I must admit that it is a tantalizing question. Rome has both bellied up to Luther and distanced itself from him. Unfortunately, so have the Lutherans. In the wake of the 500th Anniversary of the 95 Theses, Lutherans have spent a goodly amount of time letting people know where they think Luther was wrong and where Luther needs to be clearly and unequivocally rejected (think Luther and the Jews here). In some respects, we are not sure what to do with Luther or which Luther we like best. He can be irritatingly, shall we say, earthy. He can be mind numbingly long winded. He can be strangely contradictory. He can be unfailingly bold. He can be catholic. He can be Protestant. He can be conservative. He can be radical. Is he the young Luther or the Luther of middle age or the old Luther? Such is the pursuit of academics attempting to systematize Luther and make him consistent (or consistently boring). As important as Luther is to the Lutherans (indeed to all Christians and to history itself), the Lutheran Church is not bound to his every word. We are bound to the Concordia, to the Book of Confessions. Luther is certainly a voice in those confessions and a figure who looms large over them but his writings are not the equivalent of the Book of Concord.
The next problem for Lutherans is what to do with the Book of Concord. We have argued for a very long time around Latin terms (quia and quatenus) because or insofaras. But perhaps the greater problem for us Lutherans is that our people are largely ignorant of these confessions so important that they inhabit the primary and unalterable articles of our constitutions and the pledges to them essential to both ordinations and installations of our clergy. How impactful can they be when we as a church body know them more by myth and legend than by sight or experience? This is even more true for clergy who promise fidelity to documents that they have read perhaps only once for a class and do not view as the guiding or boundaries words for them and their ministries. So if there is to be a viable Lutheran option it must be, well, Lutheran and it must flow from the foundational documents to which we have bound ourselves -- both on the level of the clergy and those in the congregations.
Along with this is the question of whether they describe or prescribe both faith and practice. There are many, even so-called conservatives, who insist that some, perhaps much, of what is proclaimed is descriptive of the Lutherans at the time and does not prescribe a practice that we ought to follow today. Herein lies the issue of the weekly Eucharist, the use of the liturgy, the church year, vestments, ceremonies, etc. While not really things indifferent, adiaphora have sparked more battles among us than the things that cannot be wished away or redefined. Yet even here remains a real question. Is the issue of the weekly Eucharist and the liturgy the same kind of question as vestments or how rich or simple the ceremonial that accompanies the Divine Service? Even some conservatives would insist that it is all wide open and rules cannot be written regarding their use even while they would affirm that these are indeed salutary.
While we are at it, the Lutherans also wrestle with those things that were not issues in the 16th century and so were not addressed directly within those confessional documents. While no one but an ignorant fool would challenge the idea that Luther and his followers presumed marriage of one man and one woman, that homosexual behavior was disordered and sinful, and that gender was not an indefinite concept defined by the individual, Lutherans have come down on different sides in modern times. Some might delight in writing off the more liberal brand as not really Lutheran but clearly they outnumber the confessional variety (at least in North America and Europe). Whether or not African Lutherans will swing the balance toward the confessional stance is a promising hope but not a certainty at this point. For now we Lutherans will have to deal with a landscape in which to those outside of Lutheranism the brand is socially and theological liberal. It may be a complaint of Missouri and Wisconsin and others that this is not the only form of Lutheranism but it is clear the numbers remain on the side of the Lutherans on the left.
Finally there is the issue of declining numbers. Whether you are in the ELCA and have seen a radical decline or in Missouri and seen a nominal decline, it is clear that the largest Lutheran body in America is those who used to be Lutheran (not all that different from many other denominational situations). Congregations are growing smaller but that is not the kind of growth that is sustainable. The ability of those congregations to maintain an full-time educated clergy is highly debated among us. The Lutheran birth rate is down about where it is for those who are not religious and this is not a good sign for churches that have historically depended upon growth through progeny. While few Lutherans are in the dark about the bleak forecast for our future, Lutherans passionately debate whether this can be rectified by being more Lutheran or less (with the less side seeming to be stronger now).
So, that might make you think I was pessimistic about our future. I am not. I believe that Lutheranism is viable not because we are doing a great job of making it viable but because this is the shape of catholic and evangelical faith. The Lutheran faith is in a stronger position than Lutheran jurisdictions and congregations. Rome is not in an enviable position. Orthodoxy isn't either. Protestantism is in chaos. Evangelicalism has become the domain of charlatans and is a sham of its once serious theological self. I am not sure that you can say that any of these as a faith is in a stronger position than its jurisdictions and congregations. Rome has the papacy for good or for ill and right now it is for ill. Orthodoxy is more an ethnic reflection than one of faith. Protestantism has caved in for lack of a real confession. Evangelicalism is more interested in numbers than faithfulness to Scripture, creed, or confession. I feel like Peter. "Lord, where can I go?"
So the end result is this. The Lutherans are correct. Where the Gospel is purely proclaimed and the Sacraments rightly administered, there is the Spirit calling, gathering, and enlightening the Church. Rome has been reformed over and over again and it has not corrected the abuses or the ills that Luther saw in his day or the cracks that Francis has made in its structure. To rush to Orthodoxy requires a culture transplant and without the ethnicity one remains somewhat on the outside and the curious problem of what to do with all the time that has passed since the last ecumenical council. I do not consider Protestantism or Evangelicalism worth a second look. So I will stick with Lutheranism and hope and pray that the Lutherans will give up their self-doubt and their isolationism and their tendency to borrow whatever seems to work from whomever appears successful in the moment, and try being Lutheran according to their Confessions. I will cast my lot in which those who are Lutheran heavy and not Lutheran lite (not because they hang on every word of Luther but because the Confessions do not merely describe a moment in time but expect and anticipate that those who confess like them will practice like them). Missouri is the last and best hope for Lutheranism in America and the African Lutherans seem to be coming to this judgment as well. So for all our problems, I am not ready to swim away. Even if Lutheran jurisdictions wither and die, Lutheranism will continue to survive. I just wish we Lutherans believed it enough to take it seriously on every level of our identity.
Now let me say, without equivocation, that the Lutherans cannot return to a pristine moment in time or look backward to find our anchor. The Confessions are not true simply in a historical sense but confess for then and now a faith that does not change. We cannot be our grandpa's church and face the future but neither can we be out of step with that past. We must face where we are and the issues before us and address them with the same confidence in our Confessions as did those of other times and places. Our future lies with a church renewed by her confessions, revitalized by the efficacious Word that accomplishes the purpose for which the Lord sends it, shaped by the Sacraments that deliver what they sign -- real presence and not a symbol alone, and a hope that compels us to live this new life as a holy vocation in but not of the world, doing the good that God has called us to do because of the good He has shown to us in Christ. When we begin doing that, our future will change. Yet, in any case, it is not institutional survival that is our goal but to live under Him in His Kingdom now and forevermore.
Sunday, June 24, 2018
I am old enough to remember Barry Goldwater saying, in the midst of the 1964 campaign for President of the US, that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Actually I was so moved by his campaign that I put some Goldwater bumper stickers on cars parked in front of my father's place of business -- something that I learned was a good intention gone awry. Strangely, we generally only remember the front half of that quote. The rest of it being "moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."
You have to remember that 1964 we lived in the after math of the Berlin blockade and with the Berlin Wall, still wounded by the assassination of President Kennedy, facing the uncertain future of communist aggression and the start up of the Viet Nam war, as well as racial tensions that threatened to divide our nation. It seemed to me that Goldwater was just the fellow we needed then. In any case, I was too young to vote and was barely even a foot soldier in the cause for which he stood.
The quote has stuck with me but in part because the landscape has changed so profoundly and with it the quote itself. Extremism in defense of liberty may be called a vice in our present age but extremism in the causes du jour of liberalism is, apparently, no vice at all. We have seen a Roman Catholic university dismiss a conservative tenured professor for violating a right guaranteed to us as citizens and to him within the definitions of academic freedom. We have also seen Kevin Williamson fired from the Atlantic ostensibly because his extremism was on the wrong side. He has identified this as symptomatic of progressivism’s intolerance and hypocrisy. According to Williamson, Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg, cheerfully published the pugilistic Christopher Hitchens, but could not tolerate Williamson. “Hitchens was in the family,” Goldberg says baldly. “You are not.” In other words, it is not the extremism that Atlantic objected to but the direction of that extremism. Williamson was fired from the Atlantic not because he was extreme, but because he was extreme in the wrong way [his was the defense of the pro-life position].
I am not at all suggesting that we should be as extreme, irritating, or as in your face as some authors have been (on either sidee) but I am pointing out to the hypocrisy that once presumed some objectivity on the part of the media and now shows that there is a real and not imagined bias against positions that violate the accepted liberal line of politics, religion, morality, and truth. It seems that we live at a time when not advocating the correct politics, religion, morality, or truth will get you fired. In other words, we live at a time when censorship in pursuit of the liberal line is alive and well. If and when the day comes when no other views but the accepted views of the majority (or at least the liberal elite) will be heard, we will have seen the fulfillment of Orwell's fear in Animal Farm and 1984. It may have taken longer that Orwell predicted for some to be more equal than others or some truth to be found intolerable, but that day has arrived in the public square. And, as I have written here before, one can only wonder how long it will be before the right of free speech and freedom of religion will find limits depending upon what is said and what is proclaimed. In the end, the powers that be will attempt to muzzle God the way out of season voices have been silenced in the public square. It is then we will see if the faithful and their leaders have the backbone to resist and choose faithfulness to the Lord over the acceptance of their peers.
All of this has not only great bearing upon the state of religion in America but the religious enterprise. Here I am thinking of the ability of churches to maintain colleges, universities, and even parochial schools in the face of a context that abhors what they stand for. It might be nice to go the way of a Hillsdale College and disassociate yourself from government funds and their strings but nearly every educational institution receives something from the government even if it passes through the hands of the student first (student loans and grants). Eventually there will be rules to define who can receive that money and who cannot -- rules that will effectively force the churches to decide if they can afford to do it without the government money or if they have to given in or close the doors. That day is coming.
Saturday, June 23, 2018
The Costume Institute's spring 2018 exhibition—at The Met Fifth Avenue and The Met Cloisters—will feature a dialogue between fashion and medieval art from The Met collection to examine fashion's ongoing engagement with the devotional practices and traditions of Catholicism.
Serving as the cornerstone of the exhibition, papal robes and accessories from the Sistine Chapel sacristy, many of which have never been seen outside The Vatican, will be on view in the Anna Wintour Costume Center. Fashions from the early twentieth century to the present will be shown in the Byzantine and medieval galleries, part of the Robert Lehman Wing, and at The Met Cloisters.
Still time. . . on through October 10, 2018. . .
Friday, June 22, 2018
Apparently Orthodoxy is serious studying and debating the issue of a female diaconate. Perhaps you might find some of it interesting. In any case, it is clear that though this is about sources, people are picking and choosing from those sources to further their own point of view. . .
You can read it here first. . .
The St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess advocates for the reinstitution of the ordained order of deaconesses for the benefit of the Orthodox Church today. We also appreciate that this is a significant issue that prompts a range of opinions, and we consider it to be part of our work to promote empirically grounded conversation.Those on the other side have their own view of the issue. You might take a gander here. . .
Unfortunately, distortions and misrepresentations of the historical record, as well as fallacies about the interest in renewing the female diaconate, have been propagated by some of those opposed to deaconesses. Furthermore, when making their case, some detractors misunderstand and misrepresent the ecclesiology, history, and theology of the Church.
Correction of these errors is necessary for honest dialogue. By no means exhaustive, this article by the St. Phoebe Center Board provides solid historical and theological information about the diaconate by theme. We undertake this project with humility, knowing that while we offer up our own efforts, the Holy Spirit is also at work.
Those contending for the creation of a new order of women clergy in the Orthodox Church under the guise of restoring the ancient order of deaconess (such as those at the St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess) make up in tenacity what they lack in historical balance. Their recent piece in the Public Orthodoxy site makes a number of statements and claims about the ancient order of deaconess. These statements are not so much false as incomplete. By adding to the picture what they deliberately omit, one can know (in the immortal words of Paul Harvey) “the rest of the story”.
Thursday, June 21, 2018
The old joke has the Christmas and Easter attender telling the pastor he needs a new schtick since every time the fellow comes to church the pastor is preaching about the birth or resurrection of Jesus. It is old but not that far off. I have had people say we talk way too much about sin and forgiveness and I have had folks suggest that people would be more likely to attend if sermons were more practical -- how to achieve your goals was one subject offered.
The truth is that the conversation in the public square is more and more regulated. The threat of hate speech looms large over those would venture to disagree with the politically correct line on just about anything. While some think it will never come to the point of the speech within the church being regulated as such, we may not be that far off. California is looking at extending the prohibition of so-called gay conversion therapy to other media that promotes this now forbidden idea. The California State Assembly passed a bill that would outlaw “the sale or lease of goods or services to any consumer” that “includes efforts to change behaviors or gender expressions, or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same sex” (whatever "goods" mean). There are more and more voices insisting that the First Amendment may not protects homophobic expression. If it becomes any more forbidden, the church may be the only public place where it is allowed but how long will churches suffer being a pariah for a stance that many have deemed a losing battle?
If this is the case and the confines of religious public free speech is restricted only to the church building, it will mean that many of the voices challenging the ascendant liberal causes will be effectively shut out of the debate. It seems that Democrats may have an unofficial list of promoted causes (and therefore also the banned causes) that will define them in the future. Their heavy hitting financial backers have decided that the party ought to pursue (on top of support for same sex marriage, abortion, and gender freedom): free universal healthcare, free college tuition, and reparations to atone for slavery (in addition to legalizing marijuana). It seems that in order to be Democrat you have your platform made for you. Whether or not you agree with these ideas, the point made is that these are the Democratic positions on these issues.
The point is this. The political atmosphere is more and more pointed, the positions more and more monolithic, and the practical outcome of it all is that these are the only positions on the issues which are being allowed. The old cover of religious freedom may not be enough to sustain a public voice that does not echo the party line. And this soon becomes the expectation of people who go to church. They have begun to believe that the church should mirror back to them their already existing positions and not argue with them. In other words, the church is tolerant only in the sense that some things will not be tolerated. Apart from this the churches are about as welcome in some places as Chick-Fil-a. If corporate offices can be made to toe the line, how long will churches survive the threats? Remember that it did not take more than a day before Starbucks shut down its operations for sensitivity training. Many are wondering when and if the church will get the hint.
All I am saying is this. If we think the marketplace of ideas is still free, we are deluding ourselves. Whatever else may be true, this is the case. The political media and its liberal leadership have figured out that shaming the voices against you is just as -- if not more -- effective than fighting the battles out in words and debate in the public arena. Our ideas do not have to lose, only to be discredited or tarnished against the moral compass of the day.
Consider this from Concordia Publishing House:
This morning, we learned that Google ads will no longer accept anything related to the cph.org domain. They stated that the reason is because of the faith we express on our website. He was told, as an example, that things like our Bible challenge on our VBS webpage would clearly need to come down before they could consider us for ads.Incredibly sobering and disappointing. It is an uphill battle but our mission and customers are worth it. It is why we are here.