Can Lutheran Dialectical Thinking and Living Counter-Culturally be Considered an Appropriate Gospel Witness by Anabaptists?

      What led me to fall in love with God, Christian faith, and the church of my youth was the awareness that ours is a faith for rebels, for people who are committed to living counter-culturally – going against the grain of what society expects.  My high-school years in Pennsylvania led me to sense that Mennonites and the Amish were counter-cultural rebels too, indeed perhaps more rebellious than my Lutheran Christian way of life.  Reading Michael King’s thoughtful and helpful analysis of the Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage (so neat to learn of the diversity within that heritage) has strengthened these perceptions of my youth, and I hope Dr. King will correct and amend any false impressions I have been carrying around in ignorance about his heritage.   

     Among the common values he has sketched include a staunch Anabaptist/Mennonite  Christocentrism, the prioritizing of the things of God, a commitment to love and nonviolence, as well as a wholistic sense of mission.  America does not expect this from its religiously inclined citizens.  Faith and Jesus need to be understood in light of an American worldview, politics and economic well-being trump spirituality, love and nonviolence need to take a backseat to patriotism, and spirituality is a private affair.  The counter-culturalism I sense in Dr. King’s comments is so appealing to me, and I think, for reasons I’ll make clear shortly, for a lot of Lutherans.  This is an essay to learn whether we can embrace each other in the fun of confounding the world for Jesus’ sake.   

     I come out of a heritage which at its best aims to confound the ways of the world and the “truths” of society’s latest versions of reason.  Martin Luther’s famed Theology of the Cross which he evolved for The Heidelberg Disputation is the premiere example of this approach, what Neo-Orthodox analysts have called a “dialectical” approach to theology and life (Luther’s Works, Vol.31, pp.39-70; Heidelberg Disputation, #20-#21).  Reason and faith cannot be integrated, he says.  Reason is the devil’s whore (Luther Works, Vol.52, p.196; Vol.40, pp.174-175). 

     This is not a dialectic like Hegel posits – two contrasting items moving towards a synthesis.  Rather, Luther’s dialectical thinking entails that both elements of contrasting poles of the contrasts he posits have truth and validity, but they may not be combined, must be kept distinct, and Christians live in that tension.   Thus Law and Gospel must exist in dialectical tension (Luther Works, Vol.26, p.115).  Likewise, the Christian is simultaneously saint and sinner, 100% of each (Luther Works, Vol.30, p.69; Luther Works, Vol.69, p.101).  Most pertinent to our dialogue is the Two-Kingdom Ethic, which places Christians in both the realm of the state and of the Church, but his/her real home is not with society (Luther’s Works, Vol.45, pp.81-129).   Socially and politically this cashes out to entail that while as sinners Christians may participate in government, even bear arms in just wars, this in not who they really are as saints.  In Christ, their real selves are people who join Mennonites in desiring communities of love and peace, only forced to bear arms themselves to preserve peace in our imperfect world (Luther’s Works, Vol.45, pp.91-92).        

     My question to the Anabaptist-Mennonite family is whether these commitments are sufficiently akin to yours that we might be considered spiritual kin in holding them.  To be sure, the Lutheran Church has not always liveD7 out this commitments, most glaringly evident in engagements with Anabaptists  and indeed with the adoption of the State Church system in Europe.  I don’t want to let American Lutherans off the hook.  I have already noted the growing strand of Liberal Protestant piety in my branch of the Lutheranism (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), a segment of the membership and leadership which would embody Lutheranism in the mode of 21st-century Cultural Christianity.  But on the other hand, when Lutheranism has not been watered down by cultural influences it has been a tradition which  clearly embodies something like the counter-culturalism of Mennonite faith along with the kind of commitment to wholistic ministries Anabaptist-Mennonites aim to achieve.  For American Lutheranism sponsors more social service organizations (hospitals, nursing homes, children’s homes, etc.) in the States than any other Protestant denominational family.  For all our differences, then, don’t we really have a lot in common?  In exploring these commonalities further I close with three questions which would be crucial to Lutherans in determining if we can have fun together following Jesus.   

     First and foremost for Lutherans is the question of Justification By Grace Through Faith.  If Mennonites today can stand by their historic Confessions like The Waterland Confession (XX) and A Short Confession of Faith (21) regarding Justification, then from a Lutheran side we are and remain truly brothers and sisters.                   

     One point left out of the five values of Mennonites noted by Dr. King was an observation he had raised with me regarding the importance of Christian formation by the community in his tradition.   My personal correspondence with him addressed possibilities for convergence with Lutheranism on this point and so I share it here more publically.  My observation  was that one of my Lutheran teachers at Yale was George Lindbeck, who in dialogue thinkers like Stanley Hauerwas (whose indebtedness to Mennonites is well known), argued that the Church forms Christians like a culture or Mother (The Nature of Doctrine).  This fits Luther’s idea of the Church as our Mother, who raises us (Luther’s Works, Vol.51, p.166).  And so my point is that as long as the upbringing the Mennonite Church provides is not legalistic, if Mother Church also gives us “wings to fly,” is the kind of Mom who tells us to follow our dreams as long as they’re good, decent, and serve God’s purposes (that’s what Lutherans mean by following Augustine’s dictum of “act as you desire as long as you are acting with love’ [Enchiridion, 22,21]), then the Lutheran in me says let’s talk Christian nurture together.  If the Lutheran Church raises its “kids” with this Augustinian attitude, is that a legitimate Mennonite approach too, even Mennonites characteristically don’t do it quite the same way?  And if so, what could we do together to get our constituents talking and enjoying together the fun of the life of faith?                            

      Finally in connection with the understanding of the Church in following Jesus, there is one other value offered by Dr. King that I want to pursue, the Anabaptist-Mennonite vision of a believers’ church.  I need to clarify whether a Mennonite congregation would even consider a sinful sleaze like me as a member (for counter-cultural Christian though I try to be, I am still the same selfish, concupiscent being I’ve always been) and whether I would have to renounce my baptism in order to join.  If we can get around these issues, Mennonites and Lutherans could have a lot of fun following Jesus together.                     

 

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