Friday, May 29, 2015

Althaus in Marsh's Bonhoeffer Biography

Earlier this year I was asked to lead a public discussion of a new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Strange Glory, by Charles Marsh (Knopf, 2014). I told the people who had gathered in the Community Room of Valpo's Christopher Center that I generally enjoyed the book and had gained some new insights as a result of reading it, especially about Bonhoeffer’s time in the U.S. and his friendship with Eberhard Bethge. I did, however, find Marsh's speculations about Bonhoeffer's supposed homosexuality less than convincing and his characterization of Bonhoeffer's relationship with Bethge--which Marsh describes as tending in a "sexual" direction--unsupportable. Others have criticized Marsh on this score as well. As one friend of mine--who is himself a Bonhoeffer scholar--recently stated to me: "...There can be profound and enduring friendship, such as Bonhoeffer had with Bethge, without turning it "sexual..." When I spoke with Bethge a few years before he died and asked him about his relationship to Bonhoeffer, he simply replied, "He was my best and closest friend."

My own appraisal of Marsh's book basically coincides with the analysis that my friend Jim Nuechterlein (former Valpo professor of American studies and political thought, current senior fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, former editor of Valpo’s The Cresset and an editor at large of First Things) offered in his review that was published in the Oct 2014 issue of The New Criterion: http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/The-ambiguous-witness-of-Dietrich-Bonhoeffer-7962)

Unfortunately, Marsh's book contains several factual errors, particularly regarding another German Lutheran theologian from that era, namely, Paul Althaus (1888-1966).

These errors occur on pages 190-92, 215, and 439-40.

I contacted Prof. Marsh by email, but he has not replied.

What are these errors?

Contrary to what Marsh asserts on p. 190, Paul Althaus was never a member of the Nazi Party. He was never a "zealous Nazi" (p. 215). He never expressed an interest in attending the Barmen Synod. He never taught at Goettingen University. He never held a distinguished chair there. (Marsh has apparently confused Paul Althaus for Emanuel Hirsch.)

Between 1925 and his death in 1966 Althaus taught at Erlangen University, which Marsh correctly notes at the bottom of p. 142. But contrary to Marsh's claim, Althaus never "broke abruptly" (p. 191) with the so-called “Confessing Church,” since he never was a member of that dissenting group. He did not sign the Barmen Declaration nor did he join those who did. For confessional reasons he and the other key Erlanger theologian at that time, Werner Elert, could not support that Declaration because they thought it contained theological errors, e.g., they thought the document confused the law and the gospel and that its first two theses contradicted its fifth thesis. For Althaus and Elert, God works in two differing ways (“two kingdoms”), one way through creation and history (law, justice, retributive action, etc.) and the other through the gospel and the means of grace. These two ways need to be rightly distinguished from each other. These are matters that both theologians thought were muddled in Barth's document.

(Elert and Althaus did have an influence on the final draft of that Declaration. Bavarian Lutherans at Barmen insisted on adding that fifth thesis, which was not original to Barth's draft. The fifth thesis reflects the Lutheran concern to distinguish properly between law and gospel and to seek to maintain the proper distinction between the two conflicting ways in which God operates in the world.)

Paul Althaus
Contrary to what Marsh states at the top of p. 191, Althaus and Elert also opposed the Deutsche Christen and the formation of a single  Reich Church. They sought to defend the confessional integrity of the Bavarian Lutheran Church, which remained relatively "intact," unlike the so-called "destroyed" state churches elsewhere in Germany that had been taken over by the DC. Althaus and Elert explicitly rejected the Deutsche Christen claim that the unity of the church was constituted by "blood relations." For Althaus, the unity of the church is grounded in baptism, the gospel, and the unity of faith, i.e., the articles of faith exhibited in the Lutheran Confessions.

While Elert and Althaus acted foolishly and without foresight by signing the Ansbacher Ratschlag (a 1934 document that rejects the Barmen Declaration's Barthian understanding of divine revelation and affirms both "the Leader" and the National Socialist state as "good government"), they signed a revised version of that statement out of concern for Lutheran theology, not out of a concern to support Nazi racism or the Deutsche Christen. Nevertheless, when they saw how that document was being used by the Deutsche Christen, they distanced themselves from it.

Althaus cannot possibly be described as "more an opportunist than a quisling" (p. 192), nor is his theology accurately described on that page. Like many post-World-War-One German theologians (Bonhoeffer included), the Versailles Treaty was understood to be an unjust, vindictive punishment. As a monarchist, Althaus was troubled by the abdication of the Kaiser and the political and economic chaos that frequently erupted during the Weimar period. He was fearful of a Communist revolution and thought that Weimar democracy led to social chaos and ethical relativism. Like many conservative German-Lutheran nationalists, he longed for a central leader who could get past the seeming ineffectiveness of Weimar democracy. So Althaus was a conservative German nationalist and a conservative German Lutheran, who took seriously Luther's explanations to the Fourth Petition of the Lord's Prayer, the Fourth Commandment (which includes obedience to governing authorities), the First Article of the Creed (which in part spells out the creaturely domains or orders by which the Creator preserves creation in order to make human life and flourishing possible), and the so-called "Table of Duties" in Luther's Small Catechism.

Contrary to Marsh’s assertions, Althaus did not argue that the Word of God is "understood more effectively through the lens of 'general revelation' than 'specific,'" nor did he prefer "to emphasize God's self-revelation in history, nation, race, and culture rather than the primacy of Jesus Christ" (p. 192). Althaus would never have written such a sentence nor would he agree that "God's word to humanity 'equals the situation at any given moment... Obedience toward God consists of accepting one's allotted position in life as handed down by years of tradition" (p. 192). Instead, Althaus wrote that God's will is bound up with the two conflicting ways in which God operates in creation. (Robert Ericksen does not give the full context of this quote, but in any case Marsh has not accurately reflected what Ericksen himself wrote on p. 100 of his book, Theologians Under Hitler [Yale, 1985], the apparent source for much of what Marsh writes about Althaus. The key term here is "God's will," not "God's Word.") 

According to Althaus, these two conflicting ways in which God operates in the world are always mixed, and yet they must always be distinguished for the sake of eliciting faith in God's gracious promises. Law and gospel are thus to be distinguished in the will of God. What Althaus wrote about "nation, race, family, history," etc., fits under "law," not "gospel." 

The gospel was the preeminent concern of Althaus, since the gospel is the sole, sufficient basis for faith. If one examines his sermons from this period, one will see that he always emphasized the gospel of Jesus Christ as God's final word to the sinner, never "history, nation, race," or "culture." Althaus thus emphasized the gospel over against "the law."

For Althaus and Elert, “the orders of creation” had their own independent, unconditional, static, and absolute structure and authority for every human being who lives inescapably in them. These orders, the prevailing structures in society, were affirmed and accepted in such a way that their justification, permanence, and general validity were taken for granted. In his situation, Althaus was convinced that a single "Leader" for Germany was the best constituted form of government for the German "Volk" (a vision which, for Althaus, contained anti-Jewish, anti-Semitic elements, views that we rightfully criticize and reject today).  

Despite Bonhoeffer’s rejection of Elert’s and Althaus’s understanding of “the orders,” Bonhoeffer himself did not reject the teaching that there are certain specific “orders of preservation” by which God preserves this fallen, disturbed world and allows people to live in it in relative peace and safety.  For Bonhoeffer, “the orders of preservation” do not have an independent status or authority and cannot properly be understood as existing independently of the First Commandment or from any limiting contact with Jesus Christ and his coming kingdom.  Moreover, Bonhoeffer taught, in a way that both Althaus and Elert did not (at least not before 1936) that “the orders of preservation” could become demonic and idolatrous, and that the fallen world in which the orders existed adversely affected them. Much more so than Althaus and Elert (again, at least prior to 1936), Bonhoeffer recognized how even the “orders of preservation” could become anti-Christ and anti-human.

By the end of 1935, however, Althaus was gradually coming to see Nazism quite differently from how he had viewed it in 1933. Several scholars now recognize how he eventually adopted his own critical position over against the Nazi regime. So it is quite misleading to state unequivocally that he had given "National Socialism religious respectability" (p. 440). That might have been true in 1933-34, but much less so after 1935.

A new biography of Althaus provides a much more nuanced account of Althaus' political conservatism/nationalism than Ericksen was able to do in his one chapter on Althaus. For those who are interested, I highly recommend the 430-page book by Gotthard Jasper: Paul Althaus (1888-1966): Professor, Prediger und Patriot in seiner Zeit (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013), esp. pp. 276ff. (Jasper is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and was that university's Rektor  between 1990 and 2002.) Jasper demonstrates that Althaus was privately skeptical about Hitler and the Nazi Party already prior to 1933 (see p. 215ff.).


For those who cannot read German, there is also the essay by Hans Schwarz, “Paul Althaus (1888-1966),” which appears in Twentieth-Century Lutheran Theologians, ed. Mark Mattes (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013), pp. 136ff.

To be sure, Althaus made a terrible, naive political misjudgment about the events of 1933-34 (in this he was no different from many other conservative German nationalist academics, pastors, and priests) and he publicly endorsed the National Socialist "movement" between 1933 and at least 1936, but he wasn't a member of the Nazi Party. He didn't support the Deutsche Christen nor did he support rabid Nazis and their violence against others. He gradually came to see the error of his earlier support of Hitler and the national socialist movement.

Paul Althaus' theological understanding of "Volk" was wrong. The racist elements in that vision should be condemned. On that point, Marsh is right.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Rise of the "Nones"

For the past several years I have told my students that the most interesting development in the religious landscape of the United States is "the rise of the nones," that is, the growing number of adult Americans who claim no religious affiliation. ("The Rise of the Nones" would make a good film title, no?) While "evangelical" Christianity has been maintaining relatively steady numbers over the past couple of decades, both Roman Catholicism and mainstream, "establishment" Protestantism are undergoing decline.

A new Pew report, based on a survey of 35,000 individuals, gives us the latest data for gaining some understanding of these trends. To read that report go here.

The paragraphs that caught my eye were these:
Between 2007 and 2014, the overall size of the U.S. adult population grew by about 18 million people, to nearly 245 million. But the share of adults who identify as Christians fell to just under 71%, or approximately 173 million Americans, a net decline of about 5 million.
This decline is larger than the combined margins of sampling error in the twin surveys conducted seven years apart. Using the margins of error to calculate a probable range of estimates, it appears that the number of Christian adults in the U.S. has shrunk by somewhere between 2.8 million and 7.8 million.
Those who identify themselves as "former Christians" now represent just over 19% of the US adult population.

There is one misleading paragraph in the report:
The new survey indicates that churches in the evangelical Protestant tradition – including the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God, Churches of Christ, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Presbyterian Church in America, other evangelical denominations and many nondenominational congregations – now have a total of about 62 million adult adherents. That is an increase of roughly 2 million since 2007, though once the margins of error are taken into account, it is possible that the number of evangelicals may have risen by as many as 5 million or remained essentially unchanged.

That paragraph gives the impression that the LCMS is within that "evangelical" camp (in the American sense of that term, not Luther's) whose numbers have plateaued or shown some increase. Yet a quick check of the LCMS's own statistical reports between 2006 and 2013 (the latest year for which statistics are available) reveals that in every one of those years the Synod had an overall net loss in baptized membership:

2007 -   2,383,084 baptized (representing a loss of 34,913 members in 2006)
2008 -   2,337,349 (a loss of 45,735 in 2007)
2009 -   2,312,111 (a loss of 25,238 in 2008)
2010 -   2,278,586 (a loss of 33,525 in 2009)
2011 -   2,231, 858 (a loss of 46,728 in 2010)
2012 -   2,196,788 (a loss of 35,070 in 2011)
2013 -   2,163,698 (a loss of 33,090 in 2012)

The reasons why Roman Catholicism and mainstream Protestantism are declining in membership in the U.S. may be tied to factors that are unique to these groups and their settings here. The reasons why the Southern Baptist Convention and the LCMS are in decline may be entirely due to other factors. I will leave it to the experts in the sociology of religion to sort out those differences and to debate among themselves the principal causes for these specific declines.

While such reports have to be painted with a broad brush, I suspect the causes for decline vary from one church body to the next. Many people "drop out" of religion for all sorts of reasons. (The report points initially to "generational replacement," i.e., older religiously-affiliated people are dying and being replaced by younger non-religiously-affiliated individuals, but that doesn't really explain why younger people are not participating in religious organizations.)

I have my own hunches, based on limited, anecdotal evidence that I've collected over the years from the dozens of so-called "religiously-unaffiliated" people that have shown up in my required theology courses.

Many of these "nones" were raised in Christian homes and settings, but now no longer consider themselves "Christian." Several have labeled themselves "recovering Christians." Some of these are adamantly against all religions, especially Christianity, for "intellectual" and experiential reasons: "I used to believe in God, but what I know from the sciences and the overwhelming reality of evil in the world--much of it perpetrated by religious people--discounts such belief today." Others of them want nothing to do with "organized religion," but might dabble now and then with "spiritual" matters: "I believe in God, but want nothing to do with organized churches. I got burned by religion... I consider myself 'spiritual' but not 'religious.'" "Lord, I believe! Save me from your people!"

Quite a few "nones" are just unsure if they are "Christian" any longer, since they almost never set foot in a Christian congregation and are unclear about what they really believe regarding God, Jesus, etc. "My wife is Buddhist and I occasionally follow her lead when it comes to meditation or what not, but I don't go to a temple or church..." Still other "nones" just don't give much thought to religious or even "spiritual" questions and issues. For these "nones," time and energy are best devoted elsewhere. "During the week I'm very busy with school and my career and social networks. When the weekend comes around, I want just to relax..." Or: "The weekends were made for [fill in the blank]..., not doing a bunch of stupid religious rituals to a deity who may not even exist..."

The reasons for LCMS decline are also varied and complex, but I will suggest five:

1) The LCMS is perceived/experienced as being "anti-intellectual," "anti-science." "I used to belong to the LCMS, but its position on six-day creationism is stupid and unsupportable, and so I left..." "I'm a Ph.D. in molecular biology and my pastor told me he would not commune me because I accept the theory of evolution, and so I joined a different church..." "Some LCMS doctrines are simply out of touch with basic scientific facts... I got tired of my pastor's ignorance and his bigotry against science..."

2) The LCMS is perceived/experienced as being "anti-women." "I grew up in the LCMS, but when I entered college I became dissatisfied with its position against women serving as pastors and in other leadership roles..." "The LCMS is discriminatory toward women and I'm opposed to that kind of behavior... I left the synod for an Evangelical church body that supports the equality of men and women and recognizes the spiritual gifts of women pastors..."

3) The LCMS is perceived/experienced as being "anti-LGBT." "I grew up in the LCMS and I'm gay. Over time I realized the LCMS was not a welcoming place for me..." "I'm not a lesbian, but I'm opposed to the kind of loveless words and actions toward gay and lesbian people that I have heard from LCMS pulpits and have witnessed in the LCMS over the years..."

4) The LCMS is perceived/experienced as being "judgmental" toward non-LCMS religious groups. "I was involved in two different LCMS congregations in Iowa and the pastors in both settings regularly preached sermons that were derogatory of other Christians. These pastors came off sounding like Pharisees... I got tired of their public bashing of others..." "I attended an LCMS congregation out in California for a while, but the pastor and many of the people there seemed most concerned to tell others what they were against (e.g., "liberals," gays, lesbians, Roe v. Wade, etc.) and to always pat themselves on the back for being 'the true church of the pure doctrine...' I didn't appreciate their loveless judgmentalism. There was no real Christian love in the place... I joined a non-denominational church as a result..."

5) The LCMS is perceived/experienced as being "the right-wing of the Republican Party at prayer." "I'm not a Republican and as such I didn't feel at home in that particular LCMS congregation..." "I don't agree with the politics of the past several LCMS presidents. On certain political issues, they don't speak for me. I left the LCMS largely for these reasons..."

There are undoubtedly other factors in play here, but for the time being I will continue to collect my own anecdotal evidence for why "the rise of the nones" is occurring. Perhaps this data will cause local pastors and congregations to do some serious self-examination, some sober soul-searching, some substantive reflection on the differences between motes and beams.