Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hope for Hope, or, the Post-Liberal Avoidance of Lutheranism

One of my biggest consternations while at Duke Divinity School was the propensity of nearly every professor to extol the virtues of Lutheran theologians, while appearing resolutely committed to making every effort NOT to reveal that they are in fact Lutherans. While the foundations of what has come to be known as post-liberal theology (exemplified in the chimera of a Duke School) are laid of stone hewn from the quarries of Augsburg and Wittenberg, Lutherans are more readily identified as the architects of Dachau and Auschwitz. And rightly so. When it comes to examining the great fissures in the church's story, we are often accused of, and too often, share responsibility for, such specters as the Kantian epistemology, historical-critical method, Protestant liberalism, two-kingdoms nationalism, synergistic existentialism, the interiorization of the Gospel, and Hauerwas' personal favorite, the vocation of Christian hang-man.

Yet, when the names of such important theologians as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, George Lindbeck, the early Reinhard Hutter, David Yeago, Carl Braaten, and Robert Jenson are brandished in defense of narrative theology, ecclesial and theological ethics, it would be nice to hear the name of the Reformer given its due. Or perhaps, its fitting, given our tradition's focus on the hiddenness of the divine, and the striving to love without hope of merit or gain, but only for the service of the church, neighbor, and the Gospel. Every movement and every community is built on the backs and labor of its scapegoats, and post-liberalism is no different. Thankfully, Luther himself advocated ferociously against the attribution of the tradition to his own legacy, and perhaps it is a fitting sign of the fruition of the Reformation to burn out brightly, releasing its tired hold on the tribalisms of the past, for the sake of a more ecumenical, and thus more Christian, future.

That being said, in such a climate of Cavellian avoidance, acknowledgement is called for, if only to remind those who scorn the gifts of the Reformation of their inexorable entwinement with its continuing reverberations. All this is by way of an introduction to a stirring passage I ran across from LUTHERAN theologian Robert Jenson's oft-overlooked volume Essays in Theology of Culture. In an essay entitled "Hope, the Gospel, and the Liberal Arts," Jens argues that the freedom-seeking impulse of both Athens and Jerusalem, which led to the alliance of the liberal arts and the Gospel, is constantly under siege by nihilism, which he defines as "the escape of 'choice' (read: freedom) from community...consisting in excuse from responsibility for the other and for the storyline of my life so far, freedom that occurs on a horizon of sheer temporal senquentiality with no plot at all" (188). "Where freedom is abstract and arbitrary," he continues, "and needs no community, neither does it need arts. It is again no accident that where historical relativism rules, the liberal arts die."

Perhaps this lack of responsibility and acknowledgment can be said to extend to the freedom of a post-liberalism which excuses itself from presenting the whole story of Lutheranism for the sake of bolstering its own set of aims - sadly, a move that also too frequently entails an aping of liberal protestantism in its obsession with ethics devoid of the central Gospel message of Christ's redeeming work by which not only the community, but also the individuals, are made new creations by the work of grace alone. I have argued and continue to argue that without the Lutheran gift of the salvific reality of Christ, and the real transformation of individual Christians within community in and through relationship with Christ, then justice and ethics will continue to be merely a hipper and more sexy form of idolatry - albeit one that employs Barth and Hauerwas, rather than Harnack and Tillich. In acknowledging that, in Francesca Murphy's words, that "God is not a story," but is rather the Author of the poem that is the creation, by confessing individual and communal participation in sin, and by receiving the grace of the cross of Christ, the project of post-liberalism can only be enhanced. But I fear without a willingness to name, accept, measure, and engage the specifically Lutheran gifts qua Lutheranism (as well as Lutheranism's long-overdue obligation to return the favor - another story altogether), then the Gospel will never be complete, and therefore, not as faithfully proclaimed. A post-liberalism at peace with the fact that Christ died pro nobis (for me) will be stronger than one that merely sees Christ as the choice of a narrative among many that happens to give coherence to the communal life in which I find myself located. I suspect the current blind-spot regarding mission and evangelism will likewise be healed on both sides.

I leave many statements here unexamined, and much which needs further exploration. But I also wish to sign off with a passage from Jenson's essay, which serves as a fitting prayer for the remembrance, not just of individual members of Christ's body, but also, for the One who is her head, that she might have a hope which is generous, rather than a despair that is uncharitable:

There is hope for hope. The gates of nihilism will not prevail against the one holy catholic and apostolic church - though they may of course prevail against particular parts of the church and have sometimes done so - and therefore the gospel will be heard in the world so long as the world lasts, telling of the good news for whose coming we may hope. And therefore also there will so long as the world lasts be in the world a community in which hope is practiced.

It is of course, not guaranteed that Western civilization will last, or that its teaching and practice of liberal arts will last. Even less is it guaranteed that the Western part f the church will endure to the end, or even very long. But just because nothing along such lines is ever guaranteed, neither can we know that these things will NOT last, or suddenly be reinvigorated...A mighty tree came from that inconsiderable seed; why may it not happen again?

The first step is simply the recovery on both sides of the old alliance, of mere clarity about who we are and what we need. God willing, the Western church might yet remember that it is not an all-purpose volunteer religious society for whatever causes society currently defines as good. We can at any moment take to proclaiming the gospel. And if the church did that, then in the Western context its message would again as in ancient days be a word of hope for freedom, of hope for hope...(Eerdman's, 1995, 189)

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