by Brett Jenkins, member of the board of Lutheran CORE
Editor’s note: Originally called “Draft Social Statement on Women and Justice,” the document which was developed by the ELCA Task Force on Women and Justice and which has been approved by both the ELCA Conference of Bishops and the ELCA Church Council for consideration by the 2019 ELCA Churchwide Assembly is called, “Faith, Sexism, and Justice: A Lutheran Call to Action.” The ELCA Churchwide Assembly will take place in August 2019.
“Ah! Words! Just words!” the person shouted to the man at the lectern whose speech had just concluded. “Who told you culture is a search for coherence? Where do you get that idea from? This idea of coherence is a Western idea.”
Coherent or Incoherent
I heard Ravi
Zacharias tell this story. With a
quickness of wit that I can only marvel at, he responded to the person (whom he
later learned was transgendered) by saying, “Before I answer you, Madame, let
me ask you this, then: would you prefer that my answer be coherent or
It is a dangerous proposition to write about someone else’s writing; history is full of literary, philosophical, and political critiques that were complete misfires (often cleverly worded) because the author misunderstood what he was reading. They did this because, not being part of what Charles Taylor would aptly deem the “web of interlocution” from which the original document arose, they misunderstood what was being proposed in the first place.
Having left the ELCA, grateful for the friendships and even some of the formation I enjoyed there but much more grateful to leave behind the posture of defensiveness that necessarily accompanied my ministry as a self-consciously orthodox Christian within it, I wondered actively about the idea of writing this article. I even resisted the pressure of colleagues to do so. I am a pastor of the North American Lutheran Church, and this newsletter has already featured one excellent critique by another NALC pastor, Rev. Cathy Ammlung as well as a critique by ELCA pastor, Stephen Gjerde. Both articles were detailed and incisive, so what can I add to them?
Analysis of the Introduction
Actually I can add one thing: an analysis of how the introduction of the ELCA’s proposed social statement Women and Justice represents the broader conflict of worldviews active within our culture, of which I am, indeed, still a part.
Rev. Ammlung noted in her critique numerous points on which the draft social statement was not only out of step with the Christian (and Jewish) traditions of 2000+ years, but even seemed internally incoherent, out of step with itself. Indeed, as Rev. Ammlung noted pithily, “It’s hard, though, to see in this draft how God’s revealed Word is greater than the sum of feminist, intersectional, and ‘gender/sexual justice’ language.”
It is not hard to see—it is impossible to see, for there is no evidence to the contrary in the document, nor should we expect there to be. The constellation of “feminist, intersectional, and ‘gender/sexual justice’ language” emerges from a larger worldview wholly at variance with the Scripture’s line of sight, that of postmodernism.
In 1994, doctoral candidate in Women’s Studies at Wellesley, Christina Hoff-Somers, recognized that a foreign ideology had hijacked the equity-seeking feminism of the movement’s progenitors, separating the movement into what she deemed “equity feminists” and “gender feminists,” the latter being the product of postmodern thinking married to the aims of feminism. The feminism with which most readers will be familiar from their time as an undergraduate, on a seminary campus, or from the shriller, attention-getting voices on the nightly news is of the gender feminist lineage, which frequently claims that those Hoff-Sommers characterizes as “equity feminists” are not feminists at all, for they do not share the postmodern presuppositions that undergird their narrative and analysis.
To whit, rooted in the work of theoreticians like Derrida and Foucault, postmodernism sees all social interactions (like the proposed social statement) as “word games,” and word games with only one goal: the exercise of power.
Language of Justice, Science and Religious Truth
In such an account of the world, there is no way to discern good from evil, truth from falsehood, for all such language is merely a ruse, a “word game” to disguise the naked aggression of one person or group against another. In the view of postmodernism, we are all possessed of worldviews incommensurate with one another and irreconcilable, so our only alternative is civil war through our word games. The intersectional feminist gender-fluid activist by their own reckoning uses the language of justice, science, and religious truth but is merely a campaigner for their own peculiar position—just like everyone else.
Civil War Through Word Games
Postmodernism allows for temporary alliances but not ultimately the pursuit of jointly-held truth or justice. Witness the growing voices within the gay community expressing relief in the fact that they came of age before the rise of transgenderism because they believe if they were coming of age now they would be forced into hormone therapy and miss out on the adult identity they now espouse. Because postmodernism believes in no higher truth or objective reality to which language correlates but only the exercise of power, it can never be more than a sophisticated exercise in narcissism, an assertion of self over-and-against everything and everyone else.
“Everyone else” necessarily includes God, of course… at least if God is purported to do anything other than underwrite our own self-perceptions and exercise of power through our word games. The postmodernist can use the language of “the Word of God,” but they cannot mean by it what Christians have historically meant—a revelation of something we could not have known without the active initiative of God. Nor can they mean by it what Lutherans have meant by it when they distinguish within that Word Law and Gospel. For both Law and Gospel reveal to us a self so impoverished and depraved it is impossible to affirm, the Law by revealing our inability to be righteous and the Gospel by revealing that we can only be saved by Christ’s righteousness, one utterly alien to ourselves.
Incoherence of Postmodern Thought
There is a reason why the great theologian Augustine defined sin using the phrase in curvatus in se—“being turned in upon oneself.” When we turn within, seeking something affirmable by God, we cannot find our prelapsarian innocence, and what we produce is the incoherence that characterizes all postmodern thought, including the ELCA’s proposed social statement Women and Justice. The founders of postmodernism actively sought to reject the “Logo-centrism” of Western culture, that is, the logic—the coherence—born of a worldview flowing from a belief in the Logos, belief in an ordering principle within the world that does not take its cues from autonomous human actors.
God Brings Order and Love
Of course, in the case of Christians, that Logos “became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14) God’s first act in the Book of Genesis is to call order forth from the primordial chaos, and He uses His Word to do so. The God revealed by the Scriptures is the bringer of order, of coherence.
The amazing news of the Gospel is that this bringer of order does not look upon our profound disorder—our sin—and simply destroy both it and us. In the words of one of my favorite LGBTQIA+ authors, “It is not the perfect but the imperfect who have need of love.” The Gospel is that God knew this long before Oscar Wilde and “so loved the world, that he gave his only Son”—the order-bringing Logos—“that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Order is Inherently Hierarchical
Unfortunately, the God who brings order and coherence to not just the created order but our own lives in spite of us is necessarily antithetical to the worldview underlying the ELCA’s proposed social statement, for order is inherently hierarchical; it privileges truth over falsehood and so some narratives over others. This God also calls us away from the contemplation of ourselves—away from seeking affirmation of any sort, no matter what we find within our experience—and to the contemplation of Jesus Christ, in whom alone we are to find our un-hyphenated identity. Far from the postmodern de-legitimization of distinctions inferred by postmodern exegetes, Galatians 3:27–28 (“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”) teaches us that only Christ is acceptable to God and so we are to find our true identity in Him, not in any other identity, real or imagined.
The unity gestured to by Paul as he ends this thought is not incidental. Just as the word adhere means “to stick together,” so the word cohere means “to form a whole.” The unity in justice that is to characterize the Body of Christ and claims to be sought by the ELCA’s latest social statement cannot be pursued using it as the mechanism, for its own internal logic is anti-logic; it reviles any coherence that would not privilege every self-perception and self-identification.
A virus uses the body’s own self-defense system to undo an organism. The ELCA’s proposed social statement Women and Justice is necessarily incoherent because, in ways I assume its authors may not even be aware of because they have probably not read the primary texts that gave birth to postmodernism (Foucault and Derrida are, after all, inordinately difficult authors to plow through), it appropriates the language of truth and justice, sin and righteousness, Law and Gospel, and uses them virus-like to hobble and, if possible, undo the order-bringing work of God’s Word, inverting its meaning as necessary in order to serve an agenda not born of the Word itself. Women and Justice is an example of postmodernism gone viral within the Body of Christ, seeking to destroy it, and if the ELCA hopes to remain Christian in a way that will permit them to be recognized as such by other Christians not held captive to the postmodern mindset, they must not only reject it, but the worldview that informs it.
Moreover, all Christian communions functioning within the increasingly-postmodern West must be on guard against the same virus that has so deeply infected the ELCA and other mainline, revisionist Protestant bodies as well as (smaller) sections of the Roman Catholic and even Orthodox churches. It is in the water around us, and we must fortify our immune systems against it if we hope to not have our health compromised… or worse, to die as non-Christians mouthing Christian-sounding words.
Justice can and must be pursued for not just women and minorities but all people without de-privileging the truth or re-writing the Word of God. The Logos—coherence Himself—demands it.