When social capital trumps theology
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.