Hank French - Bishop Tom, thanks for starting the conversation with a question that gets at the heart of the ennui facing the contemporary church—the boredom and sense of irrelevance that so many feel towards institutional religion. Let me join the conversation with what might, at first glance, seem a strange response—I think it is vital that we think and talk about “incurvature.”
Bishop Tom - Ok. This sounds familiar from Seminary days. Sounds like you’re not going to dumb things down here.
Hank French - Martin Luther, following Augustine, described sin as homo incurvatus in se—people being “curved in” on themselves. Think self-centeredness, selfishness, self-indulgence, self-absorption, self-aggrandizement, self-justification. To one degree or another, incurvatus in se describes all of us. Here you will find the roots of individual evil. The first step in allowing ourselves to be “curved out” by Christ, i.e., to become other-centered, is to recognize and acknowledge the truth of it. But let’s take it a bit further. We live in a culture that is curved in on itself, a culture where not just individuals but social, political, economic and religious institutions (including our congregations) are also, to one degree or another, curved in on themselves and are largely in denial of it. Here you will find the roots of systemic evil. Ecclesia incurvatus in se. All too many of the “nones” and the “dones” that I have talked with have turned away from the church because they have, to one degree or another, experienced our communities of faith, our theologies, our ministries and our missions as self-absorbed and self-indulgent rather than as concrete and practical examples of the other-centered love to which the Gospel calls us.
Bishop Tom - It hurts to hear that people experience us as self-indulgent and not other-centered - yet I know this is how some people feel about church, and part of me wants to defend the church by saying something like, “Hey look, we don’t pretend to be perfect.”
Hank French - Lutherans take sin seriously and they take seriously the fact that all of our attempts at self-justification are empty. Self-justification is just another instance of being curved in on yourself. It is Christ who justifies and who bends us outward. In Romans 6:10-11, Paul writes that, “The death he (Christ) died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Before we can even begin to consider ourselves “dead to sin,” we, both individually and as communities of faith, have to recognize and acknowledge, accept and confess our incurvature. Difficult as it is, The Church Reformed, Always Reforming does just that. And that, in my experience, is what many of the “nones” and the “dones” are looking for—a church faithful to the counter-cultural Gospel it proclaims. Toward the end of his Treatise on the Freedom of a Christian, Martin Luther wrote, “We conclude, therefore, that a Christian lives not in himself (sic), but in Christ and in his neighbor. Other wise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love. By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends beneath himself into his neighbor. Yet he always remains in God and in his love...” This is the “other-centered” life of faith that gives credibility to the Gospel we proclaim.
"....a Christian lives not in himself (sic) but in Christ and in his neighbor." I find that so helpful, not only as I think about how (Lutheran) Christians could become clearer about our own identity, but also make a difference in the way people in general view Christianity. I have retained a number of non-Christian friends over the years, and remain in communication with them. They are good people who sometimes make their decisions about the church based on general impressions about Christianity that are informed only by a general media interpretation of Christian Faith, often legalistic quite frankly, but who would be glad to hear about the love for neighbor part of the equation for Lutherans.