Saturday, January 08, 2011

Thinking and Thanking

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger was fond of the seventeenth century Pietist phrase, “Denken ist Danken, (to think is to thank).” Heidegger writes, “Pure thanks lies in this, that we simply think that which is solely and properly to-be-thought.”

But what is it that properly ought to be thought? For Heidegger, it is Being-Itself, and
thinking of this being is itself a thanking for being. Much of Heidegger's later work is a poetic exploration of the common etymology between thinking and thanking, and I recommend his ruminations to those so inclined. But what has this philosopher to do with the question of God and Lutheran theology generally? And what has thinking and thanking to do with the Institute of Lutheran Theology?

Heidegger distinguishes calculative thinking from meditative thinking, claiming that while the first attempts to grasp being, the second responds to it by “thinking after” it as it discloses itself. While Heidegger never calls Being-itself 'God', the connection is palpable. Just as light-itself lights the world, so does Being-itself radiate beings. Accordingly, Being-itself is the “ground” of all that is, a ground that cannot be investigated in the way of other things. The answer to the first question about God is that just as Being-itself is the ultimate ground from which beings arise, so too is God the creative mystery at the heart of the universe.

Heidegger realized that while being could not be grasped by human thinking - -for such thinking always presupposes being - - human thinking is nonetheless a way of be-ing. Accordingly, while the human subject cannot grasp the object (being), the object can and does call forth the subject's thinking of it. Simply put, while attempts to grasp the divine always end in failure, the divine successfully reveals itself to us. The answer to the second question about Lutheran theology is that what the law cannot do is done by the grace of God. God's revelation in our lives is something we cannot coax, engineer or guarantee. His presence is donated to us from outside ourselves, not by virtue of our own efforts at spiritual transformation.

But what has Heidegger to do with our work in the Institute of Lutheran Theology? After all, is not ILT committed to the Bible and not to German philosophy? Moreover, why do people at the Institute of Lutheran Theology concern themselves with such heavy thinking? Is it not simply enough that ILT gives it future graduates instructions for doing effective ministry? Can't we simply train pastors the way we train computer engineers, librarians and hotel/motel managers?

The Institute of Lutheran theology is deeply committed to reading and understanding the Bible. Collectively, we have a very high view of Scripture, believing its clarity and authority to be matters not of our doing. But while the source of theological reflection must always be the Bible and the tradition of its thinking, this source is always reflected through the medium of the contemporary intellectual and cultural horizon.

Reading and understanding the Bible is thus both simple and difficult. It is simple because the Bible speaks immediately to its readers as the Word of God; it is difficult because there is no methodological formula that can forever establish the exact words of that speaking. The Bible speaks as it is questioned by different readers at different times. Ultimately like Heidegger's Being-Itself, the Bible reveals its Word as a matter of grace, for it cannot wholly be grasped through application of methodological law.

I am convinced that one of the main problems facing Lutheran clergy today is that oftentimes their education denies them the freedom to think, at least to think so deeply that their thinking is transformed into thanking. While they acquire a set of skills - - they know now how to give sermons, how to plan worship and how to make hospital calls - - they aren't mentored to think what continually ought-to-be-thought: God in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself. This Word of grace, which cannot be established by human thinking, is itself revealed to human thinking, and in the thinking of this thought, human life becomes itself a thanking, a life lived in joyful response to the One who has Himself called such thinking into being. Faith is thus active in love.

Indeed we at ILT cannot be happy simply with teaching students what to do, until each is clear on what it is that must be thought. With an eye toward the ought-to-be-thought, students at ILT study Bible, history of church and theology, philosophical underpinnings for theology, Lutheran Confessions, and systematic theology. The objective is to think so deeply the thought that the Holy Spirit has called us to think, that we live out our deeply-thought lives in proclaiming the Good News of Jesus the Christ and in thankfully serving Him. Pastoral skills are only important if pastors believe that about which they speak. Faith is always active in love.

All of this is to say something that Lutherans have always known, but that has gotten a bit obscure in our time: Being precedes doing. Over and against existentialists, pragmatists, modern day Aristotelians, and enthusiasts of the law in all its forms, Lutheran theology has always steadfastly declared what the Bible perspicuously records: While a good tree bears good fruit, good fruit does not a good tree make. More important than future Lutheran clergy learning in their classes how to do the job of being a clergy person is that they have the time (and the space) to think through what it is to called to be one who in his or her thinking has pastoral doing as a mode of thanking. God's work of faith establishes the possibility of love.

So it is that we think about many things at ILT. We consider deeply the human condition, sin, atonement, and salvation. We think about how God relates to His universe in creation, redemption and sanctification. We reflect upon how language of God relates to other kinds of language, to the words of poets and scientists. We are convinced that if our language of God cannot easily be used Monday through Saturday, it is only very oddly and parochially employed on Sundays.

We think as well that considering these things deeply is
already to occupy a position of gratitude. Think of the grace involved in such thinking! To think deeply is to realize that there is something rather than nothing, and that this situation has no worldly explanation. To think deeply is to realize that we might not have been, or that we might not now be who we somehow still deeply are in time. Thinking deeply pushes us to consider the radical contingency of human existence, to think the thought that there is nothing necessary about being. But as we consider that things could have been other than they in fact are, we realize that why and how things are themselves involve grace and gift. Thinking through contingency breeds a thankfulness of what is. Denken ist Danken!

As the end of this first decade of the twenty-first century draws to a close, our collective thinking at the Institute of Lutheran Theology is in truth radically oriented to thanking. After all, there is no reason to expect that a seminary starting from nothing on a financial shoestring should be successful. People thought it could not be done. How could ILT overcome financial constraints, accrediting issues, and course delivery problems?

But I am here to proclaim to you the startling, and wholly contingent fact, that it daily is being done. ILT is blessed to have high quality students, a stellar faculty, an increasing list of generous donors, and a very professional course delivery system that allows students interaction with some of the best Lutheran theologians in the English speaking world. Where else can students study with professors Jim Nestingen, Mark Hilmer, Paul Hinlicky, Robert Benne, Hans Hillerbrand, and Uwe Siemon-Netto, to name but a few? Where else can students get the opportunity at home for one-on-one interaction with professor of international reputation who will coax them daily into thinking deeply what it is that ought-to-be-thought?

Next semester ILT will be in the process of launching a second generation video delivery system that will deliver much higher quality video to anyone having a broadband internet connection. Please tune into our fifteen minute chapels every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10:00 a.m. to see clearly Lutheran preachers preaching clearly the Word of God. Soon students will have greater options for accessing higher quality video during select lecture formats. Through the generosity of almost five hundred individual and congregational donors this last year, the Institute of Lutheran Theology is transitioning from a start-up seminary with a vision for tomorrow to an actually existing Lutheran graduate school filling the needs of students world-wide today.

While the universe did not have to be, yet by the grace of God is, so too with ILT: It could have failed, but it did not. Not only did it not fail, but it has the opportunity to lead the transformation of Lutheran theological education world-wide. To think about this radical contingency of ILT is perpetually to thank Him who called it forth into Being.

Through the work of the faculty, staff, students and supporters of ILT, that which ought-to-be-thought is itself humbly and thankfully being thought. To think in a sustained way about what God has done for us in Christ is to live a life of thanksgiving. It is from this ground that ILT has emerged, and it is from this ground that it is watered and will ultimately grow into full fruition. The divinely-worked faith of human thinking is always active in the divinely-worked love of human thanking. May God's faith and grace be indeed with you all this New Year!

Dr. Dennis Bielfeldt


Institute of Lutheran Theology