Thanks for the good wishes sent my way. I have, apart from being sick, been very distracted lately, so I’m only now feeling up to catching up on the blog-reading and attempting a substantive post myself. I noticed Dwight P. (or Brother Dwight, as I perhaps should reciprocally call him), recently read a biography of Martin Luther and wondered if he’s still a Lutheran. In my yearlong fling with Lutheranism I didn’t read anything by him beyond the Augsburg Confession (which I wrote about here), so I don’t feel I have any authority on the man. But this line of Dwight’s struck me:
In short, I know that; I don’t have any problem believing (and relying on that). Why else would I come to Church. I don’t understand people who are fearful of their “salvation” — which I also recognize usually to be a misunderstanding of salvation (usually a personalistic, individualistic concern for where I will spend my own personal eternity).
Well, I do understand it. I mean, no matter how much of a communitarian you are, you still are stuck in your own consciousness for life, and perhaps forever, so I would think a bit of concern for your personal eternity is called for. And especially given the extremely graphic and detailed descriptions of hell that writers and artists were coming up with in Luther’s age, I would have a hard time understanding someone who wasn’t a bit worried both for themselves and others.
But of course, there is no doubt a difference of life experience between Dwight and me as well. If I remember correctly he’s been a Lutheran all his life, while I’ve mostly been an unbeliever. While lifelong Lutherans may see no reason to go to church other than that they believe in their salvation, I suspect a lot of unbelievers show up at least partly for the opposite reason: this nagging fear that maybe it’s all true, in which case they’re in trouble.
I was thinking along similar lines with his later paragraph:
Don’t, as a preacher, offer a barrage of “Jesus loves us” messages; that is not news — good or otherwise. Help me interpret the other 95% of the scriptures that deal with such things as how I spend my money, how I practice sex, what I do about impending wars — you know, the “secular” concerns.
I don’t know, I still have doubts that God loves me, so I wouldn’t regard such efforts as totally useless. Again, life experience is doubtless important here. My own Lutheran pastor, himself an adult convert, said he grew up with a very critical and demanding mother, and so the message of God’s grace was a real revelation to him. He also worked at the Campus Crusade for Christ with a number of Baptists who felt that being born again had made them better people, and he saw this as breeding arrogance. This also encouraged him to hew to the Lutheran attitude that the main point of it all is to know you’re forgiven.
Sometimes hearing him preach, though, I did feel the way Dwight does. He had what a fellow churchgoer accurately described as a classic pastor problem, in that he ran himself to the ground thinking and doing for others and had trouble being done for himself. For this reason, he could preach most emphatically against the evils of giving too much, apparently assuming that many others in church shared this problem. It made me think, look, this may be a problem in your life, but too much giving is not one of the major problems in the world today!
Nonetheless, I have found it to be true in my own life as well that there are devils to lure you down narrow paths as well as wide ones. Self-denial and self-mortification can, in an odd way, serve selfish ends as well as altruistic ones. I was thinking about this while reading a news feature today on the weird cult of “Ana.” It seems that for some girls anorexia has gone beyond the desire to please men or society and become a sort of intra-female bonding-cum-rebellion.
The article also reminded me of a discussion over at Hugo’s about how girls and women try slavishly to please others and so, Hugo thought, ought to think more about pleasing themselves. The idea that women give too much has become a standard in feminist circles. But I argued (not very successfully, as I recall) that the problem with the sort of behavior they were talking about wasn’t that it was too giving, but that the giving was ultimately self-interested. After all, why do women want to please men? A lot of the time, because they want something out of them — admiration, love, sex, commitment, or a combination of the above. These are not unreasonable things to want, and people should not have to starve themselves or whatever to get them. But they are wants for self, and as such the contortions that people go through to get them, however self-punishing, are not truly altruistic.
So I have a bit of a problem with the idea that the solution for people who do too much of this is to loosen up and accept a little self-indulgence. Such self-denial may be, in the Augustinian sense, a right impulse misdirected, so perhaps a better approach would be to find a suitable outlet for their discipline. Perhaps some of the Ana worshippers are nuns in waiting. Who knows?
I think Luther’s valuable contribution here was to remove the self-interest from good works. Doing good strictly in order to get yourself into heaven does not seem like what Jesus had in mind. So Luther said, look, you are already saved by faith, so that should not be your motivator. (Luther lived in a time and place where almost everyone believed in Jesus, so the opposite problem that we moderns have — how to view people who do good works but don’t have faith — would probably not have been an issue.) Yet self-protection for eternity, as Dwight puts it, is still ultimately about self. It’s one thing to know you’re saved just to get that concern out of the way. It’s another to go on rejoicing in it as if that were all that was required of you.