Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Reformation Freedom

This was released by the Institute of Lutheran Theology last Friday.   I couldn't bring the formatting through well to this blog page, but I decided the content might make it worth putting up anyway.   Hopefully, every Lutheran already knows this . . . 

October 31, 2014 (Reformation Day) points to the beginning of the Reformation in Europe.   The gospel reading from John 8, asserts this: “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine;  and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (31-32).  Reformation Day is all about freedom.   It is not, however, about freedom in the sense that most Americans think.   When we citizens of western democracies think of freedom, we are likely to think the following:  A person is free if and only if that person is able to do what the person wants to do.  This freedom from external constraint or compulsion is what is meant by political or civil freedom.   A free people are a people whom the state does not coerce, who have natural rights for the pursuit of happiness that cannot be taken away by the state and must be honored by the state.   Some read the Reformation as a movement towards individual freedom.   Each person has a free conscience, and can interpret Scripture properly on his or her own.  According to this line of interpretation, this notion developed into freedom of religion, a idea that Americans understand as a constitutional right.  The Reformation gave greater freedom to individuals over and against the powers of Church and Empire.  But this way of understanding freedom, is not what Jesus is talking about here.  This notion of freedom is not Reformation freedom.         

Teaching philosophy for so many years has made me acutely aware of a second sense of freedom:  A person is free if and only if that person could have done other than what he or she did do.  This understanding of freedom speaks to so-called "contra-causal causality":  Is a person merely moved along by the movement of the subatomic particles comprising him, or has that person real freedom with respect to those particles?  The idea is this:  We are all made up of matter (energy) that is ruled by certain fundamental laws of motion.   The decisions we make are actually determined by the neurons and synapses of our brain that, in turn, our comprised of matter (energy) obeying laws of motion.  Thus, when I choose to go through door A rather than B, I am really just being moved neurophysiologically to walk through A rather than B.  Free choice is an illusion.  If I knew all of the laws of motion at work in the system, I would be able to calculate with absolute certainity the future movement of any particles in that system - - this includes particles that make up people and thus includes the people themselves.   But this philosophical sense of freedom is not something about which John 8 is concerned.  This is notion of freedom is not Reformation freedom.

What John 8 concerns is a specifically Christian sense of freedom:  A person is free if and only if that person wants to do, and is able to do, that which that person ought to do.  The idea here can be seen easily with respect to the alcoholic.   He may not rationally want to drink, and indeed may be successful not drinking much of the time, but he always passionally wants to drink.  He is always besieged by the desire to drink, and finds himself divided: He does not want to drink at the same time as he deeply wants to drink.   It is this way with respect to sin.   St. Paul discusses this in Romans 7.  "So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.  For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members."  The sinner, like the alcoholic, is divided.  He is a slave to sin, rationally wanting desperately not to do that which he wants passionally to do.  All of us our in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.    The freedom of the Reformation is a freedom that returns the sinner back to what God would have him be; it is a re-forming of a self de-formed by sin.   The freedom of the Christian is a freedom from sin that quells the divided self, allowing the believer a sense of peace through certain knowledge that that she is becoming, and in some sense already is, that which God has intended her to be.  

Christian freedom is not an absence of external compulsion like in civil freedom, nor is it an absence of internal compulsion like in philosophical freedom, it is rather a reorientation of the whole way of thinking about freedom.  Christian freedom does not measure freedom with respect to the self, but rather with respect to God. The Reformation's deepest insight is that when God looks upon us, He sees his holy, innocent, suffering Son, and thus he sees us as being who we are intended by God to be.  God justifies sinners, and in so doing gives the gift of freedom: We are who God wants us to be on account of Christ.   This is true Reformation freedom. May the freedom of the Reformation animate you and keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus! 

Dennis Bielfeldt, Ph. D
Institute of Lutheran Theology 

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Fall 2014 Classes at the Institute of Lutheran Theology

If you go to the ILT website here you shall discover some very interesting courses being offered.   The first thing to realize is that ILT is offering twenty courses for graduate credit this fall.  These courses include standard courses in Biblical theology, systematic theology, historical theology, and pastoral theology, as well as a Greek readings course and courses in philosophy and ethics.   (We believe at ILT that theological reflection has been, and must always be, in dialogue with the philosophical assumptions and views of the age in which it is undertaken.  Theological reflection is clearly not philosophical reflection, but it nonetheless neglects philosophy at its own peril.)

Our Masters of Sacred Theology (STM) students this fall can choose courses in theological German, Bonhoeffer, philosophy of religion and theology & science.   Readers of this blog will find all of these courses interesting, but I want to bring to attention the excellent course on Bonhoeffer taught this fall by our Dean of Academic Affairs, Dr. Jonathan Sorum.  Sorum is a Bonhoeffer expert, and the course is extremely well-prepared an insightful.   If you are interested in a challenge on Wednesday nights from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. CDT, I recommend that you email admissions@ilt.org and get enrolled today.   Dr. Sorum is also available for conversation on it at 605-692-9337.

ILT also is offering six certificate courses on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday evenings.   If you don't already have an undergraduate or graduate degree, but are interested in studying theology seriously, these courses are for you!   We designed them to be basic training in theology, much like companies like IBM give basic job training to computer science majors.  The computer science majors find IBM's training deep and challenging, even if they already have a computer science degree.   Similarly, students with undergraduate or advanced degrees already will find our certificate courses deep, challenging and interesting.

All of our courses are delivered in a fully-interactive format on-line.  We at ILT take educational quality very seriously, and we have well-known professors currently teaching and more coming soon.   You can study with some of the top names in Lutheran theology in the English-speaking world.

There is no other place like ILT.   We are not an idea waiting to be implemented, but a fully-functioning, degree-granting institution with faculty, faculty governance, students, embedded ministry sites, and a guarantee to offer each and every class on schedule so that you can advance through our Masters of Divinity program in as few as three years.  Come and join the fun!       

Friday, August 08, 2014

Facts and Values

It seemed simple once - - this distinction confidently taught to grade school children by those knowing nothing of its lineage.  "Children, please listen up.  There are facts and there are values.  You can say that Sally got the wrong answer in science class because science deals with facts.  She can have the wrong answer because there is something to measure the facts against.  However, you cannot say, and you must not ever say, that Sally has got it wrong when she says that there is a God, or when she says that there is not a God, or when she claims Frank was wrong to push Molly.  After all, every person is entitled to his own opinion."  

Every future teacher secondary school teacher I had in my university classes knew and believed in the fact/value distinction. Future school teachers, after all, have to be taught to respect familial and cultural diversity.  It is not wrong that Piper has two mothers or that Alex faces Mecca each day. Of course, the reality of such diversity entails that many of our most cherished judgments are simply values.  There is nothing to measure the probity of Piper having two mothers against; there is no fact of the matter that decides the truth or falsity of Alex facing Mecca.  School teachers teach the facts of grammar, mathematics, science and history, and let the kids "express themselves" in art, music, theater and the interpretation of literature.  While most kids don't any longer have the chance to study philosophy or theology in secondary school, if they could do so today, they would find these disciplines relegated to the same arena as art, music and theater. "Kids need to respect the views of others," their teachers confidently intone.  There can be no fact of the matter in philosophy or religion.  Some kids are Catholics, some Lutheran, some Jewish, some Islamic, and some reject religion all together.   There is no fact of the matter which makes Catholicism "right" and Islam "wrong." To suggest this simply displays abject intolerance.  

Maybe the exposure to this distinction when young explains its popularity today.  Everywhere within popular culture we find the presupposition of the arbitrary and capricious nature of value. The great ideals of humanity (beauty, goodness and truth) are confidently thought to be mere affairs of subjective value.  Some people believe there is a God, but others do not.   This is fine because there is no fact of the matter about there being or not being a God.  Some people believe that abortion is right and others believe it wrong.  This is fine because there is no fact of the matter about its rectitude.  But while Amber might believe abortion wrong, since there is no fact of the matter about its rectitude, she ought not to block access to abortion for others who might believe it is morally permissible.  Since Amber's value is personal, it concerns only her personal behavior.  For her to claim that her personal value ought to govern public policy is for her to succumb to close-minded intolerance.  Does she not know that abortion can be right for Alex but wrong for Piper?  If she knows that abortion could be right for another, she simply has no right to block access to abortion to another - - even if she believes it is a heinous murder.

American people in the second decade of the twentieth century quite naturally assume that talk of God is valuational, that it concerns not a publicly observable arena, but rather expresses the perspective or orientation on life of the author or speaker and his culture.  When theologians write of God and pastors preach passionately from the pulpit, contemporary readers and hearers increasingly simply read or hear the words as valuational expressions; they naturally assume that these words offer a personal or cultural perspective or reveal personal or cultural dispositions and orientations.  The young particularly have been well trained not to understand the words as being factual.  They must not understand these words that way, for to do so would itself be an act of intolerance.   This is where the preacher starts today.  She  starts with an audience trained to be open-minded enough not to regard her words as descriptive and factual.  Paradoxically, the more open-minded the hearer, the more difficult it is today for the hearer to hear the Word.   In this way, the Word is sacrificed on the altar of the fact/value distinction.             

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Philosophical Impediments to Proclamation

Theology was once a lofty discipline whose practitioners were among the brightest and best of their age.  In Luther's day candidates for the Doctor of Theology had first to receive a Masters of Arts in philosophy.  They knew the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric), and they had exposure to the quadrivium (arithmetic, astronomy, geometry and music).  They understood Latin deeply and some learned Greek and Hebrew as well.   Luther knew his Aristotle well enough to realize that the Aristotle he encountered in the text was not the Aristotle that many theologians embraced in the High and Late Middle Ages.  Like in every age, Luther's era was a time in which philosophy and theology were deeply related.

Our age also is a time in which theological and philosophical matters are deeply connected.   The relationship between the two is so profound that many thinkers (often very deep theological thinkers) often overlook or miss it entirely.  But theologians today ignore philosophical issues at their own peril.  Deeply-educated in the Biblical text, its historical and social context, its history of reception, and effective homiletical techniques to proclaim it, theological thinkers often fail to examine and appreciate deeply enough the contemporary cultural and intellectual horizon into which the text is preached.  In failing to grasp the differing philosophical assumptions between textual origination and reception, they overlook the presuppositional issues making it difficult for the text to be properly understood be contemporary readers and hearers.  These issues, I believe, our explicitly philosophical.  They involve such traditional and meaty philosophical concerns as ontology (the study of being), epistemology (the study of knowing), and semantics (the study of meaning).

In the following series of posts I will spell out what I believe to be some of the philosophical impediments to Biblical proclamation in our time.  I will deal with such issues as the fact/value distinction, the loss of normativity, the problem of truth-conditions for religious and theological language, the problem of the external world as it relates to the divine, the question of agent motivation, the problem of reductionism, and, of course, the question of freedom.  (Of course, the discussion will be necessarily brief and undeveloped.)  Throughout, the questions of dualism, physicalism and idealism will be engaged.   The overarching issue is semantic.  What does (or can) the Gospel mean in an age where the horizon of understanding of the reader or listener is pluralistic, therapeutic, and anti-realistic?  What can God-talk mean to those today (particularly the young) who neither know the intellectual tradition, nor are normatively determined by it?               


The New School of Lutheran Theology

In 1919 a distinguished group of American intellectuals, many from Columbia University, pioneered a new model of education that allowed ordinary citizens to exchange ideas with artists and scholars representing a wide spectrum of intellectual and political orientations.   During the 1930s the "new school" provided safe haven for European thinkers threatened by rising Nazi power.  By 1934 the "new school" had matured into a full graduate school that offered masters and doctors degrees. Today this graduate school has over 1,000 students from 70 countries, offering graduate degrees in anthropology, economics, philosophy, political science, psychology, and sociology.  The school, born out of the German Volkshochschulen for adults, has truly come of age as an excellent graduate school with a powerful faculty.

In 2007 a group of American Lutherans pioneered a "new school" of their own.   The idea was simple:  Curious Lutherans (both lay and clergy) could and should  exchange theological ideas with theologians and  academics representing a wide spectrum of theological opinion.  The first courses of the Institute of Lutheran Theology (ILT) were done for congregations.  From these Volkhochschulen-like roots, an excellent graduate school has developed, offering Masters of Religion, Masters of Divinity, Masters of Sacred Theology, and Doctor of Ministry degrees with a partnered Ph.D. on the way.  ILT has offered a safe haven for theological reflection; it is a place where scholars from many different Lutheran traditions have found common ground.  It is a place where curious students engage professors and each other in fundamental questions of truth and meaning about those ultimate things bearing the most truth and meaning.  Though still small, ILT is growing in student headcount, number of staff, number of courses offered, budget, tuition and donation revenue, and in numbers of friends. Please visit www.ilt.org to see all of the changes.  We are definitely not the ILT of four years ago.

ILT has so far done what few thought possible: We have built an independent, autonomous school of theology and seminary from scratch without financial support from an institutional church body. Because of the dedication of the faculty, staff and friends of ILT, we have grown to twelve full-time staff including President, Assistant to the President, Vice-President of Development, Dean of Academic Affairs, Comptroller/Head of Admissions, Dean of the Chapel/Director of Student Affairs, Associate Director of Development, Director of Congregational Relations, Director of Publications and Certificate Programming, Registrar/Associate Dean, Director of the Library, and Graphic Artist/Web Presence Specialist. We have a faculty of 20, of which seven have continuing appointments.

The new semester is upon us at this New School of Lutheran Theology.  In a time when other Lutheran seminaries and graduate schools are shrinking and redesigning their curriculum to fit the intellectual and cultural horizon of the age, the Institute of Lutheran Theology is growing and strengthening its curriculum, and becoming even more rigorous. The Institute knows that the future will not resemble the past, and that this future will demand passionate, faithful, and very well-educated clergy who will be able to give an account of the faith that lies within them to a culture no longer pre-understanding what Christian claims are even about.

Check out our graduate courses at http://www.ilt.org/#!course-offerings/clgm. Study with the best!  Become an ILT student.   ILT is the  New School of Theology for a new time.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

A Question

The question that has always interested me is not merely whether God exists and has a determinate contour apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language, but whether or not it is ultimately meaningful to make such a claim.  Simply put, what would the truth conditions be of the claim that God exists and has a definite contour apart from awareness, perception, conception and language?  That God exists and has a definite contour apart from awareness, perception, conception and language?  But what is this?   "Not words," you say, "but the reality of that existence and contour apart from awareness, perception, conception and language. . ."  But what is that?

When thinking about truth conditions one wants to think about entities, properties, and relations apart from words.  But how precisely do we think of such things?  How do we think of that which makes true divine existence and contour apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language?  What is it precisely that makes true this and does not make true a divine existence and contour that is, but is not apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language?