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Omaha, Nebraska, United States
I am more and more convinced that most congregations die from a staggering lack of imagination. Let's change that. Drop me a line on email or leave a comment if you have thoughts on God, Jesus, congregations, the church or whatever.... I look forward to our conversations.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The "Bound Conscience"

The great sociologist Robert Bellah once wrote of Roger Williams, the Baptist churchman and founder of the state of Rhode Island that he was "a moral genius but he was a sociological catastrophe." When it comes to Christianity in this country, what Bellah said of Williams could be said of many. There's an old Baptist saying that you "Preach it down to two,and build your church from there." What Williams and that saying reflect is the idea that our freedom of religion can be so idiosyncratic as to be untenable for community. That is, we'd rather be right than in a community that does not completely agree with us. Although that's good for morality, as Bellah notes, when it comes to community that idea is a "catastrophe."
Such a conversation has come up in my Lutheran tradition as we debate how to be a community even though we disagree morally--and ethically I suppose, but that conversation has little debate. As a group we are trying out the idea of a "bound conscience," and this is truly American, somewhat Lutheran, and even possibly Christian. What the idea of a "bound conscience" is trying to suggest is that people have such fervently held beliefs that no amount of argument or conversation is going to change their mind. They would rather die.
In response to this some Lutherans (the ELCA) are trying to see if we can still be a community even though our "consciences" are "bound" to different ideals about God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, our Confessions, our Liturgy, our Heritage, and our way of living in the world. For those who believe it is precisely those things we have to agree on in order to be a community of faith, then this "bound conscience" idea is just silly. But what would it say of a community that had differing ways to read scripture and its confessions, differing ways to understand how the Triune God incarnates into reality, differing ways for worship and history to be lived out? It is a bold venture, and this branch of Christianity may break on the sheer novelty of the idea...but that remains to be seen.
The "bound" part of the "conscience" equation may need a bit of history in order to be intelligble. Martin Luther was famous in his time for advocating a free will in bondage. Now, of course, if you're in bondage it is tough to be free, but Luther argued precisely that free will was a great gift of God bound by human sin. In others, as I like to say, as a Lutheran I believe that I have free will and free choice, however, I am always going to choose wrong. The most important word there is "always." That is, any choice that I make is bound to be wrong (sorry for the pun), because I--not God--am making it. When I make a choice, it is free, but it is "bound" to sin. The reason it's bound to sin is because I made it, not God...(by the way, this is why most people are not followers of Luther. Most people believe they can make free choices that God will like. Luther had no such delusion.)
Now here's where Prairie Table comes into the picture. By inviting our people to have conversations about their faith we discover our "bound consciences." (That is, stuff we believe fervently.). Now, we may not have the political and economic power to change laws, to advocate for one cause or another, but we do live together in spite of our differences. Unlike Williams we might not be "moral geniuses," but we pray we aren't a "sociological catastrophe" either.

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