Friday, August 22, 2014

Four Principles Grounding Action for Children and Families Seeking Refuge

SFW header
Dear Clint,

At the end of July, we asked you to support children and families fleeing Central America due to violence and persecution. Your response was overwhelming. More than 900 actions were taken through ourAction Center, the highest level of action yet. However, we still need your voice to ensure families and children are treated with compassion and care.

In response to the rising numbers of children and families seeking refuge in the United States, LIRS developed the following four principles grounded in our faith and experience of serving newcomers for 75 years:
  • Maintain critical protections for children. Children and families fleeing to the U.S. need protection, including safeguards already in place like the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. The children LIRS serve every day remind us of the importance of these critical protections:
Carlos*, a 13 year old boy from El Salvador, fled to the U.S. after witnessing his mother’s brutal murder- four gunmen broke into Carlos’ home and shot his mother right in front of him. The gunmen were never caught. Suffering severe trauma after witnessing the event, his family decided to send him to live with a relative in the U.S. where he would not be in danger. A child like Carlos may not be able to talk about his experience without reliving the trauma. We must give children time and space to tell their stories and utilize child-centered and trauma-informed personnel.

*Name has been changed to protect the child’s identity
“I am thankful and grateful to have been given the chance to have a safe, peaceful, decent and respectable life by being resettled in the United States where I feel free to live as I believe and make my own choices… Resettling in the states is tough and difficult. A huge adjustment that requires hard work, patience, persistence, responsibility and discipline, but it is totally worth it.”
  • Reject the use of family detention. Detaining families is an inhumane and fiscally-irresponsible way to treat some of the most vulnerable migrants. Community-based alternatives to detention help eliminate the arbitrary use of detention and allow for greater access to justice and integration. LIRS staff recently visited the family detention center in Artesia, NM and shared their experience:
“Because there is no child care and children must remain with their mothers at all times, children are typically within earshot of traumatic conversations that can take place between their mother and an attorney. Both women and children were picking up trash around the facility to occupy their time. Some sick children have not been given medicine despite their parents requesting it. As a result of this emotionally taxing experience, several of the children are not eating and losing weight, including one baby who had lost three pounds.”
  • Ensure access to legal protection is available to all migrants and refugees, especially children. Horrifyingly, many vulnerable families and children lack access to life-saving legal representation and information. Liz Sweet, LIRS Director for Access to Justice, shares her experience working with children in need of protection:
“For thousands of children that come to this country seeking protection, there is no happy ending of liberty and safety. They walk into courts alone to face a judge, a prosecutor, and usually a translator. It does not matter their age nor educational level, children often face this process on their own. Thousands of children lack access to an attorney…to help navigate this process. [For these children] and others who fled for their lives, an attorney can mean the difference between life and death.”

Help us advance these principles by urging your Congressional representatives to champion welcoming legislative measures and resist harmful approaches. Utilize our resource for meeting with Members of Congress in person during August recess, or contact Members online through our Action Center.  We will also continue to urge President Obama to extend compassion and justice to families and children seeking refuge.

As people of faith, let our voices ring out in a unified call for the compassionate treatment of all newcomers.

In peace,

Brittney Nystrom
Director for Advocacy
National Headquarters
700 Light Street
Baltimore, Maryland 21230
410-230-2700 |

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar: A Theological Friendship

Books on theological friendships are rare. This ought not be. What better way to compare and contrast differing theologies than through the crucible of intellectuals of differing confessions finding their way as friends? D. Stephen Long assigns himself the admirable task of saving the Balthasar-Barth friendship from neoscholastic misunderstanding and Protestant misappropriation. Long considers Balthasar an outstanding guide through Barth's theology, both as an interpreter of Barth, as well as a theologian who supplements and forwards what Barth accomplished.

Long makes his case in a series of captivating moves, beginning with a chapter on their friendship. Although it was the Catholic-Protestant split that divided them (especially on the topics of "pure nature" and the analogia entis), on another level Barth and Balthasar had much in common. Both loved Mozart. Both had a painting of the Grünewald crucifixion hung over their desk. Both wrote long, fascinating works of theology. Both saw Jesus Christ as the center of their theology.

Barth and Balthasar's theological conversation begins with a letter Balthasar sent to Barth upon the publication of Church Dogmatics 2.1. Their friendship (which was always a conversation and a disagreement) continued until Barth's death. They vacationed together. They taught seminars together. They corresponded.

It may always have been part of Balthasar's program to welcome Barth back to Roman Catholicism. This was less a form of proselytizing, and more a sense on Balthasar's part that either Barth misunderstood a basic theologomena of Catholic thought, or it had never been presented in the proper manner, and if only Barth saw Catholic theology in the light Balthasar saw it, there would be no barrier.

So, although Barth and Balthasar find substantial and sustained agreement on the "form" of theology and its impact on various realms of theological thought, such as God, in Christ; ethics, as dogma; and the church, always in renewal; it is around this particular loci, the analogia entis, that the two never find rapprochement.

It is also the case that Balthasar continually risks censure from his own Catholic community, and misunderstanding from the Protestant side, for his way of presenting Barth's theology (and his lifelong commitment to do so). Chapter two in Long's book is therefore devoted, in all its complexity, to presenting Balthasar's interpretation of Barth, and charts the genealogy of its abandonment by Catholics and Protestants alike, if for different reasons.

It may do a disservice to Long's work to attempt a one sentence summary of Balthasar's way of interpreting Barth, for in fact neither writer wrote in ways that can be simply summarized. Instead, Long notes, Balthasar himself believed "setting forth Barth's theology is difficult... it could not be done in a few propositions, but was more like finding the right way to present Mozart" (39).

There is, in another sense, a very straightforward way to summarize what was central for both Barth and Balthasar. Long offers the sentence, midway in his book, that anyone would do well to memorize. Barth and Balthasar sought "much more profound articulation of what mattered to both of them: Christology with an analogy between God and creatures that prevented identity" (44, emphasis added).

Two terms in the book are worth defining here in this review. It is not my intent to be pedantic, but honestly, even as a reader of the book somewhat familiar with theological reflections on the topics of pure nature and the analogia entis, they were not terms I had developed concise definitions of in my own mind, so I offer these reflections here.

First: Pure nature is the idea that created nature is whole and complete on its own. It does not need God to be what it is. In theological systems that assume pure nature (and most Protestant theologies do so) grace is something added on top, extrinsic to, nature. The basic question: Was grace present prior to sin, or does grace only come into play when nature stops being pure?

Both Barth and Balthasar reject the notion of pure nature, although they approach some questions about nature and grace from different perspectives.

Second: Analogia entis is the theological concept that there exists something that analogically corresponds to the creator (of everything) that makes contemplation of the nature of that creator possible. In other words, the very being of creation offers an analogy by which one can contemplate the being of God.

Barth was famously opposed to the analogia entis, especially in his early work, although remarkably he develops later in his Church Dogmatics an understanding of the hypostatic union as a potential locus for the analogia entis. Balthasar sees this implicit in Barth's work and expresses it explicitly.

The middle to late section of Long's book is a riproaring good read, especially if you like a theologian who picks a fight in a friendly manner. Here, Long outlines the collapse of Balthasar's interpretation of Barth--not the failure of Balthasar's interpretation, but rather its abandonment by later theologians both of the Protestant and Catholic variety. Then one by one he illustrates why they are wrong, or how they have misunderstood Barth, Balthasar, or both.

Long concludes the book with a chapter on Barth and Balthasar as unlikely ecumenists. Barth often said he believed the proper posture for ecumenism was dogmatic intolerance of others positions (239). Balthasar was often suspect in his own community because of his fascination with Barth. Barth was involved in the church struggles during the war and following. Balthasar had left his Jesuit order and founded a new one, a religious community for men and women called the Community of Saint John. In spite of their oddly marginal positions vis-a-vis the church, their friendship became a model for ecumenism then, and Long argues it can be a model for ecumenical conversation today.

the precise way the two were ecumenical is summarized well in a late sentence of Long's: "Balthasar's theology was always caught between these two poles convincing Catholics they were as christological as Barth's Reformed theology, and convincing Protestants they could affirm the analogia entis and thereby glimpse the whole creation as God's good gift in, through, and for the glory of the mystery that is the hypostatic union" (277).

Barth and Balthasar shared a common vision of Christ as a radiating center that illumined everything else. Barth is remembered for focusing on the center. Balthasar, for Long, is to be remembered for illuminating how that center in Barth can radiate out into even more theological arenas than even Barth considered, especially into creation itself. It is Long's lovely accomplishment to invite all of us afresh to read Barth through Balthasar, and to read their friendship as a model for our own starting point in the continuing theological conversation.

Forthcoming as a review in Word & World: A Journal of Christian Ministry

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Half Awake in a Fake Empire: On #Ferguson

I know the way I perceive the world is colored considerably by the fact that I am a white male. When I speak with friends who are female, or African-American, I worry that as much as I think I understand them when they share their stories of struggle with racism or misogyny, the truth is, my perceptions are so distorted by my experience as a white male that I will never fully be able to grasp the feelings some African-Americans have when they hear of or experience events in Ferguson.

The truth of this shapes everything we do, whether it is the work of the church, or formulations of religious doctrines. It's why I value reading an author like James Cone who argues that there needs to be a black theology that doesn't take its queues from white theology because white theology is so distorted by its own sense of entitlement and power that it simply can't legitimately critique black theology.

The same is true of all our experiences and the decisions we make about the truth-claims of others. There is a sense in which it is subjectivity all the way down, and what we perceive, the truth of situations, is colored indelibly by our experience.

The problem here is that, if I don't share the experience of others, it remains a puzzle to me how I should appropriately respond. Should I remain silent? What should I do?

If the topic is one of misogyny and abuse of women, if I speak up about it, or write about it, it might be an example of mansplaining. I end up explaining something as a white male that should have been transparent because of the explanations offered by members of whatever community it is I'm speaking up for/with.

Allies walk a fine line with paternalism.

I have the feeling this is the case because although Kierkegaard famously remarked, "Subjectivity is truth," in actuality it might be truer to say that "intersubjectivity is truth." What I mean here is that, if subjectivity is truth, then truth really does break down into an atomistic, relative thing. What's true is what is true to me, alone.

And it is worth us considering this, because it is the way most of us live in the world most days. What's true is what is true to us.

But if we are going to resolve, in any fashion, entrenched and endemic problems like institutionalized racism, we are going to need to shift to an understanding of inter-subjectivity as truth. Inter-subjectivity is two or more subjects arriving at an understanding of truth that takes into account the subjective experience of each.

In the recent Ferguson struggles, one issue, perhaps the major issue, was that the sides could not and did not understand the experience of the other. The white police force failed to understand what it feels like to be an African-American community that fears, in many cases, police action. Conversely, the protestors likely couldn't get into the minds of the police and what they were thinking in their para-military approach to the protests.

Notice that on Thursday, when leaders came in who understood the subjective experience of both sides better, peace prevailed. Ronald Johnson was both a Ferguson native AND Missouri Highway Patrol Captain. His subjective experience mixed both sides of the line, and made an incredible difference in how everyone approached the conflict.

It always amazes me that groups in power think they can hold a discussion on a topic related to an oppressed community without including that community. Straight people like to talk about the LGBTQ community without including them in the discussions. People develop opinions about Islam, or make truth claims about the Scriptures of other religious traditions, without reading those texts, or becoming friends with people from those traditions.

So if you/we are struggling, trying to identify how we should respond to the wide variety of very real problems we hear about in the news, from the recent surge of unaccompanied minors to our borders, to the race issues in our nation, or the sadness we feel when we hear of Robin William's death and his bipolar and depression, let me suggest that there are three steps we can take right away that will help.

1) Realize that anything you believe you know about race, immigrants, or mental health is colored by your subjective experience. You don't know what you don't know.

2) To gain understanding, engage in love of neighbor, the next step is to "subject" yourself to the truth of the other, especially the truth of oppressed or marginalized communities, to listen to them and trust that their experience is also true and valid even if it isn't your experience. In fact you may need to accept the possibility that their truth is MORE true than your truth.

3) Do the hard work of discovering the intersubjective truth that lies between you and the other whose truth is different than yours.

This, I think, is what Cone means when he says that white theologians will need to die to their whiteness in order to become black. Because to truly walk in faith, we have to die to sin (which in this case is the absolutization of our own subjective truth as if it were truth for everyone). H. Richard Niebuhr believed that the great source of evil in this life is the absolutizing of the relative. Individuals do it. Communities do it. Nations do it.

I think this shift to inter-subjectivity, dying to self in order to live truly in the neighbor, may be the best definition of true repentance, which of course is the first and most vital action we can take whenever we lament the struggles we hear on the news. Then, after repentance, we wake up, and go walk with those neighbors.

4) To fully take responsibility for entrenched racism, all of us need to move beyond the rhetoric of reconciliation, and instead consider reparations. For this, I recommend the recent book from Eerdmans, Dear White Christians.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Technology and Faith Top Ten Reading List

Interested in thinking more intentionally about the intersection of faith and technology in an era when both play such a major cultural role? Consider these:

A great primer on faith as it is lived out on a variety of social media platforms.

A how-to ministry resource for the church in social media.

A fantastic book by a leading Christian commentator on film and video games.

Two books with contrasting views of how we should think about faith and gaming.

I would be remiss not mentioning that I've written a book on faith formation in a transmedia era. Quite a lot of the book examines the role of media as technology. The bibliography contains an even more exhaustive list of reads to consider, and/or look through the list of books people have purchased on Amazon when they purchased Mediating Faith.

My four favorite works of theology relative to new technologies.

Two books, from different eras and by quite different authors, that offer warnings about new media. I can't stop thinking about the Eggers novel, and it has dramatically changed how I approach new media in its totalizing aspects. And Benjamin is Benjamin, your movie watching will never be the same after reading his essay on mechanical reproducibility.

The enigmatic "father" of new media studies and faith formation.

Two great sci-fi novels to consider (both are amazing but will take some work to read well).

Ethnography of technology, faith, and human formation (boyd is hopeful, Turkle more skeptical).

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Who is Robert Saler?

I don't inquire into Robert Saler's identity because he is mysterious and unknown in the mode of Thomas Pynchon. And I don't ask it in order to launch an ad hominem discourse undermining his authorship based on biographical or personal details.

I ask the question because Robert Saler, in his new book, Between Magisterium and Marketplace: A Constructive Account of Theology and the Church (Emerging Scholars), launches an inquiry into what he calls "theological authorship" and this in relationship to the place of such authorship in the life of the church and the method by which we establish authorial authority.

I don't need to review Saler's CV here. You can read it for yourself if you're curious. Instead, what I'd like to do in this review is simply ask a set of questions relative to Saler's central thesis, but employ those questions in the direction of the intellectual product he has brought to us--namely, a book that originated as a dissertation.

Let's start with the dissertation. Saler's book is published in an outstanding new monograph series from Fortress Press, the Emerging Scholars Series. This is a curated, selective dissertation series dedicated to highlighting creative, innovative new projects from new scholars in biblical studies, theology, and Christian history.

Since Saler in his dissertation posits that theological authorship as we understand it is particularly influenced by the 19th century valorization of originality and innovation as essential elements of the authorial craft, we might consider the entire Emerging Scholars series as a living example of this 19th century valorization.

Saler further argues that this innovation is the most salient feature of authorship for self-authentication, above other things like obligation to an ecclesial tradition or governing structures of a church. I would add to Saler's point one further thesis, that although authors in such a series are not beholden to a specific ecclesial tradition or governing structure, they are however subject to the "curating" process of the publishing house that may or may not publish their dissertation, and further subject to the critical review of their dissertation readers. Since Saler wrote his dissertation for a Lutheran seminary, and published it with a Lutheran publishing house, there may be more of a magisterium in place than he acknowledges in his book. And curiously, his book is a product of a magisterium that is also in some sense the marketplace.

But returning to Saler's central thesis and concept, Saler takes time, as many dissertations do, to place his argument within an historical and theological context. This is actually one of my favorite reasons for reading dissertations, and Saler's in particular. It is often illuminating and gratifying to walk through a theological period, or be re-introduced to theological authors, out of the perspective of a theologian and academic who has spent the past few years immersing themselves deeply in their work.

Here is Saler's central thesis: Authorship is always a kind of political transaction with authorization and therefore authority. In the case of theological authorship, the clear and most compelling option for establishing authority is what theologians often call the teaching authority of the church--the magisterium.

In order to get us to concede his point, after a rather fascinating historical comparison of Tyndale and More in their exchanges over theological authorship, Saler walks us through a comparison of Schleiermacher and Newman, with Newman offering the catholic, magisterial option, and Schleiermacher grounding the poetic, virtuoso marketplace author. These two chapters illustrate the historical and research work any author of a dissertation needs to accomplish in order to establish themselves with any kind of authority as an author deserving of a ph.D.

Along the way, Saler coins a term, "polis ecclesiologists," to classify (perhaps too broadly and simply) a set of theologians who believe it is desirable to have a concrete, enduring, and visible magisterium that establishes the public teaching function of the church in the world. Into this camp he tosses authors like Reinhard Hütter, Ola Tjørhom, Carl Braaten R.R. Reno, and Paul Griffiths, many of whom have converted to Roman Catholicism, and/or are Lutherans with an evangelical catholic disposition.

For this reason, Saler's book is an excellent primer or inquiry into the evangelical catholic movement within Lutheranism.

Here are some of my enduring questions for Saler. First, given that he sees the "polis ecclesiology" as the most sustainable alternative to his proposal of church as diffused spatialized event, I do wonder why he so readily elides the Schleiermacher option from his constructive proposal. He has a rather humorous way of summarizing this midway in his book: Enter the theologian as hip virtuoso; enter the genius as doctrinal author" (82). What's so bad about this approach, actually? It takes place in the marketplace, which Saler finds problematic... and yet his very arguments are made as Saler the hip, virtuoso theologian, and whether we trust Saler in his overall argument rests to a considerable extent on whether we consider Saler a genius doctrinal author.

Furthermore, I wonder where rationality is in all of this. Saler himself relies on rationality through and through. This is an incredibly well-argued and programmatic dissertation. Saler establishes the truth of his claims through rational argumentation, yet rationality as a form of authorial authorization does not make an appearance in the book. It makes me wonder if Saler believes rationality is counter to the weakness and diffusive spatiality he posits as the concrete alternative to a public church with a magisterium. 

Saler writes, "To the extent that one wishes to have the church function as a concrete, distinct public with the means of authorizing theological production in such a way that escapes the logic of the marketplace, then a magisterium is necessary" (176). Saler concedes this point, but I believe it concedes too much, but in a direction somewhat different than he intends. It gives up on the marketplace, which is one kind of problem. It also fails to consider other loci for authorization such as rationality itself, or even other positivist options like Barth's Word of God.

In his concluding chapter, Saler takes up the task of describing the alternative, church as diffusively spatialized event, through the work of Joseph Sittler in his Called to Unity speech. For Saler, the church is not best thought of in spatial terms as a concrete, visible publi that is self-present to its own authorization (187), but rather as diffusively spatialized event. 

Saler takes a very puzzling turn at this point. Instead of investing time in the concluding chapter outlining what this ecclesiology might entail, he launches a lengthy inquiry into Barth's Romerbrief (in dialectical conversation with Spivak's Can the Subaltern Speak?), arguing that the book itself models the nature and task of the church that Barth envisions, an intriguing and fully realized eschatology. As odd as this sounds, I think Saler means it. In other words, Barth's Romans commentary IS the diffuse, spatialized event Saler proposes as an alternative ecclesiology to the magisterium of the polis ecclesiologists.

Where does this leave us, then? As strange as it sounds, and as overwhelmingly bookish as Saler's proposal ends up being, I think I largely agree with it, even if perhaps for different reasons than Saler. I think Saler is arguing here that the church exists in the world much like Barth's Roman's commentary exists in the world. It has no specific power per se, and yet that book when it came on the scene set off an explosion that rocked the theological world, and set the course of the church in some new directions. At the same time, even though Barth's theology has been strong in that sense of changing the course of theology, it has never, unlike the work of some other theologians, firmly claimed or formed a "movement." There's not a Barth church. Instead, the internal inconsistencies and weakness of his work have left his theology more diffuse, spatialized but not thoroughly public, an event rather than a building.

He writes, "I constructed a vision of authorship in which the destabilized subjectivity of the author, the necessary failure of theology to achieve total representation of God or God's creatures, and the ultimate 'worthlessness' of that theology to the marketplace are positive goods to be welcomed by Christians seeking to live out their lives as witnesses to God's redemptive mission toward all creation" (236-237). Worthless, but I have a feeling Fortress Press hopes to make some money selling Saler's book?

Although I wish Saler would have gotten more constructive in his constructive chapter, I admit that most dissertations leave that portion of their work weak, and perhaps on purpose, because the focus of dissertation writing is more on the historical inquiry and research, the assembly of resources to make a new argument, so the argument itself is the main constructive work rather than the proposals that emerge from it. In this sense, Saler's conclusion is apt, and inspiring: "In the near future, it will be important for other ecclesiologists to follow suit with similarly critical assessments of how the 'marketplace' of academic theology can and can't host 'worthless' truth telling" (238). 

Or this: "Like all ecclesial codifications, denominations as entities are under holy threat by the unpredictability of the church event, and for that threat they should be profoundly grateful" (233). So my last question: Can a published dissertation be a church event?

The Six Most Popular Posts at Lutheran Confessions

Perhaps you are a long-time reader of Lutheran Confessions. Perhaps you are brand new to the blog.

Kicking off August of 2014, I offer here a review of the six most frequently read posts on the blog.

Like anyone committed to ecumenism, I grieve the fractured state of Christ's church. On the other hand and in the meantime, we are still called to celebrate the diverse gifts present in the various denominations and movements of Christianity in the world, and there's much reason to celebrate the ELCA. These are 11 reasons I'm proud to pastor in the ELCA.

If you're like me, you are curious what is "next" in the church, what are the developing edges, the innovative approaches. This set of interviews with mission developers in the ELCA is one great way to actually see the face of mission development in the ELCA.

The church goes through ups and downs. Individual congregations do also. These are 5 signs you are part of a health church. Ultimately, it's more fun and worthwhile focusing on building signs of health than worrying over the dis-ease. Invest in the health.

What does the fox say? That enigmatic existential question asked by pop singers from Norway rose into a tidal wave of popularity, and this post, five things norwegian foxes can teach theologians, surfs the wave.

A while back, quite a while back, when Mark Driscoll was controversial but not fallen, cult-like in his popularity but still basically orthodox in a Reformed fashion, I wrote this post, Look at Me Mark Driscoll, about what it is like emotionally to be a pastor while not having the charisma of Mark. 

If there is any one topic that actually creates all the other divisions that exist between various stripes of Christian movements in North America, it has to be differences in biblical interpretation. So this was my best attempt at describing my own, and I think many Lutherans, method of holding and interpreting scripture. Hi, my name is Clint, and I'm the least-bible minded pastor in America.

Friday, August 01, 2014

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Bible

This summer, we were kicking it "old school" at church a bit. With some additional time during the education hour available, decided to offer a series of lectures on the Bible. The result: seven lectures, each about 45 minutes in duration, that serve kind of like a podcast introduction to reading the Bible. If you've got the time, maybe en route to a vacation destination, or daily during your commute, you might want to check them out.

They are posted here in the reverse order in which they were given. Enjoy, and share if you'd like.