Monday, May 05, 2003

Today is my birthday. It's depressing...

The Benke situation, for some reason, is driving me nuts again. The new issue of Forum Letter has some more comments on the general state of the LCMS and the Benke situation. Here, Read it for yourself.

"A Theology of Emotivism"
Rev. Prof. John T. Pless
Forum Lettter (May 2003)

It is a foregone conclusion. David Benke will be exonerated of the charges that led to his suspension. With the Synod's Commission on Constitutional Matters now dominated by partisans appointed by President Kieschnick, the stage is set for the ruling of Vice President Wallace Schulz to be reversed. The case will be decided not by appeal to clear scriptural and confessional teaching but by the manipulation of by-laws and an appeal to procedural matters. Now that the Commission on Constitutional Matters has decreed that a member of Synod cannot be charged if he or she secured the prior approval of the "ecclesiastical supervisor" for activities that run counter to the Synod's position, the way is cleared for the dismissal of the case. Even as the moderates' cry for a decentralized and less hierarchical synodical structure, they have succeeded in giving even more power to the synod president. This is a dangerous side-effect of the Benke case that might just come back to haunt the moderates on another day when the office of president is not occupied by their man.

In some quarters David Benke is venerated as a martyr. His own parish (St.Peter's, Brooklyn, NY) is hawking a full array of relics ranging from "Its OK to Pray" hats, coffee mugs, T-shirts (x-large only), and posters. The proceeds, of course, will go to the "David H.Benke Advocacy and Defense Fund." Free buttons will accompany each order. These items can be ordered from the congregation's website. Chalk up another point for consumerism in the church. The congregation has also established an institute with the ominous name "St.Peter's Institute for Religious Interfaith Tolerance" (SPIRIT).

The most troubling aspects of this unfortunate episode have nothing to with the outcome of Benke's case or the "Its Ok Pray" trinkets (although I think that they are tacky) but rather in what it reveals about the embrace of the ideology of tolerance in our world and more sadly in the church. In postmodern fashion, Benke's prayer at the Yankee Stadium service is seen as an exercise of toleration for other gods. This, many of his supporters argue is a noble and laudable thing. We are finally rid of the Old Testament notion that God is a jealous Lord who will share His glory with no other. Typical is a letter supporting Benke published in the December 7, 2001 issue of the Los Angeles Times. The Rev. Butch Henderson of the Claremont United Church of Christ writes "Many families of faith worship the one God. I'm not privy to any information which indicates that God favors one family more than another. Equality among religions is not as important as authenticity. When I participate in interfaith prayer, worship, and other activities, I am affirming, encouraging, and sharing the authenticity of other religions. Given a choice between the view that all religions are equal and the view that only my religion is authentic, I'll take the former every time…and I suspect God does, too."

A few have tried to defend Benke's prayer theologically. Some have suggested that Benke was not praying with representatives of other faiths but merely praying in their presence. Others contend that Benke was not there to worship but to bear witness to Christ. These defenses ring hollow with an empty sophistry that seeks a loophole where there are none. I applaud the honesty of ELCA theologian Ted Peters who celebrates Benke's involvement in the Yankee Stadium service "If we reduce Benke's public appearance to witness, then we inadvertently pit Jesus over against everyone else. What the civic situation calls for is cooperation or even solidarity between Christians and members of other religious communities" (dialog, Summer 2002, 84). Peters sees more clearly what many in the LCMS miss.

We live in a culture that is committed to tolerance and is governed by what Alisdair MacIntrye identifies as the "ethic of emotivism." This ethic maintains that there is no rational way to secure agreement on ethical matters. We are left with the power of emotion. Issues are decided not by reason but by passion. Failing to make a theological case, the appeal is made to the emotions. Doctrine is divisive but love, sweet love will unite us! In our time, emotions will carry the day. Lutherans have a theological category for this- enthusiasm. Such enthusiasm provides a spiritual veneer for our culture's attitude of tolerance. The coalition of Jesus First and DayStar, the political machines most vocal and active in support of Kieschnick and Benke have learned this lesson well. The March 26, 2003 issue of Jesus First carries an article entitled "The Breath of God" by the Rev. Vernon Gundermann, a veteran LCMS moderate. Gundermann is bold to identify where the Spirit is blowing in the LCMS. Not surprisingly one of the places that Gundermann sees the Spirit working is in the Commission on Constitutional Matters! One wonders whatever happened to that old Lutheran notion that the Spirit works through the Word and is known only there.

The editor of the Forum Letter asked me to reflect on life in the LCMS in the months following Yankee Stadium. It seems to me that this last year and a half have revealed several things about the current state of affairs. There is much that could be said about the lack of theological, churchly leadership in the Synod as well as the prospects for change in 2004. There is the matter of Synod's bleak financial picture and drastic cuts in missionary personnel. One could comment on the obnoxious removal of Wallace Schulz from his position as Lutheran Hour speaker. Most disconcerting, however, is the extent to which the acids of pluralism have eroded the theological integrity of the Synod. This can be seen from much of the rhetoric that has been used in support of Benke's participation at Yankee Stadium. Emotive arguments have been used that subordinate faith to love. Any critical, theological engagement of unionism and syncretism are dismissed as being "unloving." Forgotten is Luther's insistence that "We are surely prepared to observe peace and love with all men, provided they leave the doctrine of faith perfect and sound for us. If we cannot obtain this, it is useless for them to demand love from us. A curse on a love that is observed at the expense of the doctrine of faith, to which everything must yield-love, an apostle, an angel from heaven, etc! They would know that one Word of God is all and all are one, that one doctrine is all doctrines and all are one, so that when one is lost all are eventually lost, because they belong together and are held together by a common bond" (AE 27:38).

Rev. Prof. John T.Pless
Assistant Professor of Pastoral Ministry and Missions
Concordia Theological Seminary
Fort Wayne, IN

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