Sunday, February 04, 2024

Preamble to a Phenomenology of Congregational Life

Oftentimes we don't know what we have lost until we don't have it. 

The phenomenological movement attempted to uncover the fundamental meaning of the entities, properties, and relations in which we find ourselves, in which we dwell. The idea is simple enough. We are always already within a world of meaning prior to any explicit philosophical reflection upon this world. The man at work in his workshop knows how to get around in the shop; he knows what things he needs in order to make the things he wants to make. He "knows" these things pre-reflectively. He probably has not stopped to do an explicit ontological inventory of items in his shop and the properties each has that allow them to be related to each other.  Rather he just walks his shop and gets what he needs when he needs them. 

Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), Jean-Paul Sartre (1985-1980),  Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) and a host of other thinkers were interested in getting to the immediate meaning of things, to their sense prior to explicit investigation. Husserl, in particular, was interested in what Frege (1848 - 1925) called Sinn, the mode of presentation of objects in the world, the that by virtue of which objects could be picked out in the world and referred to. Frege famously said that names had both sense and reference. Names refer when the sense of the name picks out an existing object.  Just because a name does not refer does not mean it has no meaning. After all, the name could have referred were there to be an object that satisfied the Sinn of the name. 

Frege's famous example was the Morning Star and Evening Star. Astronomers for centuries were able to identify the Morning Star as Morning Star and the Evening Star as Evening Star without knowing that the Morning Star is the Evening Star. The modes of presentation of Morning Star and Evening star differ, but there is identity in that to which they refer: Venus.  Accordingly, the name Morning Star refers to Venus as it presents itself as the Morning Star while the name Evening Star  refers to Venus as it presents itself as Evening Star.  Within a more comprehensive theory we identify the Morning Star and Evening Star.  So what is this world of sense by and through which we believe we have made reference to the world? 

Wilfrid Sellars (1912-1989) spoke in terms of the manifest and scientific images of the world.  He espoused a scientific naturalism that nonetheless sought to save the appearances.  In Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man, Sellars characterizes the manifest image of the world as "the framework in terms of which man came to be aware of himself as man-in-the-world," it is the framework in and through which we ordinarily observe and explain our world.  (See Willem deVries, "Wilfrid Sellars," in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.). Persons and the things meaningful to persons is what has center stage in the manifest image of the world.  

The scientific image of the world is deeper; it is that which we hold ultimately is the case despite how things appear. Sellars famously adjusted Protagoras' statement to "science is the measure of all things, of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not" ("Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind).  The scientific image states what is the case, while the manifest image states what appears to be the case. Importantly, the manifest image is not merely an error.  It is a description of the place in which humans find themselves phenomenally prior to theory and experiment and the reality of how things stand in themselves.  

While Sellars held that what ultimately exists is that to which oue best scientific theories appeal in explanation and prediction, he understood that we do not and cannot live our lives merely within the conceptual categories of scientific naturalism. While neither Husserl nor Heidegger in anyway denigrate the activity of scientific theory-formation and confirmation, they really were interested in the world as it appears to and for consciousness.  (Heidegger despised the term consciousness for many reasons, but I will use it nonetheless in this context.). Husserl was so interested in what immediately appears to and for consciousness that he advocated a suspension of thinking in terms of our natural attitude of what there really is, and bid us to hold in abeyance questions of what there ultimately is apart from us and concentrate on that which is present to consciousness. His phenomenological reduction advocates that we again encounter the things themselves that give themselves to consciousness, before pressing on to the question of whether those things are real, whether they somehow track with that which ultimately is.  

Husserl believe that returning to die Sache Selbst of immediacy allow us to ground science even the more deeply. Heidegger wanted to examine the objects of our intentional acts within the meaningful context in which they dealt in order to get clarity about the nature of the world we immediately inhabit.  

While both he and Husserl were interested in the Umwelt in which we find ourselves, Husserl could never find a way ultimately out of his own transcendental image of things.  For Husserl, the transcendental ego exists as that which reaches out through its intentional "ego rays" to objects in meaningfully encounters.  Heidegger, however, had no time for such metaphysics.  What is given to consciousness is being-in-the-world.  Instead of an isolated ego related to its world of intentional objects, there is already the unitary phenomenon of hat which is phenomenologically prior to an ego and that which the ego intends. Husserl's transcendental ego becomes Heidegger's Dasein, the unitary being-in-the-world phenomenon that is clearly present in ways that a transcendental ego cannot be. 

Heidegger's emphasis was on the immediacy of that which shows itself as itself in the Lichtung (lighting up) of Dasein itself. Dasein is the "there-being" that in its being is always interested in being.  While Husserl's project was epistemological, Heidegger's became ontological. What are all those things that are, that in relating themselves to us, make us the kind of beings that have worlds?  

We are always already in a world and what it is to be me is to have a world of a definite contour. The manifest image of things, according to Heidegger, has been passed over in the history of philosophy.  It has not been deeply explored because our attention has always been drawn away from the immediacy of our life in the world to the question of what lies "present-at-hand" to us beyond that image.  We have been traditionally interested in the world of the Vorhandsein, the world of beings that are. But in concentrating on this, we have lost what is before our eyes. We have lost the very meaningful context in which we already live in all of our inquiry.  

Sellars understand that we cannot do without the manifest image of things, but he believes what ultimately is cannot be given by what phenomenally stands close by. We need to move to the deeper structural explanation of that surface the manifest image reveals.  Heidegger, however, wants us to follow Husserl and attend deeply and passionately to that which displays itself to us in all we think and do. Heidegger's interest in the immediacy of the world and the universal structures of immediacy that ground that world gives him quite a different orientation from Sellars. They latter was interested in science, but the former in religion. 

Heidegger's work at Marburg was filled with religious interest. Accordingly, Husserl had designated Heidegger to be his student that could apply the phenomenological method to religious experience and religion as such. What is the world of religion, and what are the deeper structures of religious experience and meaning as such that make possible any religious world?  Heidegger is accordingly interested in the facticity of religious life, the meaningful structures within which religious people operate and find themselves. Heidegger famously tried to understand the experience of the early Christian as being-to-the-parousia, an idea he later adjusted to Sein zum Tode, being-unto-death.  

All of this is is preamble for the topic to which I allude in the title: A phenomenology of congregational living. What is it to live congregationally?  In our penchant to treat congregational life using the tools of the social sciences we may shortchange what it is to be congregationally. Clearly, we could seek to understand congregational growth and decline by appealing to general sociological principles indexed for our particular historical-cultural standpoint. This can be extremely enlightening, of course.  But in the effort to explain and predict congregational processes, we may lose what shows itself as itself.  Were we to attend to the be-ing of congregational life we might find in the manifest image the world itself in which religions lives and moves, the world in which we finally find meaning, a salvific meaning allowing us to live unto the future.  What I am suggesting here, inter alia, that it is in the manifest image of things that we find meaning, purpose and ultimately hope.  

While the body dies and scientific naturalism finds no basis upon which survival of death is possible -- or maybe even conceivable -- within the manifest image, God is close at hand. Christ saves us and brings us into his house of many rooms. Our fundamental experience of being-in-the-world is not one where meaning is absent and must be constructed.  Our fundamental experience is filled with meaning for we are beings who in our be-ing find the question of be-ing at issue for us. As Heidegger says, the ontic superiority of Dasein is found in its ontological constitution.  As Augustine said, "our heart is not at rest until it finds its rest in you, O Lord." A thick description of the facticity of Christian being-in-the-world reveals what that life is like, and holds open the possibility that that life which is ontologically possible can be my life or your life. 

As the embers of western Christianity begin to smolder, it is important for us to know what it was for men and women to have lived this extraordinary life.  For many of us, the living of Christian life is always a living of that life within the Christian congregation.  We can perhaps remember what it was and how it was decades ago, and we can compare that living to living today.  Where was the axes of meaning then and now? What has changed? How was it that we could once recoil at the thought of touching the sky while now such touching is simply business as usual?   

In the next post I will try my hand at examining the facticity of congregational living. Perhaps we will be granted ontological insight into the preciousness of being-as-communion in Lutheran congregational life. 

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Cross-Pressuring within the Congregation

Something extraordinary still happens our time, a time characterized by an intellectual and cultural horizon that seems inimical to its occurrence. All throughout North America, people still draw together into communities to worship a god who putatively creates and sustains the entire universe. This gathering together does not happen in the numbers it did in the 1950s and 1960s, but it still does occur. On any given Sunday morning millions of people are in worship.  

Charles Taylor, in his magisterial A Secular Age, adroitly interprets the cultural and intellectual horizon of our time with its attendant social imaginaries. His major question in the book is this: How is it that in the sixteenth century not believing in God was generally unthinkable, while believing today is very difficult, even for those professing such belief? What has happened? 

His answer to this is actually quite complicated, and I won't summarize it here, except to say that Taylor is no fan of subtraction theories, a view that conceives humans as being largely able to know the world in which they live and how to act within that world. Subtraction theory claims that human beings have largely not achieved their potential as responsible epistemic and moral agents because they have inter alia lost themselves in religion and have, accordingly, not developed the potential that they have had all along. According to subtraction theory, secularization is a good thing because as religion wanes, human beings are increasingly fulfilling the dream of the Enlightenment: Aude sapere ("dare to know").  It is a captivating view: we humans can finally turn away from the superstitions of the past and attain genuine positive knowledge of things.  

Taylor claims that in the North Atlantic countries (North America and Europe), secularization tends to bring with it either a closed "take" or "spin" on the universe and our place within it. A spin or take is closed when it accepts a naturalism that excludes traditional views of the transcendent; when it holds that there is nothing that "goes beyond" the immanence of this world. He distinguishes a closed "spin" from a closed "take", pointing out that while people adopting a closed take hold that rejection of traditional transcendence might be reasonable, but that it is not wholly irrational to hold otherwise, those in a closed spin assert that holding to traditional transcendence is completely irrational, and thus one's rejection of a closed view is either due to the mendacity or the irrationality of the one doing the rejecting. 

Much of the intelligentsia, argues Taylor, simply assumes a closed spin on things. Scientific theory gives us the best causal map of the universe and such theory makes no appeal to supernatural forces of gods. In the cities, the young often understand their human sojourn in this way: 

  • Human beings are the products of a long evolutionary process beginning with the Big Bang some 13.7 billion years ago.  
  • The universe came into being in an explosion from a infinitely dense point that had no magnitude. 
  • The subsequent history of the universe is due to natural events and processes developing as they did out of earlier conditions of the universe. There is no supernatural agency involved in the origin and development of the universe. 
  • Explanations why there was an infinitely dense point at the beginning that subsequently exploded are mostly not something that science can rightfully provide, although theories of quantum cosmology recently sketched suggest the prior existence of a multi-verse of which the particular development of our universe is one possible actualized trajectory. There is yet not a theory of why there was at the beginning a multi-verse. 
  • Why deterministic processes propel the universe forward into concrete actualization, there are throughout these processes the presence of "far from equilibrium" situations that allow for the introduction of novelty. Thus, the history of the universe, while basically deterministic, has some elements of chance within it. 
  • Since human life is a natural product of the natural life of the universe, it must be understood naturalistically. 
  • Understanding human life naturalistically means that complicated features of human life, e.g., intentionality, reason, etc., must be understood in natural ways: What are the natural processes that drive forward the development of our species? 
  • Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory has wide acceptance as providing some explanation for why our species developed as it did: Genetic features are passed down from generation to generation, and the natural characteristics of the environment in which genetic mutation happens limits or excludes the development of some genetic variations while helping the development of other genetic variations.
  • Accordingly, neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory makes no appeal to purpose or teleology, for the particular genetic variations that survive for later genetic variation are clearly caused by natural features of the environment. There is thus no pull (final causality) in neo-Darwinian genetic theory, only pushes (efficient causality). 
  • Since human beings are natural products of natural processes, understanding them profoundly requires the casting of natural scientific theories, e.g., human characteristics like reason, love, empathy, etc., must be explained naturalistically.  
  • To understand humans naturalistically, is to understand them in ways quite different from traditional great chain of being understandings. According to the great chain of being, human beings are created lower than the angels and higher than the beasts, and thus to understand what it is to be human is to look both above and below us: What are those features of human existence that clearly fall under the category of the imago dei, and what features are due to the fall into nature and flesh of those beings initially created in the imago dei?  
  • Since human beings are fully natural beings developing as they have through natural processes since the beginning of the universe, the true key to understanding their existence is found by looking below ourselves and not above ourselves, e.g., what can the sexuality of orangutans teach us about our own sexuality? 
  • Trying to look above ourselves for clues to our nature is the practice of idealism, and proceeding in this way is find putative answers in our own projections. While natural science can give us insight into our causal natures, traditional religion and philosophy obviates this causal nature by appeal to non-natural or supernatural processes and entities. In the words of Feuerbach, God did not create human beings, human beings created God. 
  • Since we are natural beings, our sexuality should be understood along the lines of other natural beings, and our reason and communication should be understood in the way of other natural beings. Human beings do have a capacity to reason, communicate, and form sexual alliances, but these are not causa sui. Rather, it is a matter of degree, and not ultimate of kind, that separates our experience from that of the other higher primates. 
  • The young living in vast urban areas who understand themselves naturalistically have, accordingly, very little motivation to either adopt religion or be open to it. Religious belief, they think rather confidently, does not track with our actual knowledge of the natural world in which we believe. It is thus a backward-looking movement motivated by wish and not knowledge. Religious people, they think, need a crutch to live in this naturalist world that is all around us. Thus, they think, religious people project views of the gods and pray their wishes to their gods. 
  • The religious person is thus maladapted to the actual existing world. They don't have the courage to live in the actual world, and thus project upon the actual world a religious worldview that makes living easier. Religious people are thus more cowardly than those understanding themselves naturalistically, but also more dangerous, because in ignoring the causalities of the natural world and embracing superstition, those who could have been helped by the knowledge of natural processes are now not treated properly. Death that might have been avoided, now befalls the befuddled religious believer or those unlucky enough to take their advice and counsel. 
  • Given that there is no God who cares or no ultimate metaphysics in which meaning and purpose are ingredient, human beings must simply create their own meaning in the limited days they have to live. 
  • Since there are no objective structures corresponding to the good, the beautiful, and the true, human beings are free to develop in the ways that they might find pleasurable and useful. This does not mean that they act irrationally, but rather that they must assume the mantle of having to be their own law-givers. Reality does not come with moral structures. They must be sown and cultivated by human beings, and harvested only if the present situation is illuminated by them. 
I could continue with a description of what seems plausible to the urban young. It is important to see all of this under the category of a closed spin. To many of our urban youth, what I have sketched above is simply settled. Just as it is true that the earth revolves around the sun, so is it true that human beings are natural beings who must develop their science, societies and families ultimately without appeal to heavenly beings. To give up on what I have articulated is, for them, to descend into irrationality. There simply is no other option for them not to believe this. There is a new social imaginary at work, a communal way of seeing that can imagine a fulfilling life without gods, prayers, divine laws, or even transcendence itself. While earlier generations hoped for life out beyond our physical deaths, this new way of imagining existence is one where death is not a problem. In fact, death is part of the circle of life, and this circle of life can be understood naturalistically. 

people participating in congregational life in the North Atlantic countries today are sons and daughters of their age. While they may be attending Christian congregations, their intellectual and cultural ethos is likely one wherein naturalism makes sense. They have learned from their teachers about the difference between facts and values, and they believe that natural science somehow is concerned with the facts, while perhaps their religion deals with the values of those whom are at some level aware of these facts. People in Christian congregations today in the North Atlantic countries are thus decidedly cross-pressured. They participate in Christian life, even though their deepest understanding of the world provides little rational justification for that participation. 

Preaching to men and women today must take into account the cross-pressuring felt by those in the pews. While their participation in congregational life probably points to them not holding a closed spin, such a participation is entirely congruent with them assuming a closed take. While it seems like materialism or physicalism is true, there are some features of our experience that does not fit a closed spin on the universe. Perhaps it is because of these features that certain people become congregational members. Maybe they sense that the naturalism that they ought to believe is inadequate to their experience in its totality. 

Most of the time we leading Christian congregations underestimate, I think, the cross-pressuring that our members are likely experiencing. Yes, clearly many are waiting to hear the saving Word proclaimed in the sermon and celebrated in the sacrament. But in their desire to hear that Word, they remain deeply conflicted. As twenty-first century men and women, they cannot easily affirm the views of their sixteenth century ancestors. The naturalism everywhere regnant today was not known to Luther and his contemporaries. Luther had the advantage of having a metaphysical view of things that was consonant with his theological accents and innovations. 

But this is not the case today. Contemporary Lutherans who wish to retain Luther's theology must now do so in a culture whose dominant social imaginaries reject the metaphysical underpinnings Luther simply presupposed. So how does Lutheran theology play now in congregations whose members have little understanding of how God could truly be possible and relevant? It is to this question that we shall turn in the next post. 

Friday, January 19, 2024

The Contemporary Ethos of Congregational Life in North America: What to make of Science?

In a recent series of posts, I have been reflecting about congregational life in North America and have suggested that what happens in local congregations is quite extraordinary and anomalous with respect to other human activities and endeavors. Consider for a moment what it would be to come upon congregational life from the outside, as it were, with no pre-understanding of what congregational life is all about. What would one see? 

Bob walks into a building with people he does not know, and strangers come up to him exchanging greetings or engaging in conversation with him. He sits down on a chair or long bench and remains dutifully silent while a series of non-mundane events transpire. People speak from the front, sometimes in conversational voices and other times in a very solemn way. Sometimes they read from texts for long periods of time. Someone either in the front or elsewhere in the building starts singing and others join in. Finally, a person in the front addresses those listening for 15 minutes or longer speaking of events from long ago that he or she believes have significance for today. After this, an even stranger event occurs. After some serious words, people sitting on chairs or benches rise from their seats and walk forward, gathering at a rail in the front where they are given little wafers and a sip of wine and told that these things are the Body and Blood of Christ. At other times infants or adults are splashed with water with concomitant solemn pronouncements and prayers.  

After more singing, people finally leave their seats and congregate in the back where friendly discussion ensues about divers and sundry matters. Perhaps Bob is invited to go downstairs or into another part of the building to be part of a class, or maybe he is offered coffee and donuts. Bob's experience here might be like Rita's at another time or another place, or it could be quite different. Rita might be asked to help feed people who have limited funds, or to aid in cleaning the building itself, or to bring a dessert next week. Perhaps someone asks her as to what she thought of the address that someone had given.  

Christians have been meeting in communities like this from their earliest days in the catacombs. In those days men and women listened to readings from texts and speeches about those texts. They cared for each other and oftentimes pooled their resources to help each other. With people they knew and some they just met they worshipped Jesus of Nazareth as the fulfillment of God's messianic expectation. While contemporary church buildings do not look much like the early catacombs, there remain between those days and today common practices of congregational life. 

Congregational life happened then and happens now, and people involved in that life seem to know how to participate in that life. One might say that they have an unthematized pre-understanding of the possibilities and inevitabilities of their gathering together. Congregating to worship a God, hearing speeches, singing and murmuring prayers are all activities that are quite unlike what most people do in contemporary societies of the North Atlantic countries. It is so unlike what people generally do, that one naturally wonders whether these things would be done if there was no already operating social institution for doing these things. Already established is the practice of congregational activity and participation. Without this already established practice, would it ever happen that these activities would develop to be practiced again? In other words, if congregational life were not already occurring, would it happen that it would ever come to occur? Without the reality of an historical institutional of congregational practice and participation, would there be any cultural motivation to invent congregational life again? Is there something about us as social animals that would make the development of congregational life inevitable, or is the having of it fully contingent?

I fear that the answer to the question of inevitability is likely a resounding "no." The fact that there still exist Christian congregations goes against general cultural expectations. I believe that it is because of the unlikeliness of it developing again ars nova, that congregational life is so precious now. Speaking theologically, we might say that the utter contingency of congregational existence is entirely a matter of grace. The practices of congregational living are not something that can be facilely established upon the horizon of contemporary individual piety. One might say that Christian congregations have an ecstatic existence; they live not on their own but out of the life of the Incarnate One, Jesus Christ. They are creatures of grace first, and only secondarily of law.  

In the last post I began to explore facets of the intellectual and cultural ethos of those today participating in Christian congregational life. I spoke of the general cultural default of contemporary man and woman who judge God morally and find Him lacking. As pointed out then, I follow Charles Tylor in claiming that Christianity has not been slowed in its growth primarily because of the rise of science, but rather because the traditional God of Christianity appears arbitrary, capricious and decidedly old fashioned in His choices and judgments, and thus is either widely rejected or deemed irrelevant. Accordingly, it is God's putative morality that makes His existence suspect for millions of denizens of the North Atlantic countries in the early twenty-first century.  

While all of this is true, there is also little doubt that Christianity today is simply a non-starter for many because it appears to violate the very presuppositions of science itself. Many participating in contemporary congregational life carry with them both a sense that God is morally unreasonable or suspect and that the ultimate description of reality is physical, that what ultimately exists are those entities over which our fundamental theories of physics quantify. In other words, what ultimately exists are those entities to which our fundamental physical theories refer.  Accordingly, while people might enjoy participating in congregational life, there is a sense that they actually know better, that human existence is ultimately a physical matter and that congregational life is a living as if this were not the case.

It is unfortunately characteristic of our time that people generally know little about the practices and theories of science, particularly those of natural science. Most think that science simply deals with facts, not recognizing the deeply theoretical nature of scientific research. Accordingly, some review of what we claim when we make scientific claims is perhaps useful.

Every scientific claim is theoretical. To claim that the earth revolves around the sun is to have a theory in which the terms 'sun', 'earth', and 'revolves' occur. The meaning of a set of theoretical statements is found in the models which make these statements true. 'Sun' refers to a particular entity, 'earth' refers to a particular entity as well, while 'revolves' refers to a complex set of duples or ordered pairs. Theories, no matter how simple or complex, state the way the world might be. At the risk of gross oversimplification, true theories state how the world actually is -- or alternately what is reasonable to believe about how the world is -- and false theories how the world is not -- or what is reasonable not to believe about the world. 

Theoretical claims of how the world is are tentative and provisional because we are never certain that the theory we are assuming won't finally be shown to be false by how the world ultimately turns out to be. It could take hundreds of years to disconfirm statements of scientific theory. For instance, our theory of the early universe makes theoretical statements about states of the universe in its initial nanoseconds, and these statements are presently untestable because we don't have requisite energy to recreate conditions of the early universe to confirm or disconfirm the statements.  Maybe 500 years from now we would have the technology to accelerate particles to velocities characteristic of the very early universe, and we can then claim that the theory then regnant is consistent with observations or that it has been falsified by them. 

When we construct scientific theories, we bring certain values with us as to what a good scientific theory might be. We want our theories to be simple if possible. They should be applicable to our observational experiences and adequate to them. Adequacy means that the theories can deal in principle with all the kinds of experience we have. Theories should be internally consistent and coherent. Coherency means that we should not have in them arbitrarily disconnected assumptions or that we should not appeal to different kinds of entities if explanation is possible by appeal to only one kind of entity. Simple theories that appeal to one principle are often thought to be more beautiful than those making appeal to differing fundamental principles. While there is nothing necessarily in nature that would disallow it from operating upon many different ultimate principles rather than one, human theory-making always attempts to explain experience in terms of one rather than many. Theories doing this are simply assumed by most to be more beautiful than others. Another value we want theories to have is fecundity. Can a theory sustain a hearty research program? Is it properly relatable to other theories? Theories which do not sustain interest or research are simply irrelevant, and science in general does not develop its views of the world on the basis of irrelevant and/or isolated theories. 

Scientific theory formation happens by adopting likely stories of explanation, stories which fit our already theoretical views of the world. We establish theories that try to give natural explanations for natural events. Because we assume in the practice of science a methodological naturalism, God cannot be a theoretical entity within scientific theory. It is not that science ultimately excludes God from the universe, but it is rather that the humble practice of scientific theory-building limits itself to explanation in terms of natural processes, events and laws. By its very nature, science does not and cannot appeal to non-natural explanations for natural events. Despite the final metaphysical implausibility of a particular physicalist explanation, natural science must attempt to explain why something is the case by appealing to only those natural entities and processes that can be in principle referred to by standard scientific theory.  

One can see this clearly in the way that explanation often occurs in macro-evolutionary theory. Since 'natural adaptation' is a theoretical notion it can be appealed to in explaining why this particular life form developed in this way and not another. Oftentimes 'natural adaptation' is a notion that can't be profoundly specified. One appeals to it in a way that mimics perhaps the appeal that earlier generations made to God's will. Why did x develop in a P way and not in Q way? God willed it!  

But while all would agree that God willing nature to develop in a P way rather than a Q way is not a persuasive explanation in our time, many nonetheless believe that a simple appeal to natural adaptation can explain P development rather than Q development. But when it comes to the really big issues of macro-evolutionary theory, the devil is clearly in the details. Oftentimes, mechanisms by which putative natural adaptation selects for P development rather than Q development cannot yet be specified, and one is left with a direction and a trust that someday a mature theory will be able to explain this P development. While appealing to the general direction of "nature selects it" rather than "God wills it" has greater plausibility in our time, the logic of the argument remains the same. Unless particular natural explanations can be given that explain the particulars of macro-evolutionary development plausibly no true explanation has been given. Simply put, just because "natural adaptation" is a more popular explanation today than "God wills it," does not mean that the former explanation is, or ultimately will be, more successful. 

My point here is simply to say that natural science is a deeply theoretical human activity. In casting about for a natural theory to explain some set of natural events, one must select a theory that "fits in" with the theories that one already has, and that is supported by the observational data. Scientific theory, we now know, is always underdetermined by observation and the acceptance of other theories. It is always logically possible to explain events by appealing to other sets of natural events than those assumed in one's theory, or by explaining things in terms of non-natural events. The point is, that explanation in terms of non-natural events is not the way that the institution and practice of scientific theory formation and confirmation/disconfirmation proceeds. Moreover, there is no scientific decision procedure, no algorithm, on the basis of which "correct" scientific theory is selected and "incorrect" theory rejected. Natural science, like all human activity, is messy. 

All of this is simply to say that the best explanation for why the universe bears the marks of design can be the fact that God was at work designing the universe. One can reasonably hold this while still holding that such an explanation is not scientific, for it violates the rules by which scientific theory-formation proceeds. It is not a scientific explanation because it appeals to non-natural agency, something clearly disallowed in the doing of natural science. But why think that all rational explanation must be natural scientific explanation?  

My point is that few people participating in the life of Christian congregations in these days know how theoretical and rule-governed is the activity of scientific explanation. So again, how can it be that God was involved in creation when our natural scientific models show the universe to be a broken symmetry flowing out of an infinitely dense point without extension? 

The answer is not difficult because, in truth, in any explanation we cannot avoid metaphysical models. Ought we explain the universe by making no appeal to non-natural agency? If so, why? The point is that there is nothing in the observational data that disallows a metaphysics of divine action in creation. The choice is ours: Do we want to adopt a materialist/physicalistic metaphysics or not? If so, why, and if not, why not? 

But the horizon of most in congregations is that science does explain things, and that this explanation finally does not rest in human freedom as to the adoption of a metaphysics of physicalism or that of theism. However, just because we can give physicalist explanations of most physical events does not mean that we should always do so, or even that it is rational to do so.  

In summary, the horizon of many within congregations now is that the morality of God is problematic, and that there is something in the nature of the world or natural science itself that calls for natural scientific explanations for things. I acknowledge that the first problem has no easy and quick solution, but want to point out that it is a certain misunderstanding and ignorance of the scientific process itself which makes many simply assume that science is in conflict with religious faith.  Reinvigorating congregational life in North America must deal with the fundamental assumptions of people in the pews today. Of these, two are very important: Can the nature of God be deemed consistent with Christian congregational experience and practice, and can our understanding of the divine escape from the easy physicalisms that dominate much of popular culture today?  

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

The Contemporary Ethos in which Congregational Life Happens: The Problem of God

We have in the last two posts been reflecting about congregational life in North America.  In the post entitled Putting the Focus Back on Congregations, I spoke of the early days of the WordAlone Network, an effort in the first decade of the twenty-first century to return the Evangelical Lutheran Church to its theological roots. I claimed that WordAlone was trying at the time to point out that Lutherans have traditionally maintained both that the Church is the Body of Christ and means of grace, and simultaneously that it is a group of particular sinners gathered around the Word and Altar.  I contended that our then critique of high church presuppositions that undergirded the Concordat and Called to Common Mission was warranted because the ELCA bureaucracy had assumed a non-dialectical understanding of Church, claiming that the baptized themselves in churchwide assembly could be identified with the activity of the Holy Spirit Itself. What was needed then was simply to say that the church is a body of very human sinners begging for morsels from the divine, that it was, accordingly, a very human institution fraught with errors, mistakes, and earthly pretensions.  

I also indicated in that first post that the WordAlone critique of a non-dialectical understanding of high church could not become the one and only ecclesiology of the Institute of Lutheran Theology, because Lutheran traditions have not been historically monolithic in their understanding of church or in all the fine points of their theology. I argued that the Institute of Lutheran Theology needed to be a place where Fordean-inspired gnesio-Lutherans, Evangelical Catholics, pietists, confessionalists and neo-confessionalists could all study their traditions, and come to fuller appreciation of the theological accents the differing Lutheran theological traditions possessed. 

At the conclusion of that first article, I spoke of what features a genuine Lutheran Center for Congregational Revitalization might have.  Accordingly, it would work to enter into formal and informal relationships with congregations to help in keeping pastors in pulpits, to aid in the funding of theological education, to explore new models of congregational ministry, and to help keep an active and creative normative Lutheran theology at work in congregations. 

In the second installment, Focussing on Congregations: Why the Decline?, I spoke about the eclipse of congregational life in North America as the congregation moved in many communities from the center of social activity and function to the periphery of community social life. I argued that while it might be tempting to say that it is a good thing to clarify what the mission of congregations really ought to be by pointing to the merely accidental nature of social life within the congregation, it is nonetheless important to understand what has been lost as such accidental congregational social life diminishes. 

What is lost, I claimed, are the occasions to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ preached, as it were, to ears that while mostly indifferent to the proclamation, are nonetheless still in the pews to hear the proclamation. In the parable, the son comes home to the father because he is hungry and out of funds. In the humiliation of this home-coming he experiences a love that wholly transcends the situation; he experiences a prodigal love that does not return likes for likes, but by grace alone bestows more upon the son than he deserves. Congregational life for Lutherans is not the proper end of Christian life, but it is the very human social context into, and through which, the Word might speak and be heard. While God's love is every where apparent, His prodigal love perhaps is most clearly witnessed in congregational life, where sons and daughters indifferent to the Father are nonetheless loved, and despite their waywardness, counted as precious by that Father. 

So let us examine the congregational horizon more deeply. What are the assumptions of many who continue to participate in congregational life in North America? What do they imagine their life to be in this third decade of the 21st century? They attend services and have caring conversations with other congregational members. They might be motivated to engage in projects of the congregation that help the disadvantaged. Possibly, they speak even prophetic utterances to a society that has forgotten the marginalized, that too closely identifies Christian life with the life of the successful American citizen. What are the root assumptions of people in the pews these day in Lutheran congregations in North America? What do they think of God and His benevolence? What do they think about their need for God or salvation? If they are to be somehow saved by hearing and doing the Word, in what does this salvation consist? 

It is important that we don't wear blinders here. I pointed out that NFS Grundtvig liked to say "human first, then Christian," and I paraphrased this in an earlier post, exclaiming that we are "sinners first, then Christian."  If we are going to get clarity into the actual intellectual and cultural horizon presupposed by congregational participants in North America in the third decade of the 21st century, we are going to have to be brutally honest.  What is the contour of that initial horizon in which Christian life grows and develops? 

There is no doubt that there are many within Lutheran congregations that have what might be called a pre-modern understanding of the world. Such people do not really find the existence of God a problem, nor are they much bothered intellectually by the Christian story: God created a universe that is good, that somehow features of this universe created good slipped into sin (the Fall) without God actively willing it, that all who have fallen into sin will ultimately perish eternally, and that God out of His infinite mercy will save some -- through the agency of His Son, Jesus the Christ -- who otherwise would eternally die, and that He thus turns their lives around as a witness to Himself rather than allowing them to remain in a ceaseless drive to their own sinful self-aggrandizements.  

However, for many people participating in Lutheran congregational life, this view of things simply does not ring true any longer. Why is this? For many today, thinking of God in this way is simply not any longer possible. The pre-modern understanding of the Christian story presupposes there is a creator God who either does not anticipate that creation will fall into sin, or, if He does anticipate it, He does not prevent it. The so-called irrational fall from creation into sin must either be understood as an unintended consequence of creation -- a state of affairs that makes God seem to be ignorant -- or a design feature of the universe itself -- a state of affairs that makes God seem less than good. The problem of the God of the tradition for many today is that He does not seemingly act as well as He ought. If we assume He knows what He is doing, we simply cannot help questioning why He does things as He does. 

Our questioning of the goodness of God is not confined to his creation of a universe that falls into sin and death, but it also extends to God's way of redeeming things. We Lutherans who claim that "I by my own reason or strength cannot believe in the Lord Jesus Christ or come to Him," must admit that the saving of contemporary man and woman is something that God does, not something that humans accomplish. But this saving seems to many today to be arbitrary and capricious. While somebody might say with confidence and sincerity that "God saved me despite myself," this cannot be generalized by most to statements about God's general saving of humankind, a wholly external saving in which humans might be along for the ride, but are never in the situation of doing any driving on their own. Making such general statements seems to contradict the very goodness of God in Himself. 

I submit that this view of things simply does not operate for most educated people today in the North Atlantic countries. Whether they are aware of it or not, they have swam too long in the cultural waters of the west to return to the pristine pre-modern view of the 16th and 17th century Lutheran theological tradition.  For most today, there is some sense that there is a God and some sense that in congregational life perhaps some kind of connection to this God is possible. But the God presupposed in the contemporary cultural and intellectual horizon is not the God of the Christian tradition. What might be the marks of this other God? 

There is a general sense, I think, among most educated participants in congregational life that some deep facets of our experience are simply missed or ignored if we look at reality as a product of an evolutionary physicalism. Physicalism is the claim that ultimately the things that exist are those things that our fundamental theories of particle physics quantify over, or presuppose. The idea is that matter/energy is that which is, and this matter/energy has an extraordinary evolutionary history, a history that finally eventuates in the appearance of human beings on the earth, beings of such an extraordinary complexity that one most posit that it took billions of years for purely adventitious processes to produce them. Those who participate in congregational life, while maybe not self-consciously breaking with the assumptions of evolutionary physicalism, yet sense somehow that there must be more than it somehow.  This is not to say, that all would claim that there exist some deeper-level objective state of affairs by and through which the universe physically evolved. Perhaps they would say that such a view of things in not subjectively satisfying and claim that participating in congregational life somehow serves the heart if not the head.  

What I am suggesting is that active members of congregations today might say that while there is not sufficient evidence in the world to assert God's existence in an unqualified way, there is too much evidence to assert His nonexistence with confidence. Thus, while the contemporary congregational member is no longer sure of the Christian verities of the past, he or she is nonetheless a bit skeptical about contemporary claims of scientific or metaphysical materialists that the universe is as simple as they claim it to be. Having not enough evidence for the traditional Christian God, but too much evidence to be confident that the skies are empty, the contemporary participant in congregational life is exploring those non-cognitive features of experience that make life meaningful, an exploration that they sense can somehow be pursued without denying the central claims of science or the so-called scientific view of the world.  

There is much that can be said about whether the scientific view of things is an objective fact or merely an ideological commitment, and I will argue in a subsequent post that it is more like the latter than the former.  For now, however, I want to return to the question of God. Perhaps there is some "more-than-ness" to the universe to which participants in congregational life witness. How do we think this? Can this be thought about in the way of the God of the Christian tradition or does the problem of evil block that path?  At the end of the day, I agree with Charles Taylor in his epic, The Secular Age. Belief in the Christian God has diminished not primarily because of scientific challenges to religion, but more because of the human moral judgment of God. How can the God of the great Omnis -- omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, omnibenevolence, etc. -- act as the God of the tradition has reportedly acted?  While scientific evidence against God might count in the actual world, the problem of evil applied to God obtains in each and every possible world.  

We must be brutally honest today. In our teaching and preaching we encounter the default presuppositions of our contemporary cultural and intellectual horizon, the chief problematic one being the very goodness of God Himself. The question we ask is simply this: How is the goodness of God possible given the classical Christian story and our understanding of how God acts sub specie contritio? 

Any attempt to revitalize congregational life must wrestle with the presuppositions of that life, the first of which is the nature of God Himself.  As we try to understand congregational life today we must grasp the changed situation with respect to that life that has occurred in the last 500 years: Whereas people five-hundred years ago generally did not subject God's goodness to their moral judgment, they do so today, and it is not considered by most to be deeply sinful to do so. We shall return to this question in the next post, while introducing another assumption of our time: the general misunderstanding of scientific theory by most educated congregational participants.  

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Focusing on Congregations: Why the Decline?

We all know that congregational life is dying. These are hard words for preachers or would-be preachers to hear, but they must be heard nonetheless. This is particularly true of Lutheran congregations in North America. It is factually accurate to assert that, for most Lutheran congregations, their days of maximum involvement and maximum relevance to their communities was sixty or more years ago. This is not to say that some Lutheran congregations have formed in the last few decades and have been quite successful. It is only to speak the obvious: In most communities in which there are Lutheran churches, there is less attendance in worship and fewer events happening at the church than was once the case. 

We can speculate as to the immediate causes of this. Clearly, school systems and sports programs do not respect the autonomy of congregational programming like they once did. We know that soccer fields on Sunday morning are filled with kids who believe they must be at the soccer field and whose grandparents recall that when they were young the expectations of being in church on a Sunday morning were as great as the coach's expectations now that the kids are on the field for practice or games. 

We can also easily point out that the local congregation once served as a place to meet neighbors and friends during an otherwise busy week. Farm life was difficult 100 years ago, and the idea that once could see friends or neighbors at church and coffee or lunch afterwards was a powerful draw for church attendance. Accordingly, the congregation once served a social function it no longer has. It is perhaps difficult for us to grasp clearly how important this social function was. At a time before the worldwide web and cellphones, there was little community outside physical community. Moreover, 100 years ago it was difficult sometimes for adults even to have physical community. Where would they go in small towns across America to meet others and talk with them about their dreams and fears? Families did not go to bars to meet others in 1924; they went to church. Their friends belonged to their congregation or another one in town, and there was sometimes visits of friends to other congregations. 

It is possible, I suppose, to say that the loss of the congregation as a center for social life is a good thing because it allows us to see clearly what it is that the congregation actually offers and has always legitimately offered. We could speak in the way of Aristotle and say that while the congregation as a center of social life is merely accidental to the being of the congregation, its function of proclaiming the Word is essential to it. The word 'accidental' simply means that the congregation can still be what it is apart from its social function; the word 'essential' claims that it is part of the very being of a congregation that it proclaim the Word of God to those who sit in its pews. 

Some thus welcome today the clarity that the loss of social function in congregations bequeaths. It is clear now, in a way that was not the case before, that the congregation exists to do something else, something quite unconnected to filling one's social calendar: The congregation exists as a place where the Word is preached to sinners, and where these sinners gather around the communion rail to eat and drink the Body and Blood of that Word incarnate, the Body and Blood of Jesus the Christ. 

I think this way of looking at things does not, however, pay adequate attention to human motivation. The son did not come home to the father because he repented, but because he spent all his money and could no longer party or even eat properly. The Father welcomed the son knowing that the son's motivations were not pure. While the Danish theologian NFS Grundtvig never tired of reminding us that we are human first and then Christian, something quite controversial in its time, I can paraphrase Grundtvig with confidence and say that we are sinners first and then Christian. Accordingly, there are all kinds of motivations why we might want to go to church on a Sunday morning, and very few of them are pure. We go to church to be seen by others, to make business contacts, to do the right thing for our children, to show solidarity with our community, to show others that we are good people who care about the community, to show our spouses that we can do what they want us to do, to display to others our new car or clothes, or to manifest clearly that we are not on the side of soccer programs on Sunday morning. The list goes on and on, and has from the first days of congregational life gone on and on. Who truly can say with confidence that their only motivation for attending church is properly to worship their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and that they have no other motivation at all other than hearing the Word?  

Congregation life in North America tacitly accepted what was obvious: People participated in the life of the congregation for many reasons, only some of which had to do with what theologians call soteriology, those matters pertaining to salvation. They came to show their new hats, but perhaps heard what Jesus said about humility. They came to connect with potential insurance clients and heard that God's grace extends even to the unlovable.  In other words, the congregation was structured the way we are structured. We are sinful and unclean and cannot free ourselves because we ourselves always get in the way of what it would be to move past ourselves. We are self-centered even in our humility. Accordingly, we know that only God's external act of grasping us can protect us from our perpetual grasp of ourselves. Christ draws us to Himself through our activity of avoiding Him and embracing ourselves. Christ chooses us; we don't choose Him. When we say we have chosen Him, we can be sure that we have chosen someone or something that is not Him.  

The same is the case within congregations. In the days of congregational social activity that often seemed far away from theological concerns, Christ showed up to claim His own while watching his own run from him in the many ways that fully social beings can. Robust congregations of yore were not filled with Christians of deeper commitments to Christ, but with more people that might hear the Word and be grasped by it. What congregations of 100 years ago had that we don't is people. Whatever the motivation might have been, there were more people in the pews to whom the Word was being preached then than there is now. That is the problem facing us, and no amount of getting clear on the "true motivations" of those now attending services will help us. Human beings run away from God; it is our wont. God through Christ turns some of our retreats around so that we might be put in a position of hearing the Word. The problem for us today is that since there are fewer people participating in congregational life, there are fewer opportunities for people to hear the Word.

So we are back where we began. As congregational life abates in North America, the chances for people to hear the life-giving Word preached in its purity and the life-giving Sacraments to be administered properly decreases. What is requisite, I believe, is to advance a program of actual congregational revitalization. Even though the death of Christendom is upon us and there no longer is the cultural momentum generally to begin or maintain Christian structures and institutions in our society, there still exist sinners who need a life-giving encounter with the Word. Congregational revitalization means that we want to build active congregations in multiple communities that maximize the possibility of encountering the Word.  

What is needed is to get clarity on what ILT qua ILT can do to help congregations be those places of possible Word encounter. We need clarity on what specific activities we might do to move congregational life forward. 

While I have no empirical studies to point to in support of this claim, I do believe that a change in our social imaginaries is making the very idea of congregational life less attractive to many.  Charles Taylor in his epic A Secular Age speaks of these imaginaries, ways that people within a community and society project as possible ways of living fully. Once upon a time in America people assumed that there was a God and that human salvation involved an embrace of transcendence, some state of being that goes beyond this life. Most often, they believed in an afterlife, and thought that their loved ones entered such an afterlife immediately upon death. But the social imaginaries of a benevolent God and future bliss beyond death no longer inform our institutional structures and, increasingly, our primary communities. I would argue that the primary impediment to congregational revitalization is not that other institutions (e.g., the schools or sports programs) are crowding out congregational life, but that participating in the life of a congregation simply makes less and less sense to people. 

It is difficult to play baseball without bats, gloves ands bases. I contend that, in the same fashion, it is difficult to participate in congregational life when the social imaginaries of a benevolent God and future bliss are absent. How does one play the game of congregational life when the very presuppositions of that game have been fundamentally shaken? This is the primary question of congregational revitalization, and it is one that I think ILT can address. In our next post we shall have more to say about the precise nature of this address, but for now I simply want to point in the general direction of that address: Our present social imaginaries are in considerable tension with some of the deepest drives of the human spirit. What is needed now is simply to subject these social imaginaries to an interrogation by that spirit. 

Saturday, January 13, 2024

Putting the Focus Back Upon Congregations

The Institute of Lutheran Theology (ILT) has embarked on a new venture called the Center for Congregational Revitalization (C CR). In some ways, of course, there is nothing new at all about ILT being concerned about congregational revitalization. Back in 2001-1008, I was a member of the WordAlone Network (WAN) Board of Directors, and we were deeply concerned about congregational revitalization.  In fact, one could argue that ILT was formed directly to deal with problems within congregations, because we were in those days very interested in theology, especially the "working theology" of denominational structures like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).  

Many reading this blog probably recall these days prior to the epic collapse of the ELCA as a relevant and important denominational body in North America. Many of us wrote extensively for WordAlone. The WordAlone Network was formed, one might argue, to save the ELCA from itself. What we did was try to lift up again some of the important features of traditional Lutheran piety and practice in North America. 

The ELCA in those days was becoming more and more convinced that the transcongregational denominational entity to which individual Lutheran congregations belonged was itself the church, e.g., the then ELCA Secretary Lowell Almen famously quipped that this entity is the Church and that the congregation is "an outpost of the church." I argued that what needed to be lifted up in that time was that the church for Lutherans had historically been interpreted both in a high and low sense. While high ecclesiology emphasized the role of the Church as the means of grace, and spoke strongly of the identity of the church with the Body of Christ -- the Church in its divine nature --, low ecclesiology emphasized the Church as a fellowship of sinners gathered around the communion rail and accordingly thematized the human nature of the institution. What was needed at a time when the divine nature of the Church was being proclaimed was a reminder of the human nature of that selfsame Church: We are all simply sinners begging at the communion rail for the Word in Body and Blood delivered to each of us.  

Clearly, the Concordat and Called to Common Mission that sought a common understanding between the Episcopal Church USA and the ELCA of the historic episcopate were documents that presupposed a very high ecclesiology. Just as the Law must be preached in a context of complacency and the Gospel in a context of despair, so must the church be reminded of its very human nature when it is tempted to think that the Holy Spirit itself speaks through the votes of the baptized at a churchwide gathering.

But we within WordAlone were often misunderstood. Instead of understanding the criticism of high ecclesiology dialectically, people believed that low ecclesiology was the position of WordAlone and its minions itself. People thought that the WordAlone critique of high ecclesiology meant that we were non-dialectically committed to a low ecclesiology, and that, accordingly, we could not confess that the Church was the Body of Christ and itself the means of grace.  

But I could confess this and did on many occasions.  Accordingly, some people were upset that from the beginning I not only allowed but encouraged people from traditions other than a Fordean-style radical Lutheranism -- the genesio position -- to teach and study at ILT.  I reasoned that if ILT were to be true to is Lutheran roots, it must allow other Lutheran traditions to be present as well, e.g., Evangelical Catholics, pietists, neo-confessionalists, Grundtvigians, etc.  In fact, I thought ILT could not be deeply Lutheran if it were to choose one strand of Lutheranism and proceed as if the other strands were simply misunderstandings or mistakes with respect to that one true tradition. After all, Lutheran congregations in North America are not monolithic in their theological ethos. Thus, to serve actual existing congregations, ILT had to be a bigger tent. If ILT were to be the seminary of a group of committed congregations, it needed to be able to understand the ethos of those congregations, acknowledge their theological ethos as Lutheran in its roots, and actually help those congregations to be faithful and effective in the proclamation of the Word.  

We have traveled a great distance at the Institute of Lutheran Theology in the last 17 years. We now have over 160 active students and strong DMin. and PhD programs. We have had accreditation from the Association of Biblical Higher Education (ABHE) since 2018 and are having our accreditation visit from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) in March 2024. We continue to gain respect as a theological institution, and our faculty is acknowledged as first-rate. As a school we have never been stronger. 

But I think that we are missing something, something that was present at the beginning. While we teach undergraduates, STM, DMin and PHD students well and see increasing numbers from these groups every year, we notice there is one key group of students where we are not seeing stellar growth: ministry students! Yes, you heard me correctly. While ILT is growing in its academic programs -- particularly its academic graduate programs -- it is underperforming on that for which it was called into being: getting faithful and effective pastors into congregations. This we must do better!  

But there is actually a very good excuse for not doing this. Everywhere in the North Atlantic countries we see lower numbers of people studying to become pastors. The reasons why this is so are apparent: Pastors no longer enjoy the respect of American society in general and they are poorly recompensed. Why would anyone want to be a pastor when they could do something that our society could value and understand? While we can excuse our performance in growing ministry students by pointing to the fact that pastors are under-compensated and under-appreciated, making an excuse does not solve the problem. We simply must work to get more people into congregational pulpits. 

Congregations in North America are increasingly aware of the difficulties in finding pastors. There are, or will soon be, extreme pastoral shortages in most all of the Lutheran denominations in the United States and Canada. Rural congregations are immediately affected, for their very survival is often at stake. If a rural congregation cannot find somebody to fill the pulpit, it likely will not able to remain open.  Closing congregations has, however, devastating consequences not only for the religious life of those within those congregations, but also for the rural communities in which these congregations reside. Often, the last institutions to close in a rural community are the bar and the church.  

We at ILT remember our beginnings. We were called into being in order to get pastors into congregations, and thus advancing congregational life is within our very DNA. Accordingly, to be ILT is to care about congregations and their challenges and difficulties. It is with this in mind that we announce our new venture of congregational revitalization. The time is upon us. How does congregational revitalization work at ILT? 

  • We enter into formal and informal arrangements directly with congregations, pledging that we shall help them in their search for pastors and that we shall do everything possible to help them keep pastors in pulpits. What we want to create is an ILT league of Lutheran congregations.  
  • We create a funding mechanism to help support the educational costs associated with the training of pastors. We want to make it as easy as possible for those with a passion for congregational ministry to attain it. No serious student should be stopped merely because he or she has insufficient funding.  
  • We work with congregations to develop new ways to deliver theological pastoral candidates into congregations. Clearly, for small rural congregations hoping to find somebody willing to serve them, the completion of a full M.Div degree may not be needed. We have since our inception worked to grant pastoral certificates to those lacking the time, opportunity or means to attain a full M.Div degree. 
  • We work with successful pastors already in the field to create new educational programs and structures that can produce pastors on an ad hoc basis for the ad hoc and dynamic ministry situations that shall increasingly obtain. This means that we design M.Div, MM, and MCM degrees that prepares students deeply to face the kind of situations they will likely face.  
  • We partner with donors who have a passion actually to change Lutheran congregational life in North America. While we know much of what must be done, we don't presently have the requisite resources to address those things necessary to ameliorate Lutheran congregational life. Committed donors can change what we do, but they need to see what can actually be done to improve the situation before they can donate deeply. 
  • We put people in touch with each other to address the issue at hand. We act as a Lutheran clearing house for the normative task of delivering proper theology to congregations. We don't allow the ILT focus to stray from the congregational horizon. Lutheran theology is incarnation, not excarnational.  We can never be primarily concerned with the theological rectitude of abstract theological propositions, but rather with the incarnation of these principles in congregational life, i.e., in the lives of concrete men and women leading the Christian life within their communities.  
Much more needs to be envisioned and developed as we consider the creation of the ILT Center for Congregational Revitalization (CCR), but this will be the subject of many papers and articles that will be written and evaluated within CCR over the coming months and years. I want here simply to alert everybody that ILT is coming home to its congregations. We intend to focus on you and your needs. We want to be friends with you and we want to learn from you how we can do what we do better. Blessings!  

Monday, August 21, 2023

Calling a Thing What It Is: Two Points

I admit that I have thought before about being utterly honest in a post or two about the trends that I am seeing in western culture, particularly in the so-called North Atlantic countries.  Criticizing the prevailing culture is in the Biblical tradition being prophetic, and being prophetic is not generally a very stable or highly-regarded activity, either in the days of Jeremiah or in our day.  Why?  Well, of course, one can always be wrong about what one says. But that is not the main irritant, for people don't much want to hear prophetic things even if one might get things right. Criticizing one's contemporary cultural and intellectual horizon is always disruptive, appearing to some to be a deranged activity, like being "anti-vax."  "What is it about these people?" some would say.  "Clearly, they have gone off the deep end, believing conspiracy theories and all kinds of other nonsense.  It's a shame that people like this guy (me?), have fallen for such BS." 

Being prophetic demands a certain grasp of history.  Cicero once said that the study of history allows us to escape the tyranny of the present.  To critique one's culture demands one can envision other ways that one's culture might have gone. Unfortunately, we know very little history these days, and we have forgotten what we once knew about the effects of history upon our own self-understanding. Truly, in America in this very cold third decade of the 21st century it is as if Dilthey and Gadamer had never lived. We, who our products of the historical development of culture and its civilization, now operate as if we have reached a position above history and can thus ahistorically morally judge objectively (somehow) the historical processes from which we are birthed.  This has taken us in the direction of censoring history for the sake of a good that somehow lies above history.  But I get ahead of myself, for truly most of the new men and women of our age -- the young mostly in the cities -- have no way to conceive or make sense out of a good that putatively lies above history, a good that operates as its source and goal.   

Let's be honest, folks. The best days of the West, and maybe the world itself, are likely behind us. Before you think that I rant as an old guy, let me offer evidence for my claim. The two points I make below are the results of my own thinking which, like all thinking, thinks within a stream of thinking. I know generally what many others have thought and think, but I have not here cited the specific thinking of particular thinkers. This is what I think, given that no thinking is entirely one's own.  

Here are the two points about which this post is concerned: 

  1. Human power and facility are diminishing.
  2. Since human beings no longer can appeal to anything above or beyond life to ground their life of diminishing power, they increasingly regard traditional existential questions as irrelevant.  

1) We are faced with an accelerated diminution of human power and facility.  Once upon a time in the west, there were a few that were educated. They could read books and, having gone to college or the university, they could think and write books. Accordingly, they could talk to each other.  The educational idea once embraced was that the kind of informed discussions that could happen with the few might happen with the many if civilization were to adopt universal literacy. The idea was that if more people went to college, there would be more people who thought like people that once went to college.  

But clearly this did not, and could not, happen.  Just as there are few people that can hit a baseball 400 feet or play a Beethoven sonata beautifully, there are few people who can really read Newton, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Einstein, etc. While it is exceptionally hard work and it takes great discipline to think like the great thinkers, hard work and discipline are, nonetheless, not sufficient to think like these people. One must have a bit of genius, and there is nothing so rare and anti-democratic as genius.  Some people have it but most don't. Since most in our universities and colleges don't have much genius, the conversations they now undertake are generally neither deep nor penetrating. Discussions within our universities now must moor themselves to the current cultural consensus because there are few in the conversation who can see to the very heart of the contingency of that consensus. 

It is a simple matter of mathematics. Suppose that genius is distributed at a rate of one in 10,000.  (I will regard 'genius' here to mean the ability to apply creativity of a certain kind and imagination of a certain kind to a whole range of issues.) Suppose that many people of genius find themselves in deep conversations about fundamental issues. When there were perhaps 3,000 people in the conversation when there were 50,000,000 people, there was a supply of 5,000 people of genius to potentially be in that small conversation of 3,000. But now let us imagine 10,000,000 in the conversation in an underlying population of 500,000,000. There is now potentially 50,000 people of genius in a conversation of 10,000,000.  While before there were 1.6 people of genius for every conversational partner, now there is .05 for each partner.  

What I am saying is that the conversation now is arguably very diluted with respect to creativity and imagination with respect to what it once was.  Emerson once quipped, "Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."  As the number of people available to think deeply falls, the form of the conversation is elevated over substance. The idea is simple enough: If we can get a very determinate arena to investigate and and agreed-upon rules for that investigation, then real work of an academic nature can advance even if the people engaged in such work are not particularly creative, imaginative, brilliant or insightful. Under the conditions of what Kuhn called "normal science," most who are educated in what passes for education now in the west can potentially make significant scientific contributions.  The task of thinking deeply in "normal periods" seems to be counter-cultural and potentially disruptive of the public good. Genius is not needed, and can even seem dangerous, when the task is pedestrian. 

None of this is to suggest that great scientists don't have genius. Clearly, they do and they are great because of it. It is just that many in the conversations no longer have the genius to appreciate the greatness of the great scientific minds. They cannot see the creativity and the synthesis involved in laying out a theoretical vision of the world. Since they cannot see this, they are lulled into thinking that science is a continuous project of discovering what really exists in the world. They think this without thinking how problematic it is to claim that what really exists can be discovered at all.  What means the phrase, "what really exists?"  

While there are fewer geniuses in the important conversations these days, there are many in the conversations who, judged by earlier standards, should not be in these conversations at all.  One hundred years ago, I would argue, most in scientific discussions were pretty good at basic mathematics. Euler continued to do thousands of mathematical computations in his head after he lost his eyesight.  We once as a culture had to master basic mathematical skills to survive.  

But all of that changed with the invention of calculating devices and now computer programs.  Many people now, both within and outside science, are incapable of performing simple mathematical calculation either in their minds or on paper.  Since they need a calculator to calculate, they cannot autonomously see probabilities, inferential schemas or even functions. They can occupy the mathematical landscape only by placing themselves within mathematical machine space. They come armed now with machine guns where the fight used to be among gentlemen with swords.  They genius of the mathematical sword fight has been replaced by the use of mathematical machine guns.  Thinking mathematically on one's own has become as irrelevant for mathematical progress as learning the art of thrust and parry for winning twenty-first century wars.  We all know that many of our young cannot calculate basic things such as how to make change, and we understand that this would have been disastrous in an earlier age for success in business. But we act as if this is no longer the case. After all, one can get a MBA from an Ivy League school without knowing how to calculate. But despite this, I claim that the loss of basic mathematic skill is a fundamental diminution of human power and facility.  Doing business demands that one can work the numbers wherever and whenever one needs to do so. One cannot do it from the outside, as it were, from a position mediated by an external machine.  One needs to see the numbers, not have them reported to you.  

But what else is around the corner, dear friends? Think about it a moment. AI will do for human writing and reasoning what the calculating device did for basic mathematical computational skills! AI programs already write well, and we are in our infancy with such programs. Soon our secondary school students will learn that they have programs that will actually write the paragraphs and give the reasoning. Just as mathematics has marginalized simple mathematical calculation, thinking and writing will soon marginalize simple rational justification. Giving reasons in logical space for positions adopted can be turned over to computer programs. In fact, must means-ends thinking can so be turned over. Technical reasoning, including both mathematical calculation and the giving of reasons in logical space can be done through the writing and implementation of appropriate algorithms. Just as the invention of large machines during the industrial era meant that there was less and less work to do by hand, so too the invention of AI machines during this computational era will mean that there will be less and less work to do by human thinking.  So what will be left for humans to do? 

In any means-ends algorithm, the ends are already given. Paul Tillich called ontological reason that activity of human thinking by which the ends are first established on the basis of which the proper means are selected for success.  Computational machines and AI programming cannot reason to what ought be the ends of human thinking and calculation. Traditionally, questions such as these have fallen within the province of religion, value, morality and philosophy widely-conceived. Deeply pursuing these questions would seem to be an important activity for our time. But unfortunately, it is becoming increasing difficult for human beings to recognize that the questions of the ends of human life are important questions and ought to be pursued in their own right.  Maybe it takes some genius to see this, and there are few today with genius. These considerations bring us to the second point:

2) We are faced with the increasing conviction by many that the traditional questions of human existence are not legitimate and not worth pursuing. There are vast cultural regions, mostly urban, where a type of unthinking scientism prevails. To see this, let us look to the lives of the young urban elite and attempt to generalize to their values from the specifics of that form of life. 

For many in what might be called "safely blue areas" within contemporary urban life, religious life is considered mere superstition.  Sirens of the new atheism, which is neither new and arguably still commits to some of the old gods, claim that the physical is all there is and that religious people are deluded, and quite possibly weak and devoid of courage, not to embrace what is: The world is all that is the case.  Accordingly, there is no "more-thanness" (Jaspers) to which we are related and must deal. Since no values are simply given in an unthinking universe, any values that we have must be constructed and perhaps have been sedimented into the genes through our evolutionary history. While nature often takes the long way to get to where it needs to go, it eventually gets there, and one ought to be able to provide an explanation for what seems to be the universal nature of some human values by pointing to stories about what furthers or hinders human survivability in the face of natural environmental pressures.  

The young in cities know that the values they are likely to encounter in life will have to be constructed by themselves in ways that are basically consonant with their own survivability.  In this environment, it makes no sense to hold abstract views on human life that do not immediately connect to their survivability and that of their friends. Questions like, "Is it morally permissible to engage in sexual activity with members of one's own sex?" make no sense at all. Why, they wonder, would anyone ever be concerned with this? Since, there is no God to judge this or abstract metaphysical principle for which homoerotic behavior is disconsonant, the question can only be interpreted by them as posed by people being somehow intrusively interested in something that clearly makes no difference to anybody's everyday life. The only question that arises for them is why would somebody be concerned about this.  

The new urban dweller understands death or disease as a bad thing because both carry with them concomitant human suffering, and suffering is unpleasant.  But many activities, they believe, can be pursued which don't issue in human suffering.  While it is interesting to study the actual sexual activity of the young -- it is up slightly with significant increases in those reporting "none at all" -- what they regard as morally permissible of proscriptive seems to be changing.  There are many indicators of this, although I must admit that the data can be read in different ways.  However, I will boldly claim that the reports that most young people believe that their friends are sexually active and that they ought not judge them for it, means something. The reports buttress the notion that sexual activity is increasingly regarded as a physical thing that carries with it little of relevance to the traditional loci of love, marriage, family, and God that were once associated with it. Young women increasingly speak of "body count" as a good or empowering thing, endeavoring in such speaking to catch up with the historically greater promiscuity of the male. The logic seems to be this: Males have been traditionally more promiscuous than woman and males have had the power in society over and against women. Thus, if women become more promiscuous, then they will have greater power in society over and against men.  Clearly, this is a fallacy of denying the antecedent and affirming the consequent, but logic is powerless to break the spell of the association. 

The new life of the new urban man or woman is a life without God or overall purpose in which pleasure can be pursued for its own end. Clearly, there is a prima facie rationality to this view. If we are physical beings only, then what is important for us ultimately is our having of pleasant or unpleasant physical sensations. It is arguable that having sex without guilt is more pleasurable than experiencing unpleasant psychological experiences associated with misplaced guilt and regret about something that is quite natural.  And that which is true of sex is true of many other things we do in life. Why exactly would one sacrifice?  For what reason would one be loyal if it does not issue in increasing the pleasantness of life?  It is clear that a predilection towards hedonism, though not necessarily crude hedonism, likely accompanies for many commitments towards physicalism and a denial of God and the life of the spirit. While questions of individual suffering and happiness make sense to those without God, questions as to the rightness or wrongness of sexual practice (extra-marital sex, polyandry, etc) make little sense.  It all depends, one hears, of who the people are and what makes them happy.  

The questions of life (abortion, euthanasia, etc) are not likely to weigh heavily upon those who regard themselves as fully physical and who believe that physical pleasure and displeasure constitute the barometer of morality. Why exactly does one not terminate the fetus -- even if the fetus is nearing nine months?  After all, having a baby will like contribute to the pain and suffering of the mother's existence and the fetus will not recall not existing. While it might have some unpleasantness at termination it does not have the complicated psychological structure to recall and live again its suffering. In fact, while it is sad to have to put down a dog, this sadness ought not limit the happiness of the dog's owner if he or she thinks about matters properly. What is good for the dog is also good for the fetus. To regard the two in fundamentally different ways is to presuppose some external point that allows us somehow properly judge human activity like terminating pregnancies. But if there is no external point, then why not let one's life and experience judge it? And who is anybody else to walk in the shoes of the one to have to make this choice.  

In the absence of religion, who properly determines our ends?  Clearly us!  And to the point: There is no abstract view from the top or from nowhere (Nagel) that can make this judgment for another.  The ends to which one ought to strive are highly individual.  The answer to the question of "What are the ends of human life" is easy: "It depends upon who is asking the question."  But this answer undermines the very force of the question -- at least in how it has been traditionally asked.  

In this time where most who think and write are not men and women of genius, two things are clear: (1) We have machines now that help us carry out the means by which we reach an end, and (2) the ends of human life are now highly individual, connectable finally to the particularity of the men and women in question.  

We no longer live in the days where moral questions arise for us clearly.  We can no longer as a society think them through.  This is why the ends of human life are increasingly given to us by those who would think for us.  We hear that "Everyone knows that global warming is a bad thing," and we are taught somehow that sacrificing here for "the good of the planet as such" is a wonderful virtue. We are taught this despite the fact here that the science on global warming is not settled, and the models show that increasing renewable energy sources in the North Atlantic countries will have little effect on greenhouse emissions or global temperature over the coming decades. The new urban young believe that global warming must be slowed by any means possible without connecting that belief to the other beliefs that they might have regarding the basic physicality of life and their propensity to maximize physical pleasure as the good of that life.  

We knew that "wearing masks is a good thing," and that "we ought be vaccinated," though the science upon which this was based was flimsy or nonexistent. The young seemingly believe these judgments without giving them serious thought about their ultimate support or the degree to which they properly cohere with their other views.  

Traditionally, death has been viewed in the North Atlantic countries as a bad thing. Lutherans have talked for 500 years about reality of "sin, death, and the power of the devil." Luther wrote passionately about how in the midst of life there is death. If ever there was an end to human life it was, for most of our experience, that death is not our friend and that we can be saved from death.  But now there is no death to be saved from because increasingly we are coming to believe that death is part simply of the great cycle of life. There is no tragedy in death. Rather, death is just a natural part of life and should not be given more importance than it has. If we could but grasp that death is part of life, then we would be freed to make the important personal decisions that give to us physical beings a greater quantity and quality to life.  It makes no sense to think that some religious conversion on the way to death has any more importance than simply giving to the person a greater chance for pleasure in the life that one has yet to live.  

So this is our plight: We are increasingly losing our capacity to think lucidly, the percentage of truly imaginative people of genius is diminishing within most important conversations, and as a society we are finding it difficult to find a place from which properly to judge our experience. Simply put, how is it possible now to arrive at the proper ends of human existence when all such putative ends are simply reducible to the pleasure or displeasure of the individuals asking the question?  

I want anyone reading this to understand that I myself am not a hedonist, and that I do believe that moral reasoning and even moral knowledge is possible. I am speaking here about what is happening in North Atlantic culture right before our eyes. I invite people to take issue with what I have written not by pointing out that hedonism is a very unsatisfying position intellectually, but by showing that I have misread the current cultural and intellectual presuppositions of the life of the urban young.