Wednesday, June 19, 2013

One More Piece for Clarity's Sake

Yesterday, I spoke of how the theologies of Rudolf Bultmann, Marcus Borg, and John Dominic Crossan have heavily influenced the teachings of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  Seeing how the poor quality of their theology has influenced the teaching/preaching/social ministry of my denomination brought some clarity as to one of the reasons my denomination is struggling.  But there is another piece of the puzzle which has affected the larger denomination--Liberation Theology.

This particular brand of theology finds its roots in Latin America where social stratification is very pronounced.  You have rich and poor and little to nothing in between.  As people at the bottom of the social strata began reading scripture, they found comfort, solace, and perhaps even more important, empowerment in the Bible's teachings regarding God's preferential support for the poor and oppressed.

There is little doubt that Scripture shows a continuity from Old to New Testament of God's deep desire for the care of the poor, widowed, and orphaned.  Law after law, teaching after teaching, and exhortation after exhortation show this.  There are more than a few condemnations toward the rich and powerful, especially those who revel in their wealth and refuse to care for those who are less fortunate.

Poor peasants in Latin America found this to be vastly empowering and vastly hope filled.  God shared their plight!  God frowned upon those who would seek to keep them impoverished!  They had theological and moral backing for speaking out against the injustices committed against them! 

Of course, this theological movement made more than a few in the hierarchy of the Church uncomfortable.  What about the wealthier folks who frequented the pews and put money in the offering plate?  Should the church join the voices of the poor and oppressed to speak out against such injustice when it is likely to offend those worshiping and contributing?  What about the people in power who supported the Church as long as the Church talked about spiritual matters but left worldly matters in the hands of the government--even if the government was corrupt?  What was the Church to do?

Actually, the answer was a no-brainer.  The Church was and is called to speak out on behalf of the poor and oppressed.  There really is no argument on that.  In fact, I would push it even further--the Church is called not just to speak for the poor and oppressed, but the Church is called to help the poor and oppressed find their own voice and speak for themselves.  That's true empowerment.  Otherwise, the poor and oppressed become dependent upon the Church, and that's not the egalitarian nature intended by Christ.

So, what is the problem with liberation theology?  In the context above, nothing.  But when removed from the particular context it was formed, there is a big problem. 

Liberation theology teaches that one must look at the world through a particular lens: the lens of oppressor/oppressed.  God gives preferential care and concern to the oppressed--again, clearly articulated in Scripture.  Therefore, if one seeks to apply Liberation Theology to ANY given context, one seeks to be oppressed!  It becomes fashionable to be oppressed!  Well, this means there needs to be an oppressor, so we have to find one of those too.  Soon, Jesus is seen to be on my side, and everyone else is the one with the issues. 

Luke Timothy Johnson is instrumental once again in his critique found in The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels

The popularity of liberation theology in many liberal Protestant and Catholic seminaries has only widened the gap between the critically educated clergy and the people they were called to serve.  Such liberation has tended to base itself squarely on a "historical Jesus" that has been critically reconstructed from the Gospels after they have been subjected to the appropriate ideological criticism.  The distinction between "Jesus" and "Christianity" is ideologically exploited.  In the feminist reading, the "woman-defined Jesus" who preaches a version of female wisdom and displays all the appropriate gender-inclusive attitudes is supplanted by the patriarchal Paul, who, despite his nod to egalitarianism, suppresses women in his churches, and through his letters also suppresses women through the entire history of the church.  In the Latin American reading, the Jesus who proclaimed a Jubilee year for the poor and followed an itinerant lifestyle is supplanted by the bourgeois tendencies of Pauline Christianity, which softens the countercultural edge of the Jesus movement.  In the radical gay liberationist reading, the antiestablishment Jesus is declared "as queer as you or me" and the heroic enemy of heterosexist hegemony.  Once more, Paul's statements against homosexuality represent the enemy.  In each version, Jesus is pitted against the church, and the Gospels are pitted against the rest of the New Testament, but only when read against their plain sense to yield a portrait of Jesus that fits the ideological commitments of the readers.  (page 65)

Add one more way in which people form their own personal Jesus--this time based upon their own cultural ideology.

So, what do you get when you put together:

1. A theology which denies the miraculous and places science and reason above faith? (Bultmann)


2. A theology which makes Jesus into a liberal academic? (Borg)


3. A theology which makes Jesus a poor peasant criticizing the religious establishment and oppressive powers--whose body was not resurrected but eaten by dogs, and whose followers had a mental understanding of Jesus still living? (Crossan)


4. A theology which makes it fashionable to be oppressed and lift up any marginalized group (even if that marginalization is due to that group's embracing beliefs contrary to scripture)?


5. A theology which takes the concept of grace and then leans too far toward the anti-nomian position?

Well, my friends, you've got the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America--as well as several other mainline denominations.

Poor scholarship.  Poor practice.  Is it any wonder for the declining state of mainline Christianity?

I asked yesterday, and so I continue today...what is the remedy?  Believe me, I know too well the futility in stemming the tide of this theological monstrosity.  It's entrenched and isn't going anywhere.  So, what is one to do?  Where does one turn?

More to come...


Kathy said...

Pastor Kevin --

You are tapping into something that has been going on for a long time -- at least 50 years -- not only in the Protestant Churches but also in the Catholic Church, so in this sense, we can say that "The Church" has fallen victim to -- what word should we use? Liberalism? That is a good catch-all.

After Vatican II and during the 1960s, the world changed. The ideas of relativism, the self: "me," low Christology, the triumph of "Science," and on and on -- your descriptions are very good -- began to take hold. Nothing new really, just different disguises for old heresies. Now, interestingly and sadly, these bad seeds have produced bad trees and a lot of bad fruit. In the Catholic Church, a couple of good Popes managed to put on the brakes, but in Mainline Protestantism, it was a runaway train.

You are now calling out the truth. As I see it, a kind of "Counter-Revolution."

Kevin Haug said...

My blog isn't likely to cause any "Counter-Revolution." In fact, I don't expect that it will have much of an impact at all. There are simply too many voices in a crowded blogosphere, twitterverse, etc.

I even know I will have little to no influence in the ELCA. It is what it is, but speaking and defining what I see and what I believe is important. Christian Orthodoxy will reign supreme, but there will be much death before this resurrection will occur.