The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Talking about God

What some of the ELCA's young theologians are up to

Every field has its research and development department. For the church, that's theology.

I reached this conclusion after spending a week talking to young theologians. I deeply respect theologians, but I wasn't quite sure about their role. Do they think great thoughts all day? Is anyone listening? Does anyone care?

Yes, yes and yes, I discovered. Whether they study Scripture, ethics or preaching, they are passionate about equipping us to worship more profoundly, serve more effectively and live with more integrity.

Some pass along their passion through their students. Others lead congregations.

"No matter how heady and theoretical theology seems," doctoral student Leila Ortiz told me, "it will always hit the pew because it's always speaking of experience."

For this story, I grilled women and men from many backgrounds, institutions and regions. Those approaching the half-century mark were flattered to be called young, but I was taking into account the many years and degrees it takes to become a theologian.

Only a fraction of the ideas of some of the ELCA's young theologians could be squeezed into these pages, but their enthusiasm for theology — "talking about God and everything else in light of who God is," said Victor Thasiah of California Lutheran University, Thousand Oaks — shines through every profile.

ben stewart
Benjamin Stewart

Gordon A. Braatz assistant professor of worship; dean of Augustana Chapel,
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago

The connection between worship and ecology is central to my work. People often think these are strange things to put together, but I think both try to comprehend big questions. What holds everything together? What's truly valuable in this great cosmos?

I'm now working on Christian theology for the ecological burial movement. These are old practices animated by cutting-edge science and ecological concerns. It ritualizes a return to the earth, and reminds us that our bodies are earth, and that "the earth is the Lord's and all that is therein."

For younger people today, the connection between earth and bodies, life and death, is especially intriguing. The uphill struggle is not theological or ecclesial, but with ingrained cultural patterns that avoid the incarnational and dust-to-dust dimensions of death.

rolf jacobson
Rolf Jacobson

Associate professor of Old Testament,
Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.

I teach Old Testament, especially the psalms and the prophets, classes on Scripture and parish leadership, and also law and gospel.

I don't think we get how utterly disconnected worship is for most people. What happens when a newcomer visits? First we hit them with confusing words like confession and absolution, then kyrie, then we read a lesson — say from Daniel, chapter 1. They don't know who Daniel is, when it was written or why. Then we quickly move to three other lessons.

I invite seminarians and pastors to think about what a person needs to know to understand the readings, art, music and symbols of our worship. Everything we do in worship was designed to make sense, but the world is changing. Are we going to ask ourselves hard questions, or continue doing worship exactly the same way?
Anthony Bateza
Doctoral student,
Princeton [N.J.] Theological Seminary

My interest is theological ethics and the virtue tradition. One narrative among academics is that after Martin Luther, ethics fell out of the picture. The extreme focus on justification by faith, the sense that we don't contribute to our own sanctification, has tended to produce a certain quietness and confusion among Lutherans.

How are we formed by how we act? That is one of the harder things to get across in the parish. I'd like to teach pastors how to preach justice without betraying our commitment to being justified by grace alone. I'd also like to give them tools to create space to reflect on basic practices like welcoming folks, catechesis, outreach and advocacy.

When pews were full we didn't have to reflect intentionally on our values and how we pass them on. Now that pews are thinner and society more splintered, we need to make our implicit beliefs very explicit.

We might see ourselves as a welcoming and open church but not recognize the ways our behaviors convey the complete opposite. The job of the pastor and theologian is to generate conversation about the way forward.

jessica duckworth
Jessicah Duckworth
Assistant professor of congregational and community care leadership,
Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.

I am a practical theologian. While I may listen to a biblical text or theologians John Chrysostom, Immanuel Kant or Paul Tillich, my primary starting place is Christian communities and what is happening in them now.

My particular work is equipping Christian leaders or pastors to listen, interpret and respond. I'm excited about exploring ways to shift from individual pastoral counseling to a new model focused on community well-being.

We are accustomed to the one-on-one, clinical, chaplain model of pastoral care. But what if six couples are going through a divorce at the same time? Several people lose jobs? One or more lose a child? If they seek out individual counseling with the pastor, they will never get to know each other or learn from one another's experience of God and faith at that time. When they are in relationship, learning from one another, the community of the congregation gets to learn as well.

How can we create conversations that bless each other? How can we equip lay caregivers to care for one another and attend equally to people's pain? Those are the questions that drive me.

Jacqueline Bussie
Director, Forum on Faith and Life;
associate professor of religion,

Concordia College, Moorhead, Minn.

Martin Luther's relationship with God was very ambivalent. He was so honest about his angst that there is a German word to describe his struggle: Anfechtungen, or moments of doubt and anxiety.

I've resonated with that because when I was in college my mother began dying of early-onset Alzheimer's disease. I'm comforted by the fact that among Lutherans, the Anfechtugen are welcome to be spoken out loud. That's what I love about being a Lutheran theologian. There is nothing I can look at and not ask hard questions about. Nothing is off limits.

In my "Problem of Evil" class, we spend time on how to respond to whatever we define as evil. We balance the evil we see with our response of hope.

We also read about and practice lament as a form of hopeful resistance. At the end of the semester, students can write a traditional paper or a lament. Last spring 18 out of 20 chose to write a lament. We sat in a public space, on the lawn, reading aloud. People cried and held each other's hands as they read and listened to one another's struggles. I also read a lament. I can't ask for vulnerability from others unless I'm willing to model it.

What we learn together is that we have to talk about the things we are afraid to talk about without covering them with pious platitudes. My students really respond to that kind of radical authenticity and vulnerability.

Interfaith cooperation, my new role, is related to the problem of evil because of religious conflict. I am teaching and researching how we can embrace the religious neighbor and still stay deeply rooted in our own tradition — and how to replace conflict with what I call "collaboration over creed."

Laurie Jungling
Assistant professor of religion,
Augustana College, Sioux Falls, S.D.

I'm interested in the Lutheran concept of vocation as a positive framework for engaging difficult moral issues, particularly issues surrounding sexuality. I think people don't always have a sense of how to discuss difficult issues honestly and fairly, with critical awareness, without screaming at each other.

The young people who take my class on sexual ethics are searching for ways to bring their sexual life into their life with God. After we review the tools of ethics, we talk about how the church has understood gender and sexuality through the ages.

Then we move into contemporary questions. What does it mean to date today? Should I "hook up" or not? Live together before marriage? How do I break up with someone? What role does my faith have in my sex life? Who should I be? What shall I do?

The whole church — not just the ELCA — has a hard time talking about spirituality and sexuality without turning it into a giant no. When I ask students whether sexuality or sexual ethics were ever discussed in confirmation or a church youth group, they say they were only told: "Don't have sex outside marriage."

The lack of training and ability to talk about these things in direct, honest ways that allow people to not be ashamed or scared but to speak thoughtfully and with integrity — this is part of the reason why the sexuality discussions were so difficult.

Shauna K. Hannan
Assistant professor of homiletics,
Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Columbia, S.C.

Someone asked me, "Why do we sit and listen to a sermon for 15 minutes each week? Why don't we just tweet a little message instead?" Questions like this motivate me to educate the whole church about why we preach. I teach seminarians how to preach collaboratively and I present workshops to laypeople on understanding preaching as a ministry of the whole congregation.

I urge my students to stop being lone rangers and start participating in text studies and talking about Sunday's text when they visit people. I want them to ask people: "What do you think about the text?"

In general graduate students are independent thinkers who don't like group work. But everything we do in the church is completely corporate and collaborative. Sitting alone in an office banging out a sermon gets the job done, but if the whole congregation participates in a conversation around the sermon and the biblical text, very likely the sermons will be more effective and faithful.

I like to remind congregations that as hearers they have a responsibility to participate too. Next time you think the preaching is dull, ask yourself what you can do to give energy to the situation.

Leila Ortiz
Doctoral candidate,
Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia; adjunct professor, Palmer Theological Seminary, Esperanza College of Eastern University, Philadelphia; coordinator, ELCA Latino/a Lay School

My specialty is systematic theology. I use ethnographic methods to observe the social, biblical and ecclesial hermeneutic of Puerto Rican women I call "Luthercostals" because they have come from a Pentecostal background. Because I, too, was born and raised Pentecostal, I'm interested in how they filter this new Lutheran theology through a Pentecostal lens.

When you come to the Lutheran church from another tradition, you tend to "appropriate" it — attempt to make it your own, to feel a sense of belonging within the tradition, theology and liturgy. This doesn't erase your own formation. Instead, faith traditions merge, bringing about something fresh, new and exciting, which gives a different flavor to the tradition already in place.

Someone asked me, at what point do we limit the change and say no, this is the tradition? I believe limiting faith experiences is not our task. We have to let God be God. To say wait a minute, you can't do this, is also oppressive.

Because Latinas have been consistently marginalized in society, church is the place where we are free. Luthercostals see God working in fascinating ways, especially through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit makes many Lutherans uncomfortable. How do you control her? We don't. If service is two hours, it's two hours. This freedom in the Spirit is a gift that Luthercostals bring to the Lutheran church.

Katherine Shaner
Assistant professor of New Testament
General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church, New York

For my dissertation, I tried to tell the story of ancient slavery and show that early Christians were struggling with it. They weren't clearly abolitionists. Galatians 3:28 proclaims that there is neither slave nor free, but Paul also uses the allegory of Hagar and Sarah to admonish Galatians not to be slaves and reprimands slaves as backward, unknowing people.

We want to valorize (assign a value to) early Christians, but they are still struggling with injustice in their world. Sometimes they don't seem to know what the injustice is. That is a piece for us today. I see myself as a faithful Christian, but I am also complicit in systems of injustice I don't even recognize.

I focus on the intersections between slavery, sexuality, gender and race. You can't talk about one without discussing all of them. Feminism, which I teach unabashedly, helps make these connections because it helps us recognize, critique and reconfigure structures of power in our stories of early Christians and our biblical interpretations.

Aana Marie Vigen
Associate professor of Christian social ethics and director of undergraduate majors/minors, Loyola University, Chicago

As a Christian ethicist, I try to equip my students with vital information about pressing ethical challenges without leaving them stranded in hopelessness. I focus on social justice and on how people have previously changed seemingly impossible situations.

Confronting climate change and health-care inequalities fuel my vocational passion. In the U.S., at one end of the spectrum there are 50 million uninsured and 20 million underinsured people. At the other end, we spend more health-care dollars on end-of-life care than on the annual budgets of the departments of Education and Homeland Security combined. People say they want to die at home among friends and family, yet the majority of people over 65 die in nursing homes, skilled care and intensive care units.

In our crazy world, 7 million children under 5 die every year from preventable, treatable diseases in impoverished contexts, while people in resource-rich contexts can get second and even third opinions, traversing elite medical institutions until the end.

Lutheran theological insights about mortality, depending on God's grace instead of trying to save ourselves, and trusting that God accepts us as fallible mortal creatures who are loved and who will die — all this is a radical word in a hyper-medical age.

lea schweitz
Lea Schweitz
Assistant professor of systematic theology/religion and science; director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago

At the Zygon Center we offer conferences, courses, lectures and a film series for students and the public. Our "Epic of Creation" course reviews biblical and theological stories of creation as well as scientific theories. We also delve into the future of creation, looking at what science can tell us about the state of the environment and how we should respond in theology and public policy.

I believe science gives us a faithful window into God's good creation. The more we know, the more wondrous it is and the more its magnificence shines through. Also, basic scientific literacy is important for church leaders serving congregations and ministering to scientists.

The public discourse around science is very polarized — you speak your piece and take your toys and go home. At the Zygon Center we create spaces where people listen first and then thoughtfully respond together.

I believe the interdisciplinary discourse of religion and science is a great vehicle for cultivating dialogical practics that are spiritually formative, creative and respectful.

Victor Thasiah
Assistant professor of religion,
California Lutheran University, Thousand Oaks

Every day we traffic in opinions, biases, prejudices and inconsistencies without carefully scrutinizing what we really think or should do about important global challenges. "Problematizing" is a tactic that complicates what seems obvious or simple, so we can better grasp the complexity of what is happening or what we are studying.

I problematize a lot when I teach. I use rich case studies to explore global conflicts and how religion is related to them. Sometimes religion is the driver, but more often conflicts are really driven by social, political or economic issues.

Students probe what's going on, looking for historical injustices, failures in governance, social inequalities and forms of what we call systemic violence. Then we look at how religion gets worked into the mix, as well as how religion can be a resource for resistance and progress.

So much of our contemporary discourse mistakenly pins the blame for global conflicts on religion. Besides challenging that view, work with these case studies is an act of love because patient, generous understanding of others helps us live in this world together and can make it a better place.

Carmelo Santos
Pastor, St. Mark Lutheran Church Springfield, Va.; lecturer,
Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

As a chemistry major, when I observed molecules interacting I felt I was witnessing the work of God. To me, science and theology go together. I need both to appreciate the world's beauty.

My specialty is pneumatology, the theology of God's Spirit. My "God in the Brain" course delves into the neuroscience of religious experience.

Brain scan studies have shown that when Franciscan and Carmelite nuns and Buddhist monks pray or meditate, activity decreases in the parts of the brain that define the boundaries of the self — where we start and end. Our feeling of separateness diminishes. Through prayer we can have an experience of unity with the rest of creation.

At the American Academy of Religion I recently presented a paper that used affective neuroscience, the study of emotions, to try to understand what I am observing among people in my congregation.

Some immigrant women from El Salvador, Bolivia and Honduras who are painfully shy when they first come to church are transformed as the congregation embraces them. They stand taller. The way they dress and move changes. They seem more confident.

I want to understand theologically and scientifically how the Holy Spirit is working in their lives. What I learn will help me be a better pastor, and when I publish my results, I can help inform the work of other ministers.

ryan cumming
Ryan Cumming
Adjunct professor,
Lewis University and Loyola University, Chicago; book review editor, The Journal of Lutheran Ethics

Just war theory is one of the longest traditions of moral thinking in the Christian church. My dissertation research showed me that just war theory is very Western, very white, and not informed by contributions from nontraditional, non-Western sources.

Carmelo Santos, a pastor of St. Mark Lutheran Church, Springfield, Va., lectures about “God and the Brain” at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

In my dissertation I turned to African-American voices like Cornel West and the black press of the early 20th century, which raised questions about World War I and the Spanish-American War.

When we listen to other sources, the questions change. Instead of asking, do we have "enough power" to win a war, we ask, is the power being used morally? Can we rely on the "authorities"? What happens to our ethics when we broaden the circle of participants and include voices that have traditionally been excluded? Sometimes only a closed circle gets to do moral reasoning.

Recently I participated in the process of drafting the ELCA social statement on criminal justice. I have a brother who is incarcerated, so I have concerns about non-dependent relatives. Applying my approach of broadening the conversation informs the way I do ethics. I want to be sure that we include perspectives that represent our diverse world.


Carol Hakala

Carol Hakala

Posted at 6:57 pm (U.S. Eastern) 2/19/2013

I find this refreshing, exciting, and am proud to call myself a Lutherans after reading the perspectives of these young-ish theologians!  

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