Thursday, March 25, 2010

The exchange of meaningless words...

Now let me put it up front that I am not antagonistic toward diplomacy.  I do believe in the value of conversation between those of differing viewpoints.  But in order for real diplomacy to take place, the words in that conversation must have meaning and power.  They must be honest words.

In the beginning, the ecumenical task was to begin a conversation with people who had not been doing much talking.  I can well recall reading the first volumes of the Lutheran and Roman Catholic conversation and marveling at what was the substance of that conversation.  These were deep words, words that both described and communicated well what was believed, taught, and confessed.  Maybe it was the caliber of the participants or the fresh air of these initial dialogs, but whatever the reason they produced substantial documents that I still refer to from time to time.

Somewhere along the way, this ecumenical conversation changed.  Instead of summoning up the courage to confront what different communions believed, taught, and confessed, it became an exchange of meaningless words.  Yes, there may have been something learned in the exchange but this became secondary to the agreement that agreement was so important, differences should not be allowed to prevent it.  So we went from those early conversations with the likes of Piepkorn, Gartner, McSorely and Tavard (among the many names on the list) to the kinds of conversations that ended up saying Methodists and Presbyterians could commune with Lutherans (the ELCA variety, at least).


I for one welcome the pull back of Rome with respect to the Joint Declaration on Justification -- it is not because I do not want or seek or pray for such unanimity of confession, no, it is because I know that such unanimity can only occur when we speak honestly our convictions and not when we tailor the words to fit the audience.  In this I credit both John Paul II and Benedict XVI for reiterating what Rome believes and teaches.  It is not an ecumenical set back when we confront these differences but it is a betrayal of honest ecumenism when we paper over them for the sake of appearance.


In many respects, the final effect of this shift has been felt internally as much as externally, within the church bodies as much as between them.  There is no shortage of words.  There is a shortage of words with meaning.  Read through the essays and papers that once marked the Free Conferences among Lutherans or those presented in Synod Conventions and you see solid and substantial positions expressed.  Now, we often find ourselves speaking less about substance and more about style, having neatly divided faith, worship, and piety so neatly.

It occurs to me that we will spend $2+ million on the next Synodical Convention and who much of the time and words will be the meaningful words of a solid theological debate and how much the exchange of meaningless words?  The same could be said of many other gatherings of Missouri churches -- from youth gatherings to women's auxiliaries to men's groups...

If we cannot speak meaningful words, then the only words left for our conversation are those that do not carry much meaning.  When that happens the very power of the Church and her witness is compromised.  We are here because God spoke and things came to be.  We are here in faith because the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.  We are here together because someone spoke this Word to us so that the Spirit might work faith in our hearts (the spoken Word or the Visible Word of the Sacraments).  We are here to speak the Word the cleaves the darkness, the two edged sword that kills and gives life.  We are Word people (written, oral, with water, spoke in absolution, and in bread and wine).  When we begin living contentedly with meaningless words, there is nothing left to call us, gather us, enlighten us and sanctify us from assembly to congregation, from people to Church.  When the character of our conversation moves from "this we believe" to merely an exchange of ideas, it really matters little what we say within our communion or between communions.

I spend way too much time reading words that are essentially meaningless.  Whether the techno speak that continues to through new words out (missional, paradigm, transformational, etc.) or the old vocabulary of the Church minus our conviction, such words waste our time.  It is better to read the wrong but believed words of those with whom you disagree than to read the meaningless words that puff the moment but leave us nothing to grasp hold of before they are gone...

When preaching, it is a good thing to use the full toolbox of the communicator but in service to the meaningful Word of the cross.  When writing in newsletters and church bulletins, it is a good thing to promote and chronicle the parish agenda but understanding that this is the most serious of business for the Gospel is to be proclaimed not only among us but through us to the world.  When programing and planning it is a good thing to consider how best to accomplish the goal but the goal must be nothing less than to proclaim the full counsel of God's Word so that hearts may be convicted by the Spirit with respect to sin and reborn in faith by the Spirit by the power of the Gospel.

Let us resolve to be people of substance, whose words have meaning and power and speak truth and life in Christ.  Let us resolve to speak them passionately and compassionately both within the communions in which we live out our faith and between communions as we seek the honest unity of doctrine and truth.  Let the Church not be accused either falsely or truthfully of exchanging meaningless words anymore...

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well said. Thank you.

Pastor Peters said...

I realized that I had inadvertently added a zero to the total cost of the convention -- making it a rather shocking $20 Million when it is a shocking enough $2.5 Million (at least that is what is budgeted and I do not know how much of the various other costs of Districts and delegates would impact that figure... I am told that at $1,000 per delegate for hotel, food, and transportation we are talking a possible $12-14 Million... but I wish somebody would help me find the actual figures...

Thomas Pietsch said...

Thank you Pastor Peters - I'm an interested follower of your blog, and find your comments and analyses very insightful. With respect to this post, I found that the classification in 'Dominus Iesus' of other denominations as 'ecclesial communities' rather than Churches in the proper sense not to be a slight on the Lutheran Church (as it was widely interpreted), as much as a clarification of Roman Catholic ecclesiology. With regard to fuzzy speech at church gatherings, here is a quote from Roger Scruton's 'Modern Culture' that I only recently posted on another online forum. I think it relates to what you are talking about here with reference to synods and dialogues:

"Kitsch, as I see it, is a religious phenomenon - an attempt to disguise the loss of faith, by filling the world with fake emotions, fake morality and fake aesthetic values....

"Faith exalts the human heart, by removing it from the market-place, making it sacred and unexchangeable. Under the jurisdiction of religion our deeper feelings are sacralized, so as to become raw material for the ethical life: the life lived in judgment. When faith declines, however, the sacred is unprotected from marauders; the heart can be captured and put on sale. When this happens the human heart becomes kitsch. The clich├ęd kiss, the doe-eyed smile, the Christmas-card sentiments advertise what cannot be advertised without ceasing to be. They therefore commit the salesman to nothing; they can be bought and sold without emotional hardship, since the emotion, being a fantasy product, no longer exists in its committed and judgment-bearing form.

"Much of our present cultural situation can be seen as a response to this remarkable phenomenon - never, I think, encountered before in history. Kitsch reflects our spiritual waywardness, and our failure, not merely to value the human spirit, but rather to perform those sacrificial acts which create it. Nor is kitsch a purely aesthetic disease. Every ceremony, every ritual, every public display of emotion can be kitsched - and inevitably will be kitsched, unless controlled by some severe critical discipline... Think of the Disneyland versions of monarchical and state occasions which are rapidly replacing the old stately forms...

"It is surely impossible to flee from kitsch by taking refuge in religion, when religion itself is kitsch. The modernisation of the Roman Catholic Mass and the Anglican Prayer Book were really a kitschification: and attempts at liturgical art are now poxed all over with the same disease. The day-to-day services of the Christian churches are embarrassing reminders of the fact that religion is losing its sublime godwardness, and turning instead towards the world of mass production. And surely Eliot was right to imply that we cannot overcome kitsch through art alone: the recovery of the tradition is also a reorganisation of our lives, and involves a spiritual as well as an aesthetic transformation."