Monday, April 13, 2015

Am I a liberal?

I get accused of this often. Or commended for it. So I wonder, am I one? Am I a liberal? And what is a liberal anyway?

Let's start with theological liberalism. Liberal theology (or liberal Christianity) at its most basic is a movement, informed by the Enlightenment, that employs modern philosophical and scientific perspectives to the interpretation of Scripture.

What this means in practice is that liberal Christians approach the interpretation of Scripture much like they approach the interpretation of other texts. They begin with things like historical context, or literary style, or cultural criticism, and bring these interpretive frameworks to bear on their reading of the text. Authorship matters. The fact that the text was written at a specific time matters, so liberal theologians take into account the gender, race, and social and political situation of the authors who wrote the texts.

The alternative is a more propositional approach to interpretation, that the text should be read in light of certain doctrinal or creedal assumptions. In a sense, non-liberal reading of Scripture believes the text just "is" and all our experiences and other modern interpretive models have to take a back seat to the authority of the biblical text itself.

So, if this is liberal, then I would say I'm about half liberal. I do believe the historical and cultural context of the Scriptures matters for our contemporary reading of the text. I am most interested, when reading Scripture, in what the text may have originally meant to those hearing or writing it. That's liberal.

But I'm interested in understanding Scripture in this liberal way in order to stand under it, to recognize its appropriate authority in my own life, and to gather or gain doctrinal or propositional or narrative truths from it precisely by reading it in a liberal way. I guess this second move is what you'd call conservative. So I'm a liberal in service to another kind of conservatism.

Ultimately, as a preacher, I want to approach the Scriptures in a generous manner. My goal is to assume I stand under rather than over them, that my life is shaped by them rather than my worldview shaping my read of them.

So here's where things get interesting again. Some people (conservatives?) like to accuse people like me (liberals?) of conforming our faith to the culture and the ways of this world. But is that actually an fair accusation? So, for example, the most prominent one, if I support marriage equality, am I just abandoning Christian faith and conforming Christianity to the culture?

The assumption by those who criticize my position is that their position (let's call it a traditional view of marriage) is "against" the culture and not at all conformed to the ways of this world.

That's the part I disagree with. Traditional views are just as conformed to the culture as are contemporary or liberal ones. So again, as a liberal, I guess I do agree with the notion that we are all shaped by our context and culture, without exception. And the fact is, the traditional view of things is often still the dominant one. So who is conforming to who and to what?

Weighing in the balance here is the authority of Scripture over the authority of experience. To what degree does personal experience have some kind of authority in the life of faith, over against  the norm of Scripture? I'm not sure where this puts me on the liberal-orthodox spectrum, but I think the answer is, we can't really say. The two are mutually intertwined, and the truth is, although I stand under Scripture and consider it an authority in the life of faith, I also trust the experience of others as they articulate it to me, and accept the authority of my and others' personal experiences.

I am also "confessional." I have committed to interpreting Scripture in light of the Lutheran confessional texts. In this sense, I am not a liberal. I am confessional, catholic, orthodox, Lutheran. However, I believe the Lutheran confessions were shaped by the culture, piety, and historical context of its authors, so I can't help but be confessional in a liberal way. So here I again I guess I'm a liberal, modern, ecumenical.

All of this is likely connected to my commitment to the liberal arts. I went to a liberal arts college, am a member of Phi Beta Kappa, one of the nation's oldest liberal arts societies, and in general believe it is a good idea for people to be formed in ways that prepare them to function as free people in a civic society.

I find the notion, "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it," itself unsettling because I don't believe such a phrase is even consonant with the logic and sense of Scripture itself. The Scripture itself is a kind of school, a library for the liberal arts, open to readers not in order to be closed and dogmatic, but to stand comfortably as those set free by God for life in the world.

Is that liberal? Well, in the classical sense, it is, kind of. Classical liberalism emphasizes freedom of speech, freedom of religion, democratic society, secular government, and international cooperation. This is why Republicans are actually liberals.

So also free markets. They're very liberal. I'm a pretty big fan of almost all of the liberal things, although as the kind of socialist liberal that I am, I'm somewhat uncomfortable with the impact of free markets on civic society. On the other hand, I benefit so much from free markets I probably can't critique them too much.

Anyway, pretty much everyone, Republican or Democrat, is a liberal (and most Republicans neo-liberal) according to the classical definition. Unless you aren't, but then you probably also weave your own clothes and live off the grid or something.

There are other marks of a liberal. There's the popular use of the term in politics. A liberal is someone who votes Democrat, and holds to a certain political platform. Here again, I guess I'd beg my way out of the liberal label. In terms of political views and social justice commitments, I'm much more of a socialist. In terms of social values, I'm aligned, with a few exceptions, with the Roman Catholic Conference of Bishops more than I am with the Democrats. I'm pro-life (broadly speaking), pro-immigrant, and so on. I've voted for Green party candidates, and progressives, and sometimes for Republicans.

If anyone matches my social political perspective, it's probably Jim Wallis of Sojourners. But only to a point. I am a humble Lutheran, after all, not a liberal evangelical.

In the end, the problematic caricature of liberal pastors like me is that we don't take the Bible seriously, or even read it at all. It's regularly assumed you can't find one in our offices, and they don't inform our preaching.

But people listen to my sermons with some regularity, and although they find all kinds of things that could be improved in my preaching, one thing nobody criticizes is a lack of Scripture. It's all the way in and through it. I try to live and breathe it. You might disagree with my interpretation of Scripture, but that's quite a ways from assuming I've abandoned it.

So I'd argue that I'm not a liberal, I'm orthodox. In a liberal way.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Humanity of Posts

Whereas humanism prioritizes human experiences over things, some posthumanist theory prioritizes things themselves. Thus the question of the humanity of posts (the wooden ones). What is the identity or experience of a post, and how shall we account for it in a posthumanist manner that informs theological commitments?

Check out the full article at Word & World

Thursday, April 09, 2015

The Integrity of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: April 9th, 70 Years After His Death

Bonhoeffer met an early death 70 years ago today in a Nazi concentration camp. Already influential in his country and on the global ecumenical scene during his lifetime, Bonhoeffer's status as a theologian and "martyr" of the church has only increased over the ensuing decades.

Of particular interest to theologians and ethicists was Bonhoeffer's ability to maintain a faithful, confessional stance while so many other religious leaders in Germany were co-opted by the Nazi regime. What was it about Bonhoeffer as a person, Bonhoeffer as a pastor, Bonhoeffer as a theologian, that led to this self-differentiation?

So the biographies proliferate. Unfortunately, biographies are of varying qualities, some helpful, some harmful. The most popular at the moment is also probably the most harmful of all. Eric Metaxas's Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, though incredibly popular and very readable, co-opts Bonhoeffer on so many points that I can do nothing but warn readers away from it.

Of recent interest, and written by an "inner circle" scholar, but also presenting a variety of interpretive problems, is Charles Marsh's Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I read it over the Christmas holidays, and though I enjoyed it, I know enough of the conversation happening in the International Bonhoeffer Society around it to not accept it as a wholesale and helpful reading of Bonhoeffer's life.

If the 70th anniversary of his death does have you interested in learning more, may I suggest the best and most faithful of the recent biographies? Ferdinand Schlingensiepen's Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance is incredible. Schlingensiepen is one of the founding members of the IBS. His father served as a principal of one of the seminaries of the confessing church, and Schlingensiepen was a close friend of Eberhard Bethge, best friend of Bonhoeffer and editor of his collected works in German. Bethge's Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography is still considered the definitive biography of Bonhoeffer.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series
For those who prefer to read the source texts, the major works of Bonhoeffer are now all available in English translation in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series. Each volume includes copious supplementary material to help understand Bonhoeffer's writings in the context of his life. As a reader, I have benefitted immensely by taking a volume at a time in order to live with Bonhoeffer during a period of his life. Of particular interest to me were his time spent serving German congregations in London (volume 13), his letters and papers from prison (volume 8) and the work he did developing underground theological education as a form of resistance to the Nazis (volume 15).

Bonhoeffer offers surprises at every turn. Not everyone knows that he was immensely popular as a youth leader and pastor. During his time in Italy, and again in London, he successfully led the development of youth ministries in congregations where children's ministries had been languishing. Andrew Root has written the definitive account of this aspect of Bonhoeffer's ministry, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together.

Another turning point in Bonhoeffer's theological project was his time spent with the faculty at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Bonhoeffer, open as he was to religious communities different from his own, intentionally immersed himself in the African-American community of Harlem during his time in the U.S. Reggie William's argues in Bonhoeffer's Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance that this was the crucible in which Bonhoeffer's ethic of resistance was forged.

I find myself going back to Bonhoeffer again and again as a lodestone for reflection on the inter-relationship between careful theological inquiry and pastoral ministry. Bonhoeffer frequently wrote for the academy, and has academic theology has had a continuing influence on theological discourse. His theological work also had legs, and walked a walk that led him around the world and back to his home in an effort to resist a regime that was slaughtering innocents and co-opting the church and faith he held dear.

On this anniversary of his death, I give thanks for the witness of Bonhoeffer, and for all those who now carry the torch of his legacy, both in their actions, and in the continuing theological reflection on his work. It is the two together that honors Bonhoeffer completely in his integrity.

Plenty of folks are quoting Bonhoeffer today, I'm sure. He was eminently quotable. I'll end with this enigmatic dialectical statement of Bonhoeffer's, which opens up a whole other aspect of his theology, the move to "religionless" Christianity:
....we have to live in the world esti deus non daretur (even if there were no God) and this is just what we do recognize-before God. God himself compels us to recognize it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as humans who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark. 15:34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God.

Monday, April 06, 2015

It's a Reformation Centennial and We Aren't Slinging Mud?

For centuries, the annual Reformation observances in Lutheran parishes were opportunities to reassert Lutheran pride, and denigrate Roman Catholics. Anti-Catholic sentiments run deep among Protestants. Judgment of non-Catholics runs deep still in much of Roman Catholic thought.

But this has been changing, and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation will likely be the first centennial at which Roman Catholics and Lutherans work towards Lutheran-Catholic unity instead of mutually reinforcing ressentiment.

Augsburg Fortress (a Lutheran publishing house), in cooperation with Liturgical Press (a Catholic publishing house), recently published one contribution towards Lutheran-Catholic unity, a lovely little book: One Hope: Re-Membering the Body of Christ

The book was written using a collaborative writing process known as Book Sprints. It's a process worth checking out, perhaps even using in your congregation or synod or with any team of folks hoping to write a book.

Here's what is unique about this book. Instead of approaching ecumenical conversation from traditional theological topoi, they approach ecumenism around the mutual sharing of gifts in the actual faith practices of the traditions, including prayer, meal, song, forgiveness, service, death, and sojourning. For example, the authors write:
Ecumenical work between Lutherans and Roman Catholics has been described as a "mutual exchange of gifts." In few places has this exchange led to such an abundance of riches for both churches as in their singing traditions. For many who are happy to leave the finer points of doctrine to specialists, singing each other's music is the flesh and blood of greater church unity. In other words, singing and worship have been a fertile area of applied ecumenism where the body of Christ is re-membered. Singing does not just feel good, it does good. One adjective often given for the hopes of our churches is that their unity will be more visible. Singing will bring our families and our churches closer together in an audible unity, too.
I think I love imagining the process of the team writing this book as much as I love actually reading the book. The group shared a bit of their journey while it was in process. Often writing is a solitary enterprise, and certainly there's a place for the age-old process of a single author hiding out in a private space composing what can only be written in the privacy and quiet that the solitary affords. But team writing, though difficult, brings another set of gifts, not the least of which is the living ecumenism it exemplifies simply in the practice of it.

So I encourage one of two responses to the publication of this book. Option one: read it with an ecumenical group of readers in anticipation of 2017. Option two: Take it as a model, and assemble a small team of folks from the two traditions to learn together and create something of lasting import, a contribution to the celebrations in 2017, growing together in the one hope we have in Christ, remembering the body of Christ, and mutually exchanging gifts God has so lavishly bestowed.