John Stumme — Lutheran Ethicist

[1] Every once in a while I pull a slim volume from my shelf and leaf through it. The book is Helmut Thielicke’s A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, translated into English and published in the United States in 1962.[1] This go round, I turned my attention to Martin E. Marty’s introduction to Thielicke’s work. Way back in 1962 Marty felt theological thinking faced threats that I will sort into two categories: those intellectual in nature and those of a practical sort.

[2] Regarding the intellectual challenges, one of them had to do with an inferiority complex plaguing theologians as they engage academics of other disciplines. Marty observes: the theologian often anticipates intellectual inadequacy. The strategy then becomes one of staying away from analysis and scrutiny. This is exacerbated by what Marty sees as an anti-intellectual relegation of solid theological thought to the domain of what we might call “mind games.” This anti-intellectualism relates in turn to the practical threats to theology. The latter can turn up, according to Marty, in an aversion to pursuits with no direct, immediate effect on parish life.

[3] I recount Marty’s forty-five-year-old observations because he neatly sketches much of the context in which John Stumme has pursued theology-as a student and teacher of theological ethics and (since 1988) as “insider-participant” in the development of the ELCA’s corpus of studies, social statements, and messages.

[4] Fast forward to 2006 and the question that often comes up in Lutheran writing: “What does it mean to be Lutheran?” Obviously, it is assumed, Lutheranism has to do with more than geography or culture. Kathryn Kleinhans’ article, “Lutheranism 101,” begins with the question of Lutheran identity and moves into “the most distinctive themes of Lutheran theology.”[2]

[5] This serves as a contemporary reminder of something long observed, namely that Lutheranism holds a position as a theological movement within the church catholic. Although a theological movement need not devolve into “intellectualism,” present-day attempts to distinguish various Christian denominations according to their relative emphases invariably locate Lutheran churches toward the intellectual end of the spectrum and away from the emotional one.

[6] Does this leave us particularly vulnerable to what Marty long ago saw as the anti-intellectual threat? Are we trying to live down our intellectual heritage? A few broad trends in the twenty-first century United States of America may make us want to shop around for other answers to the “What does it mean to be Lutheran?” question.

[7] Allow me a few sweeping generalizations about those trends. We experience:

An increasing appeal to feeling (as distinct from thinking) in motivational messages of all sorts-political, commercial, religious. We have become well versed in Aristotle’s first and second steps of persuasion–knowing the audience (ethos), and then assuring them that we feel their pain (pathos). But we may never actually arrive at Aristotle’s third step, namely reason (logos).

A growing reliance on public relations or (viewed more negatively) “spin” in controlling the population. Our social environment rarely supports reasoned deliberation on issues. Notions such as “truth” give way to “effect.”

An apparent disregard for expertise. The closing days of Terri Schiavo’s life showcased this trend, one of sidelining (in this case, medical) expert opinion while evoking an emotional response in the service of (in this case, religious and or political) motives.

A loss of connection to the past. Rather than learning from the past, we declare each significant event (such as September 11th) the beginning of a new era where things are completely changed. Our lives relate more to the future, which C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape considers the venue par excellence for temptation.

[8] I intend the four observations above as illustrative of the tide against which every solid theological thinker-such as John Stumme-must swim. More importantly, however, I believe that Stumme’s work responds in significant ways to these challenges. In terms of the four observations, this includes:

A modeling of service for sister and brother Christians that entails both their whole heart and their whole mind. Heart-felt experiences as a Freedom Rider (the 1960s) and as a missionary south of the Equator (the 1970s and 1980s) are part and parcel of Stumme’s theological reflection.

An emphasis on a moral deliberation that allows people to delve deeper than the images or (viewed more negatively) stereotypes they may have of one another. For Stumme, this deliberation has to do not with an idle quest for abstract “truth” but with faithful living.

A perspective on theological reflection as a vocation within the church for the benefit of the entire church. Stumme has dedicated two decades of his career not merely speaking or writing at us but, most importantly, listening to us and participating in conversation.

An appreciation for the past. Working in an era when the Lutheran heritage may be considered a collection of wooden concepts in a plastic world, Stumme rediscovers there a treasure trove and grist for our theological mill.

[9] In the same vein as A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, Stumme reminds us that theology involves all who faithfully seek understanding. In the context of faithful living, he thinks about life. In turbulent times, he helps the church struggle and grapple. In the present, he learns from and argues with his heritage.[3] What’s more, he invites the rest of us on the journey.

[10] Before moving on, I want underscore Stumme’s take on tradition. He summarizes it himself in “A Lutheran Tradition on Church and State,” where he encourages “ELCA Lutherans to draw on and build on what we have received in facing the challenges of a new century.” Further: “We should learn from and argue with our tradition, not forget or abandon it.”[4] I stress Stumme’s involvement with tradition in the context of his (quasi, one assumes) retirement. His own work on church and state indicates that we need not wait for centuries to pass before we pay attention to our predecessors.

[11] Hopefully, his investigation of Lutheran social thought of mid-twentieth-century America will inspire eventual efforts at investigating the ELCA’s growing corpus of studies, statements and messages. To which Stumme himself has been a key contributor, of which he has been a major shaper.

[12] John Stumme is, specifically, a Lutheran ethicist. Anyone who has remarked on the relative length of Paul Althaus’ The Theology of Martin Luther when comparedto the same author’s The Ethics of Martin Luther would suspect an additional challenge faced by a Lutheran ethicist.

[13] In the words of many a confirmation student: “Now that God has done it all, what’s left for us to do (or even say)?” Quite a lot, as it turns out. In this connection, I very much appreciate Stumme’s efforts in lifting up “the promise of Lutheran ethics.” Used as the title of the book he edited with Karen Bloomquist, the phrase holds a measure of poetic ambiguity.[5]

[14] On the one hand, Lutheran ethics has promise-a promise in part borne out through its realistic view of the human situation. In response to the great schemes of human progress up to and including those of 2006, Lutheran ethics introduces the bruised, broken, bloody and dead body of the crucified God. And, through that cross, a genuine hope.

[15] On the other hand, Lutheran ethicists such as Stumme keep a promise (live up to a commitment) by: receiving, learning from, and challenging tradition; facing a troubled present; and helping the rest of us live in hopeful anticipation of God’s future.

[16] Over the past twenty years Stumme has lived out his commitment in a difficult setting, where church people, daily, face difficult decisions. When Thielicke came up with his advice for young theologians, he cautioned them to take seriously the questions of parishioners-“the fire through which we must always march.” Dr. Stumme is also Pastor Stumme, and he has spent a career following Thielicke’s advice. Thanks, John, for doing your theology how and where it matters. Thanks, John, for efforts that have had (and will have) “fire” not as scenery but as “refiner’s fire” (Malachi 3:2).

End Notes

[1] Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. With an Introduction by Martin E. Marty (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962).
[2] Kathryn Kleinhans, “Lutheranism 101,” in The Lutheran, June, 2006.
[3] See Stumme’s introduction to Karen Bloomquist and John R. Stumme (eds), The Promise of Lutheran Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998), p.1.
[4] John Stumme, “A Lutheran Tradition on Church and State,” in John R. Stumme and Robert W. Tuttle (eds), Church and State: Lutheran Perspectives (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 51-73, p. 69.
[5] Op Cit.