A Report from the Front Lines: Conversations on Public Theology

1] Writing a review of this festschrift in honor of Robert Benne has reminded me of the many things we’ve had in common over the years. Both of us have roots in Eastern Nebraska, both attended Lutheran colleges in that area (Midland Lutheran and Dana, just twenty miles apart), we both were energized by the neo-orthodox movement and cut our theological teeth on the Niebuhr brothers, especially Reinhold, and we both discovered Soren Kierkegaard as a source of religious inspiration and insight. We both headed for Germany where we studied under theologians identified with the Erlangen school (Walter Kuenneth and Ernst Kinder), and we both have spent most of our teaching careers in Lutheran institutions, both colleges and seminaries. While our ideological perspectives have diverged with the passing years, I’ve continued to be informed and edified by the works that Bob has written. He is a significant theologian and ethicist, not only for Lutherans but for the wider world of theological and ethical scholarship.

[2] The fourteen contributors to this volume cover the landscape of Benne’s works, ranging from his defense of democratic capitalism as a viable economic system superior to any alternative the world has seen, to his advocacy of a Lutheran public theology under the concept of paradox, capturing the ambiguities and fallenness of human nature that challenge every attempt to establish and maintain a just social order, and finally to his examination of the church-related liberal arts college and the challenges it faces today. Clearly, Benne’s work has been inspired by a deeply Christian desire to further a just society and a faithful Christian community

[3] As one whose academic work has centered on Christian social ethics, I have especially appreciated Benne’s The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the Twenty-first Century. Taking the themes presented by H. Richard Niebuhr in his influential Christ and Culture, Benne brings the Lutheran stance into conversation with those of other Christian traditions and offers a strong defense of the Lutheran position. In view of the fact that Lutheran public theology had been relatively invisible and of little impact in this country, this has been a significant achievement. It is telling that the three notable expositors of a paradoxical vision that Benne turns to for illustration are not even identified with the Lutheran tradition (the one, Richard John Neuhaus, having left the Lutheran church for Roman Catholicism). The importance of paradox and its implications for understanding the Christian message is a subject to which I shall return.

[4] The ideological factor in the work of theologians has taken on considerable prominence in recent decades as a result of a conservative resurgence in both church and society. Robert Benne has been a visible figure in this phenomenon both within Lutheranism and beyond, and the “conversation“ within these pages, except for the contribution of Ronald Thiemann, is conducted by authors representing a conservative orientation. Among the reviews in this issue of JLE, my purpose is to focus on some ideological issues raised by this work, and to express some misgivings I harbor about some features of conservative theologizing that I find here. But in doing so I must lay my own ideological cards on the table: I come from a relatively liberal stance that puts me at odds with some of the assumptions as well as conclusions that characterize conservative thinking.

[5] A prominent characteristic of the conservative mind is the admirable desire to remain faithful to the tradition, but it often results in a steady lament over the waywardness and faithlessness of the church. One sees this characteristic quite prominently in this volume, where, for example, one finds these assertions: Protestant churches are no longer recognizable as Christian communities for they worship a “humanized God” rather than the true God of Christian faith (Michael Shahan); among contemporary theologians of the church, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is no longer proclaimed as an essential belief of the Christian faith (Carl Braaten); or, in church-related colleges today, the spirit of the Enlightenment is so dominant that life and learning are no longer presented from a perspective of faith (Gerald R. McDermott). Apart from the claims themselves, it is the sweeping nature of these accusations that catches one’s attention, as though the church – or good sections of it – were going to hell in a hand basket and people are blissfully unaware of what is happening.

[6] I’m sure one can always find sufficient evidence to generate conservative concern on these matters, but I am interested here in the reaction that a conservative mindset produces within the church. Since it is the very Truth of God that is being conserved, there is a most powerful impetus here toward absolutism, which accounts for the particular seriousness (and ugliness!) of ideological conflict within the church. When we possess the ultimate Truth concerning the human story that determines everyone’s eternal destiny, the stakes could hardly be higher; it inspires a commensurate concern that we challenge, refute, and if possible eliminate every sign of heresy and error that might crop up in the church. Where this absolutist reaction plays out most offensively is among fundamentalist groups, but the same dynamic is at work in more genteel fashion among segments of the older denominations.

[7] In response to this phenomenon I’d like to make two points. I think it is necessary, first, for Christians to understand that when it comes to the Truth of God, we do not possess it; rather, that Truth (or that Word of God) possesses us. This means, for one thing, that we ought not claim the kind of sovereignty over the Truth that would justify our using it to make life-and-death judgments of others. That kind of sovereignty belongs to God alone. It also means that our differences within the household of faith are appropriately expressed with a spirit of modesty and care. To exclude Protestant Christianity from the circle of “true Christians,” or to suggest that the ELCA is being seduced by an unfaithful leadership, or to claim that ELCA seminaries are bastions of false teaching – all charges that are often heard in conservative Lutheran circles – is to succumb to ideological fervor that is hardly becoming to the Christian theologian. These insinuations of heresy not only close the door on the kind of respectful dialogue that is essential to responsible theologizing, but also repudiate the fact that all who claim the name of Christ are fellow sojourners as people of God who need each other. My point is that our differences are best pursued in a spirit of inclusion, not exclusion.

[8] The second, and related point I would make is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ transcends every theological or ethical boundary that we may want to construct in an effort to protect it. While a concern to defend and safeguard the faith can be and has been necessary at certain critical junctures of church history, it is best done by those who recognize that such efforts are not immune from an ideological bias. If the Truth is known by its possessing us, then the ultimate judgment rests not on our theology but on our discipleship. This is a reality that we Lutherans can overlook; in our seriousness about theology – in itself a Lutheran strength – we become vulnerable to a spirit of legalism that exalts correct thinking as the ultimate criterion for Christian faithfulness. Our theology can indeed be one expression of that faithfulness, but it is given more weight than it can bear if it is regarded as the decisive expression of our response to the Gospel. For that we turn to the total expression of our lives as the people of God – the spirit of repentance and contrition, the compassionate and loving heart, the life that seeks to be faithful to God in all of its relationships. Who can render judgment on such matters other than God, who alone can “search the heart”?

[9] In recent years the urgency and divisiveness of certain moral issues have turned the attention of Lutherans to such issues as homosexuality, abortion, and the new genetics. In this volume, topics related to prenatal life are addressed by Jean Bethke Elshtain and Gilbert Meilaender, with both expressing the conservative view that would equate the moral weight and significance of embryonic life with that of human beings in society. Here again, in an effort to counteract a perceived threat, the weapon of absolutism is invoked in order to protect life in the womb. This rules out the judgments of those who are sensitive to life circumstances in a fallen world, which can make abortion at times the lesser of two evils. This conservative focus on the embryo as the epitome of “the least of these” has actually moved some to suggest that these words of Jesus should be understood as referring to prenatal life rather than to those who obviously had his attention – the poor and oppressed of society.

[10] I would suggest that the notion of paradox, given its prominence within our theology and ethics, should protect Lutherans from thinking that we possess the Truth that belongs to God alone. Paradox conveys mystery, and both stand at the very heart of the Gospel – expressed by Kierkegaard’s lifting up of Jesus Christ as the Absolute Paradox. This conviction bestows an appropriate sense of mystery to the work of the Christian theologian, who should recognize, with Luther, that when it comes to the mysteries of our faith we are simple beggars rather than sovereign lords. Our vocation as theologians today is misused if it does not instill a sense of humility that prevents us from the kind of judgments that condemn or denigrate those with whom we differ. Though the dynamics are different, the liberal can also fall into this trap, for ideological fervor turns everyone into a “true believer,” blind to his or her own dogmatism. In both church and society, we live in a time of intense partisanship that is fed by ideological certainty. It accentuates the need of theologians who exhibit a healthy self-criticism concerning their own stance, theologians who are willing to trust that respectful dialogue is the avenue both to greater self-knowledge and to knowledge of God’s Truth. I am thankful that Robert Benne, with his strong conservative orientation, continues to be that kind of theologian.

Paul T. Jersild

The Rev. Dr. Paul T. Jersild is Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Columbia, South Carolina