Lutheran Theology and my continued wayward ‘innerfaith’ journey

Yeah, I know. You think I’m insane because, just two months ago, I started writing about how I’ve been enjoying my tip-toe back into Roman Catholicism.

Trust me, I think I’m insane too. Because here I go now... Lutheranism. Talk about a 180, right¹? But this is the curse of a blogger. Because we publish so often, you see each little increment of our lives in depth.

[Side Note] Yep, I put footnotes in this post. You can find them in (you guessed it) the bottom of the post 👇.

I have to laugh at myself. As I’ve said before, stepping into a Roman Catholic church was nostalgically nice. It reconnected my wife and I to the church we were married in and to our past as Roman Catholic kids. It was refreshing to have no idea what I was doing and to have zero chance of getting politically involved, etc. after helping open a spiritual center/church.

But the Roman Catholic church was still… the Roman Catholic church. Big, sprawling, ornate (elements I liked, in fact), and politically askew in a few big ways, in my opinion.

Still, we were going to give it a shot. We had no notions of leaving…

And then I found the work of Pr. Nadia Bolz-Weber.

Take a minute to acquaint yourself here if you haven’t already…

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Pastor Nadia: Clerical collar. Liturgical tattoos. Well-spoken. Foul-mouthed. Prophetic.

I was intrigued, to say the least, so I started looking into Lutheranism (at least the lineage that Nadia is a part of; as I’ve said, every religion holds the spectrum of humanity, from fundamentalist conservative to progressively liberal) and was blown away by how it seemed to be so well aligned to where I am, theologically speaking².

I had no idea. I always thought of Lutheranism to be a modern mainline evangelical Protestant tradition. But when I jumped on YouTube and watched a service, I was essentially watching a Catholic mass with a female priest (pastor, as they call them).

Some things I’m learning…

The first big ‘yay’ my wife and I gave Lutheranism was when we learned that the clergy is allowed to marry — even in a same-sex marriage.

They’re liturgy-based, offering the Eucharist and Sacraments, much like the Roman Catholic church (huge, for us).

And politically, this branch of traditionally liturgical and theologically progressive Lutheranism speaks our language.

I immediately began reading Nadia’s books, watching her videos, and generally obsessing (like I do) over Lutheranism. Here’s what I learned to be some of the main underpinnings of the faith (from Pastrix, Pastor Nadia’s memoir)…

  • God’s grace is a gift that is freely given to us. We don’t earn a thing when it comes to God’s love and we only try to live in response to that gift.
  • No one is climbing the spiritual ladder. We don’t continually improve until we are so spiritual we no longer need God. We die and are made new, but that’s different than spiritual self-improvement.
  • We are simultaneously sinner and saint, 100 percent of both, all the time.
  • The Bible is not God. The Bible is simply the cradle that holds Christ. Anything in the Bible that does not hold up to the Gospel of Jesus Christ simply does not have the same authority.
  • The movement in our relationship to God is always from God to us. Always. We can’t, through our piety and goodness, move closer to God. God is always coming near to us. Most especially in the Eucharist and in the stranger.

The biggest one for me is this, right here…

We receive God’s grace through faith, not works.

We cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God by our own merits, works, or satisfactions. God’s love and grace is an unconditional gift. We need not be somebody or do anything to deserve it. It’s free and is only to be received by faith.

I can’t tell you how refreshing this was after my long journey in modern Oprahism (yes, I’m making that a word — or should it be, Winfreyism?) spirituality (“You must raise your consciousness and be more ‘spiritually sophisticated’”) and my brief stint back into Roman Catholicism (“You must do the ‘good works’ that righteous worshippers do in order to receive God’s grace.”)³.

‘The way of Glory’ and other Lutheran no’s

Another thing I’m loving — LOVING — about the Lutheran faith is its stance against what they call ‘the way of Glory’. In short, this means using personal charisma, the sword, miracles, rewards, reason, etc. — to promote even righteous causes. They say no to ‘Christian armies’ using force to spread or secure the faith to modern Christian groups using slick advertising techniques and promises of ‘cash and prizes’ (as Pr. Nadia says it) to manipulate people into the ‘kingdom’.

This got me... My past spiritual Winfreyistic path was driven by personal charisma, miracles and rewards. And I was one of the marketing people.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

But this faith —‘ the way of the cross ’ as Lutherans call it — is more about dying to the small, boastful, manipulative, insecure self in order to allow the resurrection from our divine source which is constantly trying to smash in and pull us towards a renewed life.

I’m loving the Lutheran NO’s…

(Much thanks to Daniel Erlander and his book for the inspiration below).

  • No to a religion which proves itself by miracles, answered prayer, worldly blessings, fulfilled prophecy, or rational thought.
  • No to a religion which validates itself by worldly standards of success, strength, effectiveness.
  • No to a religion which uses worldly power techniques to make history come out right or to fit a certain definition of ‘righteousness’.
  • No to a religion which promises certitude or life without questions or risk.
  • No to a religion which asks us to only believe doctrines about God rather than introducing us to a living God who calls for radical change.
  • No to a religion which offers the joy of ‘living with Jesus’ without facing our sinful ways — our egotistical, over-consumptive, earth-destroying, people-oppressing patterns of life.
  • No to a religion which offers personal salvation without living, serving, growing, struggling, and celebrating with the body of Christ, the church.
  • No to a religion which avoids the pervasive Biblical themes of sharing food with the hungry, caring about the poor and oppressed, living as good stewards of God’s creation.
  • No to a religion which fulfills our human need to have higher status than others, to be better than others, to have ‘outsiders’ or ‘unbelievers’ to despise.
  • No to a religion which provides divine approval for the assumptions of a particular nation, culture, society, economic system, or race.
  • No to a religion which provides a way we can bargain for, work for, or earn our status as saved persons.
  • No to a religion which teaches ‘going to heaven when I die’ as the main reason to believe in God.
  • No to a religion which avoids teaching that the crucifixion is both the sacrificial atoning act of Christ and the example of the way of life we are to follow.

And I like their ‘yesses’…

  • Yes to a religion dedicated to human liberation.
  • Yes to a religion in solidarity with human pain.
  • Yes to a religion that allows the freedom to be human, weak, and vulnerable.

In closing

As I get ankle-deep (if that) into this faith, I’m met with seeing how much of a sinner I’ve been. But I’m also getting — at a visceral level — how perfectly okay that is and how, looking back on my life, it’s been true… God will keep on breaking into my life to proclaim the truth about herself and the world that’s opening before me.

I’m not saying Lutheranism is perfect. Far from it. Every human institution is flawed — from atheism to paganism to theism and beyond. Every sect has elements of sin involved and Lutheranism is one of the guiltiest. I’m well aware that Luther was a completely evil guy at times. I understand how his antisemitism was used to fuel German officials to justify the Holocaust.

But again — this God we’re dealing with refuses to let that little man’s ego to be the last word. I know that the Lutheran church I’ve been attending would be one of the first to speak out against such atrocities today.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

From my extremely limited understanding of Lutheranism, I’m seeing a religion that I know I’m thirsty for (and I think a lot of us Americans are at this socio-political moment). In our western world, the few overindulge while the rest of the world wallows in poverty and hunger. This system is not set up for ‘us’. And that’s why so many of us westerners suffer from anxiety and depression. The chicken of our past greed and consumption is coming home to roost.

I’m done ascribing anxiety to brain chemical stuff. I’m no neuroscientist, but I think all the chemical imbalances are a reaction to the environment we’ve created, not the cause of it.

We’ve created a situation out west that’s unsustainable as we continue polluting our earth, creating welfare systems for the rich, and bloating our international killing power as our safety net continues fraying and our digital lives keep us on the hamster wheel that sends us fruitlessly in the direction away from our souls⁵.

It’s here that we meet a God who hangs on a cross and suffers right along with us. One who’s beat death through unconditional grace. One who’s taken the violence out of circulation and resurrected it in everlasting life.

(Or something like that.)

So, here we go… It’s nice (and extremely terrifying) to be a rookie Lutheran.

May you know that love underlies your being no matter your past and that grace is constantly entering into your human experience no matter how walled off you are to it.

This, in itself, changes everything.

Before you go…

Hey, I’m Jonas Ellison. I chronicle my life and faith on this here publication, Cricket Hill, which is currently the top spirituality publication on Medium.com. You can also find my work in The Huffington Post, Observer, Thought Catalog, The Mission, Good Men Project, and more.

To get my missives for free via email along with other fun stuff, click here.


Footnotes

[1] It’s crazy how, although I’m an ‘Interfaith’ theology student (the world’s main religions: Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Sufism, Taoism, etc.), life has taken me down an ‘Innerfaith’ path (exploring the Christian traditions alone seems to be enough to keep me busy). And I’m SUPER fortunate that my wife and I have stayed united on this circuitous journey 🙏 .

[2] Now, I will say, when we were in Europe a few years ago, my wife and I visited Wartburg castle, where Martin Luther translated the New Testament of the Bible into German, but we had no intention — zero — of even considering Lutheranism at the time. Here we are…

The hair was SPIKED OUT that day!

[3] I keep saying ‘Roman’ before ‘Catholic’ because Lutherans consider themselves ‘Catholic’ — meaning ‘universal’ — but not ‘Roman Catholic’. Luther didn’t want to break away from the Roman Catholic church, but to be a part of the continuation of the universal church.

[5] Yes, I know I’m using digital means to reach you now, but I hope it puts a wrench in the gears of your particular hamster wheel rather than perpetuating it.

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