Theology Interrupted? My Work after September 11, 2001

Seeking Life Among the Debris: The Public Role of Religious Scholars
A Core Doctoral Faculty Forum, in the Aftermath of September 11th

Timothy F. Lull
President and Professor of Systematic Theology
Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary

(slightly revised 2 April 2002)

We are all good at making disclaimers, so I’m tempted to start this short presentation with a long explanation of how unusual my work is for a member of the Core Doctoral Faculty. I’m a seminary president, and as a professor only a player-coach, busy most of the time with relationships with our church organization and bishops and synods and congregations and the like. But you knew that and someone asked me to speak anyway. So here it is.

I. Has my work been interrupted by the events of September 11? I sincerely hope so. The theologians I most admire are those who let themselves be interrupted by what happened in the world: the collapse of the Roman Empire, the sale of indulgences, or Hitler’s rise to power. Augustine and Luther and Bonhoeffer all had important projects underway, but great events provided the occasion for reprioritizing and for new undertakings. So I hope we have all been challenged by the tragic deaths of that first day, by the war that is now being waged, and by the troubling trends in public opinion and government policy that have so predictably followed.

It’s not that I like being interrupted—far from it! When I had a three-month sabbatical last winter we went 10,000 miles away to try to have some time to write. Nor do I think that all our important projects must pass some rigid test of relevance to the current crisis before us. We will continue to need teaching and scholarship of many sorts, and one cannot always see in the immediate moment what the long-term importance of specific projects may be. But I have to be open to interruption if I understand my work as not just mine, but as a calling from God for the sake of the church, the academy, and the wider public.

My greatest criticism of my own teachers was how much they seemed to go on with business as usual during the Vietnam War. They taught us Barth and Bonhoeffer and Tillich and the Niebuhrs with great respect and imagination. But they were quite skeptical of our student sense that Vietnam and America’s role in that War cried out for adjustment of syallbi, and attention in lectures. I’ve had to wonder in recent weeks whether my students see me as perplexed as I am when I read the New York Times every morning. Do they know the anxiety that I feel for our nation and our world?

II. We know that religious scholars can serve three audiences in our work: the church, the academy, and the general public. Early on I cast my lot chiefly as a theologian for the church. On the whole I am pleased with the way in which religious communities responded to the challenge of September 11. They organized services, preached words of comfort and hope, and sent help to those directly afflicted. Now in the longer run many are also trying to explore some of the deeper implications of the event. I don’t mean that all that was done was to my liking. These flags still bother me—as they bothered my German born grandfather. But on the whole I was proud of the ministry I saw in my own denomination and beyond it.

My concern has been that the churches now develop a longer-term plan for responding to the challenge of that day. This has several aspects. We need our local congregations to be places that teach about the great world religions. We ought to do this in a way that not only conveys some basic information, but also challenges us to see how we can live together in peace and mutual respect. We aren’t in every case well prepared to do this, but there are some hopeful precedents. Many Christian denominations did some fresh and positive teaching about their neighbors’ faith in the ecumenical heyday of the 1960s. We need to do this again, but now with all the religions in view. There is a special need and opportunity to teach about Islam. Yet I try to remember as a Lutheran that we still have unfinished work to do in understanding our Jewish neighbors and undoing centuries of hostile and misleading teaching. It will have to be “both /and.”

We are also called in local communities to help our members give a positive account of their own beliefs. We might feel less threatened by religious differences if we were more articulate about who we are ourselves. I have worked since September 11 in the structures of the Lutheran church to see how such a new ministry of teaching might be an ongoing priority. I’ve tried to seize all the opportunities I have, from writing letters to donors at PLTS, to frequent Sunday preaching, to speaking at pastoral convocations in Michigan, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. In my travels I also try to take time to listen to front-line reports from pastors and other church workers. In April I will spend three days with Lutheran military chaplains. I challenged our bishops in a paper I presented in January on the evolving office of oversight in our church to be more public in their work. We need demonstrate that there are versions of Christian faith that are tolerant, respectful, and eager to work in broad coalitions for the common good—but we have many potential allies in calling for such reform of our Christian practices.

III. In the meantime I have my more strictly academic work—the projects that come from my professorship. Last winter I completed a chapter for the new Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther on Luther’s writings—a mammoth challenge to summarize this material in 6000 words. That project led to my surprise to my starting a new biography of Luther that is now about two-thirds complete. Its tentative title is Martin Luther: Resilient Reformer. It will be a Fortress book—a companion to the Luther anthology I edited some years ago. In fact the completion of the biography will be the occasion for a long-planned revision of that anthology, since my mind has changed somewhat about what it should include since it was conceived in the mid 1980s.

You are probably not all that eager to read a biography of Luther. But I am excited about something I’ve found which I think has been lost in the necessary past half-century’s work of taking Luther off the pedestal. While we know his humanity and his deep flaws in a much better way today, we have partly lost tract of what he achieved in his thirty-year public career.

My book is exploring especially those five or six occasions in which the bottom dropped out for Luther—sometimes from external threat of death, sometimes from internal illness or self-inflicted disaster. What I think I can show is how Luther used those very setbacks as occasions for revising his work. Each of these very negative experiences motivated him to a high level of achievement—given that he feared he had little time left to work. In each case these staggering interruptions were the inspiration for some of his most remarkable work rather than a distraction from brilliant work already underway.

I discovered this pattern long before September 11. But now I think the question of resilience has a new interest. How do we find strength and imagination to reinvent ourselves in changed circumstances, to see our obstacles as opportunities? As I’ve been presenting a preview of this book to various Lutheran audiences, I’ve felt quite comfortable in pressing the question of what we might learn from how Luther sustained his vision in the face of difficulties. I’ve been especially heartened at the response from lay people. There’s a great deal of clerical self-pity in my denomination. I’m not dismissing it. It’s about real disappointments and losses. But it often blinds religious leaders from seeing how much their particular problems are specific examples of a wider set of frustrations with modern life. We are all seeking renewal, resilience and staying power on the far side of September 11.

For me as scholar and writer the influence of the current crisis will slightly reshape my Luther biography. But the more important effect will be to confirm my sense that this work is important and could be a useful contribution, rather than one more project that pleases its author but offers little help either to scholars or the general public.

IV. That brings me to a brief comment about my work and the public character of theology. We all sense now more than ever how much our society is longing for conversation about religious matters, and how much the great resources that we have in the Graduate Theological Union could be helpful to many people both within our religious communities and beyond them.

This morning as I flew home from Seattle I completed my millionth mile of flying on United Airlines. It hasn’t all been fun, and the last couple of years have been often unpleasant. But I have regular opportunity to talk with fellow travelers as we make our way around America and the wider world. I rarely travel in uniform. But when people ask me, I tell them what I do. I’m struck that in almost every case a long conversation ensues—whether people are themselves religiously active or not. There was great hunger for talking about religious matters long before September 11. Now these events and their murky aftermath give these conversations even greater edge.

I don’t need a new project in public theology. I have more than one full-time job as it is. But I have long wished that we had a radio program sponsored by the GTU, and largely staffed by its doctoral faculty, in which matters of religion could give a thoughtful discussion. I think there would be a great audience for this. I wouldn’t mind at all taking my turn on a panel discussing some subject in the news. But even more I’d like to listen to the program (or more realistically, given my travel schedule, have it taped for me every week). Truth to tell, I’d like to hear from all of you on these subjects, as is happening today. And I suspect there would be an appreciative audience—however large or small that might be. I know my frequent flier companions would be interested.

V. I’d like to make one final comment. Many of us are still recovering from our own graduate studies where we learned to look at our own work with a sharply critical eye. It isn’t hard when one measures any of our projects against the pain of the world to throw up our hands in disgust at the irrelevance of it all. Even when we’ve recovered from the shock of being only minor league players, we still worry whether our scholarship is really worth the trouble.

My faith tradition helps me keep those critical doubts under control. I have my work as a gift. I have a small but interesting role to play, and when I am effective, it is one that works in some teamwork with others rather than as a deeply private set of projects. But above all as a person of faith (and doubt), I believe that God is a great multiplier. I can’t always see what my little projects might add up to. I’ve admitted that sometimes they need to be exchanged for better undertakings. But even our new post-September 11 commitments are likely to see pretty small potatoes on the radar screen of a suffering world.

I can go on with my many tasks and small accomplishments with the sense that I am not in this alone. Your work is important too. If we are in this together, that makes it easier for me to learn to be content at the end of each day. I need such composure to keep working without despair or undue self-doubt. May that sense of the adequacy and importance of your work be a genuine byproduct of our discussion today.

Eldon G. Ernst

Clare B. Fischer

The Place of a Public Theologian
William R. O'Neill, S.J.

An Instigating Signifier: The Impact of September 11th on my Scholarship
Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan

The Role of the Theologian in Times of Terror
Rosemary Chinnici, S.L.

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