With the Holiday season over, I am busily studying for my qualifying exams again. As of now, I’m reading through Luther’s Greater Catechism. It’s a good work, and I always appreciate the vitriol with which Luther approaches any subject. But there’s a section in this work that I, strangely, found especially refreshing.
First things first, the catechism is setup as follows: a series of sermons on the 10 Commandments, a series of sermons on the Apostle’s Creed, and a series of sermons on the “Our Father.” In the first of these sections, Luther writes in a detailed manner on each commandment. Often times, you can tell how important Luther thought the commandment by the sheer volume he writes on it. And the 4th, honor thy father and mother, he spends much.
While much of the sermon on the 4th commandment forms the groundwork for temporal governance, this part does not concern me so much. What’s more important is the following:
‘Notice how great, good, and holy a work is here assigned children, which is alas! utterly neglected and disregarded, and no one perceives that God has commanded it or that it is a holy, divine Word and doctrine. For if it had been regarded as such, every one could have inferred that they must be holy men who live according to these words. Thus there would have been no need of inventing monasticism nor spiritual orders, but every child would have abided by this commandment, and could have directed his conscience to God and said: ‘If I am to do good and holy works, I know of none better than to render all honor and obedience to my parents, because God has Himself commanded it. For what God commands must be much and far nobler than everything that we may devise ourselves, and since there is no higher or better teacher to be found than God, there can be no better doctrine, indeed, than He gives forth. Now, He teaches fully what we should do if we wish to perform truly good works, and by commanding them, He shows that they please Him. If, then, it is God who commands this, and who knows not how to appoint anything better, I will never improve upon it.’
Now, as a good progressive, Luther’s above paragraph has become too simple for me. If the world and our knowledge of it was ever simple enough to capture all human ethical relationships in the phrase “honor they father and mother,” I don’t believe it is any longer. Progressives, in their Protestant heritage, have rightly understood that the Kingdom of God comes in and through our own work and toil, is a product of our hard-fought battles for the Just (a point that Luther will not necessarily deny). So, we appropriately develop activist centers dedicated to any number of social rights and goods; we properly recognize that the Church is, by definition, no Church at all if it is not serving those who do not consciously exist within a vision of Isaiah 11.
I, for one, will stand by this vision and progressives’ dedication to it, and I will not claim that our work is anywhere near done. (A glance at the front cover of any Newspaper will tell you that.) But, I would also argue for two points. First, there are times that we progressives get a bit too abstract. We fight for justice and equality, environmental protection and environmental responsibility. However, I would argue that what we actually fight for is more concrete. The work we do is work toward fullness of communion between us and God, each other, and the rest of creation. We seek to be responsible and just not simply because these abstractions are goods in themselves (and they are), but because the concrete life they afford persons (as we have and want still to experience it) is a better life, both now and in the life to come.
Secondly, I would argue that we progressives get a bit too self-righteous, believing that the fate of the world rests on our shoulders and our shoulders alone. While certainly we have a share of responsibility for the sins of this world, there can be no more anthropomorphic belief than the above. I know that what I’m going to say is not entirely fashionable these days, but the work of God is still God’s work, work in which we do and ought to participate. But the in-breaking of New Creation is not grounded in our actions; our actions are grounded in it, as promulgators and co-creators. However much responsibility we must take for this world, we cannot fall into a more or less pragmatic atheism, believing that all good things rest on our bringing them about. And even if there is some danger from a social-responsibility perspective for saying this: the resurrection of creation to the fullness of communion is ultimately God’s own responsibility, promised in the resurrection of the Son, to be fulfilled at the end of history. In other words, God’s work does not rest on us and us alone.
Accordingly, I think that Luther’s sermon on the 4th Commandment reminds us of just such truths. So, next time you forget what it is as a progressive Christian you’re fighting for, and next time you begin to fall sway to the belief that we humans are our own and only ultimate hope, call your father and mother. Remind yourself what good communion is by getting them some dammed potatoes, say, next Thanksgiving with love and without complaining, and be humble enough to know that this work is as important as anything else you do. After all, communing with your father and mother was, for Luther, the beginning of all Good human relationship, a communion that might be extended by God with our help through all creation.