Who’s Fooling Whom?: Reflections on David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale, 2009)

(This entry is again a piece written at the invitation of the editors of “Thursday Theology,” a publication of the Crossings Community in St. Louis.)

Long ago and far away, my seminary graduating class gathered for its farewell banquet. The featured speaker was famed Reformation historian Lewis Spitz, Jr., of Stanford University. I shall never forget an epigram he shared during his after-dinner speech: “Let me write a nation’s history, and you may write its laws.” His point is that who we are and understand ourselves to be is in fundamental ways a function of our understanding of our history.

Such is the premise of David Bentley Hart’s 2009 work. The title is a mash-up of the titles of two well-known books: Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (2006) and Friedrich Schleiermacher’s On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers (1799 et seq.). It is clear from the very first page that “New Atheists” like Dawkins are squarely in the crosshairs of Hart’s argument, and while Schleiermacher is never cited by name, Hart definitely writes in the tradition of one who sees the decline in the influence of religion (and specifically of Christianity) and wants to push back—hard. (Moreover, to confirm the Schleiermacher allusion beyond doubt, he even refers to his opponents as “cultured despisers” [p. 19].)

Hart’s “essay” (his term) pursues a historical path, seeking to show that the rise of Christianity was a “revolution” unlike any other in the West and that, despite undeniable abuses and betrayals along the way, it has proven of unique and inestimable worth. To this end, he focuses particularly on the changes that he believes the faith worked in the “pagan” Roman Empire during late antiquity.

Put negatively, Hart’s purpose is to disabuse the reader of what he terms the myth that the Christian West engaged in wholesale rejection (and even destruction) of the wisdom of Greece and Rome.  In this myth, the Christian West is therefore responsible for bringing on a “Dark Ages” that persisted from the decline and fall of the (Western) Roman Empire to the recovery of classical knowledge during the Renaissance. Hart bookends his work with bare-knuckled polemic against moderns like Dawkins and others of his ilk for failures philosophical, logical, theological, and, above all, historical.

There are times, to be sure, when Hart appears to want it both ways in his description of the role of Christianity in the emergence of modernity’s achievements, especially in the pure and applied sciences. Sometimes he argues that, far from destroying (or losing) the legacy of ancient, classical wisdom, Christian institutions preserved it (especially in monasteries and mediated by the Byzantine realms). At other times, he holds that it was precisely in forgetting the assumptions of the past (above all, of Aristotle) that real progress was enabled.

Above all, Hart appears concerned to defend institutional, medieval Western Christianity against the charges of superstition and the suppression of freedoms. In fact, he avers, it was only as the modern state emerged from beneath the aegis of the Church that the truly horrific (and scientific!) manifestations of warfare developed. Thus, he holds that the “wars of religion” of early modernity were not primarily religious at all. They were rooted in the development of the unfettered secular state and, in Josef Goebbels’s infamous phrase, of “total war.” (Hart’s concurrent claim that the Protestant Reformation succeeded only because it was in the interest of supportive princes betrays a simplified notion of causality that is, in my view, all too common in the book [p. 90].)

Hart’s contention is that a modern obsession with the “triumph of the will” (his phrase, p. 224) fails to take into consideration the morality of objects of free choice. As a result, the West is in danger of losing the underpinnings for the charity that, he says, represents Christianity’s most distinctive contribution to the world. (He uses “charity” in its classical sense. Charity is not merely gifts to those in need, but inclusive of all acts of mercy, especially as found in institutional settings such as hospitals and orphanages.)

Of most particular interest to me was Hart’s claim that it was medieval Western universities that enabled the “great leap forward” (my phrase) in matters “scientific, technical, and theoretical” (p. 71). No doubt, my interest is in large part piqued by my having spent my career as a teacher/scholar and administrator in Lutheran Christian institutions of higher education. To the extent that my students were aware of the overarching story of the history of the West, they did likely hold to the narrative that Hart seeks to debunk. (In part, this may be a function of the tendency among Lutherans to skip in one bound from the apostolic age to the Reformation era, leaving a dark hole, if not Dark Ages, in between.) On the other hand, students acquainted with history on such a grand scale were all too few.

More seriously for Hart, especially the second generation of students whom I taught (following a score of years focused chiefly on senior administration) were chiefly imbued with a perspective that the author hardly mentions: post-modernism. Thus, I got some hints that students argued over religious matters outside of class. A few Roman Catholic students complained to me about being hounded by more exclusivist Lutheran peers at Valparaiso University. But for the most part, relativism vis-à-vis others’ beliefs was the order of the day, such that what class discussions lacked in intensity they gained in civility.

I tried to set a tone that allowed students of all persuasions—and none—to feel comfortable expressing their convictions by telling them on the first day of class that I was a pastor, but not their pastor. I was their professor. The upshot, at least as reflected in student evaluations of instruction, was plaudits even by self-proclaimed atheists and agnostics that the courses were both fair and interesting. I suspect (without having tried it) that a teaching style that displayed the polemical bite of Hart would not have been as well-received, if for no other reason that students by and large seemed to have absorbed our culture’s stance that faith is a private matter.

It is for that reason that I wish Hart had written a somewhat different book (even as I acknowledge that it is the cheapest trick of book reviewers to complain that a work is not the one that they themselves would have written). Hart’s essay is above all a fascinating work of broad-brush historiography, as it offers an alternative to what is doubtlessly the default understanding of the history of the West.

I certainly appreciated and concurred with his insistence on holding faith and reason together, as mutually illuminating. Where I most wish Hart had said more is as regards the future. He mentions the worldwide claims and presence of Christianity in the Southern Hemisphere (where these days the faith is expanding most rapidly), but only on the last page. What comes through most clearly is a gloomy assessment of the twilight of Christendom, which he explicitly compares to the fade-out of Roman paganism in the face of Christianity’s rise. He does hold out a general hope that something analogous to the desert ascetics of the fourth century of our era might spur a renewal. But what I longed for was some clearer idea of what my students and I might actually do to make a difference.

Lights from Above

Lately, I’ve been wrapping up my days by watching the five-season run of a series that first appeared on TV from 2006-2010: “Friday Night Lights.” The story line follows the coaches, players, and other high school students in the football-mad West Texas town of Dillon. Relatively little of the action is directly on the field. Rather, it’s the interrelationships of the characters and the various issues that they face that are the focus.

It’s not great literature and was not terribly successful TV, although it was critically acclaimed in its day. What I was totally unprepared for was how captivated I have been: those characters and their issues have come to matter for me—not at all a typical reaction on my part. I think about them, even when I’m not watching. I actually care for them.

It’s got me wondering why. I don’t think it’s a hankering for the good old days at Southern High. They ended more than fifty years ago now, and like many adults (especially those fortunate enough to have attended college), those are anything but golden years in my memory. I have fond recollections of certain teachers and classmates, but chiefly I recall the never-quite-belonging-awkwardness of moving to southern Maryland at the beginning of seventh grade, never quite to enjoy “in” status for the six years thereafter.

As for football, I stuck it out for all four years. At the time, I told myself that it was good for me to force myself to do something at which I was not naturally gifted, as I was in academics. But what sticks out most are memories of constant pain (I played my senior year with two open blisters on each heel) and the humiliation of a kid whose career topped out as captain of the junior varsity in the tenth grade. In fact the main benefit in retrospect was likely that I mixed deeply with students who weren’t in my classes. Today we’d call it the value of diversity. Back then, it led me to cross cultural lines that seemed set in stone.

So what about “Friday Night Lights” has gotten under my skin? Having now finished two of the five seasons, I’ve got my suspicions. By this point in the series, every single major character with the possible exception of the mother of one of the football players has displayed major flaws that prevent me from assigning them identities as “good guys” or “bad guys.” Rather, they’re like the people at my high school and the people with whom I’ve lived and dealt for the past fifty-plus years. They screw up. They self-sabotage. They hurt each other. They use each other. And some part ways in a manner that I suspect will not be healed over the course of the last three seasons.

That makes them real. What injects them under my skin, I think, is not simply the pain of identification with their failures, but also the regular appearance of grace, when one character who has wronged or hurt another says, “I’m sorry.” Apologies don’t heal all ills any more in the show than in real life. Some cuts are too deep for that, at least in the near term. But they do inject a note of hope—even a ray of light—in the Pandora’s Box that is Dillon, Texas, and my own life wherever I go.

Law/Gospel and the Life of the Mind

Herewith is the second “Thursday Theology” column written for the Crossings Community in St. Louis:

Recently, I completed a dictionary article on the same subject on which I had written my Ph.D. dissertation almost forty years ago—sort of an academic version of the “circle of life,” I suppose. Without belaboring the particulars (it was on the Old Testament god of child sacrifice, Moloch, if you really want to know), the experience opened my eyes to something that I had not clearly articulated to myself before: two score years have left me less sure of my own position on the subject and more sympathetic to the arguments of my opponents. Whether that is a function of aging wearing me down or the accumulation of some measure of wisdom is worth a moment’s reflection, I think.

It is here—on what seems on the surface to be an utterly secular issue—that the law/gospel distinction may provide help. The law constantly reminds me that I can never, ever perfectly grasp or articulate anything this side of heaven. It is for that reason that, throughout my career as an academic administrator and teacher/scholar, I have argued for both academic freedom and diversity of viewpoints. We benefit both from the ability to hazard ideas and from the insights that others who are differently situated from ourselves bring to matters from their own angles, even (or perhaps especially) if they argue with us. The fact is that all of us are smarter than any of us. But even all of us do not ever get it quite right.

On the other hand, the gospel frees me (and us) from the need to be perfect or even right—in my studies as much as anywhere else in my life. So, I can test out ideas without fear of judgment (at least from God). My errors in scholarship can be laid at the foot of the cross as surely as my moral failings.

So what accounts for my lessened certainty in the positions that I took nearly forty years ago and for my greater sympathy with the arguments of others? Part of it is a certain amount of learned humility, I suspect. I have come to see the wisdom of the advice of Oliver Cromwell (of all people): “I beseech you by the bowels of Christ to bethink yourselves that you might be wrong.” In my experience, theologians, myself very much included, are in particular need of such self-reflection. It is something of the academic equivalent of our Lord’s remarks on beams and motes in our eyes and those of others.

But wherein lies the value of the law/gospel distinction in this instance? The law both demands and invites us to progress on what I have termed (inspired by James Fowler and others) the stages of spiritual maturity. At Stage One we are utterly certain of our own correctness and of others’ errors. Tragically, some never progress beyond this perspective. Stage Two is the polar opposite: utter relativism, as in, I have my views; you’ve got yours; who’s to know? This, too, may be a stopping point for some at the opposite end of the scale from Stage One. But it is, I believe, intellectual cowardice.

It is Stage Three to which the law would press me. I call it confessional pluralism, by which I mean this: at any given time I have my views and reasons for them, but I engage in dialog with others on the terms that I am open to persuasion to the contrary, just as my dialog partners are with me.

It is the gospel that makes confessional pluralism possible, because the ultimate stakes are not being right, but furthering our pursuit of what Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr., once called “the simplicity on the far side of complexity.” In the case of my recent article, I maintained the same basic position that I took “back in the day,” and I have my reasons for it. However, I felt compelled to conclude the historical review of the scholarship on the topic since then with summaries of two scholars’ work who oppose me (by name, no less).

None of the foregoing is meant to endorse anything but the most rigorous scholarship, employing our highest and best skills over a lifetime. We owe that to God as part of “worship the Lord your God with all your mind.” Rather, it is one of those “at the end of the day” realities. If one is called to a life of the mind as a life’s vocation, you have to know going in—and even more going out—that it is the pursuit of truth that is your calling, not the possession of it. The latter lies solely in the being of the one who is Truth. In theology we do our best in conversation with centuries of those who have preceded us, with our contemporaries, and, implicitly, with all who will follow. Still, at long and final last, our sole desired outcome lies outside and beyond ourselves and our intellectual strivings, either individually or collectively. It is to join a host that stands before God, “lost in wonder, love, and praise.”

No Ordinary Ordinary Time

I recently discovered the post that follows in my computer file of blog entries. I wrote it back in June of 2020, but somehow never posted it. I do so now, as we remain in extraordinary times and as we shall soon re-enter the season of the year about which I wrote. (I have not edited or updated it.)

For Christians who follow a church-year calendar, there are traditionally two halves of the year: “The Time of Our Lord” (running usually from late November to mid-June), in which the Bible readings for each Sunday recount the life of Jesus; and “The Time of the Church” (basically, the summer and fall), in which the focus is on life and growth of Christian believers, both individually and in groups. Green (symbolic of growth) is the liturgical color during the latter, for months on end. During my lifetime, Sundays in this half of the year have variously been termed “Sundays after Trinity” (i.e., the Sunday in which God’s threeness-in-oneness is affirmed and celebrated), then “Sundays after Pentecost” (the Sunday before Trinity Sunday, when the gift of the Holy Spirit that initiated the Christian Church is recalled). Recently, yet a third term has come into widespread use among Protestants who observe such things, a term borrowed from the Roman Catholic tradition: “Ordinary Time.” The term derives from the ordinal numbers that are used to designate the Sundays, “Nth Sunday in Ordinary Time.”

Still, I’ll admit that the usage clangs in my ear this time around. There’s been nothing “ordinary” whatsoever about the Year of Our Lord 2020 to this point, and the prospects for a resumption of ordinary (or, as most folks call it, “normal”) in the near term seem bleak. According to the experts whom I’m reading these days, we are not yet in the second wave of the coronavirus in the U.S., because we’re still in the midst of the first wave. There is the growing realization that said first wave is disproportionately affecting our poorer fellow-citizens, often those of color. Our leaders at the state and local levels are caught in a tug-of-war between those who really would as soon stay as locked-down as possible until there’s a vaccine and those who really feel a need to resume commerce (or who are just sick of being cooped up). Then there are the killings of blacks by police and the resultant protests—most of them peaceful—calling for a reconsideration of the proper role and function of law enforcement. And, oh yes, there’s a presidential election campaign just getting underway, and in the meantime the incumbent for at least the next seven months is—to put this as neutrally as possible—the most eccentric in American history.

So this is no ordinary Ordinary Time. Because the usual Ordinary Time (a.k.a. “the warm months” in these parts) is when most people get to do the special things, like take a break from their workaday lives and go on vacation. But this year many of us are already home (even if working) and “socially distancing” from friends and even the family with whom we would normally be gathering in this season. As a result, the “ordinary” and the “special” seem flipped on their heads.

So what’s to think or do about it?

“What If” as Tool for Law/Gospel Distinction

Recently, I have been invited to contribute occasional columns for the Crossings Community in St. Louis, as part of their “Thursday Theology” series. What follows is the first of those columns. I want to acknowledge the generosity of the Crossings editors for permitting me to copy these columns into my blog.

“What If?” It has to be one of the most devastating and hopeful of questions. Directed to the past, the question can generate regrets, even despair. What if we had made different choices? What if the lots of our lives had fallen differently? What if we had known then what we know now?

By contrast, when the question is directed at the future, it can conjure up possibilities for a different and better reality than we know now. What if we really cared as a society for the values that we lay claim to in documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution? What if, as Christians, we conformed our lives more thoroughly in the mode to which we are called by the Master? What if we could somehow place the interests of our neighbor, or even of the collective “we” of humanity, before our own advantage?

But the issue of contingency is not so easily divided between a disappointing past and a hopeful future. Nowhere is this more evident than in a genre of literature that I find particularly fascinating, viz., contrafactual history (something of a cross between historical fiction and science fiction). Recently, I read an example: Civilizations by Laurent Binet (trans. from French by Sam Taylor; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2021). It’s not great literature (it’s far too plot-driven). But the premise of the story compensates: What If the Spanish conquest of the New World had not gone as planned, but in fact the Incas had taken their ships and invaded Spain and taken possession of the Holy Roman Empire? What If, subsequently, the Aztecs had invaded and ruled France?

The “message” of the book, however, is what provokes these reflections. Binet proposes that the Incan emperor, Atahualpa (historically the last of them), was religiously tolerant in Europe, to the point that he decrees that all shall be allowed to believe (or not) as they see fit. By contrast with the historical conquistadors, the Inca does not impose his faith on the Europeans, save to require that twice a year all must pay tribute to the Sun as supreme. (The strongest resistance that he receives is from native traditionalists who worship the “nailed god.”) What If such openness had been characteristic of historical Europeans as they interacted with the natives of both North and Latin America?

For most Americans and surely for nearly all “progressives,” the question is a no-brainer. Who wants a return to Constantine or the crusades (or the conquistadors)? Hasn’t the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution more than proved its worth (however tricky the details of its application have become)?

Again, I would suggest that it is dangerous to leap to a conclusion, even if that is where we will eventually end up. I would respectfully opine that the issue of “saving the pagans” is more complicated than it first appears.

The Bible itself testifies to a conundrum here. In the Old Testament, what is one to celebrate: Israel’s victories as the faithful people (and army) of God, or their defeats, climactically in the Babylonian exile, which the prophet Exilic Isaiah sees as the means by which God finally works the salvation of the world through his disobedient people (see the “Servant Songs”)? Or in the New Testament, even in the Fourth Gospel alone, which is one to privilege: “No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6b) or “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (Jn 12:32; emphasis added)?

It is here that a proper usage of the lenses of law and gospel is helpful. The law says first that those who do not obey it in every particular have no portion in God and life. Beyond that, the law holds even God to a matrix of obedience:reward::disobedience:punishment. That’s the point, if the law is truly to be reliable and just.

What the gospel contributes is, first of all, freedom for God. In the gospel God refuses to be bound by a matrix (see Hos 11:9b: “For I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath”). What we must reject, however, is that God must violate the matrix or can be cajoled, manipulated, or bribed into acting in mercy. As the Lutheran Augsburg Confession puts it, God works in mercy “ubi et quando visum est Deo” (where and when it pleases God [AC 5]).

The gospel also frees us, especially in this case, from the sin of certainty in uncertain matters. We stand reliant on the promises of God, as, like Peter, we have nowhere else to go (Jn 6:68). For Christians, this entails gratefully clinging to the crucified and risen Christ. But what of others? This is the ultimate challenge of missiology. The best that I can manage is to commend a combination of winsome witness to that same Christ and trust that God loves all as surely as God loves me. Where that leads in the literal end of things is “above my paygrade.” What If that means that more people enjoy the eternal presence of God than my understanding of God’s Scriptural promises allows? Who am I to object? The “how,” as so often in Lutheran theology, eludes us. The “that” is what we affirm, trusting in a God who is both utterly just and utterly merciful, but who has already tipped his hand that mercy is where his heart lies.

In Memoriam, Parentes Mei

Two of my recent postings have been essentially eulogies in memory of my undergraduate alma maters (almae matres?), now both tragically gone. I have been wrestling for some time with whether or not to complete the circle in a rather more personal fashion: to post the eulogies that I was privileged to deliver at my family’s request at the funerals of my mother in 2010 and of my father in 2013. On the one hand, they are necessarily common. I certainly would not want to claim that there is anything unique about my losing parents as opposed to anyone else doing so. On the other hand, they were MY parents, two unique children of God, and this is MY blog. Enough of my readers are personal friends (and even family) that there may be some use in sharing my reflections on those occasions, if only to give this form of immortality to two people whom God was good enough to first allow to bear me (and my siblings) and then to raise us.

This entry will therefore be on the long side, as my blog entries go. If it is not of interest to the reader, please feel no opprobrium in skipping it. What follows is first my remarks at my mother’s funeral, then those at my father’s.







First, a few specific words of thanks are in order.  Pastor Liersemann, both for your years of ministry to our parents and especially for your care for our family over the last few days, including your powerful Gospel proclamation at this service:  thank you.  Pastor Hatcher, to you and the members of St. Paul, Annapolis, thank you for your hospitality today.  This is a homecoming in more ways than one.  In that front pew, I and my sister and my brother sat on our confirmation days.  There in the aisle I sat for my ordination.  There also in the aisle Laura stood for her wedding.  We feel very much welcomed home, as we celebrate our mother’s homegoing.

In addition, we want to acknowledge with thanks our Uncle Bob, my mother’s brother.  You faithfully came and read to Mom the stories of your father and mother, and she treasured those times.  We thank you.  To our Cousin Ernie Clayton who did so much for both of our parents, taking them to appointments when we could not be here, thank you.

And thanks to all of you who joined us in this service today.  Pastors have long observed that one of the downsides of dying at a relatively advanced age is that there are few around to mourn our passing.  Thank you for giving the lie to that old saying by your presence.

One of the wisest of my colleagues at Valparaiso University likes to say that we spend our entire lives, especially as we worship, practicing for what we are doing today.  We need to know our lines and our parts, both when it comes our time to pass through death ourselves and when we accompany others on their final journey.  Today the rehearsals are over.  This is the performance.

My mother practiced for this day all her life.  Just as importantly, she coached others, especially her children.  We three children received many gifts from my father, including his modeling the life of loving husband and father, but it was for us as for so many our mother who was our first Sunday School teacher and teacher of the Christian faith and, more broadly, our comfort and counselor from our earliest age.  Each one of us could give specific examples; I’ll offer but a few from my own life:

●          It was she to whom I took my tears in late elementary school, when I lost the election for the thing I wanted most in the world—to be captain of the Safety Patrol—by one vote.

●          It was she who got me through that first hard year of football in ninth grade at Southern High School by taking me each day after practice for a snow cone.

●          It was she who wrote letters to me at college—yes, in the days long before e-mail.

●          It was she who gasped at Christmas in 1977, when I mentioned on the phone that I’d given the girl I’d been dating for three months—now my wife of 31 years—a ring for Christmas.  It was a nice silver ring with a Christian symbol on it; only the gasp clued me in that she thought it was a different kind of ring.

●          It was she who flew out to Nebraska to help at the birth of our first child.

My stories could continue, and my siblings could add their own.

My mother lived for her family, her church, and in service of others.  She was never so happy as at the family reunions that we held in recent years.  She was a constant volunteer, such as in the library at my brother, Bob’s, elementary school, Carrie Weedon in Galesville.  She is as responsible as anyone for my choice of an academic life, as an exemplar of an inveterate reader, whose intellectual curiosity encouraged asking hard questions and who loved knowledge, but not for its own sake so much as for the sake of others.

Her recent years have been hard, but blessed.  In 1999 she was diagnosed with a cancer that kills you in three years.  Do the math:  the last eight years have been pure gift.  She took an unending interest and pride in her children and grandchildren.  On the last day of her life she expressed appreciation for the care rendered her by the staff at the Hospice of the Chesapeake.  And she was much beloved by those who gave her care at Ginger Cove.  It was to us kids and especially our father that she reserved her constant pleas to “get me out of here,” when we placed her in the health care facility.  As one of the staff said upon learning of her death, at long last she’s not interested in “get me out of here” or “take me home.”  She is home.

I’ll take a risk here, Dad, and mention that one of your pet names for Mom was “Hanover.”  I hope that’s OK, but it’s too late now, regardless.  Anyway, my daughter reminded me that Hanover is, in fact, a very distinguished name.  It was the family name of the Germans who were invited to take the English crown and, sure enough, they gave the world a George I, George II, and George III.  I hesitate to pursue this comparison any further, as that George III was certifiably insane.  In fact, however, the Hanover after whom my mother was named was a horse at a race that Dad and Mom attended before they had children. 

In any event, she’s beaten us all to the finish line.  She has fought the good fight.   She has won the race.  She wears the crown promised to all who persevere to the end.  She is fully in Christ.

Good night, Mom.  Sleep well.  We’ll see you in the morning.





            My father used to remark regularly that he had two sons, both doctors:  one, Robert, was here to bring you into the world, while the other, yours truly, would take you out.  He said that with no little pride in us, of course, but also with just a touch of a reminder that we each had our place and so should not think too highly of ourselves.  And for that we loved him.

            To be sure, it was certain women who were at the center of my father’s life.  When last he and I ever spoke, on Christmas Day, he reminded me that his own mother had died exactly fifty years before, on December 27th, 1962.  As a man who prized symmetry above nearly all things, I’ve got to believe that Dad took special joy in leaving this world on the same day as his mother.  Because even though she had been gone since he was 36, he clearly treasured every thought of her.  Much the same was true of his big sister, Mildred; I know that the first time that I ever saw my father cry was at her funeral in 1993.  My brother and I have long been aware that there was something very special between our dad and our sister, Laura.  Who else could have pleaded with him from Maryland to California and back, “Daddy, can I get my ears pierced?”, and have gotten away with it (actually, I exaggerate:  by Kansas, he had caved).   Seriously, Bob and I are deeply grateful to you, Laura, for stepping up in recent years and making the lion’s share of the trips to Maryland to be first with both of our parents and then, for the past two years, with Dad.  How fitting that he should have died in the comfort of anticipating that he would spend his last days in your home.  Then, first, most, and above all, there was our mother, Doris, for whom his love was undying.  I told him more than once since her passing that his greatest gift to her had been surviving her, and he agreed with me.

            In so many ways, beginning with how he loved his mother, sister, daughter, and wife, Dad mentored me in the ways of being husband and father.  He is the single most important reason that I became a pastor, not by ever once saying that I should, but at a far more fundamental level, by the way he respected and befriended those who were our pastors.  As for his being a model husband, there was never a moment’s doubt in our home that our mother was the love of his life.  To my own children, then, the next time we have one of those moments when I express affection for your mother, and you say, “Get a room,” you can thank Granddad.  As for being a model father, there were obvious memory-creating father/son moments, such as when he bought tickets for us to see Maryland play basketball against then-invincible UCLA.  But there were innumerable less obvious and even unintentional acts, of which I’ll offer but one example.  When once he bought a brand new, red Toyota for that awful commute into Washington that allowed us to live on the water, he took me with him to the dealership to pick up the car.  As we were leaving, he handed me the keys and told me to drive the car home.  Recently, we bought a car that’s new to us, anyway, and my son was along.  There was never a question in my mind as to who was going to drive that car home.

            As the father of three children, Dad was scrupulously fair in his dealings with us.  He loved us equally, but never identically.  In fact, there was something almost Trinitarian about how he did so.  The eldest was not the middle child, nor was the middle child the youngest, nor the youngest the eldest, yet all were fully his children, all fully loved.  Anytime that a family system calls to mind the being of God, something’s going right.

            In recent years, Dad entered that phase of life where he just liked to sit and talk and especially to tell stories.  As a result, we children got to know him as adults relating to an adult.  A friend of mine who lost his own father at a much younger age recently reminded me that my experience represents a necessary trade-off:  the blessings of a long, mature acquaintance are now the cause of a powerful sense of loss of our companion and friend.

            Yet even in that parting, Dad was teaching and modeling.  He did not “go gentle into that good night”—no one who watched him endure nearly forty years of invasive medical procedures (for which we all thank God, to be sure) could think that he gave up without a long struggle.  But neither did he “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”  He knew that the poet who had it right was not Dylan Thomas but John Donne:  “One short sleep past, we wake eternally, And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.”

            So now our father enjoys what another friend of mine likes to call “God’s nearer presence.”  Now he enjoys a well-deserved rest.  Good night, Dad.  We’ll see you in the morning.


In Memoriam, Alma Mater (Redux)

A couple of years ago, I wrote a tribute to my baccalaureate alma mater, Concordia Senior College in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I wrote of the immense academic and spiritual gift that CSC had been to me during my junior and senior years of college, as I was preparing for pastoral ministry in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). I also recounted the trauma that I experienced, when the LCMS decided in 1975 to terminate this extraordinary vehicle of pre-seminary education for no better reason than that the new president of the Synod’s second seminary in Springfield, Illinois, coveted the campus. (For the article see http://thecresset.org/2019/Trinity/Heider_T19.html.)

Now comes the time to write of the demise of my first collegiate alma mater, Concordia College in Bronxville, New York, where I spent my freshman and sophomore years. As it happens, I arrived there exactly fifty years ago this coming fall, in 1971. Although I am not as familiar with all of the facts related to the decision as I was with CSC, the reality is that there will be no fiftieth anniversary homecoming celebration: Concordia in Bronxville ceased operation with the Class of 2021.

At a certain level, I am not shocked by this development. The COVID-19 pandemic has been stressful for all kinds of institutions, including colleges and universities, but especially for smaller colleges that depend heavily on tuition and room and board revenues for their year-to-year existence. Concordia Collegiate Institute in Bronxville (known in recent years as Concordia College—New York) was such a place. There was little room for dips or downturns in revenue and certainly no endowment of the size needed to see such a college through a pandemic. Outside revenue (specifically, subsidy from the churchbody that “owned and operated” the college) decreased a long time ago (to the extent that, for some years during my presidency at another Concordia, there was no subsidy at all, so I came to speak of the Concordias as “owned, but not operated, by the Synod”). Finally, there comes a point when too many systems fail, and the patient succumbs. Concordia in Bronxville has not been unique in this respect. During the time of my involvement in LCMS higher education leadership (1987-2003), there were ten institutions in the Concordia University System. Now there are six, with the closures of the Concordias in Selma, Alabama, Portland, Oregon, Bronxville, New York, and the (forced) absorption of the Concordia in Ann Arbor, Michigan, by the Concordia in Mequon, Wisconsin.

But let this not be the final word on my first alma mater. Concordia/Bronxville was an institution in transition during my two years there. Just two years earlier, in 1969, it had given up its high school division, reflecting a move away from a six-year Germanic Gymnasium program in preparation for the seminary (which was standard across the LCMS for more than its first century) to a two-year college alone. Indeed, along with many of the other Concordias, Bronxville was in the process of transitioning to a full four-year baccalaureate college; its first such class was graduated in 1975.

That was my class. But I (and seventeen of my classmates) chose to maintain the older pattern of transferring to Concordia Senior College (CSC) in Fort Wayne for our final two years of pre-seminary preparation. I’ve written elsewhere (see above) of what a blessing that was.

But those two years built on two at Concordia/Bronxville, and those preparatory years are rightly our present focus. The Concordia/Bronxville of my time was, frankly, not an outstanding academic institution. It was, as noted, a college in transition from being the capstone of a six-year seminary preparatory experience (or teacher preparatory experience for transfers to the Synod’s four-year colleges in River Forest, Illinois, and Seward, Nebraska) to a self-standing baccalaureate institution. Its mission was broadening from church worker preparation to a broader liberal arts (and professional) focus. Under the leadership of its new president (as of 1971—my arrival year), Robert Victor Schnabel (former academic dean at CSC) gave the place a sense of a college on the rise, both in terms of curriculum (the transition to four-year status) and faculty.

It is indeed the faculty to which my mind turns in tribute to my years at Bronxville. To name some is to omit other, equally outstanding mentors and teachers. But to name none is to do injustice to them and to all. There was Ralph C. Schultz, simply the finest conductor with whom I ever worked. It was he who moved my understanding of “professional” from a British distain vis-à-vis the ideal “amateur” to a goal to be sought in performance. (To this day he remains a dear friend, especially after our service together as presidents of two Concordias.) There was Thomas Nelson Green (a.k.a. “T. Green”), teacher of literature extraordinaire and unfailingly droll wit, whose insistence that “you have to know what the words mean” saved me from the fallacy of guessing sense from context. There was Tom Sluberski, whose general course in the Humanities opened worlds to me (especially in context with a smorgasbord course in New York City concerts led by Connie Just). There was Carl “Pop” Weidmann, whose gifts to me lay primarily outside of the classroom (thanks to a stroke just before I was to begin studying Greek with him), along with his wife, Cathy, who remained dear friends long after my Concordia days. And there was sage Cliff Peterson, Dean of Students, and his wise counsel during my involvement with student government. With that I’ll end, with profound apologies to many who could have been included with equal enthusiasm. What set these teachers apart was not so much their professorial standing (they had no time to become published scholars), as the profound care and skill that they brought both to their subjects and to their students.

I could add with equal enthusiasm my classmates. In this case I’ll name but two. First was my roommate of four years (including CSC), Tom Glasser. He was a hard worker and a good friend and an exemplar of the truly great potential pastors whom the LCMS drove away when it went to war with itself in 1973 (he simply couldn’t choose a seminary, so he went on to a career in computers), Second was my dear friend Gerald Patrick Coleman, a fine musician and a finer friend. That he volunteered to play the organ at my father’s funeral decades later in 2013 is quiet testimony to his undying love.

Then there were the extracurriculars, of the sort that only a relatively small school can offer to all and sundry. I played my last year of football as a frosh. I sang in the tour choir as a sophomore, including a memorable trip to Florida. Then there were the Friday night “entertainments,” a come-one-come-all variety show by any student with the gumption to get up front. (My favorite act was my classmate Michael Hoy from Maine, doing his marvelous “Bert and I” sketches in full Down East accent.)

To sum up, I’ll put it this way. The fact is, I always wanted to go to Harvard or Yale for my undergraduate studies, but my mother would have nothing of it. A child of the Great Depression, she was certain that I would never have the fiscal resources to be comfortable in an Ivy League crowd. I’m not sure that she was right in her rationale, but I’ve come to see the wisdom of her decision. But for that brick wall, I’d have missed out on an extraordinary academic community in Bronxville, New York, and most especially on a community whose effect on me was profound. For what it’s worth, I did finally get to Yale—for my Ph.D.—but I’m convinced that that experience was all the richer for a little, mission-focused college in Bronxville that preceded it.

The Whole from the Hole

I just finished reading what was, for me, a really challenging book: The Hole in the Universe: How Scientists Peered over the Edge of Emptiness and Found Everything by K. C. Cole (Harcourt, 2001). Ms. Cole is a science columnist for the Los Angeles Times and teaches at UCLA, according to the dust jacket. The book explains how central to both mathematics and physics is the concept of “nothing.” At both the micro (or quantum) level and at the macro (or cosmic) level, “nothing” occupies the vast majority of space (or spacetime, as she prefers to speak of our four dimensions) and is the ultimate source of everything. She is a gifted writer and explainer. At times I barely followed her, but I did follow.

No doubt, the book would be rather basic for a mathematician, theoretical physicist, or cosmologist. And for all I know, much progress and change have eventuated in various subjects (like string theory) that she treats during the two decades since the book was published. Still, Cole’s work reminded me of a thesis that I have long held (though by no means alone, nor original with me): that of all the sciences, it is physics—arguably the “hardest” of the hard sciences—that lies closest to theology.

For someone like Isaac Newton, this assertion would have come across as a firm grasp of the obvious. But for many of his successors, not so much. Arguably the greatest physicist of the twentieth century, Albert Einstein, did speak of “God,” but, as best I can tell, largely as a figure of speech. The two fields differ dramatically, to be sure, in methodology, with physics based in observation, hypothesis, and experiment, while theology is, at base, a function of revelation and reflection thereon.

Nevertheless, it fascinated me throughout Cole’s book to hear her discussing concepts that theologians often confront, albeit in different language. At times, she verges on advocating creatio ex nihilo. There’s no creator, to be sure, and her inspiration for “nothing” as the source of everything she relates most closely to Zen Buddhism, rather than a personal God. At other times, she comes very close to the classic cosmological argument for the existence of God, arguing not from a watch to a necessary watchmaker, but from little rabbits to parent rabbits (so that it is universes that beget universes). Yet in all, she is obsessed with both origins and eschatons.

As she deals also in what sounds very much like the theological concept of “mystery.” For her, these are largely unsolved questions or undemonstrated theses, but she puts great stock by ideas that provide explanatory value, even if they are not (yet) experimentally verifiable. Still, towering over the whole work is what is clearly a haunting question for her:

“So why is it that nature is almost perfectly symmetrical—but not quite? . . . Why did matter nudge ever so slightly ahead of antimatter that reigned in the early years of the universe? . . . What, in other words, is the reason for the pervasive imperfection that makes everything possible?” (pp. 253-4).

Indeed, she speaks at one point of the emergence of the universe as we know it in terms that very nearly recollect Christian reflections on the “Fall” story in Genesis 3, as a besmirching of preceding perfection.

Of course, at the end of the proverbial day, I know that physics is physics and theology is theology. Nevertheless, time and again as I worked through this book, I could hear Anselm of Canterbury whispering in my ear: “And this all humans call God.”

“The Centre Cannot Hold”

I have spent much of my adult life dealing with an old Christian heresy: Marcionism. According to Marcion (a second-century Christian leader), the Old Testament should be rejected, because it features a God of Wrath, not the same God of Love that is featured in the New Testament (or at least in the parts that he liked). For decades it has been central to my vocation as a teacher of the faith to make the case that what the church rejected as heresy in name has all too often been accepted in fact by vast segments of the clergy and laity (including, on one memorable occasion, a faculty colleague). If students in my Old Testament classes have picked up anything, I would like to believe, it is that the entire Christian Scriptures—both testaments—present a single God of both justice and mercy who, at the end of the proverbial day, opts for mercy (for more, see my article “Hosea Goes to the Opera” at http://thecresset.org/2014/Trinity/Heider-T2014.html).

But today it is a different “M” that draws my attention. America today is, in my fallible judgment, beset by Manichaeism. Founded in the third century of our era in Persia, Manichaeism posited two supreme beings: a good Father of Greatness and an evil Prince of Darkness, eternally at odds with one another. The former was spiritual, while the latter was material (so that there is a significant overlap with Gnosticism, but that need not detain us here). The point is that the age-old “problem of evil” (that is, why evil and suffering exist) is neatly solved: there are good forces and evil forces at work in the world, and they are forever fighting.

While the great monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) are uniform in their rejection of Manichaeism, the principles of that faith, if not its overt practice, have proven attractive and enduring across the centuries. Most famously, St. Augustine of Hippo was an advocate before his conversion to Christianity in AD 387. But my present concern is not to review ancient religious debates. Rather, it is to express grave concern that the spirit, if not the detail, of Manichaeism has all but overwhelmed our present moment in the United States of America.

It is no original observation on my part that America is deeply divided at present. The recently completed year 2020 was a “perfect storm” of exemplars. There was, first of all, a deeply divisive presidential campaign, both of whose tickets garnered more votes than any other in our nation’s history. The refusal of President Trump to concede defeat and, most recently, the invasion of the Capitol building by numerous supporters have been unprecedented testimonies to deeply held resentments. The other party has responded with swift attempts to remove him and, if possible, to debar him from holding public office ever again. Unconscionable, public acts by officers of the law against African-American citizens have brought to the fore the very different realities in which people of different races have long experienced life in our land. Even interventions intended to limit the spread of a deadly pandemic have become politicized.

My point is not to say, in the infamous words of our president with respect to a racialized conflict in Charlottesville a couple of years ago, that “there are good people on both sides.” It is rather to note that, as a nation, we have fallen into a pattern of demonizing those with whom we disagree, such that those who agree with us are on the side of the “Father of Greatness,” while those who disagree are partisans of the “Prince of Darkness.” Nuance fails us. The benefit of the doubt is nowhere to be seen. The upshot is the outbreak of what Josef Goebbels notoriously termed “total war,” only within our body politic.

I am not calling for anyone to “stand back and stand by” with respect to their political convictions. What does strike me as imperative in this moment is for all of us simply to “count to ten” before launching another broadside at those with whom we disagree. As my college professor of philosophy put it so well on the final day of class, as he turned off the lights and headed out of the door, we would do well to ponder the words of Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you by the bowels of Christ to bethink yourselves that you might be wrong.”

The alternative is horrific, classically expressed by William Butler Yeats in his famous poem “The Second Coming”:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds. 

The darkness drops again; but now I know   

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?