Saturday, January 19, 2019

Rostered and Called VI

And here's another excerpt from "the entrance essay" that I was asked to write as a part of the candidacy process of becoming an ELCA minister of word and sacrament:

2. Core Theological Commitments
A. What key theological insights have been influential in your development as a missional leader in the Church as it participates in God’s mission in the world? Include distinctive biblical and Lutheran theological building blocks which you have used to construct a theology of mission that informs your current understanding.
            Anselm’s motto remains basic for my development as a missional leader in the church as it participates in God’s missio: fides quaerens intellectum.[1] As one who has been baptized into the name of the triune God, I seek to love and understand God and everything else in relation to God. Because I am baptized, I think and teach theologically. The ultimate aim of my thinking and teaching is to articulate the good message about God’s love and mercy in Jesus Christ for a world that desperately needs that kind of loving.
              From my grandfather, who served as a Lutheran chaplain in a state mental hospital, I learned a lot about Christian confidence in God in the face of human suffering and about compassionate ministry that is carried out in the name of Christ. When my grandfather would take me with him on his pastoral calls, I learned first-hand the importance of agape love and unconditional acceptance of “the other” in pastoral care. While he probably never read Meister Eckhart, he nonetheless exemplified for me the wisdom of being prepared at all times for the gifts of God and always for new ones.[2]
            I do consider the apostolic gospel to be the heart of catholic doctrine since it announces the unconditional forgiveness of God in Christ for all sinners. That gospel reveals the righteousness of Christ which is external to human beings and is given by God as a gift (sola gratia) to the one who trusts in Christ (sola fide). Thereby a “happy exchange” occurs: the sinner receives whatever Christ has, as though it were his or her own, and whatever the sinner has (sin, death, hell) “Christ claims as his own.”[3] Freed from the need to justify themselves before God, Christians are called to serve others in love. “Good works” are thus the fruit of faith but not its condition. “Together in Jesus Christ we are freed by grace to live faithfully, witness boldly and serve joyfully” (ELCA Mission Statement).
            Apart from Luther and Augustine, the one other theologian with whom I have had the longest running conversation is probably Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose Ethik and prison reflections continue to challenge and inspire me. From him I have learned that Christian theology is called to see the world “from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled—in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.”[4] While we are not Christ, “if we want to be Christians, we must have some participation in Christ’s large-heartedness by acting with responsibility and in freedom when the hour of danger comes, and by showing real compassion that springs, not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer….”[5] Every human being is a child of God.
            From Bonhoeffer I also gained entry into a wider discussion about Luther’s theology of the cross, which is foundational for all of my teaching. I agree with Luther: “the cross of Jesus Christ alone is our theology.”[6] Luther, of course, made his case by appealing to Paul’s teaching in First Corinthians 1.18ff. “Theologians of the cross see things differently.”[7] A theology of the cross is a theology of humility. It stresses how all human knowledge, including the theologian’s own, is limited, fragmented, easily distorted by the power of sin and evil, but also forgiven and renewed by the crucified and risen Christ. It is a theology that fits with Lonergan’s counsel, which I quoted above, which also coincides with the truth of Luther’s pithy comment: Sola experientia facit theologum (“experience alone makes the theologian”).[8]
            I come to the Scriptures on the basis of these commitments and presuppositions. While the Scriptures are indeed a set of historical documents, which can be studied like any other ancient texts, lying within them is the living Word of God, which can be found nowhere else. I seek to understand these Scriptures, to highlight the evangelical sense of their words, and to find within them the witness to the living Christ.
            Over the past thirty years of ordained ministry, I have also gained greater clarity about a crucial prerequisite for serious ecumenical dialogue, namely, the willingness from the very start to be open to God’s activity in the other churches, indeed, even the other religions in the world. I have learned to see the center of God’s mission in the risen Christ, around whom all of the churches revolve. I have received this insight especially from Edmund Schlink, who stressed that “the life of our church, its doctrines and its institutions only partially correspond to the fullness of the kingdom of God in Christ.”[9] In this regard, I have also gained a deeper understanding of the breadth and complexity of God’s mission from friends who are mission partners from other parts of the world. Aside from key members of Valpo’s theology department who are from the global south, I will mention just two others. I recently hosted Bishop Emeritus Munib Younan, president emeritus of the Lutheran World Federation and the retired bishop of the Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land, who spoke to my students about the challenges that Palestinian Lutherans face in his native Jerusalem and the West Bank. Later this month, I will be hosting Dr. Mitri Raheb, who serves as pastor of the Lutheran Church in Bethlehem.[10] Strengthening and supporting these ecumenical partnerships are crucial for the ongoing mission of the church, both locally and globally. At the very least, we avoid focusing entirely on the needs in our parochial setting and are able to see more clearly needs that are elsewhere, along with the expanse of God’s mission in the world.

B. Describe how these key theological insights informed the missional leadership experience you described above in #1.
            In my vocation as a Christian theologian at Valpo, I have struggled to couple academic freedom with a Lutheran understanding of the freedom of a Christian, a freedom which is anchored in the Christian gospel and oriented toward specific notions of “vocation” and “paradox.” I share the view of Anthony Diekema who believes that this relationship between academic freedom and evangelical freedom leads to “an environment that demands both responsible freedom and responsible tolerance,” exemplifying the essence of “the truly Christian academic enterprise.”[11]
            I have also learned that these freedoms are not easily maintained, even in a Lutheran university (cf. my experience of teaching theology at Concordia, Portland). I am sensitive about the need to create and defend what the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer has called “free space” in a university.[12] Such “free space” is necessary, not only for the integrity of a university but also for the sake of those communities that a university serves, which in my case includes the larger Ecumene.
            Academic theologians can help the church to think, to assist the church in its mission to educated people, and to deepen the understanding of the faith among the faithful. A major task of theology, then, is to find that point within the substantive content of Scripture at which it “confronts contemporary human beings most immediately with the reality of its subject matter,” and to ward off misunderstandings.[13] I have learned a lot about this specific task from my teacher, David Tracy, who rightly notes that Christian theology has three audiences or publics that it engages: the church, the academy, and society.[14] Theology engages these publics, it seems to me, on the basis of the global vision of 2 Corinthians 5.17-19, which continues to be for me the most liberating passage in the biblical canon. (I would add a fourth public to Tracy’s three, namely, the planet as a whole, its ecosystems, its climate. Theology is also “for the birds.”)
            Grounded in the message about the cross, Christian theology involves scholarly, faithful, free inquiry that is dialogical, paradoxical, provisional, charitable. It explores the integral connection among the intellectual, the moral, and the spiritual dimensions of human life and experience for the sake of serving and edifying others. As a theologian of the cross, I acknowledge that theology does not have all the answers for all the disciplines and that each scholarly discipline has its own integrity. In this context, I have learned, theology gives as much as it receives. It listens more than it speaks. It celebrates the liberating arts, defends academic excellence and free inquiry, and pays close attention to the results of the disciplines, especially as those results shed light on the human condition. As you can imagine, such theologizing is also a messy, even risky business. No issues are totally and completely settled. If we are convinced that they are settled, then something is not right with our mission, since we would not be encountering and engaging people who think we are wrong (e.g., “the nones,” “the dones,” philosophical atheists, adherents of non-Christian religions, et al.).

C. What are the distinctive contributions of the Lutheran theological tradition for both (1) the Church’s discernment of and participation in God’s mission in the world and (2) the formation of disciples for mission in a pluralistic society?
            I have already suggested several distinctive contributions that the Lutheran theological tradition offers to the larger Ecumene (e.g., the emphasis on God’s unconditional grace and love in Jesus Christ; the theology of the cross; a strong baptismal theology of vocation; the variety of spiritual charismata that are given to the church for the sake of ministry to the world; a deep concern for the right understanding of Holy Scripture), so I will only mention two additional ones. (1) Lutheran Christians confess that agreement in the gospel and the administration of the sacraments in accord with the gospel is the sufficient basis for the church’s unity (AC VII). As far as I can tell, no other church tradition articulates the promise of this minimalist ecumenical principle as clearly as the one that stems from the Augsburg Confession, even if those within this tradition have not always implemented this principle very well. (2) Lutheran Christians also make several important distinctions in service to the gospel and the execution of Christian love in the world that other church traditions often minimize or even neglect (e.g., between law and gospel, between social justice and the justification of sinners, between human rights and Christian freedom). While making these distinctions can itself lead to real problems (e.g., separating that which ought to remain closely related, if also distinguished, can lead to false teaching about the gospel or to social quietism or to the support of injustices in the world), Lutheran Christians insist that such distinctions are crucial for the sake of creating faith in the gospel promise alone.

[1] See Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogium, esp. II-IV, in St. Anselm: Basic Writings, ed. and trans. by Sidney D. Deane (Chicago: Open Court, 1962).
[2] See Meister Eckhart, “Counsels on Discernment,” in Meister Eckhart, The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense, trans. Edmund Colledge and Bernard McGinn, The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), 276.
[3] LW 31.351 [“The Freedom of the Christian,” 1520].
[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “After Ten Years: A Reckoning Made at New Year 1943,” in Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: Macmillan, 1971), 17.
[5] Bonhoeffer, “After Ten Years,” 14.
[6]CRUX sola est nostra Theologia” (WA 5.176.32 [1519 Lectures on the Psalms]).
[7] Gerhard Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 77.
[8] WA TR 1,16,13 [Table Talk].
[9] Edmund Schlink, “Pneumatische Ershütterung?,” an address delivered to the Ecumenical Institute of the WCC in Bossey, Switzerland in April 1962. For more on this address, see footnote 66 on page 35 of my introduction to the first volume of Edmund Schlink Works.
[10] I was greatly honored to have been invited by Dr. Raheb to write the introduction for the new edition of The Augsburg Confession and Luther's Small Catechism in Arabic (Bethlehem, Palestinian Territory: Diyar Consortium, 2017), 1-21. This new edition is a revision of Dr. Younan’s earlier Arabic translation of the AC and SC. The new edition was presented to Dr. Younan on the occasion of his retirement in 2017, which coincided with the observance of the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. When he and I had dinner during holy week last month, I was able to thank him for his work on the important LWF document, From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017 (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt; Paderborn: Bonifatius, 2013), which I used when I led 108 pilgrims to Germany for the observance of the 500th anniversary. I also learned a great deal about the “back story” to this document, including Bishop Younan’s important conversations with Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.
[11] Anthony Diekema, Academic Freedom and Christian Scholarship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 75.
[12] See Hans-Georg Gadamer, “The Idea of the University—Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow,” in Hans-Georg Gadamer on Education, Poetry, and History: Applied Hermeneutics, ed. Dieter Misgeld and Graeme Nicholson, trans. Lawrence Schmidt and Monica Reuss (Albany: State University Press of New York Press, 1992), 47-59. I wrote my master’s thesis at Chicago on the relationship between “myth” and critical rationality in the thinking of Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur. In my doctoral dissertation, I note the influence of the biblical hermeneutics of an important nineteenth-century Lutheran theologian on the philosophical hermeneutics on Gadamer. See my book, The Self-Giving God and Salvation History: The Trinitarian Theology of Johannes von Hofmann (New York: T&T Clark, 2004). I try to summarize Hofmann’s distinctive approach to biblical hermeneutics in a shorter piece, “Johannes von Hofmann (1810-77),” in Nineteenth-Century Lutheran Theologians, ed. Matthew L. Becker (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016), 189-211.
[13] Werner Elert, Der Christliche Glaube: Grundlinien der Lutherischen Dogmatik, 6th ed. (Erlangen: Martin-Luther-Verlag, 1988), 30. I explore Elert’s formulation of the task of theology in my essay, “Werner Elert (1885-1954),” in Twentieth-Century Lutheran Theologians, ed. Mark Mattes (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013), 93-135.
[14] See David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 3-46.

Rostered and Called V

This past November, I was officially installed as a rostered ELCA minister of word and sacrament and teaching theologian at Valparaiso University. As a part of the candidacy process that led to this installation, 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 are two further sections from the second one, "the approval essay":

B. What community of faith helped shape your understanding of God’s mission and your gifts for missional leadership? Identify missional leadership gifts that were developed and strengthened by your experiences in this formative faith community and provide a few examples.
            Many communities of faith have shaped my understanding of God’s mission and the gifts that God has given to me for use in that mission. From my home congregation in Salem, Ore., I learned about the variety of ministries and baptismal chrisms that God produces in the church for its edification. That congregation saw its unique purpose as reaching out to students and faculty at Willamette University and to workers in state and city government. It was in the context of this vibrant congregation that I learned that “all who are baptized into Christ are baptized into his death and resurrection, into his mission, and into his body.”[1]
            From Bethlehem Lutheran Church, West Dundee, Ill., where I served for nearly five years as an assistant pastor, I learned about working with a senior pastor in a large suburban parish, about pastoral counseling, and about the nuts-and-bolts of leading an organization staffed almost entirely by volunteers. During those years, when I was also a graduate student at the University of Chicago Divinity School, I began to recognize and develop gifts for teaching. I was at that time blessed to be the student of many master teachers, among them Martin Marty, Langdon Gilkey, Brian Gerrish, and Robert Bertram.
            From Immanuel Lutheran Church on the south side of Chicago, which I served on a part-time basis during my years at the Divinity School, I learned a lot about urban poverty, racism, drug addiction, gang violence, “white flight,” nihilism, despair, but also about Christian hope, faithful perseverance in the face of adversity, and trans-missioning Christ’s love and grace to people who were hurting in very troubled families and neighborhoods. The music of John Coltrane, Johnny Cash, and U2 helped renew my spirit in those trying days (and subsequently).
            From Immanuel Lutheran Church, Michigan City, Ind., where I served for nearly four years as an interim pastor, I learned patience. During those forty months, when I was also a full-time professor of theology at Valparaiso University, the congregation and I were forced to keep plugging along together, by God’s grace, through the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit, under the cross of Christ. We focused primarily on the day-to-day, the week-to-week. I grew in my understanding of the fact that the church’s mission is more than just what the pastor does, an insight that I first received during my ministry within the other Immanuel congregation.
            From my fifteen-year involvement in the Chapel of the Resurrection at my university, I have come to appreciate how God’s Spirit empowers and motivates students to assume roles of leadership in the various chapel ministries (e.g., peer-to-peer, music, drama, assisting in worship, small-groups, spiritual retreats). I have had to hone gifts for pastoral care and counseling to struggling, hurting, grieving students. I have been blessed to see and hear world-class preachers and theologians in action, both in the chapel and in other campus settings, and these proclaimers have inspired my own faith, while at the same time providing me with rich examples of the kind of evangelical, Christ-centered preaching to which I aspire.

C. As an outgrowth of your personal gifts for missional leadership, envision how you will nurture and empower others to serve as missional leaders through their vocation and participation in the life of the church. Within your response, integrate an expression of a Lutheran understanding of vocation.
            I understand my vocation at Valparaiso University to be that of a Christian missionary. Just as Christ set aside his glory and took the form of a servant, so I understand my vocation to be that of a humble, Christ-like servant (Phil. 2; Mk 10.42-45). As an ordained Lutheran servant-educator, I have tried to complement the theology department’s mission to enable “all graduates of Valparaiso University to be knowledgeable of the Christian faith, sensitive to religious issues in our global society, and prepared for roles in which their understanding of religion may enhance their contribution to church and society.” Through my teaching, I hope all students gain understanding of the Christian faith, especially of the theology of the cross and of a distinctively Lutheran approach to “vocation.”[2] I seek opportunities to teach and mentor students toward their spiritual formation and empowerment for service—and to extend God’s welcome and care to all. I’m grateful that my vocation allows me the opportunity to explore the trans-missio of God’s word for the sake of eliciting trust in the gospel promissio.[3] Indeed, “promissio is the secret of missio. For the mission’s Sender was himself the keeping of that promise. And the mission’s gaps, across which we move with our theological doings, are ultimately spanned by the same promise—of himself by the Spirit through his Word.”[4] 
            I do hope that, along the way, at least some of my students come to 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.”[5] Every semester I remind myself and them of the functional wisdom of Bernard Lonergan’s advice to young theologians, in the form of what he called basic “transcendental precepts,” which work well with a Lutheran understanding of vocation: “Be attentive, Be intelligent, Be reasonable, Be responsible.”[6] The risen Christ forgives and frees one to be creative, to be imaginative, to be open to the new life-giving realities that God is creating today in and through Christ and the Spirit. I hold up before my students the promise that Christ is the Lord of all creation, that he calls all to serve God in every honest occupation, and that for followers of Christ all of life is the arena of Christian ministry to God and all of creation.[7]

[1] “The 1965 LCMS Mission Affirmations,” a set of resolutions that articulate some of the best missional theology that this church body has adopted. The pastoral and lay leaders in my childhood congregation made significant use of these resolutions in that congregation’s own missionizing in the 1960s and 70s. See “The 1965 Mission Affirmations” (online), (accessed 4/5/2018). (I am the editor of this online journal.)
[2] Toward these ends I invite students to read my textbook, Fundamental Theology: A Protestant Perspective, afterword by Martin E. Marty (New York: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2015).
[3] Robert Bertram, “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 this essay was “Doing Theology in Relation to Mission.”
[4] Bertram, “How a Lutheran Does Theology,” 87.
[5] See Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, trans. Emerson Buchanan (Boston: Beacon, 1967), 347-357.
[6] Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (New York: The Seabury Press, 1972), 53, 231.
[7] This language also comes from the 1965 LCMS “Mission Affirmations.”

Thursday, January 17, 2019

"Institutional Mobbing" in the LCMS

Pr. Edward Engelbrecht, with whom I have had some online interactions over the years, has recently written an article for Lutheran Forum that is receiving quite a bit of attention for some of its assertions. The piece examines "institutional mobbing" in the LCMS, i.e., the strategy and tactics used by some in that church body to harass and antagonize "troublesome" pastors and professors so that they will eventually leave the denomination.

I learned about Engelbrecht's essay via an East-coast pastor, who reached out to me last summer to see if I could confirm or deny any of the details in Engelbrecht's analysis. This pastor told me that Engelbrecht had told him that I was one of several LCMS pastors and professors to whom he is alluding in the article. (I told this pastor that I have a five-foot long shelf of 5-inch binders that are chock full of documentation that details my experience of being "mobbed" in the LCMS. It began already before my ordination on July 14, 1989, and it has even continued after my expulsion from that church body on July 15, 2015. While I was not the object of every tactic that Engelbrecht describes, I did experience many of them. Certainly the overall strategy of "mobbing" fits with what happened to me, especially between 1997 and 2015.

Earlier this week, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran an article on the article. You can read that P-D story here. For Engelbrecht's essay, go here.

All of my LCMS "memorabilia" will eventually go to the ELCA archives. Perhaps a future doctoral student of church history who is interested in the institutional decline of a church body like the LCMS might find those materials of some interest, if only for a footnote or two.

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.