Thursday, December 28, 2006

Generic Protestantism: A Brief History

Since Christmas, I've been reading Christopher Clark's recent book, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947, a gift from my thoughtful parents. Given that the book's subject matter is a nation that no longer exists, one would perhaps expect it to be a dry read, but Clark has written a surprisingly readable book. In particular, I have enjoyed his analysis of the various religious movements that shaped Prussian society through the periods of reformation, orthodoxy, pietism, and rationalism. Too often, histories either ignore the role of religion completely, or treat it as an irrational relic that was eventually overcome by the forces of enlightenment. Clark, in my estimation, avoids both pitfalls, which is a good thing because the post-Reformation history of Christianity in Prussia is far more complicated (and more interesting) than I previously thought.

Although Brandenberg-Prussia became predominately Lutheran during the Reformation, its confessional status was thrown into turmoil in 1613 by the conversion of Elector John Sigismund (the sovereign of the territory) to Calvinism. He then set about cleansing houses of worship of "the dirt of papal idolatry", including altars, baptismal fonts, crucifixes, and artwork. Strangely enough, the Elector naively assumed that his subjects would enthusiastically support these actions, as he believed the superiority of the Reformed faith was self-evident. But his plans for a "second Reformation" were met with stiff, and sometimes violent, opposition from both the nobles and the general populace. According to Clark, the conflict between the Calvinist and Lutheran camps centered on two issues: liturgy and the sacraments.
"[The conflict] was in part an aesthetic issue: to the colorful extravagance of a Lutheran church interior, with its candles and images graven and painted glowing with reflected fire, the Calvinists opposed the white space of a purified church, suffused with natural light. There was also an authentic apprehension that Catholicism remained a latent force within Lutheranism. A particular focus of concern was the Lutheran communion rite; Elector Sigismund objected to Luther's doctrine of the real presence in the Lord's Supper, calling it a 'false, divisive, and highly controversial teaching.' In the words of the Calvinist theologian Simon Pistoris, author of a controversial tract published in Berlin in 1613, Luther 'derived his views from the darkness of the papacy'... In other words, the Reformation remained incomplete."

Much to Sigismund's dismay, the people of Brandenberg-Prussia were rather attached to their ornate churches and communion rites, and thus there was no "second Reformation". From that point forward the monarchy of Prussia, along with most political elites, were Calvinist, while the remainder of the nation remained staunchly Lutheran. This was an awkward situation, to say the least, and to help ease the tensions the Prussian rulers to become some of the earliest advocates of "generic Protestantism". Their efforts culminated in the forced merger of the Lutheran and Calvinist churches into a single Prussian "evangelical-Christian church".
"The king himself [Frederick William III] was the chief architect of this new ecclesiastical entity. He designed the new United liturgy, cobbling together texts from German, Swedish, Anglican, and Huguenot prayer books. He issued regulations for the decoration of altars, the use of candles, vestments and crucifixes. The aim was to create a composite that would resonate with the religious sensibilities of both Calvinists and Lutherans. It was a further, final chapter in the long history of efforts by the Hohenzollern dynasty to close the confessional gap between the monarchy and the people."

As before, the King's designs aroused considerable anger amongst the people, who (justifiably) felt that their religious heritage was being stripped away. Several thousand "Old Lutherans" fled the country for North America and Australia, where they established confessional Lutheran churches like the LCMS.

If you're still reading, you might be wondering why this long story is relevant for us today. After all, such intense confessional antagonism is largely a thing of the past. The ELCA, for instance, has established full communion, including altar and pulpit fellowship, with several Reformed churches - PCUSA, UCC, and the Reformed Church in America. And no one seems scandalized by the fact that these churches do not believe in the real presence. That's because the real battle within Protestantism these days is between liberal and conservatives, and not between Lutherans and Calvinists. Thus, it's relatively easy for the ELCA to make common cause with mainline Presbyterians, even though the divide between Lutheran bodies like the ELCA and LCMS remains as wide as ever. But is it wise for the ELCA to enter into full communion with Reformed bodies that, while culturally similar, are theologically quite different? Likewise, is it prudent for more "confessional" Lutherans to mimic the behavior and attitudes of Southern Baptists?

Sadly, the generic Protestantism advocated by the Prussian kings, and resisted by their subjects, has become a reality for many Lutheran churches in America, both liberal and conservative. I wonder if this situation is a reflection our misplaced priorities, our tendency to put cultural issues ahead of theological ones. In the end, don't matters of sacramentology and liturgy, or predestination and atonement and Christology, lie at a more fundamental level of doctrine than homosexuality or the ordination of women? Surely they do, but it's the latter set of issues that stir the strongest emotions. Hence the temptation, as old as Christendom itself, to compromise one's theological heritage to secure political and cultural allies.

Concluding Unscientific Puppet

Since Lee at verbum ipsum is showing off his Archbishop of Canterbury ornament, I've decided to display a picture of one of my favorite Christmas gifts. That's right, folks! It's a Kierkegaard finger puppet, purchased by my wife from The Unemployed Philosopher's Guild. Soren looks appropriately melancholy (click on the picture for a closer look), but I'm sure he'd be disappointed to learn that his puppet is tough to distinguish from Hegel's.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Is There Freedom in Heaven?

James Wood has written a fascinating review of Sam Harris' book, Letters to a Christian Nation, in which he provides a brief history and explanation of his own atheism.* As is the case for many atheists, Wood finds it impossible to believe in God given the widespread presence of evil and suffering in the world. He also takes issue with the idea of heaven, by which believers let God "off the hook" for the evils of this world by imagining a perfect world in the next life. But Wood argues that, even if heaven exists (which he thinks is unlikely), it would not resemble our earthly lives in the slightest, because free will is not possible in heaven:
In heaven, it seems, all tears will be wiped away and we will be free of pain and suffering. We will also be free of freedom--necessarily so, because if freedom were to exist in heaven, we would merely replicate our lives on earth and start doing terrible things to each other again. Heaven, as an intellectual category as much as an "actual place," depends on the idea that the highest form of happiness--to be face to face with our Maker, and so on--is a state without freedom, or with severely curtailed freedom. But if this is the ideal state, the state that our Creator longs to have us in, then why was heaven not instituted on earth? Since heaven was not created on earth, we must conclude that our lives here are more or less painful experiments, and that the world is a training ground for heaven.

Yet it is a rigged experiment, since the experiment already knows its own answer. Not just because God, being omniscient, must know what will become of each of us (the Catholic church tied itself up in knots over this issue, and eventually had to repudiate its own doctrine of "double predestination"), but also because a real experiment would put the existence of heaven itself in doubt. A rigged experiment simply puts our going to heaven in doubt. Yet if heaven must exist, if there is no doubt that heaven exists, then we know that we are being trained here on earth to exercise a free will that will not be needed in heaven, a free will the exercise of which causes immense pain to many people, but a pain that will be miraculously eased in heaven. This is nothing less than a definition of torture.

The issue of freedom in heaven is a very interesting one, which I had never really considered until this point. But I'm not convinced that Wood is correct. This is because the Bible primarily envisions heaven as the consummation of Creation, and not as a location distinct from this world (for more on this topic, please see Byron's excellent series, Heaven: Not the End of the World). The Christian hope is for the resurrection of the body, not the immortality of the soul, as Wood seems to assume. Thus, the residents of heaven will not simply be "face to face with our Maker" in a spiritual netherworld, but will instead occupy a restored and renewed Creation. It is reasonable to assume that we will retain our creaturely freedom in such a world, although our perfect reconciliation with God will prevent us from sinning.** I think Pannenberg says it best in Volume 1 of his Systematics:

"In the renewed world that is the target of eschatological hope the difference between God and creature will remain, but that between the holy and profane will be totally abolished... The goal of the act of creation is the independent existence of creatures" (400, 420).

That is, in heaven, there will be no conflict between the freedom of God and the freedom of his creatures.

* Interestingly, Wood finds the "popular atheism" offered up by Harris and Dawkins to be quite lacking. He regards their writings as merely "guilty pleasures" for atheists - satisfying, but not substantive or serious.

** I realized after writing this post that the "we" and "our" in this sentence implies that I consider myself worthy of heaven. Of course, that may be presumptuous.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Carter, Israel, and Apartheid: How Can a Decent Man Get it So Wrong?

As a longtime fan of Jimmy Carter, I must say that I'm disappointed by the position that he has adopted regarding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, as set forth in his new book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (which I haven't read) and in an op-ed piece for the LA Times (which I have read). In the op-ed article, Carter makes the audacious claim that the plight of the Palestinians is "more oppressive than what blacks lived under in South Africa during apartheid." This analogy is wrong for many reasons, as has been pointed out by numerous people (here, here, and here), and I agree with Michael Kinsely that it is "unworthy of the man who won—and deserved—the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing Israel and Egypt together in the Camp David Accords, and who has lent such luster to the imaginary office of former president." Does Carter really believe this apartheid nonsense, or is it merely a cynical attempt to sell more books? I hope it's the latter, but either way, I've lost a lot of respect for the former president.

Carter seems to have swallowed, without reservations, the Palestinian narrative of the conflict, which places nearly all of the blame on Israel. Absent from his op-ed piece is any acknowledgment that the Palestinians, through their relentless campaign of terror against Israeli civilians, are also responsible for the lack of a permanent peace (the word "terrorism" only appears once in the article, and it is not used in connection with the Palestinians). Carter also lauds the Palestinian community for their successful elections in 1996, 2005, and 2006, but fails to mention that the 2006 election brought to power Hamas, a terrorist group that has long advocated the destruction of Israel. Apparently, Carter's eagerness to smear Israel with the "apartheid" label has made him blind to the genocidal intentions of many Palestinians.

Judging from the op-ed piece, it appears that Carter has developed something of a persecution complex with respect to the mainstream media, which he believes is firmly in the grip of the pro-Israel lobby. He complains that major newspapers have generally shunned his book, and that "reviews have been written mostly by representatives of Jewish organizations". He is also bothered that most prominent Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi, have distanced themselves from his writings. But he's not deterred: "out in the real world, however, the response has been overwhelmingly positive." What bravery! But if Jimmy should ever feel discouraged, he should remember that his anti-Israel screeds will be welcomed on just about any college campus, and in every European nation, and in the entire Muslim world (especially Iran). And if the people in these places get their way, soon there won't be any Israeli apartheid to worry about, because there won't be any Israel.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Immaculate Conception: An Overlooked Ecumenical Barrier

Last Thursday, Catholics observed the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The doctrine of the IC, as set forth by Pope Pius IX in 1854, holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary "in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin." To mark the day, Pontifications posted an interesting excerpt from Balthasar, which traces the convoluted and fractious history of the IC doctrine, from the Church Fathers to its elevation to infallibility in 1854. According to Balthasar, the central issue at stake is this: "If Mary is to be the true Mother of the Redeemer, she must genuinely belong to the race of Adam, which stands in need of redemption; at the same time, if she is to be his Mother, she needs to be entirely holy, 'immaculate'." As Balthasar indicates, there has never been real agreement on how to solve this apparent dilemma, and he attributes this to the fact that Mary does not "seem to be really at home" in any theology. Thus, it perhaps isn't surprising that the three branches of Christianity - Orthodox, Protestants, and Catholics - have adopted such radically different attitudes towards Mary.

Pontifications has since posted a lengthy quote from Newman, in which he expresses surprise that "so many learned and devout men stumble at this doctrine [of the Immaculate Conception]." Frankly, I'm surprised that he was so surprised. The IC doctrine causes such great offense among Protestants, not because we have a low opinion of Mary, but because so many of the worst characteristics of Catholic theology are evident in this doctrine. It is the product of rampant theological speculation completely unhinged from Scripture (the cited proof texts, Genesis 3:15 and Luke 1:28, are laughably weak) with its truth simply asserted by papal fiat, and it reveals an obsession with Mary that is tough for Christocentric Protestants to swallow. Moreover, as Balthasar's quote makes quite clear, there has never been a real consensus concerning nature of Mary's conception (in other words, the IC is clearly not something that has been believed by Christians at all times and in all places). Thus, it was somewhat presumptuous of the Catholic Church to raise the IC to the level of infallible doctrine, thereby creating a huge obstacle to future unity with Protestant and Orthodox Christians.

If nothing else, the doctrine of the IC should serve as a reminder to Protestants that several ecumenical barriers have been erected by Catholics since the Reformation, including the doctrine of papal infallibility. This fact is often forgotten by evangelical catholics who point to the (limited) agreement on justification as evidence that the Reformation divisions need no longer apply, as the central issue has been dealt with. Yet, in my estimation, the doctrines of papal infallibility and the IC (as well as the issue of Mary in general) are just as divisive.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Odds and Ends

The Cynic Librarian is hosting a carnival dedicated to my favorite theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, and he has kindly included my recent post concerning Fear and Trembling. The carnival also features a link to S.K.'s MySpace entry, which indicates that he has 250 friends - certainly more than he had in real life.

Andy at Sinning Boldly has a great post on the different ways of praising God.

Ben Myers and Kim Fabricius both have profound posts on the theological vocation of people with disabilities. As Kim says, "It is not, observe, a question of the abled bringing help to the disabled – just the reverse: the disabled are the ones who bring help to the abled by showing that we are all, one way or another, limited, broken, and needy flesh, who are who we are only in interdependent relationships where asking for help is a sign not of our weakness but of our created and redeemed humanity."

Finally, as one with a rapidly receding hairline, I was naturally attracted to an article on entitled "Further Proof that God Loves Bald Men" (it's part of David Plotz's series, Blogging the Bible). I really like Plotz's take on one of the most bizarre episodes in the Bible, which concerns the prophet Elisha:

At last, we've reached the crazy, horrifying, inexplicable finale. As Elisha is walking to Bethel, a group of boys—"small boys"—start mocking him: "Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!" I've written before about the Lord's profound affection for bald men. Here He demonstrates that His fondness for cue balls has veered into dementia. Elisha turns around and curses the boys in the name of the Lord. After his curse, "two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled 42 of the boys."

Yep, you read it right. The Lord sends bears to commit a mass mauling, all because of a bald joke.

After much head-scratching—bald-head-scratching, since I'm a bit of a ping-pong ball myself—I realized there's one possibly sympathetic interpretation of Elisha's behavior. He's new at this prophet thing. He hasn't learned his own powers yet. Until he picked up Elijah's mantle, he was a regular guy. His curses had no more effect than ours did. But now he has superpowers, and his every action has consequences. His passing curse—presumably tossed off the way you might give the finger to a tailgater—suddenly has potency it never had before. He learns the hard way—or rather, the 42 boys learn the hard way—that "with great power comes great responsibility." (Oh wait, maybe this is like Spider-Man.) You can't go around crippling every tyke who insults your haircut. In this charitable interpretation of the baldie-bear story, we must assume that Elisha is as horrified by the episode as we are, and that it helps him learn that he must only use his powers sparingly, and for good.

Friday, December 01, 2006

An Actual Conversation That Occurred Yesterday at Lunch

Imagine a few guys sitting around a table in an ordinary lunchroom:
Coworker A (holding up a small round corn chip): Hey look, this chip is just like a communion wafer.

Me: Communion wafers cannot be made of corn; they have to be wheat-based.

Coworker B (surprised): Really?

Me: Yeah, I think so. There weren't Tostidos or corn tortillas at the Last Supper, after all.

Coworker B: Of course, some people think that the wafer doesn't stay wheat-based. You know, transubstantiation - it becomes the body of Christ.

Coworker C: And if you believe that, you're a f*cking moron.

Me: You just called almost a billion people f*cking morons.

Coworker C: Well, so be it. There are a billion people who love Baywatch too. That doesn't mean it's good.

So which is more preposterous (or miraculous, depending on your perspective): transubstantiation or the world-wide popularity of Baywatch?