Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Touché, at Last

"When teaching about sex replaces teaching about salvation as a defining mark of the church, something has clearly gone severely awry."

This is the most instantly quotable sentence from a recent essay in the online Journal of Lutheran Ethics. The odds are that most Egg readers have already seen it, since the link has been passed around with great excitement. While we aren't in love with the essay, we do like it, and hope that readers will also.

Jon Pahl (whom we do not know, despite his association with two institutions dear to us) is on the faculty of the Lutheran seminary in Philadelphia and has had a fellowship at the formerly Presbyterian university in Princeton. His essay reveals a number of tendencies which make us squirm with discomfort, particularly in this context: an affection for Rene Girard; a connection to the AELC; and a rhetorically unfortunate readiness to bash in passing the conventional bogeymen of American liberalism, such talk radio hosts, on the assumption that his readers already share his likes and dislikes. (Good for blogging, bad for academic discourse).

Even with these reservations, his essay is well worth reading, both for theological reasons and -- let's be frank -- tactical ones.

Theologically, he goes after CORE, the New ALC and the Word Alone Network from two angles. First, he demonstrates (with somewhat slender documentary evidence for our taste) that they are prone to many of the classical heresies -- namely, docetism, Donatism, and Pelagianism. This section of his argument is based on the "Common Confession," a document which lays out a distinctly inadequate ecclesiology, even by the modest standards of Lutheranism.

Pahl's use of the terms is a bit loose. For example, his accusation of docetism rests upon the idea that the CC holds up congregationalism and the "invisible church" beloved of some Lutherans, which magically exists outside of any actual human institution. Therefore, it is not the reality of the body of the man Jesus Christ which they question (as did the docetics of old) but the reality of the visible Church as the Body of Christ. Still, despite a small liberty with the term, he is onto something important. Those who diminish the importance of the institutional Church clearly do fail to "discern the Body," in just the sense that Paul meant it.

Second, Pahl attacks the CORE/NALC/WAN for participation in what might be thought of as a modern heresy, or cluster of heresies, the "American civil religion." The term is not always used consistently, but its coiner, sociologist Robert Bellah, meant it to identify a system of beliefs, symbols and rituals which exist outside of and parallel to those of conventional religious communities, and which connect the civil realm to the spiritual one in the popular imagination. It's not really all that modern, to be sure; there was a Roman civil religion long ago, with which Christianity found itself in memorable conflict.

This argument is strung out piecemeal through the essay, the organization of which Pahl describes in a comment below, but which we found confusing. Perhaps the most direct evidence that CORE et al. participate in the ACR comes late in his discussion of the Common Confession. After describing some of the obvious Scriptural and historical problems with the language of marriage as "one man to one woman," Pahl says:

Even more, the specific language of the way Lutheran CORE defines "marriage" has a quite clear historical origin, and it is not The Holy Bible or the Lutheran Confessions. Lutheran CORE's language that defines marriage as "between one man and one woman" is derived directly from the recent spate of DOMA Laws, or "Defense of Marriage Acts" that have emerged in federal and state legislation as efforts to keep gays and lesbians from the civil and economic rights that accrue to couples who marry. These laws are distinctively American, and they are unjust because they legitimize unnecessary violence — as I have argued in print elsewhere.38 By adopting the language of these unjust laws as part of their "Common Confession," Lutheran CORE reveals its loyalty not to the "great tradition" of biblical revelation and Christian creedal tradition, but instead to the imperial constructs of the American civil religion.

This is a neat trick, incidentally, since the accusation of "civil religion" has more typically been used by cultural conservatives against cultural liberals. Whether or not Pahl makes his case about civil religion, he does remind us quite nicely that everybody's idea of "what the church teaches" is conditioned by their own experience of what they were taught themselves, by word and example -- which is rarely quite what the Church actually means to teach.

Whatever its analytical strengths and weaknesses, which are both considerable, Pahl's essay is also instructive as an example of a tactic which we hope to see used a bit more frequently in the near future: the counterattack.

Over the years, the ELCA and its supporters have had comparatively little to say to or about those who criticize the church. The idea was probably to take the high road, rather than answering every little pissant snipe from the Herman Ottens of the world. But as the criticisms have gotten louder and dumber (despite coming, as some of them have lately, from extremely bright people -- we're thinking of you, Michael Root), it has seemed to us at the Egg that firmer and more bracing affirmations of the ELCA's convictions have been called for.

And by the same toke, so have more blunt assessments of the foolish arguments put forward by people who should know better. We at the Egg have taken a special delight in this latter field of endeavor, and so does Pahl. We especially enjoy, for example, his comments on Robert Benne, an ELCA theologian teaching at an ELCA college who has nonetheless taken to ranting about unnamed but sinister "elites" in the world of ELCA theological ethics. Pahl will have none of it:

... Benne imagines that the ELCA is in decline because it has accommodated itself to American "liberal Protestantism." "Skewed commitments," by which Benne means the liberalism of Lutherans in the ELCA, "led to dramatic membership losses." Apart from the fact that this is lousy history, it also reveals again American millennialist and dualistic scapegoating — someone must be to blame for declension — as a founding assumption underneath the movement.

Historically speaking, in fact, immigration patterns and birth rates have far more to do with Lutheran membership ebbs and flows in America than anything else. It's not as if Lutherans used to be great evangelists and theologians and have now become lousy at both. ...

n recent decades, and especially since the dramatic changes in immigrant law established by Congress in 1965, immigrants to America have come primarily from Latin America, Africa, and from South and East Asia, and decidedly not from Scandinavia and Germany. Couple that with the fact that in the late twentieth century Lutherans began to practice birth control and to have smaller families (to their moral credit, globally and ecologically speaking), and the causes for Lutheran "decline" clearly take root not in some imagined Lutheran doctrinal purity or its absence, but in documented demographic shifts.

Furthermore, it is not just liberal churches that are suffering numerically. Even culturally "conservative" churches associated with European enclaves (such as the LCMS and the Roman Catholic Church — if you subtract Latino/a membership increases due to the new immigration) are now losing numbers across North America.

He had us at "lousy history." And again:

More subtly, the blame-game of moralism among Lutheran CORE members projects a view of history that identifies ELCA leaders with having abandoned "the great tradition," and of having left behind the norms and practices of some supposedly more morally pure earlier age in favor of a relativistic liberal tolerance. Robert Benne again claims that Lutherans were once "protected from the allure of American culture by their thriving ethnic enclaves, but that day is over. We're all Americans now."28 As with Benne's false claim about the cause of numerical losses among Lutherans, this rosy-colored view of past Lutheran ethnic harmony and purity is also historical nonsense. ...

In fact, any fair reading of the histories of the predecessor bodies to the ELCA will recognize that Lutherans in those churches (and especially the laity) were, by and large, stumbling over one another to be as American as possible, as quickly as possible, consciously or unconsciously, while also managing to bicker constantly over issues like millennialism, predestination, membership in lodges, and more.

Oh, yeah, says the reader, waking up from his WordAlone-induced stupor. I did read that in a book somewhere, dinnit I? Once again, real facts trump romantic fantasies. Pahl then follows it up with a case study in how the facts about the ELCA vary from the "Evil Empire" created by its zealous critics:

For instance, the ELCA social statements (a favorite target of Lutheran CORE members) embrace a paradoxically critical and affirming approach to American society that is far more nuanced and authentic in its Lutheranism than most of the productions by the supposedly pure ethnic churches that preceded the ELCA. The social statements tackle issues those churches largely did not or would not take up — race, economics, war and peace, the environment, and abortion — in ways that simply do not fit Lutheran CORE's stereotype of "liberalism" in the ELCA. The abortion statement is a perfect case in point. It sees abortion as tragic, something to be avoided, but also not to be legislated out of existence, especially in cases of rape or danger to the health of the mother.32 Such a paradoxical, nuanced judgment is characteristic of Lutheran public theology at its best. The caricatures of Lutheran CORE — Benne claims that "no one can really challenge the ELCA's ... persistent pro-choice stance on abortion" — are, simply, false.

This essay is disorderly and sometimes annoying, but well worth reading. We hope that it is the beginning of something that is long overdue: a serious response by supporters of the ELCA to the bad history, bad theology and outright lies being peddled by its power-hungry dissidents. Like Robert Benne.


Jon Pahl said...

Thanks for your mostly kind remarks! I don't teach at Princeton Seminary, though, but was a Fellow at the University's Center for the Study of Religion. And, as for organization; I have always disliked the numbered pagination JLE uses. The article has a five part structure--tracking each of the four aspects of the American civil religion that CORE embraces, then turning to the white male backlash feature. The substantive theological critique is woven throughout this historical/cultural analysis. Sorry you found that annoying, but I'm glad, overall, you found the piece of value. JP

Father said...

Quite a bit of value, and please don't take my mild criticisms as saying otherwise.

Obie Holmen said...

In your post you state, "a tactic which we hope to see used a bit more frequently in the near future: the counterattack."


I have been counterattacking on my own blog for some time but always at the risk of slipping into the muck. I'm not sure I always succeed, but I attempt to criticize the views or statements of the CORE without attacking the persons who hold those views. And this, I think, is where my comments and those of others like Dr. Pahl may be distinguished from CORE's rhetoric--we suggest their views are wrong (intellectually, theologically, biblically) while they suggest our views are sinful and thus they must disassociate from us.

mark said...

The tone of the piece seemed fairly nasty to me. But I did like the article on Bach in the same issue. ;-)

Noah said...

After Dr. Pahl's article was published, several people asked me if I have given him a copy of some of my work (unpublished - other than Facebook). CORE's neo-donatism is rampant. I refer to it as neo-donatism because, as Dr. Pahl points out, they have rejected the one thing that made Donatism attractive even, I think, to Augustine. That thing being a rejection of the Empire as a governing principality and power. Donatism rejected Constantinianism - a binding of the Church's struggle for faithfulness to the culture-war hermeneutic of secular politics.

That, and they have not said our sacraments are invalid... yet....

The more I read Augustine and Cyprian, the more I find CORE's theological underpinnings for schism wanting.