Thursday, October 29, 2009

"He Became Sad"

But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich.
-Luke 18:23
There's a barrel outside the locker room where I work. I pass it at least twice a day as I change in and out of my bike clothes. It doesn't have much explanation, just a sign saying you can donate shoes to The Ethiopia Project by putting them in the barrel.

As I was walking by one day recently, I gave it some thought. Like everyone, I like the idea of helping out those less fortunate than myself. African countries seem to have a particular tug on American heart strings. Yet I knew that it didn't make sense, from a humanitarian perspective, to spend $50-$100 on a pair of shoes just to give them to someone in Ethiopia. The money could provide more help in other ways.

Then I thought about my old worn-out shoes that I haven't thrown away yet. But no one wants shoes like this as a donation. It would be an insult to the dignity of the recipient, right? At this point, I thought about the fact that there must be more people than I could bear to consider around the world whose lives would be improved by even my old, nasty, worn out shoes. This took my mind to the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus -- Lazarus, "who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table" (Luke 16:22).

I realized, with something like horror, that I was the rich man. Of course, this idea wasn't new to me. It is fairly standard American progressive rhetoric. We all know it. What caused the horror was that for the first time, I sort of understood why the rich man didn't do something for Lazarus when he was alive. He was too deeply entrenched in his own way of life to see an alternative. Even if he wanted things to be different, he couldn't see how they could be. Would it help for him to be poor too? Of course not.

This inability to see an alternative to a privileged way of life connects the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16 to the story of the rich young ruler in Luke 18.
A certain ruler asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.'"

He replied, "I have kept all these since my youth."

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, "There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."

But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich.
This man wants to follow Jesus' teaching. He wants to live the way Jesus is telling people they should live. The trouble is, he can't do it. He can't, and it makes him sad.

I looked up The Ethiopia Project today. It isn't terribly humanitarian. They want to give running shoes to aspiring athletes in Ethiopia to see if they can become elite, world-class runners. They don't want my old, worn-out shoes. I have a pair of running shoes that I don't use that are in pretty good shape. Maybe I'll give them to the project.

I still don't see a way out of being a financially privileged American.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Carl Braaten

A number of years ago, I wrote a blog post in response to an open letter that Carl Braaten wrote to then ELCA presiding bishop Mark Hanson. To my utter astonishment, that post started turning up whenever anyone search for "Carl Braaten" on Google. As of today, it is the third result Google offers, and I've seen it as high as number one (maybe just for me, I don't know what Google does behind the scenes). In any event, this was the top search result that led people to my humble blog until it was recently surpassed by "Can Jesus Microwave a Burrito?" (The Internet is a strange place, and Google models that strangeness well.)

Anyway, for some time now, I've been intending to offer something useful to those who stumble across my blog looking for actual information about Dr. Braaten, but it turns out that such information really has been hard to find. Recently, I enlisted the help of Dwight at Versus Populum, who was able to provide me with enough information to offer the rough biography that follows. I'll also be posting this at Wikipedia, which had a very terse entry, so if anyone knows more and would care to elaborate, please go there and do so.

So, without further ado.....


Carl Braaten has been one of the leading theologians and teachers in the Lutheran church for the past 50 years. He has authored and edited numerous books and theological papers, including Principles of Lutheran Theology (Fortress Press, 1983), Mother Church: Ecclesiology and Ecumenism (Fortress Press, 1998) and In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003).

Along with Robert Jenson, he has been an influential figure in developing and restoring the catholic roots of American Lutheranism.

Braaten was born on January 3, 1929. His parents were Norwegian-American pietists, who served as missionaries in Madagascar, and he received his early spiritual formation in that context. After finishing high school at Augustana Academy, a Lutheran boarding school in Canton, South Dakota, he attended St. Olaf College, Luther Seminary, Heidelberg University and Harvard Divinity School. where he studied under Paul Tillich and earned his doctoral degree. He was ordained by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1958.

At that time, he began serving a parish in Minneapolis and teaching at Luther Seminary. In 1961 Braaten, together with Robert Jenson, Roy Harrisville, Kent Knutson, James Burtness and others, founded the journal Dialog, which he continued to serve as editor until resigning in 1991. In 1962, Dr. Braaten accepted a position at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, where he taught as Professor of Systematic Theology until 1991 and where he is still recognized as Professor Emeritus.

In 1991, Braaten and Jenson founded the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology and established a new theological journal, Pro Ecclesia.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Lutheran Irony (no, not that kind)

There's a concept known as "Lutheran irony" which refers to the characteristically Lutheran idea that whenever we are behaving most religiously (striving to be pious) we are at our most vulnerable spiritually, because our pride weakens our dependence on Christ. That's not the topic of this post.

I noticed something else last night that involves Luther and those who have followed him spiritually and seems to me to be rather ironic. That's what I want to talk about.

I was reading David Brondos' book, Fortress Introduction to Salvation and the Cross, specifically the chapter on Luther. Brondos writes:
For years, Luther wrestled with deep-seated feelings of guilt and with his enemy the devil, convinced that he needed to overcome the powers of sin and Satan in himself in order to achieve the standard of righteousness demanded by God for salvation. Yet no matter how hard he tried and how harshly he disciplined himself, he felt that his efforts were in vain and that he remained under God's wrath. Finally, however, through his study of the Scriptures, most notably Paul's epistles, Luther encountered another God, a God who forgave sins and accepted sinners out of pure grace and mercy through his Son, Jesus Christ.
That's a fairly standard and, I believe, accurate summary of Luther's major transformation.

The thing that occurred to me as I read this was that a very large number of people who see themselves as Luther's spiritual heirs -- not only, or even primarily, Lutherans, but evangelicals in general -- seem to have a theology that assumes that the young Luther who lived in fear of God's wrath was basically right. The common evangelical theology presumes a God who, apart from the sacrifice made by Jesus Christ, would be a wrathful judge who condemned every living person for failing to meet the perfect moral standard of the Law.

What's up with that?!?

That's about as far as I got last night in Brondos' book, so I don't know what he's going to say about it.

Thinking back on my own reading of Luther, I'm not sure that the post-tower-experience Luther would have completely agreed with this idea. When he talks about looking upon God "naked" -- as opposed to clothed in Christ -- it might seem like he would agree, but he constantly tells us that we shouldn't attempt to know or understand this "naked" God. I'm not sure he would have agreed that God is "really" like that.

But regardless of what Luther thought, why would we still be carrying around that medieval image of God? Is this the image of God that Jesus offers us? I really don't think so.

Now someone will say that most mainline denominations don't employ or endorse this sort of thinking. That may be so but (a) too often they don't offer anything substantial in its place (i.e. they just don't talk about salvation), so (b) many of the people in the pews pick this up from other sources.

Beyond that, what really surprised me as I thought about this is that while I have a strong reflex reaction against it, I don't think I've completely cleared it from my own theological closet. I think I still have it in there somewhere, like a box of stuff I'm keeping in case I need it some day.

But it's wrong, isn't it?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Gospel, The Church and Churches

Andy Kaylor has become unstuck in church.

This happens to me from time to time. I'm a member of Generation X, so dissatisfaction is part of my stock-in-trade. That's nothing unusual. Wherever I am, whatever I'm doing, there's also something I'm not quite happy with. That's normal -- normal for everyone, I suspect, but in particular normal for me. But from time to time, the general background noise of dissatisfaction bubbles up to become a full blown crisis. That's happening to me now.

I've been told that the Holy Spirit is a disrupting presence in the Church, so maybe this is for the best.

Right now, one of the chief things I'm dissatisfied with is the Gospel. Well, that's not quite right. I'm not dissatisfied with the Gospel per se. Rather, I feel like I've misplaced it. I've looked around, and I can't seem to find it. This is also something that happens to me from time to time.

The standard Lutheran definition of "the Church" is this: "The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered." (Augsburg Confession, Article VII) I had to look up the precise wording, and it surprised me. It's wrong! The Church is where the Gospel is preached, not where the Gospel is taught, right? Maybe that's part of the problem.

Anyway, I haven't been to church in a while, and when I was going, I didn't often feel like I was hearing the Gospel. That's not to say it wasn't being preached necessarily, but I wasn't hearing it. Maybe it's me.

The trouble is, I'm not sure what the Gospel is. What's more, I probably don't believe that you know either. Sure, "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son...." and "Christ died for our sins" and so on. But, if I can bring Chaung-Tzu into such a hallowed discussion, "The men of old took all they really knew with them to the grave. Their words are only dirt they left behind." Or, perhaps more irreverantly, to paraphrase Inigo Montoya, "You keep using those words. I don't think they mean what you think they mean."

Rod Rosenbladt tells the story of one of his mentors explaining to him what the Church is. He was told, "When the pastor hands you the bread and says, 'This is the body of Christ, given for you,' that is the Church." I like that. It's the place where the Sacraments are administered and the Gospel is preached (not taught). At this simple level, while I still may not know what the Gospel is, I hear it, I feel it, I receive it. Maybe I just need to find a church which celebrates the Sacraments more often.

Several years ago, I told myself in this blog, "To me, the Gospel is that in the person of Jesus Christ the kingdom of God has begun to break into this world. In Christ Jesus, God has begun to fulfill his promise of new heavens and a new earth." That's not bad. I feel my heart strangely warmed to hear it.

My complaint, I guess, is that I'm not finding that in church. Too often I find myself in churches where you'd think that Jesus' preaching began with, "The Counsel of God is at hand. Rejoice and listen to the Good Advice," and ended with, "All insight in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make church members of all nations, inviting them to drink coffee and join small groups, and sharing with them many of the things that you may deduce from what I have taught you." That doesn't work for me.

Perhaps I shouldn't be so cynical. Maybe I should go to church.