Tag Archives: pluralism

Thoughts at a 5th Grade Concert

Last night was the middle child’s 5th Grade Winter Concert. Of course it was wonderful. One does not think about these things on an aesthetic scale. But if one were to think about a bunch of elementary students singing and playing instruments aesthetically, surprisingly it isn’t the technical aspects of wrong notes that would jump to the foreground of the critique. Instead it would be the material.

Let me preface this with ‘I get it’. I know what leads to this type of material, but that is getting ahead of things. Let me share what I think is the representative piece: A Festive Holiday by J. Estes. The accompaniment and melody were catchy and upbeat, an interesting blend of African tribal percussion (Kwanzaa?) and vaguely Jewish Hanukah. The lyrics are the black hole. Here they are.

Come and Sing a song of joy and celebration and have a festive holiday. Goodwill, bringing Goodwill to all. Repeat in a round.

A practicing Christian or Muslim might see the form of a Call to Prayer or Call to worship. The problem is that there is no there there. Again ‘I get it’, but let me expand on this. Verbs are important. In this case we are receiving a command. It is called the imperative mood. Come and Sing! This is a command I am likely to follow. Your heart is stone if you don’t like to sing together. So, what is this command gathering us to sing? A song of joy and celebration. Okay, that is great. But why? Why am I singing with joy and celebration? Have a festive holiday! That isn’t an answer. It is just a repeat of the command. It just compounds the question. What holiday? Why is it festive instead of meditative or even sorrowful like memorial day? Goodwill, bring goodwill to all. Yes, a worthy call, but again, a command. Just do it. Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy. Why? What are you some kind of Grinch? I didn’t think so, but when given a command I usually like to know some of the reasons. Reasons, shmeasons, Come and Sing a song of joy! Okay, but if we are celebrating Festivus, the festive holiday for the rest of us, don’t we start with the airing of grievances? Joy, Celebration, Festive, got it. Yes, I think I do.

Let me compare that to a relatively standard Call to Worship from this time of year, a versification of the Magnificat by Timothy Dudley-Smith. Tell out my soul! There is the command. Tell it. Shout, sing. Tell out my soul, the greatness of the Lord. Why am I doing this? The greatness of the Lord. Okay, what does that consist of? Glad you asked. Unnumbered blessings, give my spirit voice; tender to me the promise of His Word. In God my savior shall my heart rejoice. What is the greatness of the Lord that is causing me to cry out? Blessings given, His Word, my Savior. Of course the Magnificat, Mary’s Song, continues from there, but it does not shy away from answering the natural questions. It is up to you to respond, but you are given the claims.

Likewise let’s look for a second at the Islamic call to prayer. The real call to prayer leads with the greatest reason, but what is the command? Come to prayer, come to success! Okay, why would I come to prayer? I (the one singing) bear witness that none but Allah is worthy of worship. How do you know that and why? Mohammed is his prophet. Allah is most great. Okay, maybe a little circular, but it does answer my question. If I find Mohammed’s witness to Allah credible, the command makes absolute sense.

Which brings me back to my ‘I get it’. We live in a pluralistic society. There are Muslims, Jews, Christians, Atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, Pagans and many others in one school. Would I prefer my child sing aesthetically marginal songs of zero content that invoke a feeling of the season but refuse to say anything else, or would I prefer that my hopefully Christian son sing a Kwanzaa song, or a prayer for the oil of the Temple to last for the Maccabees alongside Lo, How a Rose ‘ere Blooming? It is not an easy answer.

The traditional Lutheran answer would be stop the syncretism. If you must sing, sing the nothing songs. The better solution would be to enroll your Christian son in a Christian school where this would not be a question. That is still a valid answer. But I also wonder how much that is an answer that comes out of Christendom. If the Roman Empire had had universal education, would 3rd century Christians have opted out of it because of the Saturnalia Season?

I guess my real point is do I find a greater danger to my children’s faith in: a) the suppression of all faiths or b) a real pluralism that would extend respect to the other and accept the burden of maintaining a vibrant personal faith? To me what pt. A teaches is more dangerous. I worry that it teaches my son that words are just a power game and not a means to truth. Just sing a song of joy, you don’t need any answers. I worry that it teaches under the guise of “being nice” an anti-religion superior to all these people we are humoring with Festivus. And I worry most of all that he will be as flat and superficial and the New York Times editorial staff impervious to the beauty of what most people in most places thought was the fabric of reality itself.

Daily Lectionary Podcast – Numbers 22:1-20 and Luke 22:1-23

Numbers 22:1-20
Luke 22:1-23
The Sovereignty of God, God’s dominion over all peoples, An indication of how to take/interpret other religions

Theologies of the Law – How to Think About Pluralism

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Biblical Text: Galatians 3:23-4:7
Full Sermon Draft

One admission, this probably moved too much from a sermon proclamation into a paper. That is probably a result of the second admission.

Second admission, as the word cloud probably tells you, it might be more about the law than the gospel. For a sermon on Galatians, that is saying something. The Law comes through a lecture; the gospel by proclamation.

Those admissions aside, thinking in Law & Gospel terms about the world around us, the biggest problem in the church today is not in regard to the Gospel side of the theology. The concept of the Gospel is grasped if not always the heart faith. (In my head what you see when that happens is cheap grace.) What is missing or out of kilter is a full appreciation of the law and its purposes.

Following Paul’s argument in the text there is one Gospel. The good news of the God-man Jesus, the Christ, who gave himself for us on the cross. He bore the law so that we could be the sons and heirs. He exchanged places.

There is one perfect law (the revealed law of God through Moses), but there are many “laws” which mimic and discern the elementary principles. The law was given, to all peoples in various forms, as a guardian. Some of those laws are better than others. A law built rigorously around Confucius would be a good one. It is still a law that we can’t keep. One of the things that is was designed to teach, but the law is still good and wise, and Confucius was both.

When pondering or working our way through a pluralistic world, keeping the Gospel pure meaning that it is only by faith through Jesus Christ is the first priority. It is deadly muddled headed thinking to import Buddha or any other figure into the gospel. But, the Christian can admit and admire nobility and wisdom in other cultures as a matter of the law. An alien culture or law might have captured something clearer or better than our own guardians. But they are all guardians. As a baptized Christian who has put on Christ, you are no longer under a guardian. The kingdom is yours. The only question is do you apply the lessons of the law with the grace of the mature heir, or so you squander the inheritance?

A Specific God with A Specific Grace – Trinity Sunday

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Biblical Text: John 8:48-59, Athanasian Creed
Full Draft of Sermon

I believe that Trinity Sunday, at least as we normally observe it, is the most offensive Sunday of the Church year. Let me explain that statement. The Sunday School answer – Jesus – is what we proclaim most Sundays. Scratching under that simple statement I would tend to hold that the three theological virtues (faith, hope and charity/love) take up a large amount of Sundays. Closely following or intertwined would be grace and the fruits of the Spirit. I’d like to say that in this I’m just following the texts of the day. And if I am being an orthodox preacher, I am saying what the texts have to say for the people gathered at St. Mark’s. So depending upon the texts you get some other subjects: prayer, discipleship, creation, eschatology (last things), and so on. And it is possible to be winsome and happy and non-offensive on most of those things. Likewise it is possible to be a complete a**. Traditionally the cross was the scandal – the cross was foolishness to the gentile and a scandal/stumbling block to Jews. It is still possible to hear and feel that scandal, but most people giving a preacher a listen don’t seem that shocked at the cross. (And I am aware that many would say that is because you must not be preaching the cross. I don’t think that is the case. If I have one cliche visible motion it is pointing at the cross on the altar like the Issenheim Altarpiece.) In a pluralistic society, the doctrine of God, the Trinity, becomes offensive. The bigger scandal isn’t the scandal of the cross where God dies. The bigger scandal is particularity. There is a God and this specifically is how He has revealed himself. And that specific revelation is the ground of truth and freedom.

Trinity Sunday, when marked by the reading of the Athanasian Creed, is one Sunday given over the the faith which is believed. While most Sundays include faith and some part of the (intellectual) faith which is believed, the emphasis is on encouragement in the faith which believes. The faith which believes, the work of the Spirit within us, is what saves. It does not come from us, but is given to us by grace. And that faith which believes is what grabs onto the cross like the old pictures and stained glass of the man holding onto the cross that is either going over a waterfall or is amidst the wind and waves. This is our stained glass window, but I’ve seen the same icon in other churches. Church Windows 2011-10-04 001 (1024x683) That is a great visual of the faith which believes. Trinity Sunday is about the faith which is believed. It says boldly and clearly – “This is the God we believe in.”

In a plural society such clarity doesn’t leave room for “muddling on” or a soft syncretism blending a little of Buddha, a little of the great spirit, a little of gentle Jesus and a little of precious moments. That is why I think it is the most offensive. It is also very necessary. Quoting myself in the sermon, please excuse me, “A lowest common denominator faith eventually betrays both – producing a confusion of God, which is no god at all, and a smear of cheap grace, which is not grace.” Are you building on the rock or on sand? The creeds, like Jesus in the festival discourse in John 7-8, are a statement of the rock.

Religion and Truth in a Pluralistic Culture

This short write up is well worth the 3 mins on Pope Benedict’s conception of interfaith or ecumenical interaction. Its starting point in an event that just took place in Assisi. 25 years ago the previous pope was at the same place involved in prayer with “Buddhists chant[ing] to the accompaniment of gongs and drums, Zoroastrians tend[ing] a sacred fire, and an American Indian medicine man in traditional headdress smok[ing] a peace pipe and call[ing] down the blessings of the “Great Spirit.” Benedict has a different view, even if the picture nearby might not say speak that.

The great religious question of our age is inclusivity vs. exclusivity. Were all those people praying to the same God, or was it an example of syncretistic worship on the level of ancient Israel’s “high places”? (1 Kings 12:27-32) Do all roads go up the same mountain, or is Jesus Christ the way, the truth and the life? (John 14:6) Let’s make it real clear. We read it in worship a couple of Sundays ago. Isaiah 45:5 – “I am the Lord, there is no other, beside me there is no other.” If the bible counts as your scripture, you can’t hold the “all roads view”. And holding worship services with people chanting, tending and smoking to other dieties hopelessly confuses things. It is no wonder people might just assume that there is no truth in any of them. Then Cardinal Ratzinger said as much:

The cardinal later wrote that “multireligious prayer” of the kind offered there “almost inevitably leads to false interpretations, to indifference as to the content of what is believed or not believed, and thus to the dissolution of real faith.”

Such prayer should occur only rarely, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, and to “make clear that there is no such thing . . . as a common concept of God or belief in God, that difference not merely exists in the realm of changing images and concepts” but in the substance of what different religions claim.

It is the now Pope Benedict’s next step that is almost uniquely Lutheran.

As he told a European ambassador last week, social justice is based on norms accessible to all, derived not from divine revelation but from “reason and nature”—that is, from “universally applicable principles that are as real as the physical elements of the natural environment.”

He is using Catholic natural law language there. A Lutheran would appeal to two concepts: a theology of two kingdoms and the fundamental law and gospel distinction. We are able to work together in social justice areas because social justice is part of the law or part of the kingdom of the law. The law is universally written on all hearts. (Romans 2:14-15) And the law is good and wise. There is a righteousness that comes from the law – a civil righteousness. But the civil righteousness is not the saving truth of the gospel. In worship – we are separate. Because all roads don’t lead to the same place. Because we proclaim Christ crucified, risen and ascended as Lord. He is Lord, there is no other. Confusing law and gospel only leads to loss of faith.