Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

Luther and the Erotic

Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

Luther and the Erotic

Article excerpt

In Sweden, the academic discipline of ethics has, for a long time, been influenced by analytical philosophy. Due to this hegemony, gradually the narratives disappeared also within theological ethics. By contrast, my professor, Gustaf Wingren, rarely held a seminar with his graduate students in ethics without telling a story about how Martin Luther had interpreted this special ethical problem. The narratives have long returned with narrative theology, where not only biblical, but all kinds of stories, have been integrated into ethical analysis. Selma Lagerlof, the world-famous Swedish novelist and Nobel laureate, told intriguing stories permeated with life's ambivalence. As a child, when I was still too young to read, I heard many of her stories, and they gave me a perspective of what I later discovered was referred to as the hiddenness of God.

In an interview, David Tracy says the following about Luther's response to Dionysius:

  Luther rejected Dionysius and started instead with suffering and sin,
  and utter fragmentation. He had this extraordinary and profound sense
  of the cross--that we understand God through weakness. But he also
  had this second sense of the hiddenness, this very strange sense of
  God beyond the word of the cross. When I think of what that must
  mean, there is no theoretical solution. You must flee back to the
  cross. If one wants to see this second type of hiddenness beyond the
  word, look at the great artists. See an early Ingmar Bergman film--
  like the one in which the minister screams that God is a spider. If
  you start with this Lutheran theology of the cross, and this
  apocalyptic sense of history, then your focus is exactly where it
  should be: you can't have a totality system; you must focus on the
  other. As Luther would say, you must focus on the neighbor. (1)

For Martin Luther, the fact that life is tied into a greater web, where desire and letting go vary in an intriguing dance, was a given. As a child, I heard Lagerlof's stories about Gosta Berling's unsuccessful attempt to escape over the ice with the beautiful Anna Stiernhok, who was engaged to Ferdinand, a man she did not love but whose family and estate she was supposed to save with her fortune. When wolves forced them to return to Anna's in-laws to be, Gosta says, "It was not God's will." 'Then he continues alone, on his sleigh, crying bitterly. His greatest happiness was lost.

This is a great story about the power of the erotic; strong and compelling, and hence tempting and threatening. This time Eros was not allowed to win. Sintran, who in the book symbolizes evil, appears at the end of Anna's life. She sits in her rocking chair and he asks, "How can you be so convinced that it was God who sent the wolves? Why do you not think that it could have been me?" This is one of the early stories in my life about life's ambivalence: Is it God or the devil?

There is a strong Lutheran undercurrent in Selma Lagerlof's writings. (2) Shelived at a time when the monolithic Lutheran society was challenged and breaking up under pressures horn pietistic movements and enlightenment intellectual demands for individual freedom and choice. The revivalist movements condemned Lutheran spirituality as not being spiritual and pietistic enough. In the secular realm, their understanding of the coming kingdom of Christ was a critique of society, contributing to the transformation of a static and feudal order. An egalitarian view of human beings challenged Luther's emphasis on obedience and his focus on the Fourth Commandment. As long as pietism did not lend itself to narrow moralizing, it was a revolutionary force in society. For Lagerlof, who like Ingmar Bergman belonged to a family of clergy, there was a lot to be defensive about. Hence, she revitalizes some of the best currents in Lutheran ethics, e.g., compassion for everybody within the system, regardless of their status, This is often expressed as a mild melancholy rather like when August Strindberg lets India's daughter sigh repeatedly, "Human beings are to be pitied. …

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