Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Grumpy Old Men

Why is it that old men in their high seventies carry away the youth of our churches, even in America, like Bultmann and Tillich? So wrote Sasse in a letter to J. A. O. Preus in 1962.

It is an interesting comment now some 50 years old and yet not untrue in our own age and generation. I once believed that it was due to the impetuous nature of youth, its doubts and rebellion, that the Church has gone so far astray.  But Sasse's comment has resonated with my own change in thinking.  To be sure, I do not believe and I am not sure that Sasse is suggesting that youth blindly follow old men in their fantasy of doubt and fear.  It is not that youth gives up its independence and its ownership in order to slavishly follow the whims and whimpering of a past generation. But the starting point of youth is forever being changed by the ending point of those old men.

The nagging doubts and suspicious natures of those old men sure that the Jesus of the Scriptures and the Jesus of the Church's kerygma and the Jesus of history were three very different people with a bit in common but much to distinguish them became the starting point for those who followed them.  The uncertainties foisted upon the Biblical text by those sure that there was a hidden and forbidden story underneath the neatly printed and carefully bound books called the Bible became the entry point for those who followed them.  In other words, the generations that follow pick up where the generations that came before left off in their doubts and fears about the content of the Scriptures and the reliability of those Scriptures as we know them.  They laid down a new starting point for those who followed them so that their flawed conclusions about what the Church has believed and taught and confessed were the beginning point of those whose distance from the core and center of the faith moved slowly and subtly away.

Instead of adding to our knowledge and understanding of Scripture, we are plagued more and more by doubts about the authenticity and reliability of the creedal affirmations.  The work of grumpy old men has not helped us unfold the story God has given us but made us increasingly cynical about it.  So what we preach on Sunday morning is more and more distant from the work of the scholars upon the texts and stories of those Scriptures.  Our children begin where we have left off and we have bequeathed to them more a legacy of our fears and doubts than any certain facts of confident confessions.

The quest for the historical Jesus has left us believing that Jesus is a mystery man about whom we know little for certain.  The pursuit of the Biblical text by the higher critics has left us believing that the authors are not who they were claimed to be and the books as we have them were manipulated to the point that nothing about the text can be read with confidence.  The focus on diversity of liturgical texts and history has left us blind to the remarkable unity and unanimity throughout the ages -- something that would encourage us on Sunday morning to identity with the saints who have gone before us.

I was never much enamored of Bultmann or Tillich or many of the crop of folks Sasse might name or others might list.  But I cannot deny that they have had a profound effect upon me despite my distance from their perspectives and conclusions.  They have influenced both the topics and tone of the theological debate for far too long and we still do not know how to silence them as they speak to us still from their graves and their published works.

You can see the same thing when it comes to the worship wars.  It seems those most passionate about contemporary worship are boomer age Pastors who are unable to let to of the culture of their youth and who have had the audacity to suggest that the Church's song must sound like what they listened to on the radio.  In this respect, the vast majority of contemporary church music is hardly contemporary but remains largely a folk idiom that has more in common with Peter, Paul, and Mary than it does with cutting edge musical sound.

You can also see how this has affected the areas of outreach, evangelism, and mission.  The doubts and fears of an older generation, certain that unless the Church changed its methodology, she would die, have guided us to look past our own history as a Church and choose modern business methods of marketing the Gospel.  They have built up schools designed to move the Church away from its status in the world to a mere reflection of the world around her -- in the mistaken thought that the Church's salvation lie in being what the world wants or expects or desires us to be.  And the strange truth is that the world does not want a church that looks like American Idol with music from their I-pod or pop psychology from the pulpit.  They want to hear about the mystery of the Word made flesh, about the cross where the reign of sin is broken, and of the empty tomb that speaks of life that knows no end.

You can see this in the areas of ethics, morality, and the social fabric of our world today.  The constant talk of sex, the refusal to reign in desire, and the self-centered approach to marriage and family that was our legacy (especially from the boomers) have left us with little choice but to sanctify that which had been judged sinful, to legitimize that which had been an aberration, and to celebrate that which had been confessed for repentance.  Once again we turn to the Scriptures and find nothing that speaks to us today because we are either convinced that the Biblical era did not know the circumstances we face today or because their words were borne of an outmoded and discredited idea of right and wrong.  So we make up an idea like the Gospel principle in order to do an end run around clear words of Scripture and allow the Church to tolerate, accept, and even approve behavior the Bible clearly condemns.

We are not free from our past -- the more recent past that reflects the last 200-300 years.  We began where the great teachers of doubt and the tutors of suspicion ended.  Is it no wonder then that we are in such a state today?  Without a clear clarion call to that which the Scriptures teach, the creeds confess, and the liturgy manifests, we are left to the muddling of opinion, feeling, and desire.

It is for this reason that so many of the theological works attractive to me were published in a generation far before my own time.  Old school no longer means the orthodox and faithful confession but these scholars of a more recent past whose lasting legacy has been one more of uncertainty than confident faith.  It is not that I try to repristinate the ancient past or reinvent us by resurrecting another era judged golden.  Every time and every place has been plagued by its own set of problems and challenges.   But Sasse is correct in affirming that youth often goes astray because youth begins where the grumpy old men of the past have ended -- with their doubts, fears, uncertainties, suspicions, and bitterness.  The end result is that we must not only deal with their conclusions but with their starting points and this has been the call to Biblical, confessional, and liturgical renewal among Lutherans -- not to reinvent who we are but to reconnect with who we were so that where future generations begin is not with our faults and failings but with what we have always believed, taught, and confessed as that which is the one, true, catholic, and apostolic faith and Church.


Anonymous said...

The letter which Sasse wrote to JAO
Preus is only 49 years old not 60.
At the end of his career JAO Preus
was admonishing some of the older
conservative war horses in the LCMS
to go out to pasture and stop the
in-fighting in the synodical wars.

Preus knew that you can not keep
fighting among yourselves if the
LCMS is to survive. The truth of the
Scripture will always win.

Paul said...

Fr. Peters, just read this amazing quote from Herman Sasse:

What the church believes about herself is dependent on what she believes about Jesus. If non-Christians know nothing of the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, how could they possibly recognize his actual and personal presence in the world through the church? Does the church have a way of proclaiming the mystery of her existence in the world other than by proclaiming the presence of her exalted Lord? What the church is can only be shown by confessing Christ. Woe to the church, which seeks a way other than confessing Christ to gain the world’s attention.

Blessed Lent!

Anonymous said...

It is a real stretch to blame the
church's woes on baby boomers. The
Theologians who introduced to us
"Situation Ethics" were born before
1946. Situation ethics said the
rightness or wrongness of an act
depends on the situation you are in.
This type of antinomian attitude is
not new. The Old Testament Decalog
never went out of date.

The belief that there are no moral
absolutes is now ingrained in our
culture. Only the truth of the
Bible can combat this error.

Anonymous said...

Re. Paul Tillich, I found this snippet in the diary of the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann:

“15 Oct. 1973

I have read a frightening book: the memoirs of P. Tillich’s wife about him ("From Time to Time"). What horror, cheapness, dirt, and depravity! To feel that depravity it is enough to read: "I was eager to become a human being, but what set me on fire was the spirit and the mind. Heinrich (her lover!) was responsible for my becoming as human as I ever became. Paulus was the fulifillment of my cosmic-mindedness. We were both exposed to demons. I struggled against my id, which wanted to destroy my rational self-awareness. Perhaps, my salvation was that I fought for a conscious personal self, though I always felt in danger of becoming the matter on which another person's mind fed… Paulus was a cosmic power…"

What are we to do when an entire civilization begins to babble this way? In my time I have read a lot of Tillich and remember him in person (he gave me some examinations at Union [Union Theological Seminary, GAM] in 53 and 54). Even then I thought: Godless, demonic theology….”

Godless and demonic theology indeed! It’s that simple. Why do some see it, even when they are not of our persuasion, and to others he is a genius? I strongly suspect it has to do with the things covered in previous postings about the nature of Scripture, the Confessions and tradition. From the condition of our church I also sense that something is missing, but I can’t put my finger on it.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

“Dubito ergo cogito; cogito ergo sum." Decartes' epistemology has worn many hats, caused untold harm and still does though most do not realize it.

Anonymous said...

It is a real stretch to blame the
church's woes on baby boomers.

I did not read where Fr Peters blamed the church's woes on baby boomers-only that they were perhaps the most passionate about contemporary music in worship.

You can extrapolate the principle and there is some truth to the fact that youth of every age begin with the sins of their fathers.

Very interesting!

Anonymous said...

"The constant talk of sex........
(especially from the boomers) have
left us with little to choice to
sanctify that which had been judged

I apologize it was not just the
contemporary remark but this above

Very Interesting!