Solberg on The Promise of Lutheran Ethics

[1] Whoever is worried that Lutheranism as a living tradition is at risk should take heart from the publication of The Promise of Lutheran Ethics. Even before one assays its substance, the book is remarkable. It is a collection of seven thoughtfully drawn essays by eight disparate writers, introduced by two short reflections by the volume’s editors and concluding in a lively chapter entitled “Table Talk,” involving all contributors-who challenge themselves, each other, and the reader to reach back, look forward, refine, redefine, and in all cases, plumb Luther’s legacy for the resources we and those who follow us require to live faithfully.

[2] As distinctive as their styles, dispositions, and priorities are, these six men and two women are clearly all theologians with a passion…and bound, somehow, to be ethicists, too: as a son or daughter of Luther, that engager of the world and its political, social, and cultural tumult, how to avoid it, after all? (One writer eschews the moniker “professional ethicist,” which he defines as “a recently emerged species of specialists who like to present themselves as part of a new expert-culture trained to solve complex moral problems and quandaries” [31]. With that definition, what self-effacing Lutheran could admit to being one?)

[3] In what follows, I would like to describe briefly some of the diverse themes I found in the book, and then return to raise a few questions. Before I do, though, let me say a few things about my agenda. I currently teach at a Lutheran church-related college. Measured by numbers of students and hours of class preparation and evaluation, most of my work revolves around one of several courses the religion department offers through which students can satisfy the college’s one-course religion requirement. Like many such courses, the one I teach aspires to much more than it can realistically accomplish. Acknowledging a “substantial focus on the Christian tradition,” it aims to introduce students to (among other things) a disciplined study of aspects of that tradition. In the process, I also work to help them recognize and formulate and come to terms with their own religious questions and how these questions-and responses to them-emerge from and re-enter their daily lives and the larger world. Religious indoctrination is neither appropriate nor productive. The “indoctrination” we work on designs to enhance students’ ability and skill to think appreciatively and critically, not least of all about what they believe and how they live-and how these are woven together.

[4] I love teaching this course. As a required course, it is already a challenge. But the challenge is more complicated. Others who teach religion in Lutheran church-related colleges may resonate with my dismay at the ignorance even (!) students who identify themselves as Lutheran display when it comes to what might legitimately be considered basic knowledge of Christian (and Lutheran) history, doctrine, and practice. This is so for many reasons, some of them utterly unrelated to the church. But one cannot help wondering, as I have more than once, what we who call ourselves the church are transmitting when we pass along the tradition, and how well we are doing it.

[5] I regularly encounter these beliefs, for example: that being a Christian means being a “good person”; that a Christian “gets to heaven” by being a “good person” or by “believing in Jesus”-or by some indeterminate combination of these; that being an ethical person means doing one’s own thing “as long as you don’t hurt anyone else”; and that no one has the right to judge another’s actions, since they are as entitled as we to do their own thing. The other day I asked my students-in an ethics in medicine class-to try to come up with a working definition of “the common good.” I was more than a little discouraged when even those who had identified themselves most decisively as “religious,” particularly in discussing other raw ethics issues such as abortion, fretted over the task and, in the end, had little or nothing to say.

[6] So…when I turn to a book like The Promise of Lutheran Ethics, I am frankly looking for help: help in clarifying, thinking through, trying out, and if necessary revising material that matters to me-not only as a “practicing Christian” of the Lutheran persuasion, but also as a teacher of what I count as vital resources drawn from my theological and ethical heritage. I have never been able to “do” Lutheran theology without “doing” Lutheran ethics, too; I think I come by that dual vocation honestly. How will this tradition and its contemporary voices help me help my students? Will they make sense? Will my students and I see a life-giving reciprocity between what this tradition offers and our lives as and among God’s beloved creatures?

[7] The book’s first contributor, Robert Benne, wants to remind us of the basics. The central principle of Lutheran ethics, as of its theology, is “justification by grace through faith on account of Christ”-an “event” that lies within the dynamic God establishes and sustains for each and all of us as God’s creatures. The covenantal existence we are created for takes shape within the moral context of “places of responsibility” God provides for us to live in, obedient to God’s law. That very law drives us, broken and repentant, into the loving arms of the good news: God-in-Christ. The God-loved and -justified sinner’s faith becomes active in extravagant, initiatory love toward the neighbor.

[8] In his essay, Reinhard Hütter attacks the wrongheaded and -hearted modern understanding of the relationship between freedom and law. Christian freedom is not lawless; it does not manifest in well-intended actions taken by already-forgiven, self-sustaining moral agents. Understanding it this way betrays a deep resentment against God’s law as the enemy of genuine human freedom. Hütter drives home the point that the real problem is “human life under the condition of sin” (34). The substance and form of true human freedom, understood in light of Luther, reside in “the embodiment of practicing God’s commandments as a way of life” (33). For Martha Ellen Stortz, the way of life of a “practicing Christian” is “composed” (a lovely and completely apt musical verb!) by certain practices (Luther pointed particularly to worship, catechesis, and individual prayer). Such practices, far from being “good works,” “form” us for a life of discipleship. Stortz observes that in this sense, “Lutheran ethics [is an] ethics of formation” (55). Prayer, integral to formation, “forms and informs moral vision” (71), rearranging and expanding horizons of ethical action, assisting the pray-er (who is also the moral actor) to “see something as it really is without…calibrating everything in terms of its relationship to the self” (71).

[9] Like Stortz, Richard Perry begins with practice-what we do in real life-which he calls “ethical action.” He proposes that we may discover (at least part of) what Lutheran ethics is by investigating ethical action Lutherans have engaged in and what justification they have adduced for it. Perry breaks open a whole new treasure trove; he challenges us to look at one of the most recalcitrant problems facing our church and our society today-racism-and to look where most of us Lutherans have never looked before, namely, to the ethical witness of our African American forebears in the faith. I am struck by what and how much we Lutherans still have to learn about what gospel-born(e) freedom really means. James Childs, acknowledging the ambivalence Lutherans have expressed-often implicitly-about the mandate that undergirds our action in the world (and in the church, I might add), argues that Lutherans act because and on the basis of their calling as a church-a community that lives out, not its own ethical or theological certainty about its doctrine or its own powers of discernment, but rather its faithful anticipation of the fulfillment of God’s promise. God’s realm-already and yet not yet among us-will surely come.

[10] Taking up the work of the apostle Paul, on whose epistles to the fledgling churches so much of our own theological and ethical tradition rides, David Fredrickson directs our attention to Christian ethics as a deliberative process that both shapes and is shaped by a congregational ethos. The Spirit gathers and empowers “all who belong to Christ” to exercise “free speech” that enables them to “test all things”-values, decisions, states of things, places of responsibility, what is the will of God-against what enhances the whole community in Christ. And finally, in the face of anxieties about the abandonment or “fading” of the Reformation tradition, Larry Rasmussen and Cynthia Moe-Lobeda propose a promising method for “doing ethics” that “combines three strong voices”: the Reformation’s “deposit”; its “reform dynamic”; and the believing community’s discernment and living out of the signs of the times. We must, they contend, use the tradition to reform the tradition “in order to address new issues and provide ‘a gospel for every present'” (134). Blessedly, we are inheritors of a tradition fit for precisely such an ongoing task of reformation, even when, as bearers of the tradition, we have demonstrated our reluctance to engage in that task.

[11] With apologies for their brevity and lack of nuance, I hope my “short-takes” on these essays nonetheless reveal my deep appreciation for the variety of themes and approaches its contributors take up. I intend the questions and observations I now raise to be respectful provocations to further thought and conversation, in the spirit of the one already begun in this book.

[12] I am a little distressed, I must confess, by Robert Benne’s several references to those who exercise a “hermeneutic of suspicion” with respect to the Lutheran tradition. (I raise this in part because the sense of urgency in his work emanates in no small measure from his concern about the “at-risk-ness” of the tradition.) Such folk-(otherwise unspecified) “[e]thicists” (at the beginning of his essay) and “feminists, liberationists, and multiculturalists” (at its end)-threaten the ethos of the tradition, he believes, the interest and confidence that (help) sustain it-even (at the close of the essay) “the core itself.” Benne asks, “How far can these suspicions be taken before the tradition itself is either dissolved or divided?” (30).

[13] Long before I heard a hermeneutic of suspicion named for what it was, I was being taught-by my intellectually and morally street-smart elders-to exercise it in the interest of learning to call things by their right names. Although there has never been any guarantee that those who exercise it will be “right” in any sense, it has seemed a consistently constructive part of my tool kit when used, like all other tools, appropriately. And then, this: As often as “feminists, liberationists, and multiculturalists” are lumped together, we are just not the monolith or the power block we are credited to be-and certainly not within the Lutheran family. Marinated in Luther’s tradition though I am, I have discovered strong affinities between the method and the substance of the Reformer’s theology, on the one hand, and the method and insights of both secular feminist thought and Christian liberation theologians from the Third World, on the other. My commitment to and appreciation of Luther’s tradition have been strengthened-not undermined-in conversations generated because a hermeneutic of suspicion was exercised-as it is meant to be-in good faith.

[14] I concur with Reinhard Hütter’s disparagement of human freedom “lite,” as well as with his deep conviction that real human freedom is constituted within God’s law. I am moved, however, to make two observations. The first is this: Does our conviction of the constitutive role God’s commandments play both in what our freedom is and in how we understand it theologically and ethically-does this shared conviction obviate our need to interpret those commandments, to discern how (to quote David Yeago, whom Hütter quotes on page 42) “Adam’s [sic] love for God [shall]…take form in a historically concrete way of life”? I fear sometimes that the argument over how to interpret God’s commandments is mis-taken for an argument about whether God’s commandments have any place in a discussion of genuine human freedom. This is an unfortunate confusion, whenever it occurs.

[15] The other observation is this: Luther’s genius lay at least partly in his insight into some pretty fundamental proclivities of human being, among them the one to “curve in on ourselves.” When Hütter pegs our eager “substitution” of ourselves for/in God’s absence (37) to modern humans’ insistence on living “as if God did not exist,” I trust he is only highlighting, for this historical epoch, what Luther-and others before and after-knew about our tendency to insist on our own god-ness. In this respect, neither moderns nor postmoderns can boast.

[16] Much of the “nubbiness” of this volume’s fabric derives from the many ways in which the freedom-theme is woven into it. Among the most colorful threads are those contributed by David Fredrickson and Richard Perry. Fredrickson’s fascinating account of Paul explicates the apostle’s countercultural assertion (for his own day-and for ours!) of “free speech,” a remarkably political concept, as the Spirit’s gift to all who are in Christ, without regard to station, gender, or nation. This gift, which brings the silenced as well as the eloquent, the marginalized as well as the powerful, to voice, is essential to the Christian community’s responsibility to “question…and search…out God’s will” (124), transformed as they have been by the presence of “the mind of Christ” within them. In that process, all are called upon to extend the freedom given in Christ to others and to bear their differences, even the really important ones. (I am reminded here of Benne’s description of the radical force of agape love, a love that “does not observe the limits that human love sets around its own in-group” [14].) Talk about living in faith!

[17] Richard Perry contextualizes the theme of freedom within the historical and contemporary experience of African American people: “The goal [of ethical action] is to build a community of freedom…Freedom is more than a spiritual freedom…[It] is historically situated and includes action to enhance the life of the community” (78-79). Although I am not African American, I recognize and resonate with Perry’s words, not least of all because of my own lived experience in church and society. His work protests the overlooking or discounting of historical and political realities, among them slavery and its legacy, racism, whose theological and ethical significance demands but so seldom gets our attention. His work also expresses a claim that all ethical action happens in and affects the life of the community, whether it is narrowly or broadly cast. Within a theological tradition as explicitly incarnational as the Lutheran is, it is difficult to explain-at least theologically-how often we manage to insist that the freedom God pours out over us in Christ is principally-even only?-of spiritual moment, or how often we have refused to wrestle with what “the freedom of the Christian” might be or imply for the bodies of those who are enslaved, imprisoned, oppressed, homeless.

[18] Teaching liberation theologies from Africa, Asia, and Latin America has compelled me to face an interesting challenge as a European American Christian: What convinces us that we-and our ethics, even our theology-are definitive for contemporary Christianity (are we not convinced of that)? Richard Perry’s essay occasions for me a related challenge: What is it that makes us-any of us-genuinely “Lutheran”?

[19] I am deeply grateful for this book. I will return to it both as a scholar and as a teacher. I look forward to the continuation of the conversation begun here, trusting that both the process that produced it and the insights that have emerged from it will become part of our formation as a community of justified sinners, bound and free, responsive to our calling. “[T]o be a Lutheran,” Walter Altmann has written, “is an event, not a state of being…[I]t is a permanent task, carried out in continuously renewed fidelity to the gospel” (Luther and Liberation: A Latin American Perspective [Fortress, 1992] 139-unfortunately, now out of print!).

[20] Thanks to the editors and contributors for carrying on this task!

Copyright © 1999 dialog. Used with permission.
From dialog, Volume 38, Number 2 (Spring 1999).

See Karen Bloomquist’s response to reviews of The Promise of Lutheran Ethics.
See John Stumme’s response to reviews of The Promise of Lutheran Ethics.