The Luther Option

If instead, we renew our focus on those Christian possessions shared by all, perhaps we can understand both our faith and each other better. If we turn away from an ideal Christianity to be preserved from the past or built in the future, perhaps we can see better what Christians already do and already are. Because despite our apparent marginalization, our differences and manifest failures, what happens among Christians can still astonish. (Ben Dueholm, Sacred Signposts, p. 8)

It’s widely recognized that we (that is, we in Europe and North America) live in a “post-Christian” culture. Whether this is a cause for celebration or despair varies from person to person, but few deny that the social and cultural hegemony once enjoyed by Christianity has waned in the last several decades (or centuries). Religious ideas and ways of interpreting the world no longer guide how increasing numbers of people go about their lives.

This situation has called forth a variety of proposed responses. The Christian right, or parts of it, wants to reestablish a form of Christian hegemony. Failed Alabama Senate candidate and notorious creep Roy Moore is a particularly egregious example of this. Some Catholic thinkers broadly grouped under the label “integralism” and the “Radical Orthodoxy” school of John Milbank seem to pine for a resurrected Christendom, with the church wielding a form of secular authority. Meanwhile, the “Benedict Option” advocated by conservative writer Rod Dreher and others envisions small, self-enclosed communities adhering to a strict doctrinal and moral orthodoxy—arks where the faithful can weather the flood of secular nihilism and the supposed impending collapse of liberal institutions.

More moderate and progressive Christians seem to be less certain how to respond to this situation. Some welcome the decline of Christian-tinged civil religion, embracing pluralism and hoping that it will make space for a more authentic form of Christian discipleship. On the other hand, the evacuation of shared religious values from the public square can allow the brutal values of nationalism, self-interest, and greed to run rampant.

In this kind of fractured environment, with Christians splintered into various theo-political tribes, is there anything that unites us, much less allows us to make a coherent public witness?

Ben Dueholm, Lutheran pastor and writer, thinks that the Christian churches already have much of what they need in the form of the historic practices that have shaped them for centuries. In his new book* Sacred Signposts he describes how these historic Christian practices can speak to our post-Christian world. They do this by subverting the rules of the workaday world and constituting sites of grace where we glimpse God’s kingdom.

He organizes these practices around Martin Luther’s seven “marks” of the church: the Holy Scriptures, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, forgiveness of sins, the ordained ministry, prayer and worship, and “the cross.” Dueholm says that these practices are in a sense more fundamental than our beliefs or theology; if anything, theology often arises to rationalize the practices. One can hold fast to a practice without necessarily have a firm grip on one’s beliefs or theology.

He dedicates a chapter to each practice, showing how they can interrupt the world’s rules and expectations and create new possibilities for graced living. In baptism, for example, people of all races and classes are adopted into a single family (“neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female, slave nor free . . . “). This challenges the prevalent human tendency to erect and maintain, often violently, barriers between groups of people. This takes on a particular urgency in this era of populist nationalism with its walls and bans.

The Lord’s Supper enacts the permeability of our selves and our bodies as we receive Jesus in the humble elements of bread and wine and join with others in this holy communion. In prayer and worship we offer our time and ourselves to God in a way that challenges both the cult of work and the commodified “leisure” of an uber-capitalist economy.

In each case, the order of grace interrupts, subverts, and resists the order of cause and effect, reward and merit, mine and thine:

In these brutally ordinary things, we encounter grace as the fundamental fact of existence. They are not mysterious additions to a clear and visible universe, but a hard-as-nails foundation for experiencing the universe’s fathomless mysteries. (pp. 168-9)

Following Luther, Dueholm sees suffering and the cross not just as one piece of the church’s theology, but as the through-line of its entire existence. This is Luther’s “theology of the cross,” which is not a theory of atonement, but an entire approach to theology and the Christian life. The Christian God is revealed most definitively in a despised man hanging on a cross. This means that God is not revealed in worldly success or power, but in suffering, both the suffering of Jesus and with all those who suffer.

Unfortunately, our culture is obsessed with avoiding suffering, and we’re all-too willing to inflict it on others if that’s what it seems to take to preserve our way of life. And Christians are no exception: white, Western Christians in particular have inflicted massive suffering under the very sign that should call us to solidarity with those who suffer. This is nothing short of a betrayal of the revelation of God’s solidarity and empathy with creaturely suffering.

Whether we want it or not, whether we embrace it, flee it, or try somehow to do both, the cross is at the heart of the church’s presence in the world, and at the heart of its politics. . . . It asks, ‘Does this embrace the God revealed in suffering in shame, or does it deny that God for the sake of something else?’ (pp. 159-60)

Following its Lord, the church lives under a sign of weakness. Its stakes its life not on its power or prestige, its patronage of the arts or the refined aesthetics of its worship, its dazzling intellectual accomplishments, or the impeccable morality of its members. It lives instead by these holy possessions, these very ordinary things, where grace is both hidden and revealed, like God on a cross. To embrace these possessions doesn’t require “a systematic program of reform, a transcendence of Christian divisions, or a perfect rejoinder to the criticisms leveled by the ideologues of a secular age. . . . They are simply there, as gifts for the whole church, and through the church to the whole world” (p. 167).

Because Dueholm focuses on things that Christians already have in common, it might be easy to miss the radicalism of what he’s proposing. Christians have tried different ways to shore up our position in this post-Christian age. We’ve tried slick management techniques, cultural isolationism, cultural capitulation, moral and theological polemics, and enlisting the coercive arm of the state. Dueholm is asking Christians to trust in the grace of the Holy Spirit and the gifts she’s already given to the church. This isn’t exactly a recipe, in worldly terms, for institutional success!  But Dueholm (and Luther) would be the first to point out that, in this case, faithfulness matters more than success. Ultimately, the word and practices of grace are all the church has, but they might be the one thing the world really needs.

*Ben is a Twitter friend and all-around mensch, and the good people at Eerdmans kindly sent me an advanced reading copy of the book at his request. In this post I will refer to Ben as “Dueholm” even though that seems weirdly formal.

4 thoughts on “The Luther Option

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