Walter Sundberg is professor of church history at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota, an ordained Lutheran pastor, and author of the newly released Worship as Repentance: Lutheran Liturgical Traditions and Catholic Consensus. In this post, he suggests to Christians in general and Lutherans in particular that “to honor the penitential piety of the Lutheran worship tradition . . . may be a way to recover a sense of the otherness and holiness of God.”
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The Roman Catholic theologian Hans Küng once made this observation about Lutheranism. He was writing about the marks of the church according to the Lutheran Confessions — you know: the claim that the true church may be found where there is the pure preaching of the gospel and the right administration of the sacraments. Küng said that the Catholic has no objection to these marks. Why would any Christian object? But the problem is that such marks as these show more where the church is hidden than where it can be seen. How often does one run into pure preaching? And who is the judge of pure preaching?
In contrast, the Catholic seeks by instinct and spiritual formation to give glory to the magnificent visibility of the Incarnation to the world in and through the Body of Christ, the church: lighted candles by the score in the prayer chapel, processions on feast days, shrines to the heroes of the faith, adoration of the Holy Father in Rome, Rosary beads in the pocket or purse, a statuette of the Virgin Mary on the dashboard of the car, billowing angels painted on the ceiling of the sanctuary, and — yes — miracles proven as performed (at least two of them) to beatify a saint.
When a movie director wants to portray religion in his movie, what does he do? Invariably he places the character in what is obviously a Catholic Church, with statues and stained glass windows, and has the character on his knees lighting a candle and folding his hands. This is the stuff of real, tangible religiosity among common people from ancient times to the present.
So what does Lutheranism do? The German philosopher Hegel argued that the significance of Luther was that he turned Christianity from a religion of ritual into a religion of thought.
Lutheranism is a theology. Yes, it is. And it is the type of theology that interprets Christian faith in a dark and sober way: that emphasizes despair at the sin-wrecked human condition (Anfechtung Luther called it) leading to repentance. It is a theology that sees the world with devils filled (as the hymn “A Mighty Fortress” says) — even if these devils are largely symbols for the almost Manichean dualism of Lutheran conceptuality — yet acknowledges the hiddenness of God. It is a tradition that meditates on the suffering of God (as it is so beautifully and painfully remembered in hymns such as “O Sacred Head now Wounded” and in the great Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach, which take us by magnificent music to the death of God and no further), that embraces the theology of the cross, and that knows that God and world cannot be fit together in a neat package.
To be sure, we Lutherans have as a counter to this esoteric theology a doctrine of the Real Presence in Holy Communion that proclaims that the finite is capable of holding the infinite. But we also never forget that the Lord’s Supper in the Lutheran tradition binds Christian worship at its heart to repentance and self-examination. At its core, Lutheran worship practice is a penitential piety. It has to do with a style of devotion that presses to the interior of a person. The ideas, practices, and artistic forms that shape the character of classical Lutheranism are austere and intensely reflective. I love them and I try to teach them.
But I also know that, historically, as Lutheranism embraced the coming of the modern world — indeed, as it helped to bring the modern world into being — Lutherans, across a broad range, became fierce and suspicious secularists who expected no divine incursions, no supernatural events, no miracles. When it comes to God, the temptation for Lutherans is to say that all is hidden. What is it that Dietrich Bonhoeffer said? We don’t need God as a working hypothesis to live in the world. On the cross God “lets himself be pushed out of the world.” I remember reading that as a budding theological student and thinking it was very exciting.
But I am older now. And while I shall not claim wisdom, I will say that I think differently. And I see a problem in the Lutheran tradition that I dearly love. When Christian faith becomes a theology, a religion of thought, it risks becoming nonreligious. And what I mean by “nonreligious” is that one no longer gives credence to the supernatural, to the invisible, to the spiritual.
A religion of thought can all too easily morph into a religion of the self that says I know no God except the God that I construct — the God who fits my values. God must conform to what I think is rational and just. The gospel is a projection of my desires and needs. The law is anything that restricts me. The objectivity, the otherness of God cannot be. To honor the penitential piety of the Lutheran worship tradition (an emphasis that is also being taken up again in Roman Catholicism under Pope Benedict) may be a way to recover a sense of the otherness and holiness of God, to remind us to be suspicious of ourselves and cautious in our attempts at theological construction.