Saturday, May 12, 2018

Living without Tribes

I don't have a tribe.  I grew up in the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS), migrated to the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), fell into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and find myself now more (or less) identified with the North America Lutheran Church (NALC) and Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC).

I did not get there the way that others do.  There were no mentors saying to do this or that in order to get here or there.  In fact, no one told me where best to head. 

It didn't occur to me in my first five decades of life that I would establish a new Lutheran seminary and graduate school.  While I remember telling my Bethany College undergraduate students in the late1980s that the ELCA was essentially unstable and could not survive, I did not spend great lengths of time wondering about what life would be like after the ELCA.

I was not an insider and have never been one, so the thought of starting a new Lutheran graduate school could not occur to me.

As an undergraduate, I knew nobody seriously contemplating becoming a pastor.  I was busy playing music, and beginning about age 22, doing some more serious studying.  I read primary texts on my own because I did know anyone else reading them and they were interesting to me.  I notice that I liked philosophy, particularly philosophers dealing with theological questions.

While others were going to the seminary after college, I went to the farm and raised corn, soybeans, cattle and sheep.  It was during these farm days that I switched membership from the small LCMS church of my hometown to the larger LCA church 16 miles away.  There I found more exciting music, as well as preaching that actually connected to the contemporary horizon.  I was a LCA Lutheran that had no idea what "being LCA" really meant.  (Later I would say that I did not know the "identify conditions" of being LCA.)  I did learn that the LCA had bishops, but the question of bishops was of no concern to me.

My concern at the beginning of the 1980s was simply this, "How is theology possible given the intellectual assumptions of contemporary culture?"  It seemed to me that both my little LCMS congregation and the larger LCA congregation which I was attending did not deal with the questions about which I was concerned.  What evidence is there for God and the truth of revelation?  What kind of responses can be given to German higher criticism that seemed to me to undermine the reliability of the Biblical texts?   What could Tillich possibly be meaning by saying that Christ is transparent to the Ground of Being?

At this point I was still almost completely self-taught.  I had studied Latin on the farm and tried to read some primary texts. (I made it through Kant's Critique of Practical Reason and Schopenhauer's World as Will and Representation, Tillich's Systematic Theology and Elert's Structure of Lutheranism, and the first volume of Richard Feymann's Lectures on Physics when I was not outside actually working.)

When it came time to leave the farm in 1981, I thought again about going to seminary.  But when I looked at the catalogue at Luther Seminary and I visited Concordia Seminary, I did not see the intellectual challenges I wanted. In coming back from St. Louis I stopped at the University of Iowa, and considered what it would be like to go there. 

Nobody told me that the GRE score I received would have gotten me into most graduate programs at the time, and nobody told me about the advantages I might have had going to an east coast school.  If they had, I would not have listened anyway, because I liked the midwest and was always partial to the the Iowa Hawkeyes.  I had met Dr. George Forell at the LCA church I had attended and I knew Iowa offered both a Ph.D. in philosophy and one in religion, and figured either of these programs would be more challenging than the seminary.

At Iowa, I soon discovered that most of my classmates in the School of Religion already had M.Div. degrees from seminaries, and that having these degrees did not seem to help them do better in the classes than I was doing.  I liked taking classes both in the philosophy and religion departments at Iowa.  While I had not decided in which department to do my Ph.D., receiving the Teaching-Research Fellowship in the School of Religion made my mind up for me.  I took a M.A. in philosophy and a Ph.D. in Religion.

My course work at Iowa was decidedly non-standard, even for somebody getting their Ph.D. in a program entitled, "Contemporary Theology and Religious Reflection."  Since I studied what was interesting to me, I took courses in Kant, Analytical Ethics, Christian Ethics, Chinese religions, Plato, Frege, Wittgenstein, Predicate Logic, Modal Logic, Sartre, Analytical Metaphysics, Heidegger, Rahner, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, and many courses in the history of theology and philosophy.  There were many seminars that I recall being helpful, particularly one in metaphysics that dealt with the nature of causation, a second in theology examining the nature of the dialectical method, and a third in the philosophy of science where I worked to understand the element of convention in all theory construction.   I had seminars dealing with numerous contemporary theological topics, and a two semester course called 'Theological Questions I and II" that dealt deeply with Tillich's thought, as read through the prism of Robert Scharlemann's Reflection and Doubt in the Thought of Paul Tillich.

My comp areas included the History of Theology, Theological (particularly analytical) Methods, Hegel and Tillich.  My dissertation was on Martin Luther, particularly his semantics as interpreted through his work in the disputations. 

Although my dissertation won the top prize at the University of Iowa for dissertations in the humanities, I realized that I simply did not know, and had not studied, the late medieval period sufficiently deeply to be able to speak confidently about much upon which I was writing.  I knew that knowledge of the original languages was holding me back.  While I knew some Latin, I did not know it well enough to do painstaking work in the untranslated Latin texts of Luther's Ockamist predecessors.  And while I knew some German, it was definitely slow work to read German articles and books dealing with the issues interesting me.  My French was in some ways more serviceable than my German in those days, but there was little reason to use it in the dissertation.  Dr. George Forell was my friend and Doktor Vater on the dissertation, and he made sure that I did not say anything too odd.

Coming out of Iowa with a Ph.D. in Religion and a M.A. in Philosophy, I headed to Bethany College in Lindsborg, KS, and soon understood that as Chair of the Department with an award-winning dissertation on Luther, it was assumed by all audiences that I had deep competence in Lutheran theology, and that I would surely have profound opinions on all matters theological of interest to Lutherans. 

But I found that I was not of any particular Lutheran tribe.  When I read in logic, semantics and metaphysics, people assumed that I was reading in Lutheran theology and interested in questions of scriptural interpretation, worship, and practical theology. (I actually was interested in these things, but one can only read so much.) I wanted to be part of a tribe and gain tribal acceptance, but sometimes felt I did not say quite the right things in the right ways.  Quickly, I learned that my life vocation was going to become much wider than my training.  I had to learn confessional Lutheran theology deeply and I had to learn it quickly.  I also had to acquaint myself with the contour of contemporary Lutheran theology.  After all, in my Ph.D. program, I had not read one article or book from an American Lutheran theologian outside of George Forell. 

My real orientation to Lutheran theology thus came primarily through reading the texts of Martin Luther.  While I did not know about Evangelical Catholics, Lutheran Pietism, First Form/Second Form issues, Forde, etc., I did learn a great deal at Iowa about Luther, Christian existentialism and the phenomenological approach generally, Hegel, Schleiermacher, and Robert Scharlemann.  Since I never was a member of a tribe, I had to learn about the other tribes from the outside, as it were.  I grasped what American Lutheran theologians were doing by understanding them as influenced by European Schools of thought generally.  I understood that theologian A was working with a phenomenological ontology, that B buys some of the assumptions of process theology, that C is beholden to the work of Hegel or maybe the dialectical theologians, while D is influenced by post-Gadamerian developments within hermeneutical theology, particularly those pertaining to an ontology of language.

Over the course of the next 10-15 years, I thought I actually had found my tribe.  After I became Head of Religion and Philosophy at Grand View College (now "Grand View University") and toiled there to increase Lutheran identity, I knew that I should become an ELCA pastor, teach and preach, and work hard to promote Lutheran identity within that denomination as well.

I took a position in philosophy and religion at South Dakota State University(SDSU) -- a position that turned out to be mostly teaching philosophy -- while simultaneously working with Wartburg Seminary to acquire those qualifications necessary to become an ELCA pastor.  I was ordained on All Saints Day in 1998 and served two congregations while teaching full-time at SDSU.  Shortly before my ordination, I read the Concordat and tried to explain to my Bishop that the lex credendi always follows the lex orandi, but she was not interested.   To my worries about Lutheran identity, she calmly pointed out, "It seems you don't have enough faith."  Yet, though my entrance onto the ELCA clergy roles did not progress precisely as I planned, I nonetheless thought that within the ELCA I had indeed found my tribe. After all, there were like-minded individuals with whom I felt comfortable.  Surely, I was home in the ELCA.

As theological coherence and consistency declined within the ELCA in the late twentieth century, I found myself within a group of those wanting to return the ELCA to a more traditional theological mooring.  I was not motivated in my opposition to ELCA theological laxity by the power of bishops or by sexuality issues per se, but simply by what I took to be the eclipse of theology within the ELCA. I believed that the situation was worse than that the denomination was heading in the wrong direction, it was a matter of there being no agreed upon way any longer within the ELCA to adjudicate what should be the right direction in which to go.  Simply put, there was no way to really do theology any more.  To my disconsolation and consternation, I found that increasingly within the ELCA, one had to say the right things in the right ways or one was really not accepted by many within ELCA leadership.  Tribalism was back, and I was outside again.

When the WordAlone Network conceived establishing a new House of Studies "committed to the traditional Biblical hermeneutic of the Lutheran Reformation" -- a phrase I wrote -- it was maybe natural for me to lead the effort.  Why?

Perhaps it is because I did not know the tribes deeply enough, and thus did not realize how difficult it would be to birth a project demanding that people from the differing tribes work together.   Maybe my absence of a tribe was an advantage because I did not naturally build the new school -- now called 'The Institute of Lutheran Theology' -- in a particular tribal tradition.  I simply wanted to establish a school in which people from all the tribes could come together and do Lutheran theology seriously and rigorously, where they could safely agree or disagree beyond slogans giving the "identity conditions" of their tribal participation, where the unity of the search for truth -- a unity naturally manifesting itself in the pressuring of boundaries of any particular tribe -- would trump the security of knowing which tribe was my tribe, which the right tribe.

So it is that the Institute of Lutheran Theology today has students, faculty and staff from the ELCA, LCMS, NALC, LCMC, ELS (Evangelical Lutheran Synod), CALC (Canadian Association of Lutheran Congregations), AFLC (Association of Free Lutheran Churches,  ALC (Augsburg Lutheran Churches), ELCIC (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada) and the Orthodox Lutheran Church.  (It has students from a variety of other Christian traditions as well.)

So why has the Institute of Lutheran Theology (ILT) formed if it is not a manifestation of a tribe?  Has it no home theology?  What is taught there?

ILT is committed to the search for truth in theology; it embraces a semantic realist construal of theological language: Theological propositions have truth-conditions; they are in principle capable of adjudication.  Moreover, ILT takes the Theology of the Cross motif within Lutheran theology deeply seriously.  The divine is hidden and we must be humble in the face of this hiddenness.  Finally, ILT believes that theology exists always dynamically, that its task is never complete.  Theology bridges the gap between the kerygma of our tradition -- and our changing understandings of this kerygma -- and the contemporary intellectual and cultural horizon.   Because this horizon changes, the theological task lies ever before us.  ILT is an institution living out the dynamics of the theological task.  We do not abandon the kerygma for the culture, nor embrace the culture in forgetfulness of the kerygma.

Perhaps not being in a tribe is precisely the best way to lead the theological life.  I never thought it would be so important not to be in a tribe.  Perhaps being an outsider is precisely what it is to live life under the Cross.  We can never be secure.  As Christ's feet were raised off of the ground on the Cross, so are all of our aspirations for certainty.  The search for foundations is the originator of the "identity conditions" which confidently demarcate tribal members.  But in the face of eternity, such demarcation is, as Thomas Aquinas said about his completed Summa, "merely straw."  

Ultimately, we pilgrims of the Cross are forever outsiders.  My prayer is that ILT will continue to live the tension of the Cross, that it will continue to bring together particular people into a project bigger than the being of particular selves.  After all, when Christ snares us, our particularity comes to an end.  At the end of the day, "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).  We at ILT live this oneness in Jesus Christ each day, in the midst of the tribes which threaten at times to pull us apart, but which will continue to exist as long as theology itself remains.


  1. I've been thinking of late about what Husserl calls intentional objects. These include most of our conscious life, including material objects, abstract objects, dogs, cats, embarrassment, spirits, and God. Our consciousness, he would say, synthesizes our phenomenal experience into the kinds of unities mentioned. These intentional objects are like templates which we use to order our experiences into meaningful wholes. We have ways of quickly and easily synthesizing even sparse phenomena into intentional wholes with vast correlations of meanings and behavior. Intentional objects come and they go. Today there is really no intentional object of "spirits." When a child suddenly dies in Papua New Guinea, this is a phenomenal sign that spirits were involved, most likely a witch. The phenomenal markings of a "spirit" are different from that for a "material object." Nonetheless, we know how to parse our phenomenal experience to synthesize one or the other. I am telling you this because I think that we have at least a crippled intentional sense of "God." All day long we ignore phenomenal disclosure. These phenomena are simply not seen as synthesizing into a meaningful intentional object. The Psalmist "sees" God in daily phenomenal experience. Today we do not. And this is a problem. We lack today, I am suggesting, an appropriate intentional object for "God." Often, then, when we speak of "God" listeners are trying to fit this category into those available to them, perhaps some kind of "material object." The moon and the seasons for the Psalmist evidence God, not so for a modern. They are accustomed to think per accidens, in a causal chain, and not per se, according to simultaneous being that sustains the whole. Is it at all possible that this is a consequence of a poverty of intentional objects, of categories of being?

  2. All non-eternal existent things come into existence and must be conserved. Among those existent entities are certain intentional objects, like "God," "Christ," and others that matter to us. Inasmuch as these existent entities can come into existence, if not conserved, they can go out of existence. How that happens is a matter for generative phenomenology. "Stars" have a rich history, but for most of us today they are pretty thin; whereas something like "material objects" are richly involved in our lives. We are about to have a "royal wedding," but I suspect that for most Americans "royalty" is a very thin intentional object. It is much thicker for Brits. For them it involves certain behaviors. It is embodied. I suggest that "God" is a thin intentional object for us today. It was far thicker for the likes of Nietzsche and Huxley. This is why they felt like they were being strangled or stifled by "God." So it is one thing to ask where our intentional objects derive from. I suggest that it is always in and through the life-world. But quite another to ask you these intentional objects are conserved; how they are kept "alive." They must be used; they must be encountered often; we must be able to walk around with them. They are part of our embodied life. The "material world" stands between us and God. As such, it is possible to cut God off in our phenomenal intentionality: to be existentially obtuse. What is required is the "elaboration" of this thinned intentional object.