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It sometimes seems to me through the mists of memory that I spent my childhood in church. That is not actually the case, of course. There was the weekly Sunday morning service, preceded by Sunday School, and it was invariable, no more to be questioned or argued over than attendance at regular school on Monday morning. Sunday meant church, and that was that. But aside from special occasions—midweek services during Lent, church suppers (to this day I avoid church basements because they invariably bring to mind those tedious, endless suppers)—that was all. A few hours each Sunday morning, and yet that experience dominates my recollections of childhood.

Which is not to suggest that those memories are negative. They are not, though they are not especially positive, either. Church simply was, part of that taken-for-granted world that children—or at least children as unimaginative or unrebellious as I was—accept as the nature of things. Church was like my parents or my brother and sisters: not to be compared with possible alternatives or weighed in the balance but simply to be acknowledged as a given of existence.

But part of church, at least, I loved—the hymns. I was as a singer much as I was as an athlete: more enthusiasm than talent. I sang loudly and more or less on key, and because my father was organist and choir director of the various Lutheran churches we attended during my boyhood, I was always drafted for the children’s choir and occasionally even given a semi-prominent role, but I was never as good as my family heritage or personal eagerness might have predicted.

Still, I sang, and with great earnestness. As with most children—and, for that matter, most adults—my preferences had less to do with the words of the hymns than the melodies. My bent was toward the romantic, not to say the kitschy. I was (as I still am) regularly moved to tears by melodies that I know (though I did not then know) are designed to do precisely that. The Lutheran heritage in music is far from barren—Luther himself was a musician of note and to be Lutheran is to know that J. S. Bach is to music as Shakespeare is to literature—but the musical culture of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) had by the 1940s been considerably corrupted by American evangelical Protestantism, and I wallowed in the corruption.

I cannot pick out any one hymn of childhood as my favorite: there were so many. But there is one that comes regularly to mind when I think of those years, in large part because it is so totally relegated to that time. Many, even most, of my childhood favorites I still get to sing at least on occasion. Lutherans today are both more sophisticated and more liturgically minded than they were in my youth and so they are less tolerant of the sentimental nineteenth-century gospel songs that for so long dominated Protestant hymnody, but they will now and then allow those of us at mid-life or beyond to sing again the songs we grew up with but which more informed tastes tell us (and we try to tell ourselves) we should not have liked as much as we did. But there are limits, and “I’m But a Stranger Here” is definitely beyond them.

The problem is not in the music, though Arthur S. Sullivan’s (yes, of Gilbert and Sullivan) melody is predictable and banal, but in the words. The theology they express is that from which most Lutherans today want desperately to distance themselves.

I’m but a stranger here, Heav’n is my home;
Earth is a desert drear, Heav’n is my home.
Danger and sorrow stand Round me on every hand;
Heav’n is my fatherland, Heav’n is my home.

What though the tempest rage, Heav’n is my home;
Short is my pilgrimage, Heav’n is my home;
And time’s wild wintry blast Soon shall be overpast;
I shall reach home at last, Heav’n is my home.

There at my Savior’s side Heav’n is my home;
I shall be glorified, Heav’n is my home.
There are the good and blest, Those I love most and best;
And there I, too, shall rest, Heav’n is my home.

Therefore I murmur not, Heav’n is my home;
Whate’er my earthly lot, Heav’n is my home;
And I shall surely stand There at my Lord’s right hand,
Heav’n is my fatherland, Heav’n is my home.

If ever a hymn perfectly expressed the quietism and escapism to which Lutheran theology at its worst is presumably given, this is it (even if neither hymnodist nor lyricist [T. R. Taylor] happened to be Lutheran). The sense of life as that which we but pass through (“I’m but a stranger here”), of misery as our natural condition (“earth is a desert drear”) and therefore stoically to be borne (“Therefore I murmur not . . . whate’er my earthy lot”), all of which because our fleeting and brutish existence here is but the prelude to our true end (“Heav’n is my fatherland, Heav’n is my home”): this hymn catches it all. Marx’s view of religion as a failure of nerve, a rationalization of misery and injustice and a projection onto an otherworldly future of that which ought to be realized here, would seem in this hymn to find quintessential expression.

I can’t say that I thought through the theological implications of “I’m But a Stranger Here,” but its view of things was not inconsistent with what my overall church experience taught me to be true. The theology of the LCMS focused unflinchingly on sin and its consequences. We were not Fundamentalists, and no self-respecting LCMS congregation would have abided a minister who preached hellfire-and-damnation sermons. We were theologically literate—the subtle dialectics of Lutheran theology required doctrinal astuteness—and we had little use in our piety for emotionalism or enthusiasm. But if we were not Fundamentalists, even less were we theological liberals. We were orthodox Christians of Augustinian persuasion—which is to say again that we knew about sin and its consequences.

The ultimate consolation of the gospel message—the message of salvation—dissolves, we knew, into sentimentality without a clear sense of what it is that the gospel saves us from. No illusions for us about human nature, no nonsense about innate goodness rendered corrupt only by experience or society. Sin was real and personal and its consequence was death and separation from God, a death and separation conquered only in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Beyond that—and this was central to our view of life—our reconciliation with God, though accomplished in time, would only be fully realized in eternity. We were, by grace through faith and by virtue of our baptisms, new persons in Christ, but the final destruction of the fallen Old Adam would find its consummation only at the End Time. In the meantime, we were, though ultimately redeemed, still marked by sin.

As sinners in a sinful world, knowing that the infinitely better awaited us beyond the grave, we experienced life as the time in-between. Life was not for us without its joys and graces, but we expected from it only imperfect fulfillment. We were—and those who have read their Augustine know not just the words but their import—strangers, pilgrims, aliens. We sojourned here, but we looked beyond. Heaven was our home.

To look on life that way was most un-American. Being Lutherans, people who believe that God rules in his left-hand temporal kingdom (through justice) as well as in his right-hand kingdom of eternity (through love), we were not truly escapists, quietists, or non-participants. But we often looked and acted that way. And in the American context—that complex mix of enlightenment philosophy, republican civic morality, commercial instinct, and evangelical Calvinist religion—we were most thoroughly not at home.

Our separateness from the American reality, rooted in theology, was accentuated by ethnicity. Members of the LCMS were overwhelmingly German-American, and the history of the United States in the twentieth century—particularly that of the First and Second World Wars—has made German-Americans culturally uneasy. The First World War made Germanic identity politically suspect; the Second made it morally problematic. My parents, hoping to find acceptance for themselves and their children as Americans, gave up much of the Germanness that had defined them in the secure ethnic enclaves in which they grew up. The rural Lutheran communities of the Saginaw Valley in central Michigan where they had spent their childhoods were so thoroughly German in language and culture that they might as well still have been located in the Franconia (now part of Bavaria) from which they had sprung.

My siblings and I, thoroughly conditioned by the Nazi experience not to identify ourselves by our ethnic origins, knew nonetheless that our identity as Missouri Synod Lutherans tied us inescapably to an ethnic tradition that, while sufficiently removed from us that we did not have to feel guilty about it, remained culturally suspect. We could avoid being ashamed of our German origins only by not taking them seriously. Yet they were there, and their being there somehow contributed to our sense of ourselves as outsiders in America.

The combination in us of theological preoccupation and cultural insecurity made politics a marginal concern. No Lutheran pastor in my childhood ever made—whether in or out of the pulpit—a public political comment (though it was generally assumed that most of them, if they voted at all, voted Republican), and while we occasionally talked politics at home (my father was a Robert Taft isolationist Republican), the true family passion was religion. When the larger family gathered, the talk was almost exclusively of the Church—by which was meant, of course, the LCMS. (It was one of the great curiosities of my childhood that so few people outside of my family and congregation understood the centrality of the fate of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod to world-historical development.)

None of this should be taken to suggest that we were politically estranged from our country. Quite the contrary. Most members of the LCMS were deeply patriotic. They voted—like their pastors, usually Republican. (Indeed, the experience of my childhood so ingrained the identification of LCMS orthodoxy and Republican affiliation that I found it difficult for years thereafter not to suspect that disavowal of the latter brought the former into question.) But neither politics nor patriotism was of ultimate concern. In the greater scheme of things, politics fit in there somewhere with sports: something that could engage our interest—even, in its clearly subordinate place, our lesser passions—but never our vital concern. Politics, like all other activities this side of the kingdom, was flawed, transient, not worthy of total engagement. It paled—as did all else—into insignificance before the one thing that genuinely mattered.

All this was part of my childhood and of the context in which the sentiments of “I’m But a Stranger Here” could appear unexceptionable. Much of it I would not now recommend. It made at best for an incomplete vision of the Christian life, at worst for a radically distorted one.

Of those radical distortions we are today unavoidably aware. The record of the German Lutherans during the Nazi era was, all in all, morally scandalous, and many have taken that record as a definitive negative judgment on Lutheran two-kingdoms theology. I do not myself accept that judgment. One can concede that the tendency of two-kingdoms theology to subordinate political concerns to a lesser realm made it easier than it should have been for Lutherans under Hitler to ignore or rationalize the regime’s moral evils, but the Nazis’ anti-Semitism and their exaltation of the State to idolatrous heights could find no justification in legitimate Lutheran doctrines of morality or church-state relations. German Lutherans gave way before Hitler not as a logical conclusion of Lutheran theology but as a craven betrayal of Christian or humanistic ethics of any sort. The theological and moral witness of a Dietrich Bonhoeffer stands as evidence that, for those ready to look for them, the Lutheran tradition provides resources enough for resistance to tyranny.

But the collective failure remains, and if it does not in itself constitute evidence against Lutheran construals of political morality, it does provide salutary warning against a characteristic deformation of such construals. It is one thing to know the limits of justice, quite another to suppose that because political justice must always be ambiguous and imperfect, it does not really matter at all and so can be relegated to the margins of our concern.

A less momentous and more recent instance than that of the Nazi experience offers a bizarre variation on the distortions to which Lutheran piety is liable. Some months back, Americans found bewildered fascination in the story of John Emil List, a Missouri Synod Lutheran who, out of despair over his inability to provide for his family and concern over the state of their souls, killed his mother, wife, and three children. (This example hits embarrassingly close to home: List is my mother’s maiden name and John List is, in fact, a distant cousin.) List’s conclusion that for his loved ones death was preferable to suffering or to the possibility of falling away from the faith provides a perverse, grotesque, yet not entirely unrecognizable extension of the piety that I knew as a child. After all, if “I’m but a stranger here” and if the heavenly home to which our paths are directed provides the only genuine satisfaction we can know (“earth is a desert drear”), well, then . . . List’s original intention to dispatch his family on All Saints Day—a day, he wrote his pastor, particularly appropriate for them to leave this world and enter the next—is chilling evidence of a mind gone quite mad, but mad in a manner not untouched by Lutheran understandings.

Now no Lutheran in adequate possession of his church’s teaching will suppose that he has the right to play God, to make life-and-death decisions for himself or others. I would not for a moment lay at the feet of the LCMS John List’s homicidal delusions. He had only a greatly flawed understanding of his church’s dogma, and no understanding at all of its faith. But there is something instructive for Lutherans in pondering where and how List went so radically wrong.

In clinging so zealously to the thing most important, Lutherans tended unnecessarily to denigrate those penultimate goods that are God’s gifts to us. Our visions focused on the transcendent, we did not always get from life what we should have because we did not always give to it what it deserved. Rather than see eternal life as a continuum begun in our baptisms and extended through life into eternity, we were tempted to posit instead a radical discontinuity between “time’s wild wintry blast” and our destiny in time to come. It is the great conceit of all generations that they know more and better than those who came before, but I nonetheless am persuaded that many in my parents’ generation led lives more parched than they needed to be because of religious sensibilities more constricted than they should have been.

I concede the danger of over-theologizing here. After all, that generation endured both the pressures of the coerced Americanization process that occurred among German-Americans in the wake of the First World War as well as the more immediate agonies and uncertainties of the Great Depression. Straitened circumstances do make for straitened lives.

Perhaps it is most accurate to say that those generational experiences intensified certain tendencies already present in Lutheran piety. The Lutheranism of my childhood appears to me in retrospect not only more negative than it had to be but also more fearful. It was often emotionally repressed, inclined to view human loves not as extensions of God’s love for us but as rivals of that love. We worried more than was necessary that love of life might lessen love of God. That can happen, of course, but I’m not sure I ever knew a Missouri Synod Lutheran for whom it was a clear and present danger. Even as it is sometimes suggested that the idea of Lutheran ethics is oxymoronic, so it is only with great difficulty that one can even imagine a Dionysian Lutheran.

There was also in the piety of my childhood—and this is particularly ironic in view of Martin Luther’s suspicion of human reason—an unhealthy strain of rationalism. Not rationalism in the enlightenment sense, of course, but rather in an exaggerated emphasis on right belief. It was as if faith consisted not in trust in the promises of God as to our eternal destiny, but in rational assent to a prescribed set of doctrines. As Lutherans we knew—if we knew nothing else—that we could not earn our way into heaven by our deeds, but we sometimes gave way to the presumption that we could make our way there by the rigor of our orthodoxy. We were never works-mongers, but we were occasionally doctrine-mongers.

All that being said, I would not leave the matter there. If there is much in the piety in which I grew up that I regret, there is also much for which I will be forever grateful. In theology as in ethics: no one system can command all the virtues. The weaknesses of Missouri’s theology were the obverse of its strengths. If that theology was too often negative, it was never frivolous or insubstantial. If it was excessively fearful, it did not cave in to every passing fad from the secular culture. If it paid insufficient attention to questions of social justice, it never for a moment supposed that political issues can or should carry eschatological freight. To be a Missouri Synod Lutheran in my childhood was to be a serious person. It was to be undeceived without being cynical.

One hears of “cultural Catholics,” those who have forsaken the doctrines of the faith but who nonetheless feel some sort of continuing tie, however tenuous, to Catholic identity. If there is such a thing as “cultural Lutheranism,” it has less to do with tugs of memory or communal nostalgia than with a certain habit of unsentimental analysis of the human condition. Lutherans throw themselves as radically as they do on God’s grace because they know as intensely as they do the reality of sin—sin not simply or even essentially as concession to the passions but as fundamental alienation from the will of God.

Martin Marty has written in recent years of “the cultural unavailability of hell.” Christianity has lost—more, I think, for better than for worse—its primal negative sanction: it cannot, outside of Fundamentalist circles, scare people into faith by threats of eternal punishment. As already indicated, Lutherans have never been Fundamentalists, and they have never been comfortable with hellfire-and-brimstone piety, but it is difficult to see how over time one can continue to speak meaningfully of sin without insisting that sin—like grace—has consequences. Lutheran theology rests on the dialectic of law and gospel. If the law is not of significance, it is difficult to see how the gospel can be. The Lutheranism of my childhood taught me of the life-and-death importance of the presence or absence of God in human life. If the question of God matters at all, how could things be otherwise? I would not presume to spell out the precise eternal consequences of that presence or absence—that is God’s business, not ours—but it strikes me (the Missouri influence again) that those consequences cannot be tamely domesticated to our specifications.

It is not only in regard to the Last Things that my LCMS nurturing instructed me, but to the penultimate ones as well. As to politics, for example, not only were all Missouri Lutherans securely inoculated against the temptations of the Social Gospel—or anything like it—we were, one might say, made safe for patriotism. We could love America—feel toward it all that respect, pride, and affection that it is natural for people to extend to their homelands—without being tempted to the idolatrous nationalism that has deformed modern history. How could American Lutherans make an idol of a nation whose philosophical assumptions (enlightenment liberalism) and dominant religious tradition (revivalist Calvinism) were so fundamentally at odds with their most basic understandings? Because we were at the deepest level of our beings strangers in America we could be safely at home there. We could affirm all its good gifts without making of them more than they warranted.

One comes back again and again to the Augustinian theme. The City of God makes clear that for Christians of any society, theirs is a pilgrimage in an ultimately alien country. Every Sunday of my childhood we listened to the pastor recite—at what then seemed tedious length—the General Prayer in The Lutheran Hymnal. It ended with these words (I still know them from memory though I have not heard them spoken in years):

And as we are strangers and pilgrims on earth, help us by true faith and a godly life to prepare for the world to come; doing the work Thou hast given us to do while it is day; before the night Cometh when no man can work. And when our last hour shall come, support us by Thy power and receive us into Thine everlasting kingdom; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord . . .

Strangers and pilgrims on earth—yet, as Augustine also knew, necessary participants as well. Growing up in the Missouri Synod I understood, with Augustine, that for all that we must give to life on earth, and for all that it can so richly give back, we have here no abiding city. Which is just another way of saying, of course, that I knew that heaven is my home.

James Nuechterlein is Editor of First Things.

Image by Riya Chan via Creative Commons. Image cropped.