Friday, November 16, 2012

Justifying the Individual

Though I have never posted a sermon before, I decided to post this one. It was preached at the Institute of Lutheran Theology shortly after the election. The text was Hebrews 10:11-25. Readers might think it wrong-headed, but as always I enjoy feedback and discussion.


We had an election here in America.   Some say that it was the most important election of our lifetimes.   There is in America a fundamental parting of ways for those who deeply embrace the ideology of their parties.   Does one want smaller government with an emphasis on individual responsibility and innovation, or does one want larger government with an emphasis on what the power of the State can build and do?  One side concentrates upon the horizon of the individual, the other on the fabric of the community.  

Pundits and preachers on both sides proclaim the virtues of what we might call social/cultural atomism over and against social/cultural holism.  The first claims that the basic reality is that of individuality and groups are collections of individuals.  The second argues that the fundamental reality is community, and that individuals are merely the ways that communities have their being in a particular location.  Red states tend to reduce the behavior of wholes to the collection of the behavior of parts; blue states tend to claim that the behavior of the part is, in some sense, an abstraction from the behavior of the whole.  

Thus, when one claims, “it takes a village,” one is espousing a particular ontology about the logical priority of wholes and parts.   Since the study of wholes and parts is called “mereology,” to claim, “it takes a village,” is to adopt a particular “mereological ontology.”  So, you see, one can say a great many complex-sounding things about something that is really quite simple. 

But why would one say complex-sounding things about what is quite simple?  And, more to the point, why would one talk about parts and whole, red states and blue states?

Well, think about it for a moment.   Think about the great Christian narrative of creation, fall and redemption.  God made the universe good; the universe fell into being not-good and thus into being not-itself; and the universe through Christ became again what it is - - though it still retained the flavor of what it is not.  The process of the universe becoming again what it once most profoundly was is called in the tradition, “justification.”   We are made right again; like a well-tempered clavier, we are justified, rightly tuned again through the blood of Jesus. 

Traditional Catholic theology disagreed on many things, but one thing it mostly agreed upon was that ‘justified’ and ‘not-justified’ are antonyms.  The more just one is, the less unjust he or she can be.  If we are justified by Christ’s action, then we are not the unjust beings we were through the Fall.   Redemption brings forth a return to Paradise, a Return to Forever, a return to the time before time, the primal time of all Beginning, the state prior to the disruption, decay, and, in some sense, existence itself.  

Look at the text from Hebrews.   Christ has “perfected for all time those who are sanctified.”   This is the time of the forgiveness of sins, a time of sprinkling clean the conscience and ritually purifying the body, a time of promise and faith, of provocation to love and goodness, a time of the approaching Day. 

But attention to the text shows something quite complex happening.   While the Day of paradise has dawned in one sense, the habits of the old age remain.  This is why this is an approaching Day, and not a Day already attained.   The Day is dawning; Paradise is returning; the Old is passing away and the New is taking its place.   There is in this time of approaching Paradise, a time of perfection in that which is still not perfect.   While most of Catholic theology in one way or the other claimed that the more just was the New Day the less unjust was the Old Day, Luther and his Circle read Scripture and tradition in a way that allowed them to say that the New Day was totally present while the Old Day remained completely.   Lutheran theology claims thus that we sinners are wholly justified while remaining completely sinful: simul iustus et peccator.  

So have we got all of that clear?    - - I would think that most listening to this sermon would say, “Tell us something we don’t know.  We know that the Council of Trent condemned Luther for saying that sin remained after justification.  We know that we are simul iustus et peccator.”

Please bear with me if you know this already, and if my saying it again does not make it a clearer or a more effective Word for you.   What I have said so far is just setting the table for making the fundamental point.  I must now relate what I just said to what I said earlier.  Teachers and preachers are supposed to do that, after all, and because I am both, I will attempt to do it now. 

Justification for Lutherans brings back the Before in the not-Before.   It brings back Paradise outside of Paradise.  But what is the being of that which is not-Before and is now Before, of that which is not-Paradise but is now Paradise?  Is this being a being of individuals comprising groups, or is it the groups from which individuals are abstracted? 

You might think this a deeply irrelevant and tangential question.  What difference could this possibly make?

The difference, I aver, is profound and has everything to do with why Lutherans have split up and misunderstood each other so profoundly.   You see, Lutheran theology has always privileged the individual as the locus of justification.   I remember my old teacher, Dr. George Forell, would say there are no Christian institutions, only institutions in which there are Christians.   The term ‘Christian’ can accordingly only properly apply to individuals and not groups.   Individuals are justified by grace through faith, not groups.   Justification is the process of the individual becoming right with God, while his or her living out of that rightness is the Christian community or Church.  

But times are a changing.   In the nineteenth century the idea of a social group with a Geist or “spirit” gained ascendency.   With eyes on this world rather than the next, thinkers downplayed the idea of personal immortality in favor of the notion of achieving lasting being within the context of the group.  New eyes on the Old Testament thematized the notion of the Chosen People as a community of the faithful.  Justification increasingly became associated with a transition from social disorder to a melioration of that order.   This is, of course, exactly what one would think if one were to hold that the primary bearer of being is the community and not the individual. 

Time does not permit me to trace the subtle ways that this changed ontology changed Lutheran preaching.  In the Institute of Lutheran Theology, we explore these matters quite deeply.   The take-away, however, is that if primary being rests with the community, then the hearing of the Word must be a doing of the Word, for only in this way are communities changed.   Whereas in earlier times one could talk meaningfully about an “inner transformation” of the person, this is what is precluded in an ontology that takes the “inner” to be a mere abstraction of the real being of social order and community.  

The ELCA, the denominational body to which many of us previously belonged, privileged in their working theology an ontology of community.  Very subtly and gradually, sin became social fragmentation and justification become social integration.   Notions of individual resurrection were replaced by the idea of a resurrected community.   But the people of the pews did not abandon their previous ontology.   The blue state church, filled with individuals having red state commitments, imploded.   And here is where we find ourselves today. 

It is time today to understand what has gone wrong and return to a deep presupposition of Christianity itself:  We stand alone before a God that knows our every thought and breath; we stand naked underneath His eternal and wrathful divine gaze. 

Yet in the midst of this reality of being forever shut out of Paradise, a Word comes from God that is Himself God.   This Word claims us upon the horizon of our own being; He claims us not primarily as a people, but as me.   Listen!  You, yes, you yourself, are grasped eternally by the God whose justice can only reject you.  You, eternally have been grabbed and are being drug back to paradise.   God has a preferential option for you, not the social orders and structures you inhabit.   This is good news, exceedingly good news.   You yourself are precious and you yourself is where Christ is present! 

Had we remembered this, we would never have lost our way so deeply.