Learning to Laugh from Luther

This little essay first appeared as the 2nd place essay in the 2016 Gritsch Writing Contest: http://www.ericwgritsch.org/archives/archive_2016_essay_2nd_place

In a sense, crisis consumes every moment in the life of those who belong to the Christian church.  Between Jesus Christ’s resurrection and His coming again in glory, our Lord continually calls us and we must respond.  But, we also live within the World and within history, and so, different moments in history present unique opportunities for us as church people to respond to the call of Jesus Christ.  As church demographics dance and politics continue to divide, we who reside in the United States find ourselves at a crisis point.  And while many potential points lie before us, all of the paths involve the same basic decision: will we take ourselves seriously or will we live with humor?

     The path of taking ourselves seriously and of getting down to the hard work of living out the gospel is a well-trod path.  It is a path that church people in the United States have trod for much of our history.  On this path, we must hear the words of the Gospel and renounce!  We must discard our possessions, work for our neighbor and bring about the kingdom of God.  When we take ourselves seriously, we work for our neighbor to “help and befriend him in every bodily need”1  and to “help him improve and protect his property and business.”2  This well-trod path of the American church is a path of great results. It is the path of Martin Luther King, Jr. marching on Washington, Desmond Tutu resisting Apartheid.  However, it is also a dangerous path.  It is a dangerous path because taking ourselves seriously can quickly become taking ourselves too seriously.  If we walk the well-trod path without a keen knowledge of our pride and sin, we will walk straight past the narrow gate.  Distracted by our burdens, we may forget why we walk and for whom we walk.

          Path number two, on the other hand, is a path that few in the United States have dared to wander down, because it is not a serious, hard-working path. Path number two is the path of humor and irony. It is a path that grabs hold of “the biblical sense of life as a mean meantime before the Last Day.”Even more, it Is a path that realizes that “a Christian man is righteous and a sinner at the same time, holy and profane, an enemy of God and a child of God.”If we church people wander down this path, we will, perhaps for the first time, be able to look at the works of our hands and laugh. We will laugh because we realize that all of our hard work, all of our striving has been at cross-purposes both with God and with ourselves. We will laugh because we will realize how ridiculous it is that Jesus Christ saved us miserable sinners. We will laugh because we will realize that when we thought we were striding triumphantly forward, we were hopping the wrong way with our shoes tied together.  The humorous path is the path of the church people who understand the irony that when the church thinks it is doing its best work, it often forgets its Lord.

     The humorous path is a path of humility, of joy, but it’s also a frightening path. It’s a frightening path because when you walk on it, you look at yourself and realize that your life and work does not look holy. You realize that your life and your work looks comical and normal, and you worry that God will not accept it. 

However,  as faithful Christians on this path, we can “smile about adversaries”And “laugh at them because the anticipated joy of a future without sin, evil, and Death outweighs all earthly anxiety.”5  In short, the paths that stand before the Churches are the paths that stand before each individual Christian.  As church people wandering in the ways of our Lord Jesus Christ, we live our days in tension. It is the tension of walking in the light of the cross and in the humor of the human condition.  Above all, it is the freedom of walking as a redeemed child of God.5


Martin Luther, “The Small Catechism”, on Book Of Concord: The Confessions Of The Lutheran Church accessed 10/9/2016
Ibid
3 Eric W. Gritsch, The Wit Of Martin Luther (Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress 2006), 77.
4 Martin Luther, Lectures On Galatians 1535: Chapters 1-4 (Saint Louis:: Concordia Publishing House, 1963), 232.
 5 Gritsch, 77.

You Cannot Serve the Lord! A Lutheran Response to Socrates

This is the last in a 3 part series on the relationship of Lutheran theology to Socratic ethics. Part 1 and 2 can be found here and here.

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If you can remember back to the last post on Socrates, you’ll know that for Socrates, ethics fundamentally involved a problem of knowledge. People who know the right thing to do will do it. In this post, I’m going to delve into a different way of looking at the problem, a way that involves the peculiarly Lutheran idea of the bound will.

For Lutherans, the fundamental problem of ethics is not that people lack the knowledge necessary for right action. The fundamental problem is that people are not free actors. In their natural state, people can do nothing but the wrong thing. Even with full knowledge of the right and wrong, people will do the wrong thing, because people are captive to sin, death, and the devil. The farewell discourse of Joshua in Joshua 24 illustrates the problem. After Joshua explains the difference between right and wrong to the Israelites for several long chapters, he presents them with a choice: to serve God or to serve false idols. The Israelites respond, “We will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” (Joshua 24:18). Now, it appears that the Israelites have made the right choice, and the logical thing for Joshua to do is to affirm them and go get buried. Instead, Joshua replies, “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God!” (Joshua 24:19). Joshua, you see, understands the bound will. He knows that even when people pay lip service to the right choice, their hearts are in another place. Joshua knows that despite his lecture and despite their answer, the hearts of the Israelites are inclined away from the true God and that they will not serve him.

Lutheran theology acknowledges that the deck is perpetually stacked against humanity. The state of humanity after the fall turns all of humanity’s efforts to do good into pious idolatry. To put it in another way, Lutheran theology recognizes that ethics is not an ethical problem, but a religious one. The turn towards a religious understanding of ethics happens in light of the cross of Jesus Christ. Standing beneath the shadow of the crucified Lord, Lutheran theology sees that human distinctions between right and wrong pale in comparison. In the light of the crucifixion, there is no longer right and wrong. One is either in Christ or outside of Christ. Those who are in Christ see that all of the works are laughable attempts at self-justification, regardless of their standing in human eyes.

And so, finally, the Lutheran response to Socrates is to point to Christ and to proclaim that no amount of knowledge can help you to do the right thing, because the definition of right and wrong resides in the person of Christ, not in a set of propositions.

Know Thyself: Socrates and Lutherans

This is finally part 2 of what will be a 3 part series on the relationship of Socrates (and broadly speaking “philosophy”) to Lutheran theology. Part 1 can be found here.

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When I started this (small) project a month or so ago, I was very enthused about it. Now, not quite so much, but I still think it’s important and so feel obligated to write a few words on the topic.

Though I have characterized this as a post on Socrates and on philosophy, it’s really a post on that subdivision of philosophy called ethics. To be forthright, ethics is a subdivision of philosophy that I abhor and try to not think about. But, in our present climate religious and social it’s come to the forefront again, because questions of justice continue to dominate the discussion. Questions of justice inevitably become questions of ethics, i.e. “What is the right thing to do?”

This is where Socrates comes in, and where I find it very important to know how he thought of ethics because it’s a view that continues to percolate beneath a lot of our discussions of justice.

To overly simplify, but also to get at the heart of the matter, for Socrates, ethics is a matter of knowledge. If a person knows the realities of a situation, they will be able to know the right thing to do, and they will do it. For Socrates, unjust action always comes about on account of ignorance. Thus, his life work was to show people their ignorance and be extension, stop their unjust actions.

In many ways, our modern discourse follows this same premise: People act unjustly because they have a skewed perspective on the world based on faulty information. The way to correct their actions is thus a problem of information. If enough correct information is provided, reasonable people will change their actions.

As you may have guessed by now, I’m going to make the claim next time that Lutheran theology sees the problem (and people) in a fundamentally different manner. Be sure to check back in ten days or so, when I (finally) draw this series to a close.

God Made Ducks: A Gospel Meditation on the Environment

Recently, my wife and I stood at the lake near our house and watched a pair of wood ducks swim back and forth. Pretty soon,  a mallard hen with a dozen ducklings swam up, and we watched as the ducklings skittered back and forth over the water. And as I stood there and watched the ducks, I thought about the environment, and how I could make sure that my children would have the opportunity to watch ducks one day.

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That line of thinking turned me towards reflection on the lectures that I’ve heard on a Christian response to the environment.Those lectures sometimes made great points, especially when they emphasized that scientists and engineers have important Christian vocations like everyone else. But, part of the lectures I’ve heard felt lacking to me. They focus on themes like “Christian stewardship,” “Christian duty,” or “Christian responsibility.” And while I’m sure all these themes are well meaning, I can’t help but think that they all have the same flaw. They all attempt to take justified Christians and present them with a new set of requirements that they have to check off in order to maintain good standing with God. With every strategy and conversation about the environment comes the inevitable subtext: “You’re not a good Christian if you don’t…” “Christian environmental stewardship” has become a new form of moralism, a way of measuring our sanctification through Priuses, fluorescent bulbs, and bee gardens. The problem with Christian environmentalism is that it has become a new way to tell who’s in and who’s out, who’s a sinner and who’s not. All this talk on the environment has become a new way for us (and not God) to decide who gets grace. The criteria now isn’t Jewish ritual law, it’s how green you are. And while it may be a lot more hip than circumcision, it’s the same problem that Paul faced when he started that church in Galatia.

And like Paul wrote to the Galatians, all this talk about who’s green and who’s not misses entirely the way that God speaks to us through  the Law and the Gospel. The point of the Law isn’t to help us to “be the best steward that we can be.” The point of the Law is to help us see that no matter how well we’re taking care of the environment by human standards, we’re still failing miserably. While a Christian environmentalist may not be burning coal in their backyard or actively chopping down rain forests, they’re still not saving the environment from the massive destruction that happens every day. Christian environmental thinking abuses the Law when it thinks that doing slightly better than your neighbor fulfills the obligations that Christians owe to God’s creation. It’s true, the Prius driver may be doing slightly better than their Hummer driving neighbor, but this system of gradations is still thinking in the categories of the old sinner. But it’s even more true that the minute we make saving the environment an obligation on baptized Christians, there’s only two things we can do: We can throw up our hands in despair and acknowledge that no matter how well we’re doing, the blood of the environment is still on our hands, or we can become smug idolaters, proud of our own progress.

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In making the environment an obligation, Christians not only abuse the Law, but they also miss the true beauty of the Gospel. When Christ said, “It is finished,” He meant it. He didn’t mean “I’ve done a little part, Christians go do the rest.” When Christ proclaimed that He had done everything for us, that everything includes the environment with all its problems. Christ has taken the environment, redeemed it and given it back to us as a wonderful gift. Instead of being slaves to the obligations of preserving nature as pristine, or cruel slave drivers wringing every last drop out of the world around us, Christ has freed us to be recipients of a world that God has created for us. From Christ, we receive a world to feed us, a world to clothe us, and a world to dazzle us with wonder.

And so if we take seriously the way that God speaks to us with the Law and the Gospel, our Christian response to the environment receives a 180 degree reframing. Christ turns us away from the desire to prove our own goodness, and hand us a world created for our benefit.  Christ takes away the necessity to plant a garden, and gives us an opportunity to nourish God’s creation. He removes the obligation to eat locally and frees us to taste the bounty of the earth that God sustains every day. Christ removes nature as an opportunity to bash our neighbors for owning plastic Tupperware, and gives it back to us as a testament to the love and care of God. All nature, all gift, all opportunity to rejoice.