Covering opposition to syncretism in a syncretized world

There is nothing more fun about being a confessional Lutheran than explaining our position on syncretistic worship to those who aren't. I kid, it's not fun at all. See, the world embraces syncretism. The general idea is, it goes without saying, that all religions are good and valid and different paths to understanding the same truth. If you don't ascribe to that notion, you are probably a bad guy.

Civil religion has many components but one aspect is that it rather tries to transcend all religions while including them. All religions and all gods are to be equally tolerated, honored and respected everywhere. One of the most important aspects of American civil religion is participation in interfaith -- or syncretistic -- worship services. These worship services used to be more about "unionism" -- the blending of Christian worship -- whereas now they explicitly blend in groups that reject Christianity. It turns out that confessional Lutherans not only don't support unionism and syncretism but it's a big part of our story about how we came to America. The head of Germany was forcing joint worship (with the Reformed Christians) on confessional Lutherans and we took our doctrinal beliefs so seriously that we were forced to flee.

It's a very serious issue for us. And one that most of our fellow Americans don't understand (though they've graciously allowed us in and allowed us to practice our doctrinal beliefs).

We don't do interfaith worship because of our understanding of the First Commandment, which is a demand for, as one of our scholars puts it, "a radical and absolute exclusivity in our relationship with the realm of divine beings." And since the first duty of the believer is to worship, this is most clearly expressed in how we worship.

If you are a journalist who is genuinely interested in this topic and why we believe what we do, I'd encourage the book "The Anonymous God: The Church Confronts Civil Religion and American Society." It's a highly readable, succinct explanation of our doctrines and how American culture is hostile to our views. If you're going for the quick and dirty version, I'd recommend (sorry ...) my own Wall Street Journal piece on the matter the last time this became a big issue in the media, after a clergy member was suspended for his participation in interfaith worship:

In late June, the church suspended the Rev. David Benke, the president of its Atlantic District and the pastor of a Brooklyn church, for praying with clerics who don't share the Christian faith.

Naturally, the suspension caused all hell to break loose. From the New York Times' editors to FoxNews' Bill O'Reilly, pundits and commentators chided the Lutherans for their intolerance. Mr. O'Reilly, not otherwise known for theological expertise, even accused the church of "not following Jesus." A column in Newsday said Mr. Benke's accusers were "advocating religious isolationism." ...

To participate in an interfaith service is, as the synod announced upon suspending Mr. Benke, "a serious offense" strictly forbidden by tradition and church law. But the source of the prohibition is Christ's own words. "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:6). As the Rev. Charles Henrickson, a Lutheran minister in St. Louis, explains: "The gospel is not served, it is not confessed -- indeed, the gospel is eviscerated -- when Jesus Christ is presented as one of many options from which to choose on a smorgasbord of spirituality."

Basically we think it's fine to set aside differences to work together in many things unless the thing we're supposed to agree to disagree on is Jesus and the context is worship.

Another issue arose when a Lutheran pastor who everyone agrees is doing a great job ministering to his congregation in Newtown in all sorts of ways took part in a syncretistic worship service. He explained why he thought it was ok, but many Lutherans thought it not, it was becoming a bit of a "scandal" (in the church sense of the term), and his supervisors asked him to speak a word of apology. He did. The President basically told both the people who thought his apology didn't go far enough and those who want to change church teaching on syncretism that they should work together in love and compassion. While it's not a huge issue within the church body, some folks have been pushing for secular media coverage of same since that's a much more favorable climate for changing church teaching on this matter.

So if you thought it was less than enjoyable to have your patriotism questioned after 9/11, you can imagine how easy it is to explain your church doctrine on the First and Second Commandments in the subtle and unpolarized aftermath of the Newtown massacre. The headlines and stories have been full of outrage. Some of that is to be expected for anything as countercultural as our doctrine on this matter. Some of it is just not the best work.

Or as Vanity Fair's Kurt Eichenwald put it:

Truth: Lutherans angry at minister 4 praying w/ a Rabbi 4 a dead Jewish boy wouldve been angry 4 prayers at the Crucifiction of Jesus, a Jew

I'm sure that whatever our differences on this matter, our favorite part of that tweet is the spelling of Crucifixion. But Eichenwald's Bill O'Reilly-level of theological acumen is off the mark. Would we worship at Jesus' Crucifixion with those who worshiped a different God? We would consider it something of an ontological impossibility. Not that I necessarily expect most reporters to even understand what I mean by that.

So first and foremost, I will say to you what I said to the New York Times' Mark Oppenheimer when he sent out a mildly snarky tweet about my church body's doctrine. If you are a reporter and you have any questions about our doctrines, feel free to ask me about it. I know that the Newtown pastor, his District President and the Synodical President have all agreed not to speak with the media. Further, those who are eager to speak on the matter are, quite understandably, those seeking to change the church position. That makes it very difficult to understand support for a topic that is already probably hard for you to understand. I'm just a layperson with no formal theological training, but I have read up on syncretism and our church teaching on the matter and am happy to do my best to explain this doctrinal topic that is so far outside the mainstream of American religious expression. Perhaps I can point you to authors whose works I've read or to church historians who can explain the controversy.

As one Lutheran pastor put it:

The national media have picked up on LCMS President Matthew Harrison’s response to the participation of Pastor Robert Morris in an interfaith prayer service in Newtown, Connecticut. The interfaith service took place on December 16, a letter from Pastor Morris regarding his participation was issued on January 31, and a letter from President Harrison on his handling of the situation was issued on February 1. Now, in the last 24 hours, an article by Caleb Bell of Religion News Service (RNS), “Lutheran pastor apologizes for praying at Newtown vigil,” has appeared in the Washington Post and other news outlets. And an article by Rachel Zoll of Associated Press (AP), “Newtown Pastor Reprimanded Over Prayer Vigil,” has appeared on ABC News and elsewhere...

Of course, do not expect the coverage and commentary to understand or approve of what is going on. Even though, in my view, President Harrison’s letter is excellent, and his handling of the situation has been very balanced and pastoral–both evangelical and confessional–the media voices will not “get it.” To disapprove of interfaith services in our day is unpopular. It goes against American civil religion and political correctness. The prevailing notion in our culture is that “all roads lead to God,” and the spiritual smorgasbord that interfaith services offer falls right in line with that false belief. Even if a clergy participant is well-intentioned, and his portion of the service contains no false doctrine per se, the unavoidable effect is to support the “whatever works for you” overarching message.

Anyway, I wanted to also note that the New York Times handled this story well ("Lutheran Minister Explains Role in Sandy Hook Interfaith Service"). It may come off as harsh to some of us who are confessional Lutheran, but it is a reasonable presentation of the issues.

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