Front Lines


[1] On the refrigerator of the Community of Christ in the City in Manhattan, where Richard John Neuhaus lived and worked for decades, amid all the photos and postcards and whatever else the various residents collected that magnets and tape could affix to an open space, there was a little scrap of paper, turning brown with age, with a type-written quotation from Hermann Melville’s Clarel.  

“Rome and the Atheist have gained :
These two shall fight it out—these two ;
Protestantism being retained
For base of operations sly
By Atheism."

[2] At first this might seem like somewhat of an offensive quotation to display in a place founded by Lutherans and which continued to serve as a home and gathering place for both Lutherans and Catholics before and after Neuhaus converted to Rome. But I doubt anyone was offended for the simple reason that Lutherans, especially those of the evangelical catholic stripe, don’t understand themselves as Protestants.

[3] We aren’t Roman Catholics, to be sure, but we are on the side of Rome, our separation from Rome is on behalf of Christ and the Church, including Rome, in order that, in the final showdown of Melville’s quote, the side of Rome, the larger “Great Tradition” of Christianity be properly armed with the Gospel. In this respect, fans of Lord of the Rings might think of Lutherans like Eomer, the exiled prince of Rohan whose very loyalty to his kingdom forces him into rebellion and exile until such time as his uncle, King Theoden, should come to his senses, so to speak, reject the traitor Saruman, and reign properly as king. Roman Catholics, no doubt, can find reason to be offended by that comparison, but so it goes between Roman Catholics and evangelical catholics. We both know that in the big picture we’re on the same side, but the main mutual loyalty and the lesser split loyalties maintain an interesting interplay.


[4] With all the dispiriting fracturing of Christianity, one source of hope and a picture of unity comes from the aptly chosen metaphor in the title of A Report from the Front Lines, a collection of essays published as a festschrift in honor of Robert Benne. The idea of an ongoing battle, of front lines where right and wrong and (perhaps eschatologically as per Melville) between the Church of Christ and the forces of unbelief highlights two of the central themes of A Report from the Front Lines. First, there truly is an essential but often unrealized unity of the fractured Church when everything gets reduced to two sides. And secondly, this unity and purpose of the Church manifests itself not in abstractions but in concrete engagement with the world, at the front lines where real decisions and actions have real consequences.

[5] In defending his claim that Christianity was recognizably one thing despite all the contrary doctrines, competing institutions, and even animosities between Christians, C.S. Lewis said the key is to see it from the side of its enemies. Those who hate the Church can smell it wherever it is, and it all smells more or less the same to them. To a normal person, roadkill smells, whether it is raccoon or squirrel or rabbit. Conversely, to an anti-Christian, Christianity smells whether it is Roman, Puritan, Fundamentalist, or Lutheran. This fact amused Lewis when he read some atheistic tirade against, for example, the insidious popery of Milton. To advocates of the Great Tradition, the atheists’ perspective allows Christians to see our divisions in better and more hopeful light.

[6] Beyond that unity amid divisions, the “front lines” metaphor also speaks to the need for engagement. Concrete engagement of the church with the world requires specific issues and ultimately deals more with actions than doctrines. Benne has been at the forefront, along with Neuhaus and many others, in making sure the church did not retreat from or ignore or define itself apart from its public role, public referring to much more than simply Washington politics. What those specific issues might be can change a great deal over time and place, but they are always areas in which the Church witnesses to and potentially transforms the society in recognizable ways—traditions, policies, institutions, customs, laws—public things, visible things. And the witness and/or transformation happens in ways offensive to the those manning the other side of Benne’s front lines, the forces of unbelief.

[7] If we accept as a premise Melville’s “these two shall fight it out—these two,” then, of course, several things follow. Christians must think and behave in ways formed by and in concert with the Great Tradition (including, of course, Rome), which means Lutherans must not be sectarian and excessively cut off from the rest of Christianity. Lutherans must also be willing to “fight it out” meaning not merely willing to hold a private Lutheran philosophy in our personal lives but understand the call to corporate engagement as intrinsic to our faith. Robert Benne’s tireless (to the point of earning a festschrift) championing of Lutheranism that it not sectarian and aloof from the Great Tradition, not abstract and unengaged with real issues, not ecumenical to the point of losing Lutheran distinctiveness, and certainly not actively opposed to the Great tradition has made him the honoree of this festschrift but also often left him in some ways churchless. No actual Lutheran body in the United States has dedicated itself to the same vision.

[8] Benne once wrote in First Things about the curious position of being invited as a theologian of the ELCA to speak at a seminary of the LCMS. He wrote about how he found kindred spirits (in many ways) there at the seminary of the more conservative church body but could not fail to notice the distinct sectarian atmosphere with a certain pugnacious attitude of delighting in that separation. The LCMS certainly stands within the Great Tradition, but, the complaint often goes, directs its energies toward keeping separate, policing itself and the other churches along strict lines of its own peculiar and quirky orthodoxy more than standing shoulder to shoulder with the Great Tradition of Christianity in common mission. It is like having an ally that rejects having allies; the LCMS has a well-earned reputation as a loose cannon on the side of the Great Tradition. If and when Melville is proven correct and Rome and the Atheist fight it out, the LCMS will stand squarely with Rome and the Great Tradition, rejoicing in the assumption that Rome has finally come home to Missouri.

[9] Much more problematically, on the actual issues of our time and place, notably life issues and family/sexuality issues, liberal Protestantism seems to have taken its stand on the other side of the front lines, actually opposing the Great Tradition. And the ELCA seems to have something of an obsession about becoming indistinguishable from liberal Protestantism, especially if this year’s Churchwide Assembly goes as expected in favor of the revisionists who believe in blessing gay marriages. If Benne could not squeeze himself into the narrow confines of the LCMS, at least he knew he was looking at an ally, if a somewhat eccentric ally. Yet he doesn’t even get invited to speak to ELCA seminaries despite being in the ELCA himself. It is a strange kind of homelessness these days for evangelical catholics like Benne amid the available institutions of American Lutheranism.

[10] If it seems harsh to say that mainline Protestantism is rapidly ceasing to be an ally of the Great Tradition of Christianity, just look at the two hotly debated issues of our time and place—part of the front lines, if you will: abortion and homosexuality. Christians of all stripes—Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Evangelical—essentially all those who smell like Christians to an unbeliever speak with one voice on the nature of abortion and the nature of sodomy. Both behaviors, they would say, are incompatible with Christianity and therefore incompatible with love, justice and a fully informed view of the nature of mankind. In practical terms (though painting with an admittedly broad brush), there is a Christian position on these issues and an unbeliever’s position. And then there is the mainline position, which is the unbeliever’s position under the banner of the Christianity. Whatever else a person might think about Melville’s quote, the idea of Protestantism becoming Atheism’s “base of operations sly” is worth thinking about in the context of the American mainline. Consider: if the current Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church were to pay a visit to the front lines, which side of the line would hail the presence of an ally? It is a tough question, and cause for alarm for Lutherans who must watch the ELCA being absorbed into mainline Protestantism.

[11] Thankfully, the fourteen contributors to the festschrift for Benne, though they do not represent any one institution or even denomination, nevertheless show that Benne is not alone. True, his vision of an evangelical catholic Lutheranism fully engaged with the world does not at this time have institutional form, but it nevertheless has vitality and staying power as a vision despite its institutional homelessness and is shared by many heavyweights of the ELCA, LCMS, and well-wishers from elsewhere in the Great Tradition. The contributors represent Benne’s church home—evangelical catholic Lutheranism in the Great Tradition of Christianity and active at the front lines.

[12] All of the essays in the collection touch upon major themes of Benne’s work, especially relating to the role of theology in the public square and the problems and promise of Lutheran distinctives in the realm of Christian ethics. All are well worth reading, but I want to focus on only three, largely because I write from the perspective of an LCMS pastor and three of the contributors have strong LCMS connections and represent the only three whom I know personally, albeit slightly.

[13] Neuhaus (full disclosure: I am the late Neuhaus’ nephew) contributes a reflection called “Attending to the Business That Is Ours” on the often parallel path that Benne and Neuhaus took in arguing for a greater role for religion in public life. He describes the painful realization that allies we must be willing to adjust whom we refer to as “we” and the “they” in any public discussion. He writes, “It is a mark of the intellectual integrity and courage of people such as Robert Benne that they were not intimidated when the formerly taken-for-granted ‘we’ accused them of having taken the side of the ‘they’.” In light of Benne’s travails in the ELCA, he is likely to derive a lot of comfort from Neuhaus’ words. Neuhaus began in the LCMS and went through the ELCA to Rome, but irrespective of those affiliations remained part of the non-institutional church of evangelical catholics engaged with the world with which Benne is allied.

[14] Jim Neuchterlein shares Benne’s sense of homelessness and writes about “The Lutheran Difference” which argues that the indelible cultural fact of being Lutheran through and through helps him to retain that identity amid and among the various Lutheran bodies. He grew up in the LCMS and has been members of ten congregations of a variety of Lutheran bodies, not choosing them on the basis of synodical affiliation. The article offers something of a personal remembrance, a journey through Lutheranism and how Neuchterlein arrived at being the small c catholic that he is today, especially detailing frustrations with the current LCMS and ELCA. He tells how working with the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau (full disclosure: I also work on the side for the ALPB and in fact grew up attending the same church and schools as the Neuchterlein family. It is a small synod.) helped him to discover an evangelical catholic Lutheranism that transcends denominational form. He admits to the melancholy of ecclesial homelessness as an evangelical catholic, but ultimately cannot follow his many friends who have to Rome. In Neuchterlein, Benne has somehow who understands the feeling.


[15] Gilbert Meilander (who also attends my childhood church, Immanuel in Valparaiso) contributes “The Lutheran Corrective” in which he addresses the difficulty Lutherans seem to have in establishing institutions with staying power as recognizably Lutheran institutions. He posits that institutional Lutheranism too often institutionalizes that which is distinctively Lutheran at the expense of that which is commonly part of the Great Tradition of Christianity. In other words, we take what we do not hold in common with other Christians and then extrapolate an entire theological universe from there, which has the unexpected effect over time of rendering these institutions unrecognizable as Lutheran. More often than not the strategy yields a thoroughly worldly second generation institution. Meilander looks especially at Benne’s book on Christian universities “Quality With Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions”. One of the six schools Benne examines therein is Valparaiso University, where Meilander teaches. Meilander looks partly at the history of Valpo and partly the history of Lutheranism more generally to see how a proper understanding of Lutheranism as a corrective to Roman Catholicism but nevertheless a fellow inheritor and representative of the Great Tradition vs. an improper understanding of Lutheranism apart from that tradition affects our views of, among other issues, abortion. Without question, Meilander’s Lutheranism requires a greater context of the Great Tradition of Christianity in order to make sense of any particular issues confront the churches today.

[16] The 14 contributors come from the LCMS, ELCA, Rome, and Protestantism, but I think an unbeliever would likely say they all smell the same. Robert Benne can take comfort not in being the subject of a festschrift (though that is no small feat) but in being surrounded by fellow believers manning the front lines. When institutional Lutheranism disappoints, as it so often does, and Benne feels homeless and alone, he need can take comfort in this book both for all the excellent points the contributors make, and more importantly, for the fact of the contributors and the evangelical catholic church they represent. 




© November 2009
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 9, Issue 11