Saturday, July 9, 2011

Why I Am A Traditionalist Lutheran

There are a few things I would like to make abundantly clear before I press too far into this project. The first is that I am writing primarily in the manner of a personal reflection, and that reflection in the hopes of clarifying some things for myself. I say this forthrightly because I want those who may read this to understand that I am not attempting to convince anyone of the veracity of the Lutheran Confession or even of the value of my own reflection and experience. I will not engage in Confessional or denominational squabbles here, though I will appreciate efforts to correct false assumptions concerning other traditions, should they be offered. I do realize that much of what I write here will be ill appreciated by some. I cannot adequately commit my own understanding of the Lutheran faith to writing without addressing my recent departure from the body of Lutherans that use the acronym E.L.C.A., and so some of what follows may be very much contested or even resented by those people who still belong to that body. At the very least, I hope not to be inflammatory, though I will not shy away from clearly stating my convictions regarding the deficiencies in that body and its vision of the Lutheran faith.

I know from firsthand experience that some of the people whom I have previously served as a Vicar, or lay preacher, within ELCA churches will be puzzled and confused by what I write, or with my past decisions to end the candidacy process and also to leave that body and associate with another. I will say that I still have much fondness for those people and their insuperable graciousness. I learned and grew in many ways during the time I spent in ELCA parishes. Above all, I learned the faith within ELCA parishes and institutions, Communed at its altars, and made lifelong friendships with its members. What is perhaps most difficult for many to understand and what will be one of the primary themes of this work, is that the faith that I learned within ELCA parishes is precisely what convinced me that I could no longer have the degree of fellowship I once enjoyed with that communion as it presently exists.

I offer the following broad outline as a template for what follows:  

Terms Defined
A. Lutheranism
B. Traditionalist
A. History
B. The Personal
A. Dissonance
B. Personal Failings
Toward Resolution
A. Dislocation
B. Relocation temporized
Hopeful Criticism and a New Vision
A. Ongoing Personal Synthesis
B. Placement as Blessing and Curse

There is a key to my current thinking in this arrangement, but as I have conceived of this project in terms of installments which have not yet been written, much revision is likely.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Sunday Meditation: Sense of Presence.

Leading up to and after the Communion, I still find my mind drawn to becoming aware of, or of cultivating, a particular type of experience - this usually in the form of some definite sense of the presence of Christ with His people and the awe that it seems this should inspire.

I appreciate the criticisms I have read of this form of piety.  First of which is that it tends to obscure the communio of the saints, hidden saints who are apparent sinners.  Too much concentration upon one's own feelings and perceptions serves to make one less aware that one person communes as a member of a body.  The manifestly social and ecclesial dimension of the Communion should be allowed to have its force.  This is to say that one may inadvertently force the Sacrament into a more individualistic mold, meant only for the satisfaction of personal feelings of piety, and not for the awareness that Christ's Sacramental Body is a Gift not only to me and for my inclinations, but for the entire Mystical Body - the gaggle of folk that are the church militant.  Ultimately, the Holy Communion is both its appearance - that is, bread and wine distributed in a (hopefully) reverent fashion to the motley crew of disciples who come to the table, with all their attendant frailties and foibles, and its underlying reality, Body and Blood, which is only known by faith.  Also, it is truly the appearance of wine and bread, and not the appearance of the True Body and Blood.  Cultivating a sense that it is not in fact what it appears to be is in some manner to attempt to undo what the Lord has graciously done: veil His presence with the species of bread and wine.

And it is indeed a gracious thing that His presence is veiled in this manner.  It safeguards the people from their own absolute contingency and nothingness before the mysterium tremendum.  God is simply too much for us in His naked presence, in this time, and in our manner of being.

Additionally, the sort of practice that regularly seeks an experience other than what the Lord offers, phenomenally, so to speak, may discourage the experience He intends for us - provided the ministers faithfully perform their service as stewards.  It is actually a form of impiety to seek to compliment or augment the gift as it is given with one's own predilections, or at least it could be, if it serves to obscure what is in actuality given and proclaimed.

Perhaps this can be chalked up to a particularly protestant concern over mysticism of a certain variety, but I am not so sure.  I have no problem with experience of the divine per se, the divine as it is given to be experienced, only a concern with inveterately Adamic compulsions to concoct something other than what God in His wisdom knows that I, and the entire Body, need.  It seems that anthropocentric preconditions for what God can or cannot do or what need I believe He should be supplying are sure recipes for theological, ecclesiological, and liturgical disasters.

What God thinks I need is always, first and foremost, Christ Himself and all the things that He brings with Him: forgiveness, life, and salvation.

I have more to think about here.

Do Confessional Churches Need A "Theology of Mission"?

I have a friend who sent this blog entry and asked for my thoughts on it.

It may be that I am unnecessarily sour about these sorts of suggestions due to the fact that so often they seem to lead to the endorsement of the wackiest sorts of "appeal to their sense of entertainment" gimmicks and strategies. I had a hard time being able to endorse much of anything that was argued. It could be the fact that the author is enamored with American Pentecostalism and seems to believe that it may hold some sort of answer to the problem he diagnoses prevents me from giving him my assent.

More than this, I don't know if I accept his diagnosis. I am not at all sure that Confessional churches cannot "do evangelism". And I am sure that the fact that a church is Confessional cannot really deprive it of the capacity to evangelize or do missions. Unless, perhaps if the Confession includes a clause that proscribes evangelizing - how this could remain a Christian Confession in this instance, I do not know.

Then there is his sometimes dubious presentation of the contours and significance of Lutheran history...

As far as I can see, our Lutheran Confessional tradition is definitely enabled to evangelize and perform missions because it:

1. Receives the Gift of the Holy Spirit through the means of grace.

2. Confesses the Three Ecumenical Creeds and Luther's Catechisms in which and through which are confessed the mission of the Spirit to call, gather, enlighten and sustain the church.

I think that there is a certain reluctance on the part of many Christians (lay and ordained) in given local communities to evangelize, in the sense of articulating their grasp of the faith that is in them, but I do not for a moment believe that this is due to a theological deficiency in our received Confessional tradition.

I think that there are historical, and sociological reasons - broadly, cultural reasons - for this condition, to be sure.

Perhaps most pressing here is an examination of the churchly culture of a given community. What are the means for transmitting and sustaining the education and character that are necessary for creating Christians who love their faith enough to know it and share it? What is catechesis like? What practices are in place to encourage the necessary virtues for this sort of person, beyond the Sunday Eucharist?

And prior to these questions: What do we mean when we speak of a theology of mission? Do we mean a new phrasing of the truths of the faith directed to a particular end (missiology)? Do we mean developing new practices (or reintroducing old ones) that will foster evangelism? Do we merely mean a novel gimmick as stimulant to perceived value, a cosmetic adjustment of image?

I don't think very well in this arena, I admit. I find the concern over numbers and the very scent of evangelism programs to be so much charlatanry in the end. I am not a pastor, and I tend to think that if a church has twenty people, or is declining rapidly then maybe the Spirit is working elsewhere and the building should be sold.

I also tend to think that there is no substitute for love and the excitement it brings with it. If you love being Lutheran you will be excited about it and will share your faith. A challenge to pastors is to communicate your own love and excitement for the faith to the people you serve. I have found that people respond to and are impressed by those who genuinely believe in their cause and visibly devote themselves in an excellent way to their chosen craft, art, or philosophy. This is true also of those who profess our Confession of faith.

And, yes, I suppose there is also a pentecostal dimension to this question, though it may only have a tangential relation to what is called Pentecostalism. I have already anticipated it in the previous paragraph: charisma, that rare and volatile thing. Only the charisma that is a gift and effect of the Spirit given in Christ and by His chosen means and none other. The charismata that include: bold confession, devotion of the intellect and understanding, contrariety in the face of opposition, effective and joyous proclamation of the truth; these are the things which impel evangelism and mission, and for which there can be no real substitute.

What do you fine Lutheran folk think?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The "Pornographic Imagination"

Letihart is reading Paul W. Kahn who isolates what he calls the "pornographic imagination" as a feature of our culture.
I found the description compelling, although it depends to some extent upon a theory of "the sacred" or "religion in general" that is disputable. Whether or not an extra-temporal and extra-cultural space is anywhere close to what I consider to be the substance of "religion" or "the sacred", Kahn's supposition that the pornographic urge is one that is an essential rebellion against time, culture, language, limit, and responsibility, and, more particularly, family, seems hard to refute.
In this respect, the title of the phenomenon under consideration may be too exact, as it is really much broader than pornography per se. I smell the specter of what has been called gnosticism here, and of a fairly degraded form. Indeed, the "pornographic imagination" seems to me but a cubicle within the broader gnostic workplace.
I'd be interested in reading the book. And, what is more pressing for me and should be for all who recognize the force of such a principality, is the question: How does one successfully resist the lure of the deformed imagination? And further, why is it that we yearn to be at once anesthetized and beyond the grip of time, place, culture and constraint?
What true and legitimate desire has gone wrong here, and how is it properly satisfied?
Such a phenomenon cannot but be a parasitism.

Fillips, pips, and pyxes

A few run-ins with the modern medical establishment today.
The first: Our new pediatrician.  Tolerates holism and does not attempt to don the veneer of high-modern certitude.  No tie, no white coat - annoying catch phrase t-shirts in their place.  Not a full-on priest of life-extension and pharmacological control.

He talks with us and looks at us.  This makes some of his other features (california sway-back, beardy, hypnocharlatan) more than tolerable.  And he seems competent.

The second: Binson's medical supply.  A warehouse and supermarket of goods for the ill, the fat, and the old.  If you need a cart, brace, cane, pump, chair, or other device, prophylaxis, appendage, etc., this is the place to be.  We were there to return our "billilights" that we used to cure Ben's jaundice.  Figures my son would have an early problem with jaundice... I must have metaphysically transmitted it to him in utero.

It was a jumping place!  Mostly the aged.  This was itself worth noticing.  America the old and increasingly infirm.  They are secreted away, yet their force is felt everywhere.  There is a fourth commandment meditation in this somewhere...

Two things - 1. They had a department with the neon epithet, "Lady Binson's Boutique".  One may purchase or rent wigs and other vanity items for those more unfortunate effects of illness or of the medicines that purport to treat illness here.  I only mention it because I thought it somehow undignified to display the wares in this manner.  Losing one's hair would be indignity enough, I think.

2. Next to the meat counter style reception and checkout area there were the requisite impulse buy ephemera, but two drew my attention:

A display of pill boxes, or cylinders, to be more precise.  The first said: "Inspirational Pill Containers”. All except one of the containers had standard semi-Christian bromides (“Faith Is Everything”). The exception actually had a line from 1 John, “God Is Love”. A shame that such an epoch shattering Scriptural pearl should be reduced to a vaguely familiar and vaguely affecting sentiment on a container of pharmacology. And to the container itself I now turn: the face was enameled with the aforementioned bromide and it was approximately three inches in diameter, a shiny disc about a half an inch wide.

What immediately struck me is that it resembled a pyx, that is, the container used to transport the reserved Host to those who are ill or otherwise unable to Commune with the assembly. Appropriate, or grotesque? I couldn't really decide. Maybe both. What Luther and the tradition before him thought of as the true "medicine of immortality" would have fit nicely into these little pill cylinders. The blazing irony is easy to read off. Pharmacological life extension in cheaply enameled sentiment laden containers to replace or displace the precious containers of eternal life. Now surely, I do not mean to suggest that one must choose between the relative benefits of modern medicine and the Body of Christ. The Church has (except in small errant factions) encouraged and lovingly nourished the practice of medicine - as the recent birth of my son in a Catholic hospital nicely illustrates. What I am suggesting is that the massive pharmacological experiment of our current medical community and the highly medicated mass that is purports to serve is a truly a culture producing affair. It has accoutrements and vessels. It has near ubiquity of place. And more than this, these artifacts tell a story that can be much different than the one that accompanied the pyxes of old. In place of story a life lived in preparation for death, where temporality and eternity are understood to be categories that cannot overlap (except in One!), and where a man lived the hope that he would enter into an order of imperishability after his utterly perishable body underwent the changes that such bodies inevitably do, we now have containers that rest upon promethean stories of rejected limit. We can slow aging. We can prolong. We can be prolonged. We can make successions of moments increase. And we really don't stretch our longings to the eternal. Or, at least we have alternatives that demand less of us - that do not attempt to shape or limit. We can take a pill. We can trust a technic. And we can get scripts from undemanding sources who "bless" without sacrifice. Who are installed in this current economy (in the broader sense of the word) to make all of this available to us.

There is much that is true and beautiful and noble and good about modern medicine. The alleviation of dumb, raw, undirected suffering in children is one of those. The eradication of poxes and pestilences and the human flourishing that this enables is also one. The overreaching cult of animal vitalism that it can at times become is not. Nor is the proliferation of those medical arts that cater to the vice of vanity and the deeply promethean urge to "remake" ourselves after the impulses of our will.

And, the other thing that drew my attention was, in its way, a thematic bookend to the former: a display of the same devices, only now instead of being fronted by "inspirational" pap, these were devoted to "Fashion". I don't pretend to know how the array of images qualified as "fashion" (one was a neon colored fish head), but I thought that it was indicative of something that the alternative to "inspiration" was "fashion". If fashion is the art of popular aesthetic will and play, then I suppose I can see a connection. Currently, it is easier to bend one's image to the untrammeled irruptions of desire then it is to bend one's body. Though how long this will remain the case is in no way certain.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

What may not be said:

Fifth week of Lent begins tomorrow... the weight of the Season is felt and its known climax looms.  It is probably understandable that many people are already speaking of the events that are commemorated in Holy Week.  Today, for example, I saw a Passion play.  The Passion play is a form that could demand an entry all its own: there are merits to the form that I am beginning again to appreciate - the foremost being that everyday folk assume the roles of the principle characters in one incredibly potent chapter in the total divine drama (a drama to which these folk are hoping to saturate their lives).  Watching the play, I was taken by the manner in which these fine amateurs sometimes performed, and could not escape the thought that it communicated a particularly important truth that we were all amateurs when it came to this performance.  Our artistry is not sufficient for the best portrayal of the divine prototype.  History often,  and God above history always, finds our projects vain and clownish - and the audience's nervous giggles sometimes mirrored this too.  And yet there is real appreciation for the performance, and a knowledge that our fitful attempts have their perfectly completed original.  The latter being the only way in which we can have the courage to act mimetically at all.

Or, maybe not.  Maybe that is too labored an interpretation of the form...

Ultimately, the play served to show one essential truth about Fallen Man.  At the heart of it, Man's best efforts crucify an innocent man, and in so doing crucify God.    Lenten hymnody is filled with testimonies to this truth.  It is crucial to know and appropriate it in order to then appropriate the great shock and wonder of the Resurrection.  That Resurrection which renders this truth about man more than mere evidence for resignation in the face of a seemingly intractable nature... for one more species of a pagan total renunciation, or total affirmation, of the world as it is.  Without that Resurrection, we have one more martyr story which may serve, at best, as a source of heroic inspiration.  At worst, it becomes the previous sort of warrant for resignation before the crush of fate.  And this is the great flaw in the Passion play; its usual form excludes the Resurrection.  I was happy to see that the parish violated the purity of the form and concluded with the Resurrection appearances.

But, already too many words about Passion plays, and now I am even running beyond into Easter!  This does serve to  illustrate the manner in which they are integrally connected phenomena that cannot be separated without violence done to both.

But, what I think may not be being said, is this:  The Passion is about more than vicarious substitutionary atonement (that is, about Christ's sacrificial death for the sake of us all)... it is not less than this, but it is about more, and there is much, much more to this total drama.

Christ does not only come for us to be a Sacrifice.  Christ comes to give us "Life and Life abundantly".  It is true to say that Christ as Sacrifice and Christ as bringer of Life are not two mutually exclusive things, that they are in fact intimately connected, but given the propensity for so much of the former and little of the latter to be given center stage (so to speak), at this time anyhow, I think it safe to distinguish them for a time.

I became aware of this necessity recently when I was dining with an older gentlemen who became somewhat interested in my convictions in theological matters:

"You mean you don't think Muslims go to heaven if they don't accept Christ?"

"I think that whoever receives salvation, it is because of Christ and what He has done.  Which makes me a Christian, go figure."

This moved him to dismiss the "acceptance of Christ stuff" and assert that we were judged "by what we have done."

"Surely, good works have a role in things, and we will certainly be judged, but this isn't what saves us."

So, after this, I asked rhetorically, "Are you sure that you want to be judged according to your works, that these works are able to cover you?"

Soon the conversation turned, probably mercifully, to other things, but it left an impression on me.

What I realized was that this particular person, like so many others, lacked a robust sense of the High Life that we were created and redeemed in order to enjoy... so, naturally it was easy for him to tick off a few particularly morally repugnant crimes and misdemeanors, find that he had not done them, and to think that therefore neither he nor God should be all that unhappy with his life performance.

All of this is to say that Christ comes to describe and give over to us a wonderful, beautiful, radiant sort of life that would make all but the reprobate feel the majesty of being created "a little lower than the angels" and redeemed to "partake of the divine nature".  A life that makes one weep for joy to behold.  He comes to invite us to sainthood.

Too often, I believe, we cast all of our absurdity, crime, betrayal, and ugliness onto Christ easily enough (often not even really knowing which of these are the most offensive while clinging to things that God may reckon venial), but do not see how we should rightly be saddened by the simple fact that we are not living the ecstatic, aesthetic adventure of sainthood!

That is a life - a vibrant experience - whose forfeiture shows our sullen, deadened, lack of zest, and should bring the deep repentance which is the opened fist that may now receive what was once so callously forfeited.  It is a life that the Season of Easter should be bursting forth to describe and lay before the faithful,

and it is a life that I truly want for myself and will die trying to obtain.

The Catechism: The Creed

I have decided to keep the rest of the meditation on the Commandments to myself, as it may be prudent to do so considering the confessional nature of that part of the exercise.

Besides, if I dwelt on my sin and its gravity for any  lengthy period of time I would be totally paralyzed and never do much of anything... therefore, I turn my gaze to Christ.

I will continue apace with the First Article of the Creed.

It is probably good to point out from the start that Luther does not divide the Creed into twelve articles as prior tradition had done, but emphasizes the Trinitarian structure of the Creed by delimiting it to three main articles.  On God the Father- the Creator, God the Son - The Redeemer, and God the Spirit - the Sanctifier.

THIS does NOT imply any modalist understanding of the Godhead, contrary to one stream of revisionist tradition within the church.  It does imply that there are particular "missions" associated with one Person of the Trinity - though, it is correct to say that all Persons are intimately involved in any and all of these particular works.

Where God the Father is, so is the Son and the Spirit.  Luther utilizes this economy of speech, as it follows the Roman Creed.  This is an essential point, as there are some clergypersons who would falsify the Divine Name by referring to the particular functions or missions of the Godhead in lieu of actually placing the Name of the Persons Who perform those functions for the sake of the faithful on the faithful or before the faithful for their aknowledgement.  This attempt to assuage a felt guilt over masculine violence does not in reality do justice to the persons who seek grace (as some maintain that masculine nomenclature is exclusive of feminine concern) but robs them of the only true source of grace and pardon for their acknowledgment.  Additionally,  it can be an open invitation to skepticism and an unacceptable theological pluralism - for only the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit truly Create, Redeem, and Make Holy - there are no other alternatives, while a mere nomination of functions may suggest otherwise.  There cannot be functions named that we worship and laud (as if Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu could meet the requirements specified), but only the Persons who are responsible for these functions on our behalf can properly be worshiped and lauded.

In support of my earlier contention from the meditation on the First Commandment, i.e. that the proper identity conditions for the True God are given in the Creed (where these identity conditions isolate the proper source for our power to perform the Commandments):

The Creed... is given in order to help us do what the Ten Commandment require of usIf we could by our own strength keep the Ten Commandments as they ought to be kept, we would need neither the Creed nor the Lord's Prayer.

In support of the contention concerning the proper identity of the God who creates, redeems, and sanctifies me, Luther states:

Hence the Creed may be briefly comprised in these few words; I believe in God the Father, who created me; I believe in God the Son, who redeemed me; I believe in The Holy Spirit who sanctifies me."  One God and one faith, but three persons, and therefore three articles or confessions...

Continuing to the Creed proper, this is the First Article:

"I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth."

What is the import of this article?  Succinctly, that we have nothing, and even more, that we are nothing apart from the source of our contingent existence.  We did not create ourselves.  We did not will ourselves into being.  It is a gift - We are a gift!  And we Christians know Who to thank for that gift.  We were thrown, yes, into being, but not without purpose; as the Commandments have told us.  We are Nothing apart from the One Who has allowed us to be, indeed, Who loved us into being!  All this wonderful panoply of creation, all the wonderful human culture that has ensued, all is a gift.  Acknowledge the Giver.

There is One source of all that is, and we are not it.  The Creed declares, and pronounces, the identity of that Giver.  And this pronouncement is in perfect consonance with the Scriptures which testify to the self-revealing of this Giver.