Just an Academic Christian

Hello on a damp and chilly January evening,

Today I had the opportunity to chat with a colleague from another department in my college and one who researches a number of issues and aspects about rhetoric, religion, politics, and culture. We have talked briefly before and I have read some of his work, so the opportunity to do more than casually address the possibility of doing some research together was exciting, even motivational because it got me thinking. I found myself pondering where I stand in terms of my own faith and how my background colors my perspective on both religion in general and then more precisely how I try to find some tittle of logic in the evangelical’s support of a person that occupies the 1600 address.

Certainly we have some similar views and equal astonishment that those who claim a particular conservative dogmatic can find most anything this President does to represent any kind of Christian systematic. From his inappropriate, sexual innuendo to his outright explicit Hollywood insider tape, from his demeaning of most anyone not like him to his most recent retweet of Speaker Pelosi and Minority Leader Schumer in Muslim attire, and a White House Press Secretary who could not seem to realize the bigotry of such a post itself, the idea of turning the other cheek or disregarding the log in their own eye seems to go beyond the pale. It is simple, too simple. to argue it is merely the idea of being profoundly one issue (which is overturning Roe v. Wade). It is even more complex than a liberal versus an evangelical. In fact, my conversation with my colleague offered some really nice insight into the the complexity of the ideograph “liberal,” particularly when we allow the political and the religious understanding of that word to intermingle and then do not realize the homogenization we have performed or live. The understanding of conservative or liberal  is not what I understood it to be growing up in the 1960s and early 70s. The understanding of evangelical is also quite a bit more complex. Certainly the Protestant tenet of salvation by grace through faith was significantly changed with a sort of born again works-righteousness that seems to saturate many evangelicals. It is ironic that evangelical is related to the Greek word angellos or the word euangellion (sorry, I wrote them in Greek, but WordPress does not seem amenable to letting me use that font). The first word is the Greek word for angel and the second is the word for Good News. The real foundational understanding of evangelical is to provide the message of Good News, but it seems it has been co-opted by a particular group of believers. Certainly the term evangelical dates back to the Reformation when it was used to refer to those who were not Roman Catholic. To this day, the German Protestant Church, which is what Luther prompted, is called the Evangelische Kirche. Certainly in the English speaking world, the quadrilateral of priorities is indicative of what it means to be evangelical. Yet, for me much of this seems to be dependent on action or demonstration rather than heart. I know that is a difficult statement and will perhaps anger some who read this, but hear me out. I believe one can be passionate about their faith and simultaneously compassionate. I see too little of this. Too often my experience has been that when the chips are down and people are questioning faith or where God is, the evangelical sees is as an opportunity for conversion. If that is the case then their compassion has a price and I will argue it is not compassion, but manipulation. In terms of another part of their quadrilateral, to understand the Bible as inerrant or infallible makes the Bible a recipe card. I believe in the divinely inspired word, but I also believe it was written by humans at a particular point in time in a particular context. The writers were influenced by the lives they were living as they wrote, just as any author is. If you find the Bible so unquestioningly authoritative, it seems you might be worshiping the book and not the one who inspired it. That is idolatry. While Lutherans are often accused of being second article dominant, crucicentrism or the importance of atonement is not unique to evangelical Christians. It is central to Christianity for all. Without atonement, the crucifixion has little purpose. The issue of rebirth or born again and a conversion is perhaps the most difficult for me. As a person who sees God as the primary actor in any sacramental act, infant baptism is logical. It is God’s grace; it is not our doing that makes the baptismal act salvific. Therefore, we cannot decide to claim God, rather God claims us. What is interesting, to return to my initial thought, is giving God such ability is seen as liberal. Because I do not feel a re-baptism or conversion is necessary, believing that God’s mercy is something that comes to us through the sacraments and the Holy Spirit, I would be a liberal theologically focused person.

For me that is fine. While I am not as regular in my attendance to worship as I should be (says the former Lutheran pastor), I believe Luther completely understood our human condition. He understood the struggle most have to be faithful. That is not to say that we can just do whatever we want and repent, though technically that works if your heart is true, but rather he would say this if we are going to focus on our works and our belief in that conversion is all that is needed and good, salvation is dependent on this: be perfect. Then you are all good. Follow the recipe and you are all good. That is the problem; there is no recipe. For me, and yes, note that I said for me, the quadrilateral is a recipe book. It reminds me of a simple, but important question: do you do what you do so your  parents will love you? or do you do what you do because your parents love you? The side you fall on in your answer of that question is an important one. The same could be asked about your understanding of God. If you have to do what you do to get God to love you, there is little compassion; there is only a rule book. There is no real atonement because you still have to earn your salvation. Gerhard Forde, my confessions professor in seminary, wrote in his book, Justification: A Matter of Death and Life, “The answer to the question what must I do to be saved is nothing.” Then he went on in the next sentence to write, “Shut up and listen for once in your life.” I can still hear his voice when I read or remember those words. Forde, one of the people to whom I owe my theological basis spoke about a radical Lutheranism, in someways like Bonhoeffer questioned the role of the church as he decided to participate in the plot against Adolf Hitler. Forde would write, “We should realize first of all that what is at stake on the current scene is certainly not Lutheranism as such. Lutheranism has no particular claim or right to existence. Rather, what is at stake is the radical gospel, radical grace, the eschatological nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen as put in its most uncompromising and unconditional form by St. Paul. What is at stake is a mode of doing theology and a practice in church and society derived from that radical statement of the gospel.” The gospel is inclusive and as such, it calls on us to reach out to all people, regardless of race, creed, orientation, identity, faith, or social economic class. Inclusivity is synonymous with Gospel; it is what makes it Good News. When we put our human conditional expectations on the love of a creator, we diminish that creator (or at least the understanding of the creator). This is something Dr. Nielsen tried to get us to see in his Christian Thought class or when he spoke to you one on one about faith matters.

Before you wander down the road of thinking I am saying we have no response-ability. Indeed we do. In Romans 6, Paul specifically asked the question, “Should we sin all the more that grace may abound?” He goes on to say, “Certainly Not!” And it is written in the Greek as an imperative. Yes, I grew up attending church weekly. It was expected and I did it. And most of the time I enjoyed it because most of my school friends and I attended the same church. As I have noted in other blogs, it was my social group and it was a place I could feel validated, a need I noted in a recent post. We were fortunate to have some incredible group leaders, those older than me, as well as a pretty incredible pastor in the Reverend Paul Ofstedal. As I would return to Dana College and eventually through ordination after my MDiv at Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, my understanding of Lutheranism would grow. As a parish pastor, I remember being awed by the idea and power of baptism and what God bestows upon us. I think it was there I began to understand the graciousness of God, the real grace of God. As I would move toward my doctoral work and my own personal struggle with the power structure of the ELCA, and particularly with a bishop, I began to understand how those in authority abuse that authority in the name of the church. It was then I knew that faith was about more than belonging to or attending a specific denomination, synod, or congregation. What does it mean for me to be Lutheran or claim Lutheran theology as my go-to? It means that I am to act in the same compassionate and gracious way I believe God accepts me. In spite of my flaws, my failures, and my unsuccessful attempts to do this, somehow, for some reason, God still loves me. I have often said if there is such a thing as a guardian angel, I am sure mine is feeling quite worn out at times. In fact that angel might have gone as far as to ask for a new assignment. Much of what I have written here might seem obtuse, complex, or as one once said, “They pay you to study and talk like that?” Yes, indeed, they do. But I think there is more to all of this. I often tell my students that I believe God gave them a brain to do more than hold their ears apart. It is true. I believe God wants us to look at the world in which we live and see the difficulties. I think that God wants us to question and struggle with what it means to be faithful. Does that include studying and questioning. In my piety, I believe it does. Life is not a recipe and neither is faith. The simple statement to love your neighbor as yourself is straightforward. It is a command, an imperative. The doing it is the hard part, but when we systematically exclude, refer to people in disparaging terms, or somehow believe we have the inside track on God, we are not following the command to love. It is also as simple as that.

Our current lack of civility, decorum, and most anything else that pits us against them is contrary to a gospel that calls all. We are asked to reach out in a sense of compassion first. The fifth commandment address the issue of murder, but if we take Jesus’s words to heart in the Sermon on the Mount, he notes that if you hate someone you have already broken the commandment. Luther noted that this meant we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs. Sounds a bit socialist to some, I imagine. When it comes to bearing false witness (the eighth commandment), Luther again noted, “we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” Yikes, do not read any Twitter posts if you want to abide by that. Perhaps I am an academic Christian, but for me that means I read, I think, I ponder, I use my brain. I refuse to merely follow the crowd and I will not believe by recipe card. I know this post will raise some hackles among those who read, but I am not telling you either what to believe or how. I am merely saying what works for me, and sometimes it does not work because I fail it, not the other way around. I have not posted a video the last couple times, but this was a song sung at my ordination by my best friend, and someone we lost too soon, Peter Goede.

Thank you for all the reads and for the comments, I am humbled by all of you.

Dr. Martin

Author:

I am a professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and the director of and Professional and Technical Writing minor, a 24 credit certificate for non-degree seeking people, and now a concentration in Professional Writing and Digital Rhetoric. We work closely to move students into a 4+1 Masters Program with Instructional Technology. I love my work and I am content with what life has handed me. I merely try to make a difference for others by what I share, write, or ponder through my words.

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