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Tuesday, May 04, 2010 On Goldilocks and Christian Unity
My Sunday sermon at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Evanston was unusually focused on the unity of the church--being the work of God's hands that may not be undone by any human actions. Thinking subsequently about the strife that has torn the ELCA, I almost laughed at the absurdity of it all, considering how little time we must all bear with one another in the Church Militant. We'll all be dead very soon, in the big scheme of things, and released from the burden of mutual forbearance. As T.S. Eliot wrote, about a real crisis in the church on which lives were staked,
These men, and those who opposed them
And those whom they opposed
Accept the constitution of silence
And are folded in a single party
Is it really so hard to just do your job and gut out the last few decades until you and everyone you loathe finally dies? Anyway, knowing that this is not a sufficient answer to those who habitually overestimate the significance of our worldly scurryings, it might be worth laying out a more clear argument about the nature and significance of Christian unity. Here's Robert Benne, a leader of the schismatic faction, stating the prince of all such temptations:
Can there be a more compelling embodiment of Lutheranism in North America than what has thus far been enacted?
Well...yes, there surely can. I can imagine a more compelling embodiment, Robert Benne can imagine one, everyone I know who wastes precious irrecoverable hours of their lives worrying about Lutheranism qua Lutheranism can imagine a more compelling embodiment of Lutheranism in North America. I'm rather surprised at the straightforwardness with which Benne recommends kicking out feminists, gays, and non-whites from his ideal church, but tastes differ. For what it's worth, I share some of his problems with the ELCA as presently constituted. It's a big, diverse, ungainly, absurd institution. But it's not as though there aren't alternatives already. You could go to Rome, which has the advantage of being a real Church that doesn't truck with feminists or uncloseted gays. Or you could go to Orthodoxy, which has similar virtues but would not carry implications of surrender. If you're too attached to Lutheranism to join a real church, there's always the Missouri Synod. But that would mean leaving behind the female pastors in pursuit of a gay-free church. Thankfully, there's already a Lutheran body that rejects gay clergy but embraces women, the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ. But Benne reports, "A goodly number [of disaffected Lutherans] are not eager to join Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ because it is more an association of congregations than a church."
Well then. What is needed is something not Catholic, not Orthodox; more liberal than Missouri but less liberal than the ELCA; less centralized than the latter but more centralized than the LCMC. Surely the suffocating logic of this process has to have struck some of its participants by now? If the present array of ecclesial options--which run to the dozens counting only those calling themselves Lutherans--does not satisfy WordAlone and Lutheran CORE, what hope is there in fashioning yet another fragment? What will they say when new rifts open over ecumenical agreements, seminary education, the role of bishops, not to mention genuine hot-button issues like immigration and abortion?
This is the ultimate peril of Goldilocks denominationalism. One can always imagine a better church than the ones available. That is because human institutions reflect the messiness, contradiction, smallness, and plain foolishness of their constituents. Despite the massive confidence game waged to the contrary, this is evident even--especially--in the Mother of us all, the Church of Rome. Unfortunately, there is no moral or theological reform that can undo the Fall of Man, and thus schismatics are doomed to repeat the battles that drove them to create a smaller, purer church in the first place. As Jon Pahl writes, in his devastating critique of the theology of CORE in the Journal of Lutheran Ethics,
It may be the case in America that Protestants "multiply by dividing." But time and time again in American history, purity-renewal movements like Lutheran CORE have tended to produce "new" structures that are at least as cumbersome and conflicted as the supposedly "impure" structures they intended to replace. Repeatedly, "movements" of ecclesiastical dissidents become tiny corporations just like the big corporations they imagined improving. Such is the lot of human bodies in history.
Even if there were a future for a denomination defining itself on the basis of rejecting homosexuality--and I highly doubt there is--it would be riven with strife from the start. If the North American Lutheran Church gets off the ground, I suspect it will go through another crisis within ten years. It will suffer defections to Rome, Constantinople, Missouri, and even back to the ELCA. In a generation or two it will be forgotten, as silent as the deceased masters who now behold its shining promise.
This is all utterly avoidable, as far as I can see. No one is forcing anyone to leave. I, too, will soon outlive my usefulness to progressive Christianity, but I just can't see leaving my church unless it chooses to essentially prevent me from fulfilling my vocation to preach and teach in accordance with the Scriptures and the light God has given me to understand them. Should that day come, I will regretfully depart for a place where I may preach. I don't especially care whether people in the God Box or the next synod over agree with me. I don't care whether I feel I can use the official worship book or whether I need to supplement it with more confessionally sound materials. None of us should. We are called to be faithful, not to define faithfulness for everyone around us. We are called to be pushed if need be, but never to jump.
There is a theological problem beneath all of this, of course. To paraphrase Julian Sanchez, if our preaching merely wounds our reliance on human free will and virtue, it leaves us despondent and uncertain. This is as true of the social justice enthusiasts who hold out liberation after that last inch of human reform and repentance as it is of the confessional neurotics who see apostasy around the corner of every faculty meeting and official document. We become oppressed by burdens we cannot carry and inflamed against a world that is obstinate beyond measure. But if our preaching really kills our reliance on human will and virtue--kills it and burns the corpse, in Sanchez's lovely phrase--then we can live our lives together tolerably knowing that we rely entirely on God's grace anyway. Then we can wear the robe and ring and kill the fatted calf and embrace our wayward brothers and sisters because we are all so utterly hopeless and dependent on our own that even error and recrimination cannot possibly hurt us more than we already harm ourselves when given the chance. That is the unity of the church--her total and unremitting destitution and the riches of grace on which she depends from moment to moment--that and nothing else. Please, friends, do not rashly leave for a new convocation of beggars. There is poverty enough here.9:14 PM
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