Thursday, January 3, 2019

A Chance to Regain Paradise

Last year a Valpo alumnus, Mike McCarey, invited me to read the manuscript of a novel he had recently written that engages issues in science and religion. I did so and found it an interesting story. The book, A Chance to Regain Paradise: What Preceded the Big Bang, is now available via Mike's website.

 A Chance To Regain Paradise: What Preceded the Big Bang by [McCarey, Michael]

For excerpts and to order the book, go to The novel is $15.99 (free shipping in the continental US included). You can also order it via Amazon in softcover and for Kindle.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Pericope of the Week: A Bonhoeffer Moment?

My friend, Gene Brueggemann, a retired Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod pastor in Colorado, recently wrote an article for the online Daystar Journal, which I help to edit. Gene is 92 years old. For 55 of those years he was a campus pastor, most recently at Colorado State University. I have known him since the mid-1990s.

Gene has given me permission to share the first part of his article here. To read the whole piece, just follow the link at the end of the post. This excerpt from Gene's essay will serve as our pericope for this important week.

Is This a Bonhoeffer Moment?
by Pr. Eugene Brueggemann

A Bonhoeffer moment is a moment of truth. It is a time of urgent necessity that is calling the church to bear witness to the truth when it is under prolonged and intense attack. Many American Christians, impressed with Bonhoeffer’s role and writings in the Nazi era, see parallels between then and now. The parallels are certainly there, as well as important differences.
The most obvious parallel is the rise to power of two ambitious, aggressive, highly-effective demagogues. Adolf Hitler was a dispirited veteran of the German army, a failure at painting and at staging a coup (the Munich beer hall Putsch) and the successful author of Mein Kampf, a book which inspired the Nazi movement. Donald Trump is a veteran of New York City real estate competition and Hollywood show time and the author of a book, The Art of the Deal¸ which displayed his values and modus operandi. Both candidates lost the majority vote but gained office anyway, Hitler by bullying his way to power against a politically and physically weakened Chancellor Hindenburg, Trump by the vagaries of the electoral college.
The most significant parallel, I believe, is their effective use of the Big Lie to promote the cause of Aryan/white nationalism in a succession of rallies. They had the ability to deliver spell-binding speeches which incited fear and loathing of their enemies. For Hitler, the Big Lie was that the Jews were traitors who had stabbed the German army in the back in the waning days of the Great War. Jewish bankers were disloyal citizens who counseled surrender, and Jews, of course, were behind a militant communism which threatened a weakened Germany. Hitler made centuries-old anti-Semitism not merely respectable, but essential in making Germany great again. The Aryans were the master race, the key to German exceptionalism.
For Trump, the Big Lie was of the same order but more subtle: he vilified immigrants early and often, those already within our borders, both legal and illegal, and those swarming the Southern border looking for jobs and asylum. Immigrants, he asserted, weakened the true American identity and were responsible for a crime wave. To shouts of approval, Trump demanded a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and the exclusion of immigrants (especially Muslims) from entering the country. The easy entrance of these immigrants was a threat to American exceptionalism. Barack Obama, the Kenyan outlier, and Hillary Clinton, the elite insider, were prime examples of Democrats who were responsible for the decline of American greatness into bland multiculturalism.
Trump did not campaign openly as a racist, and he did make gestures of reaching out for support from blacks. But he viewed Barack Obama with contempt, and for years he gained notoriety by vilifying him as an illegitimate president, who was born in Kenya and a secret Muslim.  The audiences that he roused most effectively at his rallies were insecure, socially displaced white citizens, many of whom held the common prejudices against blacks as people who stole jobs and committed crimes, while accepting hand-outs from the government. Trump’s rhetoric contained enough “dog whistles” to his audiences to betray the racist streak in his movement. With Steve Bannon as campaign director and adviser, Trump had access to those whom Hillary Clinton had privately identified as “deplorables,” the KKK, the Neo-Nazis, and white supremacists.
Trump demeaned whoever stood in his way, beginning with the other Republican presidential candidates. A single word functioned as a Big Lie to define his opponents. This made him a most unconventional and entertaining candidate. Politics as show business never had such a star. He successfully demonized Hillary Clinton as a felon who should be locked up for using an insecure email server while Secretary of State. Hillary stood for the enemy within, the globalist elites who had hollowed out middle America with trade policies that shipped American jobs and factories to China, Mexico and Canada, a theme of Bernie Sanders’ campaign as well.
As effective as Trump was and is as an American demagogue wielding the Big Lie, he is not in the same league as Hitler and his propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, who perfected the Big Lie strategy with Teutonic thoroughness and backed it up with the threat and use of violence by the brown-shirted thugs of the SA. Trump’s attacks on the press, his shout-outs to harass reporters and dissidents and his welcoming the support of the KKK and right-wing militias are pale imitations of the Nazi campaign (but nevertheless frightening reminders of the power of hate and fear in politics).
The relation of religion to the National-Socialist agenda was the occasion for the first Bonhoeffer moment. In Germany, the Nazis entered into a concordat with Rome, which effectively muffled criticism or resistance from the Catholic Church, and they worked hard to make the Protestant state churches over in their image. They promoted a national union of the Evangelical Churches (Lutheran, Reformed, United), which was supported by the so-called Deutsche Christen (those German Christians who welcomed the inroads of Nazi ideology into the churches) and was headed by Nazi-appointed Reichsbischof Ludwig Müller. The churches in the German states voted for or against the proposed agenda of the Deutsche Christen.  Bonhoeffer was a member of the United Protestant Church of the Old Prussian Union, the largest state church in Germany at that time, which had been taken over by leaders in the Deutsche Christen movement, who implemented Nazi goals. Other state churches, such as the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Bavaria, the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Hanover, and the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Württemberg, did not.
A strong resistance movement known as the Confessing Church emerged, which was headed by prominent German churchmen like Karl Barth, Martin Niemőller, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Their goal was to rally support for the continued independence and confessional integrity of the Protestant churches. One hundred thirty-nine official delegates from eighteen of the state churches (along with some 200 guests) met and issued the Barmen Declaration in May 1934. In subsequent months, many thousands of additional pastors and church leaders would sign it as well. In this document, they stated that their intention was to stand “in opposition to attempts to establish the unity of the Protestant territorial churches by means of false doctrine, by the use of force and insincere practices.” They insisted “that the unity of the Evangelical Churches in Germany can come only from the Word of God in faith through the Holy Spirit,” not through the Deutsche Christen, who sought to make the church into an “organ of the state.”
The Barmen confessors also stood in opposition to the enforcement of the Nazis’ racist ideology in the churches. For example, one daring aim of some Deutsche Christen was to remove Jewish elements from all Protestant hymnals and worship services. A few from the Deutsche Christen even sought to remove the Old Testament from the Christian Bible! With the passage of the Aryan Articles—which legalized the purging of Jews from Germany—Nazi church leaders insisted on removing from church offices all pastors who were of Jewish descent. They used the Aryan Paragraph (a law that blocked “non-Aryans” [Jews] from serving in all public offices) to force “non-Aryans” out of the ministry. Against these actions, the Barmen confessors held that Aryan supremacy was a false doctrine which adversely affected the churches’ mission of proclaiming the gospel.  The Barmen Declaration thus states against the Deutsche Christen: “We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions,” that is, to interpret the Bible to support the introduction of the racist agenda of a totalitarian state into the church. The Barmen Declaration also reminded the churches that God has placed limits on all secular government, including the Nazi regime: “We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special [biblical] commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life.”
Bonhoeffer became very active in the Confessing Church movement which emerged from the Barmen Declaration. He later led and taught at one of its seminaries, the one in Finkenwalde, and continued to do so “underground,” when that seminary was officially closed by the Gestapo. His resistance to the evils of Nazism included his participation in a political-military conspiracy, organized in part by his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, which sought “to throw a spoke in the wheel” of the government in a number of ways, including the smuggling of Jews out of Germany. As a member of this conspiracy, Bonhoeffer also supported its attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Arrested for his activities in helping Jews to escape to Switzerland, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for almost two years. He was eventually executed on the orders of Hitler.
The introduction of the Aryan Paragraph into the church was condemned as false doctrine by the Barmen Declaration. The American parallel is the racial denigration of immigrants in America, both past and present. It was consistent with Trump’s leadership of “the birther movement,” which appealed to the widespread prejudice against blacks and immigrants lurking beneath the surface of everyday life. The Big Lie holds that this growing number of (mostly criminal) “others” are responsible for America losing its greatness. Donald Trump was making racism respectable again. The incident at Charlottesville last year exposed this reality–and also the strong resistance to it.
Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church held that Nazi ideology of the Aryan master race was a false doctrine that had no place in the churches’ teaching and public life. Facing the reality of the success of the Big Lie in American politics, this question arises: Are Protestant leaders advocating or resisting the false doctrine associated with the rise of Donald Trump, namely, that a white Christian nationalist America can and should be restored?
(To read the rest of Pr. Brueggemann's article, go here.)

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Rostered and Called IV

Earlier this year, I became a rostered ELCA minister of word and sacrament. As a part of that candidacy process, I had to write two essays, some of whose contents might be of interest to at least a few readers of this irregular blog. I have already shared sections from the "entrance essay" that began the process. Here is the first part of the first section from the second essay, "the approval essay":

1. Person in Ministry
A. What is your understanding of God’s mission in the world? Describe your faith in the Triune God and how your Trinitarian faith has informed your understanding of God’s mission?

            God’s mission presupposes God’s creation of the universe through the eternal Word. That mission centers on God’s sending (missio) of the eternal Word into that creation in order to love and redeem it to the glory of God. This merciful mission of God to and in this sin-filled, sick, and suffering world includes then the exacting claim and comforting promise (promissio) of Jesus the Christ, the incarnate Word of God. Through him God’s reign is coming. Jesus speaks about it in parables, allegories, and aphorisms, and he actually begins to bring it by loving the unlovable, challenging the powerful and haughty, forgiving the guilty, healing the sick and disabled, comforting the fearful, freeing the burdened, raising the dead, eating with sinners and tax-collectors, and ultimately by dying and rising for the forgiveness of our sins and for our salvation.
            The risen Christ now says to his followers: “Peace be with you! As I have been sent by my Father, so now I send you” (Jn. 20.21). “Go, and make disciples….!” (Mt. 28.19-20). So following from the Son’s own being sent comes another sending, namely, the missio of the Spirit, the Comforter, who now summons people to change their old ways of thinking and living and to trust that for Christ’s sake they are reconciled to God and at peace with God (cf. Jn. 14.25ff.; 2 Cor. 5.19-20; Rom. 5.1ff.; 8.1ff.). The goal of the Spirit’s missio is the reception of the Spirit’s promissio by faith alone (Gal. 3.14; AC IV and V).[1] That missio is a mediated one: through the proclamation of God’s judging and consoling Word, focusing especially on the extravagance of God’s grace and mercy, which is “the proper function of the gospel” (SA III.4); through the washing of holy baptism, by which sinners are put to death with Christ and raised anew with him; through Christ’s holy supper, by which the people of God are forgiven, renewed, and refreshed—again and again “until Christ comes again”; through the production of spiritual fruit (Gal. 5.22ff.), which is the proper outgrowth of such faith in Christ, for the sake of the world’s deep needs; through “the mutual conversation and consolation” (SA III.4) of those who bear Christ’s name in the world. Called by the Spirit into this ecclesial fellowship with God and one another, all of God’s people are sent back (missio) into the world to share (trans-missio) the promise (promissio) of the good news of God’s redeeming love and grace in Christ for all people, especially for “the poor in spirit; the hungry; the thirsty; those who are ardently waiting and watching (Mt. 25.1ff.); the restless who in this world know that they are entirely in an alien land and that here they have no continuing city; those who long for and expect the solution of all problems solely from the coming Lord alone.”[2] Whatsoever we do unto the least, we do it to Christ (Mt. 25.34-40).
               I believe and trust in God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, because of God’s missio to me, namely, to call me by the Spirit through the gospel, to enlighten me with the Spirit’s gifts, to make me holy and keep me in the true faith, just as the Spirit “calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy” the whole catholic church on earth and keeps it united with Jesus Christ in this faith (SC II.6). I believe that I cannot believe without the Spirit’s ongoing work to create and sustain my faith on a daily basis. In times of deep doubt and uncertainty about God, I find strength in the promise of my baptism. Marked with the cross of Christ, my sins and death have become his, and his righteousness and life have become mine. In my baptism, the triune God has said, “You are my child. I love you and forgive you. I will never leave you or forsake you.” That cruciform promise frames each of my days. It sustains me in my living and working, in my cross-bearing and daily dying. It gives me hope for the future.

[1] I was first taught the connections among "missio,” “trans-missio,” and “promissio” by Robert Bertram. See especially his essay, “How a Lutheran Does Theology,” The Report of the Lutheran-Episcopal Dialogue, Second Series, 1976-1980 (Cincinnati: Forward Movement Publications, 1981), 77. The original title of that essay was “Doing Theology in Relation to Mission.”
[2] Edmund Schlink, “The Sojourning People of God,” in Edmund Schlink, Ecumenical and Confessional Writings [The Coming Christ and Church Tradition and After the Council], ed. Matthew L. Becker, trans. Matthew L. Becker and Hans G. Spalteholz (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2017), 258. Schlink’s ecumenical theology has had a significant influence on my own understanding of the mission of the church in relation to Jesus’ prayer that his followers “be one” (Jn. 17). I am currently serving as the editor and principal translator of the six-volume Edmund Schlink Works project. For an analysis of Schlink’s understanding of the vocation of the Christian theologian in a university, which deeply informs my own vocation, see my inaugural professorial address, “Christ in the University: The Vision of Schlink,” The Cresset 80 (Easter 2017), 12-21.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Pericopes of the Week: Jaworski and Ervin

Recent television appearances of John Dean led me last week to re-read several Watergate-related books on my shelf. Among these are Leon Jaworski's memoir, The Right and the Power: The Prosecution of Watergate (Houston: Gulf Publishing, 1976), and Sam J. Ervin Jr's The Whole Truth: The Watergate Conspiracy (New York: Random House, 1980). Dean's own Blind Ambition (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976) and Theodore H. White's Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon (New York: Scribner, 1975) also received attention. A short detour took me to the thirty-seventh chapter ("President Nixon and the Crisis in the Presidency") in the fifth edition of The American Constitution, by Alfred H. Kelly and Winfred A. Harbison (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1976).

Looking ahead to a future beyond 1976, the latter book ends with the following warning: "Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Nixon crisis is that an entire coterie of men who showed little or no understanding of the profound principles underlying constitutional government in the United States were able for some years to exercise effective control of the presidential office. They were at length repudiated. But the kind of challenge they posed can be met successfully in the future only as long as American society is knit together powerfully by a sense of destiny arising out of a common devotion to the underlying values of constitutional liberty" (Kelly and Harbison, pp. 1039-40).

In light of our present political crisis, reading Jaworski (who was appointed special prosecutor after Archibald Cox had been fired in the Saturday Night Massacre) and Ervin (who was the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Watergate) produces multiple moments of deja vu.

Both of these public servants argued (1) that a judge can issue a subpoena for the president to testify before a grand jury (and/or produce subpoenaed evidence for a grand jury, thus severely restricting so-called "executive privilege"); and (2) that a grand jury can at the very least name a sitting president as an unindicted co-conspirator in an indictment.

Ervin went further:

"I reject this theory [that the president cannot be prosecuted for a crime unless he has first been impeached by a majority of the House of Representatives and removed from office by two-thirds of the Senate] on the basis of an extreme illustration. If he is exempt from criminal prosecution until he has been impeached by the House and removed from office by the Senate, the President can constitutionally forestall his impeachment and removal from office, and thus evade responsibility for his criminal acts by perpetrating unpunishable homicides upon a sufficient number of those representatives and senators who think he merits impeachment and removal" (Ervin, p. 99).

Jaworski, who as a practicing Presbyterian occasionally offers commentary of a spiritual nature in this memoir, ends the book with this brief paragraph: "From Watergate we learned what generations before us have known: our Constitution works. And during the Watergate years it was interpreted again so as to affirm that no one--absolutely no one--is above the law" (Jaworski, p. 279).

While Ervin's book is frequently repetitious and occasionally devolves into a dry list of facts ("Haldeman said this.... And then Ehrlichman said this...."), it contains many bon mots. Here are a few:

"I can't resist the temptation to philosophize just a little about Watergate. The evidence thus far introduced or presented before this committee tends to show that men upon whom fortune had smiled benevolently and who possessed great financial power, great political power, and great governmental power, undertook to nullify the laws of man and the laws of God for the purpose of gaining what history will call a very temporary advantage.... The evidence also indicates that the efforts to nullify the laws of man might have succeeded if it had not been for a courageous Federal Judge, Judge Sirica, and a very untiring set of investigative reporters. But you come from a state like  the State of Mississippi, where they have great faith in the fact that the laws of God are embodied in the King James version of the Bible, and I think that those who participated in this effort to nullify the laws of God overlooked one of the laws of God which is set forth in the seventh verse of the sixth chapter of Galatians: 'Be not deceived. God is not mocked; for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.'" (Ervin, p. 182)

Ervin quotes Justice Robert H. Jackson: "Men have discovered no technique for long preserving free government except that the executive be under the law" (p. 223).

And Ervin ends his book by summarizing the comments he made to the Select Committee when it submitted its final report to the Senate in June 1974. Here is a brief portion of those remarks:

"[The presidential aids who perpetrated Watergate] apparently believed that the President is above the Constitution, and has the autocratic power to suspend its provisions if he decides in his own unreviewable judgment that his action in so doing promotes his own political interests or the welfare of the nation.... I digress to reject this doctrine of the constitutional omnipotence of the President. As long as I have a mind to think, a tongue to speak, and a heart to love my country, I shall deny that the Constitution confers any autocratic power on the President, or authorizes him to convert George Washington's America into Gaius Caesar's Rome....

"Candor compels the confession... that law alone will not suffice to prevent future Watergates. In saying this, I do not disparage the essential role which law plays in the life of our nation. As one who has labored as a practicing lawyer, a judge, and a legislator all of my adult years, I venerate the law as an instrument of service to society. At the same time, however, I know the weakness of the law as well as its strength.

"Law is not self-executing. Unfortunately, at times its execution rests in the hands of those who are faithless to it. And even when its enforcement is committed to those who revere it, law merely deters some human beings from offending, and punishes other human beings for offending. It does not make men good. This task can be performed only by ethics or religion or morality....

"When all is said, the only sure antidote for future Watergates is understanding of fundamental principles and intellectual and moral integrity in the men and women who achieve or are entrusted with governmental or political power." (Ervin, p. 312)

Friday, August 24, 2018

Rostered and Called III

Recently I noted that I have now become a rostered ELCA minister of word and sacrament. As a part of that candidacy process, I had to write two essays, some of whose contents might be of interest to at least a few readers of this irregular blog. I have already shared the first two sections from my entrance essay that began the process. Here is the third section of that essay:

(3) My Relationship with Jesus Christ. I have already referred to my baptism, which is the starting point for responding to this prompt. Nothing I’ve experienced in my life has been more important to me, my identity, and my vocation than that sacramental event in September 1962. Every morning and night I make the sign of the cross in remembrance of it. I make this same sign of the cross each Sunday in the divine service and in the weekly chapel services I attend at Valpo. Marked with the cross of Christ, my sins and death have become his, and his righteousness and life have become mine. In my baptism, the triune God has said, “You are my child. I love you and forgive you. I will never leave you or forsake you.” That cruciform promise frames each of my days. It sustains me in my living and working, in my cross-bearing and daily dying. It gives me hope for the future.
            My relationship with Jesus Christ is nourished and strengthened through daily reading of Holy Scripture. My days thus begin with careful study of two chapters from an English version of the Bible and a paragraph from the Greek New Testament. After meditating on these Scriptural passages, I pray three psalms, offer a prayer ex corde that leads into the Lord’s Prayer, and then sing a hymn verse. Because of my ordination vow, which includes reference to the doctrinal content of the Lutheran Confessions, I try to spend at least thirty minutes during the workday studying the Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche. (Editing and translating the writings of Edmund Schlink have also entailed frequent examination of these writings.) Each year I focus on a classic figure in the Christian tradition, reading everything by that person as well by those who have written the most important secondary studies. For example, given the significance of this year [2017] for Protestants, I am reading straight through all of the available volumes in the American Edition of Luther’s works. Last year it was Kant; the year before, Augustine. But I also regularly “pray the news.” Each morning I read the New York Times and our local paper; during lunch I watch CNN (and sometimes listen to NPR); before dinner I view the NBC Nightly News and then the PBS NewsHour. I also regularly read several magazines, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, the Economist, and the Christian Century. After dinner, my family has a brief devotion and prayer. Before going to sleep, I read two psalms and say a final prayer. (By meditating on five psalms a day, I am able to get through the entire Psalter each month.)
            My relationship with Jesus Christ is nourished and strengthened through regular participation in the weekly Eucharistic service at Christ Lutheran Church, Valparaiso. Each Sunday I listen for the voice of the living Christ, the viva vox evangelii, a word that judges and forgives, renews and empowers, enlightens and propels, a word that is also joyfully received in the Eucharist itself along with everything else that Christ gives there. Sent forth by God’s blessing, I re-engage my various vocations (disciple, husband, father, professor, citizen) with the promise of Christ and his Holy Spirit.
            Let me say a further word about one of those callings, that of professor. Here I seek to love the Lord with all my heart and mind. I strive to teach my students in faithful obedience to Christ. In this way I seek to fulfill the Scriptural exhortation that was spoken to me personally in the pastoral blessing at my confirmation: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.” So I have read many books on the historical Jesus and Christology. I have written several essays and book chapters on the issue of “the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.” I have taught Christology to undergraduate students. I have been particularly interested in the development of Christological and Trinitarian dogma in church history—dialoguing with classic thinkers from the early church but also with more recent theologians—and I hope someday to write my own “Christian dogmatics” for undergraduates (which will be a sequel of sorts to my book on fundamental theology). In each of my classes I try to show my students—those who are Christian as well as those who are other-religious and non-religious—what a “critical” faith in Jesus Christ might entail, an informed faith that does not shrink from the hard questions relating to Christ and the apostolic witness to him. For those who are other-religious (e.g. Muslim, Hindu) and non-religious (“the nones”), I seek to share reliable historical and theological information about Jesus, to explicate what it might mean to believe in Jesus, and to invite respectful dialogue. So I speak about Jesus in a way that shares knowledge, welcomes dialogue, and encourages further reflection. Perhaps those students who are struggling with their faith, whatever their background might be, will consider that it is possible to move from a naïve, childhood understanding of the Christian faith, through criticism and doubt, to something akin to what my teacher Paul Ricoeur called a “second naiveté.”
            I continue to struggle to relate my faith in Jesus Christ, my love and passion for him, to my work as a scholar of Christian theology. I have learned that scholars of Christian faith (i.e., people who are believers in Christ who also teach about Christian faith) need not be afraid to share such faith and passion with their students or downplay the knowledge of faith that they have gained through their formal education and the school of hard knocks. I have also learned not to pretend that such a scholar is really ever completely “objective” and “neutral” in teaching about Jesus Christ, even if I also know that I should constantly strive to avoid bias, prejudice, and distortions. Every semester I remind myself and my students of the functional wisdom of Bernard Lonergan’s advice to young theologians: “Be attentive, be intelligent, be rational, be responsible, develop and, if necessary, change.”