The problem of identity is defined

by Dr. Dennis Bielfeldt (South Dakota State University, WordAlone board member)

Sept. 17, 2004

Among the critical questions of philosophy is the “problem of identity.” What makes an individual the individual it is, and how much can that individual change and still be the individual it is?

For example, when precisely does a car cease being a car and become instead a pile of car parts? How much of a tree branch can one saw off before it ceases being the particular tree branch it is? Can a person be the same person after loss of the body, that is, can the same person survive death? (Can one claim such sameness in the absence of a body or the continuity of memory?) While these questions are perplexing, profound and significant, we mostly go through our days not thinking much about them.

We can ask the same question about the identity of a religious tradition. What exactly does it mean to speak of the “Christian tradition” or the “Lutheran tradition?” A cursory understanding of church history shows that many different theological views and positions have emerged, and been championed, over the last two millennia. Some have been accepted as orthodox or consonant with the tradition, others have been rejected as heretical or discordant with it. Just as we can ask whether a certain branch is the same branch when removing or grafting other branches onto it, so can we ask if a particular teaching, practice, or worldview is still Lutheran.

About a week ago I watched a well-known TV evangelist from a well-known mega-church preach for 20 minutes about the importance of a positive attitude in life. While talk of God was plentiful, not once did he mention Christ, sin or grace. He spoke mostly about how we needed to train ourselves to think about God and good things because, by so doing, good things will surely befall us. Even though his “church” is obviously listed in the Yellow Pages under “church” (and even though thousands attend it each week), it does not follow that what happens in his building is consonant with the historic Christian tradition. Just as a square cannot have five sides, a Christian church must speak of Christ.

The Christian tradition has always been aware of the problem of identity. It struggled to develop doctrine and dogma in order to give itself an identity. For almost 2,000 years, Christian leaders presupposed that sufficient and necessary conditions must be met in order for one to be Christian. What one believed and how one acted were crucial in determining whether or not one belonged to the Christian tradition. For almost 2,000 years of Christian tradition, one’s own “self-definition” was not important in determining whether one so belonged. Instead, objective standards or norms sorted who was inside from who was outside. For Lutheran Christians, the Lutheran Confessions provided such a norm. One was a Lutheran Christian if one subscribed to “The Book of Concord”; one was not a Lutheran Christian if one rejected it or sought to interpret it in inappropriate ways.

Times have changed. Today most North American Christians no longer take doctrinal confessions seriously. Confessions that sought originally to answer the question of a tradition’s self-identity now appear to many to promote exclusivity and intolerance: “I understand myself as a Christian, after all. Why must I believe and do this in order for you to understand me as one?” Many Lutherans these days are bewildered by their own confessions: “Why must one believe that in order to be Lutheran? Isn’t it all about loving each other and God? To think that I must believe in the bound will to be a Lutheran is to practice intolerance and theological imperialism. Who are you to elevate your own theological values over mine?”

We seem to have come to a crossing in the road. Some Lutherans in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) believe that it is consonant with the Lutheran tradition to adopt the practice of the historic episcopate as a necessary condition for the ordering of bishops and ordaining of clergy. Accordingly, there are many who reject the historic Lutheran view that the true church is hidden and that the predicates ‘one’, ‘holy’, ‘catholic’, and ‘apostolic’ properly apply only to that church. There are many who urge tolerance and acceptance of the notion that the church must be visibly and organically one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. There are many who urge Lutherans to reject those parts of their tradition that defined Lutheranism over and against the “Mother Church.” There are ELCA theologians teaching in ELCA seminaries who find nothing in principle theologically objectionable to accepting the Roman Catholic institutions of indulgences and papal infallibility.

What would have been heretical and non-confessional in another generation is now something Lutherans talk seriously of accepting. While Lutheran notions of self-identity traditionally privileged faithfulness of proclamation over ecclesiastical unity, new ELCA tolerance promotes ecclesiastical unity at the expense of anything smacking of exclusivist judgment. Evidently, the only criteria for Lutheran self-identity within the ELCA nowadays are the “unity of the church” and vague notions or creedal and sacramental consonance. The value of unity has trumped the value of truth. Just as citizens of modern democracies learn to “get along” and “stay together” within a multicultural context, so too, apparently, must members of modern denominations “get along” and “stay together” within a multi-theological context.

But we postmodern Lutherans are bewitched by a false analogy. Somehow we have assumed that just as the identity of a nation is not determined by the specific values and beliefs of the many cultures within it, so too the identity of the church is not determined by the values and beliefs of its theological traditions. We have rejected the acknowledged criteria of identity that once operated within our traditions: doctrine and practice. Accordingly, the “Lutheran tradition” has grown in ways previously thought impossible. We can practice the historic episcopate. We can practice Catholic views on justification and/or reformed views on sacramentology. It is even possible to move beyond traditional views on sexual ethics.

The late 19th-century German philosopher Friederick Nietzsche identified the death of God with the human usurpation of objectivity in the orders of goodness, beauty and truth. When the “center no longer held,” when there could be no longer an up or down, then humans would realize their most important achievement: without God, all is possible.

Perhaps the current drive for ecclesiastical unity merely masks loss of identity. Maybe the church is all that is left once the divine has withdrawn. Perhaps, a de-masking of church is necessary in order to recover Lutheran identity. Maybe, the greatest task ahead of us is to remember what we were.