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When social capital trumps theology

Submitted by on November 29, 2011 – 12:10 pm3 Comments

Robert Putnam, Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, and author of American Grace: How Religion Divides and United Us, was the speaker at an event co-sponsored by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University on November 2, 2011. Putnam is a skilled researcher and a thoughtful speaker. He did not disappoint.

As some of us remember, Putnam was a featured speaker at the 2007 Concordia Seminary Theological Symposium. In the middle of the Wash U presentation he recounted his experience at the Seminary. Putnam had made his case that his behavioral science research was quite clear that most conservative religious members believed that others from differing faith traditions also had access to heaven and that this access was a result of what we might call “good works.” In response one of our faculty members (unnamed) said that this could not possibly be true since we do such a good job of teaching the exclusivity of Christ and of salvation by grace.

Putnam recounted—a number of us remember this moment—that he went to his laptop, accessed the data regarding LCMS members, and reported that a good majority of LCMS members in his study (which, by the way, is one of the two most comprehensive national surveys on religion and civic engagement ever conducted) actually did not believe in this Lutheran doctrine.

Why not? Because of relationships with people! Americans simply will not believe that people they like, and that they even count as friends and family, will not make it to paradise. Social capital rules!

So there we are.

I left Putnam’s lecture committed to using American Grace where I can in my classes. Much more than that, though, we can use these (and other) behavioral science findings to rethink and retool our pastoral practices. Maybe we could even refuse to be satisfied that we have done our work when we have lectured/preached what we believe and others have passively listened.

This requires deeper conversation to find out how people are actually integrating what we teach with what they believe. For instance, what would it look like to have a confirmation class talk about how to integrate doctrine into our young people’s spiritual lives rather than simply recite theological data. This requires more intentional spiritual direction and more disciplined ways to think through spirituality, and the ministerial practice to match.

3 Comments »

  • Ben Roberts says:

    What I find interesting is that so many churches on the American landscape, including Lutheran churches, stress the idea/philosophy/theology of relationships! We have a “relationship” with God and one another; that’s how we put it. I’ve even used that terminology in a recent sermon. True as that is, relationships with others should never supercede relationship with the risen Lord. See Luke 12:49-53. The above statistic is not suprising to me, for LCMS Lutherans are in the world. However, I wonder if they are in the Word. And God’s Word clearly says Jesus is the only way to God the Father (John 14:6) and to salvation (Acts 4:11-12). Anyone who rejects this Gospel, even in a minimal sense, heaven’s door is shut tight, and God will punish His rebellious creatures with Hell. I see this all the time: the horror on LCMS Lutherans’ faces when they contemplate a righteous God damning their friends and family to eternal torment. They would rather rationalize their faith to make it more comfortable. But this does not deny the clear truth of Scripture. Once this truth is taken to heart, and once the pure Gospel is also taken to heart, open the floodgates of evangelism! But until that time comes (sooner or later), LCMS Lutherans will continue to give Putnam his statistics.

    • Sometimes what we see in America is a perversion of truth. In our efforts to be more “loving” or “compassionate” we fail in our duties to let Gods word be true and all men be liars. Watering down the truth about hell and Christ redemption from such a fate is never more loving, or understanding or even caring for all that mater. In fact is is saying that we do not love you enough to tell you the truth. We our more concerned with being your friend, or having a relationship with you.
      While having a relationship is good and neccissary it should never be at the expence of the truth.
      Our LCMS churches have been caving in on them selves for sometime now by trying these new ideas, that arent new ideas at all, just the same old herisies fought and won in ealier years.
      We seem to be satified sitting in the pews on Sunday and an occational Wed. and passing that off as true religion. Seldom have loved our families enough to bring worship home with us. American idol has become more important. We ould rather share those loving momens with our children than have to discuss theological ideas that we are too lazy to search out ourselves let alone live out. We love new cars and a vacation home more than we love our nighbor in need….after all its someone elses job to look after him, we just want to get along and if he goes to hell we seem to be ok with that or if he is in need, perhaps its the governments or some social agencies job to provide for him.
      Our good works will not earn us anymore grace that Christ has already freely given to us. However, “they will know that we are Christians by our love”. Our love that is so deep that we muc=st speak the truth and live that truth out as well. Will the help of God let us do so!

  • Bob Herring says:

    As Jeff Kloha and I have become “pen pals” in recent months, he encouraged me to post my thoughts from my blog to Dr. Hartung’s thoughts:

    It was my blessing (or curse–depends upon your perspective) to be teaching our 6th Grade Confirmation class yesterday about the 6th Commandment, yes, that one dealing with sexual issues. Now, I’m treading here a bit lightly as the father and uncle of one of the young ladies in the class are regular readers of [my} blog and I don’t want to scare them. And frankly, there is nothing for them to be concerned about–yet. Each young lady was quite open about professing no interest in boys at this stage in their lives. I assured them that will change probably sooner than later for each of them.

    And here’s the rub with the concept of “social capital” mentioned by Dr. Hartung: I can extract vows of celibacy from most every confirmand I teach but the real world presents a whole different set of circumstances for them to consider when they aren’t under my watchful glare. It’s one thing to say that they will be faithful to live a chaste and decent life but when presented with options they had never contemplated, how will their faith be lived out? Sadly, this is where social capital seems all too often to win out over our theology. Why else do we seem to close our eyes to couples living together without being married and parents, grandparents, and pastors, nary say a word of reproof?

    All of us seem to lack a consistency in faith and practice these days. It’s worth our consideration.

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