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Dr. Dennis Bielfeldt (Professor, Religion, South Dakota State, Brookings, SD, WordAlone board member)

May 5, 2004

To be a human being is to be a being who interprets Being. We do it all the time, and cannot avoid it. Moreover, our interpretations of Being are naturally contextualized by the culture in which we live, the experiences that we have had and our drive to be significant in our own eyes. Human beings quite naturally “spin” experience to make it conform to the stories they want to tell about themselves. It is never a question of choosing to spin or not choosing to spin, but only a question of the degree and direction of that spin.

Men and women unavoidably interpret things so that they find themselves to be important, so that they can locate themselves as protagonists in their own narratives. All of us want to play the hero or tragic figure; it is the way we are. Luther certainly knew this and called it for what it is, claiming that our primary sin is the desire to be our own God. (God is, by definition, the center of every narrative in which He appears.)

Our spinning is undeniably and inextricably connected to truth. To say, ‘Proposition x is true’, is to claim that x says it like it is, not merely for me, but for everyone. To say that a thing is true is thus to say that somehow the thing has a life out beyond our spinning. To say it is true is, accordingly, an act of great boldness; it is to say that somehow, despite our penchant to subjectivize and spin, there is a reality whose contour does not ultimately depend upon our culture and experience, a reality not determined by spinning alone. To say that “‘Jesus is the Christ’ is true” is thus to say something that hurls us out beyond ourselves, out beyond the comfortable borders of our own spinning.

Now there are many people these days, both within the church and without, who say that spinning is all there is. Like the ancient Sophists, these men and women can make little sense of claims that push out beyond the immediacy of their culture and experience. Accordingly, they declare that communities and associations depend upon common spinnings, common narratives. On this view, love itself seems to depend upon common spinning. While all realize that different tribes spin in different ways, these people believe that tribalism can only be checked through a common spinning, a spinning that effectively expands the boundaries of the various tribes and pushes towards unity. (For example, advocates of inclusiveness and diversity regularly inculcate the common spin that there is no truth out beyond local spinning.)

Others say that true community depends upon something deeper than common spinning. They find nothing of lasting value in a shared interpretation. They distrust spinning for its own sake. “Truth,” they say, “Give us truth.” These men and women are not content with an agreement in spinning, but rather are motivated to look for the common thing lying out beyond spinning. Like good scientific realists, these people want to get it right, not merely to agree with each other. Their reading of the history of theology suggests that there is ultimately no safety in numbers.

There was once a time when Lutherans believed that spinning was an idler’s game. Convinced of their relationship with the vertical, the horizontal diminished in importance. While ecumenical unity was possible, it was not likely, for they believed that their opponents would probably never come to the truth that the Lutherans had already apprehended. Besides, God would sort unity and disunity in His own good time. Unity was logically independent of truth and salvation. The thing itself was far more important than any spinning about the thing. While denominational spinning might come and go, that toward which all spinning pointed, remained constant: God is in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself.

But times have surely changed. Convinced of the problems with the vertical, contemporary eyes now divert from heaven to earth. No longer sanguine about the possibility of evidence transcending truth-conditions, church leaders and court theologians look now instead to communal assertibility conditions, for example, “What can be said in this situation? What is disallowed by our tradition?” Marked no longer by a confession of what is, the new ecumenicity searches instead for agreement among people: “Can we say the same words? Can we write the same phrases? After all, language itself is the important thing.” And what about dogmatic propositions? “No,” say the new ecumenists, “they cannot tell us what is; they are simply linguistic rules by which the tribe operates. Different tribes have different rules, and playing by the same rules expands the tribe.”

Somewhere along the line, we Lutherans got so comfortable with spinning that we decided to make a virtue out of it: those that spin together, stay together. “Let us unite,” we said. “Let us interpret together.” Unfortunately, the thing itself got lost. In our fabrication of communal tapestry, we forgot what the tapestry was for. We forgot that culture and language are to serve the One through and by Whom all have been freed. In our endeavor to find a common churchly spinning, we have found ourselves judged by the Crisis of all our spinning; we have found ourselves judged by God Himself. So it is with idolatry.

Let WordAlone witness to that which judges all our spinning, and may the Spirit of the Risen Lord be with you this Easter season.