McGrath: Church isn’t a club that keeps certain ideas alive, part 2
Now Luther’s approach, I think, is open to criticism. For example, a critic might point out that surely in dealing with for example suffering, it’s good to be able to offer a philosophical defense of the goodness of God in the face of evil, and I would agree with that. If we can’t offer some rational defense of the Christian faith at this point, then we’re in trouble. But Luther himself was somewhat skeptical about the capacity of reason to defend faith, taking the view that this could easily mislead as much as it informs the faithful. But the real point of Luther’s approach is the challenge it offers to purely intellectual approaches to theology and the Christian life. Luther’s theology of the cross offers a way of placing suffering within a greater framework, which allows us to discern how God is able to use suffering as a means of bringing about growth and maturity. God uses suffering, pain and so on as a means of stripping away our security so that we are left with nothing and nobody to trust other than God Himself, and that’s a disturbing thought because for Luther God destroys before he builds. He crucifies an individual’s pride and security before He raises them to new life. What we believe to be the foundations of a secure existence needs to be exposed for what they really are in order [that] they be demolished, and then replaced with something of God’s own choosing and something of God’s own building. Now, this strategy is central to Luther’s vision of the Christian life.
We must recognize that God humbles us if He is to raise us up. We may find ourselves redirected, demolished, but it’s all part of the way in which God is working out what he wants us, and our churches, to do in the world. For Luther, the cross of Christ is stabilizing and integrating the reality, the rock on which our house of faith may be built. The human faculties often point in different directions, threatening to tear our lives apart: our reason leads us in one direction, our emotions in another. And sometimes we find our faith being battered because there’s no firm anchor, no point of attachment to a deeper reality, which is able to weather the storms of the ambiguity of life. For Luther, the cross is a definitive disclosure of the despair that results when reason and emotions pull in separate directions. When God is believed to be present, but not experienced as present. And again, many of you will know that in contemporary American Christianity, experience very often is given the upper hand. I don’t experience God as being here therefore God is not here. Luther is offering us a framework that affirms experience, but critiques our interpretation of it. Luther’s approach recognizes the damaging tension that can arise within the life of faith when reason and emotion take us in very different directions. And what Luther is saying, in effect, is we must see this tension in its proper context and that is provided by the cross, a purely rational approach to suffering. Let’s make sense of it, in the end, can’t work.
Now let me explore this with reference to a case study. In 1961, as many of you will know, a short work by one N.W. Clerk appeared with the title “A Grief Observed,” and it consists of the painful and brutally honest reflections of a man whose wife had died slowly and in pain from cancer. In those reflections we find N.W. Clerk agonizing over the rational inadequacy of his understanding of suffering. Clerk tells us how his rational, cerebral faith took a battering from the emotional crisis that overwhelmed him when his wife died from cancer. Ideas that once proved anchors in his life turned out to be inadequate in the face of this catastrophe. Let me quote. “Nothing will shake a man or at any rate a man like me out of his purely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be not silly before he comes to his senses.” And he goes on to talk about how only suffering is able to bring us to our senses. The thoughts are very similar to Luther’s, but many of you will know who wrote those words. N.W. Clerk was a pseudonym for C.S. Lewis. Why is this so important? Because in 1940 Lewis wrote a book called “The Problem of Pain,” which is basically a rational defense of God’s goodness in the face of human suffering with the most famous line being “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Yet this was a purely rational, not an emotional, existential engagement with pain. It engaged with pain and sorrow at the level of ideas, not as experienced realities. And to its critics, Lewis’ approach in the problem of pain amounts to an evasion of the emotional reality of evil and suffering as experienced realities. They’re simply reduced to abstract ideas. And to read “A Greif Observed” alongside “The Problem of Pain” is to bring home how a purely rational understanding of God collapses in the faith of experienced pain and suffering. Let me quote from Lewis in his “A Grief Observed.” “Where is God? Go to Him when your need is desperate, when all of the help is vain and what do you find? A door slammed in your face and the sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.” Austin Farrow wrote about Lewis’ experiences after his death and simply made the point that Lewis exemplified the intellectual who played down feelings and played up ideas only to find that in real life the ideas weren’t good enough. Now, you all know how this story ends. Lewis came back to faith, in effect he saw this experience as a way not in which he was testing God, but in which God was testing him.
The point I want to make is that it reveals something very significant, the inadequacy of a purely rational approach to theology. A theology that is untested against the harsh experience of the world will always be prone to doubt and to despair. As Luther pointed out, experience is ultimately what makes a real theologian. Luther’s theology of the cross, I think, is perhaps best seen as a critical theology, that is to say a theology which demands that we recognize the limitations under which faith exists in this world as it encounters the reality of experiences that simply don’t fit the convenient and cozy rationalities of Christian theology. Luther discovered this early in life. His theology of the cross was developed as he reflected on his own precarious and often seemingly hopeless situation during the years 1517-21. His later writings make little reference to the notions. But, it seems to me Luther assimilated those theological lessons that he learned in that formative period. Lewis, on the other hand, was forced to reexamine and ultimately to concede the inadequacy of at least some aspects of his early theology in later life. It seems to me that, in effect, Luther had sorted things out, whereas Lewis came to sort them out much later in life. From a Christian perspective, the life of faith is lived out under conditions of finitude and sin, in which we inhabit the world in which God often seems more of an absence than a presence. And Luther’s theology of the cross, it seems to me, poses a significant challenge to theologically inflated accounts of reality, which hold that we can see further and more clearly than our situation permits. Here, I think, is the critically important point. Luther’s theology of the cross recognizes the essential darkness in which faith finds itself. It points to the Christian contemplating a dark and misty landscape where little can be seen for certain, yet even in this dark and obscure world there are things that we can hold on to, above all, Christ. We may trust Him. More than that, we may entrust ourselves to Him. The cross, like Mt. Sinai, may be enfolded by clouds and darkness yet God remains present despite our failure to discern Him. The word of the cross provides us with enough light to see, even though it doesn’t illuminate everything. There are times, I think, when Lewis sees Christ as a candle projecting a flickering circle of light around it, allowing us to find our bearings and our way, but we must trust the one who holds that candle and leads us in the gloom. A quote from John 1, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” I think there is much to take on board here. I value Lewis enormously, but he needs correction and points, and Luther, I think, speaks words of wisdom and insight that need to be heard.
Let me bring Lewis into this dialogue one final time. This time I want to look at his notion of “Mere Christianity.” You all know this book was published sixty years ago and it remains a very influential statement of an approach to Christianity, which exalts in the essentials, is primarily lay rather than clerical and which sees denominations as useful, but not right at the center of things. Luther’s notion of “Mere Christianity” is not really about the rejection of denominational supremacy, it’s more about recognition of what lies at the heart of the Christian faith. Nonetheless, it does offer a critique of certain forms of Christianity. Those for example which see a specific denomination as being somehow entrusted with certain insights denied to others. Lewis, I think, is a very powerful witness to the ability of a writer to transcend the denomination of origin. Lewis was an Anglican, but I think hardly any of his readers realized that. He is a Christian who speaks to all Christians. I feel the same way about Luther. I want to say immediately that you Lutherans are in a very privileged position and I envy you. Nevertheless, I like Luther too and I find him useful. I want to say to you that many others do as well. Thank you for allowing us access to him. He is a very good thing for us to have. My plea to you this morning is simply that you, as a denomination, discover how rich and useful he is. He has enriched my ministry enormously in ways that affect my preaching, my pastoral care and my theological vision. I stand indebted to him. I haven’t become a Lutheran, which is probably just as well for you, but he nevertheless remains someone who seems to articulate a vision of Christianity that is of enormous importance to us all.
Lutheranism has a treasure in Luther, a source of theological richness and stimulation.
Let me conclude. Lutheranism has a treasure in Luther, a source of theological richness and stimulation, and I want to emphasize I fully concede Luther has his weaknesses. I haven’t talked about those. You all know what they are. For example his attitudes towards Jews, though representative of German culture at the time are very difficult for us today. I’m sure we could all make a list of things we dislike about Luther, but that’s not the point. The best theology being done today in my view could be styled a theology of critical re-appropriation, again a theology of critical re-appropriation by which I mean a willingness to engage seriously with the great and rich theological heritage of the past, with its giants such as Luther. Sure, we may say we leave certain things behind. For example, Luther’s attitude to Jews and peasants, but there are others we most assuredly are going to want to pick up and run with and exploit. In many ways, this lecture today is simply by one who has found Luther to be such a source of encouragement and enrichment, and who when translated into terms that can break down cultural barriers today seems to me to provide a powerful witness to the Christian Gospel, which can be of enormous value to us all. Therefore, I commend you as Lutherans in going back to this resource to enrich your present-day mission. You are not indulging in historical nostalgia, rather you are saying let us look to our family history and bring out the treasures and put them to good use. I just want to say to you there’s an awful lot you can do with Luther. I want to encourage you to dust off the books, translate them into the cultural vernacular and see where that takes you. Wherever it takes you, I want to pray for your enrichment and blessing as you move forward into your next phase of ministry in these uncertain and difficult days. They may be difficult, but as Luther reassures us, the same God who called Abraham, Isaac and Jacob calls also us and journeys with us, for us as we go. For me, that gives a very helpful perspective to all the issues we face. Thank you so much for listening.
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