Monday, November 1, 2010

Reformation Day Regrets and Lutheran Laments

Being Lutheran means beginning with confession, so here's mine: I didn't attend church on Reformation Day. There was another van of committed (mostly first-year) students who followed the extra-long itinerary home from Luther Bowl to faithfully commemorate the Reformer's grievances with indulgences, but along with the other senior M.Divs with wives, husbands and children waiting at home, decided that I'd pull a Catholic, having taken Eucharist Saturday night, and give myself the morning off. The fact that it was in fact Reformation Sunday didn't occur to me until my post last night. Sorry Marty.

Brazenness is not my intention. Rather, as I reflect, I think my lack of personal enthusiasm participates in a wider, growing sense of weariness and skepticism towards romantic views of our tradition's origins, and their equally romanticized fruits. Family celebrations often serve as necromancers to the skeletons buried in the darkest closets of even the healthiest of communities, dancing them forth into the midst of otherwise joyful festivities. In a late post last night, Russell Saltzman reanimates this choice zombie:

When I was a new pastor in 1980 I recall a much older pastor speaking wistfully of the good old days. That was when a Reformation Day preacher could trash the pope, condemn work’s righteousness, pity those poor guys with their pathetic statues, and then easily move on over to the glory of Luther’s rediscovery of salvation-by-grace-through-faith-in-Christ-apart-from-works-of-the-Law.

We could all go home feeling very good about being Lutheran. When we heard the parable about the Pharisee and tax collector praying in the Temple, well, let’s just say with all the fiery Reformation Day sermons ringing in our ears we were pretty sure who was who in that scheme of things.

While some Lutherans may be smugly jingling their tax collectors' belts, Saltzman keeps us honest:

Nowadays, the pope just isn’t quite the antichrist he once was. Lutherans are in an identity crisis over the whore of Babylon. There are probably a few holdouts among conservative Lutheran churches, but for the rest of us Reformation Day isn’t nearly as much fun as in days gone by

Saltzman concludes his piece, lamenting:

There was a period in recent Lutheran history following Vatican II when, for a small moment, some of us believed Lutherans and Roman Catholics would, could, heal the breach of the sixteenth century. There was a confessional revival of sorts as we scoured our Book of Concord for its Catholic sources. But the moment passed and, I think, will not come again. Some Lutherans opted for Biblicism and others decided to join the big-time Protestant mainline, what is left of it anyway. If there ever is to be another Reformation by Lutherans, returning Lutherans to their catholic if not Catholic roots, likely it must begin elsewhere than among the ruins we have made of Wittenberg.

It feels odd to look back at Reformation Sunday grieving the ever-widening chasm between Wittenberg and Rome. Yet, here I stand. If there was a tragedy inherent in the infamous ELCA Churchwide Assembly of 2009, it was not the move to ordain practicing homosexual disciples of Christ in committed relationships, but that the manner in which this was achieved, at the expense of a clear definition of the holiness expected of all ministers of Christ, fundamentally undercut the slow but steady process of reconciliation that was emerging out of the troubled post-Vatican ecumenical waters. That no compromise is possible along the current lines of construing the dilemma is made evident by the steady crossing of Lutheranism's most prominent theological minds over the Tiber, an exodus that counts among its ranks Richard Neuhaus, Robert Wilkens, Bruce Marshall, and recently, my own teachers Reinhard Huetter and Michael Root. I do not count myself among their ranks, nor intend to unless the Spirit so called me - nor am I remiss in noticing the unmistakably white-male-ness of the band. But it should lead those who continue to celebrate the Reformation" to at least pause, and wonder whether the victory is truly endless, or even, whether it has truly been won.

Yet another curmudgeony old white male, Carl Braaten, describes two possible ways of self-understanding for those of us who remain. Comparing the plight of Lutherans to Cuban ex-pats in the United States, there are some who consider themselves exiles, having been forced to flee their homeland on account of the corrupt Castro regime. These long to return, but await a changing of the guard. Others who fled with them, however, have since grown accustomed to their new home, and have long since become Cuban-Americans. Braaten suggests Lutherans should resist the latter temptation, and should remain "catholics in exile," what Huetter calls "accidental" rather than "essentialist" Protestants. It is as an exile that I take my stand with those who still have hope for the ELCA, however faint its flame may glow.

The Reformation is not about the glorification of the sin of church division, but rather, the on-going effort at achieving the transformation of and reconciliation with those perceived as having once been enemies of the Gospel - (for, it should be noted, while our roots may be in Rome, our leaves may yet bring fresh life and growth to her - nor is she our only possibility!) Has this been achieved? Or are we in danger of becoming the shadow side we've so long stuffed into the long Jungian bag we drag behind us through the history of conflict, conflagration, and broken communion? I fear the latter, but continue to hope and live for the former, even, to modulate R.R. Reno's famous phrase, in the ruins of Wittenberg, where lilies may yet grow.

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