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Public Theology: Creation on the Cross: A Lutheran Earth Spirituality
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Creation on the Cross: A Lutheran Earth Spirituality
Adult Forum presentation, Agnus Dei Lutheran Church in Gig Harbor, Washington.

By Ed Knudson

I want to speak today about what might be called a Lutheran earth spirituality. The word "spiritual" is sometimes used to refer to another dimension of life other than the common, natural, physical world within which we live each day. But I want to suggest that a Lutheran earth spirituality would be characterized by a deep sense of affirmation of the physical, of the common, of the natural world as the world that God has made and gives as a gift to all humanity. Martin Luther was one who in the 16th century took hold of Christian theology and turned it from an up-and-down orientation to a side-by-side understanding of the relation of God and humanity. Luther wanted people to experience an actual relationship with God here and now through the word and sacrament. Luther brought theology down to earth and renewed the sense of all creation as a gift out of the grace of a loving God. So a Lutheran spirituality is able to delight in the fragrance of the lilies of the field and the taste of fine wine, to celebrate the joy of sexual union, to wonder at the width and breadth of the whole created universe, to find amazement in the gift of each new day. I find that at my age I wake each day with a certain surprize and amazement and say to myself, "here I am again." Each day the world as a whole is presented to me again, is given again as a gift which I can receive with gratitude and thanksgiving.

But Luther taught that this amazing sense of all of life as a gift cannot be obtained naturally through human reason, through what is called natural theology, through speculation about the nature of the world and God. This sense of life as a gift of grace comes through a revelation of God known through a very physical body of a particular person, Jesus Christ, tortured and killed on a very real Cross. A truly Lutheran earth spirituality will thus not be able to avoid the reality of human suffering and death and must confront the depth of human sin as well as the radical nature of conflict and evil in the world, and the inability of human beings to save themselves. All this is acknowledged by us as we come forward to receive the bread and wine at communion each Sunday and the pastor says, "The body of Christ, given for you, the blood of Christ, shed for you." It is in the very physical bread and wine combined with these words where God has chosen to be revealed to us directly as a loving God of grace and mercy. Nature can only present us with a threatening God and thunder and lightning, finally, only through the Cross are we able to learn that the same God which created all the world is a God of love and mercy who offers life to all. And this is the center of a Lutheran earth spirituality, the communion table, receiving bread and wine which through the word makes real the presence of Christ for us and for all creation.

So I have titled my remarks here today "Creation on the Cross." A mighty military empire killed the Son of God on a Cross some 2000 years ago. Today industrial empires have put the whole of creation on a cross of death, destruction and predatory exploitation. We cannot get to the truth of what is happening today without the truth of the Cross, without acknowledging the depth of human sin and radical evil. In his teaching about the Cross Luther tried to squarely face sin and evil in the world because he believed only God could address it and redeem it and make life possible in spite of it. A Lutheran earth spirituality today can be truthful only by squarely facing the fact that the way of life invented by modern human beings is destroying the world God has made for human flourishing, the world that God has created for human beings in which to delight, the very world God wants to make God's own home.

Now, I have time here only to point to some key elements in what I am calling a Lutheran earth spirituality, key ways to think about these matters from the context of Lutheran tradition. One of these is to realize we are living 500 years since the Reformation period, times have changed, we are able to interpret our faith within our own context. And I think one of the things that Lutherans, and all Protestants, must do today is to accept some responsibility for the creation of the modern world. If you go to college and take a course on early modern history you will study first the Reformation period, the Reformation paved the way for the growth of the modern nation state (France, Germany, Spain, the United States) and the idea of human freedom which led to constitutional democracies, for the use of reason in building up the community leading to modern organizations and bureaucracies, for the turn from a focus on heaven as the center of Christian life to carrying out a vocation in this world in service of the neighbor. The sociologist Max Weber famously pointed to the importance of the idea of vocation in this world in his book "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism." He also used a phrase for what has happened as a result of the modern emphasis on the use of human reason, "the disenchantment of the world." The world became viewed by modern persons not so much as a "created world" from God the creator as mere resources for human domination through the application of their reason, as in science and technology. It was these Protestants who came to this country and made a nation for themselves, the United States of America. Five hundred years after the Reformation we Protestants today have to ask ourselves whether we are partly responsible for the way things are today. A Lutheran earth spirituality must engage in an interpretation of history and stand responsible before God for the way things have turned out and perhaps begin to question what modernism has become.

For example, Martin Luther shared the idea that human beings are instructed by God in Genesis to dominate the earth. One day he was getting a haircut in a barber shop in Wittenberg and the barber asked him how he should pray. Luther first told him to attend to that razor the barber held in his hand at Luther's throat! Then he went home and wrote a little pamphlet of prayers, including this one:

"Eternal God, I thank you, from the heart, that by your goodness we have been made out of nothing into marvelous persons, with body, soul, reason and senses; that we are daily preserved out of nothing, and that you have made us lords over the earth, fishes, birds and beasts. Amen."

Now, we should notice what a high view Luther had of human beings, not because we are worthy of high praise from our own actions, but because God has made us "marvelous persons," this is Lutheran gospel talk and is very important for an earth spirituality, living in the power of God's affirming word. But Luther says God has made us "lords over the earth" and this idea was used through Christian history to justify all manner of evil actions, including the genocide of Native Americans in the conquest by Europeans of this country. It is this idea of earth domination that is used against Christianity today by many in the environmnental movement; it is one of the primary reasons Christian faith is rejected today. This whole notion of earth domination must be rethought today in any responsible earth spirituality.

My wife and I were hiking on the Oregon coast a few years ago at a place where the the land juts out into the ocean. As we walked we saw huge, giant stumps on each side of the trail and I began to think about those first companies who logged the area. Here we were on the furthermost edge of the territory of the United States, that last little piece of land, and those loggers were told to cut every last living tree right up to the ocean. It was motivated by an attitude of domination of nature, a view of the forest as an economic resource only, right up to the last tree at the edge of the ocean. Those loggers were working with the attitude of the times, I don't judge them, but it is that attitude of total domination of nature with no sense of limits which has become a huge problem for our times. Cut everything for a profit, dominate current resources with no concern for the future and no sense of the aesthetic relationship between the human and the natural.

It is this sense of relation to nature that I want to talk about now, what Weber refers to by the phrase "the disenchantment of nature" in the modern sensibility. It has been interesting to me that so many television shows these days have to do with morgues, like CSI, Crime Scene Investigations, where we see dead bodies on the morgue table. It seems that each year we see more and more of the body opened up. The attempt is to titilate the audience by exposing more and more dead flesh. The television producers are playing with our minds here, with our sense of relationship with the human body, our relation with our own bodies. I am not sure how to talk about this, but I think it has to do with a profound alienation modern folks experience about their own physical bodies. We moderns have emphasized reason and abstraction, a kind of scientific view of our bodies, that we no longer have a sense of the physical in a spiritual and emotional sense, we no longer have a sense of our bodies as a gift of a loving creator, we no longer have a sense that God loves our body.

I actually worked in a morgue in Hennepin County (Minneapolis, Minnesota) the summer between college and seminary. I picked up the bodies of dead people, suicides, homicides, accidents, people who died alone. And I sewed up bodies after autopsies. I had to develop a disengaged view of these bodies in order to work there. These were not persons, they were just dead bodies. One day I saw something shocking to me. I was walking down a hall and came to a window that looked into another room, the room that new bodies were taken. In that room I saw a woman kissing and caressing a dead body! I was shocked, why would anyone do such a thing. Then I realized that a man had died in an ambulance on its way to a nearby hospital and they decided to bring the man directly to the morgue. The man's wife was with him. She was kissing him for the last time; she loved his body, the body of her husband.

Now I want to say something that seems so obvious, people are available to us only in bodily form. Yes, I know about the modern information age, the Internet, electronic personalities, and all of that. But all of that has led us to be far too removed from the reality that people are bodies and only finally made available to us in physical form. The person, the soul, the spirit is only finally real in a physical, material, actual body. The more we sit watching television or playing around on the Internet the more we may be separating ourselves from the profound fact of material reality, allowing ourselves to live in a fantasy universe created by companies who just want to dominate our consciousness and attention for their own profit. It is life in that fantasy universe that is explored by those known these days as postmodern philosophers. The postmodern world is mind separated from body, a world lifted up and away from the actual, material, physical world.

It is at this point that it might be possible for us to hear in a new way those words said to us as we receive the bread of communion: "The body of Christ, given for you." To receive this bread we put our bodies on the line, we come forward bodily to drink the wine and eat the bread, physical acts. And here the grace of a loving God is present and working for us and with us physically. Here is the center of an earth spirituality for it is bread from earth, wine from earth, through which the divine is present with us and which we bring into our own bodies through the eating and drinking. Luther said that the sermon is where God's word comes to us all in the assembly in a general way, but at communion God is present to us in a specific, personal way, the body of Christ is given "for you" as an individual peson. It is like the specific act of the woman in the morgue kissing her specific dead husband; the wife loved the body of the man. In communion God is saying that God loves your specific body and comes to you in bodily form in the person of the body of Christ. Here is a profound affirmation of material reality at the heart of a Lutheran earth spiritualty.

To understand the significance of this let me discuss Luther's view of what is happening in communion with the Catholic view and the view of other Protestants. Luther fundamentally opposed the Catholic notion of transsubstantian, that an action of the priest actually caused the bread and wine to become actual body and blood of Christ. This Luther viewed as magic, a human being manipulating a substance for purposes of appeasing God, conducting a sacrifice for puposes of getting God to love us. Luther opposes all such notions of sacrifice, through the Old Testament up through the Catholic mass, because it was human action to gain God's favor. For Luther the Cross was the end of all sacrifice, the end of all need for human striving to gain God's acceptance. No religious action, no moral action, no intellectual action on the part of human beings can accomplish what needs to be done. Only God can save us. And God acts to reveal God's nature as love and grace on the Cross. Once we know the greatness of God's love through the cross then we are opened to see all of creation as the means of grace as well. On the cross it is as if we all die as well, it is the death of any human striving to perfect ourselves and make ourselves acceptable to God. It is at that point that we can realize that the whole creation comes to us a a gift of God. I am able to get up in the morning and say, "Here I am again." The whole world is presented to me again without me having to do anything, no magic rituals, no moral actions, no following of any laws, no intellectual striving, just wake up and live in the power of God's gifts of grace in all creation.

And the place for life is not some other world but this very material world. The church through the middle ages had gotten fixated on heaven as a place other than this world, the job of the church was to get people into that other place. Some Protestants continued that emphasis, but not Luther. Luther believed Christ was "really present" in the bread and the wine, it wasn't just something symbolic.

Followers of John Calvin reasoned that with the ascension Christ was in heaven at the right hand of God and that was where he now existed and obviously he could not be someplace else, so he could not be actually present with the bread and the wine in communion. The bread and wine are signs of a different, distant spiritual reality. This was not a small debate, it has had huge implications concerning the focus of spirituality. If Christ is in heaven then salvation means to be with Christ in heaven, so the yearning of the Christian is away from this world to some sort of spiritual world apart from the material world. Luther spent most of his time, on the topic of communion, attacking this Calvinist view.

Luther says: "The object is not always spiritual. Eating, drinking, or using is not spiritual when that which one eats or drinks or uses is spirit or a spiritual being, because then the flesh of Christ could not be spiritually eaten or drunk. For regardless of where it may be - in a spiritual or in a physical being, visible or invisible - it is real, natural, physical flesh, which one can grasp, feel, see, and hear, which was born of a woman and died on the cross. But it is called 'spiritual' because it comes from the Spirit, and because it is necessarily intended for our spiritual reception." (This is My Body)

For Luther, the bread and wine are not merely signs or symbols, but they carry the real presence of Christ. Christ is omnipresent in and through and material reality of the sacaments. This makes God present not someplace else in a separate spiritual world, but God dwells in and with the material reality. So to be spiritual is not to be taken out of this world but to be in a new relation with this material world created by God. God has come into the world to stand next to us side by side. We no longer need to strive to get "up" to God, rather we simply receive the presence of God with us at the communion table. That is why communion is so much at the heart of a Lutheran spirituality and why in these latter decades we Lutherans have begun to celebrate communion every Sunday.

Lutheranism is not the dominant tradition among Protestants in this country. Calvinism with its heaven-orented spirituality has been more dominant and especially so in the past few decades. An especially virulent form of Calvinism has become the dominant expression of Christianity, so much so that in some ways it has morphed into a nationalistic, commercialized and politicized heresy that can no longer be called Protestant in the Reformation sense. The idea that God hates the world that God has made and wants it to come to a fiery end has come to pervade the religious right today. In our time there is a need for Lutherans to reclaim their historic tradition of an earth-centered spirituality.


Comment on Article

Mike Stroud has submitted a comment I am adding here, after which I will offer a reply.

Pastor Knudson, your talk is a good exercise in Lutheran apologetics but not particularly conducive toward unifying as a socio-religious force the two major families of the Reformation heritage.

Especially troubling is your insistence that Lutherans are a people who are more sensitive to the secular than the Reformed, due to 16th-century disputes over the nature of the Lord's Supper. Your rendition of Luther makes him out to be more of a revolutionary than he actually was; he retained the traditional Christendom form of Eucharist not out of humane sympathies but out of reverence for tradition.

In other words, I see a lot of romanticizing here, a projection of post-modern sentimentality upon a subject where it does not fit. We do not do very good on the religious Left of resisting our temptations toward viewing the past with hypercritical, humanist eyes. The Reformation had no illusions about the "dignity" of humanity or the positive reception of its ideas among a mass audience, unlike today.

You go on to, inadvertently I think, smear the Reformed tradition by tar-brushing it with supposedly being the ancestor of American fundamentalism. You forget that much of evangelicalism openly refutes the "TULIP" five points and would shock Calvin with horror with its insistence that salvation is in the hands of an individual's decision--stands that have been tenets of the revival tradition every since the Second Great Awakening. You further ignore that Reformed denominations like Presbyterianism and Congregationalism were exceedingly more receptive to modern innovations like the historical-critical method and the Social Gospel than was much American Lutheranism, which largely stood by its confessionalism and ethnic pride.

Of course, Reformed scholasticism did breed fundamentalism in a sense, but other movements within so-called "Calvinism" have been countervailing (as is, admittedly, the case with Lutheranism also), such as the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth and Emil Brunner and the unified stance of the world Reformed community in the 1980s against Apartheid in South Africa. This is not said to denigrate progressive impulses in Lutheranism, but it is obvious that imposing 16th-century distinctions to 21st-century problems does not lead to much that is productive.

It would have been better said, I think, that Lutheranism values the tangible to a degree that authoritarian expressions of Christianity do not. Meanwhile, the Reformed tradition might well complement this by its insistence upon the transcendent will of God and its consequent demand that the disciples of Jesus Christ walk justly and in service to the neighbor.

I submit this for your consideration and welcome any critique on your part.


Reply: I very much appreciate Mike Stroud's comments and agree that I used much too gross a generalization about "Calvinism". I did not have in mind any effort to speak comprehensively on ecumenical theology and what Mike says about the sources of fundamentalism is certainly true.

On Luther, he was certainly more conservative on social issues in general, still a medieval man in many respects, but I don't think he is adequately appreciated for the degree of change he initiated since the society was at that time so dominated by religious institutions. Luther saw that the Catholic Church had become an absolutely dominating oppressive force in and over the lives of the people. He indeed wanted to "liberate" them from that oppressive force through preaching a gospel of mercy of a loving God. That helped to create very big "social" change (such as clergy marriage, etc.) since the church was so important in society.

Lutherans in this country have come late to the social/political mission of the ecumenical church, and my own comments represent an interpretation of Lutheran theology for our time. I do believe that the historic Reformation heritage provides outstanding resources for a reconfiguration of Protestantism today over against the false form of Christianity which has arisen, the religious right, which I think now needs to called an Americanized, commercialized heresy. Eucharist theology and practice can make a big contribution here, it provides the church with a foundation for and experience of a community of grace and justice.

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Date Added: 10/10/2009 Date Revised: 1/4/2010

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