There is a popular story that goes like this:
Once upon a time about 500 years ago there was a sincere, superstitious monk who was so overcome by guilt before God that he fell into extended bouts of despair. In the depths of his despair the young man glimpsed the mercy and forgiveness of God. He realized that righteousness is not a property that God has intrinsically, but rather a property God continually gives away to believers. Luther’s spiritual tussle in the monastery eventuated in his ultimate departure and decision to take a university position as a professor. Later this renegade monk married, had children, and led a movement that changed history.
Luther was very disappointed with the Catholic Church of his time, particularly its leadership. He was so dismayed about this that he referred to the pope as the “antichrist,” hardly a term of endearment. A group of people gathered around Luther and together they helped set the theological trajectory of the Reformation. While Luther was a tremendous religious genius, these people were less creative, less spiritual, and zealously interested in getting all the theological facts right. Theological squabbles erupted within Lutheranism, eventuating in the Formula of Agreement, a document putatively quelling the disputes between the “gnesio-Lutherans” and the “Phillipists.” The emergence of this Formula was the ground upon which later Lutheran thinkers attempted to “get it right.” Thinkers like Gerhard, Baier, Hutter, Quenstedt, and Hollazius codified the teachings of the Formula and advanced it in a series of books whose appearance was in profound tension with the new currents of Enlightenment thought emerging. These practitioners of “Lutheran Orthodoxy” became so concerned about the letter of doctrine, that they forgot the living reality of the spirit out of which the Reformation was born. These thinkers wrote books that were heavily read for some years, but then fell into disuse as Enlightenment thought reached dominance. While Lutheran emigrants fleeing Europe sought to read these books in North America, for the most part these books of Lutheran Orthodoxy were considered to be old, out-of-date, and definitely out-of-step with the times.
The first thing to realize about this story is how pervasive it is. Today these books are considered so out-of-date that most students at Lutheran seminaries have never heard of their writers, let alone ever read anything by them. Most Lutheran faculty don’t read them either. Why would anyone read them today? After all, they trifle about things that are quite disconnected from contemporary life and experience. Why would anyone seeking to be Lutheran in our postmodern age want to read those who slavishly wanted to get it right? Don’t Lutherans in the pews today know that there have been thousands of religions in the world, that the veracity of religious claims cannot be proved, and thus that they clearly cannot prove our own? Don’t they know that religious claims are not factual, but rather valuational, that they do not inform us about how the world is, but seek to express something about our self-understanding and religious practice within a community of faith? God-talk talks not about God, but about us. We are religious, this is true, but our religion is only our projected “map against time,” a map that is different for different peoples. We are religious cartographers, unsure of whether our maps are accurate or whether it even makes sense to talk of accuracy. So it is in our age. The voices of the old are irrelevant, while the voices of the new echo about without place.
The story above is how we Lutheran Christians are represented by others. It is the hand we are dealt. How do we with this hand tell again our story? How do we tell a story for today about God’s love for us in Christ when we suspect that the story we tell may be just that, a story? How can we who live on the other side of the Enlightenment and its criticism tell the story with the same vitality that animated those old Lutheran church fathers in their studies, cranking out there compendia and loci?
In addressing this tonight, I want to ask you to do an experiment. Ask yourself this: “What if this Christian stuff is true? What if it is true that there is a God who created the universe, and filled it with all types of living beings? (Set aside questions, for the moment, as to how it is true.) What if it is true that man and woman really are the apex of God’s creation, that they who were given so much have mysteriously, inexplicably, and somehow from their own freedom turned from God? What if it is true that God is just and must distribute justice according to merit? What if it is true that human beings deserve nothing but eternal abandonment from God, an abandonment that is horrible and loveless? What if it is true that the only way for humans to be saved from what they deserve is for God to rescue them? What if it is true that God is so merciful that he abandoned part of Himself, his Son to death so that we might live abundantly now and forever? What if all of this is true?”
I hear the answer: “We believe that already. We already believe these things. Although we have no certain knowledge; we have faith. We believe these things even though others believe other things.”
But I want again to challenge: Do you really believe these things? Socrates taught that a person will do what is right if she knows what is right. Writing five centuries before the western world knew anything of original sin, Plato claims that human beings do bad things because of ignorance: they just do not viscerally know what they sometimes say they know. Analogously, are we sometimes guilty of thinking we believe when we don’t? Do we sometimes just give lip service to believing?
Imagine, if you will, the days of the early church when there were persecutions and martyrs. Or think about the Reformers, about how they spirited Luther about in disguise to avoid detection and death. Or think about those dusty old men in their old studies writing page upon page, documenting the truth of the faith. Do we do anything similar? Would we? Or are we playing a different game? Do we really believe that the story is more than story; do we believe that it denotes events that God has done as well as donates to us a new understanding, a new way of looking at the world, a new sense of what is possible for us?
There are many who talk these days about the virtues of faith without claiming that faith supposes that something is so. They claim that one can have faith in God the creator, redeemer and sustainer without necessarily believing that God creates, redeems or sustains. In other words, many no longer think that ‘believing in’ entails ‘believing that’. They no longer think that trusting in something presupposes a definite ontological contour of that which is to be trusted. But think of how odd it would be to trust in a friend without believing anything definite upon which that trust is based. To trust in a friend clearly presupposes that the friend has certain properties, characteristics on the basis of which the friend is worthy of trust. How could one trust in God if God had no definite contour, if one thought that God possessed no properties on the basis of which He is worthy of trust?
The reason why many want to allow trust without definite belief is that our theological and religious language has been given an interpretation that is noncausal in character. We want to trust in God’s creativity without saying that God actually creates, without saying that things would not have been the way they were without divine causal input. This hits home with the intelligent design issue. While folks in very conservative traditions want to hold on to six day creation, many mainline Protestant folks (including Lutherans) want to allow that assertions about God’s existence and presence are somehow consistent with a denial of intelligent design generally. They want to claim that the universe is not teleological in its constitution, that is, that neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory does describe the causal mechanism of the universe, and that no divine input is necessary to bring the universe into the state it is. But what is meant by ‘creates’ if there is no being having a teleological connection to his artifacts?
Those claiming the demise of religion are continually disappointed because it does not seem like religion goes away. The reason for this, I believe, is that there are certain fundamental structures of human existence which call for religion, in whatever guise. I have always liked the phrase of Mircea Eliade: “Religion is a factor within the structure of consciousness, not a stage in the history of consciousness.” Religion does not go away because humans are who they are: anxious beings struggling within the field of time. Religion does not go away because the fundamental anxieties of human existence do not go away: We are anxious in the face of death, in the face of guilt, and in the face of meaninglessness. The fifth century theologian Augustine summed up this basic human deficiency: “My heart is not at rest until it finds its rest in you, O Lord.”
Now the problem over the last two centuries is that our old story of Jesus and his love for creation has been given an interpretation that no longer fully addresses these anxieties. By saying that the divine story is only a story, we have found ourselves stuck. The anxieties remain and are factual, but the response to these anxieties is not: While Jesus’ resurrection did not bring his corpse back to life, proclaiming his resurrection supposedly quickens us in the face of death. Although God has no a wrathful intent towards human beings on the basis of which He would ever abandon them, proclaiming divine forgiveness somehow still makes life better when we feel guilty. While God really does not exist as a being in the world creating and sustaining the universe, proclaiming God’s continuing love supposedly make us feel less empty, less not-at-home in a lonely and foreign universe.
But consider this: What if the factuality of the existential question were answered by the factuality of a Christian response? What if we claimed that the profound existential problems with life could only be adequately addressed by a historically-based response, that is, a response asserting that there was once a God who took on the nature of human being in order to transform human beings into new creatures?
And so we come full circle. What is the relevance of Christ for us today? Christ has the same relevance He always has had because human beings have the same structure of existence they always have had. Admittedly, somehow over the years the relevance of Christ has seemed to abate. I believe that this abatement has been, and is, inversely proportional to the degree that we think the Jesus story true, that is, to the degree that we think it more than a story.
Now you might wonder at this point how early 21st century people could believe in the old, old story when they live in a world that has come of age? Did not even Bultmann ask how contemporary man and woman could believe in Christianity now that there was the wireless? (He asked this about 80 years ago.) The answer is simple: This is how it always has been. When Christianity burst upon the ancient world, it had to establish its plausibility on an intellectual horizon where many thought it preposterous and crude. Christianity found few supporters in the five great schools of philosophical antiquity: The Academy founded by Plato, the Lyceum founded by Aristotle, the school of Stoicism, the Epicurean school, and the skeptical school of Sextus Empiricus. Yet Christianity has always made proselytes out of its critics. From the early days of intellectual rejection, there ensued a long development of intellectual acceptance, an acceptance that gave rise to the universities of Europe.
And how was it that this scandal of a religion could have done such a thing? This answer Lutherans know very well: “I believe by my own reason or strength, I cannot believe in the Lord Jesus Christ or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by his gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified me in the one true life, even as he calls, gathers, and enlightens the whole Christian church on earth.”
The good news is that we don’t have to believe in things that are incredible or work up faith for things we can’t regard as true. This is God’s work. Our belief is His gift; our faith is His work, and the truth of the gospel is His truth.