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The American Mind: Read the Preface by Robert Kolb

Submitted by on July 9, 2010 – 4:02 pm3 Comments

Editor’s Note: Reprinted below, in its entirety, is Robert Kolb’s preface to The American Mind Meets the Mind of Christ, the newest book from the Concordia Seminary Press. Professor Kolb is the editor of this collection of essays engaging numerous facets of American culture. The book costs $14.99 and may be purchased at the Concordia Seminary bookstore, amazon.com, and by contacting Theological Research and Publication at sempress@csl.edu or 314-505-7117. Purchases of two or more copies directly from the Seminary Press include free shipping.

Copyright © 2010 Concordia Seminary.

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The American Mind Meets the Mind of Christ

Preface by Robert Kolb

One of the Latin words the ancient Romans used to designate a priest, “pontifex,” means “bridge-builder.”  When the writer to the Hebrews spoke of Jesus Christ as the great high priest (especially chapters 7–9), he described the Lord’s function as our mediator, the one who rebuilds the bridge between sinners and God.  Jesus sent his disciples into the world, to the “nations” or cultures of the human race, to build the bridge between himself and those who have rebelled against him, between the life-restoring Word of God and those who prefer listening only to themselves or some other creature.  God calls his baptized children to restore the connection between those who have strayed from him—who live in opposition to his way of life—and their Creator, who wishes to be their Father.  Since individuals always live in the midst of communities, the address of the Gospel to individual sinners always meets them within the context of their communities, their cultures.  This volume seeks to aid North American Christian bridge-builders at the beginning of the twenty-first century in carrying out the task of bringing God into conversation with those around us outside the faith.

God so shaped human creatures as individuals that they reflect something of his own rich complexity, his own intricate and multifaceted nature.  He also created people for community: it was not good that Adam be alone (Gn 2:18).  In human communities, the rich and intricate nature of human life comes to full bloom as individuals share their own gifts and talents and contribute them to the whole.  God binds together the whole of the life of all individual human beings into specific groups we call “cultures.”  Sometimes these cultures are coterminous with linguistic or political groupings, and sometimes they are not.

Culture may be defined in many ways because the term embraces and mirrors the complexity and wonder of what God wrought in creating the human being.  The term refers to the organic and dynamic whole of human activities and relationships which define the meaning and significance of life for a specific group of people.  A culture is organic because it consists of mutually-related elements which are influencing and shaping each other, often even when they do not appear to be related to, or relevant for, each other.  It is dynamic in that its elements are always in movement and development, experiencing and effecting change, even when they often appear to shift with only glacial speed.  The various elements in culture are linked by a common identity and purpose in a host of common endeavors, and they presume a body of shared assumptions, values, and allegiances.  The people of a culture are “of one mind,” in the sense that even with all their individual differences and their unique ways of looking at the world, they share certain presuppositions about life and its meaning.  They approach many aspects of life from much the same definition of life’s goals and purposes, even when they cannot readily articulate that definition.

Parenthetically, we should note that the institutions within a culture have their own cultures.  Or perhaps more precisely, they constitute sub-cultures.  The church, too, has always existed as a distinct cultural unit within the peoples and lands, the societies and cultures, into which the Holy Spirit has placed it.  In this volume, however, we are not looking at the culture of the church but rather the culture of the North American societies into which God calls his people to give witness to his Word.  This is the place where he has called us to build bridges to those who do not know him as Lord and Savior.

North American culture is one of the many places into which God has called his people, and it is a different culture in 2010 than the American culture in which many living Christians have grown up.  Events in recent months and years have, in different ways, radically changed the landscape of the continent.  Economic recession has raised doubts and fears about personal future, though seemingly without raising considerable questions regarding the American dream, the American way of understanding life.  The election of a president of the United States of African ancestry marks a symbolic step in the pursuit of traditional American values of offering all possibilities to all citizens, even though, it is to be feared, the actual situation of many disadvantaged African-Americans has not changed with the election of Barack Obama.  In this decade the experience of the church of Jesus Christ has given the expression “going south” a new and positive meaning as the Global South becomes the Holy Spirit’s stage for his demonstration of the power of his Word in the twenty-first century.  But this is not in every respect the onset of a new golden age in the church.  Among intellectuals the retreading of old arguments in the “New Atheism,” as tired and worn-out as these arguments may seem to us, reminds us that the struggle against the father of lies (Jn 8:44) continues.  On the popular level in North America, it takes other forms. Since about 1980, and particularly since 2000, increasing numbers of Christians have experienced encounters with levels of antagonism toward the Christian faith that had previously not existed in North America.  They voice the claim that the context for witnessing to Christ on this continent seems more hostile, or at least more indifferent, as the public’s biblical literacy declines and assertive presentations of alternate worldviews increase.  Polls note a decline in public affirmation of traditional expressions of biblical ethics.  Public spaces in American society—the workplace, the city hall, the big-box store—have become increasingly more complicated places for Christians to speak authentically and intelligibly of their faith.

Because the conversation between God and his human creatures is, by God’s design, an exchange of ideas and messages, it is important for Christians to understand those with whom they speak.  God’s communication to those outside the faith does address these human beings as the creatures he fashioned them to be, with intelligible claims and comprehensible offers of God’s goodness and mercy.  God’s Word, to be sure, is always higher than our thoughts, and always has an element of inscrutability about it (Rom 11:33–36).  At the same time, God communicates his love in expressible and explicable fashion.  God’s way of thinking meets human ways of thinking within the framework of his created order for communication.[1]

Every culture in which God gives his gifts has developed its own forms for speaking of reality, for cultural evaluation of the world around and in the midst of its people.  In 1987 Allan Bloom sparked widespread discussion of the changing tone and substance of American public culture with his book, The Closing of the American Mind.  This book was one of a number in the period that examined the mentality or worldview of Americans.  Since that time “the American mind” has been the subject of wide-ranging investigations and discussions as Americans have tried to explore and analyze the ideological currents that shape contemporary thought in our society.

The Bible also describes the fundamental orientation of human beings to the world around them with phrases that have been translated with the word “mind.”  “Mind” in this sense, it must be noted, is not a synonym for “reason” or rational thought processes.  This “mind” embraces the fundamental attitudes formed as reason, will, and emotions combined to direct individuals and groups along the course they determine to follow.  “Mind” is the disposition or inclination that guides and focuses thinking and action.  “Have this mind among yourselves which you have in Christ Jesus,” Paul admonished the Philippians (2:5).  In 1 Corinthians 2:14, Paul reminded his readers that “we have the mind of Christ,” Christ’s way of thinking and therefore of acting.  This way of thinking is not oriented toward what God has made but toward God himself, in contrast to our sinful way of thinking (Phil 3:19).  The mind of Christ frames life within the structures God fashioned for human living.  It is brought into sinners’ way of thinking through baptismal death to sinful identity and resurrection as children of God (Col 3:2–4, read in the context of Col 2:11–15). When Christ healed or liberated the man possessed of a demon, that man was returned to “his right mind,” that is, the kind of thinking that governs life in the way God made humanity to live in the first place (Lk 8:35).  This godly “mind” or way of thinking designates the fundamental disposition a person has toward life, our foundational convictions about reality, our framing explanation for life.

At the heart of all the variety of human “minds” are views of whatever is Absolute or Ultimate in life.  Many people designate the Absolute or Ultimate in their lives as “god.”  Our prosperity and other forms of good fortune permit us often not to worry about the Absolute and Ultimate, as people in most cultures through history have had to do.  Therefore, it may be that those around us, and we ourselves, do not think within such grander horizons but rather seek on a practical, day-to-day basis just whatever has the power to “deliver the goods,” “to make things work,” “to keep me safe and my boat from going belly-up.”  Moreover, we often do not need to look to that which holds our lives together.  Luther defined the term “god” in the Large Catechism (in his explanation of the First Commandment) as that which serves as the source of all good in our lives, and as our haven in time of distress.  He also explained that whatever commands our (ultimate) trust is really serving as our god.[2] We search for reliable objects of that core, orienting trust in life because we need and seek from them a sense of identity, a sense of security, and a sense of meaning.

Americans look to a variety of objects to give them a sense of identity or security or meaning.  The history of our nation and its people have led us to fashion a number of alternatives to the Christian “mind” and message or to invent supplements to the God who has come as Jesus of Nazareth.  These false alternatives to the true God, the triune God, challenge the Christian faith and invite Christian witness in the twenty-first century.  Preparation for that witness includes assessing how those to whom we are called to bring his message of salvation think, how they assess the reality of their lives.

From the time of Luther on, Lutherans have always had a two-edged attitude toward the cultures into which God has placed them.  H. Richard Niebuhr’s analysis of the church and its relationships to culture, above all in his Christ and Culture, published in 1951, dubbed Luther’s view “Christ and Culture in Paradox.”  His valuable analysis was not well served by this title since it misrepresents what Luther really thought about God’s gift of culture, damaged as it always is by sin.  Luther loved paradoxes, but it is no paradox to posit that human life takes place in two dimensions, “two kingdoms” or “realms,” as this concept is often labeled, and that different things happen in each.[3] Luther came to this conclusion on the basis of an anthropology which distinguishes between being human in relationship to God as God’s gift, and being human in relationship to God’s other creatures as the human performance of God’s expectations for human living.  This way of analyzing what it means to be human the reformer called “the distinction between two kinds of righteousness.”[4]

Against the background of this element of Luther’s thought, Lutherans have both affirmed the created goodness of their cultures, and at the same time, served as sharp critics of what their cultures do in opposition to God’s will.  In the “heartlands” of Lutheranism in central and northern Europe, Lutherans generally have found themselves dominant in their cultures and often were subverted into being pillars of the culture more than critics.  But a strong tradition of cultural criticism appeared in Nordic and German lands at decisive times.  The persecuted Lutheran churches of the lands of the Counter-Reformation east of Germany and the Scandinavian kingdoms were often cut off from the cultural power centers.  Nonetheless, they still played key roles in cultural development, of the language, literature, and historical writing of peoples such as the Slovaks, the Latvians, and the Estonians, when they emerged as nations around their own distinct cultures, in the nineteenth century.  In the course of the early modern period, the immigrant churches that came into existence in Australia, South Africa, Latin and North America found themselves most often not dominant within the prevailing “English,” “Spanish,” or “Portuguese” cultures of their new lands.  But they could often ally themselves with that dominant Christian culture and make themselves at least somewhat comfortable in their new environment.  The Lutheran mission churches that have emerged in the wake of the Reformation, from the seventeenth century onward, as European and later other Lutherans sent out missionaries to bring new peoples to Christ, have often lived in conflict with traditional cultural values but have also attempted to affirm and enrich those values.  One of the greatest challenges for contemporary North American Lutherans, as we confront more and more aspects in our own culture that seem in conflict with God’s plan for human life, is to balance our proclamation of God’s law as critical judgment and our affirmation of God’s providential goodness in the facets of our culture that reflect his goodness.

The faculty colleagues of Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis, who have written the essays in this volume, have tried to illustrate both the affirmation of selected cultural characteristics and the cultural criticism that comes naturally to our lips.  Each author has approached his topic in his own way.  Not every essay in this volume presents an analysis of both sides of the phenomena under discussion.  Not every essay offers direct assistance for engaging these cultural trends with the proclamation of law and gospel.  But the collection of approaches presented here should aid readers in developing their own ability to sort out factors of culture that they and their people confront in daily life and treat them in a variety of ways as Lutheran Christians and theologians.  In that way, it is hoped, this volume may contribute to sharpening the bridge-building skills of all its readers.

Each winter, for the past fourteen years, the annual College of Fellows of the Institute for Mission Studies of Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis, has gathered faculty members from the Seminary and staff members from the International Center of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod for discussions of critical issues in the mission from which God sends his church.  The 2007 College of Fellows addressed aspects of the current “American mind” in order to discuss how Christian witness may best engage these alternatives to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Nine essays written by Concordia Seminary theologians were prepared to aid Seminary faculty and students to bring the biblical message to the North American context in which God has called us to proclaim his Word.  These essays, revised and updated, are offered here to challenge the church to active discussion and practice of Christ’s mission in the world.  The thoughts of the essayists may serve readers as building materials for the constructions of bridges into the lives of those whom they encounter and who engage them in conversation about Jesus Christ.  Christian witness begins with a deconstruction of false views of reality, and it comes to completion by bringing the promise of new life in Christ to construct a biblical “mind” in the midst of the (post)modern world.  This volume is designed to support effective witness to the faith in our individual contexts into which God places us.

The volume has been made possible by a generous gift from Peace Lutheran Church in Chicago.  This congregation, founded in 1902, concluded its service to God and its community in 2005.  In assigning its assets it graciously made funding available to the Institute for Mission Studies for several projects.  We are grateful to the members of Peace congregation, including Mr. and Mrs. Charles Bennett, and to the last of its seven pastors, Luther G. Albrecht, for enabling us to bring these essays to the church.


[1] This reflects Luther’s understanding of what it means to be human and the way in which God’s Word works within human life. See Robert Kolb and Charles P. Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theology. A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008).

[2] Large Catechism, Ten Commandments, First Commandment, 1–4: The Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 386–387; Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche (11. ed.; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1992), 560–561.

[3] Robert Kolb, “Niebuhr’s ‘Christ and Culture in Paradox’ Revisited,” Lutheran Quarterly 10 (1996): 259–279.

[4] See Kolb and Arand, Genius of Luther’s Theology, 9–130.

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