Thursday, December 31, 2015

Reading the Long Way into 2016

There were a lot of great essays published in 2015. In the Twitter era, accused as it is of attention-deficit reading, long-form journalism has held its own. We still write and read sentences longer than 140 characters and blogs longer than 800 words.

Memorable among the long reads of 2015 include Amy Wallaces's (Wired magazine) stunning examination of Sci-Fi's Hugo Awards and the Battle for Pop Culture's Soul. It's about nerd-on-nerd violence, identity politics, and what's at stake for science fiction.

Then there was Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose Atlantic essay on The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration continued his long, convincing, and damning exposé of our failure to make reparations for slavery, which has led in many ways to the current crisis of our criminal justice system. Also powerful was a summary, at year's end, by Colin Daileda's of the significance of #blacklivesmatter: How Black Lives Matters Force America to Face Racism Once More.

I have attempted and failed to read Karl Knausgaard's long novels, so popular in Norway and now translated into English as My Struggle. I know a lot of people who are reading him. Along with half of Norway. But here's a chance to take him in a smaller dose, a review in the New York Times book review,

A lot was written about refugees in 2015. Especially poignant in my reading experience was the Oxford American essay by Michelle García on a young boy crossing the Texas border.

This was the year a Frank Lloyd Wright House was rebuilt, piece by piece, in Northwest, Arkansas. This architectural essay includes some fascinating photos of the process.

Probably the biggest news story of 2015 in science, if not the biggest news story period, is about gene-editing.

Genuinely one of the most wonderful and strange things of the year, a man who sells his wife's clothes to build a Christmas village in the basement.

Continuing the hacker mystique:

And remember, as loud as this year was, we finally gained marriage equality in the United States!

For more great examples of long-form in 2015, mosey on over to Longreads for their review of 2015.

And please, submit your favorite essays in the comments!

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Multiple Religious Belonging: Sites of Divine Encounter

In Bentonville, Arkansas, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities are planning to build a shared tri-faith house of worship.

I have good friends who are Hindu who also consider themselves Christian.

I have other friends who believe they have become more committed Christians because they are also Buddhist.

Most Christians I know, myself included, are so deeply wedded to the liturgies of capitalism and nationalism that our Christianity is seriously hybridized with these religions.

All the while, in spite of these stories, most of the people I know, myself included, tend to act and operate as if we worship just one thing, as if we have just one religious belonging. Not only that, we assume that belonging to just one religion is the "right" thing. One of our tacit ideas is that religiousness requires exclusiveness in the same way marriage does in monogamous societies.

It might be a uniquely western and modern mental framework that prides itself on holding to a single, pure worldview. Quite a bit of the anxiety around relativism, globalization, secularism, seems to mistakenly believe there was once, or can be, a single, monolithic, sufficient and self-contained world one call one's very own--and that this worldview would win in a competition with other similarly self-contained worldviews.

More recently, news headlines have focused on Larycia Hawkins, a Wheaton College tenured professor suspended from teaching for wearing a hijab as an Advent discipline and stating on Facebook that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, and increasing numbers of Christians, as the world watches the tragedy of the Syrian refugee crisis, wonder about the deeper relationship between the two world faiths.

Much of the conversation, once it gets beyond gut reactions frustrated with Wheaton for their action or supportive, begins to discuss things like the dos-and-donts of cultural appropriation. And that conversation is indeed more complicated and interesting.

So the new book by a group of authors from the World Council of Churches, on multiple religious belonging and participation (MRP), is an excellent resource. John Thatamanil, in the opening essay, asks: How might North American thinking about religious diversity be reconfigured by contributions from a global theological community of conversation that has long had to deal with religious multiplicity? 

That's an important question, which the rest of the book takes up in greater detail. It takes the reader to places in the world where MRP is normative, India in particular. I'll come back around to that in a bit. The world's population is frequently MRP. The West is kind of unique in that westerners "select" the practices to which they are drawn.

In addition to this book's reminder that global religion has a different texture than western religion, Thatamanil also writes, "Given the omnipresence of cultural flow, the primary normative question cannot be about whether or not persons should engage in MRP. Our traditions, and we ourselves, are always already multiple" (15). 

I find this shifting of the normative question essential. Although the idea that we are all already engaging in MRP will deeply disturb anyone who believes in the purity of their "one" religion, for the rest of us, open to the idea that cultures influence one another and our histories and context shape us, the reminder that we are all already MRP can help us understand much better people who are more public about their MRP in more than one recognized religion.

Thatamanil in the remainder of his essay makes the convincing case that we shouldn't ask whether MRP should happen, but rather how to assess specific instances of MRP.

We can ask: Does this instance of MRP misappropriate the religions of others? 
We can ask: Do these two or more religions contra-indicate? Is it like taking conflicting prescription medications?
We can ask: Does this form of MRP cause existential uncertainty? This is an especially important question when evaluating those (mostly mystics) who have gone all the way to double belonging).

Thatamanil's key final thesis is worth quoting in full:
Our era requires a new kind of wisdom: the capacity to see the world through more than one set of religious lenses and to integrate into one life, insofar as possible, what is disclosed through those lenses... For lack of a better phrase, I call his binocular wisdom, an extension from binocular vision, vision generated by both eyes, the only kind that yields depth perspective.
So many emerging faith communities of which I'm aware are at the cutting edge of this. Growing congregations in our denomination are increasingly multi-denominational, representing Lutheran-Presbyterian together, or Methodist-Lutheran. Or they are intentionally multi-ethnic. Or they have binocular vision that enables them to engage urbanites, or spiritual atheists.

The next two essays in the volume consider multiple religious participation in Trinitarian, and then confessional, perspective. Mark Heim makes a compelling case that Trinitarian theology guards against exclusivism--implying that Jesus Christ cannot be an exhaustive or exclusive source for the knowledge of God--while simultaneously guarding against thoroughgoing pluralism, in that the particular confession of Christ in the Trinity maintains a non-exclusivist center.

Similarly, confessional theology, inasmuch as in Lutheran theology it remembers the mere passivus of faith in Christ, can be deepened by the conversation between MRP and confessional faith. We receive faith as a gift. We can receive the faith of others as a gift that deepens our own, even if it also makes it multiple.

Many of the remaining essays are difficult to summarize, because they inquire into specific global phenomena in MRP and religious hybridity. At least two focus on mystics in particular who have transcended single religions to belong doubly. And/or they outline the shape of specific interacts between Hindu and Christian faith in places like India and Asia. 

I found one ethical insight especially worth quoting:
If hybridity talk is to to be prevented from running into the danger of becoming just such another marketable commodity--that is, without an ethical orientation--then those articulations need to be examined critical across the various disciplines, including theology. Such critical examination needs to employ marginality as the rudder. Only then will hybridity give rise to hospitality. Inattention to margins and preventing (however inadvertent) marginality from being a rudder to reorganize hybrid identities will make us not only inhospitable but also create moral amnesia, resulting in the erasure of marginal identities. Paying attention to religious ritual sources from the margins will help theological articulations to draw from unconventional sources and engender unconventional (that is, hybrid) but hospitable multiple religious belonging (146).
Marginality as rudder.  The preceding essay had shared the tragic story of the brothels of Matthama. The religious perspective of that community ends up commodifying the bodies of young girls. It calls for a Dalit feminist theology that recognizes the oppression present not only in that religious system, but also in the church-imposed moral agenda that further banishes the sex worker's body to the margins of society, labelling her a "whore" and a "harlot," she whose sexuality needs marrying off and controlling (134).

Not all is good in any religious practice, and it is this marginality rudder in the context of religious hybridity that can move the conversation forward in the 21st century, so that "modes of religious belonging can be embraced not as problems to be solved, but as proliferating sites of divine encounter" (2).

Friday, December 25, 2015

Exposing "Exposing the ELCA"

Meet Dan Skogen. He's the voice and face behind a blog titled "Exposing the ELCA." Well, he does more than blog. He tweets, trolls Facebook groups, and in particular, visits the web sites and Facebook pages of congregations of our denomination and gives them a negative review, along with a long diatribe about the evils of "the ELCA."

This is about the only photo I could find of Dan online. He's pictured with his wife, who is an intern pastor at an LCMC congregation in Marion, Iowa, just outside of Cedar Rapids.

I started paying attention to Dan (I remember seeing his blog sometimes over the years but it never caught my attention, and/or I decided to intentionally ignore it) when he posted a rather long and flattering blog article about me at his web site. I won't link to it here, but I'm sure you can find it. Just google Clint Schnekloth and "Exposing the ELCA." Dan will be super pleased by the additional traffic he gets to his blog, so go for it.

Now, here's the awkward part about all of this. It's not exactly clear what you are supposed to do in the new media era about "trolls." The more I've done the research, the more I realize that almost every denomination, product, or famous individual has at least one person who has decided it is their purpose in life to "expose" them. You can find blogs exposing Ronnie Floyd (a mega-church pastor here in our part of Northwest Arkansas and the current head of the SBC). You can find exposers literally everywhere you look. They are busy, they are noisy, and they are notoriously immune to rational dialog of any kind.

Because this is true, there's even a kind of famous flow chart published by the United States Air Force. I share it here, because I have a feeling it might help church leaders in their online discernment on how to engage social media commentary about themselves or their organizations.

 I am confessing here to my Lutheran Confessions readers that I violated the guidelines in this flow chart recently when I decided not to take the "green" route suggested above. What you're supposed to do is "monitor only." Instead, last week I decided to engage Dan specifically on Twitter and see how the dialogue would proceed. It was revealing on many levels. It revealed to me how frustrating it can be to dialogue with someone so gifted at gas lighting. I decided, since I consider Dan to be a bully who preys on many vulnerable pastors and congregations, to actually push back in precisely the way I might push back if I were another child on the school play ground. I engaged in some snark. I offered some choice labels for him. My favorite right now is "snake," which I chose specifically because I think that is exactly how he acts via his online presence. He hides behind his "Exposing the ELCA" moniker, is very, very sneaky and manipulative, and will never ever respond to direct and responsible dialogue. He flees it like the plague.

In the course of this Twitter dialogue, which I'm sure you can look up if you wish (and if you do, be ready.... I wasn't always nice, you get to meet the snarky and fierce Clint), I was able to outline a flow chart of the way Dan Skogen communicates. Here it is:

When I shared this flow chart with my colleagues, some of them liked it. Others felt I was failing at the Lutheran understanding of the 8th commandment, to portray your neighbor's actions in the best possible light. Others articulated concerns basically along the lines of the U.S. Air Force Flow Chart. Monitor only.

My only problem with monitoring is simple: Dan has been, I've learned, doing the "exposing" work for about six years, and shows no signs of stopping. He's a failed and bitter seminarian. He's relying on silence on the other side to do his nasty work. He considers it a ministry. He believes our denomination, because of some specific theological and/or ethical differences he has with us, is leading people to hell, and he wants to make people aware of how horrible the ELCA is.

So then I remembered that one of my favorite theologians, Martin Luther, often would offer a written and public response to public figures he disagreed with. One of the more famous dialogues is the correspondence between Lutheran and Erasmus on the bondage of the will. They have some choice words for each other. I'm not sure either ever convinced the other of anything. But the dialogue itself was of enduring significance for subsequent generations because the articles clarified some things about the freedom and bondage of the will

Now, I'm no Erasmus, and Dan is no Luther, so you'll have to take all of this at a different level than that amazing correspondence (and some of you will wisely bail on this blog post and go back to reading Luther himself), but if you find this helpful, allow me to proceed, and offer a theological response to Dan Skogen. 

Since Dan regularly posts reviews of churches he has never visited on their Facebook pages (in fact he spent a chunk of Christmas Eve doing so), I'm sharing his content here, and then offer responses to each point.

First Paragraph: Yep, he's right. Often human thinking gets woven into the way we interpret Scripture. He's right. The only thing is Dan thinks his human thinking doesn't influence his own interpretation of Scripture. He thinks he can read the Bible "purely." This is what you call fundamentalism. It's not Lutheran.

Universal Salvation: I don't know anywhere that the ELCA promotes universal salvation. This is actually one of Dan's shibboleths. He is confused and thinks there is a monolithic "ELCA" that has a teaching office that hands down specific teachings. There isn't. We're largely congregational in our polity, and on the issue of universal salvation you have a range of beliefs in the ELCA loosely consonant with the teachings in the Bible and confessions. I'd also add, since Dan cares about the Bible, that "Jesus includes in salvation people who do not believe in him or even know about him" is not a non-biblical concept. See for example John 10:16. Or Romans.

Homosexuality: Well, the ELCA adopted a social statement on human sexuality in 2009, and you can read it here: Dan has his shorts in a knot over the homosexuality issue in particular. It really, really bothers him. I think this one is an example of Dan's confusion about the relative weight of doctrinal and ethical matters. I think he thinks that believing in a literal 24 hour six day creation is as important to Christian faith as trust in the resurrection of Jesus Christ in the flesh. So, because he elevates certain things far above what is warranted, you can imagine how apostate he thinks a church is who believes something different than him. But, on the other hand, Dan is right, there are some of us in the ELCA who not only tolerate but affirm people with other orientations than hetero- to live out their sexuality in lives of fidelity and trust with a partner, and to seek out the highest level of blessing for those relationships as they can. So we marry people in same-gender relationships, and we love and welcome them. He's right about that.

Goddess worship: Yes, there's one ELCA church in California called Herchurch that offers a prophetic counter-point to the traditionally male-gendered language for God. There's is a powerful witness, and I hope Dan gets to visit their church some day. But it is an extreme outlier in our denomination, something they themselves recognize on their web site, and I think 99.9% of ELCA clergy would be very surprised to learn that goddess worship is "growing more and more common with ELCA ranks." Clergy and churches would, however, very commonly attempt to get beyond too frequent masculine and patriarchal portrayals of God.

Abortion: I think this is the other one that Dan and others who read his blog care about. I do too. I'm pro-life. I'd like to see public policies that make abortions, as the Democratic party used to say, safe, legal, and rare. Since medical decisions are private, I don't think I can speak to the truthfulness of Dan's point here, but I would encourage anyone who cares about our position on the matter to read the ELCA social statement on abortion.

Masculine language: Not completely remove. I keep seeing it, because our creeds call God Father, and since Jesus was a dude, well, there's always going to be male language. But more diverse language for God is good and biblical. Since God is beyond gender, the most heretical position possible would be to ascribe gender to God (if you want to have a conversation about X and Y chromosomes and the virgin birth, be my guest--it gets interesting). 

Sex change: I'm glad we do this. Some of our best pastors are members of the trans community.

Denying God's authorship of the Bible: Bogus. Just bogus. If you want the official language, here it is from our church constitution:

What the ELCA Constitution says about the Word of God (2.02):

This church confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and the Gospel as the power of God for the salvation of all who believe.
a. Jesus Christ is the Word of God incarnate, through whom everything was made and through whose life, death, and resurrection God fashions a new creation.
b. The proclamation of God’s message to us as both Law and Gospel is the Word of God, revealing judgment and mercy through word and deed, beginning with the Word in creation, continuing in the history of Israel, and centering in all its fullness in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
c. The canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the written Word of God. Inspired by God’s Spirit speaking through their authors, they record and announce God’s revelation centering in Jesus Christ. Through them God’s Spirit speaks to us to create and sustain Christian faith and fellowship for service in the world.

What the ELCA Constitution says about the Bible (2.03):
This church accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life. 

Israel: Here's where Dan exits reality and enters his own alternative universe. It is true that because there is a large Lutheran community among Palestinians, Lutherans have a different perspective on the conflict between Israel and Palestine, but it isn't really anything like what Dan is describing. The ELCA has clergy stationed in Israel, and a close relationship with the leadership of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. You can read one example of the current ELCA strategy on Israel and Palestine here

Genesis stories as myth: Dan wants people to read Scripture against the way those texts would have been originally read. Some of the Old Testament is closer to the kind of history we write today. Other, not so much. The Lutheran approach, which is a long-standing tradition in the Christian church universal, is to respect the genre of the texts themselves, and read them at that level. I might also add that Dan must not read the Bible literally himself, because he is part of a denomination (the LCMC) that doesn't read the Bible literally, including women serving as clergy. The ELCA celebrates the public ministry of women in pastoral ministry, but you can't get to support of that through a literal reading of Scripture. You get there through a more faithful and nuanced theological reading of Scripture. That's not denial. That's faithfulness.

Federal Marriage Amendment: I had to look this one up, because I hadn't ever heard of the Federal Marriage Amendment. But inasmuch as I speak as a pastor in the ELCA, yes, he's correct, I actively would oppose an amendment like that.

Dan's overall goal is schismatic. He ends his rant with an appeal to members of ELCA congregations to organize and have their church leave the ELCA. Barring that, just leave individually and join a Bible-believing church.

It's not quite clear to me what church Dan would want people to join. He himself holds a variety of theological views, as far as I can tell. On the issue of salvation, he seems to be a TULIP Calvinist. On the Bible, he's fundamentalist. On Israel, he's Evangelical. On marriage and homosexuality he's disturbed and creepy. On the balance between adiaphora and doctrine, he's heretical. I find very little in anything that he writes that is specifically Lutheran.

I don't quite know how to proceed in dialogue with him. Some of my colleagues want me to be kinder to him, or ignore him. But I've begun to feel that inactivity on my part allows him to conduct his very destructive work, often targeting small communities of faith and harried pastors who may have few resources or much time to leverage. So although ideally I'd like to ignore him and move on, I feel like this one rises to the level of, "If there's a bully in your classroom, and you're the teacher, you need to do something about it."

That being said, I do still believe in the idea of "love your enemy and do good to those who hate you." I just happen to think that teaching of Jesus came along with another teaching of Jesus, to be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves. Jesus himself had a variety of rhetorical approaches to his public communication with those he disagreed with. I hardly think that it is "Christian" to just play nice and ignore hate. That's not active peace-making. That's pathetic passivism. I'm certainly not the perfect model of peace-making. Far, far from it. But I'm at least confessing my failures thus far, analyzing both the form of social media communication, Dan's public content in particular, and asking, "Is there any way forward that stops hurting so many people? On that point, the ball is completely in Dan's court.


If you'd like to see the depth and breadth of how much Dan Skogen is organizing to hurt our denomination, I suggest you look at this:

Here's what you see if you click through the link that acts as if it were the Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod. Dan's goal is nothing less than to trick people into buying into false, scaremongering communication about our denomination.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015


Just in time for Christmas, Congress seems to have avoided a government shutdown with the gift of a yearlong spending bill. We are pleased to report that the bill is free of provisions that would restrict or disrupt the refugee resettlement program! Final votes are expected on the bill Friday.
Congress listened to your steadfast commitment to protecting the world’s most vulnerable! We at LIRS cannot thank you enough for taking action in support of Syrian and Iraqi refugees. This has been a particularly tumultuous battle, with several Members of Congress vowing to bar entry for refugees fleeing terrorism and war in the Middle East. You helped the message of loving our neighbor ring out triumphant in a time clouded by fear and hatred. Thank you.
However, LIRS remains concerned that the funds allocated to refugee-related accounts and programming may not support President Obama’s determination to increase refugee admissions from 70,000 in Fiscal Year 2015 to 85,000 this Fiscal Year. We will continue advocating to the Administration and Members of Congress to ensure adequate funding levels to protect and resettle refugees from all backgrounds in the coming months.
As we prepare to start a new year with new hope, we want to thank you for all that you do to welcome the stranger.  When you respond to our calls for action, our collective voices ring more powerfully.
For those who are looking for additional ways to help vulnerable refugees and asylum-seekers, here are a few ways you can lend your support to refugees this holiday season:
  1. Join the LIRS Holiday Card Writing Campaign and Gift Drive for asylum-seeking families in immigration detention.
  2. Offer a donation to LIRS to support refugee resettlement and services.
  3. Call and thank your Members of Congress for passing a spending bill without language harmful to refugees by using the Congressional switchboard: 1-866-961-4293.
While you gather with your loved ones this Christmas, may you keep our vulnerable brothers and sisters seeking refuge in your hearts and prayers. We thank you for spreading joy and light and, of course, for your commitment to standing for welcome!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Brittney Nystrom
Director for Advocacy

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Standing with @LaryciaHawkins | Learning #EmbodiedSolidarity

Part of the work of a Christian theologian is to consider how their faith relates to the other faiths of the world. Not all religious traditions worship the same god. How they differ from each other matters. This is why I often bristle when people say, “We’re all on
different paths to the same god.” The spirit of this statement is well-intended. The goal is respect and understanding. But the differences matter, and I believe there are better ways of saying this that illustrate the particular genius of Christian faith.

I do not say that out of a kind of Christian exclusivism or superiority. Rather, I say we worship different gods out of a sense of respect for the particular ways each religious tradition formulates their concept of their god. And of course some traditions worship no god at all, so to believe that all of us, anonymously or secretly or unbeknownst to us, actually worship the same god, does not respect the truth in the other tradition. I’ve heard at least one non-Christian say, when presented with the idea of anonymous Christianity, that really all are Christians through the salvific work of Christ: “Get out my eschatology!” 

To respect the religions of others, we are called to know our own tradition well, and then, as best as possible, bring our faith into conversation with other faiths, and see what we can learn. In the process, we learn as much or more about our own faith as we do about our neighor’s faith. I believe this is how we all grow spiritually. Several years ago, a professor of missiology suggested that interfaith dialogue is like exploring a mountain range. All of us in our religious exploration are in a mountain range ascending various mountains. There isn’t just one mountain. There are many. And all those doing the work of ascending their mountain, and doing it well, gain greater clarity about the gods and faiths of neighbors ascending other mountains. The higher you are, the more clearly you can see the entire mountain range, the beauty and variety of mountains surrounding you. If we’re all just ascending the same mountain, on a path to the same god, then the peek is equally occluded from each of us, and if we are on different sides of the mountain, none of us can even see each other.

In recent national conversations about the welcome of Muslims to the United States, I have been pondering a recent book by Miroslav Volf, Allah: A Christian Response. Volf, as a Christian theologian, considers Islam in particular, and tries as best as possible to articulate a Christian perspective on it. Notice this is a very different project from trying to explain Islam to Christians. What Volf attempts is an articulate Christian response to Islam. This is authenticity. It has integrity. None of us can really fully know the religious tradition of others, but we can deepen our own understanding of our own tradition as it relates to other faiths.

Reading Volf, and praying over the matter for many years, I have come to the conclusion that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. I did not always believe this. I still think that many of the ways the Muslim expression of faith supersedes preceding Abrahamic faiths is problematic, and I would want to challenge many theological positions within Islam. I do not identify wth everything Muslims confess about God, but I believe that it is the same God we worship. 

Notice, this does not mean that I believe all religions worship the same God. I am speaking in this column particularly of Christians and Muslims. Nor am I abandoning my Christian, trinitarian understanding of God. I still confess the creeds. I am a Lutheran Christian. But I think the God we worship is the same God even if we have, in some ways, very different understandings of that God.

One comparison I find particularly helpful that can shift the terrain is between Muhammad and Jesus. Often Christians assume that is the most appropriate comparison between our two faiths. But actually, Muhammad is neither the savior in Islamic theology, nor the Son of God. So to compare these two men lacks subtlety. A better comparison is probably between Muhammad and Mary. Mary gives birth to the word of God, Jesus. Muhammad births forth the words of God, the written text now known as the Qur’an. There are even interesting parallels between Mary as a virgin and Muhammad as illiterate before he writes the text. Comparisons, though not exact, sometimes help each of us understand the faith of the other more deeply, and share faith with each other.

There is a lot about God in Christ I would want to share with a Muslim. In fact, there's a lot I'd like to share about God in Christ with anyone who wants to listen! In mutual conversation, I would share how I know God in Christ, and listen respectfully to how a Muslim knows God through their religious texts and practice. At the very least, I would hope to draw them to know our shared God more deeply. I’ve had increasing opportunities to have such conversations here in Fayetteville, and have been enriched by them.

In the present moment, however, when Muslim neighbors are under attack, I go a step further, and express actual solidarity. I've even said expressly, "I am Muslim." Not because I am in practice, but because I am in our shared worship of the same God, and in our shared humanity. I might equally say, in another moment, "I am atheist,” if it were my atheist neighbor under attack. And also because frankly, sometimes the God an atheist doesn’t believe in I don’t believe in either. Christians are committed again and again to overcoming idolatry in order to worship the true God. We have a lot to learn from atheists.

Nor do I think identification can always work. Identification as solidarity sometimes verges on cultural appropriation, a strange kind of colonialism. We can over define ourselves through our view of the other, as Edward Said points out so vividly in his book, Orientalism. So all I really want to say is that this kind of identification and deep learning, comparative theology that risks deep empathy with others, across religious boundaries, has had, at least for me and always, the impact of deepening my faith, and discovering the truth of Christianity. 

Which is of course quite different than saying that Christianity is the one true faith, because I've always believed that Christianity is true when it doesn't attempt to lay claim to truth exclusively.

While writing this column for the newspaper (to be published Saturday), news of Larycia Hawkins suspension from Wheaton College made the news. I was reminded of 1 Corinthians 11:6. I felt an immediate sense of connection with her Advent devotion, #womeninsolidaritywithhijab, and started to wonder, what's the white male form of solidarity? I stand with her and support her here in this blog. What else?

Larycia published a public statement on her Advent practice, and I share it here:

This morning, I partook of the Eucharist, the culmination of the Christian liturgy where Christians through the centuries have united around a common table to practice hospitality by the eating of bread and the drinking of wine, to seek forgiveness from those we've hurt or offended, and to grant forgiveness to ourselves and to others. It is a table of reconciliation--both spiritual reconciliation and relational reconciliation.
Since I recently embarked on ‪#‎embodiedsolidarity‬ with women who wear the hijab (‪#‎wish‬), I've received pushback almost exclusively from other Christians. The pushback has primarily centered on the claim that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. In the spirit of the unity of what Christians term the body of Christ, I would like to respond--but will not reply to comments on an internecine dispute that arose rather recently in the history of the church. 
Please find a cogent analysis of the basis for my claim in this link--as well as a convincing argument for why asserting our religious solidarity with Muslims and Jews will go a long way toward quelling religious violence and enervating religionist fear of the religious other. Whether or not you find this position, one held for centuries by countless Christians (church fathers, saints, and regular Christian folk like me), to be valid, I trust that we can peacefully disagree on theological points and affirm others like the Triune God (albeit there are differences here as well--Athanasian Creed, anyone?), the virgin birth (or Immaculate Conception depending on your persuasion), and the Resurrection. Let there be unity in our diversity of views about all of the above.
My wearing of the hijab as an act of advent devotion has certainly caused some to question the sincerity of my devotion. To those who question the authenticity of my faith, I love you. 
The apostle Paul declares, " far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone" (Romans 12:18). That includes those of you who now count me apostate for daring to call fellow humans who happen to be Muslim my brothers and sisters. I love you with the power of the love that saved me and keeps me and bids me do justice in my body. 
Being at peace with everyone means embracing you virtually and asking for forgiveness of those I have offended. It doesn't matter that I did not intend to do so. What matters is the imperative that I move first to make peace with others. As far as it depends on you, will you accept my holy handshake? 
Respect, love, and peace to all of you.
Your sister in the hijab, 

Friday, December 11, 2015

Why Lutherans Fight Over Sin and Social Justice

One strong tradition in Lutheranism is a focus on forgiveness of sins, the justification of the ungodly through the gospel of Jesus Christ. In this tradition, faith is what takes hold of this gospel and also that which extends the justification in the first place. Christ's faithfulness is that which justifies; our faithfulness is the response. This is salvation.

Quite a lot of our confessional documents give space to this topic, with entries in the Augsburg Confession on original sin, justification, the causes of sin, confession, repentance, etc. Because this matter was of central importance to the reformers in their debates with leaders in the Roman Catholic Church of that time, it is no surprise it is given considerable space. It's a complex theological construct, with many moving pieces. Here's one brief articulation, the AC article on justification:
Also they teach that humans cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ's sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ's sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in God's sight. Rom. 3 and 4.
Justification in particular was hotly contested, so Melanchthon, in the longer apology to the Augsburg Confession, wrote his longest and most theological rich (and dense) piece specifically on justification.

Here's where things get tricky, and Lutherans part ways. It seems to be the case that "confessional" Lutherans focus on personal sin and sinfulness and the doctrines surrounding justification itself. "Progressive" Lutherans, among whom I count myself (although I tend to lean in the confessional direction more than some of my colleagues), find the doctrine of justification and forgiveness of sins important but see it leaning towards issues of social and institutional sin, and less towards personal morality.

These are big generalizations, but I think they are accurate.

The result: Confessional Lutherans are critical of progressive Lutherans because they perceive us as being lax (or conforming to societal norms) on topics of personal morality (sexuality in particular). Progressive Lutherans are critical of confessional Lutherans for their failures to address sin at the structural level (sexuality in particular).

Where we really divide is in our approaches bringing our understanding of sin, repentance, and faith to bear on contemporary life. To be really straightforward--many confessional Lutherans think progressive Lutherans don't really believe in sin because we won't call same-sex attraction sin, and many progressive Lutherans don't think confessional Lutherans believe in sin because they won't see their own judgment of the LGBTQ community as complicity in structural, social sin.

Sometimes I wish we would all attempt to understand our theological commitments more carefully in the proposed language of those on the other side of the line. I have trouble, for example, understanding why confessional Lutherans resist liberation theology so strongly. They seem to react strongly to any theology that takes account of personal experience of oppression as a resource for reflection on complicity to sin, and the call for repentance.

Similarly, I have trouble understanding why progressive Lutherans resist forming adequate phenomenological accounts of repentance and forgiveness along the lines of the confessions, including the direct address of personal sin.

One of the oddest developments on the confessional side of the equation is the libertarian tendency in Lutheran confessionalism. I admit, I simply can't completely get my head around this one. Basically, Lutheran libertarians believe social structures (in particular government) should get out of the way to make space for the free proclamation of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in Christ. In other words, if institutions get out of the way, individuals who need to hear the law and be convicted will do such preaching better with complete liberty. Somehow they are inherently more good and able to make this happen than the institutions that constrict such preaching. This is, we might say, a contradiction in terms.

But similarly, social justice advocates, liberation theologians of all sorts, have developed an odd tick of not talking about sin while talking about it all the time. They call it by every other name--racism, homophobia, cisnormativity, xenophobia, misogyny, oppression--but not the name that would make sense to confessional Lutherans, or frankly, a large majority of Christians worldwide. I do not know if this is because they want to avoid speaking of personal sin, or if they feel the word has been so co-opted as to be unusable. Nevertheless, there it is. Our language fails us at the Horizontverschmelzung.

An additional matter has to do with the this world/eternal life dichotomy. Progressive Lutherans tend to see the doctrine of sin and justification mattering for this life. Liberation theology calls for change now, an in-breaking of God's kingdom today. They believe the Marxian critique of religion is valid, that it sometimes functions as an opiate, as in Marx's contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right:
The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo...  It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.
Liberation theologians by and large accept Marx's critique. Only through a focus on Christ's preferential option for the victims of sin, and a commitment to changing the structures that continue the violent effects of such structures and powers, can real repentance and justification happen. We might adapt Feuerbach's thesis on Marx in this way:
The theologians have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.
The Augsburg Confession includes an intriguing article on civil affairs worth quoting in full:
Of Civil Affairs they (Lutherans) teach that lawful civil ordinances are good works of God, and that it is right for Christians to bear civil office, to sit as judges, to judge matters by the Imperial and other existing laws, to award just punishments, to engage in just wars, to serve as soldiers, to make legal contracts, to hold property, to make oath when required by the magistrates, to marry a wife, to be given in marriage.

They condemn the Anabaptists who forbid these civil offices to Christians.

They condemn also those who do not place evangelical perfection in the fear of God and in faith, but in forsaking civil offices, for the Gospel teaches an eternal righteousness of the heart. Meanwhile, it does not destroy the State or the family, but very much requires that they be preserved as ordinances of God, and that charity be practiced in such ordinances. Therefore, Christians are necessarily bound to obey their own magistrates and laws save only when commanded to sin; for then they ought to obey God rather than men. Acts 5:29.
Quite a lot of our current debates about civil affairs hinges on a few lines in this article, especially "save only when commanded to sin," and "lawful" civil ordinances. The Lutheran doctrine of vocation and orders of creation is on full display here, but those little terms are the arena in which the complications of sin and its effects, social justice and its merits, play themselves out.

On the flip side, confessional Lutherans point out that progressive Lutherans seem almost exclusively concerned with this world, with little or no conversation about life after this life. Interestingly, the Augsburg Confession doesn't have a particular entry on eternal life per se, but only on Christ's return to judgment. This article follows a fairly traditional separationist line, with Christ separating the godly from the ungodly, each receiving their predictable deserts. But the article is followed by one on free will, and indicates in traditional Lutheran fashion that basically, we don't have free will. So if we are "godly" and righteous, it is only by God's grace and favor and gift. We are made righteous. We do not make ourselves righteous.

This being the case, with God being all in all when it comes to the life after this life, it is fairly clear that there need not be a disjunction, but rather continuity. We can live now in anticipation of what is promised in the right-making God is accomplishing both in this world and for the next.

One last thing. A remarkable aspect of our disagreements concerns the extent to which sin itself corrupts our perception of sin. In other words, sometimes what we call or label sin is itself clouded by our sinfulness. Sometimes we learn it was our sin that labeled something else sin. Nowhere is this more true than in Jesus Christ himself (2 Corinthians 5:21), who became sin who knew no sin. Concomitantly, those who once were sin find themselves surprised by their righteousness.

In this life, those are all rolled up together. In the next, they are sorted and righted by God. In the meantime, God's justifying action is, in my estimation, best understood as social and singular, each and all. The best confessional theology is also liberation theology. And vice versa.

Monday, December 07, 2015

A Christian Syllabus on Islam

I am by no means an interfaith expert, so please take this syllabus in the spirit it is offered, as a starting point, suggestions from a Christian blogger on a starting point in order to understand our faith in relationship to Islam better.

First, watch Of Gods and Men. Then watch it again. Then watch it again.

Next, read A Common Word.

For excellent tools to overcome blatant Islamophobia, read:

For the great and classic text that will change your life:

For an argument that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, from one of our greatest living theologians:

And a similar expression of faith from a Muslim scholar:

Finally, a recent and accessible study Qur'an:

Holy Rollers

Role-playing game systems increase in popularity year after year for many reasons, but one of the most attractive features of such games is the opportunity to advance in levels.  Kill this many monsters, solve this many quests, gain this many experience points, and up a level you go, with greater strength, more magical powers, and greater resistance to attacks that might kill you.

I can remember, early in my career as a gamer, yearning after the elusive upper levels. I'd spend hours each week running a set of characters through Bard's Tale, thrilling each time the group gained another level. I was, and remain, willing to invest considerable time in whatever activities would move my avatar ever closer to epic levels of might and magic.

Developing characters in a fantastic world was an integral part of my personal maturation. When I think back to 4th grade, I can remember an awkward stage sitting on the floor in my parent's bedroom, phone cord stretched across the room, maps and rule books laid out around me on the carpet, regaling a friend with the details of the game. The friend on the other end of the line must have been particularly patient, because I think I talked for hours, literally, about the process for developing non-player characters that would populate dungeons. In my halting fashion, as a child less adept at social interaction than academic performance, the world of games allowed me to move along, slowly, in emotional intelligence, framed by the conversations of the games. Gaming was a safer way to be awkward.

A clear measurable path for progress really is magical. This is true not only in games, but in real life. Skill acquisition of any kind, though time-consuming and pain-staking, offers a set of unparalleled rewards. There is a visible and discernible change that makes all the effort worthwhile. Run this much, get this much faster, lose this much weight. Practice the piano, learn these scales, play Chopin.

Role-playing games are unique in that leveling up is unidirectional. There is no backsliding. Take your paladin to the 20th level, and she stays there. Perhaps this is the great satisfaction and joy of RPGs. We can be challenged while never set back. In this way, games decrease the risks of failure, and this is what satisfies. By comparison, if I stop running or practicing piano or speaking German, the skills slowly drift away.
Often, I wish growth in the Christian life were like gaming. Like a cleric whose access to the holy remains steady and deepens the higher he rises, channeling the energy of their deity with ever greater proficiency, I wish some days my own holiness were so clearly progressive. But it isn't. Most of the time, it is difficult to offer markers of how, from year to year, I grow in faith at all, and if I'm honest, I can offer more examples of backsliding than forward movement.

For example, recently I realized I am seldom in prayer. Since pastors commit themselves to a life of prayer, I have over the years implemented myriad ways to build prayer into my daily life. I have meditated. I have prayed the daily offices. I plan prayer runs. I go on retreat. Even just last year, I was praying regularly, daily, in a variety of ways.

This summer, it occurred to me that I rarely pray except professionally, as part of worship, or because council asks me to open our meeting with prayer. How is it possible, given the regular practices I've cultivated in my life, that I suddenly find myself, a 40-something Christian pastor, not praying. How can holiness go in reverse?

At least I am aware of the reversal. That's progress of a sort. It is as if the only power granted a pastor in real life is the power to see the world and the self increasingly for what it is, a murky and complex place through which glimpses of brilliant grace inexplicably shine. I know and trust that while I have not been praying, my friends and parishioners have, and Christ has continued to intercede before the Father even while I've been less than present myself in those prayers Christ lifts.

Although almost all of Christianity assumes some kind of progress in holiness, this progress is considerably more mixed than we like. Two steps forward, three steps back. Progress, for Christians, is growth in one area just sufficient enough to illuminate immaturity in some other area of the Christian life. Just about the time I congratulate myself for engaging in a particularly successful evangelism conversation at the coffee shop, I go home and get impatient with my family. 

Some Christian traditions over the centuries, to be sure, have been more confident in their ability to measure growth in holiness. But the further proof of the folly of such confidence is the discernment of the wider Christian communion, who have always seen this over-confidence in self-aware holiness for what it truly is, a mark of immaturity and lack of spiritual grace.

As desirous as we are of holiness, and as desirable as clear growth can be, the truth of holiness in Christian tradition lies elsewhere. In fact, it rests not in measurable means, like leveling up. True holiness rests outside of us, in God.

Holiness is a God thing

A man runs up to Jesus and asks, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus pauses before answering to ask a question, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone" (Mark 10:18). The one man who might get a pass on being called good is the very one who deflects the title away from himself and back to God.

This is a catechetical moment, one worth our attention. If Jesus himself deflects goodness back to God, there must be something in the life of holiness that is focused not on our own holiness, but on the holiness of God. 

John Webster, in one of the few recent booklength treatments of holiness, says as much. "Holiness is a predicate of the personal being, action and relation of the triune God, of God's concrete execution of [God's] simplicity; it is not a quality in abstraction, but an indicator of God's 'name'" (Webster 39).  Jesus does not want "good" added to his name, because God alone is good, by nature of the name of God itself.

Theologically, everything related to holiness is grounded in the holiness of God. God is holiness and gives holiness. Holiness is established in the hearing of the promises and good news of the holiness of God. The end or purpose of holiness, if we are to pick up on a solid reformed insight, is the sanctifying of the holy name of God. Holiness is about God's own leveling up, as it were.

But in good classic Christian theology, there is never a God in Godself, God for Godself. The holiness of God is known in God's being for us. In fact, God is not God without being "for us." It is another name of God. So the holy God is holy precisely in being for the people God is actively making holy.

Gamers might think of a parallel concept in the gaming world, of power-leveling, where a lower level character advances more quickly through the assistance of a higher level character, who completes quests or defeats creatures impossible for lower level characters, but allows the lower leveler to vicariously receive experience points beyond their normal ability.

A few years ago, when I was studying World of Warcraft for a book I was writing on media and faith, a friend and long-time WoW gamer volunteered to walk me through parts of the WoW universe I would not have survived on my own as a low-level character. I partnered with him on a quest that included defeating a dragon. My ranger increased a couple of levels in that short time. As a result, I was then able to travel on my own to a great number of regions. By vicarously gaming with a friend, I gained strength, confidence, and freedom. My friend literally increased my capacity for life in the game.

The analogy works, but not well, because the holiness of the Christian community that participates in the holiness of God truly participates, in that the community receives the name of God itself in its holiness. In Christian theology, we do not become "like" God. We are gathered up into God's very self. That is holiness. The comparison, if there is one to gaming, would be that I would no longer just be a gamer in the game, but would become part of the game-design team. Leveling up, I would have the chance to write the very game I was playing, co-creator in the diving gaming.

So is there growth?

All of this leaves us, on the practical level, wondering whether there is growth in holiness, and if there is, what it looks like. Clearly, if the holiness of God draws near to us because of who God is, we need to be able to speak of growth in the holiness that God gives.

For example, John Webster asserts, "We need to understand that theological thinking about holiness is itself an exercise of holiness" (8). For Webster, a primary aspect of holiness is "an increase in concentration: the focusing of the mind, will and affections on the holy God and his ways with us" (105). We can be at least somewhat confident that growth in holiness looks like growth in awareness of the holiness of God.

One aspect of God's holiness is its illumination of our sin. So another mark of holiness in our lives is our awareness of how far we are from holiness, how far we are from God. God's holiness, and our awareness of it, shines light on our distance from it. God is God, and we are not.

I have this suspicion that this related in some ways to Tolkien's concept of sub-creation. Although we cannot live up to the holiness of God, we have had extended to us a role within the creation and sub-creators of God's good creation.

That being said, we immediately circle back around to the truth that the very God who we are not is the God who is for us and with us and will not without us. This is why theologians have, over time, developed in various ways a notion that our growth in grace, if it is to be described at all, may best be described as a holiness that happens again and again, once for all, and more and more.

Again and again, because we continually fall away from it, slide back into ways of life quite distant from the holy life, and so must, day after day, return to the holiness so graciously extended. This is the wisdom of Martin Luther in the small catechism, who teaches about baptism that we are to daily drown and die to sin and daily rise as a new person in God in Christ.

Once for all, inasmuch as Christians frequently emphasize the unique place of Christ's death and resurrection in the economy of salvation, Christ's taking on the sin of the whole world in order that we might be made into the holy people of God.

More and more, and here is the most difficult move, because we truly have seen living examples of faithful folks who have grown so deeply into the grace of God and rested in it, that the very holiness of God imbued their lives with particular holiness and grace. We call these holy ones saints, and for good reason. By the grace of God, and in mysterious ways, they really did level up. The path was unique and perhaps unrepeatable, but this in no way detracts from their attractiveness as examples of holiness.

The Geography of Holiness

St. Symeon the Stylite
There is one last thing. Holiness is about God, God's goodness, God's grace, God's love, God's care. Our own holiness we tend to consider in terms of behavior or demeanor. Yet there is an unremarked geography of holiness worth our attention. Holiness is, more than we realize, an aspect of where we are. Holiness is embodied. Consider the Stylites, whose holiness was directly correlated to the strangeness of their retreat. Or the anchorites, whose particular practice of holiness tethered them to holy structures. Even God's holiness has an unavoidable spatial dimension.  The more God is holy, the more God is up. Perhaps in our quest for progress in holiness, we have failed to notice that holiness is a place. Holiness is a space, a set-apartness, proximity to divinity. It's just that in the quantum era, we don't know where we are anymore, or what "where" is.

Intriguingly, we are living in the renaissance of table-top gaming, which means game parlors are proliferating and even chain stores like Barnes & Noble are filling up with card board creations. All over, little game stores are popping up, typically shelved with a hodge-podge of gamer paraphernalia, and the ubiquitous stacks of three-ring binders filled with the king of Collectible Card Games, Magic: The Gathering. But essential to all game stores are the tables, cheap folding tables and chairs, sometimes sturdier wood structures readied for war games. Gamers seem not to demand fancy spaces. They'll camp out in any old place. But they do need to be together, and they do need each other. It takes players to play a game. The sacred space evoked in gaming has very little to do with vaulted ceilings or fancy frames, but instead is facilitated in the holy hospitality of shared imagination. Like any playroom, the mess is acceptable if it facilitates jouissance.

So let me offer a proposal, one that may not satisfy all, and certainly will confuse cartographers. The place of holiness is the neighbor, in particular the neighbors in neighborhood at play. Making holiness about a place, and the place being the neighbor, might give us some additional resources for reconsidering all our conversations about growth. Unlike avatars in RPGs, who approach almost all non-player characters they encounter simply as utilitarian resources to be benignly exploited for their own leveling up, our own leveling up is accomplished expressly and completely in the freedom we receive from the holy God to be holy, and wholly, in our neighbor.

As an adult gamer, I have begun to play around, on the side, with indie and meta-games. Traditional roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinders are spectacular in that they have a predictable structure in which the imagination can run wild. A game master leads a group of players through a session they have designed. The session focuses exploration in a pre-planned scenario, often with a map of the city or dungeon to be explored, puzzles to solve and monsters to defeat. Some game-developers, inspired by the traditional role-playing games invented and popularized by Gary Gygax have imagined alternative gaming systems, less linear, less spatial. In the end, these are all like varying monastic orders, sets of rules to cultivate sacred community.

For a time, especially at the stage of initiation, or during the novitiate, growth in holiness takes the form of attending to the rules. Most gamers go through a long apprenticeship, time spent gaming in order to learn the rules of the game. Even long-time gamers periodically exit the play itself to discuss the finer points of the rules, even to debate them. But all the rules, all the structure, is assembled in order to facilitate the game itself. The rules invite a community of players to forget themselves and lose themselves in the game. The game rolls them up into something higher, something greater, something divine.