Should Luherans face the future with confidence or despair?
Lutheran historial Martin Marty admits the challenges are demanding but won’t give up hope
The foremost Lutheran analyst of current American church life spoke recently with Metro Lutheran about the current state of religion in the U.S. Here’s some of what Martin Marty had to say.
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Metro Lutheran: How does the state of Lutheranism in the U.S. look to you right now?
Martin Marty: Around the world, Lutheranism is growing. There’s a big shift going on, by Hispanics and others, into conservative churches. We’re talking about millions of people. Lutherans should do what they can to break out of their [northern European] ethnic base. That’s not easy for Lutherans to do. And, Lutherans are being hit by a drastic shift of religion into pop culture. Lutherans feel vulnerable now. People are ignoring creeds, Bible, awe [reverence]. Liturgy is not “in” these days.
Does the Lutheran Church have a compelling reason to remain separate from Roman Catholicism at this point?
Yes. The Roman Church still has papal infallibility and a hierarchical mind-set. These are troublesome for Lutherans. We can’t buy that. If Rome said, “The pope is first among equals,” Lutherans might buy it. But they aren’t saying that. Change in the papacy is coming — because, in huge numbers now, Roman Cath-olics are ignoring who [the pope] is and what he says.
Is there any reason to believe that the ELCA and the more conservative Lutherans will move closer together anytime soon?
Not as church bodies. But there are a lot of individuals who are cordial “across the lines.” The LCMS has always had a hard time defining how they are different from other Lutherans. Currently they point to the ordination of women — “Those bad ELCA people do that.” Close communion is another visible difference, and claims for the inerrancy of Scripture.
I wouldn’t give up on cooperation, however.
Lutherans in the U.S. seem not to be close to each other on much of anything — except, perhaps, a common embrace of the Augsburg Confession. Is there anything else that actually holds us all together these days?
For all of the restlessness among some, the Lutheran Confessions still hold sway. Even at our worst, we do draw on Martin Luther’s Catechism. There is a “feeling tone” among Lutherans. Wherever I go I sense loyalties to Lutheran priorities and institutions. This is certainly true in the ELCA. I think the Lutheran family is holding together.
Is the battle over ordaining and/or blessing homosexual persons living in committed relationships going to continue for a while, or do you see it fading?
It often takes around 300 years to settle an issue. Today churches are fighting about sex and authority. Modern technology has complicated the sexuality questions. Simultaneously, there’s a wave of freedom in the modern world. That challenges authority. There won’t be an early settlement. My hunch is that, if militant pro- and anti-gay groups weren’t so vocal, this issue would go the way of divorce in the church. It solved itself pastorally — congregations worked through it.
Some church observers say that the key difference between ELCA and all other Lutherans is how to interpret Scripture. Has this created a permanent divide?
Inerrancy is a term foreign to Martin Luther. Today it’s used as a weapon, but it doesn’t solve anything. Southern Baptists used inerrancy to “prove” infant baptism is wrong. Using this approach damages Lutheran theology. It dissolves paradox [holding opposite ideas in tension], something terribly important to Lutherans. We need to take Scripture seriously, but the term “full authority” works better than inerrancy. Martin Luther sometimes actually accused the Bible writers of getting some things wrong — but, he argued, they never said anything that would imperil our salvation.
How did American religion and politics get so polarized?
The number one factor is the media. If you get everything from right-wing radio, you’ve decided about virtually everything. If you only hear left-wing stuff, you get the same result.
We’re in a time of cultural shift and erosion. You take refuge in walls — or else you declare there aren’t any. There are about 80% in our culture who are fluid, with 10% at either extreme. The extremes try to push the 80% toward their direction.
The writer James Dunn has argued that there were multiple views and commitments from Christianity’s earliest times. They all agreed that the human Jesus is exalted Lord.
Each side needs the other. When the sides stop listening to each other, vitality disappears. The Southern Bap-tists have learned that in our day, to their own chagrin. One side drove the other side out. Now they’re retrenching, not growing as they once did.
How can we account for the wild popularity of Dan Brown’s novel [and movie], The Da Vinci Code?
The story is pure hokum. A lot of people like that. Some are looking for alternatives. It’s a kind of cultural madness. We’ve had other challenges to Christianity in culture. None of them survived. There’s the enduring appeal of Gnosticism — tapping in on secrets. Give this phenomenon a year. It may fade rapidly. Some people are already feeling snowed — and foolish — by signing on [to the premises in this story].
Has the ELCA paid too high a a price for its shared communion agreement with Episcopalians?
Where the agreement is being used, there are great benefits. There is now interaction we didn’t have before. It’s been a wonderful instrument. It’s been a non-issue in the Chicago area [where I live]. If you don’t make it a big issue, then it isn’t.
Why should an American be a Lutheran at this time in history?
I’m a Lutheran because I can repent in the morning and be absolutely free from old baggage after that. I like our Lutheran concept of pastor as shepherd. Lutherans have a healthy regard for the pastoral office.
Lutheranism’s intellectual and theological treasures are stunning. Martin Lu-ther’s love for the categories of paradox and contradiction is also valuable.
Lutheran theology is not like any other system in all of Christianity. It’s not like pearls on a string, but more like a glowing core [Christ] with rays emanating from it.