among the Lutherans are a confessional tradition, a surviving liturgical structure, and a sense of community..."

However, as Noll points out, Lutherans can only serve this important role if they "remain authentically Lutheran" and "find out how to speak Lutheranism with an American accent... The task is to steer between the Scylla of assimilation without tradition and the Charybdis of tradition without assimilation."

Fourteen years after these words were written, there's little reason to believe that Lutherans have succeeded in this task. The ELCA, which was supposed to create a more unified and assertive American Lutheranism, suffers from widespread discontent. It's sad to say, but very few thoughtful Lutherans feel completely "at home" in the ELCA, and many now look to groups outside of the church for inspiration and direction. Within the ELCA, there are liberal Protestants that want to emulate the social activism and doctrinal tolerance of the mainline denominations, while evangelical catholics now take their cues from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. These two groups, both dissatisfied with the ELCA but for very different reasons, are increasingly anxious to shed their Lutheran identities and pursue futures in other churches. Meanwhile, a third group, comprised of conservative and confessional Lutherans, advocates a repristination of Lutheran Orthodoxy, perhaps in the mold of the Missouri Synod. However, in their zealous attempt to preserve the purity of Lutheran doctrine, they paradoxically become less Lutheran and more akin to conservative evangelicals. In my opinion, none of these groups, in and of themselves, are faithful to Luther's vision, although each encompasses a part of that vision.

What is to be done? Perhaps nothing. In my pessimistic moments, I often suspect that Lutheranism is no longer viable as a distinct denomination, and that the ELCA will eventually disintegrate as various discontented groups leave to join like-minded souls in other churches. This process may take decades or even centuries, but no one should doubt that the Lutheran Church is currently headed for extinction (in Europe, it's already on its deathbed). But we can take solace from the fact that Lutheran theology will never die, even if it has to live on in non-Lutheran churches. Luther belongs to the entire church, not just to a few denominations. In fact, Luther himself might have approved of this scenario, since he never really wanted a separate church named after him.

I would be curious to know if others agree with my gloomy assessment. Are there signs of a revival in the ELCA that I'm currently missing? If so, please bring them to my attention, because I take no pleasure in what I've said here. I have no home other than the ELCA - the mainline churches leave me cold, the Catholic church is too authoritarian and reactionary, and the LCMS is the worst option of all. So please disagree with my prognosis !!!

Thursday, February 23, 2006

An Upbuilding Discourse on those Silly Cartoons

The recent uproar over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed has left me wondering what Kierkegaard would make of all the turmoil in his native land. Interestingly, Kierkegaard himself was mocked in a series of devastating cartoons published in the satirical weekly the Corsair, and these caricatures made him nearly as angry as the Muslim mobs we now see on TV. So I cannot imagine that he would have much sympathy for the editors of Jyllands-Posten and their crude form of "satire". Furthermore, Kierkegaard was not an enthusiastic supporter of the free press, having once remarked that "people demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use." That said, I imagine that would have equal disdain for the vicious and disproportional reaction of the Muslim world, as he harbored a deep hatred of the "crowd".

The bigger question is what Kierkegaard would think about modern Denmark, where Christianity has become a mere memory. As The New Republic points out, Denmark suffers from "a particularly European prejudice... The prejudice is not simply against Islam. Rather, it stems from Western Europe's inability to take religion seriously at all. One reason why Muslims find it harder to integrate in Western Europe than in the United States is that, in Western Europe, integration is often presumed to mean secularization. In defending his decision to print the cartoons, the editor of Jyllands-Posten declared, 'This is about the question of integration and how compatible is the religion of Islam with a modern secular society'... But most Americans - like most Muslims - do not think 'modern' and 'democratic' equal secular. And if an American leader criticized 'these people for whom religion is their entire life', as the Danish queen recently did, she would be out of a job fast." Given this state of affairs, would Kierkegaard even recognize his own country? What would he make an agnostic nation that still has a cross on its flag, and a Christian queen who views Christianity as an afterthought?

While he might be appalled by modern Denmark, I doubt that he would be surprised. After all, in his Attack on Christendom, he argued that the Danish society of his time was only superficially Christian, and it looks like he was right. Indeed, if Kierkegaard were to return today, he might praise modern Danes for giving-up their past religious hypocrisy and honestly behaving like the pagans that they've always been since the days of the Vikings. Clearly, his "attack" was a huge success, and the sham of Christendom is long since gone. He just might take some pleasure in that.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Point of Contact

Given my recent interest in natural theology, I thought it was appropriate to read Karl Barth's famous 1934 response to Brunner, "Nein!". Brunner had advocated a limited natural theology in his work, "Nature and Grace", suggesting that humans possess a "capacity for revelation" (i.e., a "point of contact" with the divine). Indeed, according to Brunner, God is knowable (albeit incompletely) through creation, and thus all humans are capable of sensing the will of God apart from specifically Christian revelation. Not surprisingly, Barth disagreed, arguing that the sole point of contact between God and man is to be found in Jesus Christ, not in human nature generally. His attack on Brunner is relentless and powerful, and I was left convinced that Brunner's position is wrong. However, I'm not quite satisfied that Barth's position is right.

The debate over the point of contact has often seem archaic and irrelevant to me. But the following quote from Tillich makes you realize how much is at stake: "One can distinguish two ways of approaching God: the way of overcoming estrangement, or the way of meeting a stranger." Barth's position is the latter, since he holds that humans have no innate capacity for God. God is a total stranger to man until a connection is forged through the miracle of Christ's revelation. In contrast, Tillich (and most Lutherans) have adopted the former position, nicely articulated in the following passage:
"What is this human entity? Can it be thought of only as something without the divine, without the capacity for receiving answers from the divine and for asking questions of the divine?... Certainly culture is not revelation, as a naive theory of culture assumes it to be. Certainly culture is a human possibility, while revelation is impossibility, which means a divine possibility. Yet revelation would not be even a divine possibility if it could not be received by means of forms of culture as human phenomena. It would be a destructive foreign substance in culture, a disruptive 'nonhuman' entity within the human sphere, and could have no power to shape or direct human history... In general, Barth leaves unexplained how revelation can communicate anything to man if there is nothing in him permitting him to raise questions about it, impelling him toward it, and enabling him to understand it."

Barth would reply that sin has destroyed any possibility of a "point of contact", but Tillich masterfully turns aside this line of reasoning:
"Sin could never be experienced as sin without the anthropological possibility of guilt and despair. Otherwise it would be an empty word, unintelligible communication, and not a revelation of man's status before God. Therefore, it is not correct to say that sin makes impossible any knowledge of God. On the contrary, in the experience of guilt and despair the question of perplexing knowledge about God is as radically presented as it ever can be apart from revelation. And only because of that fact is the answer 'sin and grace' a real answer and not an utterly meaningless formula."

The point of contact lies in our humanity - our language, history, culture, and religious impulses. These are not revelations in and of themselves, but they serve as the medium for revelation. To deny this is to deny humans their special place in God's creation.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

A New Special-ty Store

I was recently in Ventura, CA for a conference, and during a free afternoon some friends and I took a stroll through its beautiful downtown. Just past the Old Spanish Mission, we came across the thrift store shown in the picture, and its sign made us look twice. Thankfully, my friend had a camera phone, so I now have proof that the Retarded Childrens Thrift Store actually exists!

After a fair amount of snickering and inappropriate jokes, we went inside, and discovered a gigantic thrift store with loads of old clothes, appliances, cookware, etc. I was tempted to buy a scarlet three-piece corduroy suit that must have weighed 10 pounds, but I decided that there wasn't enough room in my suitcase. The highlight of the experience occurred when an employee came on the PA saying "Attention all Retarded Children shoppers, we will be closing in 30 minutes."

Apparently, this store is some sort of charity for developmentally-disabled children, but shouldn't they change their name? I know that "retarded" used to be the P.C. term, but it certainly carries some nasty connotations these days. Also, is this the only such store, or are there Retarded Children Thrift Stores all along the West Coast? If anyone has more information, please share...

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Paradox and Reason

One of the glorious aspects of Lutheranism is its enchantment with the paradox: law and gospel, simul iustus et peccator, two kingdoms, finitum capax infiniti, and so on. Indeed, it seems that Luther viewed Christianity as an all-encompassing paradox. This is most clearly reflected in his "theology of the cross", which employs an inverse dialectic to demonstrate how the positive always appears in and through the negative: forgiveness through confession of sin, faith through doubt, joy through suffering, and life through death.

While this paradoxical approach is obviously profound and true, it raises the question of the theological relationship between paradox and reason - a question that is more urgent to me given my recent thinking about natural theology. Is Christian truth always incompatible with reason? Kierkegaard appears to say as much. According to him, faith is intimately connected with the absurd; indeed, we believe "by virtue of the absurd." The offence of Christianity guards against dangerous speculation and guarantees that revelation will always be discontinuous with human knowledge. But does Kierkegaard overstate his case, turning faith into an irrational "leap" into the abyss?

Tillich offers a useful explanation of paradox in his Systematic Theology that struck me as correct. Here it is:

"Paradox points to the fact that in God's acting finite reason is superseded but not annihilated; it expresses this fact in terms which are not logically contradictory but which are supposed to point beyond the realm in which finite reason is applicable. This is indicated by the ecstatic state in which all theological paradoxa appear. The confusion begins when these paradoxa are brought down to the level of genuine logical contradictions and people are asked to sacrifice reason in order to accept senseless combinations of words as divine wisdom. But Christianity does not demand such intellectual 'good works' from anyone, just as it does not ask artificial 'works' of practical asceticism. There is, in the last analysis, only one genuine paradox in the Christian message - the appearance of that which conquers existence under the conditions of existence [i.e., the New Being of Jesus the Christ]. Incarnation, redemption, justification, etc., are implied in this paradoxical event. It is not a logical contradiction which makes it a paradox but the fact that it transcends all human expectations and possibilities. It breaks into the context of experience or reality, but cannot be derived from it. The acceptance of this paradox is not the acceptance of the absurd but it is the state of being grasped by the power of that which breaks into our experience from above it."

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Uselessness of Faith

A few more comments on the materialist world-view of E.O. Wilson, and its implications for theology...

It's remarkable that Wilson, although an atheist himself, is quite confident that he has religion all figured-out. Here's an excerpt from the Slate.com interview:

Wilson: Religion has an enormous Darwinian benefit. The tribes that could believe that they were superior, that were bound together by all the rituals and the myths and symbols of solidarity... were the ones that had the confidence and willingness to go through personal sacrifice, in order to prevail over every other tribe. That's history, an almost undeniable principal of history! So we don't need to think that there is...a supernatural influence.

Interviewer: So this impulse is not evidence of a God. The impulse itself can be explained in biological terms...

Wilson: Easily!

There are many problems with Wilson's "easy" explanation. Firstly, not all religions advocate violence against opposing tribes. In fact, many have adopted pacifist stances towards their neighbors that may actually lower their chances of survival. It's true that a common faith increases social cohesion, but it's not clear why supernatural beliefs are necessary for this. Why not rally around a local leader, a sports team, or a political ideology? I have a hard time believing that humans needed to invent God just to stick together in battle. As recent history has shown, people are willing to fight and die for a wide variety of ideologies and causes, some secular and some religious.

Regardless, Wilson's explanation of the religious a priori is not really new. It's merely a scientific twist on the Freudian and Marxian arguments that humans are religious not because God exists, but because faith serves some other social, psychological, or economic purpose. Religion, while pure madness and delusion in a direct sense, is indirectly useful to human societies.

There's a lesson here for theologians and religious folks in general: we should never fall into the trap of saying that belief in God is "useful". This warning may sound strange to many, but an apologetic strategy based on "usefulness" is disastrous, because eventually people will develop secular means for accomplishing the same useful ends (for instance, Wilson argues that atheists like himself are perfectly capable of behaving morally without God, and many studies bear this out). Instead, we must emphasize again and again that we embrace Christianity because we are passionate for its Truth, not because it advances certain human goals, such as higher moral standards, a sense of purpose in life, or a more equitable society. These benefits may indeed flow from religion, but they are not its reason for being.

An analogy with science may be helpful here. The most celebrated scientists of history were (are still are) motivated, not by a desire to produce better technology, but by an unquenchable thirst for the truth. Of course, better technology has been one result of their work, but humans have continued to study things with no possible usefulness, such as quarks, black holes, and dinosaurs. It's the truth that matters, and the same goes for theology, which pursues the reality of God even when it's neither useful nor comfortable.

Monday, February 13, 2006

E.O. Wilson at (No) Meaning-of-Life TV

I highly recommend a recent feature at Slate.com entitled meaningoflife.tv-cosmic thinkers on camera, where you can watch a series of interviews with prominent scientists, theologians, and philosophers (including a favorite of mine, J.C. Polkinghorne). These interviews address the "big questions of life" - the nature of God, consciousness, free will, evolution, religion, and reason - and they always leave me with plenty to chew on.

Today's feature interview is with E.O. Wilson, the renowned Harvard zoologist. He's a charming man and a brilliant scientist, but he advocates a form of scientific reductionism that I find incredibly wrong-headed and annoying. At one point in the interview, Wilson makes it clear that, from his point of view, science and religion are simply incompatible:
"I'm not going to be one of those scientists, you know, waffling, saying that 'science has its role and religion has its role, science has its own truth and religion has its own truth'... I don't believe that for a minute."

So much for the legendary open-mindedness of scientists. Later in the interview, when the subject turns to free will, Wilson grows impatient with the topic, saying that:

"[The free will debate] is an insoluble dilemma created by semantics and fuzzy thinking, you know, fuzzy subjective and metaphorical thinking... There are just certain problems that are not valid. They are so subject to sloppy thinking and the unknowns of the world, that they're just not worth thinking about."

In other words, if a problem cannot be addressed with objective science, it's simply not worth discussing, as science represents the beginning and end of our knowledge of reality. Philosophy and theology may make for interesting conversation on a Sunday afternoon, but it's all mere speculation compared to science. Presumably, Wilson thinks that the existence of God is another such "invalid" and "insoluble dilemma", which is best ignored because science cannot render a decisive verdict. When pushed on the matter, he concedes that a bare-bones deism is possible, but he goes on to say that:

"I believe that the evidence shows, now conclusively, that it's false reasoning to believe in a biological God; meaning, a God that oversaw and directed the evolution of life... Parsimony demands that we go with the assumption that life can originate on its own, because I think we'll do it in the lab before too long... and show the conditions in which this could occur autonomously."

Forgive me, Dr. Wilson, but when (and if) a team of highly-educated scientists "create" life in a laboratory setting, this will hardly be the result of an autonomous process, but will instead arise from a contrived experiment designed by intelligent beings. The fact that humans can "play god" does not eliminate the existence of the real God. Moreover, science is in no position to discredit the "biological God." Of course, science must assume that life originated on its own - it can do no other - but it's fundamentally wrong to suppose that science is capable of explaining the whole of reality with its methods. Yes, evolutionary biology has demonstrated that God is not necessary for natural selection to occur, but that's not the same as saying that science has eliminated the possibility of a biological God. Thankfully, this point is nicely made by others in the Slate series, such as Polkinghorne, John Haught, and Freeman Dyson.

Despite these complaints, I really enjoyed listening to Wilson. He deserves to be taken seriously, and he's a valuable sparring partner for those who like to contemplate theology. I'll have more to say about this later.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Naturally Better

My recent thinking about science and faith has left me vexed about the problem of natural theology. The conflict has arisen because many of my theological heroes, such as Barth and Bultmann, were adamant that natural theology has no place in the church. For instance, Barth taught, with the over-emphasis of genius, that “even if we only lend our little finger to natural theology, there necessarily follows the denial of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. A natural theology which does not strive to be the only master is not a natural theology. And to give it a place at all is to put oneself, even if unwittingly, on the way that leads to this sole sovereignty.”

There little doubt that natural theology has proved dangerous historically. Barth’s thoughts on the matter were profoundly shaped by the rise of the German Christians under the Nazi regime, who claimed that the Third Reich was source of revelation along side that of Christ in Scripture. And a previous post of mine mentioned the role of natural theology in supporting American slavery. However, do these past excesses demand that we foreswear all future attempts to construct a vital natural theology?

In his many writings, Polkinghorne has argued that to abolish natural theology “is to risk relegating theology to an intellectual ghetto.” And indeed, theology currently finds itself in such a ghetto, cut-off from the academy and isolated from much of mainstream culture. This is particularly true in Europe, where the rise of Barth’s theology has seemed to correlate with the decline of Christian participation and influence. In the Protestant countries of Europe, the Church is utterly irrelevant, powerless to address the major political, social, and cultural issues of the day. How much of this can be blamed on Barth’s “positivism of revelation”, which refused to listen to any voice other than its own?

There must be a better way, and it likely involves a modest degree of natural theology. Polkinghorne never uses science to prove or disprove theological propositions, but he believes that theology is immensely enriched by interaction with scientific thought. In many respects, his theology of science is similar to Tillich’s theology of culture, as both show an eagerness to engage with “the situation”. Such “situational” thinking will be required if theology is to move out of its self-imposed ghetto and reclaim the title of “Queen of the Sciences.”

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Scripture and American Slavery

The most recent New Republic features a thought-provoking book review of The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders Worldview. The authors of the book argue that Southern intellectuals had a pretty solid theological case for slavery: The Bible is "the Word of God and God's words sanction slavery." In fact, "the proslavery protagonists proved so strong in their appeal to Scripture as to make comprehensible the readiness with which Southern whites satisfied themselves that God sanctioned slavery", which came to be seen as the embodiment of "God's divine order".

The article is unsettling because it's hard to argue with the slaveholders' logic. The Bible is almost never anti-slavery in either the Old or New Testaments, and in many cases it's quite enthusiastic about the concept. While the Israelites resisted their slavery in Egypt, they went on to enslave others, all with God's apparent approval. Even Jesus, while showing complete love and compassion for slaves, seemed to regard slavery itself as a fact of life. Of course, one could argue that Jesus preached an overall message that was implicitly anti-slavery, but why then did he never explicitly challenge the institution during his earthly ministry? (If I've missed instances of an abolitionist Jesus, someone please point them out to me).

The scary question is this: If I had been born and raised as a Christian slaveholder on a Southern plantation, would it even have occurred to me that slavery was wrong? According to this article, many in the South did sense that slavery might be immoral, but they comforted their uneasy consciences by turning to the Bible. Which then raises the other disturbing question: Is the Bible a reliable guide in ethical matters? My initial answer would be no.

There's no doubt that the Southern Christians were practicing a dubious natural theology, in which they believed that the social order of the antebellum South was simply a reflection of "God's divine order". They supported slavery for economic and social reasons, and then sought vindication in Scripture. In essence, they were reading Scripture in the wrong direction, and this cautionary tale reinforces the idea that if we are to hear the Bible as God's Word to us, then we must be prepared to surrender all of our preconceived notions of God's will. Without this openness, revelation will simply become a plaything for human agendas, whether liberal or conservative, slave or free.

Monday, February 06, 2006

My Time in the "No-Theology Zone" of Science Land

Well, I've returned from the conference, and while it was fun and stimulating, I'm frankly a little relieved to be back. These scientific meetings always make me feel like I'm living a secret double life, since they force me to eat, sleep, and socialize in a rigidly "no-God" environment. Theological discourse is strictly off-limits at scientific conferences, and the mere mention of God would be as awkward as passing gas. This situation is pervasive throughout the scientific community, which holds that religious scientists should keep their faith to themselves. Of course, this is never stated explicitly, but it is certainly implied in the norms and shared assumptions of the community. And while most of my colleagues would probably allow that religion and science are compatible to a degree, this fact is never acknowledged in practice, and most instinctively believe that serious faith is a betrayal of reason. Thus, a Christian like myself cannot help but feel that the "silence" about God at these conferences is not simply neutrality or agnosticism, but a form of collective atheism. God is not an appropriate topic of discussion, although during the social events we can freely talk about anything else (politics, travel, sports, sex, beer, etc.).

It's because of these issues that the writings of J.C. Polkinghorne, the priest/physicist, have been a great comfort to me. While I don't agree with everything he says, he's a great example of a Christian scientist who refused to live a double life. He understands that science and theology are intellectual cousins, both striving to understand the one reality created by the one God. If I had more courage, I would vigorously argue this point at scientific meetings, but I'm too afraid of being ridiculed and ostracized. So I keep my resentment to myself and pray that the future will bring a less arrogant and more accepting scientific community.