Sunday, July 15, 2012
When the only thing that is heard is "no"
I read those words in an article describing the misunderstanding of John XXIII (not the progressive radical but the hopeful renewer of tradition). I like them. These words do not express new or unique truth but a perspective often forgotten in the sea of ideas where Christianity must compete in this world. That is not to say that Christianity is only "yes" -- it is not. Faithful Christianity is, indeed, a series of "no's" that can neither be ignored nor explained away. But the confession of faith to the world is primarily positive.
Note what it is we confess in the Creed: I believe/We believe... This is affirmation and not condemnation. Oh, to be sure, confessions of faith (first seven ecumenical councils, Lutheran Confessions, etc...) always condemn or anathematize the opposition but they do so only first having expressed positively what is to be believed, taught, and confessed (within and outside the Church).
Somehow this has gotten lost. Christians have come to be seen as against sex, against women, against gays, against freedom, against modernity, against birth control, against abortion, etc. The world has heard only the "no's" (rightful and faithful) but none of our "yes's!" In this, the world has heard only part of the Christian faith and too many have rejected the voice of Christianity because it has been primarily the voice of "no." Certainly you cannot exclude the "no's" from Christian faith and witness but the primary nature of our faith and witness -- especially to the world -- is positive.
I think this is one of the enduring blessings of Luther's catechism (and why it is to troubling that the catechism is becoming an unknown book and a foreign language to his heirs). Luther's explanations are primarily positive. Think of the Creed with its three-fold reflection on God. I believe in the Father means that I believe that God has made me and all creatures, endowed me with my body and all its parts, daily and richly blesses my life with all things needful for this body and life, defends and protects me from all enemies and evil. From that positive affirmation of what God has done comes what we do in response: "Thank and praise, serve and obey" (with all the "no's" inherent in gratitude, worship, service, and obedience). The same is also true of the second article. From the joyous affirmation of who Christ is and what He has done (the positive) flows the faithful response (inclusive of all the "no's" being His own in a world opposed to Him and living under Him in His kingdom while being in this world, and serving Him in holiness of life, speech, and faith). The third article likewise confesses what we cannot do -- only to point to what God has and continues to do to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify me and His Church. I could go on and on...
I am convinced that the more we distance ourselves from this primary Lutheran confessional and catechetical document, the Small Catechism, the easier it is for us to think of Christianity, and of Lutheranism in particular, as a series of "no's" more than the positive affirmation of what God has done and continues to do among us, in us, and through us.
Confessional Lutherans are often characterized as curmudgeonly old foggies who resent their lost youth and its prominence and are left with only "no's" to express about everything modern (from worship to music). This is hardly the case but it is often the poor way we express legitimate concerns of faithfulness, authenticity, and efficacy in these areas. We must remember that we affirm within the Church and witness this affirmation to the world before we begin listing the things we must, in order to be faithful, say "no" to... I am not at all suggesting that we refrain from saying "no" to that which we must but I am confident that when this is the place we begin and this is the familiar refrain heard in the Church and in the world, nothing else will be heard. The more distant we are from the language and posture of Luther's Small Catechism, the more likely we will find ourselves shouting "no" and then wondering why people reject us or just don't get what we are saying. Some of the renewal needs to begin with the once common identity and experience of Lutherans, instruction in and familiarity with the Catechism.