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.