Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 110 (February 2001): 13-14.
“When given the option,” Garrison Keillor tells us, “Lutherans will always downsize.” So far as I can tell, personal “downsizing” is the only way to make sense of what Mark Noll fairly calls the “remarkably unremarkable” history of American Lutherans. Such a quip shouldn’t be anywhere near surprising, let alone offensive, to most of us Lutherans. In fact we probably take “remarkably unremarkable” to be an almost cheery assessment of our famously phlegmatic lives. Such modesty ranks right up there with our other virtues: constancy, candor, and an affinity for things commonplace and unaffected. Outré we are not.
A built–in aversion to popularity seems to be Lutherans’ animating instinct. It’s a soundly orthodox one too, most of us think. For all their irresistible silliness, the pious inhabitants of Keillor’s Lake Wobegon certainly have one thing right—all things being equal, Lutherans prefer to be as unassuming as humanly possible. In the annals of American history, we’ve garnered precious little main text; we’re the cultural equivalent of a buried footnote.
How Lutherans have managed to dodge the limelight of so many American historical moments is truly astounding. You might say that the tone was set as far back as 1565, when explorer Pedro Menendez razed a Huegenot settlement and hanged its misidentified inhabitants “as Lutherans.” At times, we’ve had a membership larger than the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Disciples, and Quakers combined, yet our history has been less noticeable than the Unitarians’. (If orthodox Christian historians have judged Unitarians as unfortunately famous, we’ve been justly dubbed famously unfortunate.) Our newsworthy potential, it’s been pithily said, has been “not very great.” While we can now lay claim to Chief Justice William Rehnquist, we still have very little to brag about as far as “movers and shakers” go, a category about which we are naturally suspicious. I’d like to say that Lutherans are busy instead with the silent labor of life, but that sounds too pretentious for Lutheran sensibilities.
An uncommon talent for solitude keeps things this way too. I’ve known a lot of Lutherans who, like me, are never less alone than when by themselves. Cultivating my privacy is a cherished pastime, and marks me, I should think, as incurably Lutheran, at least as far as demeanor goes. At the end of the day, we are a people known for impressive silences, both individually and collectively.
“Success is not a gospel category,” Hans Urs von Balthasar once wrote. Were it not for the fact of its Catholic origins, that statement could serve as a motto for many a small town in Minnesota—too much success, along with spending money, being habits that could very well get out of control. There’s the old maxim to “play things safe,” and then there’s the Lutheran version that gets a little nervous about the “play” part. “Keep things safe” might be more appropriate—after all, we don’t want to give my Grandmother the vapors, or whatever its Norwegian equivalent.
“Lutheran irony” explains all this, really. This basically holds that the surest path to self–righteous impiety is an overly eager piety. As (quasi–Lutheran) Reinhold Niebuhr summed it up, “Human pride and arrogance rise to new heights precisely at the point where the claims of sanctity are made without due qualification.” Historically Lutherans have thus tended to look askance at impatient attempts at vast social improvement, rightly seeing in them human arrogance. Niebuhr didn’t mean to be funny when he said that Lutheranism evinces a “mystical fear of action,” but for a Lutheran student of theology that’s gut–wrenching humor—which, upon further thought, is kind of sad. I once overheard a discussion about campus politics that summed up Lutheran irony quite well: “You’re just never going to hear that the Lutherans are angry and they’re mobilizing.”
Yet there’s an interesting flip–side to our unremarkable history. Perhaps no theology is so wonderfully unfitted as Lutheranism for the triumphant, but often disordering, American Century. The American Success Story requires a list of ingredients that reads something like a Lutheran anti–creed: an obsession for the new and untried; a condescension towards the old and tried; a mania for self–expressive accomplishment; a creative drive to overcome, define, and establish oneself over and above others. These distinguishing characteristics have been strung into a charming civic poesy. Yet American Lutherans have been little inspired by this, not being people of an epic state of mind. Fame, for Lutherans, seems best accomplished by accident, if at all. In this vein Falstaff is surely revealed as an “anonymous Lutheran” in his dictum, “The better part of valor is discretion.”
Despite an antipathy towards the historical stage, Lutherans do appreciate the gravity of true drama. Ours, however, is the massive drama that saturates the In Between Time and inflates everyday life and human interaction to cosmic proportions; it searches with a loving gaze for the “inscapes” of the visible world. The humbling dynamism of creation admonishes us, to paraphrase Nietzsche’s Madman, not to try to drink up the sea or wipe away the horizon. At the same time we also realize that our world is in a fragile state, hanging precariously on the thread of God’s love. Accordingly, Lutherans live delicately.
We keep a low profile because for us nothing fails to get caught up in the dramatic tension between divine and human righteousness. Creation is thick drama that tends to be upstaged when we become too dramatic ourselves. The “downsizing” Keillor describes isn’t about self–effacement, but about letting the delicate drama of Creation unfold on God’s terms. It involves the recognition, as Josef Pieper said, that reality is always something more than can be grasped, “an inexhaustible light that can never be drunk up.” What’s left for us is only humble and hopeful cooperation, aided all the while by faith in God’s plan.
Lutherans are thus people of respectful pauses, about which, two points. First, it would be hard—very hard—to imagine a theology or deportment more out of step with the zeitgeist. One social scientist indirectly concluded as much when he described Lutherans as “indistinct,” “hard to identify,” “unobtrusive,” as well as “on the fringe.” Again, that’s more a backhanded compliment than an indictment to a Lutheran. What sets Lutherans apart is the sense of the impassable limits of human existence, a metaphysical reservation that the restless modern temper contradicts at every turn. Our age is one in which spectacles always trump habits, and therefore one that finds the “theology of the cross” not simply a stumbling–block or foolishness, but wholly incomprehensible.
My second point is much more sanguine. Though Lutherans aren’t entirely estranged from the modern world, we most certainly depart from its modus vivendi by trying to understand the world before changing it, to put a turn on Marx’s famous line. What we lack in self–assertion we make up for in mental poise—the serenity of the spirit that comes from the temperantia of man’s inner order. It is that which also offers us the reminder that we should only seek “to be a model within our range,” as the young Henry Adams said of his own yearnings. Against the whirl and blur of modernity we revel in what Niebuhr called “freedom from anxiety.”
There’s something tremendously comforting and humane about such contentment. It is good to remind ourselves that at absolutely no point does the gospel guarantee historical success or moral progress. Instead the theology of the cross counsels us to take “long views,” as Burke put it. Burke’s Tory counterpart Dr. Johnson shared an undeniably Lutheran view of human expectations when he rhymed: “How small, of all that human hearts endure, / That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.”
And so Lutheranism offers the peace of mind that comes with a sense of limits, and the imperishable joy that comes with believing that all things work for good. It offers the inescapable conclusion that in our beginning is our end. To “Lutheran irony” I would thus like to add “Lutheran composure,” not a blissful ignorance or a “passive righteousness” (as Luther himself called it), but a healthy faith in the long–term virtue of being, well, spectacularly normal. Not a bad thing that.
Matthew Rose is an Editorial Assistant at First Things.