Sunday, July 24, 2005

The Big Easy

I'm heading to New Orleans tonight for a week of rest, relaxation and oppressive heat and humidity. Check back next week for my take on the spiritual state of the city and the swamps.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

If I do misunderstand

If I do misunderstand Bonhoeffer, I think it is in this way. My take on ethical positions is largely based on attempting to apply the command to love my neighbor in all situations. I think it's possible that even this is a step away from Bonhoeffer's "simple obedience." Certainly if I used my general stance to go against a clear commandment of Christ, I would be taking a position contrary to Bonhoeffer. I don't think I am doing that. However, my broad application of the command to love my neighbor probably verges on the classification of acts as good and evil that Bonhoeffer speaks against in the opening of Ethics.

Even so, this is the one place where I have a problem with Bonhoeffer as I understand him. The will of God is often not clear enough for simple obedience. What do you do in the mean time?

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Bonhoeffer and Braaten

Stream of consciousness warning: if you read this trying to figure out the main idea, you'll be disappointed. There isn't one. I have a couple of related things I want to say, but no central point.

In my remarks on Carl Braaten's open letter to Mark Hanson, I made reference to Bonhoeffer with regard to my approach to the sexuality issue. In several comments on various blogs it was suggested that Bonhoeffer's presence would cure the problem that Braaten points to, but, apparently, I'm part of the problem. Carl Braaten told me I don't understand Bonhoeffer. That can't be, can it? My wife told me she couldn't tell what I was saying. That must be the explanation. I just didn't make myself clear.

Seriously, I realize that I might be misinterpreting Bonhoeffer. I certainly am not claiming that he would have agreed with my conclusions. But I would like to explain my thought process a bit.

I find the following thoughts in Bonhoeffer's Ethics:
Categorizing actions as good and evil is not the business of Christian ethics. In fact, it is counter to it.

The will of God is not a system of rules which can be known at the outset. The will of God is something new in each new situation. Therefore we must always seek to discover anew what the will of God may be.

When we hear the word of God, God is addressing us. This only remains the word of God as long as we respond. Hearing and obeying must be combined. If we try to capture the word and save it for reference, it is no longer the word of God, but only words.

It must be noted in this regard that the will of God is not revealed to us though intuition or personal insight. Rather the word that God speaks to us is the word that we hear. Any meaning contrary to this must be rejected.

The Christians attitude toward the command of God must always be one of obedience. A Christian can never use the word in judgment of another.
This is not my interpretation of Bonhoeffer. This is simply what Bonhoeffer wrote (although all of the above are my paraphrases based on my recollection of his book; there could be some variation introduced there). The last point is critical to my application of Bonhoeffer's teaching, so I will quote exactly what he says. These are Bonhoeffer's precise words (in translation):
If by his knowledge of the law a man has become the judge of his brother and so eventually of the law itself, then he can no longer perform the law, however much else he may appear to reform. The "doer of the law," unlike the judge, submits to the law; the law never becomes a criterion for him such as he might apply to his brother; the law never confronts him otherwise than in summoning him personally to action. Even when he has to deal with a brother who is at fault, the "doer of the law" has only one possible means of giving effect to the law, and that is by performing it himself. ... This does not mean, then, that the doer of the law is content with his own doing and that with a sidelong glance he calls upon God to be the judge of his sinful brother whom he himself is, unfortunately, not permitted to judge. There really is no such sidelong glance here.... There does not remain, therefore, in addition to action or through action, some ultimate possibility of judgment; action is and must continue to be the only possible attitude towards the law of God; any residue of judgment would disrupt this action entirely and transmute it into false action, into hypocrisy.
So that's what I'm responding to in Bonhoeffer. Now my application of it is this:
The question of whether or not to bless same sex unions and ordain individuals in same-sex relationships is the wrong question. The right question, which each of us individually must ask ourselves, is how do I respond to my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in the faith. We continually get this part wrong, so it shouldn't be surprising that there is so much controversy over the questions which must only be treated after this one has been resolved.

It is observed that no one is against welcoming gay and lesbian Christians in our congregations but this is exactly the same sort of fact as the fact that no one is in favor of abortion. Just because no one is opposed to welcoming them doesn't mean they are welcomed. And the reason they are not welcomed is that the command of God is evaluated rather than obeyed. If asked whether a Christian congregation should welcome gay and lesbin members, I may easily answer in the affirmative based on any number of Biblical injunctions. But do I hear the command to love these individuals as myself as a command of God and obey it?

When I face the question of how I am to relate to gay and lesbian Christians (or non-Christians for that matter), the Bible says to me, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." When I face the question of whether or not to support the blessing of same-sex unions, the Bible says to me, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
But there is a problem here, and it returns me to Braaten's complaint. In what I have just said, I am considering my position as an individual Christian. I am certain that these views are correct for individual Christians. But notice at the very end of my position I am responding to the question of whether or not I should support blessing same sex unions. I am faced with this question because in the polity of the ELCA, I have a say in such matters.

There is no king in the ELCA, and everyone does what is right in his own eyes.

This is deeply intertwined with Braaten's complaint, as may be seen in his reply to John Carlson. Although Dr. Braaten is clearly troubled by the direction the ELCA is headed with regard to the sexuality issues, this is not his chief complaint. He is primarily concerned with ecclesiology. Regardless of where you stand on the sexuality issue, this issue remains. If a majority vote makes the right decision, you still have to ask the question of whether or not majority vote was the right way to do things.

The modern American answer is, of course majority vote is the right way to do things. But is this the Christian answer? Christian teaching about human nature would seem to suggest that majority rule isn't necessarily a good idea. (This, incidentally, is a large part of the reason that America is structured as a representative democracy run through with checks and balances.)

This is a difficult problem for Lutherans because we have a deep-seated mistrust of giving power to a church hierarchy (is a consensus of bishops any more likely to be correct than a majority of lay people?). This also reflects a particularly modern, if not exclusively American, hubris. What do those seminary-trained elitists know that I don't? "All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. So why do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?" So says Korah (Numbers 16:3, look it up)!

I'm not ready to change my views on the sexuality issue, and frankly I'm not thrilled with the idea of letting a collection of bishops maintain the status quo. But I do think it's past time to consider whether our denomination is organized.

Monday, July 18, 2005

I'm a Weed Too!

I sent my previous post to Carl Braaten, as not doing so seemed a bit like talking about him behind his back. I got a response from him tonight which I will not publish because I wouldn't want it published if I had written it. Suffice to say that it was a rather unfriendly, "if-you-aren't-with-us-you're-against-us" kind of a response.

Thoughts On Carl Braaten's Open Letter

Carl Braaten's recent Open Letter to Mark Hanson has caused quite a splash in the blogosphere. It's encouraging to see the level of interest. The letter is a complaint about the widespread influence of liberal Protestantism in ELCA. Though it may be a bit opaque to lay people, everyone who follows the national goings on in the ELCA will have some feel for what it's about. If you want a clearer understanding, Chip Frontz has posted an excellent guide to the theology of the letter here.

Dr. Braaten is a distinguished theologian, and is certainly well-qualified to raise an alarm such as he has. I am not a person of such distinction, and in what follows it will be apparent that I am a layman and an amateur. (As C.S. Lewis once wrote, "Any theologian will see easily enough what, and how little, I have read.") Perhaps my opinion here can be seen as a view from the trenches.

As I read in Dr. Braaten's letter of "the apostasy that looms on the horizon of our beloved Lutheran Church" I can't help but hear reference to the present sexuality issues. I recognize that his letter is actually addressing a more general theological problem, but all Christianity must eventually be practical Christianity, and right now this is the topic in which the theological controversy is manifested. It's unfortunate that Dr. Braaten does not address this topic directly, because it leaves me unclear as to exactly where he stands and makes his overall argument difficult to evaluate.

I consider myself to be a traditional Christian and a relatively confessional Lutheran. Yet I cannot align myself with the renewing movements in the ELCA that I've come across. The congregation of which I am a member has an active Word Alone group. A couple of years ago, one of the leaders of this group came to me and asked how I, as a vocal admirer of Luther, could support CCM. Now the people in this same group are puzzled as to how I, as a faithful Christian, could hold the views I do on homosexuality.

You see, although I hold traditional views on things like the authority of scripture, I am in favor of full acceptance of gay and lesbian Christians in the Christian community. Notice that I didn't say that I am in favor of blessing same-sex unions and ordaining people in committed same-sex relationships. Being forced to take a position on those questions, I do support the so-called "liberal" side, but those aren't really the things I am in favor of. I am in favor of full acceptance of gay and lesbian Christians in our community of faith. And I believe the Bible tells me that I should be. If that causes me to keep some questionable company, so be it. One of the myths surrounding the sexuality issue is that everyone on the "liberal" side is theologically liberal. It simply isn't so.

But addressing Dr. Braaten's concerns more directly, the issue, as I understand it, is one of where God speaks. Chip Frontz, in his explanation of Dr. Braaten's letter, cited the United Church of Christ's slogan "God is Still Speaking" as symptomatic of a Protestant culture that sees God's will as being revealed in personal experience and in society. I can certainly see the danger there, but I nevertheless do believe that God is still speaking, and I believe that such is a fundamental tenet of Lutheranism.

Karlfried Froehlich observes that while the conservative Anglican J.I. Packer wrote a book on the authority of scripture titled God Has Spoken if a Lutheran had written the book it would have been called God Is Speaking. This is, of course, because of the Lutheran belief that the Word of God is a Living Word which addresses us as we hear it. Dr. Braaten cites Wolfhart Pannenburg to the effect that "a church that cannot take the Scriptures seriously is no longer a church that belongs to Jesus Christ" but I hope he would agree that a church which no longer allows itself to be addressed by the Scriptures is also no longer a church that belongs to Jesus Christ.

Dr. Braaten names Bonhoeffer among those who taught him what it means to be a Lutheran. I also have been shaped by Bonhoeffer, though only through my own understanding of his writings. Although I could misunderstand, I find much in Bonhoeffer's Ethics to support my way of approaching the sexuality issue. In particular, Bonhoeffer says that the word of God cannot be heard and stored away for later use. Rather, hearing and obeying must be united, otherwise it is no longer God to whom we are responding. It is in this sense that I feel compelled to stand in union with gay and lesbian Christians regardless of the theology of those who are also standing with them.

Thus while I do hear the truth in Dr. Braaten's letter, and I share much of his concern, I believe we must be careful in how we apply this concern. How fitting that this letter emerged in the week in which the parable of the wheat and the tares was the Gospel text!

Friday, July 15, 2005

Bearing One Another's Burdens

A certain brother had sinned, and the priest commanded him to go out from the church. But Bessarion rose up and went out with him, saying, "I too am a sinful man."
-The Sayings of the Fathers
The Church today gives lip service to the fact that "we're all sinners in need of redemption," especially in conservative circles, but the idea is hardly ever acted upon. I recently read a collection of sayings of the desert fathers and I was pleasantly surprised to see that they had a real sense of bearing one another's burdens.

I knew the desert fathers (and mothers) had led very austere lives, and I expected spiritual insights, but because of their austerity, I didn't expect compassion, yet I found it in abundance. The chapter on fornication, for instance, is almost entirely about how monks being tempted to lust is natural and should be counseled accordingly (that is, not harshly).

One of the stories tells of two monks who went in to town to sell the mats they had made and to buy bread. When they separated, one of the monks fell into temptation and committed fornication. When they came together, this monk told the other to go back to the monastery alone for he had sinned and was no longer worthy. The second monk said, "Not so, my brother, for when we parted I also fell into temptation and fornicated. Let us go back and confess to the abbot together and do penance." Though this monk hadn't actually sinned, he said that he had so that he could share in his brother's burden.

There's a Jewish tradition that Abraham is more righteous than Noah because Abraham stood up on behalf of the righteous in Soddam. But Moses, according to this tradition, is more righteous than either because he took a stand with the wicked so that God would not destroy them.

This, it seems to me, is almost entirely lacking in the Church today. Who is willing to incur even ill reputation on behalf of another?

I'd been planning to write something about this for a few days, and when I came across the Carl Braaten controversy seemed to me to illustrate the issue. I'm not conceding that it is sin that needs to be shared in that case, but the need to stand together is clear. I want to make clear that I do not think that standing together with gay and lesbian Christians is equivalent to standing together with the wicked. But if we should stand together with the wicked, how much more should we stand with the persecuted. And yet Christians are refusing to do so in the name of "maintaining the traditions of the Church."

It seems to me to be too much about saving face.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Do you believe?

Do you believe in God? Chances are, if you're reading this, you do. Most Americans believe in God. But what do we mean by that? What does this belief look like?

If you believe in the Tooth Fairy, you put teeth under your pillow. If you believe your house is on fire, you gather your loved ones and get out of the building. So what if you believe in God? The answer may not be as obvious as you think. It depends on what you think God is like.

Is God a righteous judge, as Luther believed when he entered the monastery? Is God a source of mystical powers as Simon Magus thought in Acts 8? Is God, as C.S. Lewis suggested most of us would like to believe, "not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven," a kindly old gentleman who just wants everyone to be happy? Is God an other-worldly being who interferes in our lives from time to time?

The kind of God we believe in determines how belief in God will affect our lives.

This is one of the many wonders of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ: he came to show us what God is like. "This life was revealed, and we have seen it," John declares (1 John 1:2). Having seen the life of God in Jesus Christ, he writes his epistle to share this marvelous vision. "We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete."

I said last week that the goal of all Christian teaching and preaching is to change the way people think about the world. It isn't enough to believe in God -- we must know God; we must know what God is like. And that must permeate our lives.

"We declare to you what we have seen and heard," John says. And we too can meet God through prayer. Ole Hallesby says that the best verse in the Bible about prayer is Revelation 3:20, "Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and eat with you, and you with me." Prayer is an opportunity to be with God, to get to know God.

But those who make themselves the center of their prayer waste this great blessing. "Truly I tell you, they have received their reward," Jesus teaches (Matthew 6:5-8) But when we pray as Jesus taught, we open the door and let God in.

And knowing God, we will be changed.

Global Poverty

You may have already read these comments from Jim Wallis in SojoMail:
While the G8 summit resulted in important steps, we must be truth-tellers about the degree of progress relative to the actual scale of need. While the G8 reached an agreement to provide an additional $50 billion in aid to developing countries with $25 billion designated for Africa over the next five years, an estimated $30 billion of this pledge is made up of money already committed in previous promises. At the summit President Bush reiterated a promise to double U.S. foreign aid to Africa. However, the majority of this doubled aid is being achieved through already promised increases to the Millennium Challenge Account and the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, with only $800 million in new money to support initiatives around primary education, fighting malaria, and empowering women. The agreement to 100% debt cancellation for 14 African countries represents a significant step forward, but includes only 1/3 of the countries that desperately need 100% debt cancellation in order to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. These crushing debts must be cancelled through an expedited process that ensures accountability and transparency while removing harmful economic conditions that have previously been attached to debt relief. Little to no progress was made in ending export subsidies and making trade rules more just for the world's poor, and the U.S. continued to block any real progress in addressing global warming at the summit.
I've been waiting to hear something like this. So much of the buzz around G8 was to the tune of "We Did It" and it didn't seem to me like we really had. Bob Geldof was saying things even before Live 8 to the effect that Live 8 was the "final push" and no longer a stepping off point, but I didn't see it. I started to wonder if he was a mole for the other side. Mission Accomplished?

Monday, July 11, 2005

Christian Worldview

"Do not be conformed to this world," Paul says, "but be transformed by the renewing of your minds." Not being conformed to this world is one of the biggest challenges facing Christians today. Maybe it always has been. What could be easier than thinking the way the world thinks and living the way the world lives? But Paul calls on us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

The Greek word for repent, metanoia literally means "to change one's mind." This is the goal of all Christian preaching and teaching, to change the way people think about life. Not just to get us to add a few new truths to the long list of things we already believe to be true, but to challenge us to see the world in a new way. The call is to see all things through the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. These three events have not only changed our relationship with God but have infused all of reality, every last detail, with new meaning and significance.

The Incarnation of Jesus Christ tells us that God loves the world and that we must also therefore love the world. We cannot love God and not love the world. Because God entered into human history, into the real world, our love for the world must also be real and not just theoretical. We must not love some abstract possibility of what the world could become but the actual world in which we find ourselves. And above all we must love one another, and ourselves, in this way – as we are.

The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ tells us that even though God loves the world, there is judgment. The Incarnation calls us to love the world, but the Crucifixion tells us that we cannot simply and uncritically accept the world as it is. We aren't called to imitate God in this judgment, but we must recognize that there is something very seriously wrong in the world.

At the same time, we must recognize that it is God who is crucified in Jesus Christ. God enters into the suffering and even the guilt of the world and in Jesus Christ takes it upon himself. And Jesus sends us into the world also to share in bearing the burdens of others.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ tells us that God's love triumphs over all suffering and evil. Death does not have the final word. Jesus Christ, having taken the sin of the world upon himself in crucifixion, is raised to new life. And in this lies all Christian hope. God's love for the world has triumphed and God's promise of a new heaven and a new earth has begun to be fulfilled. It began in the resurrection of Jesus, and it continues as God makes each of us a new creation.

"You are the light of the world," Jesus says. We are the light because he is the light and he is in us. When we are not conformed to this world but transformed to new life in Christ, we shine and show the world a vision, not just of how things could be but of how things are. The light we have to show the world is the understanding of God's love in Jesus Christ.