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The Other God: Lutheranism 101
Adult class presentation at Agnus Dei Lutheran Church, September 12 and 19, 2004.
By Ed Knudson
Today we are going to discuss the basics of the Lutheran faith. When I use the term faith in this way I am referring to the faith of the church. That is, it is not just persons who have faith, but religious communities have a “faith” which refers in common usage to the heritage of its beliefs and practices. When individual persons grow up in a church or become a member of a church and maintain on-going participation in the church they learn and affirm the teachings or doctrines of the faith of the church. When the church gathers for worship the faith of the church is experienced, so to speak, in live time. It becomes real as an actual event. So it is important to realize that faith is never ever just personal, my own personal faith, it is communal, I receive and express my personal faith in the context of my community of faith. I can have no personal faith without the faith of the church and there can be no faith of the church, finally, without persons gathered expressing that faith.
The Lutheran community of faith has a history that goes back to the Reformation period in the 16th century, specifically in Germany and focused on the person of Martin Luther who was an Augustinian monk and religious scholar. Luther radically changed both the understanding and practices of the Roman Catholic faith as he had received it in his time. Luther did not want to leave the church, however. He wanted the Catholic church to reform, thus the term for the period, Reformation. In the end Luther was forced out of the Catholic church and his name was associated with his followers who were called Lutherans. There were other leaders during the Reformation period out of which came many other religious communities. Collectively all these religious groups are called Protestants, those who protested against some of the beliefs and practices of the Catholic church. But there is no consistent “Protestant” theology. Lutherans profess a faith quite different from many other Protestant groups. In fact in our time, due to many great changes in the Roman Catholic church itself, Lutherans find themselves in many ways closer to contemporary Catholicism than many forms of Protestantism, especially those who today most strongly claim the term Christian for themselves. We will try to point to some of these differences as we discuss the basics of the Lutheran faith below.
In each age the church gathered together tries to retrieve its heritage and interpret it within the context of the particular times in which it lives. The place that occurs most intentionally is in seminaries of the church where pastors receive four years of higher education. By providing seminaries for pastoral education the Lutheran church takes its doctrines seriously, it takes history seriously, it values thinking about the faith so that the church will not just be pushed to and fro by the passions of the moment. But the process of retrieving our history of faith needs also to occur in local congregations. That is where pastors and people are actually living out the faith in their concrete situations. In what follows I will try to speak of the basics of Lutheran faith in ways that connect it with our actual experience today. That experience has changed considerably since the time of Martin Luther. Yet terror was at the center of Luther’s religious experience just as it is for us today, especially on this third anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
The Other God
Luther had a very strong sense of the holiness of God. To be holy is to be set apart, and God is ultimately set apart from the world, God is Other than the world and anything within the world. In theology this is called the transcendence of God. God is over there someplace, other than in our minds, other than in our lives, other than in the life of the world. So I refer to this as “the Other God”.
Luther in his Small Catechism for each explanation of the ten commandments begins with the words “We should fear and love God…” We fear God because God is other than ourselves. God is everything that is good and perfect and true. And yet it is impossible for us on our own to know this God, to even conceive of this God. In his explanation of the third article of the Apostles Creed Luther says: “I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him.” It is not my our own reason or decision that we can know Jesus as Lord or God. God is Other.
I was once teaching a class of young people. I told them they could take a trip with their minds into space. I asked them to close their eyes and imagine themselves sitting in the room just as they were. Then I said, “Imagine yourself looking at yourself from the ceiling.” Then I asked them to imagine themselves above the church building viewing the surrounding community, then higher, viewing the earth as a whole, then even higher and higher until they approached the edge of the universe. As the class did this one young person finally said: “Stop this, stop this, I can’t stand it.” This was just at the point that on the other side of the universe there was, there was, well nothing. The idea of imagining nothing was too much for this young person. I gently brought them all back to earth and into our classroom and had them open their eyes. Yes, it was good to be back with our own bodies.
The point of the exercise is to experience something of the otherness of God. We do not know who or what this God is. We are able with our own minds only to see nothingness and that is frightening indeed. It brings a certain terror into our hearts.
Too many people think they know God, they have a concept of God, and then worship the concept in their minds as God. But God is not a concept, God is other than a concept in our minds, God is not in our minds, God is someplace else. What kind of God would it be if God were just in our minds? Not very helpful, not worth much, a mere figment of our imaginations.
There have been many philosophical attempts over the centuries to prove that God exists. We have many such efforts today. But for Lutherans such efforts are vain exercises. As soon as we can prove God then the standards for who God is become associated with our own thoughts, a God not worthy of worship. For Luther God was terrifying just because God was beyond his understanding, other than he could grasp with his own mind.
The modern era has been characterized by strong belief in human reason through science and technology by which nature can be controlled. Modern humans want to be in control, to control their lives and the world around them. They want to avoid anything that they cannot control, that is why they have such difficulty even beginning to approach the God who is Other, the God who cannot be known and controlled. But that is always why, in very real ways, modern people live even so with a kind of panic and terror just below the surface. The modern machine world in which we live is extremely vulnerable, even more vulnerable than the world of nature in which most people over the course of history had to live. The machine world lifts us up and out of the world of nature today, such as in our cities, but it also means that even slight interruptions in electrical, communications and transportation systems can totally disrupt our lives. So everyone today lives with a certain sense of terror in their hearts, a sense of great uncertainty, without clear faith about who or what is ultimately in control of the course of history.
The idea of God as Other can be associated with the apophatic tradition of Christian spirituality. This tradition takes seriously the admonition not to worship any graven images of God. God can be defined only by negatives, by realizing what God is not. God is not myself. God is not the world. God is not a concept. Following in this tradition we find ourselves before an unknown God, the Other God.
Lutheran theology can be helpfully discussed with reference to several statements using the word “alone”: For Martin Luther the only way to know the true nature of God is through Jesus Christ alone through the word alone through faith alone.
We cannot know God except by hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is “special revelation” as opposed to “general revelation”. God is revealed in all God’s majesty through his Son, Jesus Christ who was sent into the world, indeed, to let the world know who God is. This sending into the world is the meaning of the term “incarnation”. In Jesus God is incarnated in human flesh within the real material world In the worship of the church the focus is on Jesus Christ. Every Sunday a text is read about Jesus and his life and works.
Lutherans do not affirm what is called general revelation which promotes the notion that God is revealed through nature or social life or historical events. That is, God is certainly involved in all of these matters, but God is “hidden” within them, Luther would say. The only way we can see God in any of these matters is through the eyes of faith in Jesus Christ incarnated in the midst of the real material world.
This means Lutherans reject what is called natural theology. This theology says that God can be known through nature, that the elaborate and elegant design of natural processes, for example, can lead one to know the God who is behind the creation of the world. This very easily becomes a kind of worship of nature itself, and nature’s laws. Thomas Jefferson writes of these matters in the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson didn’t believe in the incarnation of Jesus and, in fact, when he ran for President in 1800 Christians at the time opposed his election. It is therefore ironic that in our time groups calling themselves Christian have basically adopted Jefferson’s views of natural theology in their promotion of “creationism” which they even want taught in public schools. They view the bible as a kind of science textbook which can be proved with modern scientific methods.
No, Lutherans, as indicated above, know that God is Other than nature and is not revealed in nature except through faith in Jesus. That is, once we know a God of grace and mercy through faith in Jesus then the whole world opens up to us as the place of God’s love and redemption. But without Jesus nature is a wild and dangerous place full of death, indeed, a place of terror.
I cannot over-emphasize how important this is for personal faith. The idea that God is a benevolent God of nature is very, very strong within our culture. We in this country cannot grow up without being influenced by it. Many people even in Lutheran churches never quite get over it even though they may hear hundreds of sermons contradicting it. But in my practice of pastoral ministry I have found it to be very damaging for personal faith.
After performing a marriage I once then went to the reception in the backyard of the bride’s parents. All the places to sit were taken except next to an older couple I saw over by them selves. So I walked over to them. As I approached them I saw a deep sadness in their eyes. I sat down and introduced myself and asked where they were from. It turns out they had lived in Alaska for many years, but then their grown son, his wife and two children, were killed in a fire in their home. They had not been to church since. They could not believe a God of love would have allowed such a thing to happen; they felt betrayed by God. What impressed me in all their talk, however, was how full of grief they continued to be, how angry, and how unable they were to enjoy any part of their lives for the years since the fire. Their lives ended with that terrible event.
Now, if such an event were to happen for me I am not sure my faith would survive it either. I tried to enter into the grief of this couple just as God has entered in the midst of the grief of the world in Jesus Christ. But this incident did teach me again how important it is not to conceive of God in too easy a way, in a way that views nature as beautiful and balanced under the hand of a benevolent God. This works only until the terrible happens. Then faith crashes on the reality of a broken world. So in my own ministry I have tried to help people face the reality of terror and death before terrible events occur, such as encouraging them to not miss the service on Good Friday, for example. For in Jesus on the cross we indeed are confronted by the great mystery of God redeeming life through the death of his own son. There is, after all, and in spite of anything else, life after death.
For Martin Luther the cross of Jesus Christ is central. God meets us in the midst of our most terrible suffering. But once we know God is with us there through Christ alone, then everything else opens up to us as well, for this is the same God who has created this whole universe and redeemed it for our lives despite its brokenness. Then we can say with Luther in the meaning of the first article of the Apostles Creed: “I believe that God has created me and all that exists. He has given me and still preserves my body and soul with all their powers. He provides me with food and clothing, home and family, daily work, and all I need from day to day.”
Notice that Luther here talks about what we need for day to day material living. Luther brought the Christian faith back down to earth, so to speak. The medieval church had focused on the rewards of the after life, that life on earth was best spent in monasteries preparing for the end of the world. Medieval times have been called the “dark ages” by modern folks. But it was Luther who especially turned the emphasis from up and down to side to side, that is, from a fixation on after-life to an appreciation for the fact that God has created the world for our life now as well.
Because Christ alone saves us we are free to engage with the world, to work in the world. Luther told people to leave the monasteries (a large percentage of the population was then in religious vocations) and do some honest work in the world, baking bread, building houses, sewing clothing. Work was building the life of the community, loving the neighbor, responding to God’s gracious gifts. The word “secular” originally referred to this movement from people being “religious” (inside a Christian institution such as monastery) to being “secular” (working in a vocation in the society). It was not as if the secular was not part of God’s world, certainly not. The secular was the place to really carry out service to God in the world.
The focus on after-life, however, was passed to the philosophers, one of whom, John Locke, wrote that church and state are separated by the fact that the church is concerned with the eternal salvation of souls and the state is concerned with the here and now. His philosophy was important at the founding of the United States. It has led to the idea that Christian faith is “private” and not public, has to do only with after-life, not the life of the world. Such thinking would have been nonsensical for Luther, for God is God of all of life, of all the world, and Christ redeemed the world for the lives of all in the here and now as well as the world to come.
The Word Alone
How is it that Christ gets to us? That is, what is the medium God uses to transmit knowledge of God’s self through Christ? It’s been over 2000 years since the time of Jesus. How do we know about him, about his saving grace?
The answer is so simple that many people have difficulty believing it. It happens through the Word and words. That is, it happens through the gospel preached, preached in real words in thousands of ways, through the speech of real people engaged with real people.
For Luther the Word was, of course, Jesus Christ himself. Jesus is God’s Word, the medium God uses to communicate with us in the world. So everything we said above about Christ Alone also applies here to the Word Alone. We are saved and come to know the true nature of God only through the Word alone. We might refer to this as a communication theory of the atonement. Through Jesus God is communicating with us, God is drawing close to us in Word and words.
It is words that connect people in relationships. It is through the Word that God connects with us and establishes a relationship. The Christian faith has everything to do with relationships. There is no life to be lived alone; human beings do not become human beings without constant, on-going relationships with one another. When we talk words spoken flow through the air to ears of one another. We speak and the other hears. All forms on non-verbal communication gain meaning only from the context of the spoken word. So God uses a universal human form, words, to communicate even now.
Luther spoke of the “living word”. That is the gospel spoken in a real life situation. That may be a sermon in church, a greeting at home, a smile welcoming someone. It may mean saying “It’s going to be ok” just before a person dies. We can speak such words in confidence that they are true because we have already heard them spoken to ourselves and we know that we cannot live or die without them. The incarnation of Christ occurs again and again as Christ is present in the words of the gospel we speak to one another.
One of the reasons we today have a difficult time believing that it could be so simple is that religion is thought of occurring in some other spiritual dimension, somehow outside of this world, in a different sphere, a supernatural realm. When people use the word “spirituality” today they usually mean something immaterial, some esoteric phenomenon. The Lutheran answer to how spiritually works through words seems so mundane.
Martin Luther did not trust himself by himself. He had spent years early in his life in a cell in the monastery, praying his heart out, trying to reach into the depths of himself to be honest before God. But the deeper into himself he went the more he found his own sin. He said once that when he has spent too much time with himself the devil could get him and he needed to go out to be with another person so he could hear the gospel again. We cannot conjure up the gospel from within ourselves. Yes, we can develop habits of reminding ourselves of God’s gracious Word, but finally we need to hear it from the lips of another real person: “God loves you and accepts you just as you are.”
Lutherans believe such words are spoken in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works through the breath of words (we speak by breathing out to the other with the wind from within). The Spirit works in everyone through words, of course. In fact, without some level of life-affirming words no one can live. But it is the church that knows that special Word from God, that God is the source of very ability to speak in the first place. And we as church know that God’s ultimate Word is grace, mercy, total compassion and love and that no other word or power can overcome or deny it.
Lutherans distinguish between words that take the form of law and gospel. Words of law are threats, they take the form of “you should” or “you shall” or else. Law relies on a background of violence. You do what I say or you will suffer the consequences, you will be hurt in some way. The law of the state is used to preserve order in society by the threat of coercion, and finally violence, being thrown in prison or dying in the gas chamber, deprived of freedom.
The law of God functions in the same way. The first commandment reads: “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods.” The second sentence is the law statement, “you shall…”. The problem is that we all break that law all the time, we worship other gods, we bow down to other concepts of what makes the world work such as economic or political forces or ideologies. As indicated earlier, modern people worship their own rationality as the means by which they can control nature and the future. When we worship and follow something other than God we ultimately face destruction for the other gods will consume us. Luther knew the terror of not being able to follow the commandment. It is only the God of grace known through the Word that provides for ultimate joy, love and security. This God is known in the first sentence of the first commandment, the affirmative “I am the Lord your God.” In these words God establishes a relationship with us. If we reject that relationship by worshipping other gods then we place ourselves outside of the gracious relationship God intends to have with us. Even so, God sends Jesus to be a Word of redemption even beyond and in spite of the law. Even though we sin again and again by turning from God, in Christ God comes again to retrieve us and make us part of God’s holy communion bound to the Word. God comes to us through one another as we speak the gospel words to each other. That’s why it’s important to come together regularly for worship so that we can hear the Living Word of God spoken to one another again in so many different ways.
God has given us a particular place to find God’s word in the holy scriptures. This is the written word and reading the bible we are able to hear God’s gracious word in Christ, especially by reading the narrative accounts of the life of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. For Luther the bible was the place to find Christ alone. The bible is not a rule book, not a science textbook, not a magical set of words dropped from heaven and literally true in every detail. Those who teach that view of the bible are using modern concepts and applying them back on the bible.
Understanding this can be a little tricky since our modern minds have been so influenced by prior historical debates between the church and science. The church fought against the rise of science which emerged from the historical period known as the Enlightenment. The church lost that fight because it had placed particular cosmological understandings, such as the earth as the center of the universe, above the gospel of God’s grace through the Word. But some who call themselves Christian today want to continue the fight, they have become fixated on certain issues, such as Darwinian teaching of evolution, and they promote earlier mechanical notions of the natural world. They fight against the new science of relativity which emerged in the 20th century. Rather than focus on Christ alone, they commit themselves to unnecessary, harmful, and outdated views of science. That is, they have incorporated into their own thinking the very views of science they earlier were fighting against.
For example, for some of those calling themselves Christian the test of whether or not a person can be a Christian is whether or not they believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead. That is, the question is: “Do you believe Jesus physically rose?” The test of faith is whether one believes what to many modern folks is a piece of illogic. Why should that be the test of faith? Why make a matter of physics the key issue? The stakes are pretty high here, too, since the claim is made that you can’t get into heaven unless you believe in physical resurrection. My salvation is dependent on something I myself do. This is the antithesis of the gospel.
The gospel is a simple announcement of what Jesus did, or what God did in Christ. God raised Jesus from the dead and thereby broke the forces of death and evil in the world and saved sinners. Just exactly how God did it is not the issue. It may be interesting to discuss the physics of it but that isn’t central. In fact, the new science of relativity is much more open to unusual events in the universe than the old mechanical notions of the laws of nature.
But here’s the most important point. Imagine yourself back in those days. Someone comes up and says, “Did you hear that a Jew named Jesus was crucified by the Romans in Jerusalem but three days later appeared to his disciples and is alive? His followers say to one another that Jesus is now Lord, not the emperor.” Now that would have been some real news! The power of the Roman Empire would be broken, overcome. Something new would be loose in the world. A new way to live may be possible. Here are words that would have been such good news for so many people in those days that they could hardly believe it to be true, not because of physics, for heavens sake, but because of what it would mean for one’s whole understanding of the world.
Belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ means that there is another power in the world greater than any of the other powers which try to tame and control people. We should not put old intellectual notions of science in the way of people’s willingness to believe such good news. That is one of the reasons Luther was so angry at the church in his day; it put so many roadblocks on the simple words of the gospel. Luther translated the bible into the common German language so people themselves could read it rather than be mystified by languages foreign to them. Luther wanted the people to be able to hear the simple words announcing Christ alone as the source of salvation.
Lutherans need to beware of the human tendency to turn doctrines into the form of law statements. If we believe in Christ Alone then we may be tempted to say: “You have to believe in Christ Alone.” With statements like this we place ourselves into the position of the lawgiver over the other person. This is not a gospel statement. In fact, this kind of statement claims power for ourselves over another and drives them away from Christ. To say that God comes to us through the Word Alone means that God is now revealed as a God of love and mercy and compassion for all, included that other one to whom I may be talking at the moment. To know the Word Alone is to know that God loves that other one just as much as God love me. So that changes the whole posture we are able to have in our relations with others. We approach others knowing that God loves them for we are the ones who fully know who God is.
And to say Christ Alone and Word Alone seems to imply that other religions can know nothing of God. But again, if God is revealed to us through Christ as a God who creates everyone and everything then, if the Spirit of God is the source of life and grace for everyone, then our eyes are opened to be able to see how that God can and does work also through other religions, we are able to discern the vast and comprehensive work of God in the world. So believing in the Word Alone does not close us off from others, it opens us to the future of God’s love in all the world for every person in every place.
The third basic Lutheran teaching I would like to address is that salvation is the result of faith alone, not works. Or, it might better be said, justification comes through faith in the grace of God alone, not works that try to earn God’s mercy. If there is one Lutheran doctrine that is emphasized in our churches this is it: justification by faith alone.
In the Germany of Luther’s day the Roman Catholic church had been corrupted by money. Through many and various practices it basically “sold” salvation to people to receive money to build cathedrals to its own glory. When Luther began to practice ministry after his education he confronted a church full of works righteousness which was a means by which the church could manipulate the people and enrich itself. Certificates called “indulgences” were sold to people by which they could reduce the time in purgatory for themselves or family members, for example. People spent their whole lives in monasteries trying to pray and work hard enough to earn their way to heaven.
Through a difficult, laborious process, Luther came to see that it was not a question of what humans must do to gain God’s favor; it was a matter of what God has done to save people despite themselves. He came to see that grace was a total gift of God; the action of Christ on the cross was meant for redemption for all to be received not by any works on our part but simply accepted as a gift. He came to see that his job was simply to announce this good news of what God has done and the Holy Spirit would work faith in the people. In his explanation to the third article of the Apostles Creed in the Small Catechism Luther says: “The Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and kept me in true faith. In the same way he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it united with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”
Notice that faith itself is a work of the Holy Spirit, not a work on my part, so there is no basis for me to boast of my faith and/or look down at others for lack of faith. This is very different from other leaders in the Reformation period who focused so much on “believer’s baptism” that they made the adult decision to receive baptism into what is really a human work rather than the Spirit’s work. That idea has become so strong in some Baptist and Pentecostal circles in our own time that it becomes the entire focus and salvation is dependent on the decision of an individual. That notion of individual decision, of course, fits in nicely with the political culture of a democracy, and the churches that emphasize this seem to be quite popular today, especially among the so-called television preachers, but it is very far from what Luther talked about in terms of justification by faith alone. When the focus is on something I do to receive Christ, I “accept Jesus into my heart”, then immediately a distinction is made relative to those others who have not done so. Immediately we are tempted to use language like, “You have to accept Jesus.” And that, of course, is a law statement, not the gospel. And that sets up two groups, those going to heaven (we the good ones who accept Jesus) and those going to hell (the ones who don’t accept Jesus). And that very easily turns into a justification to hate those others who won’t accept Jesus, a virulent form of self-righteousness we see in our own time in extreme form in the religious right. Martin Luther preached strongly against this in his time.
Luther taught the doctrine of original sin. It’s not a popular doctrine today because it is much misunderstood and so contrary to modern understandings of human nature. Original sin is the basic corruption of the human will shared by all human beings since the first sin of Adam and Eve. We are not able to “will” faith in God because we are so enslaved to our own interests, to the worship of false gods of our own creation. We are born with original sin and cannot change our condition. Only through the power of Christ alone can the Holy Spirit work faith in us, against our basic inclinations.
You can see why this is not a popular doctrine for modern people who want to believe that they themselves are in control, who want to be independent and not have to rely on anyone or anything outside of themselves. But for that very reason this is a very important doctrine. It drives us to realize that finally this world is a place of only terror and death without some power outside of ourselves, without some transcendent Other greater than the powers of violence and death, a power greater than my own weak, stubborn, and enslaved will. Christ alone on the cross does not die for my little sins, my minor or ever major infractions, but for my great big original sin that cannot decide for him without the help of the Holy Spirit working faith in me.
Since the Holy Spirit works faith in me I have no basis to boast of any good works on my part. I am not saved by praying more than others, giving more money, doing good deeds, attending church, having a better family, or anything else. I cannot claim to better than anyone else, which means, of course, that I am able to be with others free of negative judgments about them. The potential is there for me to be able to enter into the lives of others with a good word to say to them about God’s grace and love. We are all sinners, as the Apostle Paul says, and we all fall short of the glory of God, and equally in need of the grace God offers in Jesus Christ.
Let me mention two important aspects of what Faith Alone does not mean. First, for Luther it is not a matter of having a once and for all “born-again” experience. Among those calling themselves “conservative evangelical” Christians today that is the standard of whether or not one is a Christian. A person must have accepted Jesus in at a particular time and place and that decision guarantees eternity. We mentioned above that this makes a human decision more important that the grace of God. Lutherans would say that the crucial factor is not what we do for God but what God has done for us. For Luther having Faith Alone was a daily experience; every day we are able to renew our faith, remember our baptism, realize again that God receives us and accepts us. It doesn’t happen once, it happens again and again in an on-going relationship with God and our participation in the church. In fact, we can even call this a “struggle” of faith, because we are always tempted to fall back on ourselves, our own works, our belief in other gods. Conservative evangelicals like to emphasize the certainty of faith, and speak of faith as if itself is a work of ours rather than a gift of the Holy Spirit. Doubt and uncertainty are signs of lack of faith. Well, Luther was very real about how he talked about this. Times of doubt and unbelief are part of the struggle in our life of faith, but we are never outside the grace of God for that grace comes as a gift not as a result of how hard we work to have faith.
The second aspect I want to mention flows out of this. For some denominations once a person has accepted Christ then they become pure and holy and no longer sin. This is a particularly dangerous doctrine for both the person believing it, because when they do fall away they then may well feel God has thrown them aside, and for others, because one who believes he or she is pure and holy can do some terrible things to others for their own good, since the pure and holy one thinks he or she knows what is good for others.
Luther rejected this way of thinking. He said that Christians are “saints and sinners” at the same time. Christians do not stop being sinners once they have faith. That is because it is God who saves us, not ourselves. As soon as we think we are no longer sinners it means we think we have established a way to have a perfect life without the need for God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit. So, this side of the final days we cannot look forward to perfection for ourselves or the world. But we can be saints when we let the Holy Spirit work through us in love for God and neighbor.
The doctrine of Faith Alone frees us from ourselves and turns us to God as the only reliable source of our salvation.
Defined by the Other
In today’s world there is terrific confusion over identity, who are we? When I was president of the college congregation my last year at St. Olaf College I helped plan a conference on the topic “Who Am I?” The question haunts everyone these days. The answers used to be given through religious faith as in Luther’s time when everyone was influenced by the church, the dominant cultural power of that time.
Today there are other cultural forces at work promising to answer the question. In fact, the primary forces are related to our economic system. Economics used to be about material things, extraction of raw materials, provision of food, shelter, and clothing, factories and shops. But today the prime way corporations make money is by selling cultural products, selling identity, promising that if you buy this or that automobile, or this or that tennis shoe or piece of clothing, or live in this or that neighborhood, or watch this or that television show, you will be somebody, you will gain an identity. The corporations of today look a lot like the church in the medieval era, spend your money and find out who you really are.
People gain an identity by comparing themselves to others. We let ourselves be defined by our opposites. I am a human not an animal. I am a man not a woman, or a woman not a man. I am French not German. I am American not a Russian. I am good not evil. I am white not black. I am heterosexual not homosexual. I work for a living and not one of those lazy people on welfare. I am sane and rational not insane. I am going to heaven not to hell. I am Christian not Islamic. I am better than those others and I am successful too. I am religious not one of those terrible atheists. I live in a good neighborhood, not that bad community. We use all these different ways to gain an identity, to know who we are. We compare ourselves against others, and come out feeling good or bad about ourselves.
Jesus, you know, attacked most fiercely the religious leaders of his day for their hypocrisy. Luther also attacked in scathing language the church leaders of his time. We should today reject those religious leaders who put roadblocks in the way of people coming to know the grace and mercy of God, who use hate of people different from ourselves as the basis for organizing their movements. Both Jesus and Luther spoke of the Other God as full of love and compassion who loves the world and everyone in it. We are able to know this Other God, to be defined by that Other God, through Christ alone. And knowing who we are from God it is not necessary to define ourselves over-against others. We are rather opened to all others in the world, not to dominate them, not to think of ourselves as better than them, because it is the Holy Spirit working faith in us that we are called to love them as Jesus did even to the point of death on a cross in the midst of the world.
God is other than us, God is the Ultimate Other, and as such is the only source of our true identity. In the power of that Spirit we are the church alive today.
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