Saturday, February 03, 2007

Our Perpetual Identity Crisis

It is widely acknowledged that Lutherans in America are suffering from something like an identity crisis (see here, here, and here*). Indeed, for many, the question of our identity has become almost an obsession. What does it mean to be Lutheran today? Is our identity theological or cultural, or some intangible mixture of both? Does our identity even matter? I'm certainly not above engaging in such self-analysis; quite the contrary, this blog has often bewailed the decline of a distinctive Lutheran identity. But I've come to the conclusion that none of this is new. In fact, it would appear the Lutheranism, especially in its American form(s), has always suffered from an identity crisis and always will - it's simply built into its structure.

This point was driven home as I re-read Mark Noll's excellent First Things article on the history of American Lutheranism. Noll argues that, while Lutherans are quite ordinary as a group, Lutheranism itself has always been somewhat "out of place" in the landscape of American Christianity. Thus, from the very beginning, there has been consistent and enormous pressure for Lutherans to assimilate their churches into the American mainstream, whether that be conservative or liberal. This was evident even in the 19th century, when the influential Samuel Schmucker sought to amend the Augsburg Confession in order to bring Lutheranism in line with New World Protestantism. Schmucker's "reforms" were eventually rejected and Lutheranism retained its Old World distinctiveness well into the 20th century. It wasn't until after World War II that Lutherans began to reengage with the broader scene, bringing with it the same pressures to assimilate. This time, the forces of Americanization were more successful, resulting in our present situation. Noll writes:
The jaundiced critic, in other words, might think that American Lutherans escaped the peril of nineteenth-century Schmuckerism only to fall prey to a late-twentieth-century version of the same thing - for the ELCA, launching the ecclesiastical ship into a mainstream that had almost run dry; for Missouri, taking on the colors of a fundamentalism ever more clearly revealed as a Christianity merely of assorted rightist tendencies.
Some of this was simply inevitable. As German and Scandinavian immigrants assimilated into American culture, it was natural that they would lose elements of their Old World religion, just as they lost their language and customs. But, upon closer analysis, it appears that the plight of Lutheranism in America was never going to be easy. This is because Lutheran theology, in many respects, is fundamentally at odds with the American "creed" of progress and self-reliance. As Matthew Rose writes (in another great First Things article):
Perhaps no theology is so wonderfully unfitted as Lutheranism for the triumphant, but often disordering, American Century. The American Success Story requires a list of ingredients that reads something like a Lutheran anti-creed: an obsession for the new and untried; a condescension towards the old and tried; a mania for self-expressive accomplishment; a creative drive to overcome, define, and establish oneself over and above others. These distinguishing characteristics have been strung into a charming civic poesy. Yet American Lutherans have been little inspired by this, not being people of an epic state of mind. Fame, for Lutherans, seems best accomplished by accident, if at all. In this vein Falstaff is surely revealed as an “anonymous Lutheran” in his dictum, “The better part of valor is discretion.”
Yet it would be too easy to simply blame America for our current dilemma. Instead, we must admit that there is something internal to Lutheranism that lends itself to a perpetual identity crisis. By leading a very conservative Reformation (with one foot in the Catholic Church and the other outside), Luther guaranteed that future generations of Lutherans would find themselves in a precarious position with respect to other Christians. Are we a "confessional movement within the Church catholic" or are we full-blooded Protestants? Are we a conservative, traditionalist church, or does the spirit of semper Reformanda allow us to change and adapt with the times? Even in Europe, the Lutheran Church found it difficult to answer these questions, as it struggled to articulate and preserve its identity against both Catholic and Protestant influences (for an example, see my previous post on the Prussian church). How much more true is this must be in America, where the old fault-lines created during the Reformation no longer apply. We should therefore expect the wrangling over Lutheran identity to continue for some time.

* While I agree with Preus's statements in this article regarding the JDDJ and the Reformed full communion agreements, he's wrong to assume that only liberalism is a threat to Lutheran identity. Noll's article makes it clear that conservative forces, in the form of American evangelicalism, have already eroded the Lutheran identity of the so-called confessional churches (i.e., LCMS and WELS). These churches, of course, make a big show of their allegiance to the Lutheran confessions. But it doesn't matter if you're a biblical fundamentalist and a confessional fundamentalist - you're still a fundamentalist (this is not to say that the LCMS or its members are fundamentalists, only that there is a danger in them becoming so).


Andy said...

In my neck of the woods, American evangelicalism seems to be far and away the greatest threat to retaining Lutheranism within Lutheran churches. Ironically, it's particularly strong in the WordAlone groups that make a big show of preserving our Lutheran heritage.

My admittedly cynical perspective (as someone who labors in vain to get adults to show up for adult ed) is that people don't want to be educated, they want to be right. And the calling card of American evangelicalism is being right. Being Lutheran requires a lot of reading and thinking and discussing. Being right you can pick up on the radio or on TV.

The whole thing is just so dripping with irony. Liberals are criticized as having given in to the culture. Yet where are we getting the American evangelical influence?

hamletta said...

And at what point do you stop being Lutheran? I mean, how do you resolve a belief in the literal inerrancy of the Bible with Luther's concept of Scripture as the cradle of the Word?

P.S.—There's a blip on your link to the Matthew Rose article. It's here.

Thomas Adams said...

Andy -- I think you're spot on. "People don't want to be educated, they want to be right." Lutheran theology requires the ability to make difficult distinctions - between Law and Gospel, justification and sanctification, the two kingdoms, etc. Like you said, it's hard work and often somewhat ambiguous. It's much easier, and more satisfying, to take clear "we're right, they're wrong" positions on culture war issues.

I also like your point about culture. Theologians like Barth and Kierkegaard rightly criticized the liberal, bourgeois “culture Protestantism” of the 19th century. But today in America, it’s the conservatives that are trying to erase the distinction between culture and Christianity. Given this potent mix of culture, politics, and simplistic religion, it’s not surprising that many Lutherans have adopted the positions, as well as the style and tone, of American evangelicals.

Hamletta – Thanks for the correct link; I’ve made the change. I also agree that Luther's concept of Scripture was quite different than the biblicism of modern American evangelicalism. Unfortunately, this difference is lost on many.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Great questions here. Again my two cents: Lutheranism is opposed to all cultures--not just American. It is opposed to any exalted anthropology. Which culture on earth (which human being?) has ever been successful in showing that man is a creature of the Creator who is bound to fear, love, and obey Him? The Jews sure couldn't do it. Lutherans and St. Paul are at their finest when they are at their weakest. It is only then that we are driven to the cross as our only hope. Attempts at moderation (I am indigting ALL synods) is foolish. Lutheranism is radical on the inside, ho hum on the outside. What a great blog! Generally I think blogs are self-centered drivel, but this is really entertaining. Thank you for working so hard on your posts.

Anonymous said...

FROM: Johannes@KORB
I'd like to add some words of consolation. From a German perspective, the two (or may be more than two) kinds of Lutheranism in North America do have a lot more of Lutheran identity than they deplore. This includes their continuous quest for just that identity. Keep up the good work!