I recently conducted an interview with an openly gay Lutheran minister. We discussed the philosophy of religion and specifically how he conceives of the divine. As part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, one would expect the pastor to stick to certain dogmatic truths – but what I found is that his conception of faith is much more fluid and malleable than I anticipated it to be.
The pastor began by saying that, “Lutherans, when we’re at our best self-understanding, say that Christianity isn’t a religion.” Here he is working off of the definition of religion being a means by which humanity phenomenologically manipulates the god or gods. God neither can be nor need be manipulated by humans to the Lutheran conception. While this is perhaps simply a semantic distinction, it does provide us with a hint as to how and why Lutheran faith works as it does.
God is “radical love, radical acceptance, radical good.” Like Demea in Hume’s Dialogues, the pastor does not think that God is something that we can know through empiricism. He believes that God exists because the story makes sense to him; belief in God is dependent on faith. He does not rely on Plato’s cosmological argument, Anselm’s ontological argument, or the argument from design (expressed so well by Hume). Beyond God’s existence our pastor doesn’t believe that one can even conceive of God’s nature through empiricism. God, and all that is God, is outside the realm of human understanding. The only way we can know God is through the person of Jesus Christ.
All of the pastor’s theology is based on the foundational belief that God is good. In epistemology there exists a notion of foundationalism which says that in order to know anything we must first accept a foundational belief – namely reason. But reason as a foundational belief is less problematic than ‘God is good’. One can, when pressed, express why it is acceptable and even preferable to use reason as a foundation. Reason, in a sense, finds itself reasonable – which while not the most perfect form of evidence does give us some understanding about the nature of reason. Blanket statements about God’s nature on the other hand require a leap of faith, so to speak. It simply does not have a basis in the same way in which rationalism has a basis. All we know is what we are capable of perceiving through our senses and so any statement that is not a product of our sensual stimuli is speculative at best. When asked where he gets his foundational beliefs the pastor replies, “Here’s where you end up going in a circle. I would say that that does come from the story. And where is the story in scripture? And so, one of the wonderful things to me about the whole Lutheran tradition is we say, ‘you know we do pick and choose’.” He continues to say that they “choose to give primacy to those things that are about the God who says, ‘I’d rather die than raise my hand in vengeance.’”
Jesus personifies love and forgiveness – and those qualities then become the mold into which we pour the God of the Bible. All that is love and forgiveness becomes god and all that doesn’t fit in the mold we throw out. But which parts of the Bible do we accept and which do we reject? The pastor cites Luther and analogizes the Bible to the manger that held Christ. The Bible contains Christ in just that way. And like an actual manger the Bible contains, “shit and piss.” Morality is something that the pastor sees as distinct from faith. He says that the church’s business is forgiveness and that it is the state’s job to judge. The individual uses “informed conscience” to reason to a moral stance.
Morality is not a rigid, black and white system to the Lutherans. Mostly it is a business of picking the lesser of evils. The church, for instance, reasons that abortion is a bad thing. They also reason though that sometimes it is the lesser of evils – and therefore their position is one where they work to make abortions both rare and safe.
To say that judgment is not the place of a Christian church may seem antithetical to the modern conception of Christian belief. This Lutheran pastor however characterizes God’s attitude towards humanity this way: “Humanity is guilty as hell, but guess what, I’ve gone out of the judgment business . . . I’ve decided that everyone gets into My banquet.” This emphasizes the importance of natural morality because it essentially removes morality as motivation. If everyone is already forgiven than morality is not a prerequisite for entry into heaven.
On the question of evil the pastor gives a simple answer: “I don’t know”. He acknowledges that evil is present in the world (unlike Hume’s Demea), but does not blame God for said evil. He trusts that God is perfectly benevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent. How that can be when there is evil in the world is something he chalks up to being beyond human understanding.
“Reason,” he says, “leads us to atheism.” He argues though that there are more ways of knowing than just through reason. Ultimately this is the point of divergence between the theist and the atheist. Epistemological foundationalism is a subject that is beyond the scope of this article, suffice it to say that it is a topic that is hotly debated.