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.”

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