Reverse the tone, please.

In the current issue of Christian Century Robert W. Jenson has a piece called Reversals (found on pgs 30-33, but not available online).  It is part of a series that CC is running in which theologians are asked "to reflect on their own struggles, disappointments, questions and hopes as people of faith and to consider how their work and life have been intertwined."  Dr. Jenson taught at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg during most of the 70s and 80s, and at St Olaf College during much of the 90s.  In 1991 he formed the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology with Carl Braaten.

Reversals is a somewhat wandering piece in which Jenson touches on the changes that have taken place in his approach to ecumenical relations and Jewish-Christian discourse, the nature of the church, and his relationship with institutional Lutheranism.  He articulately states his desire to see Christian churches recognize each other's sacraments as authentic and open to other Christians.  He writes with concern about the growth of antinomianism within the church and a reduction of the Gospel, which he describes as "a narrative that makes a promise, the story of Jesus in Israel."  And he expresses hope for authentic Jewish-Christian relationship.  There is not much disagreement here.

But …

But a throw-away phrase reveals his disregard for contemporary society and the contemporary church.  In describing how he met his wife, he tells about their first date.  "Our first date – one had such things then – devolved into an argument about the World Council of Churches."  One had such things then?  These words reveal an idealization of the past and an understanding of contemporary society that is simplistically critical.  Does he think that people don't go on dates any longer?  This is the kind of condescension that folks like me – who had a first date that included theological debate, thank you very much – don't need.

But more.  I'm pretty certain that the West isn't "slouch[ing] toward nihilism" any more today than it was 50 or 100 years ago.  His reference to a "late-modern sexual chaos" assumes that sexual ethics were much more ordered in a time gone by – when homosexuals were forced to remain in the closet and unable to pursue intimate, loving relationships; when the power-dynamic within married relationships allowed for and encouraged the economic, sexual, emotional, and physical dominance – if not abuse – by the husband; and when women who were emotionally or physically battered had few opportunities for release from their captivity.

Apart from his mischaracterization of contemporary society, I do have other substantial disagreements with Dr. Jenson.  On
ecumenism, for example, I have little desire to see the church unified
under the Bishop of Rome.  If a unity of structure and oversight is to
be achieved, a broad, conciliar model would be preferable.  And in terms of
human sexuality, I am part of a generation that has reconciled Biblical
teaching and the traditions of the church with the God-given authenticity
of homosexual identity and love.  On these matters he and I differ. 

But substantial differences are matters that can be discussed and debated in a spirit of collegiality, particularly when there are many areas of common concern (see second paragraph, above).  Yet I don't sense that spirit with him.  What I hear from him is a disdain and a dismissive attitude that prevent me – and I doubt I'm alone on this score – from hearing the wisdom and insight he surely has to share.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

10 thoughts on “Reverse the tone, please.

  1. Sam – 2 Tim 4:2 – “proclaim the message; be persistent … convince, rebuke and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.”

  2. Prov 8:32-33 – “Now therefore, listen to me, my children, for blessed are those who keep my ways. Hear instruction and be wise, and do not disdain it.”
    This is fun!

  3. Agreed, Chris – I felt the same way. You’d think that after so many years in ecumenical circles, a little more charity toward differences would be apparent.

  4. Bluntly, Jenson is getting old and as we get older we all tend to romanticize the past. Part of the reason for that, I suspect, is that having been conditioned by the past we are unable to comprehend the changes that each new generation makes.
    I completely agree with your analysis of the progress we’ve made in relation to socially-imposed bondage. At the same time, I think it is indisputable that Christianity (on both sides of the sexuality debates) is slipping into antinomianism. On the one side, we are categorically rejecting any possibility that God wants to restrict us in any way. On the other side, we are setting up hard-and-fast rules which are to be followed without question but are “neglect[ing] the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” (Mt. 23:23)
    Unfortunately, we argue and bicker over the obvious points and never get to the deeper and more useful roots of the discussion. This may be, as you suggest, because of the tone at the surface level.

  5. Sure, he romanticizes the past like any other grandfather, but let us be cautious in our own generational biases.

  6. What I hear from him is a disdain and a dismissive attitude that prevent me … from hearing the wisdom and insight he surely has to share.
    I haven’t read the Jenson article, but surely his attitude cannot prevent you from hearing the good (if any) in what he has to say. Only your attitude can affect your ability to analyze his writing with sympathy and understanding.
    Frankly, if you attribute his adherence to the traditional teaching on sexuality only to a misguided nostalgia for a past that never existed, rather than to a thoughtful and principled loyalty to the tradition that is given to us (not created by us), then it is not Jenson who is being condescending. Belonging to a generation that has reconciled Biblical teaching and the traditions of the church with the God-given authenticity of homosexual identity and love does not give you the right to privilege the opinions of your generation over the wisdom of previous generations from whom you have received the precious treasure of the Gospel. For you to think that it does so is breathtakingly condescending.
    Or, as Robb more succinctly put it, “let us be cautious in our own generational biases.”

  7. Thanks, all, for the comments.
    I’ve had this conversation with some folks who have known Dr. Jenson for years, and they tell me that the strong tone I detect in this article is not a function of his age or generational issues, but is simply part of who he is. So perhaps I’ve read a generational issue into a conflict that has more basis in personality types than anything else. Sigh.
    @Christoper – While I do think Jenson has a misguided nostalgia for a past that never quite existed, I don’t attribute his commitment to the traditional teaching on sexuality to that nostalgia. I respect his commitment to the traditional teaching, even if I disagree. Where I have a problem is with the way he characterizes today’s situation – as if sin and moral chaos is increasing at rates not seen in past generations. Give me a break.
    Robb and Christopher are right to caution about generational biases. I/we need to be careful about assuming that our generation has it right and all past generations have it wrong. (I’ll admit to being guilty as charged.) When we get older, we’ll have to be careful not to assume that those in subsequent generations are all misguided, either.
    Yet does a deep respect for past generations keep us from rightly labeling progress where we’ve seen it (race relations, women’s rights, etc.), problems where we’ve seen them (the infatuation with contemporary worship that has largely been a project of the Baby Boomers) or for defending ourselves when we feel that our generation has been maligned? It shouldn’t.

  8. Chris,
    “Tone” is a persistent problem for the Lutheran CORE and WordAlone spokesfolk. Their latest theological missive from J. Larry Yoder claims the ELCA is guilty of error, heresy, apostasy, and now rejects the authority of God. Shall we turn our cheeks or stand up to the beach bully who kicks sand in our face?

  9. “And in terms of human sexuality, I am part of a generation that has reconciled Biblical teaching and the traditions of the church with the God-given authenticity of homosexual identity and love. On these matters he and I differ.”
    I would love to here more on how you reconcile bible, tradition and homosexuality.
    as a Lutheran christian like yourself, I would hope that you would start here….

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: