The Future of Theology
By Robert Schmidt
Wither theology? One looks in vain for a current Barth, Brunner, Tillich, or Niebuhr. Yes, there is Pannenberg, and John Douglas Hall is worth noting. Yet, when a presidential candidate accuses another of “bad theology,” one asks, “by what criteria?” Is it the Bible or is it politics choosing selected teachings to serve current social or ecclesiastical agendas?
For the most part, theology taught in most seminaries and parishes might be characterized as “identity theology.” As such, there is a Roman Catholic theology, a Greek Orthodox theology, a Calvinist theology, a Fundamentalist theology, and Lutheran theology etc. While the stated purpose of such theology is to teach the basics of the faith, it also serves as a gateway and, at times, a trap door into the history, culture, and society of a given group.
Given the diverse demographics of any church body, theology, for many, provides an identity for the group, be it a denomination or a local congregation. As such, theological polemics are often directed against individuals within the group or against closely related Christians. Thus, LCMS Lutherans are most likely to inveigh against other Lutherans than they are against Baptists and Roman Catholics. However, the most virulent polemics are often saved for those within the church body. These are the individuals who challenge those peripheral teachings of the church body which provide a sense of identity for the group.
Currently under fire within the LCMS is former campus pastor, Bob Stuenkel, who communes with his wife in an ELCA parish where she is a member. Never mind that such inter- communion has been widely practiced for years by individuals, lay and clergy. Citing “unionism,” a sin which is condemned only by LCMS Lutherans, Bob can be expelled from membership in the LCMS. While hardly one of those sedes doctrinae, “core doctrines by which the church rises or falls,” this condemnation of so-called “unionism” does draw the line around the dwindling LCMS in hopes of providing a better sense of church “identity.”
Then there is Dr. Matthew Becker of Valparaiso University who has challenged the LCMS’s interpretation of the Bible denying evolution and women’s ordination. Neither, of these teachings is discussed in the Lutheran Confessions and both have depended solely upon convention votes of the Synod. Because such interpretations were never voted on by a two thirds majority of the congregations of the Synod, they do not qualify as the official teaching of the Synod. As such, they are constitutionally open for debate by those who officially dissent from those positions. Nevertheless, for the sake of the denomination’s sense of identity, Matthew might well be expelled from the Synod.
“Identity theology” distorts the cardinal teachings of the church body and to the public displays legalism and sectarianism rather than the grace of God in Christ. What is the public persona of the LCMS? They don’t ordain women; they are against homosexual marriage; and they avoid ecumenical events. Yes, and currently, the President of the church body and the Council of Presidents, like the Republican candidates for president, are against the government providing contraception services through religious institutions even though women working for those institutions, may not share the their religious beliefs. Even though not all members of any church group are in agreement with their leaders on controverted issues, a negative public perception of the group’s identity often makes outreach and evangelism difficult if not impossible.
For those concerned about coming to grips with real problems rather than the identity of a given group, “issue theologies” generate new passion and energy. The 1960s provided a fertile environment for “liberation theology” in much of Latin America and Southern Africa. There the colonialism of the past continued in the theft of land and the oppression of the poor. While most established churches supported the authoritarian regimes, perceptive theologians, priests, pastors and nuns championed the causes of the people. Gustavo Gutierrez, Emilio Castro, Juan Segundo, Bonino and others spoke out about the situation in Latin America. Canaan Banana in Zimbabwe and Bishop Tutu championed the cause in Southern Africa.
Though liberation theology was dampened in the Roman Catholic churches by Pope John Paul, many of the current leaders in South America were greatly influenced by it. Caesar Chavez of Venezuela, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Lula of Brazil and the Kirchners of Argentina all have made concern for the poor a platform of their leadership.
In America James Cone wrote a Black Theology of Liberation addressing both the struggles of African Americans and those of their churches. Using a similar framework, theologians also addressed the plight of women in male dominated churches and societies. Many Christian feminist theologians advocated the ordination of women and an equal role for women in marriage and the other institutions of society.
In those church bodies whose identity theology precluded a re-examination of those Biblical texts used to deny women the preaching he word of God and the public administration of the sacraments, many women left. In those church bodies whose theology and ethics would not even deal with the Old Testament prophets in their denunciation of unjust wealth and the cries of the poor, the scope of their outreach was, and is, pretty much limited to people in their economic and social classes.
Any missionary living in another culture and using another language soon realizes the need to do theology in different way. When teaching about the Lord’s Supper in an animist context, the real presence of Christ in the sacrament is seldom questioned. However, the real issue may revolve around the purpose of the sacrament. Thus, the eating and drinking is for forgiveness, fellowship, and a new life. It is not just a cure for a sick stomach.
In the Northwest District of the LCMS several ex-missionaries and their friends are seeking to apply the chief doctrines of the faith to Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists who live among us. Following the outline of Luther’s Small Catechism, special notes are being drawn up in simple English to help ethnic pastors and their people communicate the faith to those who have a different view of God, faith, and salvation. While this approach has real merit for those raised in their faith, it does not do much to address the millions of people who have dropped out of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Animism.
Many of these are wanderers experimenting with various pseudo-religions such as capitalism, environmentalism, nationalism, libertarianism, feminism, socialism and humanism. Others shun all faith believing that there is no recipe for life. For the well-to-do, life is grabbing all the goodies while they last; for the vulnerable, it is just survival.
In the past we might characterize as “mission theologies” the Speeches to the Cultured Despisers of Religion by Friedrich Schleiermacher or Tillich’s “Ground of Being” as a way for secular folk to believe in God. In fact, much, if not most of what we know as modern theology has been a way of communicating the faith to those who find themselves outside any religion. However, in our new global context, much of such “modern theology” is not really relevant to the unemployed youth in the Arab Spring or those of “Occupy Wall Street.”
The Theological Task Ahead
Millions of people are leaving their religions every year. We see it in the young people walking past our churches in America. In Europe fewer people attend. The initial impetus for the Arab Spring came not from Islamic leaders but from the young people who had left the strictures of their faith. While the growth of the church in China and India is notable, it nowhere comes near to the increase in their populations. Even where the Christian church is growing in Africa and Latin America, their young people flee north for jobs often leaving their faith behind
At the same time people are leaving their faith, they are being confronted with the some of the biggest problems the world has ever faced. Massive chronic unemployment, long the scourge of the poor world, is now visiting the US and Europe. The struggle for resources such as oil, water, and food, is funneling the world into the possibility of another world war. Over population, pollution, and climate change threaten the planet as never before.
To address this world an emphasis on “doctrinal purity” is not going to make it. Even Law and Gospel for personal sins will be beside the point. What is both needed and possible is the “GOOD NEWS” for a wider world. Ironically this was Jesus’ message from the first. “The Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1: 15)
The promises of God for the coming kingdom in the Old Testament will also be good news today. The forgiveness of sins through Christ’s death and resurrection tops the list and includes even those sins of amassing obscene wealth and turning the poor away. There will be food for the hungry, water in the wilderness, and healing for the sick and crippled. For the unemployed and homeless comes the promise of everyone having their own vine and fig tree, housing and work. Beating swords into plowshares and not learning war any more is also part of the vision of the coming kingdom, the new world society.
Yes, it is at hand, and for its realization, we need to repent of all that keeps the kingdom from happening. This is the preaching of the law for a despairing generation. Then we can believe the good news of the kingdom that it is really happening. That’s the Gospel for today. It is spread like one who sows the seed; it grows like yeast in dough. Though tiny as a mustard seed, it grows into a shrub where birds make their nests. It is so valuable; it is like a treasure hidden in the field or a pearl of great price.
Where does this theological task begin? For those of us raised in the identity theology of the LCMS it can begin by opening the windows of a closed system. In this Spring 2012 issue of the DayStar JOURNAL Dave Domsch answers a young critic who asks, why do you not simply leave Missouri if your find its theology so bad.
In another article Matthew Becker lets us view an essay he has submitted to the Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) as part of his official dissent from the Synod’s resolutions that prohibit women from serving as pastors. Though efforts such as this might be seen by some to be divisive and disloyal to the identity theology of the Synod, they can bring a little hope to many women in the Synod and can also serve as a bridge to fellow believers outside the Synodical walls.
Carol Schmidt addresses the difference between unity and uniformity. Such a distinction has ramifications not only within a church body such as the LCMS but also in relations between church bodies and also among all Christians in any given community. As we confess our faith in one holy catholic and apostolic church, can we remain aloof and uninvolved? Is this really understood as a confessional witness or is it just seen as the last gasp for a sectarian identity?
The Future of Theology
For a more comprehensive theology to address Eastern cultures as those of the West, Southern cultures, as well as those of the North, it may be impossible for any one theologian to take on that task. Indeed, this may be the reason few have tried. This means that the future of theology is in the hands of those at the edge of the church, who daily interact with idolaters of all stripes. These are the women and men who will do the clarification, the education, the polemics, and the apologetics of a true confessional witness. We pray that they will feel free to do so.