Friday, June 22, 2018

An Irony at Luther Seminary

The Park Bugle of St. Anthony Park reports in its June 22, 2018 issue that Luther Seminary will sell 15 acres of its buildings and land.  The subheading declares, "Sale is Part of 'Campus of the Future' plan, which includes free tuition for incoming students and a trimmer campus."  The buildings to be sold include Northwestern Hall, Stub Hall, several houses and the LDR apartments on Fulham St., Breck Woods, and Bockman Hall.  Remaining at Luther Seminary are the Olson Campus Center and Gullixson Hall.  Looking at the map, it would appear that approximately 70% of the campus is slated for sale.  (See

There are many reasons for the sale.  Years ago I wrote a brief paper justifying the establishment of a new Lutheran seminary -- a seminary that the Institute of Lutheran Theology became -- that alluded to the problems facing the present brick and mortar Lutheran seminaries.  I spoke then of the economic, sociological and theological problems facing these educational institutions (  The problems the seminaries face oftentimes disallow them from operating on the models they have inherited from the past.  Within the ELCA in particular, changes are now rapid.

Luther Seminary, like many seminaries of mainline Protestant Christianity, is witnessing declining enrollment and increased use of online learning platforms.  While headcount at many seminaries is slowly declining, the number of physical students on campuses is dropping much more precipitously.  This seems to be happening at Luther. 

As I was contemplating the move by Luther to monetize their real estate assets to provide operational revenue via "free tuition" for incoming M.Div. and M.A. students, I was stuck by an irony.  While the ELCA and its predecessor bodies have not for decades been able to provide future pastors free tuition for matriculating at Luther, free tuition will now evidently be available to students because of the appreciation of the financial value of Luther Seminary's real assets.

Many of those who will train to become future "missional pastors" at Luther will no doubt have deep concerns and criticisms of capitalism.  Theological literature criticizing America's present  economic system is abundant, and most studying in mainline Protestant denominational seminaries can articulate at least some of the key points of economic injustice underlying classism, sexism, racism, etc. Clearly, a greater percentage of American wealth lands in fewer and fewer hands.  (Think of Jeff Bezos at Amazon who is now worth $142,500,000,000.)  It simply is true that many becoming pastors today understand their task primarily as speaking a prophetic voice against structures of economic injustice, oppression and marginalization.

The irony is this: Those attending Luther in its tuition-free future will likely owe their ability to learn the deep theological critiques of capitalism to . . .  capitalism.  How is this so?

Land value appreciates because developers see a market, and subsequently value an asset on the basis of how it will allow them to serve that market.  There are many reasons why developers develop.  Many developers whom I know have altruistic traits; they want to help people by providing a service that is needed.  However, no developer can develop without calculating the margins, and those margins must include profit.

It is standard in commercial and multi-family development that one must achieve a certain debt service covering ratio (DSCR) before a bank will make a loan on a project.  This ratio is the measure of net operating income (NOI) over debt service.  Most banks will not approve a project if the DSCR is below 1.2.  For instance, if debt service (principle + interest) on a building is $100,000/year, the NOI must be at least $120,000 if the DSCR is to be above 1.2.  Since NOI is the difference between revenue and all expenses, one must show a profit prior to depreciation (amortized write-off of capital expenditures) of $120,000 even to get the loan to allow the project to be built.  Simply put, one must show $20,000 in available cash flow (net operating income less debt service) in order to build the project.  The land and improvements at Luther Seminary will likely have the value they will have, a value based upon a motivated rational seller and motivated rational buyer, because someone can figure a way to cash flow the new project at 20% over debt service.

This means that the value of the asset that can be monetized for free student tuition which will allow students to study the evils of capitalism is itself dependent upon economic realities that presuppose capitalism.  Simply put, if capitalism did not work, at least in this particular case, there would be insufficient land and improvement value to monetize, no free student tuition, and possibly no educational context for the study of capitalism's shortcomings.

But there is more irony.  What the Lutheran Church was not capable of doing -- providing free tuition to those studying to become pastors -- the market is actually accomplishing.   It is precisely because entrepreneurs take risks in order to develop property that land at Luther will likely have the value it will have. Because the land and improvements have the value they have, monetization is possible which can produce free or diminished student tuition. 

It is perhaps too bald to say this, but I shall do so anyway:  The necessary condition for the possibility of a context of free and open dialogue and criticism of capitalism among students and professors at Luther Seminary is the existence itself of capitalism, an economic system apparently capable of providing the requisite funds for the discussion there to occur.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Living without Tribes

I don't have a tribe.  I grew up in the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS), migrated to the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), fell into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and find myself now more (or less) identified with the North America Lutheran Church (NALC) and Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC).

I did not get there the way that others do.  There were no mentors saying to do this or that in order to get here or there.  In fact, no one told me where best to head. 

It didn't occur to me in my first five decades of life that I would establish a new Lutheran seminary and graduate school.  While I remember telling my Bethany College undergraduate students in the late1980s that the ELCA was essentially unstable and could not survive, I did not spend great lengths of time wondering about what life would be like after the ELCA.

I was not an insider and have never been one, so the thought of starting a new Lutheran graduate school could not occur to me.

As an undergraduate, I knew nobody seriously contemplating becoming a pastor.  I was busy playing music, and beginning about age 22, doing some more serious studying.  I read primary texts on my own because I did know anyone else reading them and they were interesting to me.  I notice that I liked philosophy, particularly philosophers dealing with theological questions.

While others were going to the seminary after college, I went to the farm and raised corn, soybeans, cattle and sheep.  It was during these farm days that I switched membership from the small LCMS church of my hometown to the larger LCA church 16 miles away.  There I found more exciting music, as well as preaching that actually connected to the contemporary horizon.  I was a LCA Lutheran that had no idea what "being LCA" really meant.  (Later I would say that I did not know the "identify conditions" of being LCA.)  I did learn that the LCA had bishops, but the question of bishops was of no concern to me.

My concern at the beginning of the 1980s was simply this, "How is theology possible given the intellectual assumptions of contemporary culture?"  It seemed to me that both my little LCMS congregation and the larger LCA congregation which I was attending did not deal with the questions about which I was concerned.  What evidence is there for God and the truth of revelation?  What kind of responses can be given to German higher criticism that seemed to me to undermine the reliability of the Biblical texts?   What could Tillich possibly be meaning by saying that Christ is transparent to the Ground of Being?

At this point I was still almost completely self-taught.  I had studied Latin on the farm and tried to read some primary texts. (I made it through Kant's Critique of Practical Reason and Schopenhauer's World as Will and Representation, Tillich's Systematic Theology and Elert's Structure of Lutheranism, and the first volume of Richard Feymann's Lectures on Physics when I was not outside actually working.)

When it came time to leave the farm in 1981, I thought again about going to seminary.  But when I looked at the catalogue at Luther Seminary and I visited Concordia Seminary, I did not see the intellectual challenges I wanted. In coming back from St. Louis I stopped at the University of Iowa, and considered what it would be like to go there. 

Nobody told me that the GRE score I received would have gotten me into most graduate programs at the time, and nobody told me about the advantages I might have had going to an east coast school.  If they had, I would not have listened anyway, because I liked the midwest and was always partial to the the Iowa Hawkeyes.  I had met Dr. George Forell at the LCA church I had attended and I knew Iowa offered both a Ph.D. in philosophy and one in religion, and figured either of these programs would be more challenging than the seminary.

At Iowa, I soon discovered that most of my classmates in the School of Religion already had M.Div. degrees from seminaries, and that having these degrees did not seem to help them do better in the classes than I was doing.  I liked taking classes both in the philosophy and religion departments at Iowa.  While I had not decided in which department to do my Ph.D., receiving the Teaching-Research Fellowship in the School of Religion made my mind up for me.  I took a M.A. in philosophy and a Ph.D. in Religion.

My course work at Iowa was decidedly non-standard, even for somebody getting their Ph.D. in a program entitled, "Contemporary Theology and Religious Reflection."  Since I studied what was interesting to me, I took courses in Kant, Analytical Ethics, Christian Ethics, Chinese religions, Plato, Frege, Wittgenstein, Predicate Logic, Modal Logic, Sartre, Analytical Metaphysics, Heidegger, Rahner, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, and many courses in the history of theology and philosophy.  There were many seminars that I recall being helpful, particularly one in metaphysics that dealt with the nature of causation, a second in theology examining the nature of the dialectical method, and a third in the philosophy of science where I worked to understand the element of convention in all theory construction.   I had seminars dealing with numerous contemporary theological topics, and a two semester course called 'Theological Questions I and II" that dealt deeply with Tillich's thought, as read through the prism of Robert Scharlemann's Reflection and Doubt in the Thought of Paul Tillich.

My comp areas included the History of Theology, Theological (particularly analytical) Methods, Hegel and Tillich.  My dissertation was on Martin Luther, particularly his semantics as interpreted through his work in the disputations. 

Although my dissertation won the top prize at the University of Iowa for dissertations in the humanities, I realized that I simply did not know, and had not studied, the late medieval period sufficiently deeply to be able to speak confidently about much upon which I was writing.  I knew that knowledge of the original languages was holding me back.  While I knew some Latin, I did not know it well enough to do painstaking work in the untranslated Latin texts of Luther's Ockamist predecessors.  And while I knew some German, it was definitely slow work to read German articles and books dealing with the issues interesting me.  My French was in some ways more serviceable than my German in those days, but there was little reason to use it in the dissertation.  Dr. George Forell was my friend and Doktor Vater on the dissertation, and he made sure that I did not say anything too odd.

Coming out of Iowa with a Ph.D. in Religion and a M.A. in Philosophy, I headed to Bethany College in Lindsborg, KS, and soon understood that as Chair of the Department with an award-winning dissertation on Luther, it was assumed by all audiences that I had deep competence in Lutheran theology, and that I would surely have profound opinions on all matters theological of interest to Lutherans. 

But I found that I was not of any particular Lutheran tribe.  When I read in logic, semantics and metaphysics, people assumed that I was reading in Lutheran theology and interested in questions of scriptural interpretation, worship, and practical theology. (I actually was interested in these things, but one can only read so much.) I wanted to be part of a tribe and gain tribal acceptance, but sometimes felt I did not say quite the right things in the right ways.  Quickly, I learned that my life vocation was going to become much wider than my training.  I had to learn confessional Lutheran theology deeply and I had to learn it quickly.  I also had to acquaint myself with the contour of contemporary Lutheran theology.  After all, in my Ph.D. program, I had not read one article or book from an American Lutheran theologian outside of George Forell. 

My real orientation to Lutheran theology thus came primarily through reading the texts of Martin Luther.  While I did not know about Evangelical Catholics, Lutheran Pietism, First Form/Second Form issues, Forde, etc., I did learn a great deal at Iowa about Luther, Christian existentialism and the phenomenological approach generally, Hegel, Schleiermacher, and Robert Scharlemann.  Since I never was a member of a tribe, I had to learn about the other tribes from the outside, as it were.  I grasped what American Lutheran theologians were doing by understanding them as influenced by European Schools of thought generally.  I understood that theologian A was working with a phenomenological ontology, that B buys some of the assumptions of process theology, that C is beholden to the work of Hegel or maybe the dialectical theologians, while D is influenced by post-Gadamerian developments within hermeneutical theology, particularly those pertaining to an ontology of language.

Over the course of the next 10-15 years, I thought I actually had found my tribe.  After I became Head of Religion and Philosophy at Grand View College (now "Grand View University") and toiled there to increase Lutheran identity, I knew that I should become an ELCA pastor, teach and preach, and work hard to promote Lutheran identity within that denomination as well.

I took a position in philosophy and religion at South Dakota State University(SDSU) -- a position that turned out to be mostly teaching philosophy -- while simultaneously working with Wartburg Seminary to acquire those qualifications necessary to become an ELCA pastor.  I was ordained on All Saints Day in 1998 and served two congregations while teaching full-time at SDSU.  Shortly before my ordination, I read the Concordat and tried to explain to my Bishop that the lex credendi always follows the lex orandi, but she was not interested.   To my worries about Lutheran identity, she calmly pointed out, "It seems you don't have enough faith."  Yet, though my entrance onto the ELCA clergy roles did not progress precisely as I planned, I nonetheless thought that within the ELCA I had indeed found my tribe. After all, there were like-minded individuals with whom I felt comfortable.  Surely, I was home in the ELCA.

As theological coherence and consistency declined within the ELCA in the late twentieth century, I found myself within a group of those wanting to return the ELCA to a more traditional theological mooring.  I was not motivated in my opposition to ELCA theological laxity by the power of bishops or by sexuality issues per se, but simply by what I took to be the eclipse of theology within the ELCA. I believed that the situation was worse than that the denomination was heading in the wrong direction, it was a matter of there being no agreed upon way any longer within the ELCA to adjudicate what should be the right direction in which to go.  Simply put, there was no way to really do theology any more.  To my disconsolation and consternation, I found that increasingly within the ELCA, one had to say the right things in the right ways or one was really not accepted by many within ELCA leadership.  Tribalism was back, and I was outside again.

When the WordAlone Network conceived establishing a new House of Studies "committed to the traditional Biblical hermeneutic of the Lutheran Reformation" -- a phrase I wrote -- it was maybe natural for me to lead the effort.  Why?

Perhaps it is because I did not know the tribes deeply enough, and thus did not realize how difficult it would be to birth a project demanding that people from the differing tribes work together.   Maybe my absence of a tribe was an advantage because I did not naturally build the new school -- now called 'The Institute of Lutheran Theology' -- in a particular tribal tradition.  I simply wanted to establish a school in which people from all the tribes could come together and do Lutheran theology seriously and rigorously, where they could safely agree or disagree beyond slogans giving the "identity conditions" of their tribal participation, where the unity of the search for truth -- a unity naturally manifesting itself in the pressuring of boundaries of any particular tribe -- would trump the security of knowing which tribe was my tribe, which the right tribe.

So it is that the Institute of Lutheran Theology today has students, faculty and staff from the ELCA, LCMS, NALC, LCMC, ELS (Evangelical Lutheran Synod), CALC (Canadian Association of Lutheran Congregations), AFLC (Association of Free Lutheran Churches,  ALC (Augsburg Lutheran Churches), ELCIC (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada) and the Orthodox Lutheran Church.  (It has students from a variety of other Christian traditions as well.)

So why has the Institute of Lutheran Theology (ILT) formed if it is not a manifestation of a tribe?  Has it no home theology?  What is taught there?

ILT is committed to the search for truth in theology; it embraces a semantic realist construal of theological language: Theological propositions have truth-conditions; they are in principle capable of adjudication.  Moreover, ILT takes the Theology of the Cross motif within Lutheran theology deeply seriously.  The divine is hidden and we must be humble in the face of this hiddenness.  Finally, ILT believes that theology exists always dynamically, that its task is never complete.  Theology bridges the gap between the kerygma of our tradition -- and our changing understandings of this kerygma -- and the contemporary intellectual and cultural horizon.   Because this horizon changes, the theological task lies ever before us.  ILT is an institution living out the dynamics of the theological task.  We do not abandon the kerygma for the culture, nor embrace the culture in forgetfulness of the kerygma.

Perhaps not being in a tribe is precisely the best way to lead the theological life.  I never thought it would be so important not to be in a tribe.  Perhaps being an outsider is precisely what it is to live life under the Cross.  We can never be secure.  As Christ's feet were raised off of the ground on the Cross, so are all of our aspirations for certainty.  The search for foundations is the originator of the "identity conditions" which confidently demarcate tribal members.  But in the face of eternity, such demarcation is, as Thomas Aquinas said about his completed Summa, "merely straw."  

Ultimately, we pilgrims of the Cross are forever outsiders.  My prayer is that ILT will continue to live the tension of the Cross, that it will continue to bring together particular people into a project bigger than the being of particular selves.  After all, when Christ snares us, our particularity comes to an end.  At the end of the day, "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).  We at ILT live this oneness in Jesus Christ each day, in the midst of the tribes which threaten at times to pull us apart, but which will continue to exist as long as theology itself remains.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

So the Institute of Lutheran Theology Has Accreditation -- What's Next?

From Whence We Have Come

On February 23, 2017, Comptroller Leon Miles and I received on behalf of the Institute of Lutheran Theology (ILT) the Certificate of Accreditation from the Association of Biblical Higher Education (ABHE).  We did the process quickly, having been granted formal applicant status in 2016, candidacy in 2017 and now initial accreditation in 2018.  ABHE has been wonderful to work with.  They have been good friends and helping neighbors for a young institution like ILT, coaching us to up our game in every facet of institutional life, and giving appropriate feedback along the way.

Accreditation by the ABHE means that ILT is recognized as an accredited institution by both the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the United States Department of Education.  Furthermore, since CHEA recognizes all graduate programming ABHE accredits all the way through the Ph.D., CHEA will recognize all ILT graduate programming as well through the Ph.D.

It has been quite a journey for the fledgling institution that began life as a "House of Studies."  The Preamble of the "Proposal of the Lutheran Theological House of Studies Task Force" that I authored and delivered to the 2006 WordAlone Convention in Golden Valley, MN, sought to respond to the directive of the 2005 Convention to "appoint a task force to develop a plan and proposal to establish a 'Lutheran Theological House of Studies' using the gifts of theological teachers employing the scriptural hermeneutic of the Lutheran Reformation. "  I led the Task Force consisting initially of WordAlone President Jaynan Clark, WordAlone Board Chair John Beem, WordAlone Executive Director Mark Chavez, WordAlone staff member Rev. Randy Freund, and WordAlone Treasurer Irv Aal.

The Task Force Proposal actually specified much of what has become the Institute of Lutheran Theology.  It spoke of the need for the school to have "critical distance" from the seminaries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) if it was going to be able to offer a prophetic voice within the ELCA context. It specified that the theological house of studies must have full curricular autonomy, and that it must be institutionally independent and academically accredited.   Having just acquired initial institutional accreditation, it is interesting to quote the Proposal on the question of accreditation.  So much of what ILT has done was clearly specified in the 2006 document.  Here is what I wrote then: 
"Probably the most important question as to the nature of any educational institution is whether or not it should be accredited.  Our task force has concluded that the challenges are so great in the present ELCA educational context that only an institution having strong academic qualifications can address them.  It is our sense that we are faced with a “confessional crisis” within North American Lutheranism, and that we owe it to our Savior, and to our Lutheran tradition, to offer an attractive vehicle by which to train future pastors and perpetuate the Lutheran confessional tradition.  Accreditation does three things:  1) It provides an external motivation to build academic excellence; 2) It provides increased opportunities for students; 3) It symbolizes to all that taking the Confessions seriously does not mitigate taking academics seriously.

Firstly, the very nature of external accreditation demands that our house of studies will have an adequate research library and fully qualified faculty.  While we might have good intentions in building excellence into a non-accredited house of studies, the natural discontinuities of temporal life make it difficult to achieve academic excellence in the long-term without institutionalizing external accreditation demands.  Accreditation implements externally our internal demand for excellence and keeps us honest long-term when hiring faculty and acquiring educational resources.

Secondly, being accredited allows greater student flexibility and opportunity.  Students can transfer in and out of accredited programs.  Each is treated fairly in accordance with objective standards developed and monitored by the accrediting agency (ATS).  In addition, accreditation grants greater flexibility for people studying at different schools and seminaries.  In accredited programs there can be certain assumptions about standard courses that are not found in non-accredited curricula.  Preparation for becoming a pastor is more “seamless” when there is a general program of preparation clearly defined, whose various parts can, to some degree, be gotten in different places.  Moreover, an accredited house of studies allows students to prepare not only to fill pastoral pulpits, but also be educated to be teachers in the church.  We wish to nurture an academic competency in teaching and relating Lutheran confessional theology within the marketplace of ideas.  It is our hope to offer advanced academic opportunities for highly motivated students.  We hope not only to train pastors for the future, but also to train teachers of those pastors.  While we could possibly train pastors short-term on a non-accredited basis, we cannot educate teachers of pastors.  

Thirdly, accreditation symbolizes the consonance within our Lutheran tradition of confession and academic competence.  Lutheran theology was born in the university. The “new theology” at Wittenberg was debated in academic halls and written about in scholarly tracts and books.  It is a university-bred theology that sought to be captive to the Word alone.  We live in a time in which the pastor often serves congregations with members more educated than she or he is.  In an environment in which the very plausibility of the Christian worldview is up for grabs, we need educated pastors who know the intellectual terrain of the various disciplines, and who are able and willing to give an account of that which lies within them.  Thus it is manifestly important that future pastors have good libraries, great professors, and an intellectually stimulating campus environment, precisely the characteristics of accredited programs."
While there are certain discontinuities between the vision cast above and what actually developed -- for instance, we never did pursue ATS accreditation because of their strictures years ago against delivering the majority of a curriculum through video-conferencing -- much remains as true now as twelve years ago, especially these three assertions:
  • Accreditation provides an external motivation to build academic excellence.
  • Accreditation offers increased opportunities for students.
  • Accreditation symbolizes to all that taking the Confessions seriously does not mitigate taking academics seriously. 
The last point is particularly important.  I wrote then about an environment in which "the very plausibility of the Christian worldview is up for grabs," and the profound need for "educated pastors who know the intellectual terrain of the various disciplines."

Data from Pew shows how quickly the decline in Christianity is happening and how profound the challenges are.  Between 2007 and 2014 the Christian share of the [US] population fell from 78.4% to 70.6%.  This is a precipitous drop that cannot, in my opinion, be stemmed simply by excellent Law/Gospel sermons being preached to dwindling numbers of folks in the pews.  Pastors of the future are going to need wise heads as well as strong hearts, because they will need to deal with the reestablishment and the perpetuation of the Christian plausibility structure itself.  Such pastor theologians will clearly require "good libraries, great professors, and an intellectually stimulating campus environment," exactly the characteristics we have designed into ILT.

To Where We Shall Go

The Institute of Lutheran Theology has a graduate school and a certificate school.  Its graduate school faculty has seven members, its certificate school faculty has four, and there are well over a dozen adjunct faculty serving both schools.  Within the graduate school, students are designated as follows:
  • Open Studies
  • Masters of Arts in Religion
  • Masters of Divinity  
  • Masters of Sacred Theology
  • Doctor of Ministry 
While all of these programs are excellent, none really get at the central task of the future: The reestablishment and perpetuation of the Christian plausibility structure itself.  How can this be done and who in Lutheran circles is attempting such a thing?  Is it not hubris to think that one can in any way be engaged in the establishment and perpetuation of Christian plausibility?  Is not the apologetic task a thing of the past, something we did once before these post-modern days?

I do not think so.  In fact, I believe that what is needed in Lutheran circles is a Ph.D. that produces deeply-educated men and women who know well the theological tradition, the intellectual and cultural horizon, and how to relate the tradition to the horizon in ways that make legitimate truth-claims.

The ILT Faculty Senate passed on January 19, 2018, a Ph.D. program that defines program learning outcomes, admission requirements, program concentrations, language requirements, qualifying exams, a course of study, comprehensive examinations, and a process for making a thesis proposal and writing and defending a dissertation.

ILT's proposed Ph.D. will offer concentrations in Old Testament, New Testament, Philosophical Theology, Historical Theology, Systematic Theology, and Christian Ethics.  The proposal calls for a minimum of 45 credits with 12 dedicated to the thesis proposal and writing, three to a methodology course, with the rest of the credits coming from 500 level courses, independent reading, writing and presenting an article at an academic conference, an article in a peer-reviewed journal, an article in an academic book, the translation of an academic book, or serving as a teaching assistant.

Students will normally take three qualifying exams, with one or more able to be waived if a student already has a STM from ILT.  The qualifying exams will be tailored for each concentration, e.g, Biblical theology, historical and systematic theology, or philosophical theology and ethics.  When the exams are satisfactorily concluded the student automatically becomes a candidate for the Ph.D.

The four comprehensive exams are all closed-book with a maximum of one week between them.  Students must present a proposal for their exams to their department head.  Only one of the four exams can be in the dissertation area.  When the student passes the exams, they begin in earnest the dissertation phase of their program. 

The video-conferencing technology ILT has used since its inception will work very well for bringing in external exam and thesis readers.  Instead of the student defending his thesis in a public hall where only local scholars are available, he or she will defend on-line where some of the greatest scholars in the world can be called together.  

There are challenges, of course.  More physical books will be needed in our library, and more digitized on-line books and serials must be made available to students.  But the requisite idea is present: We will develop from a school dedicated to achieving academic respectability to a school of real academic excellence, a school where the theological task is continually engaged, a school with the academic competence to think deeply and perhaps conclude, as I did in 2006, that the problem for theology today is our continuing penchant for Descartes' problem and the Kantian trajectory that ultimately issued from it.

As I said then, it is not that ontology recapitulates epistemology, but that epistemology recapitulates ontology.  Our present moment requires that we abandon the prejudice to locate the being of God through a profound introspection of human experience and cognition.  We must instead discern God where God might be found, in a Being whose be-ing is outside of human be-ing, in a Being whose be-ing is at issue primordially for it, in a Being whose be-ing called from eternity all being, in a Being whose be-ing is to be the eternal Savior of us all, a be-ing whose Spirit works faith and grace within those whom the Spirit pleases.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Tolerance, Commitment and the Lutheran Ethos

Forty years ago when I was farming in northwest Iowa, a farmer friend announced that the famous University of Chicago religion scholar Martin Marty was going to be speaking seventy miles away in Orange City, and he wondered if we might not want to go and hear him.  Although I had not heard of Martin Marty back then, I could not pass up the opportunity to go to Orange City.  As I recall, Marty was speaking on the general theme of tolerance and commitment, and telling us that mature faith possesses both.   My friend Doug challenged professor Marty after the lecture:  "Dr. Marty, I found your presentation very stimulating, but remain unconvinced.  My own observations suggest that the more committed people are religiously the less tolerant they are, and the more tolerant they are, the less committed they are."

I recall that Martin Marty looked at my friend rather sadly, as if Doug had showed up for card night without knowing how to play.  "That is not the way it works," he reiterated, "it is precisely in tolerance that one is most deeply committed."  He uttered many other wise things as well, but I don't recall how anything he said provided warrant for the widely-propagated view that religious tolerance and commitment are profoundly compatible.

Of course, being good Americans in the early twenty-first century, most of us naturally pay lip-service not only to the compatibility of tolerance and commitment, but also to their direct direct proportionality.  We Americans love our story.  After all, America was founded on religious freedom, a freedom from compulsion to a particular religion so that one had greater freedom to practice one's chosen religion. 

It was a great experiment, this founding of America.  Could a country endure that tolerated many different religions, that rejected the assumption of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia: cuius regio, eius religio ("whose realm, his religion")?  If Tillich is right and religion pertains to ultimate concern, then how is it possible for people with different -- sometimes radically different -- ultimate concerns to come together and agree to be governed?  Far better, it would seem, the traditional view where the ruler and the ruled share the same ultimate commitment.  But America not only survived, it thrived.  Apparently people with different ultimate concerns can live together without compromising those concerns!  So it is that we learn in America that it is precisely within the context of overarching tolerance that commitment is most deeply possible.

I remember thinking at the time, however, that Doug's question was a good one, and that the famed Dr. Marty had taken it rather too lightly.  (We often underestimate the strength of challenges to our assumptions.)  Perhaps Martin Marty was living so deeply in his religious tradition that he did not see the problem.  How exactly does one continue to assert the truth of one's own tradition, allow others to assert the truth of their own, and not run into fundamental conflict?  How does one do this if the truth about which one is concerned is ultimate

My days on the farm was a time in my life that I was very interested in the question of religious truth.  I puzzled a great deal over the question of how two or more religions might be true at the same time.  I was a pretty tolerant guy in those days, and it did not come naturally to me to think that my Lutheran truth-claims were mostly all true, and those of Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims almost all false.  Why would I be given the requisite epistemic priority to know the true, when those far more serious than I were not afforded the same? 

So assuming that contrary religious claims might be conjointly true, what would it be by virtue of which they could be conjointly true?  While I was thinking such thoughts in 1978, I admit I did not know anyone in my farming community except Doug who thought that supposed contrary statements about God's properties and relations could somehow be conjointly true.  Every Lutheran I knew thought that either God created the universe in six days or did not do so, that either Jesus was born of a virgin or was not so born, and that either Jesus the Christ was the only way to the Father or was not the only way. 

Later in my life I would ask undergraduate students this question: "If two people disagree on what is true, must one of them be wrong?"  In the middle 1980s when I started my college teaching career most students said "yes," but by 2010 when I was finishing my tenure of university teaching they were saying, "no."  Perhaps in the 1980s the few students saying "no" were thinking about philosophical or religious "truth."  (Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder in aesthetics, truth is in the mind of the conceiver in philosophy or theology.)  However, by 2010 students were assuming a much more expansive domain of putative truths, a domain that included the historical, scientific and even the mathematical.  Be that as it may, if my college students in the late 1980s could think that contrary religious claims might be conjointly true, perhaps it was possible in a northwest Iowa farming community a decade earlier. 

There are two ways, I believe, of conceiving the relationship between tolerance and commitment.  The first is one that the American founding fathers could embrace.  One must be tolerant of contrary claims in areas where one's epistemic limitations are the most pronounced.  Since one cannot know that 'x is true', one must be tolerant of those claiming, 'it is false that x is true'.  Such epistemic tolerance, however, is thoroughly compatible with the belief that 'x is true'.  One can be deeply committed to the truth of a claim without knowing that the belief is true.  Epistemic tolerance of is clearly compatible with an existential commitment to ~x.  Accordingly, tolerance of another's claims of truth is the proper attitude to adopt when realizing one's epistemic limitations, but commitment to one's own beliefs is, however, proper, honorable and courageous.  After all, not to be committed to one's own beliefs is to live inauthentically, is to live in a way that does not own one's beliefs.  (I am thinking of Heidegger's Eigenlichtkeit or "ownmostness.")  

Doug and Dr. Marty would not, however, likely have affirmed this relatively traditional interpretation of the compatibility of tolerance and commitment.  Both were quite aware of the intellectual and cultural horizon of the 1970s, a horizon that increasingly understood religious assertions as statements of value and not of fact.  Accordingly, tolerance in things religious is assured because there is no way in principle for religious language to state what is the case apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language, and thus there is no facile way for its claims to come into conflict.  Religious language (and most theological language) reports, expresses or recommends one's own psychological or existential states; it does not describe a divine realm existing on its own apart from us.  Since such language pertains to human experience, every attempt to state that another's religious affirmations are false is an act of prejudice. Who can rightly say that my religious affirmations, grounded as they are in my experience, are false?  If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so too must the truths of religion be only in the ears and eyes of its hearers and readers. 

Unfortunately, this view of things, though great for tolerance, presents deep problems for commitment.  If I know that my affirmation of x is a statement of value, and I know that your affirmation of ~x is a statement of value, then since values are neither true nor false, upon what grounds can one be rightly committed to to x rather than ~x?  Lamentably, the search for grounds for values succeeds only in uncovering other values.  (No matter how hard I have tried, I have never been able to derive an "ought" from an "is.")  Are not the deep values of the grounds simply another statement of commitment?  (I am committed to feeding the hungry because I value -- I am committed to -- feeding the hungry.) 

Simply put, if the warranted assertibility of religious utterances is ultimately subjective, then why be committed to the particularity of their assertion when times become difficult?  While one might die for truth, does one really die for value?  (I am not saying that one might not die for the truth of a value.)  Polycarp (69-155) was burned alive rather than renounce faith in Christ.  Clearly, the great man died because he was convinced of the truth of Christ, not the value Christ had for him.

Doug's question was sophisticated in the way of the medieval question of whether or not God could make a rock so heavy that He could not lift it.  Doug was asking this: If one is tolerant in one's religious assertions, then one is clandestinely understanding these assertions as not have truth-conditions.  But why be committed to the assertion of a particular body of statements or the doing of a set of actions if there are no truth-conditions grounding the assertion of the statements or the doing of the actions?  Alternately, if one is committed to a set of assertions or a class of actions, then one is presupposing their truth, but if this is so then why be deeply tolerant of unjustified views at odds with those that one has good reason to regard as true?  Just as the property of making a rock so heavy that God can't lift it cannot properly be applied to God, so to the property of being deeply tolerant of contrary religious claims while be profoundly committed to one's own cannot properly be applied to late twentieth-century Christian believers, those no longer believing as did the Founding Fathers that tolerance pertains to epistemic humility with regard to the domain of religious fact

Dominant strands of Lutheran theology over the past 200 years have tended to downplay the idea that there exists a realm of theological facts independent of human awareness, perception, conception and language.  Kantian assumptions within theology departments at German universities undercut notions of divine substantiality and causality.  As European Lutheran theology hit American shores (particularly after World War II), and comingled with American assumptions about the fact/value distinction, a Lutheran theological ethos emerged that was disdainful of Lutheran Orthodoxy, particularly it's penchant to regard confessional and doctrinal statements as affirmations of theological fact.  The result was heightened tensions among Lutherans, a tension pertaining to both semantics and ontology

While conservative traditions like the Missouri and Wisconsin Synods continued to assume that there was some objective fact of the matter about which confessional and doctrinal statements were speaking truly, the precursor church bodies which became the ELCA began leaning towards an understanding of such language that connected more to human experience.  While the former thus understood tolerance as grounded in epistemic limitation, the latter came to see it as an affirmation of the particularity of the believer's cultural existence itself.  Tensions ran high, and it did not help when spokesman of the former sometimes suggested that the tolerance of epistemic humility was due to a willful abandonment of the objectivity of revelation.   Nor were tensions abated when the latter seemed to think that confessional and doctrinal affirmations somehow denied the authenticity of the theologian or preacher's voice, and that such affirmations simply strangled the believer's authentic religious life and practice. 

The Institute of Lutheran Theology emerged, in part, because it became time for there to be an institution that was both deeply sympathetic to the starting points of the various Lutheran traditions, and that understood these starting points within the broader historical and philosophical context.  It is time now that Lutherans talk seriously to each other.  It is time we think together the dialectic of tolerance and commitment, time we ask together how an affirmation of both is possible.  In so asking, we shall undoubtedly learn a great deal more about ourselves.  Such learning is a very good thing, for it is time that we dialogue with each other in a spirit of tolerance and commitment, a spirit that shall take the truth claims of all partners seriously, while adjudicating conflicting truth claims within an ethos of epistemic humility. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Lutheran Presuppositions

The old joke is that if you put three serious Lutherans in a room together, you will discover three distinct, and clearly defendable, theological traditions.  (Some say that you will find four or more traditions.)  The story illustrates a truth about Lutherans in North America: They have often not played well together!

While the disputes are many, I believe they have to do today primarily with hermeneutics, the locus of authority, and the ontology of the divine, justification and ecclesiology. I believe that the deepest issues confronting (and sometimes separating Lutherans) are oftentimes not how the issues present themselves at the congregational level.  Issues of women's ordination, the blessing of same sex relationships and marrying of same sex couples, human rights and social justice proclamations, closed communion, infant baptism, contemporary worship and use of early church liturgies, Biblical reliability concerning scientific and historical fact, etc., all do divide rank and file Lutherans and Lutheran congregations.   Some of the issues still remain quite venomous, notably differences on closed/open communion, women's ordination and LBGT issues.   Some issues of disagreement seem no longer rancorous.  (The truth of young earth creationism seems not to inculcate much disagreement these days in the lives of most Lutheran congregations.)

In this brief article, my concern is neither to do a careful historical reading of Lutheran traditions to uncover salient differences among them, nor to construct a typology which would list the necessary and sufficient conditions for the application of any of these terms: "Evangelical Catholic," "midwestern pietist" or "Lutheran pietism," "radical Lutheranism," "Lutheran repristination," "Lutheran renewal," "Lutheran fundamentalism," "Lutheran high church movement," etc.  All could be precisely defined, but any prescription of proper application will likely nonetheless be violated in practice. (Lutheran theologians have not always been charitable in the application of such terms to their Lutheran brothers and sisters.)

What I want to do is to go to the deeper level and explore the presuppositions that make it possible for Lutherans often simply to talk past one another.  Acceptance of presuppositions as fact or "just the way things are" produce theological "spins" making it difficult for Lutherans of one persuasion to ascribe rationality, good intentions or sometimes basic comity to those with whom they disagree.  The problem is that the discussion of the issues remains unsatisfying and superficial when the contour of deeper presuppositions is ignored. 

In what follows, I am sacrificing scholarly precision and sourcing for boldness.  (I figure that at some point in life, one must get bolder and I have endeavored to do so in recent years.)  Part of being bold, is leaving the safe harbor of proper theological speaking in order to make broader points. Perhaps what I am doing here is "proto-theological."

Below is my list of the profound presuppositions or "pictures" (Wittgenstein) that do divide Lutherans.  While each of these have theological ramifications, often the presupposition itself has little to do with theology.  At the end of this reflection, I want to tie these presuppositions together somewhat.  So what is my list of presupposition within early 21st century Lutheran theology?

  • The Relationship of the Meaningful Content of Scripture and the Historical Conditions from which it Arose.  Lutherans of all persuasions declare that the Scriptures are the norm and source of faith, life (and theology).  They differ markedly, however, on what exactly constitutes the meaningful content of Scripture.  Is the meaning of Scripture found in the Biblical text itself, in the interaction of the Biblical text with the reader (informed by the Holy Spirit), or in the Biblical text as it is understood in the context of its formation, original audience, and transmission?  Simply put, to what degree does historical criticism (textual, source, form, redaction, etc.) and literary criticism help uncover the proper meaning of the text?  Differences of opinion about putative Biblical injunctions against homoerotic behavior, the role of women in leading worship, and the practice of closed communion pertain to the issue of how knowledge of the wider religio-historical context (both diachronic and synchronic), and knowledge of textual formation and intentionality affect the actual meaning of the text.  Lutherans in the pews saying "their Bible says this" have often been astounded to find their theologians saying that it really says something quite different if one has the requisite ability to penetrate back beyond the text into the horizon of its formation and original reception.  
  • The Question of Proper Authority in Theological Adjudication and Communal Practice.  While all Lutherans speak of Scripture as properly norming faith, they disagree as to the authority of the norm.  Traditional Catholic theology understood Scripture to be of sufficient complexity that it was unlikely that non-learned readings could successfully interpret Scripture correctly.  A teaching magisterium was needed to guarantee proper interpretation of the text.  Rejecting this, Lutherans argued that the Scripture alone was the proper norm and the sole authority for faith and life.  But this works only if Scripture has external perspicuity, that it's meaning is sufficiently lucid that it can, in principle, work to adjudicate theological issues.  An objectivity of the text is presupposed as the sine qua non of effective norming.  However, if the very meaning of the text is at issue and its meaning oftentimes identified (discovered?, constructed?) on the basis  of theological (or other) criteria, then the danger is that the real authority in textual meaning is the interpreter.   But if the text's objectivity is determined by the subjectivity of the interpreter (and the interpretive community in which that interpreter stands), then the putative externality of the Word of God can become the mere documentation of the subject's hermeneutical virtuosity.  (None of this would have surprised the Catholic theological faculty at Tuebingen in the mid-nineteenth century.)  Adding the Holy Spirit to the mix does not seem to overcome this basic problem, for the activity of the Holy Spirit in making external clarity internal nonetheless presupposes the moment of external perspicuity.  
  • The Ontology of the Divine.  Most Lutherans do not realize that their commitment to presuppositions of ontological and epistemological realism concerning the divine determine what they think is possible in theology.  Does God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) exist apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language?  Does human confrontation with divine determine the ontic contour of the divine?  Does God bring about causally that which would not have happened were He not to have willed it?  Simply put, is our language about God, His properties, and His causal relations with the universe and His children within it simply a language that clarifies human religious experience (feeling, willing, knowing, doing)?   If it does nevertheless refer to God, does it refer to the divine realm symbolically, such that the affirmation of divine qualities and causal powers point to the depth of being, a region in principle incapable of sustaining causal relations with ontic reality?   Clearly, if one believes that there is a God who exists on His own apart from human consciousness -- a God that has a primal intent upon creation -- then questions about "God changing His mind" will be understood in a far different way than if reference to God is conceived as a way of clarifying (or pointing to the limits of) human experience.  If one regards theo-physical causality as possible, then one will find it difficult to move from the methodology of scientific naturalism to a full-fledge metaphysic of scientific naturalism and the concomitant causal closure of the physical.  Moreover, if one believes God is not the kind of being who can in principle have causal power -- maybe God is like the set of all sets -- then one's views about the events of the early universe and macro neo-Darwinian evolution will likely be much different than one who does assert divine causality.   Clearly, the clear contour of Scripture's meaningful content will likely be different for the one holding the causal closure of the physical and the one rejecting it.  
  • The Ontology of Justification.  Does justification constitute an actual transformation of human life, or is it merely a change in divine judgment about the conditions of that life?   (I don't want to engage the distinction between justification and sanctification, or weigh in here on whether "sanctification is merely getting used to justification.")  If there exists divine causality -- if the Holy Spirit is causally involved in human life -- then God's just-making and sanctifying does bring about some state of affairs that would not have happened otherwise.  (Some claim that religion at its depth is a path of transformation.)   Forensic justification can be understood causally as well, of course, for if God really exists, and really does divinely impute sinlessness to the sinner, than some state of salvific affairs is brought about that would not have happened otherwise.  However, if God does not exist apart from human awareness, perception, conception or language, and if God thereby has no causal powers, then justification seemingly must be construed finally subjectively; it pertains to the psychology of the "believer." 
  • The Ontology of the Church.  What is the church?  Is it an association of individuals receiving the gifts of God, or is it somehow the Body of Christ effective in bestowing these gifts upon its members and the world?  One's views about the contour of ecclesial being will be determined in part by the one's views about divine reality itself.  If one believes there is a divine being with divine properties and divine causal powers, then one's view of the Church will likely be far different than if one believes there is no such being.  On the former, the Church can have a mystical, sacramental reality, but on the latter it must be finally understood on the basis of human community.  On the former, the authority of Law is grounded in the reality of God, on the latter it emerges out of the life of the community itself, and can be changed as communal life changes.  Obviously, one's views of LBGT issues will likely be quite different if one thinks there is an entity with divine properties and causal powers authorizing divine Law rather than the divine Law being an expression of, or somehow supervening upon, the life of the community.  
What is important here is to recognize that the questions of the ontology of the divine and the normativity and authority of the Biblical text finally come together.  If Holy Scriptures are reliable, normative and have proper authority, then they witness to a God with divine properties and causal powers.   The move to afford ontological status to the divine thus seemingly rests on one's view about the perspicuity and epistemological reliability of the Biblical texts.  Conversely, if one is convinced that the Enlightenment critique of the divine -- particularly in its Kantian form -- requires one to become an irrealist with respect to the divine and divine causal power, then one will likely be committed to a closed naturalistic metaphysic that makes it much more likely that one must interpret the meaningful content of the Biblical texts in light of the historico-politico-sociologico-economico interests and context in which they emerged.   

So underneath the difference among Lutheran is a very simply difference in presuppositions.  One presupposition is that God is real and language about God says what is true or false about the divine.  Another presupposition is that God's being is of an ideal or linguistic order, that it is forever related to human awareness, perception, conception and language.  Those holding the first view are more apt to hold a very high view of Scripture, believing that there is an objectivity to the meaningful content of Scripture -- even if this objectivity does utilize much of the machinery of the historical-critical method.  Scripture has authority because it reveals most reliable truths about the real God. Those holding to the ideality or linguisticality of God, are more apt to emphasize the historical conditions from which Scripture emerged.  Here the authority of Scripture tends to rest more in the traditions of its employment, and its place within the life of the Church generally.   Clearly, what is permissible hermeneutically is quite different on the first view than the second. 

Blog posts are supposed to be short, and I will endeavor not to violate that expectation.  What I am suggesting in this brief post is something quite simple, that is, that a high-view -- one might say a "non-natural" view -- of Scriptural authority and normativity links nicely with the notion that God is ultimately non-natural, having, as it were, sufficient non-natural causal power to affect the natural order.  Alternately, a natural view of Scripture -- a causal story of how Scripture arose out of community stories written down for community purposes -- connects with an irrealist view of God and the concomitant position that the myths and rituals of this God emerged in the evolution of human life, and that while this God may be the most noble and lofty idea of the human life, it nonetheless remains causally inert with respect to the central problem of human life: How can I be saved?   Clearly, it is reasonable to expect the practice of hermeneutics under the first picture to be far different than one finds it practiced under the second. 

Sunday, December 03, 2017

The Dilemmas of a Secular Age

I am privileged to teach the first course of the Doctor of Ministry program at the Institute of Lutheran Theology entitled, "The Secular Age."  Our D. Min. wants students to be deeply aware of the intellectual and cultural horizon into which they must proclaim the gospel, an intellectual and cultural horizon that is by no means as simple and unambiguous as the secularists believe.  

The text used in this course is Charles Taylor's 2007 book,  A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).  In this massive tome, Taylor challenges denizens of the North Atlantic world seriously to consider this question: "Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable" (25)? 

While Taylor devotes 871 pages attempting to answer this question, commentators over the last ten years have authored many more pages describing, analyzing, acclaiming and critiquing what Taylor wrote then, and what he has been writing in response to those who have written about what he wrote then.

I want today to discuss the dilemmas Taylor discusses in chapters 17 and 18 of A Secular Age as to their apologetic effectiveness.  Does he manage to point to an Anknuepfungspunkt ("point of contact") for those seeking to proclaim the gospel into the post-modern context?  Do these chapters succeed in uncovering a possible ground upon which an open hearing of the gospel is made more likely?  Is it possible that Taylor has articulated something the could remove an "obstacle to faith?"  In order to understand what Taylor is doing in these chapters, however, I will first have to say something about what had happened in the six hundred pages prior to Taylor's discussion of these dilemmas.

The Narrative

Taylor addresses the question as to why belief in God is now so difficult by providing a grand narrative.  The first 14 chapters -- four of the five main sections of the book -- tell the story of how it came to be that belief in God "seems" now implausible to a great many.  Taylor's story shows how "exclusive humanism" became an of option for a full human life.

Taylor's tale departs from what many expect, the story that as science waxes, religion wanes. He argues against "subtraction theories," views suggesting that the positive aspects of modernity emerge only after religious belief is jettisoned.  Taylor believes that the often intolerant, modern secularist world-view presupposes all of the following:
  • The success of science in explaining that which religion fails to explain
  • The psychological and moral maturity of modern man and women over the childishness of viewing the world religiously
  • The ethical and moral inferiority of religion in its misanthropy and resistance to human self-actualization 
Taylor's tale starts with the story of disenchantment: the early modern rejection of the traditional porous cosmos in which good and evil reside in regions beyond the human heart, and its affirmation of a world of individual buffered selves affecting and being affected by the external world and other buffered agents outside the self and in that world.  Taylor refers to this process as the "great disembedding," a process that undercuts the previous embedding of human agents within society, a society which itself is embedded in a cosmos ultimately grounded in God (152).  In this disembedding, society is refigured, it is now seen as a collection of individuals, each with interests, one of which is happiness.   

In this world of buffered selves the notion of autonomous moral agency develops.  Taylor dedicates chunks of his text to the rise of reform movements beginning five hundred years ago.  It is part of disenchantment to reform the world and the self in conformity with the putative will of God.  

By the time of the Enlightenment, a "providential deism" is in the air, an affirmation of the divine in which God increasingly functions to support human happiness, particularly a this-worldly nurturing of family life.  However, as the implications of the buffered self and its autonomous moral agency become apparent, Enlightenment men and women begin to sense that their disembedded, disenchanted existence is one of isolated human agency within an impersonal natural order.  

Throughout this narrative, Taylor is less interested in describing historical theories and ideas than in discussing the background conditions making doctrinal theories and practical piety possible.  These conditions he labels "social imaginaries," the set of pre-ontic dealings buffered selves have with each other and the objects in their environment.  Such pre-ontic dealings constitute the pre-articulated phenomenological world we all inhabit.  This world was once one where it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, and now is one where it is inescapably easy not to believe.  Although Taylor does not use the term, he is engaged in genetic phenomenology, a description of the genesis of the meaning of things, in "laying bare" that world in which we now find ourselves in our judging, affirming and denying. 

As denizens of an impersonal natural order, we are not long content.  With Christian belief no longer a live option for the intelligentsia, new ways of seeking "fullness" arise in the nineteenth century.  Romanticism and its search for beauty plays prominently in various nineteenth century trajectories seeking fullness in non-explicitly Christian ways.  

Taylor seemingly employs the term 'fullness' salvifically.  Human beings have a drive to lives of fullness, a fullness thatTaylor often connects to agape love.  He suggests that fullness is an experience of the conveying of what matters most in life in a complete and perfect way (600-601).  Accordingly, such fullness could be grounded in a deep structure within us, e.g., reason, or it might perhaps be graced by the divine.  

The search for fullness, while once tethered for Christian to ends outside life, becomes in the 18th and 19th centuries increasingly connected to an "exclusive humanism," to a this-worldly ordering of society and culture for mutual benefit.  Such humanism espouses a benevolence motivated either by Enlightenment reason or the natural "fellow feeling" (Hume) men and women have for each other.  Exclusive humanism develops, providing an alternative to faith in God, miracles and mystery.  Positively, because of the development of dignity, freedom and discipline, exclusive humanism grants to buffered selves an expanded sense of self-worth.  Negatively, it displays to them their own limitations and inculcates within them a sense of alienation and emptiness.  

What follows is the "nova effect," an explosion of religious and spiritual options, a "galloping pluralism on the spiritual plane."  This intensifies into the current "age of authenticity," the growth of a widespread "expressive individualism" focusing on fashion, style and individual rights.  While traditional objects of religious devotion and belief have been marginalized in this age, new kinds of spiritualities and new places of the sacred have arisen to take their place.  Even Christian belief gets a new lease on life, for though Christendom is no longer, new Christian spirituality allows for a "believing without belonging" (528). In this age of authenticity religious searching continues as numbers of people still look for religious answers to the question of the meaning of life. 

I have said a few words about Taylor's narrative to contextualize and set up the last section of his text, the last five chapters which provide a structural analysis of our present age, an age where men and women are seeming haunted by a transcendence that they cannot quite affirm.  It is in this section that we finally turnTaylor's dilemmas, the primary focus of my remarks.  It also is in this section that we find Taylor taking up the apologetic task, not one that demonstrates the truth of the Christian faith, but rather one that attempts to point to and undercut the smug and confident secularist construal of things.  

The Analysis

We dwell today within the "immanent frame," that space that has resulted from our disenchantment from the cosmos and the emergence of the buffered self, a self which is individual, private and disciplined, a self that has set out to reform the world, a world vanquished from higher time, a world living the banality of homogenous "lower" time.  This immanent frame is a "natural order" rather than a "supernatural" one, a self-sufficient world we all inhabit pre-reflectively, a frame "common to all of us in the modern west" (543).  Moreover, this immanent frame can either be open to the transcendent or closed to it.  However, Taylor emphasizes that both of these possibilities step "beyond available reasons" into a state of "anticipatory confidence" or faith (550).  The immanent frame is given to us phenomenologically and pre-reflectively; it is the primordial world in which we dwell, a world prior to reason-giving, a realm prior to normative evaluation.  

Within the immanent frame both closed and open "spins" and "takes" are possible.  While a "take" in the immanent frame affirms either immanence or transcendence while remaining open to the disjunct it does not affirm, a "spin" does not recognize itself as an interpretation of the cross-pressuring within the immanent frame towards either immanence or transcendence, and accordingly denies plausibility to the disjunct it does not affirm.  Simply put, a "spin," unlike a "take," does not know itself to be simply a way of seeing things; it thinks it stands on the facts.

Taylor believes that in the immanent frame, genuine "Jamesian space" exists towards the possibility of transcendence.  (In the seemingness of immanence, there is a haunting of transcendence, a haunting that might give one reason ultimately to adopt a position of openness towards transcendence.)  While Taylor makes passing reference to religious fundamentalism as a spin in the immanent frame towards transcendence that cannot grasp how one could not discern transcendence, it is the academy and its intolerance to the very possibility of transcendence that is his real interest.  The "fundamentalism" of the academy mistakes its way of seeing things with fact.  Taylor wishes to contest the "spin of closure which is hegemonic in the Academy" (549).  In so doing, he searches for the motivation behind closed spins which inter alia identifies openness to the transcendent as wishful thinking. 

There exist "closed world structures," all of which function as "unchallenged axioms" by believers both secular and religious (590). The philosophical picture undergirding closed world structures is foundationalist epistemology, specifically the internalist epistemological project stretching back to Descartes.  Accordingly, we have representations of a basic nature that are sense impressions, copies of sense impressions, and (for the rationalists) innate ideas.  From these basic epistemological building blocks, we build up our world.  What is closer to the foundations is more certain; what farther away more conjectural.  Obviously, any putative transcendent is disenfranchised by this starting point in "the given" because there are no foundations from which the complex idea of the transcendent can be properly derived.

Taylor argues that the foundationalist story is not a discovery of how thing are, but rather a new interpretation constructed by the buffered self.  He writes that this new story is a "stance which requires courage, the refusal of the easy comforts of conformity to authority, of the consolations of an enchanted world, of the surrender to the promptings of the senses" (560).

Although Taylor does not explicitly say it, closed world structures are the way in which we dwell with, or reside in involvement with, entities (objects and persons) within our world.  Like a Heideggerian existentiale, closed world structures are distinctive ways in which our care and concern about the world in which we dwell present themselves.  (See James Smith, How (Not) to be Secular, Eerdmans, 97.)  The secularist spin on the immanent frame is a way in which humans comport themselves in the world, a way which occludes God.  What is this way?

The way of closed spin is a way of dwelling in a world of "there is this and no more" (my phrase).  The tug of the Augustinian "my heart is not at rest until it finds its rest in Thee, O Lord," is now phenomenologically given not as a tug to deeper truth, but as temptation and distraction away from the only truth there is (563), the truth of "there is this and no more."  The way of being-in-the-world without God is not a discovery given to us by science, but a way in which we now comport ourselves with entities in our world as we now do science.  We dwell in the world as ones who are alone, who without God and pre-established purpose must make up a story for ourselves, a story of courage to appreciate and affirm our aloneness.  Dwelling alone in the world, we understand that our norms and values are the only ones that actually exist.  In our being-in-the-world we pre-understand that our moral autonomy gives us the only dignity we can possess, a dignity that has now come to maturity.  We are no longer children; we see the world as it is.  We reside in our world in a "there is this and no more" way.  Any attempt to affirm differently is wishful thinking and a mark of immaturity and/or childishness.  Clearly, Taylor is pointing to a powerful image and a heady dwelling -- this way of seeing the immanent as if it were not possible to see more than the "there is this and no more."

Despite the hegemonic closed spin in the academy and vast sections of culture, "cross-pressuring" abounds, that is, conflict between "the draw of narratives of closed immanence on one side, and the sense of their inadequacy on the other," the memory of transcendence and its enlightened rejection, conflict arises between old destabilized beliefs and emerging new ones (595). Taylor believes that from the tension of cross-pressuring new spiritual possibilities can arise. 

The cross-pressuring between our drive towards fullness -- even exclusive humanists locked in the immanent frame cannot wholly abjure it! --  and our current naturalistic, materialistic, and reductionistic account of the world and how it operates, creates a tension that infects various "fields" of existence.  With respect to agency, we shrink from our own determination, and instead affirm ourselves as "active, building, creating, shaping agents."  With respect to ethics, we affirm "higher ethical/spiritual motives" that are irreducible to biological instincts.  Finally, in aesthetics we affirm meanings and purpose that "are not just differential responses to pleasure" (596). 

The Dilemmas

In Chapter 17 and 18 Taylor explicitly discusses the dilemmas produced by the cross pressures.  While these are dilemmas for Christianity, Taylor believes that they also are problematic for exclusive humanism. 

Taylor begins by pointing to the growing penchant to flatten out spiritual struggles by appealing to therapy.  If human beings desire existential wholeness, and religion and its struggles of the spirit do not produce such wholeness, then perhaps therapy can.  On the therapeutic model, "healing doesn't involve conversion" (619).  In fact, spiritual struggle and conversion is a fundamental culprit making achievement of wholeness difficult.  The therapeutic revolution assumes that spiritual insight and concern for the transcendent is itself a motive for existential disorder.  Our lives, haunted by the memory of transcendence and characterized by a lack of fullness, are now to be addressed by a therapy that regards such transcendence and fullness as a pathology.  (Much of what Taylor discusses in this section I first encountered reading Brave New World and Lord of the Flies.

Taylor believes, however, that there are significant problems with the therapeutic program.  It turns out that the guilt associated with the spiritual life is now transferred to the therapeutic life.  Did I get the right treatment?  To what degree was I effective in overcoming the spiritual?  Moreover, to call the disordered interactions of the spiritual life pathological, would suggest that much of our everyday non-spiritual disordered lives are pathological as well. 

But there are other problems that surface for religion:
  • Religion in general (and Christianity in particular) asks us to transcend our humanity in moving to embrace the higher.  This, however, mutilates us by asking us to repress what is really human (623).  
  • Religion in general (and Christianity in particular) often proclaims that the world could be other than it is.  Such a hope tends to "bowdlerize" reality, downplaying the difficult aspects of nature we all face.  
Religion's preoccupation with the ideal and transcendent denies what is deeply human in the here and now.  (It is as if the world is condemned by the divine Law.)  Moreover, preoccupation with divine promise and transformation (grace?) fails to take the here and now seriously.  (It is as if one asserts that after grace, the Law no longer applies.)  Either there is two much law or not enough.  This is a dilemma with Christian faith: "It seems hard to avoid one of these criticisms without impaling oneself on the other" (624).   

Taylor does, however, explore ways out of the dilemma.  What if we lower the bar as to what counts as transcendence, and embrace what Martha Nussbaum calls "internal transcendence," a transcendence that does not deny natural drives and passions? 

Now Taylor employs the strategy of what is good for the goose is good for the gander.  He believes that it will not work simply to make Christianity not deny human natural drives and desires, for the Enlightenment universalism ingredient in exclusive humanism also represses some of our basic human drives and passions.  In fact, exclusive humanism seems to be in no better position than Christianity when it comes to the project of leveling out the natural instincts, drives and passions of human beings in the name of good order.  (Does not the current PC movement sometimes effect a type of mutilation of the natural?)  The problem of mutilation infects both religion and exclusive humanism.  It is against both the mutilations of Christianity and exclusive humanism that the Nietzschean anti-humanist critique emerged. 

Taylor adroitly carries on a dialogue between the three partners: religious people committed to transcendence, exclusive humanists committed to the "modern moral order" of organizing society for mutual benefit, and neo-Nietzschean anti-humanists who reject both transcendence and the entire project of organizing society for mutual benefit.  On many issues, two of the partners agree over and against the third.  While the anti-humanists attack Christianity and exclusive humanism for their mutilation of the natural drives and passions of humanity, the anti-humanists and exclusive humanists stand together in attacking Christianity because of its commitment to transcendence.  Moreover, Christianity and anti-humanism seem somehow to agree about "the valorization of death and sometimes violence" over and against exclusive humanism (638). 

All of this brings us to a discussion of what Taylor calls the maximal demand: "How to define our highest spiritual and moral aspirations for human beings, while showing a path to the transformation involved which doesn't crush, mutilate, or deny what is essential to our humanity" (639-640).  Here it seems that we are faced with a dilemma: we must either adjust down our moral aspirations so that our ordinary human life might flourish, or we must abandon some of our human flourishing in order to achieve our highest ideals.  Taylor argues that the dilemma of either having to adjust down our moral aspirations or our human drives and passions applies to both exclusive humanism and Christianity.  But while the grace of the eschaton is available to Christians failing the maximal demand, it is not so for exclusive humanists.   (Taylor attempts throughout this section to evaluate Christian trajectories on their basis of how they meet the maximal demand.  Unfortunately, he does not sufficiently clarify the criteria upon which to affirm or deny particular Christian belief and practice as having met that demand.)

Taylor indicates that there are other problems with which Christianity must deal.  Christianity has been deeply influenced by Platonism and its other-wordly emphasis.  So how can one square the hyper-reality of the transcendent light with the shadow (and unreality) of human drives and passions?  From the platonic perspective the "maximal demand" is really beside the point.  Moreover, how do Christian notions of sacrifice, suffering, punishment, atonement and violence survive the maximal demand to not mutilate our drives and passions?  How does an authentic Christian transcendence avoid that of Platonism, the latter of which, when conjoined to Christianity, seems to have provided profound meaning and purpose to countless through the centuries? 

The point of the dilemmas Taylor uncovers is to show that both Christianity and exclusive humanism are challenged by them.  This is particularly true of violence.  Christianity, anti-humanism and exclusive humanism all are confronted with the problem of violence, and all have difficulty coming to terms with it.  Exclusive humanism misses the deeper non-biological roots of violence while anti-humanism decouples morality from it.  But while only Christianity has the resources to think it profoundly -- and while only it believes it can be overcome -- the mere existence of the violence challenges notions of a beneficient God engaged in divine pedagogy of His children.   For Christianity, as well as exclusive and anti-humanism, there is "a fundamental ambivalence of human reality" (673). 

The question of profound meaning poses more problems.  From where comes our motivation for spiritual commitment or doing good?  Upon what "transcendence" is it based?  We deal with the experience of evil in two basic ways: Either ignore it and believe that there is nothing ultimately wrong, or address it by trying to heal and correct it.  Throughout this section, Taylor labors to show that Christianity is perhaps more open (and honest) with respect both to the recognition of evil and the attempt to ameliorate it.  He opines that exclusive humanism does not have adequate moral sources to undergird its commitment to human rights, and to treat properly the least advantaged in our society. The philanthropy of the exclusive humanist often becomes a misanthropy because those whom she helps often fail to appreciate both the gifts given and the highly developed moral nature of the giver. 

Whatever one might say about the specifics of these dilemmas, the strategy Taylor employs is important.  In doing apologetics in our postmodern, post-Christian context, one must identify the dilemmas facing both Christianity and exclusive humanism, point to the inadequacies of exclusive humanism in trying to address these dilemmas, and sketch the resources that Christianity has in addressing these dilemmas in a more profound way than exclusive humanism. 

The goal is first to get the person to see that their commitment to exclusive humanism is a take and not a spin.  This is crucial, because if the secular, the religious and the anti-humanist positions are all stories we tell ourselves, all ultimately alternate existentiales or ways of being in the world, all profoundly faith positions underdetermined by the data, then it is unreasonable to claim that one's closed take is a spin, that it is the way that things are apart from our awareness, perception, conception, interests and language.  If it is unreasonable to have a closed spin on the immanent frame, then a very significant obstacle to faith has been removed. 

Pascal once concluded that in the face of a possible infinite pay out of glory and bliss, it is unreasonable not to wager one's finite life.  Pascal knew that his wager never could bring one to faith, because that is in God's hands.  His wager was only meant to remove some obstacles to faith.  It was an Anknuepfungsspunkt whose establishment in no way undermines the gratuity of grace.

Perhaps Taylor is best read in this light.  If our closed spin is unreasonable, then perhaps we should pull back to a more defendable position, the field of takes rather than spins.  Notice that the area of either the open or closed take on the immanent is one probably more likely to hear the Word, a Word whose heard utterance rests only on the anti-foundations of the gratuity of grace.  The removal of an obstacle does not an affirmation make.  However, the honest affirmation of Christ does entail the removal of an obstacle to faith, the immanent spin on our present immanent frame.  

Friday, November 24, 2017

The Institute of Lutheran Theology -- A Brick House?

The Institute of Lutheran Theology (ILT) will celebrate its ten year birthday soon.  It was in December of 2007 that ILT acquired agency, that is, the property of being able to act and being able to be acted upon. The actual life of ILT began when it became a non-profit corporation.  Having gained this property, it soon acted to receive its 501 c3 status, acquiring this in March of 2008.

As an agent, ILT has been able to do many things: It early on offered courses to congregations, and began in the fall of 2009 to offer courses to those preparing to become pastors and church workers. By 2010 it had defined the core degrees it would offer: the Masters of Divinity, the Masters of Arts, and the Masters of Sacred Theology.  (It later added the Doctor in Ministry.)

Since its very inception ILT has raised funds for operations and charged tuition for its courses.   As an agent, ILT can and does own property and can and has taken on commitments and obligations.  As an agent, ILT is a financial actor with a financial history.  Like any person, some years of its life have been more challenging than others, some years better than others.  As an agent, ILT has exhibited behaviors, has had dispositions toward behaviors, and has acquired a reputation.  As an agent, ILT has been working to achieve institutional recognition from its institutional peers; it has toiled to become accredited.  Agency is the necessary condition of accreditation.

While all of this may seem obvious, so much confusion exists in the the present post-modern Lutheran context that many no longer grasp this clearly.  Institutions purporting to train pastors arise, declaring that they can accomplish such training while outsourcing to others either content delivery or degree conferral or both.  The reason for such outsourcing is obvious: To found and develop a new institution that will itself achieve accreditation is very difficult.  It takes a long time, is expensive, and often seems to be irrelevant to the actual task of educating students.  Why not simply open up a room within the Adobe Connect platform and have one pastor teach another?

There were once three little pigs.  One worked a brief time and built a house of straw, the second worked longer and produced a house of sticks, and the third worked a very long time, finally finishing his house of bricks.  When the wolf came, he could easily blow down the house of straw.  Moreover, with effort, he could flatten the house of sticks.  No matter how hard he tried, however, he was unable to blow down the house of bricks.  The house of bricks outlived the wolf whom, as you might remember, was boiled alive in the waters at the bottom of the brick house's chimney.

ILT has spent the last ten years preparing for accreditation.  It has created a finance and business office, an institutional advancement office, an office of academic affairs, an office of student affairs, and office of financial aid, an office of chaplain and educational ministry, an office of library and informational services, an office of assessment and measurement, an office of technology and technological support, and an office of public relations, publications, and donor development.  It has produced countless handbooks for students, faculty, staff, departmental offices, and its board of directors.  It has collected, collated and interpreted information from constituents, students, alumni, faculty, staff and its Board of Directors.  It has written detailed business and strategic plans, written and implemented assessment plans, built and implemented budgets, and received unqualified financial audits.  Each year that it exists the agent known as ILT has acted so as to grow stronger and wiser.   While accreditation is neither necessary nor sufficient for quality education in the classroom, it is essential if one is to create an institution that can survive the tempests of the coming years.

Since its birth, the Institute of Lutheran Theology has wanted to be a house of bricks.  Early on it realized that outsourcing its education to others or using the accreditation of others was like building a house of straw or sticks.  Difficulties arise, the wolf comes, and one's house is no longer.  Who knows if the institution to which one is outsourcing or the institution whose accreditation one is using will survive, or will have the desire to perpetuate the relationship initially established?   Early on it realized that it could not locate at another institution and with integrity call itself an autonomous and accredited school.  How could it control curriculum if the majority of the courses are delivered by the faculty of another institution who have their own agendas and institutional mission?

The Institute of Lutheran Theology has sought from the beginning to be independent, autonomous, and accredited.  It understood early on that this meant that it would have to take the long view, and slowly and surely develop an institution capable of existence into the next century and beyond.  Brick houses can last a very long time.  It has been the ardent desire of the Institute of Lutheran Theology to be around for a very long time.

Why is this?  Is it for the glory of ILT and its founders? 

No.  Early on it became obvious to us that the challenges to the perpetuation of the Lutheran confessional tradition were so great, that only an institution with financial stability, academic rigor, and institutional longevity could hope to address them.  However, what we do at ILT we do humbly; we stand under the Cross.   But make no mistake: In order to stand under the Cross at God's right-hand demands considerable left-hand institutional development.  ILT needs institutional girth in order to be a faithful, humble witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  And it is for this that we exist.