A Citizen Soldier Stands Against the President

Is it time to take to the bunker yet? I do not think so.  Though, things are getting quite scary.  As a soldier and a citizen and a Christian, the President of the United States of America is an enemy of the people.  Not the press, not the Democrats, and not the Muslims of the world.  The President daily signs death warrants for soldiers he does not care a scrap for nor gives more than an afterthought over dinner.  The President has chosen his own power and prestige over truth and the good of the American people.  And it is our own President who incites violence (in violation of his own claimed faith) at home and around the world against Muslims, compared to the uncountable hundreds of thousands of Muslims who have taken up arms in our defense in Iraq and Afghanistan and around the world… not to mention here at home in the USA.

As someone who risked his life daily for the American people, I resent the fact that the President has portrayed the US institutions of truth, science and the press, as enemies of the people, institutions without virtually any monetary reward and little notoriety who do their virtuous work in silence.  I deplore the fact that the President has deliberately undermined the Department of Justice and the FBI, organizations which have worked for decades and for over a century to work against the current of politics and protect every American’s rights.  And finally, I despise our President for putting his own politics above the integrity of our electoral system.  There is overwhelming evidence that members of his advisory team and cabinet were beholden to the Russians, and President Trump can do nothing but refuse to talk about the matter or lie.  He would rather repeat a lie than dig up the truth, a play fit only for the Mein Kampf.

Maybe I am exaggerating our situation, but I do not think I am.  There is not anywhere left for the Republican regime left to run except to crime.  This is not an evenly divided system between right and left.  The right has clearly gone off the rails.  They have their own networks of black ops that regularly and consistently distort the truth in a demonstrable and refutable manner.  They have constructed legislation behind closed doors without hearings.  If our Constitutional Republic can survive Trump’s assault intact, it will be a miracle.  We can only match this assault with an army of spirit-warriors.  Satyagraha is our weapon.  Only by peace, mercy and the truth will we find a foundation for a true government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

May our Republic survive by the way of love.  Amen.

 

A First Reading of Steven D Paulson’s “Lutheran Theology”

Right now I am working my way through Lutheran Theology (Bloomsbury, 2011) by Steven D Paulson, professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, MN.  As a new member of the ELCA, I find the work frightening.  (Stay tuned.  I have only just begun my work on Paulson’s book, so there is surely more to come from a project that spans so much of Christian thinking.)  Paulson is at pains to maintain the old, contorted language of a faith that sought to distinguish the value of faith and works.  The context of that distinction is all important.  Indulgences and penitential manuals and politics had corrupted the understanding (and practice) of the order of justification.  In order to restore that order, Luther and the Lutheran reformers took some bold steps to overthrow a legalistic vision of love.  This resulted in some theology that ignored the perfectly acceptable place of Christian love as the crowning theological virtue.  In fact, left on its own, Luther’s theology seemed to run contrary to James on living faith and Paul on the preeminence of love.  The Lutheran claim that faith is primary in the Christian life and that, as Paulson has it, with her restored vision, the theologian of the cross can name evil as it is, is a position that is simply dead.  “You believe God is one; you do well.  Even the demons believe – and shudder.” (James 2:19)  Restored vision is not a product of faith alone, but faith working through hope and love.  The holy life of the Christian is not a product of faith, as James tells us, but of faith working through love.  All of Christian history testifies against the notion that faith alone is justifying or in any way gives rise to the good works that Paulson calls the fruits of faith.  Only by blindly holding to a worn out and discredited theological vocabulary can Paulson maintain his vision of Lutheran theology.

Luther’s stand was a necessary move for reform.  Paulson’s position is a retreat from reform into an impoverished dogmatism.  Paulson fails to grasp the points of the reformers stances and places his own idea of how a system of Lutheran theology ought to hang together above demanding a new clarity and hewing to a commitment to real love.  The ecumenical movement can save us from this horror.  Agreements between Catholics and Lutherans ought to free us from this sort of dogmatic contortionism that bastardizes language and ignores history.

The understanding that is coming out of our ecumenical work is permission enough to adopt new language… as if we needed permission.  We are Lutherans!  Founders of the Reformation!  As Christians, we Lutherans believe that God is love.  Love is fundamental to reality, not faith, truth or being.  Theology has had the pyramid of faith, hope and love on its head for too long.  (Catholic theology did it too; it just added more elements to the articles of faith.)  Faith alone is dead faith.  Understanding that we are in an era that demands a revision of our theological language to take seriously the tragedy of the cross that scars the world, that is a mission for a true Church of the Reformation.

Apophatic Theodicy

Ten years ago a tsunami ripped through the Indian Ocean claiming more than a quarter of a million lives and displacing nearly two million more. In the face of such devastation, horrified silence is the only proper response I can think of; but many voices arose, claiming that God is clearly dead or that God was again cleansing the earth. It was against these voices that David Bentley Hart wrote The Doors of the Sea.

Hart’s Doors did little to calm the furor. The book drips with contempt for Hart’s interlocutors. As a work of theology it fails to attain to love, and as a work of rational reflection it fails, well, to be rational. Richard Dawkins has dismissed Hart’s theology as apophatuous. This is unfortunate, as Hart gives no evidence of appreciating the profound demands of silence.

But let me linger for a moment to consider the text. Take, by way of example, Hart’s attempt at defending God on apophatic grounds early in the book:

Unless one can see the beginning and end of all things, unless one possesses a divine, eternal vantage upon all of time, unless one knows the precise nature of the relation between divine and created freedom, unless indeed one can fathom infinite wisdom, one can draw no conclusions from finite experience regarding the coincidence in God of omnipotence and perfect goodness. One may still hate God for worldly suffering, if one chooses, or deny him, but one cannot in this way ‘disprove’ him. (pgs. 13-14)

The defense here would be laughable were the issue not so serious. Hart goes wrong by taking the atheist to say anything at all about omnipotence and perfect goodness. What the atheist objects to is calling God loving as well as powerful enough to intervene in the course of nature and history. Love is a perfectly familiar and ordinary sort of concept, so the atheist is surely on firm footing here. Similar points can be made about intervening in nature and history (although human attempts at such interventions have a horrible track record).

Hart, of course, wants to move the conversation to another level, a theological level. He wants our vocabulary to be restricted by the uses of theologians and Church fathers. One problem with doing so is that Hart has already as much as admitted that God’s wisdom, power and love are beyond our comprehension. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent… or something along those lines. Wittgenstein’s admonition is both an ethical tautology and a metaphysical fact about meaning.

I have suggested that there is another problem with Hart’s apophatic defense. That issue is simply this: it is not the atheist who is burdened with defending her position but the Christian. We make extraordinary claims about the unseen, claims on which we have often enough staked our reputations and lives, claims we believe have the power to transform human life itself. The atheist, on the other hand, the best among them, thinks things are as she thinks they are, to steal a line from Wallace Stevens. Things are as we find them and nothing more…. She has no patience for the postmodern mojo that would wrap everything in shadows.

The problem with the atheist position, if there is one, is that she must take care to not trust in her intuitions. She must let her intuitions be trained. Otherwise she falls victim to the tyranny of common sense. But, of course, that is not a problem really, but an expectation of intellectual honesty. The atheist’s position is one of moral responsibility, a position Hart could learn a lot from.

It strikes me as interesting that Hart’s theology, not being a Western Christian, is so wedded to scholastic philosophy. Intellectual responsibility, one would think, demands a rejection of a metaphysics and epistemology developed in almost complete ignorance of the various mechanisms at work in nature and psychology science has uncovered over the last few centuries. The development of scholastic philosophy strikes me as the epitome of religion developed without the benefit of deep experience of God…. an experience that demands silence.

What is a Christian to do in the face of overwhelming tragedy? In the Gospel of John, Jesus addresses human suffering and Christian hope:

Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. (Jn 16: 20-21)

We Christians can say nothing more than that we hope for some sort of transformative apocalypse, a revelation that will wipe away all tears, give meaning and value to the suffering endured during this life, and reconcile us all to one another and to nature. In other words, the Christian does not have anything to add. Silence and enduring with our brothers and sisters is the only gift we have to give.