Monday, November 23, 2009

Being Lutheran

What is it to be Lutheran? To what point do we go back, or upon what principle do we focus? I might say that to be Lutheran is to always be stuck qualifying yourself. To never be able to make the world black and white. Some of Hendel's beloved insistence upon both/and rather than either/or.

I'm tempted to sidebar into Kierkegaard's either/or, and its relation to Nietzsche's transcendence of good and evil, but the margin is too small for the solution to fit. And Heidegger gives me ways and ways to keep the world irreducible, but I dare not seize upon them too tightly.

Indeed, we are stuck with that other Martin's habit of wandering around the topic in question, even if our Martin's publications were remarkably to the point even in disputation. Not to say that we are Philippists, treading lightly as apologists away from the Father's house, though perhaps we should learn something of Melanchthon's balance. Let me clarify, against my nature: to be Lutheran is to be stuck defending what is central to the faith, and because of it to be stuck defending peripheral points to which one does not wish to hold with nearly the same fervor. To be compelled to argue about issues about which one should not have to care, because the opposition has made from them an attack upon the gospel. And to be compelled to watch as those issues supplant Christ and wreak havoc in the church.

To be Lutheran is to have a lot of work to do, in the Nietzschean sense of having to do it oneself in order to know. I refuse to believe that any dogmatic positions can be written any more firmly than lines in the sand. We haven't the knowledge to do any better, and it is hybris to try. This is why Lutheranism is confessional, even though that word has come to be equated with doctrinal orthodoxy. To be Lutheran is to confess the truth of the God to whom alone one prays for help. When you come to truly be in status confessionis, upon what will you rely? The test is about what you cannot recant in the face of mortal peril. So much that we now style in this way has no acquaintance with such peril, and little reliance upon the God who alone delivers. Pretty stones, but not one will be allowed to remain upon another in the end. Watch where you step in dogmatics, it can be a long way down.

And yet there are ways and ways of being Lutheran, and all of them outgrow this essential concern the longer they live. This center is subject to dogmatic accretion by its very nature. (Or perhaps by our very nature.) We define it, or we define our standpoint with respect to it, and proceed from there. Whether in the modern, Cartesian mode of demolition back to center and reconstruction from there, or in the prior orthodox mode of reshuffling the traditions in order to demonstrate their relations of force with respect to the center, the theological task is the same in its reliance upon explaining the penultimate in relation to the ultimate. Qualifying. Qualifying the penultimate against the ultimate, and also qualifying the ultimate in penultimate terms. God in human view is theological, as is humanity in God's view. Neither human nor divine aseity share the same status. The latter is pure speculation, and the former can only be useful as prologue to theological anthropology. (So much for "natural" law or theology, which is as the reformers would have it.)

How do you know if you've got a Lutheran? Besides an obsession with Paul, you ought to be able to tell theologically. We hold a very particular center, a very particular theological view. How is humanity saved? By grace, through faith, in Christ, apart from works done according to the law. We hold neither the total depravity of humanity nor any sense of human autonomy, but rather the simultaneity of self-selected sin and God-elected grace in each and every member of the body of Christ. And we believe that God is the stronger of the two. We believe that the church is dependent upon God, and therefore marked by the fullness of God's Word among us and by the offering of the fullness of God's gracious means at God's command to all sinners in need. We believe that these are the prescriptions for our sin, and that God gives them freely: the law, gospel and sacraments to humble, free and strengthen. We believe in the necessary work of these humbled, freed, and strengthened members of Christ's body for their neighbors in need, under no law but the need of the other and with no merit but the good of the other. We label as pernicious heresies those theologies that deny or diminish the efficacy of Christ, and thereby misplace the hope and trust of faithful people into some other means of justification before God. Especially when this results in trusting souls being condemned to stand in judgment. And yet even where it hampers human understanding, we do not believe that sin can diminish the effectiveness of God's means of grace, nor that it in any way invalidates the community gathered around those means. We believe in good order, but not at the expense of any of the above. We believe in the traditions of the church, but not at the expense of any of the above. We believe in living an honorable life, understood in accordance with the above. We believe in judging everything against the gospel, because that is constitutive of our existence as Christians.

And if you can make all of that into a position on an issue that fits into a sound bite, you will inevitably be stuck qualifying it. Haste is of the devil, as is oversimplification.

Awfully banal, as you should be able to find this elsewhere, but I feel compelled to say it myself.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Heideggerian "play": an approximation

There's nothing like being a learning partner to make you learn things fast so you can try and explain them. This week it was Heidegger. Klemm's studies on hermeneutics gave us a piece on being and meaning from Sein und Zeit and a piece on language that I think came from On the Way to Language. So first up was being and meaning, vis a vis the Kantian distinctions of noumenal/phenomenal and a priority. Second up was a question about "Spielen," and damned if I could find a solid explanation beyond A Heidegger Dictionary on "play and games." So I went crazy, and did heavier exploration, and came around to the derivation of the sous rature practice, I think. Whoever is out there reading and knows better than I or has hints to offer, I'd appreciate them. Here's what I've got:

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I did a bit of looking for Spielen in his writings, and it seems like you can only get to an understanding of it in Being and Time from the German, where the root word and its related words are visible. Translation hides Heidegger's interest in playing with words, in what we call "puns" in English. So instead, I'm going to try and explain how it works in his method, rather than his own definition, which I can't seem to track down.

The definition [in A Heidegger Dictionary] mentions the idea that "we don't play because there are games; there are games because we play." For Heidegger, language is not something that can be defined simply. This relates to what we said on Tuesday about Being belonging to persons, and not things, and things having meaning only when interpreted by a Being. This meaning is not something that can be grasped firmly and definitively, but rather, for Heidegger, must be felt out, walked around, explored -- "played with." Language is a game, and it exists because we play with meaning. It is in the nature of our Being that we play with language. One of the methods he uses in his writings to explain meaning in language is dialogue. He writes dialogues, real or imagined, to rhetorically present this process of linguistic play. Allow me to recommend his book, On the Way to Language, which starts with one of these dialogues.

One of the reasons, I think, that it is so hard to read and understand Heidegger is that he is always walking around what he wants to understand, and so his sentences also walk around the topic. If he defines meaning too definitely, he loses his focus on meaning as something done by Dasein, as a product of Being, its situation, and its understanding of the world. So part of his use of Spielen is in Spielraum, "play" as in the slack of a rope, or a loose grip. Spielen is a way that Heidegger leaves space for meaning to be subordinate to Dasein, but also a way that he refuses to over-commit himself. Making one meaning too definite, or even absolute, destroys our ability to access the reality under that meaning. Heidegger develops a strategy that Jacques Derrida will use after him, of questioning and even crossing out words to generate exactly this kind of "play," this Spielraum, and to enable Being to reach beyond the assertion of one particular meaning and perform its own interpretation.

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I haven't gotten to how this relates to Wittgenstein and his concept of Sprachspielen yet, but I can feel it present in the room. Still much work to do, but this is at least a clue into it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Systematics and curricular sequencing, 1

We cannot teach dogmatics if we do not teach certain other things first. I've been on about thinking theologically, but we also do many other things in the formation of a pastoral candidate, which are necessary. Balancing all of the needs of a seminary curriculum has become one of my new hobbies, and people keep throwing balls (and clubs and knives and rings) into the mix. It's good to have friends to help you juggle!

We teach the history sequence as H1, H2, Confessions, with H2 as an oft-delayed course seniors return to. The history sequence, at least in part, precedes the systematic sequence of S1, S2 and as seniors a (re)Constructive theology. If you take it with the right professor, you will get the patristic and reformation dogmatic backdrop as history before you get it in the systematic doctrine surveys. (Which is what S1 and S2 are, just as much as H1 and H2 are history survey, whatever periods and areas they may cover under different instructors.) We teach ethics as an optional sequence, one basic class and the second 300-level class, both elective and competing with other optional sequences to provide that one required extra area course. All of which is of course paralleled to the ongoing ministry formation sequence.

You can tell my concern is with the instruction in systematics, by and large, but how we teach systematics depends on a great deal of formation of the student as theologian. Here, we place history and confessions prior to systematics, which fits with our presentation of the content of systematic theology. This design is telling when it comes to what we think theology is. We aim to build a foundation of early historical (especially creedal/conciliar) and polity-dogmatic (especially creedal/confessional) understanding on which the heavier (and later) bits of dogma can rest in order. And practice comes higher up the edifice, built on doctrine (except ministry practice, which we're training them in by immersion as a "learn by doing" task). Ethics as practice only arrives as warnings, especially about sex and power. Which we surely require, but perhaps if we built basic ethical practice into the beginning, we'd have fewer needs to use the clue-by-four on the back end.

So much is affected by the fact that internship is the third year, and that the fourth year is cleanup and supplement. We have two years in which to generate solid formation usable by the students in their practica. Not all of the things that should come before internship can come before it. The necessity is for building an extensible structure, a framework that is easy to fill by a student who wants to fill it and to whom the content has been made accessible. Modular education design. This has a major impact on sequencing, especially when compared with curricular design that presumes it can fit everything in a linear fashion into two years of instruction.

There are ways the problem set mirrors processor architecture and cluster computing. We teach long-pipeline, in-order execution and attempt to fill up everyone's caches with properly-sequenced data. When system architecture and load-handling match, this is great. We can even tolerate a few cache misses, and do small-scale resequencing to compensate. But the truth of this design is that it only works well in monocultures. You can't blame reality on the second-career folks either -- the fact is that educational populations have never been monocultures, and we've just been weeding out those whose learning architectures don't match our instructional architectures, and doing so for a very long time. You adapt to the professor or suffer. Perhaps the solution set also participates in this analogy.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Back to Barth

Just turned on to Schmid's compendium Lutheran dogmatics, which reminded me of Heppe-Bizer and Denzinger-Schonmetzer. Orthodoxy of the 19th century, as a compendium recovering orthodoxy of the late-16th and 17th centuries. Schneider wonders when I talk about orthodoxy what exactly I mean, but it's always a shortcut in my brain for the age of Protestant and Lutheran orthodoxy, that period in time when the reformers were dying, and their disciples were busy systematically codifying their Truth. Two different orthodoxies, to be sure, when you consider the Calvinist/Lutheran split, but contemporaneous. And this has me thinking of another angle on Barth.

If I want hermeneutics, I'm really best using the source material and its interpretation. Barth's Gottingen courses in dogmatics were grounded in heavy reading of Heppe and Schmid, and if I use them both, plus what I know from the total table of contents, plus the English I have of the GD, plus supplementary sources, I have a means of hitting dogmatics and hermeneutics together.

Just a thought.

What are we teaching?

It troubles me when my seniors (the M.Div. class with whom I entered seminary) can say to me that they don't feel theologically prepared. That we haven't taught them Luther, and have hardly taught them to be confessionally fluent. The present "confessional crisis" may be a bad time for this, in which pastors and congregations who have simply subscribed without becoming capable confessional theologians are easily manipulated into following agendas set by those who are capable. However, I don't think there's a good time for confessional illiteracy, least of all in a Lutheran group that claims to reach back to Luther himself and the 16th c. Reformation struggles over church to find its formative understanding of the confessional tradition.

Or that they can say to me that they don't feel that we've given them the tools to think theologically, and consequently that they've reached a point where they really could use all that theological data, but only after having gone through the process of having it dumped on them in a mode of active resistance to bad instruction! That they finally are starting to get what it is to think theologically at the end of their tenure here, and wonder why we didn't teach *that* to them in the first place!

They want to cooperate in their own education, but too late -- and it is not their fault!

I've said, in tune with James Cone and others, that the perspectives of subordinated groups must be internalized into our theology. (Not co-opted!) That they cannot simply be "bolt-ons," afterthoughts to "real theology." That we must come to see ourselves as a perspective, a theologically valuable contribution, and to set ourselves to work. But to do so, we cannot simply take our bolt-on armor and call it a HMMV! Learning to do our first works over again cannot be equated with abandoning those works and ourselves and becoming who we are not. We stand here teaching liberation and Lutheranism, but not a liberating Lutheranism. Not a confessional and Luther-literate theology that orients itself to the problems, but liberation with an apology for teaching white men alongside. And we have theologians who could -- whose work is predicated on such a creative junction! Who are trying. But my seniors tell me they feel like Luther can be set aside, so long as we hit eco-feminism in every class. This is not a way to do justice to either! (And I learned that here, too.)

I've also said that the pedagogy of dumping gobs of theology onto students actively engaged in trying to scrape them off doesn't serve our purposes. We stress-test and burn-in our ministry students in order to make them fail where we can help fix them, because we fear the consequences if they break in the real world, without capable support at hand. But we do this at the same time that we add to their stress loads by sitting them in a classroom and teaching them 300-level theology for which many of them haven't gotten past the need for 100-level instruction.

We are building houses on untested foundations, attempting to raise upper stories on top of barely-validated ground floors. We are building these houses in spite of their residents. We are demolishing their kitchens and bathrooms because by signing the application, they consented to be remodeled -- only they don't know that coming in, even the ones that think they do. And only when the project is almost complete are we telling them why, and asking them if they'd like to pitch in at sweat-equity. But the design -- the design wasn't in their hands. Even the ones who volunteer to be theologians, only get at the design by inference.

I don't know what the answer is. But I do know it's got to start with teaching our students to be theologians, and teaching them the value of the Lutheran theological perspective as a set of tools for real work. For the love of God, and for better or worse, we're a Lutheran seminary. We can turn them loose in the hardware store after that, once we have them on board as what that baptismal oath says, "fellow members of the body of Christ and workers with us for the kingdom of God." We can give them surveys of material and projects and have a reasonable expectation that they will willingly choose some part of our work as church. But to take the recruit off the street, whose desire to be of service to the church causes her to apply, and to set her to work in a dizzying field of options without training -- that is folly. The results are our fault. To set her before catalogs of materials and ask her to choose and to value them without providing the basic knowledge and experience necessary for them to become intelligible and useful, is also folly and our fault. To provide this knowledge last, and to cause to dawn in her the realization that we haven't given the information really necessary for the job on which she has been apprentice and journeyman, should tell us that there is a problem in our pedagogy. The practical training is so good here. But the theological training has such potential! We have good pastors and good theologians by the grace of God. It is hard for us to decide what pieces of theology are necessary in the short time that students are at seminary, but if we do not raise them up as independent theological minds, and fellow-workers, we make the job that much harder all around.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Lutheran theological core?

I've tried to write this many times. It wants to come out, but not well. There is too much violence in my soul to sound peaceable about the issue, and too much injustice being done under the name and using the words of God. And part of me says, "You want Luther? I can give you Luther to blister your skin!"

Rob is right, blogging is not the forum in which to express my distaste at the misuses of the Lutheran Confessions concomitant to the misuses of scripture on moral questions. It will not solve the problem. No one will learn. And I will suffer harm for being a violent heretic, in a world where orthodoxy is what the powerful in society say it is.

And I know white people don't like it when you disagree impolitely. But, God, if I don't vent somewhere, I will explode. I'm genuinely angry, and I have tried being not-angry for quite some time, with notable failures. But Nestingen: a highly placed theologian wrapping himself in the flag and pillaging and burning on his way out. Oh, to be at Luther now that the Apocalypse has come! It harms my soul that sexuality stands in as a cipher, enabling the power-games of those who want to prove themselves "gnesio" enough to be in charge. If this is Confessionalism, I want none of it! Where is your Gospel? Who learned from Seminex?

And my father, doing what he's been trained to do, following suit. And my grandfather, about whom I'm sad because I told him what I think, and now I'm scared that I've lost him because I've had no reply. Because I can't think about this and not shout that the orthodoxy being so loudly bruited about is no will of God's! The reasonable-sounding statements others have signed, that couch heteronormativity as though the institution of marriage as an order of creation were part of Lutheran theology that we must keep above even the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ and his triumph over our otherwise irredeemable sin and unrighteousness! This is Lutheranism? This is what you do with your status confessionis? My own people? Can you be serious? None of you has the right to complain about Kulturprotestantismus. You are what so many of you despise by that name. God help us all.

And even that was more than I should have said. For saying that, along with all the other things I shouldn't have said out loud, in ways polite enough for the topic but not polite enough for the people, I will continue to lose. And for even this smaller bit, I will be compelled to apologize. Because I hurt those I love on that other side when I argue for those I love on what they call "the other side." And I don't want to hurt any of them, but I can't keep my fool mouth shut! It hurts when I do it for too long.