Monday, August 27, 2007

Evangelicals Head East

A recent article in the New Republic - strangely entitled “The Iconoclasts” - discusses the growing number of American evangelicals who have converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. While the author of the piece, Jason Zengerle, expects us to be amazed by his findings, nothing in the article will come as a shock to those who pay attention to the religious scene in America. The Orthodox Church has gained a number of high-profile converts from Protestantism over the past few decades and it appears that the trend is only accelerating. Not surprisingly, when asked to explain their decisions, most of the coverts in the article cited their dissatisfaction with the insipid liturgies and anti-intellectualism of American evangelical churches, as well as their belief that the Orthodox Church comes closest to replicating the early church.

The article is most interesting when it discusses the trend towards Orthodoxy from a political angle:

Although the culture wars seem like a staple of evangelical life, the converts suggest that there is a growing fatigue with this worldly fight. One of the more striking things about the Orthodox Church is that it's not very political. That's not to say it isn't conservative. "As Orthodox, we don't believe that being gay is a legitimate alternative lifestyle, we believe it's an aberration. We also say abortion is murder," says Gillquist. But, unlike in many evangelical churches, these views--while strongly held--tend not to come up in the course of worship. As Daniel Larison, a conservative writer and Orthodox convert who attends a Russian Orthodox Church in Chicago, says, "As a general rule, the sermons are going to be related to the gospel and that's about it. Political themes and political ideas don't come into sermons directly. That's not why people are there. They want to keep that as far away as possible."

And, by keeping it far away, the Orthodox Church has been immune to the social and political conflicts that frequently flare up in the Anglican and Catholic Churches, where disaffected evangelicals once typically sought refuge. "In the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Church, there's a lot of dialogue with the culture: For instance, what do we do with the whole creation versus evolution thing? Where does science play in?" says Andrew Henderson, an evangelical-turned-Anglican who recently converted to Orthodox Christianity and worships at Holy Transfiguration. "In the Orthodox Church, with that Eastern mindset that's just so ancient, those questions haven't really arisen. It just isn't a concern."

I’m intrigued by that last statement – “those questions haven't really arisen.” Does he mean to say that things move so slowly in the Orthodox Church that issues like homosexuality, evolution, and women’s ordination just haven’t come up? If this is the case, I can understand the appeal of a church that is so isolated and so consumed with the gospel that it hasn't gotten around to fighting the culture wars. But with so many outsiders moving in, I wonder how long this "splendid isolation" will last.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Mother Theresa and Doubt

As the Guardian regularly makes sport of religion (and Christianity, in particular), I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the inane column that appeared today, where Andrew Brown asks the question, “Was Mother Theresa an Atheist?”. The basis for this provocative title are some recently publicized letters in which the saint describes her crisis of faith. Brown writes: “Even as she was receiving the Nobel prize, she asked her confessor to pray for her because she could feel nothing when she prayed herself and no longer had any experience of God.” He cites the following letter, written at her confessor's request, in which he claims that Mother Theresa “sounds like an adolescent Dawkins”:

‘I call, I cling, I want ... and there is no One to answer ... no One on Whom I can cling ... no, No One. Alone ... Where is my Faith ... even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness ... My God ... how painful is this unknown pain ... I have no Faith ... I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart ... & make me suffer untold agony.

'So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them ... because of the blasphemy ... If there be God ... please forgive me ... When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. I am told God loves me ... and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.’"

(How does this sound like Dawkins at all? Dawkins has never experienced the “dark night of the soul” – his faith in Reason is far too strong for that. Who could ever imagine him saying, “If there be God ... please forgive me”?). Regardless, from this quote Brown concludes that Theresa was a full-blown atheist, and thus nothing but a hypocrite and a fraud (although he admires her determination to stick with an institution that she no longer believed in). He even mocks her earlier professions of faith, saying that her talk of a “union” with Christ “seems to have come from a bodice-ripper.” Clearly, Brown is aroused by his irreverent tone and shocking language; he perhaps imagines himself brave, although he is merely engaging in adolescent iconoclasm.

Brown is most surprised that “the letters have not been revealed by one of her avowed enemies, like Christopher Hitchens, but by the man who is responsible for promoting her canonization, the Rev Brian Kolodiejchuk.” Shouldn’t the Catholic Church be scandalized by these professions of doubt? After all, it turns out that one of their star players was really a double-agent, working for the other side. But apparently the Church is taking it all in stride; indeed, some in the Church say that "it will give a whole new dimension to the way that people understand her." Brown concludes: “Only the most hardened atheists will not be shocked by the ease with which the Catholic church has assimilated the news that its most famous saint thought of herself as a hypocrite when she talked about the love of God.”

But this goes to show that Brown understands nothing about the nature of real faith. For him, any expression of doubt indicates that the so-called believer is really just an atheist who is lying to themselves. The slightest wavering and your faith is a lie, as true faith necessarily excludes doubt. But Christians have always understood doubt to be a integral part of faith (see my previous post on this topic here). Mother Theresa continued to trust Christ even when she couldn’t trust herself. This is not so unusual. God’s hiddenness has been experienced by nearly all “great” Christians through history (just think of Luther, to name one), and, most significantly, Christ himself felt forsaken by God on the Cross. So why should it be any surprise that this saint was granted the opportunity to follow Him into the darkness of faith?

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Oswald Bayer: Faith and Lamentation

In my last post, I mentioned that for Luther faith means "against God to force its way through to God and call upon God, ... to break through to God through his wrath, through his punishment, and through his disfavor." I take this to mean that one must strive with God, wrestling with him until he gives us a blessing. As the Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer writes in Living by Faith: "Faith does not conduct a debate about God and God's righteousness, as does the natural, the redeemed, or the presumably already glorified reason before its own forum. It conducts a dispute with God in prayer and lament." Indeed, Bayer understands lament against God as one of the most profound expressions of faith. This is because the foundation of lament is belief in the essential goodness of God and his creation:
"Lament is only possible because of the promise that it will be heard. Without promise there is no cause for lamentation... Lament is an eminent way of perceiving and experiencing the world. For it never surrenders the faith that the creation is 'very good,' nor does it make evil and suffering harmless, regarding them as nothing. In lament pain is felt in all its profundity. Our most profound testing is that God, who has promised us life and external communion, who has guaranteed them, is still the God who does not lament death or destroy it, but who is at work in life and death and all things."
Faith allows space for lamentation, but comprehensive systems do not. Here, Bayer contrasts the theodicies of Hegel and Luther. Hegel's "contemplative theodicy" tries to rationalize evil, to locate its place in the larger picture in such a way that it serves the greater good. In the System, "the misery and suffering of this world are ultimately regarded as irrelevant. This contemplative theodicy supposes the painful difference between the promise of life and all that contradicts it to be already resolved. The passion of lament, which perceives this difference, dissolves and gives way to 'the passionless stillness of knowledge that only thinks'." Suffering is not real or serious for Hegel - it's merely a principle. By contrast,
"Luther never downplays or treats as harmless the situation of temptation and testing when God withdraws and conceals himself. He confronts it in all its depth and sharpness. He does not ignore experiences of suffering. Yet he refuses to accept their finality. He flees from the hidden God to the revealed and incarnate God. He presses on 'toward God and even against him calls upon him.'"
It seems to me that the spirit of striving and lamentation are sorely lacking today. Not that there is no suffering in the world -there surely is, often on an unprecedented scale. It's just that most people, whether they believe in God or not, have their preferred method of explaining away evil and suffering. Even in the church, there is a sense that we should never protest against God, that God is our friend and he only wants the best for us. Like Hegel's system, our theologies absolve God and try to erase the pain by explaining that "it's all for the best." But this is simply not biblical (just read the book of Job!).

Bayer's book reminds us that "Luther's Reformation theology does not mean to justify the world as it is." Honest Christians are compelled to admit that "we cannot demonstrate the goodness and the love of God... The nexus of the world [is] no nexus at all, but foremost an embattled and lacerated world in which creation is 'rent and torn from top to bottom.' There is no agreement, no harmony in the world. It rings out like 'cracked bells.'" Such a world requires faith and lamentation. It requires that we strive with God, holding fast to existence and remaining in the flux, accepting both joy and suffering from his hand, and trusting his promises in Christ.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

"God Against God" in Luther's Theology

In an effort to get back to basics, I'm currently reading Paul Althaus's The Theology of Martin Luther. I would recommend this book for two reasons. First, Althaus was a Luther scholar of the first rank and he presents the various facets of Luther's theology in a clear and comprehensive manner - no easy task given the notoriously complex and unwieldy nature of Luther's thought. Secondly, he always supports his statements with extensive quotations from the Reformer's writings and sermons, both in the main text and in footnotes. Thus, the book serves as a sort of condensed version of the Weimar Edition, and is a handy reference for anyone (like me) who is always saying, "I know that Luther said such and such, but I'm not exactly sure how or where...".

Reading this book has certainly heightened my admiration for Luther's theology, but it has also reminded me of some of its problematic aspects. I found the chapter "Man Between God and Satan" particularly difficult, not because my modern mind has trouble believing that the devil exists, but because of what it implies for Luther's doctrine of God. Althaus stresses that Luther took the devil seriously in a way that exceeded the medieval tradition: "Luther's devil has, one might say, more hellish majesty than the medieval devil; he has become more serious, more powerful, and more terrible." This was borne out of his personal experience; Luther once remarked that "by the grace of God, I have learned to know a great deal about Satan." Althaus makes it clear that Luther conceived of the world as a battlefield between God and Satan, with humanity as the prize: "God and the devil are fighting for men, for humanity and for the lordship. Here there is no neutrality, no buffer state."

Thus "the devil stands in opposition to God." But this isn't the end of the story. Althaus continues:
"Although [Satan's] power and his claim are so great that he can be called the 'god of this world,' there is never any doubt that only the true God is God. Luther holds dualism within the boundaries set by God's omnipotence, which works all in all. This means that the devil must still serve God's will for men and for the world - in spite of the fact that his will and activity are directed against God. God keeps him in his service and uses him for his own work. He uses him primarily as the tool of his wrath. As Luther wrote, "God indeed uses the devil to afflict and kill us. But the devil cannot do this if God does not want sin to be punished in this way." What God's wrath does and what Satan does frequently appear to be one and the same. The devil is 'God's devil.' And yet at the same time he remains the devil, the enemy of God, who wants the opposite of what God wants."
It's passages like these that set my head spinning. Althaus himself admits that this aspect of Luther's thought is highly contradictory. Yet we dare not back away from the implications of God being God. "It is God himself who lets us die: 'Thou causest men to die.' In death man has to do with God. Under no circumstances may he attribute misfortune and death to some other demonic power. To do that would be to deny the unity of God."

But it is precisely the unity of God that seems to be compromised by this line of thought. Luther seems to require a dualism in the nature of God. This is evident is his distinction between the "alien" and "proper" work of God: "God uses Satan for his 'alien work' (opus alienum) but in so doing is always aiming at his proper work (opus proprium)... God uses misfortune, suffering of body and soul, and death in order to humble those who belong to him and to lead them from trust in something earthly to trust in him alone." Thus, God often acts in a manner contrary to his own nature. Indeed, although "wrath is the undeniable reality between God and [man], it is false to speak of God's wrath as though it were an essential part of God's true being." But this begs the question: how can God act in manner contrary to his own being? Is his wrath real, or is his love only perceived as wrath by a sinful humanity?

This is the "God against God" motif in Luther's thought. And like all aspect of Luther's theology, it is situated in a christological framework. It is Christ who reconciles the division within God: "Christ acts in the name and in the power of God in such a way that he not only deals with humanity and the powers to which it has succumbed but also with God himself. He acts also in relationship to God; he 'reconciles' God, or we may also say, he reconciles humanity with God (Luther uses the expression interchangeably). God in Christ deals also with himself, in himself, and in an inner trinitarian relationship." Luther makes this very clear in a dramatic passage from Bondage of the Will. Reflecting on Christ's weeping over the lost in Jerusalem (Matt 23:37: 'O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered thy children together and thou wouldst not'), Luther writes:
"Here, God Incarnate says: 'I would, and thou wouldst not.' God Incarnate, I repeat, was sent for this purpose, to will, say, do, suffer, and offer to all men, all that is necessary for salvation; albeit He offends many who, being abandoned or hardened by God's secret will of Majesty, do not receive Him thus willing, speaking, doing, and offering.... It belongs to the same God Incarnate to weep, lament, and groan over the perdition of the ungodly, though that will of Majesty purposely leaves and reprobates some to perish. Nor is it for us to ask why He does so, but to stand in awe of God Who can do, and wills to do, such things."
Here, Luther seems to be teaching that the will of God Incarnate is opposed to the will of God in his Majesty; or, said another way, that the revealed God and the hidden God are not necessarily the same thing. God the Son wants to save all, while God the Father condemns many. Such comments, if understood metaphysically (that is, as objective statements about the nature of God), would be highly unorthodox.* But it would be wrong to construe Luther this way. As I have discussed elsewhere, Luther is (usually) not interested in providing a comprehensive doctrine of God or a system that nicely resolves the thorny problems of free-will, evil, predestination, etc. Instead, he gives us a theology "from below", one that, through faith, is able to live with the paradoxes. Luther writes in BotW that "God in His own nature and majesty is to be left alone; in this regard, we have nothing to do with Him, nor does He wish us to deal with him. We have to do with him as clothed and displayed in his Word, by which He presents himself to us." Faith means "against God to force its way through to God and call upon God, ... to break through to God through his wrath, through his punishment, and through his disfavor." The God that is against God and humanity is ultimately the God "for us" in Christ. Only faith in Christ is able to perceive this.

* With regards to this matter, I recommend an old post by Chris Atwood at Three Hierarchies in which he defends Luther's position against a Calvinist critic.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Lutheran Canon

Last week, Edward T. Oakes wrote an interesting article for First Things about the nature and role of canons. He made the valid point that canons are indispensable in any field, despite efforts by postmodernists to dismiss the very idea of the canon as hegemonic and imperialist. He also mentioned his candidates for various canons - theological, philosophical, and literary - and remarked on their differing criterion for admittance (style is crucial for the literary canon, whereas orthodoxy is decisive for the theological). It's a fascinating subject, one that appeals to my need to classify and delimit, to formulate my "best of" list.

Of course, Oakes's piece got me thinking about the Lutheran canon. What theologians (other than Luther) and books (other than the Book of Concord) are central to Lutheran self-understanding? Who is on the Lutheran All-Star team? At first I thought it would be easy to answer such questions, but I soon realized that it was no easy task. Indeed, it became apparent that the composition of the Lutheran canon would be a contentious issue, one that would easily divide along denominational lines. We can all agree, of course, that Luther is the standard-bearer of our theology, but who are Luther's true successors? Questions like these have divided Lutherans from the very beginning.

After writing down a few names, I concluded that "canonical Lutherans" can essentially be divided into two lineages, with Luther as their common ancestor. Here's my preliminary list,* which includes Lutherans from every century except our current one (the verdict is still out on living theologians). Please feel free to suggest additions and/or subtractions:

Group 1: Melanchthon (1497-1560), Martin Chemnitz (1522-1586), C.F.W. Walther (1811-1887), Werner Elert (1885-1954).

Group 2: Philip Jacob Spener (1635-1705), Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788), Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Paul Tillich (1886-1965), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945).

The two groups can perhaps be labeled "insiders" and "outsiders", although some may call the latter group "confessional". Another distinction might be "pietist" (or "existential") versus "orthodox", although this is also imperfect. Regardless, members of Group 2 were typically devout Christians raised in Lutheran countries who often clashed with the established church of their day (Kierkegaard is the classic example). These thinkers were unmistakably Lutheran in their theological orientation, but they were in no sense trying to repristinate Luther's theology. They admired Luther but did not feel beholden to him. In contrast, those in Group 1 were determined to preserve the "pure doctrine" of the Reformation. They viewed their task as principally one of expounding upon what had already been perfectly revealed in Scripture and the confessions - style was less important than a clear and forceful exposition of the faith.

Readers of this blog should not be surprised to learn that I am most drawn to the "outsiders" wing of the Lutheran canon - Kierkegaard and Hamann are particular favorites of mine. It is also this group that has received the most attention from non-Lutherans, perhaps because they better capture the boldness and excitement of Luther's theology, if not always the exact content. But I really believe that the two groups need each other, since they represent the tension that is always present in Lutheran theology between radicalism and conservatism. As I've mentioned before, this tension can be traced back to Luther himself, who led a very conservative Reformation with one foot in the Catholic Church and one foot outside. But it's my belief that this incongruity has contributed to the incredible richness of Lutheran theology.

* I have deliberately left Lutheran church historians and biblical scholars off the list, although Bultmann and Harnack would probably make many people's list of most influential Lutherans. I also omitted philosophers that had been heavily influenced by Lutheran theology, such as Hegel and Nietzsche. Finally, I did not include musicians, although some would say that J.S. Bach is the greatest Lutheran to have ever graced our planet.