The Certain Ambiguity of Catholicity
by Paul R. Sauer
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from LF Fall 2007
I am a member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod because, like most Missouri-Synod Lutherans, it is the church body into which I was born. It is not all that surprising, even in this age of consumer-driven Christianity, that many folks still cling to the church of their birth. Inertia is a powerful thing. But why I continue to remain a part of this synod is more complex than simple inertia.
In the 1970s and 80s the LCMS parish of my youth, Our Savior Lutheran in South Windsor, Connecticut, was a model parish of 1950s Lutheranism—cassock and surplice, communion biweekly, memorization of Luther’s Small Catechism (and Schwan’s questions and answers) during seventh and eighth grade confirmation. The pastor was bilingual (German and English) and held three rally services a year—one for the Sunday School, one for Vacation Bible School, and one for missions. Women were not lay readers or congregational officers, and The Lutheran Hymnal was our hymnal.
Our Savior provided a strong biblical foundation and an even stronger Lutheran identity, which became a source of pride for me. Apart from one other Lutheran family of another synod, we were the only Lutherans in the town where I grew up and went to school. To this day I am still not sure to which synod my friend Anna belonged (the church is now in the ELCA), but in a show of great pan-Lutheran political force, Anna and I served respectively as vice-president and president of our public high school, which was about 80% Roman Catholic. I learned then that Lutheran identity can transcend synodical labels, particularly when there aren’t a whole lot of other Lutherans around.
In the fall of 1991, I went off to Christ College at Valparaiso University, the premiere Lutheran university—in America. It was there that I came to appreciate both the strengths and the weaknesses of 1950s-style Missouri Synod Lutheranism.
My first class assignment at Valparaiso was to write a five-page paper reconciling the two creation accounts in Genesis. I naively wrote that the second account could be seen to “fill in the details of the first.” This earned me my first ever failing grade. Little did I know that “most scholars agree that the second account predated the first.”
Valparaiso was a time of great challenge to the Lutheranism that I had come to know from my mother’s womb. Tragically, I watched a number of my friends who had come to Valparaiso as pre-seminary students lose their faith altogether. Through it all, I was grateful for the formation I had received in the parish of my youth, which allowed me to put the pieces back together after the massive deconstruction that occurred, by design, at Valparaiso. I also learned that there was an orthodoxy to higher criticism that was often not self-critical, and that without the tools of reconstruction, deconstruction for its own sake was simply a parlor game with ungodly results. The Christian faith is not an academic exercise.
Following my sophomore year I took a year off of college to join the leadership team of Collegians Activated to Liberate Life (CALL), a network of midwestern college pro-life groups. I had always been pro-life; Jean Garton, long-time head of Lutherans for Life, had spoken a number of times at my home congregation, where members of her family attended regularly. My job with CALL was to travel to college campuses around the Midwest and start pro-life groups, revitalize dying groups, and encourage existing groups to take a more active stance in defending the unborn. It was an eye-opening experience that brought me into contact with groups as diverse as the charismatic Roman Catholics at Franciscan University of Steubenville, ELS Lutherans at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, and the pure Calvinists of Dordt College in Iowa. Through this experience I learned that, in some cases, denominational boundaries are a needless hindrance. There are faithful children of God in all church bodies—even in Roman Catholicism!
Being in the midst of the day-to-day battle over abortion led to a crisis of faith that went far deeper than the parlor games of Valparaiso. For the first time in my life the “authority question” came up. It happened on a warm spring day in Kansas. CALL had organized a regional weekend of activism that drew hundreds of college students to the campus of Wichita State. In addition to picketing abortion clinics, hosting speakers, and doing literature distribution on campus, some members of call wanted to picket a Lutheran church where the notorious late-term abortionist George Tiller was a member. As a compromise I volunteered to meet with the pastor to express my concern and get his side of the story. The moral ambiguity espoused by the pastor remains to this day one of the most disturbing, indelible images of my time with call. I learned that, not only was George Tiller a member, but he even occasionally assisted with communion. “How could I,” the pastor asked, “question the faith of this man who thought that he was helping women?” Out of this conversation, I discovered what I saw as the great weakness of Lutheranism—where is the authority? If anyone can interpret Scripture, does that mean he can also come to any conclusion he wants?
As a part of call, I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, with nine other individuals—seven Roman Catholic men and women, one Eastern Orthodox man who was preparing to study for the priesthood, and one evangelical woman who was in the process of converting to Roman Catholicism. All of them, in their own way, tried to help me with the authority question by answering honestly my questions about their traditions and pointing me to resources I could read and study. I spent one Easter with Bishop Job of the Orthodox Church in America. Upon returning to Valparaiso, I became the live-in caretaker of the Newman Center (the Roman Catholic student center). Through this time of great searching, I learned that many of the things I had been taught about Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and other denominational groups were based on misconceptions or uncharitable interpretations. Christian honesty demands that we allow each tradition to tell its own story—the denominational differences are great enough without creating false differences through caricature.
At Valparaiso one of my professors, who knew of my searching, suggested that I meet with Richard John Neuhaus to hear about his spiritual journey. Over Christmas break in 1995, Fr. Neuhaus graciously met with me in his office in midtown Manhattan and patiently listened to my questions about Lutheranism, which he had long since answered by joining Rome. His advice was twofold: read Jaroslav Pelikan’s History of Christian Doctrine, and then read anything written by Arthur Carl Piepkorn.
Although I was born a Lutheran, I am a Lutheran today because of Richard John Neuhaus! More accurately, I am a Lutheran today because Fr. Neuhaus opened the evangelical catholic world of Arthur Carl Piepkorn (and the Lutheran confessions) to me. There in Piepkorn’s writings I discovered, for the first time, proof of what I had always just assumed to be true—that Lutheranism was not simply Protestant denomination number one. It was a claimant, via its confessional writings, to the heritage of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
In the days since my rediscovery of the evangelical catholic soul of Lutheranism, I have grown to appreciate other prophetic voices in the Lutheran church, like my predecessor at Our Saviour Lutheran Church and School in the Bronx, the Rev. Dr. Berthold von Schenk, along with the many others who wrote for Una Sancta in its heyday. Through those voices I have come to a greater appreciation of how Augustana VII defines the church. What on the surface can be read as an equivocation to meet the difficult circumstances of the reformers’ day is, in its depth of understanding, pure genius. Authority located anywhere beyond word and sacrament, whether in an infallible hierarchy, infallible doctrinal resolutions, or an infallible inner voice, leads to disappointment. Authority from anywhere else, whether real or imagined, is an uncertain authority at best.
The real challenge for the church is not to nail down some absolute authority that can answer each and every question of faith, but to learn to live in the ambiguity of the breadth and depth of the great diversity that gives the church her catholicity. Overcoming the temptation to draw borders and boundaries or, conversely, to disregard them altogether, is the great task of each generation of Lutheran theologians. What is foundational? At the risk of stating the obvious—the Augustana provides the answer.
Ultimately, my journey as a western catholic Christian who is a part of the Lutheran tradition and under the jurisdiction of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod is one that has taken me full circle. The church of my birth is the church of which I am a proud member. For whatever weaknesses Missouri may possess, for whatever harassment one must occasionally endure from the fringes of the church, there is something indelible in Missouri that continues to produce great churchmen and churchwomen. Piepkorn was not too far off when he wrote in a personal letter back in the turmoil of the early 1970s: “The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod has given me more responsible freedom under the Lutheran Symbols than I could have found—or so it seems to me—in any other branch of the Church of the Augsburg Confession in the United States. I believe that it still has a mission to perform under God and [a] future that it has only begun to realize.”
Such is the metanarrative of my theological existence. But the theological journey is only a small part of the story of my life. Vocationally, first and foremost, I consider my greatest responsibility to be a parent to my two daughters, Katharine and Rosie. Both came to our family from the Republic of the Marshall Islands in Micronesia. As a result of now having a Marshallese extended family, two of my great passions are advocating for ethics in adoption and advocating on behalf of greater educational opportunities for Marshallese children (for every ten children in the Marshall Islands who are enrolled in kindergarten, only two will graduate from high school).
I am married to Jessica, who worked as a Lutheran schoolteacher at Trinity Lutheran School in the Bronx before assuming the full-time job of being mother to our children. We met at SonRise Lutheran Camp in upstate New York, and we both are strong believers in the importance of the gifts that outdoor ministry brings to the church. We have seen firsthand how God has blessed the lives of our urban young people through their experiences at church camp. Professionally, I believe that every student who enters the seminary directly from college should be required to work as a camp counselor at an outdoor ministry facility for a summer. The practical skills that I learned during my time there have instilled in me the importance of making theology relational in a way that my time at seminary could not. Theology is merely philosophy until it becomes something that is “for me.”
Ultimately, if you want to understand who I am—I am a father. A father to my children. A father to my students at Our Saviour in the Bronx. A father to the people in the parish that I serve. As much as I enjoy serving as secretary of the Atlantic District, or teaching as an adjunct professor at Concordia College, or even working with Lutheran Forum, these roles could never replace the joys and frustrations that I am privileged to experience on a daily basis in the heart of one of the greatest cities on earth. For God, whose church catholic is large and diverse, calls us to many little and varied vocations. It is in those relationships that we begin to discover who it is that God has created and recreated us to be.