Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Thoughts for Reformation Day

Today is Halloween, of course, but it is also Reformation Day in the Lutheran Church. On this day in 1517, Martin Luther, dressed as a monk, played a world-historical trick on the Catholic Church by nailing 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. What exactly he intended to accomplish with this act of vandalism remains unclear, but we are all aware of the consequences, both good and bad. Through the centuries, Reformation Day (now typically celebrated on the previous Sunday) has served as a sort of Protestant 4th of July, with multiple renditions of "A Mighty Fortress"” and a festive meal in the church basement. But perhaps the day calls for more reflection and less denominational patriotism. After all, the existence of a separate Lutheran church is not necessarily a good thing, and the freedom we gained in the Reformation will be in vain if we forget what motivated Luther in the first place -– the insight that justification comes through faith alone. Reformation Day is worthwhile only if it spurs the Church to renew its commitment to the articulus stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae.

A brief aside: The Catholic author Flannery O'Connor was at a dinner party when "“the conversation turned to the Eucharist."” A lady remarked that "when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the 'most portable' person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one." To which O'’Connor replied, "“Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it."” She later wrote that "that was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable."

O'Connor's words often come to mind when I contemplate what the doctrine of justification through faith means to me. This article has come under frequent attack, especially in recent years, and the only defense I can offer is that it serves as "“the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable." It is a source of joy and my refuge in distress. To those who would say that it is merely a doctrine, one among many, my reply is nearly the same as O'’Connor's: "“Well, if it'’s just a doctrine, to hell with it”." As Luther said, "“nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls... Upon this article all things depend which we teach and practice."” In other words, justification is the Word that God has spoken to his Creation, and we must resist all attempts to obscure its radical message with caveats and evasions.

Ultimately, O'Connor's position is not that different than mine. The sacrament is, after all, nothing more and nothing less than the visible Word - "“my body given for you." Similarly, the justifying Word comes to us in the very human and very earthy language of Scripture. As Luther said, "The glory of our God is precisely that for our sakes he comes down to the very depths, into human flesh, into the bread, into our mouth, our heart, our bosom." Reformation Day reminds us that the Church and all its members live only from these two gifts of Word and Sacrament. Thus, the Church is never a finished product capable of standing on its own two feet. The Holy Spirit continues to work within the Church, justifying it through grace, and that is the reason why we celebrate today. Semper Reformanda!

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Followers of the Antichrist, I Ask for Your Vote!!

Here in Minnesota, religion has been a major issue in two congressional races. Voters in the 5th district, which encompasses Minneapolis and nearby suburbs, are expected to send Democratic candidate Keith Ellison to Washington, thereby electing the first Muslim member of Congress. Not surprisingly, Ellison's faith has been a major point on contention in the race. In particular, his opponents have targeted his past associations with the Nation of Islam, the notoriously anti-Semitic organization led by Louis Farakan. Ellison denies that he was ever a serious follower of the Nation of Islam, and he has repeatedly disavowed the group's teachings. However, the stain lingers. I'm inclined to take Ellison at his word, but given his assured victory, and my disgust with the two-party system, I'll probably cast my vote for third-party candidate Tammy Lee.

More interesting is the 6th district, which pits Democrat Patty Wetterling against Republican Michele Bachmann. Bachmann has long been the standard-bearer for the religious right in the Minnesota Legislature, where she fought the "homosexual agenda" tooth-and-nail. This involved leading a "prayer circle around the desk of an openly gay state senator" and spying on a gay-rights rally at the Capitol while hiding behind a bush. She has also made it clear that God told her to run for Congress and intends for her to win (of course, such statements have become de rigeur for Republicans these days, so we shouldn't be too surprised).

Interestingly, Bachmann is a Wisconsin Synod Lutheran, which prompted this snippet from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune Opinion page:
Much has been made of Democratic Fifth District House candidate Keith Ellison's alleged ties to the Nation of Islam -- or, as Scott at [the Power Line blog] put it, his "long, enthusiastic and devoted service to the Nation of Islam as the acolyte of a hate cult." Conservative bloggers have made candidates' ties to religious groups an issue, but now a liberal blog -- Faithful Democrats -- has adopted the same tactic regarding GOP Sixth District House candidate Michele Bachmann's church. It is affiliated with the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, which regards the Roman Catholic papacy as the Antichrist. "It's tantamount to hate speech," said Dennis McGrath, spokesman for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

The blog asked, "Can a congressional candidate whose faith says Catholics follow Satan win in a district that's 30 percent Catholic? ... This statement is one of only nine core doctrines listed on WELS's website, suggesting it is particularly important to the denomination. Might Bachmann disagree with this rabid anti-Catholicism? Perhaps, but WELS insists that members and congregations agree on the fundamental doctrines of the church in order to remain in communion with it."

After reading this, I visited the WELS website and, sure enough, their feelings about the papacy are loud and clear: "We reject the teaching that Christians should look for one individual to arise in the end times as the great Antichrist. The characteristics of the Antichrist as presented in Scripture have been and are being fulfilled in the institution of the papacy (2 Thessalonians 2:4-10). We reject the opinion that the identification of the papacy with the Antichrist was merely a historical judgment valid only at the time of the Reformation." In their defense, WELS does make a distinction between the institution of pope and individual Catholics, but it's a very slight distinction:
We thank God, that even within the outward kingdom of Antichrist, there will be some (the precise number known only to God) who escape the fate of the Antichrist because they believe the Scripture's teaching about Christ rather than Antichrist's lies. It was just such Christians within "Babylon" that made up much of the Invisible Church in the days before the Reformation.

Apparently, Bachmann has not visited the WELS website, because she claimed in a debate that her Synod says no such thing about the pope. I guess her particular church has done a poor job of teaching her the "right doctrine". Perhaps, for political purposes, she should quickly transfer to the ELCA (God forbid!) or the Missouri Synod, which, according to the WELS website, has gone soft on the Antichrist.

Some political experts think this issue has the potential to hurt Bachmann, and I hope it does. It would be delicious irony if Bachmann's over-the-top religiosity manages to alienate other conservative Christians, thereby costing her this very close election. Poor Michele. She thought only liberals and gays followed the Antichrist.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Nagel on Dawkins' Latest Book

Following up on my last post, Thomas Nagel has an excellent review in The New Republic of Richard Dawkins' latest book, The God Delusion (subscription required). He describes the book as "a very uneven collection of scriptural ridicule, amateur philosophy, historical and contemporary horror stories, anthropological speculations, and cosmological scientific argument." While Nagel is not a religious person himself, he finds Dawkins' arguments for the non-existence of God unconvincing (incredibly, the book contains a chapter entitled "Why There Almost Certainly Is No God". Well, then I guess we'd better cancel church this Sunday). According to Nagel, the primary flaw in Dawkins's thinking is a lack of imagination, in that he can only conceive of two grand explanations: a "physicalist naturalism" and "the God Hypothesis" (read, crude theism). But these "stark alternatives may not exhaust the possibilities". Moreover, Nagel points out that both perspectives require faith, notwithstanding Dawkin's outlandish claims for science:
"All explanations come to an end somewhere. The real opposition between Dawkins's physicalist naturalism and the God hypothesis is a disagreement over whether this end point is physical, extensional, and purposeless, or mental, intentional, and purposive. On either view, the ultimate explanation is not itself explained. The God hypothesis does not explain the existence of God, and naturalistic physicalism does not explain the laws of physics."

Dawkins is clearly perplexed and angry that, 400 years since the dawn of the Enlightenment, so many people continue believe in God. So why aren't people satisfied with a purely scientific understanding of the world? Are they deluded? Dawkins certainly thinks so. But for Nagel, the explanation lies in the fact that the reductionist worldview offered by modern science simply doesn't do justice to reality as experienced by actual humans:
Dawkins, like many of his contemporaries, is hobbled by the assumption that the only alternative to religion is to insist that the ultimate explanation of everything must lie in particle physics, string theory, or whatever purely extensional laws govern the elements of which the material world is composed.

This reductionist dream is nourished by the extraordinary success of the physical sciences in our time, not least in their recent application to the understanding of life through molecular biology. It is natural to try to take any successful intellectual method as far as it will go. Yet the impulse to find an explanation of everything in physics has over the last fifty years gotten out of control. The concepts of physical science provide a very special, and partial, description of the world that experience reveals to us. It is the world with all subjective consciousness, sensory appearances, thought, value, purpose, and will left out. What remains is the mathematically describable order of things and events in space and time.

That conceptual purification launched the extraordinary development of physics and chemistry that has taken place since the seventeenth century. But reductive physicalism turns this description into an exclusive ontology. The reductionist project usually tries to reclaim some of the originally excluded aspects of the world, by analyzing them in physical--that is, behavioral or neurophysiological--terms; but it denies reality to what cannot be so reduced. I believe the project is doomed--that conscious experience, thought, value, and so forth are not illusions, even though they cannot be identified with physical facts.

Dawkins fails to realize that science will never be able to provide an adequate basis for a complete understanding of human existence. It can only give us abstractions which, however useful they may be, are not the substance of life. What Johann Hamann says of historical events is also true of scientific theories and the law of nature; they "are like that wide valley full of dry bones - and lo, they were very dry. No one but a prophet could presage that veins and flesh would grow on these bones and that skin would cover them. As yet there is no breath in them, until the prophet prophesies unto the wind and the word of the Lord speaks..."

Sunday, October 15, 2006

In Search of Better Atheists

"I guess it's obvious that Santa Claus is the kid's version of God. If you get to your twenties and you're still believing in God, which I was, I feel it's a state of arrested development, as if a child was twelve and still believed in Santa Claus." -- Julia Sweeney, as heard on NPR's To the Best of our Knowledge.

Although Julia Sweeney - former cast member of SNL - could hardly be called an intellectual, I give her credit for so succinctly summarizing the fall-back position of atheistic luminaries like Dawkins, Dennett, and Sam Harris. Anyone who has encountered the writings of these bold men is quite familiar with such "God as Tooth Fairy" attacks. Indeed, the idea that religion is no more than childish fancy is one of the most treasured and nurtured thoughts among secular elites, largely because it reinforces their sense of superiority over the benighted masses. But sadly, it's a simplistic approach that betrays the ignorance and shallow thinking of its advocates. The main problem is that it misses its intended target by a mile. Sweeney's argument is correct to this extent: if any believer's conception of God actually resembled the figure of Santa Claus, then they would certainly be in a state of arrested development. But very few of the adherents of the world's major religions - Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc. - have such a crude conception of God. The fact that Sweeney can say that "it's obvious that Santa Claus is the kid's version of God" indicates that she has no understanding of actual faith, and that the faith she thought she had in her twenties was only a sham, and not the real deal. Apparently, she has since come to think that all believers share her simplistic notions of God.

Likewise, Dawkins and Harris have sold a lot of books with their straw-man arguments, running down a caricature of religion that primarily exists in the minds of "secular fundamentalists" like themselves. These modern atheists are not interested in understanding religion, only attacking it. Thus, Dawkins can say that "we should devote as much time to studying serious theology as we devote to studying serious fairies and serious unicorns." He makes no effort to understand the best minds of the Christian tradition - Augustine, Aquinas, or Barth - probably because it's so much easier to beat up on the likes of Pat Robertson.

The intellectual laziness of modern atheism is a shame because, as has been pointed out elsewhere, Christianity needs smart atheists to keep it honest. In my estimation, the best example of a "purifying atheist" is Friedrich Nietzsche (for a wonderful synopsis of Nietzsche's contributions to Christian thought, please check out Byron Smith's post here). The son of a Lutheran pastor, Nietzsche had a deeper understanding of Christianity than the vast majority of theologians, past and present. And unlike modern atheists, he took the idea of God very seriously. He may have reached some of the same conclusions about religion as modern atheists, but he took a very different route. His writings bear witness, not to a simple-minded dismissal of God, but to a profound confrontation with his religious heritage. In the end, his struggle may have yielded a purer and more faithful account of the Christian faith. Thus, Eberhard Jungel could say that "[Nietzsche's] thoughts come very close to the Christian truth which he was opposing. They merit special attention." A hundred years from now, I doubt that anyone will be saying the same thing about Harris' recent book.

So here's a challenge to all those aspiring atheists out there: ditch the silly "Santa Claus" argument (you're better than that!) and start engaging religion with a little sophistication. May I suggest a certain German madman?

Monday, October 09, 2006

Is Forgiveness Only an Amish Virtue?

In the wake of the Amish school shooting, much has been written about the willingness of the Amish community to forgive the perpetrator and his family. Before the bodies of the children were even buried, the Amish "sent words of forgiveness to the family of the killer who had executed their children", and representatives of the community even attended the murder's funeral - not to vent their anger, but to forgive and mourn for the troubled man who has caused them so much grief. Needless to say, the eagerness of the Amish to forgive has surprised and confounded most Americans, who tend to view revenge as a perfectly natural, and even beneficial, response to such injustices. We have grown accustomed to the sight of victims' families testifying in favor of the death penalty – a practice supported by a majority of Americans. The Amish, however, have set a very different example.

Indeed, the Amish response to this tragedy is so outside the norm that it has sent the media scurrying to finds its source in their theology and way of life. What is it about these simple people that allows them to forgive so freely and so quickly? Donald B. Kraybill, an expert on Amish life, does a good job of answering these questions in an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Amish roots stretch back to the Anabaptist movement at the time of the Protestant Reformation in 16th-century Europe. Hundreds of Anabaptists were burned at the stake, decapitated and tortured because they contended that individuals should have the freedom to make voluntary decisions about religion... The martyr voice still rings loudly in Amish ears with the message of forgiveness of those who tortured them and burned their bodies at the stake.

The martyr testimony springs from the example of Jesus, the cornerstone of Amish faith. As do other Anabaptists, the Amish take the life and teachings of Jesus seriously. Without formal creeds, their simple (but not simplistic) faith accents living in the way of Jesus rather than comprehending the complexities of religious doctrine. Their model is the suffering Jesus who carried his cross without complaint. And who, hanging on the cross, extended forgiveness to his tormentors: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Beyond his example, the Amish try to practice Jesus' admonitions to turn the other cheek, to love one's enemies, to forgive 70 times seven times, and to leave vengeance to the Lord. Retaliation and revenge are not part of their vocabulary.

For me, Kraybill’s analysis is somewhat unsettling, as it begs the question: why don’t other Christians, myself included, behave like the Amish? Why is the media so impressed, and so surprised, by the radical forgiveness exhibited by this isolated community? Could it be that the willingness to “turn the other cheek” is not often seen, even in this supposedly Christian nation? Could it be that most Christians, unlike the Amish, fail to “take the life and teachings of Jesus seriously”? In a nation whose foreign policy has been motivated by a spirit of vengeance ever since 9/11, a tiny group of pre-modern farmers has shamed us by its extraordinary example.

We “conventional” Christians should be quite worried that, for many non-believers, the forgiveness exhibited by the Amish is considered a peculiar quirk of their brand of Christianity, and not of Christianity in general. That they could think such a thing is proof that they have not witnessed enough forgiveness from the rest of us.