Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Pericope of the Week

The epigraph to the published edition of the Jefferson Lecture by the most famous person to have taught at Valparaiso University, Jaroslav Pelikan (1923-2006), is a quote from Goethe’s Faust: “Was du ererbt von deinen Vätern hast, Erwirb es, um es zu besitzen” (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition, [Yale, 1984]). Translation: “What you have inherited from your fathers, acquire it in order to make it your own.”

Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan
 Following Dr. Pelikan's own example, I have tried to make this aphorism the motto of my work as a teacher and scholar. Like him, I have undertaken this work primarily as an historian of ideas, although my final designs have never ceased to be theological.

On the one hand, I have sought to understand and teach “the Christian tradition” as a person of faith, indeed as one who publicly identifies himself as a Lutheran Christian by conviction. Following the example of the author of the Augsburg Confession I have striven to be irenical and ecumenical in my approach to Christian theology and the ideas and experiences in other religions, to maintain in myself and to convey for others a basic respect and appreciation for the wider catholic “Great Tradition,” its texts, basic institutions, and influential characters. In view of the fact that most everybody is an expert on the present, I will continue to try, again in the words of Dr. Pelikan, “to file a minority report on behalf of the past.”

On the other hand, I have also sought to convey the benefits of engaging the Christian tradition and other religious traditions critically through the same interpretive strategies that are brought to other human phenomena. In this respect I do not hesitate to indicate where and why the Christian tradition, its texts, and institutions have been and are being criticized by scholars, including myself. I thus agree with Richard Hughes’ description of a Lutheran approach to “tradition,” which serves as this week's pericope:

Lutherans can never absolutize their own perspectives, even their theological perspectives. They must always be reassessing and rethinking, and they must always be in dialogue with themselves and with others. But there is more, for if Lutherans must always be in dialogue with themselves and with others, it is equally true to say that they are free to be in dialogue with themselves and with others. For knowledge that one is justified by grace through faith grants the Christian scholar a profound sense of freedom to question his or her own best insights, to revise them, or to discard them and start again. This is the genius of the Lutheran tradition. (How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind [Eerdmans, 2001], 88; emphasis is in the original)

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Crying by the Waters of the Jabbok

When my nephew was two he was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, cancer of the nerves. It is a childhood cancer that overtakes almost all who get it. For two years my sister and her husband did everything they could to give Andrew the best care, the latest treatments, and still as "normal" a childhood as possible. On the day of the initial diagnosis my brother-in-law began a daily blog that eventually attracted thousands of readers. All over the world countless people began to pray specifically for Andrew, his family, and his recovery. For awhile it appeared that he was going to escape the clutches of the cancer, almost like a miracle, but one day, a few months later, the cancer began to grow again and this time it was unstoppable. Four-year-old Andrew died in his mother's arms as he reached out his small arms and mumbled, "Jesus, Jesus..." 

Earlier that same year my four-year-old son accidentally hit his head on a swivel chair. What was thought to be just a bang on the noggin turned out to be much more serious. After a few hours of noisy fussiness, Jacob was taken to an emergency room where a CAT scan revealed that the artery in his brain had torn. Blood was pooling under his skull and the pressure was growing. Separated from my son and my wife by two thousand miles (they were in the Chicago area visiting her family while I remained at our home in Portland, Oregon), I received a frantic phone call from my wife. Jacob would have to be flown from that hospital to another one so that he could undergo emergency surgery. The doctor at the first hospital didn't have the skill to do this particular surgery. Another surgeon would have to be found.

As my wife put our son on a helicopter, I quickly contacted our pastor and several colleagues and asked them to pray for Jacob. I spent a restless night traveling from Portland to Rockford, Illinois, all the while not knowing if I would ever see my son again in this life.

Initially, his prognosis was not good. He had been in surgery for three hours. Afterwards the neurosurgeon warned my wife that because so much blood had pooled on Jacob's brain, he might not ever wake up again. His brain might begin to shut down his vital organs. If he did wake up, he likely would not be able to speak again or use half of his body. His mental abilities would surely be severely impaired. And yet, when I showed up as a wreck the next morning, there was my son, sitting up in his PICU bed, head bandaged with what looked like a white turban, a smile on his little face. "Hi, Dad. I'm glad you were able to make it...." When we later prayed, he wanted to say the Lord's Prayer himself, since he had been learning it. He got a little muddled on the fourth petition, or at least I think he did: "...And give us this day our daily breath..." We all broke down and cried tears of joyful relief.

A few days later we met the neurosurgeon who told us he was stumped. Happily so. He couldn't really understand why there were no apparent side-effects from the injury. None. When the flight nurse came into the room a day later she was incredulous. "Is this the same boy that I cared for last week? I can't believe it!" She later asked me if I believed in miracles. I told her that I did. "Well, this looks to me like a miracle. When I prepped your son in the helicopter I was really afraid that he was not going to make it. Some kids who have been in even better condition have not made it into the operating room. God surely answered our prayers here..."

Yes, I believe God hears our prayers and responds to them in God's own ways. God invites us to pray to him and promises to hear us. We also know that what we pray for is not necessarily what God will allow to happen. As one of America's greatest theologians has correctly put the matter, when he commented on the outcome of prayer (and this just a few weeks before his own untimely death), "The Almighty has His own purposes." Why the prayers for Andrew did not issue forth in a miracle like that which apparently happened to Jacob is beyond the ken of mere mortals. While God is not totally incomprehensible, the Almighty has his own purposes that are not always apparent.

I thought about these events again last Saturday afternoon after I received news that a young pastor for whom I had sometimes filled-in had died the night before. Thirty-eight-year-old Pastor Palmer had preached at a funeral on Friday, complained about chest pains throughout the morning and early afternoon, went to a hospital for several hours of tests, all of which turned out inconclusive, returned home with acid-reflux medicine, passed out on his living room floor, was rushed to another hospital where he was again put through a battery of tests and then a CAT scan, which revealed that his aorta was torn. His wife and several close friends prayed for him as he went into surgery in the very early hours of Saturday morning. Less than an hour later the surgeon returned, "We did everything we could, but the aorta had been bleeding for just too long. I'm sorry."

I got the phone call because Pastor Palmer's congregation needed a pastor for the next morning's services. I agreed to serve in this emergency situation. It wasn't easy. While many in the congregation had heard that their pastor had died the day before, not everyone had learned this sad news. When I made the somber announcement at the start of each of the two divine services, there were gasps throughout the nave. Several people, including a pregnant woman, had to leave to collect themselves.

The basis for my hastily-prepared sermon was the appointed Old Testament reading for the day, Genesis 32:22-31. While Pastor Palmer had been doing his Jacob-like wrestling on Friday, now his widow (who was sitting in the front pew at the early service) and their three children (ages seven, five, and two) will be doing their wrestling with God and themselves--and with those of us who will continue to minister to them in the coming days and weeks and months.

How quickly life can change and thrust one into a kind of wilderness. Last Sunday morning there were a lot of bewildered faces at Immanuel. There was not a dry eye at the altar rail where two elders and I distributed the Lord's Supper. All, it seemed, were clinging to the Lord's promises, even as they felt themselves in a kind of wilderness. Bewildered. In unfamiliar surroundings, out in the region of the Jabbok, so to speak, wrestling with God. "Why?" "Why now?" "How do we move on?" "What will happen next?" Like Job in the Old Testament, people in such circumstances want to have answers, but so much remains an inscrutable mystery. God has his reasons that reason knows not. The counsels of the Lord are not our counsels. So often we remain in the dark, groping for some kind of light, some kind of understanding.

Most of my preaching focused on Christ who joins us in the wilderness. Only his light is sufficient for a darkness like what was experienced last weekend. And that light is sufficient in face of the inscrutable, mysterious will of God.

Jacob wrestled with the mysterious man by the waters of the Jabbok and wrestled until he forced a blessing from this person that he later identified as God. This encounter by the waters of the Jabbok would forever mark Jacob. For the rest of his life he would be called "Israel," he who wrestled with God--and prevailed.

All of us who gathered last Sunday sought to force a blessing from God. It came in the remembrance of our baptism, in the celebration of the eucharist, perhaps in the feeble words of the unprepared preacher, in the final benediction and the hymns. In each of these ways the story of Jacob's wrestling became paradigmatic for what was really taking place in the pews and hallways and hearts of the gathered people. Is it not the case that we too are marked anew, given a new identity, given a blessing in our baptism that even death itself cannot destroy? We know that that blessing has not come without pain and suffering--the pain and suffering and death of Jesus our Lord. It is not a cheap blessing, but one that cost the life of Jesus himself. Through baptism, we have been connected to Christ. His blessing has been given to us. We can hold on to it, even and especially when we find ourselves like the widow of the gospel reading, crying out to God in a situation of bewilderment and confusion. And our Lord responds to us, "Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them."

In Jesus Christ, the true God breaks into our wildernesses. In the one who cries out, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’, God joins those whom darkness swallows. There is no place that any one of us could ever end up, no depth to which we might ever sink, but that even there, he is Lord for us. Even there, Jesus says, “Come to me all of you who are struggling and I will give you rest.”  "There is nothing so deep that God is not deeper still" (Corrie ten Boom). In whatever wrestling we do in this life, we don't do it alone. God loves you for Christ's sake and will never let you go.

I'd appreciate your prayers in the coming months since, in addition to my regular academic responsibilities at Valparaiso University, I will be serving as a temporary vacancy pastor to the people of Immanuel. They are grieving, but grieving as people with hope.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Twenty Years of the Peaceful Revolution

In that revolutionary year of 1968 Christian Wolff was a student leader at the University of Heidelberg, where he was pursuing a degree in theology. At that time he was heavily involved in student street protests that called for an end to the U. S. war in Vietnam, for serious reforms in the curriculum and governing structures of the German universities, and for political-social changes in western societies. To a large extent, what he and other protesters wanted is what they got, albeit after several more years of marching and speaking.

Pastor Christian Wolff
Twenty years later Wolff was a Lutheran pastor in Mannheim. Unable to travel to Berlin to witness the revolutionary year of 1989 first hand (he had a broken foot at the time), he nonetheless watched the events unfold on television. Within the year, "what belongs together had grown back together." Germany was reunited.

A few years later he had been selected to be the senior pastor at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, the east German city where the so-called "Peaceful Revolution" began. In this position he became a leader in both church and civic life. He has helped to support the renovations of the St. Thomaskirche and to connect the proclamation of the gospel in word and sacraments with the outstanding musical offerings of the parish, its regular weekly cantatas, its annual passions, and the annual Bachfest. (Pr. Wolff's cousin, Christoph, is a leading scholar of Bach and serves as the head of Harvard's department of music. Christoph's father, Christian's uncle, was the important Old Testament scholar, Hans-Walter Wolff.)

When I taught my course on Luther and Bach at Valparaiso University's Study Center in Reutlingen, Germany, I incorportated two week-long study trips into the semester. On the second of those trips, when we traveled to such Luther-Bach sites as Eisenach, Erfurt, and Wittenberg, we also visited Leipzig. In the course of our explorations of that city we encountered Pr. Wolff. After the Sunday divine service he invited me and several other students to coffee and there we were reminded that he and his family had important connections to Valpo. The VU choir, under the direction of my colleague, Christopher Cock, has sung at the St. Thomaskirche on several occasions, as has Prof. Cock himself. Pr. Wolff's cousin, Christoph, had helped to lead the Bach Institute on our campus on several occasions--most recently for the St. John Passion in 2007, in which I was privileged to participate as well. And Christian himself had visited our campus as a guest of Prof. Cock.

Last week Pr. Wolff and his wife were back on campus. On Thursday he gave a public lecture at the Kade-Duesenberg German House on the twenty-year-old revolution. On Sunday he proclaimed the gospel in our Chapel of the Resurrection.

In his Thursday lecture he stressed that freedom in Germany remains a challenge. The so-called "New Germany" is neither an extension of the old West Germany nor a restitution of 1945 Germany. Rather, everything in Germany has had to be rethought. Intially, in 1989, he and many others thought Germany should develop an entirely new constitution. But in the hindsight of twenty years he now thinks that German leaders were right in '90 to maintain the 1949 Basic Constitution of West Germany, which was from the start to be inclusive of all of Germany, both east and west. This 1949 constitution is exemplary with regard to basic human rights (and here the west German Christians were instrumental in the articulation of these human rights) and "the citizens in 1990 could not have come up with a better constitution than the 1949 one."

But now, twenty years after 1990, the acceptance of the constitution is still a struggle. In the east, there is a kind of longing for "the fleshpots of Egypt," for the perks of the old socialistic system, since the economic struggles and high unemployment in the east have not subsided. And in the west there is still an uneasiness about the political changes that have occurred in the united country and about the huge costs of reunion. Throughout Germany today there are on-going discussions about the weaknesses of a capitalistic economy. "The problems with capitalism should have been examined in 1990 and afterwards, but this has not happened, at least not until recently. To think that the west did not also have to change as a result of 1990 has been a fallacy." Both sides have needed reformation.

Still, Pr. Wolff remarked, "I am grateful for the unity of 1990 and to live under the conditions of freedom and democracy." But, in good Lutheran fashion, Pr. Wolff asks, what does this mean? With freedom, comes responsibility. Indeed, Pr. Wolff stressed that Germans are still having to learn that "freedom" does not mean "being able to do whatever you want to do," but "being free to be responsible to the problems that need addressing."

The struggle for peace and a just society remains an on-going process. "Today we are in danger of trusting only in military efforts to solve our problems. Real peace-making strategies have not been followed. It is still the case that we should talk to and with our enemies than to shoot each other."

Pr. Wolff responding to a question that I put to him.
Near the end of his lecture Pr. Wolff turned more directly to the role of the church in both the revolution and its wake. "For the first time, the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Germany (EKD) was on the right side of the barricades." The church in both east and west had been asking the right questions and raising the right issues, the issues of peace and justice. In fact, the church was one of the few places in both east (especially) and west where one could ask questions of truth and to speak out about God's justice, his mercy, and his grace in word and deed."

What has not been appreciated is the role of the church's leaders in the east to organize the political protesters for a peaceful revolution. The marches remained non-violent largely because of the words and actions of Pr. Fuehrer (see my post of Oct 3), Kurt Masur (then the music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra), and other Christian leaders who focused attention on the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. "The Protestant churches in Leipzig and elsewhere were the base camps of the revolution. Not the trade unions. Not the universities. Not the political parties." In this regard, one could easily make a comparison between the Leipzig revolution, which was focused on the Protestant-Lutheran churches in the center of the city (St. Nicolai and St. Thomas), and the civil rights marches in this country's history, most of which were organized and led from Christian congregations.There is a clear parallel between the non-violent actions and words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the non-violent actions and words of Pastor Fuehrer, the pastor of the St. Nicolai Kirche.

In east Germany Christians stood against dictatorship on the basis of these basic biblical beliefs:

1) The First Commandment means that one cannot give absolute allegiance to anyone or anything that is not the living, true God;

2) The Christian-Jewish texts of the Holy Scriptures reveal God's desire that people be free from all tyrannies, from sin, death, and the powers of evil;

3) Everyone is a creation of God (Genesis 1:26), which is the proper foundation for all human rights and human dignity;

4) Jesus calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us;

5) There is an unconditional priority in the life of the Christian for non-violence.

Two years from now, the parish of St. Thomas in Leipzig will be celebrating its 800th anniversary. When you go to Leipzig, be sure to visit the congregation. Johann S. Bach is buried in the chancel. The music and the preaching will be excellent. And Pr. Wolff will greet you after the divine services and invite you to join him for a cup of coffee and conversation. For more information see:


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Religion and Ethics Newsweekly

I have found this half-hour program quite informative over the past several years. Check your local PBS station for the time of its airing.

For a preview of this coming weekend's program, visit:


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Additional Comments about "God in America"

After the first two segments of "God in America," I was really hooked, perhaps because of the excellent cinematography and the scholarly commentary.

Having now seen the whole documentary, I'm a little disappointed.

I think the project needed at least two or three additional segments.

First, there is nothing about the German and Scandinavian Lutherans. The first Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives was a Lutheran clergyman. Surely that little fact could have been included. The Muhlenberg family and its important role in the early years of the country could have been included. Other religious figures who have served in governmental office could have been discussed. President Carter, for one, was not mentioned, even though his evangelical faith was a focal point during his political campaign and his presidency (e.g., his position with respect to human rights).

Second, there is nothing about the Mormons and the U.S.-grown religions (e.g., Jehovah's Witnesses and their crucial role in religious liberty court cases; Scientology; New Age religions, except at the very end).

Third, there is very little mention of the Social-Gospel movement. Not a single reference to Reinhold Niebuhr. Not much attention to the Women's Movement and its ambiguous relationship to the Christian tradition. The YMCA is missing. The National Council of Churches is absent. Nothing about the modern Ecumenical Movement and its impact on American Christianity.

Fourth, there is no sense about how other moral issues are dividing religious communities in the U. S. today, e.g., homosexuality.

"God in America" is a HUGE topic and a six-hour series just isn't long enough to capture its texture and breadth.

Perhaps folks could petition their local PBS stations to ask for a follow-up. Regular follow-ups. I know, that is a pipe-dream, but it is worth trying.

All of this having been said, I'm glad that PBS devoted six hours this week to the role of religion in American life. I thought the segments on Hutchenson, Winthrop, Whitefield, Lincoln, Graham, and King were especially good. Bottom line for me: the first two segments were better than the final four.

A Second Look at Murray

Martin E. Marty
Teacher, advisor, friend, and friendly critic Martin E. Marty sent me an email a few days ago in response to my post about the first North American Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue. My post included critical comments about John Courtney Murray (1904-67), a principal (maybe THE principal) Jesuit theologian in America in the middle decades of the twentieth century. After receiving a doctorate in theology at the Gregorian University in Rome, he taught for thirty years at the Jesuit theologate in Woodstock, Maryland. He also served as an associate editor at one of my favorite magazines, America, and as editor of Theological Studies, the most reputable scholarly journal of Roman Catholic theology in North America. Given these credentials and responsibilities, he was the best choice to serve as the Roman Catholic essayist at that first dialogue in Baltimore. The topic was "The Status of the Nicene Creed as Dogma in the Church."

I was critical of the fact that Murray's essay stresses the role of the Roman magisterium in the formation and defense of Catholic dogma, so much so that perhaps finally the Church's teaching authority is placed, at least in practice, above the Scriptures and their authoritative application in the life of the church. Lutherans have historically come at this issue in a different way, one that stresses the self-authenticating witness of the Scriptures to their dogmatic content in service to the gospel.

Marty reminded me that on other fronts Murray "was agent of the religious liberty schema which, many argue, admits that the church had been wrong and was now changing!"

That aspect of Murray's contribution to American Christian/Catholic theology needs to be underscored. (Aside: If the church could be wrong with respect to its teaching about religious freedom, could it also be wrong on other matters?! That, of course, is a Lutheran question that I couldn't help raising.) Most of Murray's essays in the 1940s and 50s focused on the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the state, especially in its North American setting. That he was doing "something new" in this area--and offering sober criticism of earlier Catholic approaches to religious liberty--led many Catholics and non-Catholics to take notice, including the editors of Time magazine, who put him on the cover of their December 12, 1960 issue.

For his views on religious liberty, Murray came under fire from Catholic traditionalists and heresy hunters, including the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose responsibility is to discipline Catholic theologians when they take positions against official (and even non-official) church teaching. The Church's magisterium at that time could not see any compatibility between the U. S. Constitution and Roman Catholic theology and practice. And this was the case at least up until the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), where Murray's voice and influence on the Council's final version of its document on religious liberty would be significant.

Prior to the election of President John F. Kennedy, many Americans, and not merely Catholics, debated whether or not there was a compatibility between American religious freedom and Catholicism. If elected to a government position, wouldn't an American Catholic's ultimate obligation be to a foreign power, namely, the Pope? How could one be ROMAN Catholic and American at the same time? To the American majority in the early centuries of the American experience--that is, to the Protestants--Catholicism was perceived as a threat, especially as Catholicism continued to grow and grow numerically. On many occasions some states sought to curb the activities of Roman Catholics. In my home state of Oregon, for example, the citizens there sent an initiative to the state legislature that then passed it as a law that required all children to attend public schools through the eighth grade. The anti-Roman Catholic sentiments behind this 1922 law, whose real purpose was to close all Catholic parochial schools in the state, were not very well concealed. The chief sponsors of the law had been the Klu Klux Klan. Anti-Catholic bigotry was also in play during the 1928 presidential campaign of New York governer Al Smith, the first Catholic to be nominated for president by a major political party and whose Catholicism was attacked by his opponents. The smears against him were certainly a factor in his defeat.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

God in America | Interviews | PBS

I watched the first two segments of "God in America" last evening. These were very well done. I'm looking forward to watching the next two parts tonight.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Comment about Wright's Editorial

In my earlier post today I made reference to a recent editorial by Lawrence Wright in the Sep 20 issue of The New Yorker. If you haven't read it, I recommend it. I agree with his overall point, which my earlier post sought to underscore.

There is a minor factual error in the editorial. Near the end of his essay Wright identifies several positive aspects about Islam in America. He includes the following sentence: "America's Muslim community is more ethnically diverse than that of any other major religion in the country."

This claim, seemingly based on a recent Pew survey, is inaccurate. Without question, America's Christian community is more ethnically diverse than any other major religion in the country. More than 75% of Americans identify themselves as some form of "Christian." That 75% is much more ethnically diverse than the .3% of Americans who are Muslim.

Nevertheless, this minor error should not detract from Wright's overarching point, namely, the need to build bridges with moderate Muslims.

Auslaenders in Germany and the US

Today's online edition of Der Spiegel, Germany's principal newsmagazine (around 1 million subscribers per week), makes reference to the debate in that country about Muslim immigrants. Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer is quoted as saying that Germany does not need any more Turkish or Arabic immigrants because they don't integrate as well as others. Despite the efforts of German President Christian Wulff and Chancellor Angela Merkel to calm the heated debate over Muslim immigration, the debate rages on, fueled even further now by Seehofer's incendiary remarks. "It's clear that immigrants from other cultures such as Turkey and Arabic countries have more difficulties. From that I draw the conclusion that we don't need additional immigration from other cultures," Seehofer, who is leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), told Focus magazine in an interview published on Monday. "I don't agree with demands for increased immigration from foreign cultures," Seehofer added. "We have to deal with the people who already live here. Eighty to 90 percent of them are well integrated. But we must get tougher on those who refuse to integrate."

When we lived in Germany, we became friends with many Muslims, mainly because their sons played regularly with our son. During those two years Jacob was a part of a youth Fussball (soccer) team that was a kind of miniature United Nations. The seven-to-eight-year-olds who comprised the team were all "Germans," yet more than half of them came from families whose ethnic backgrounds were non-German (e.g., Iran, Iraq, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, etc.). Our son was the lone American. They liked him because he became pretty good at being goalie. It also helped that on the Fussball field the focus was on the game and its rules rather than rules of language and religion. His best friends were from familes that had emigrated from Iraq (Kurdistan) and Iran more than twenty years ago. Other friends came from families that had originated in Russia, Ukraine, and Turkey.

Although these boys were at least second-generation "Germans," they were considered "Auslaenders" ("foreigners") by most other Germans. Part of the reason for this labeling was the fact that all of the families sought ways of fostering their family's historic, traditional culture (religion, language, food, values) while trying still to integrate within the larger German society. The other side of this labeling was a strong impulse within German culture: "If you don't speak our language or respect our values, or if you fail to blend in (and only draw attention to your differences from us), we will continue to speak of you as a foreigner." We often saw frowns and dirty looks from elderly folks on the local buses whenever a group of "Auslaender" children got on the bus and immediately began talking loudly in their familial language. (Germans don't like anyone talking loudly on buses, but it is particularly so with Auslaenders...)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Pericope for the Week

Last week marked the 223rd anniversary of the death of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (9/6/1711--10/7/1787), the so-called "patriarch of the Lutheran Church in America." He had been born in Hanover, Germany (the seventh of nine children), educated at Goettingen University, served as teacher in Halle (at that time a center of Lutheran Pietism), and then, under the direction of the Pietist leader A. H. Francke, came to Pennsylvania in 1742 to serve the "united" Lutheran congregations there. Skilled in many areas--he was fluent in  Latin, German, English, and Dutch, and had some knowledge of medicine--he was a great organizer, catechist, preacher, and missionary. He and his wife had eleven children, three of whom themselves became prominent: John Peter Gabriel was a pastor, soldier, and politician; Frederick Augustus Conrad was a pastor, congressman, and the first person elected Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives; and Gotthild Henry Ernst was a pastor (surprise), botanist, and scholar.

The three large volumes of Muhlenberg's journals, edited by two giants among 20th-century American Lutherans, Theodore Tappert and John Doberstein (who also translated the entries), give us, to quote the editors, "intimate glimpses into the life and manners of American colonists in the eighteenth century." Here are two "markings" that struck me as I reread the journals last week:

From the entry for October 13, 1774:

Our host received a visit today from a German family of our religion who live in Old Indian Swamp, fifty miles away in the country. The man's name is Philip Eisenmann and he has a plantation of his own, but no Negroes. He and his wife cultivate the place themselves in the sweat of their brows and prove thereby that a man can live and find food and clothing without the use of black slaves, if he be godly and contented and does not desire to take more out of the world than he brought into it.

They lamented the great lack of schools and religious services in their neighborhood. They have been using their barn for public worship and have taken on as preacher a young man who recently arrived from Germany and spent some time teaching school in Charleston. The man said that the pastor works the whole week on a sermon, gathering it together from books and writing it all out, and then on Sunday dryly reads it from the paper without the slightest expression in his voice. He even has to read the Lord's Prayer, not knowing it from memory, and gives as his excuse the fact that the Lord did not give him the gift of a good memory. The good Lord is always the one to be blamed when these sluggards remain uncircumcised in heart and ears. The only credentials he brought with him from Germany were a pair of black breeches. The other fragments, such as bands, etc., he obtained from his countryman, Pastor Daser.

And this from the entry for July 4, 1776:

Today the Continental Congress openly declared the united provinces of North America to be free and independent states. This has caused some thoughtful and far-seeing melancholici to be down in the mouth; on the other hand, it has caused some sanguine and short-sighted persons to exult and shout with joy. It will appear in the end who has played the right tune. This remains as a comfort to believers: There is One who sits at the rudder, who has the plan of the whole before him, to whom all power in heaven and earth is given, and who has never yet made a mistake in his government. He it is who neither sleeps nor slumbers and who has asked his people to pray, "Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done."

Friday, October 8, 2010

On the Status of the Nicene Creed as Dogma of the Church

Forty-five years ago the first formal dialogue occurred between representatives of the U. S. Roman Catholic Bishops' Commission for Ecumenical Affairs and the U. S. A. National Committee of the Lutheran World Federation. While not the first ecumenical dialogue between these two communions--the Jaeger-Staehlin Group in Germany, later called the Ecumenical Working Circle of Lutheran and Catholic Theologians, was the first such dialogue, begun in 1946, and the twice-yearly informal dialogues that occurred in the 1950s between the theology faculties of Valparaiso University (Lutheran) and Notre Dame (Roman Catholic) were the first in the U. S.--the later American series of dialogues that began in 1965 has had the longest run of any in North America and it has borne much fruit over the past 4.5 decades.

This semester I'm teaching a new course that examines these dialogues. Such a course makes sense to me here at Valparaiso University, since about 25% of our students are Catholic and approximately 35% are Lutheran. What better way for these students to explore what they have in common as well as how their respective doctrinal traditions differ. Even those in the class who are not Lutheran or Catholic are finding the discussions helpful for sorting out what they believe and don't believe. After preliminary sessions on the histories of Lutheranism and Catholicism, the Ecumenical Movement, the Lutheran World Federation, and the Second Vatican Council, the students and I have turned our attention to the background papers and common statements of each of the individual dialogues.

I thought that today I'd offer a few observations about the first dialogue, which occurred in the City of Baltimore, the first Catholic diocese in what would come to be the U.S. and which maintains the "prerogative of place" among all U. S. archbishoprics. The theme had been selected by a steering committee of Lutheran and Catholic theologians that had met in the offices of Cardinal Lawrence Shehan (1961-1974), then the archbishop of that city. The focus: the status of the Nicene Creed as dogma of the church. This creed, first formulated at the Council of Nicaea in A. D. 325 and then expanded at the Council of Constantinople in A. D. 381 (technically, then, it is "the Niceano-Constantinopolitan Creed"), is the basic ecumenical creed in Christendom, confessed by both eastern and western Christians as a core summary of their common faith.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

On Ricci and Taylor

Today marks the 458th birthday of Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), a key, founding missionary to China.  Arriving in Macau in 1582, he began to learn the Chinese language and adopted those customs that he thought did not conflict with Roman Catholic faith or practice. An important aspect of his missionary activity included his work as a mathematician and cartographer (providing the first map of Europe to Chinese people in 1584). He also helped to develop the first Portuguese-Chinese dictionary (the first in any European language). His approach of "accommodation" led him to utilize native Chinese concepts, especially those arising from Confucianism, to explain central ideas in the Christian faith. He adopted the traditional Chinese attire, spoke the language, "went native," so to speak, in order to witness to Christ in this "foreign" culture.

The day before yesterday I was privileged once again to participate in the weekly Lilly-Fellow Colloquium that involves our five current Lilly Fellows, their mentors, and the Lilly program staff. For the next two years I am serving as the mentor to Piotr Malysz, who is completing his Ph.D. at Harvard.

(For info on him and our other fellows, see http://www.valpo.edu/christcollege/faculty/lillyfellows.php.)  

This semester we've been discussing several issues that cluster around the topics of "church and academy" or "Christianity and culture." The focus of Monday's 90-min. discussion was Charles Taylor's Marianist Award Lecture from 1996, "A Catholic Modernity?"

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Pericope for the Week

Today marks the 307th birthday of the person who has often been identified as "America's greatest theologian," Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758).

So it is fitting that Edwards provides us with this week's pericope:

...and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be rapt up to God in heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in him. I kept saying, and as it were singing over these words of Scripture (First Timothy 1:17) to myself; and went to prayer, to pray to God that I might enjoy him; and prayed in a manner quite different from what I used to do; with a new sort of affection. But it never came into my thought, that there was anything spiritual, or of a saving nature in this.

From about that time, I began to have a new kind of apprehensions and ideas of Christ, and the work of redemption, and the glorious way of salvation by him. I had an inward, sweet sense of these things, that at times came into my heart; and my soul was led away in pleasant views and contemplations of them. And my mind was greatly engaged, to spend my time in reading and meditating on Christ; and the beauty and excellency of his person, and the lovely way of salvation, by free grace in him. I found no books so delightful to me, as those that treated of these subjects. Those words (Cant. 2:1) used to be abundantly with me: I am the rose of Sharon, and the lilly of the valleys. The words seemed to me, sweetly to represent, the loveliness and beauty of Jesus Christ. The whole book of Canticles used to be pleasant to me; and I used to be much in reading it, about that time; And found, from time to time, an inward sweetness, that used, as it were, to carry me away in my contemplations; in what I know not how to express otherwise, than by a calm, sweet abstraction of soul from all the concerns of this world; and a kind of vision, or fixed ideas and imaginations, of being alone in the mountains, or some solitary wilderness, far from all mankind, sweetly conversing with Christ, and wrapt and swallowed up in God. The sense I had of divine things, would often of a sudden as it were, kindle up a sweet burning in my heart; an ardor of soul, that I know not how to express.

--Jonathan Edwards, "Personal Narrative," in Letters and Personal Writings, ed. George S. Claghorn, vol. 16 of the Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Harry S. Stout (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 792-93.

For exegesis of the passage, I recommend George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), esp. 45-46, 53-58, and 99-112. This book is now the single best resource for the life and theology of Edwards.

A good place to start the study of Edwards is the smaller work by Marsden, A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008). For those who like their Edwards with cartoons, there is James P. Byrd, Jonathan Edwards for Armchair Theologians (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2008). Another work that has been a helpful resource for my own lectures on Edwards is Robert Jenson, American's Theologian: A Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards (Oxford Univ. Press, 1988).

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Day of German Unity

October 3 has already passed in Germany, but October 4 hasn't yet arrived here in Indiana, so I thought I would remind folks that this date, 3 October, is the national day of Germany. This year's Oct 3rd officially marks the 20th anniversary of the reunification of that country. Having lived in Germany for two years (2007-09), my family and I had the opportunity to celebrate this national observance a couple of times.

In the university course about German life and culture that I regularly taught in those years I was able to explore with my students the dramatic events of 1989 that led to the wall coming down, the rush toward unification, and the long aftermath that isn't over. One of the most common topics that Germans in our area (Baden-Wuerttemberg, in relatively wealthy southwestern Germany) complained about was the expense of unification. Chancellor Kohl's predictions about the cost were greatly underestimated. Twenty years later (and after more than 150 billion euro have been transferred from east to west), unemployment remains higher in the east than in the west. These economic problems continue to be a burden for the wealthier states. Chancellor Merkel, herself the daughter of an East German Lutheran pastor, is facing major political challenges this fall, and one of these is undoubtedly the abiding tensions between eastern and western Germany.

As a Lutheran theologian, I have been interested in how Christians in the former East Germany played such a decisive role in the peaceful revolution of 1989. One of my former students is now doing graduate research in Germany that will examine the role of the churches in this movement. While Baerbel Bohley, who died on Sep 11, is rightfully remembered as one of the most courageous revolutionaries who wanted (in words taken from her obituary in the Sep 25th Economist magazine) "not simply to dissolve the GDR into West Germany, but to rebuild something better and different: less greedy and more human," we ought not forget the heroic actions of those who gathered for prayer and protest in Lutheran church of St. Nicolai, Leipzig. This was the real heart and center of that revolution, one that had begun many years earlier as "merely" a Monday-evening prayer service. "There was no head of the revolution. The head was the Nikolaikirche and the body the centre of the city. There was only one leadership: Monday, 5 pm, St. Nicholas Church." The goal: pray for peace in a world gone wild with weapons and hate.

So tonight I'm remembering those prayer services. Here's what one of the pastors, Pr. C. Fuehrer, has written about that miraculous time: