Spirituality at the heart of Lutheran identity

9 Oct 2020
Traditionally baked Ethiopian bread being shared out with participants at a global consultation on Lutheran identities in Addis Abeba in October 2019. Photo: LWF/Albin Hillert

Traditionally baked Ethiopian bread being shared out with participants at a global consultation on Lutheran identities in Addis Abeba in October 2019. Photo: LWF/Albin Hillert

Fourth ‘Being Lutheran’ webinar focuses on Spirituality in contemporary church life and worship

(LWI) - How do we experience the Holy Spirit in our lives today? How has the COVID-19 pandemic challenged our understanding of spirituality and sacramental life? How can Luther’s own teachings on grace and Christian living help to reclaim the centrality of the Spirit as a key to Lutheran identity in different national and cultural contexts?

These reflections were at the heart of a Lutheran World Federation (LWF) webinar on 7 October featuring Finnish pastor, Rev. Dr Kirsi Stjerna, a professor of history and theology at the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California. The webinar, which gathered participants from around the globe, was the fourth in a monthly series on ‘Being Lutheran’ and part of the ongoing study process on contemporary Lutheran identities.

In the North American context where she teaches, Stjerna noted, there is a lot of “hermeneutical suspicion towards the word spirituality,” often judged to be less serious than the study of scripture and doctrine. She contrasted that attitude with her own experience as a child growing up in Finland, where spirituality meant simply “being aware of the Spirit in and around us, especially in nature and in the community where sacraments are celebrated.”

Re-reading Luther’s language

In Lutheran scholarship, she continued, “it has seemed that the Holy Spirit and spirituality was left behind,” even though it has remained a part of daily living for Lutherans in local communities. Finnish theologians, she pointed out, have “done a great service by not only illuminating Luther’s scholarship from the perspective of spirituality, but also drawing attention to the vital connection between justification and spirituality.”

Taking a fresh look at how Luther understood and experienced justification, Stjerna insisted, can help us “appreciate Luther’s unique faith language about grace and Christian life.” Exploring his faith experience and practices, she said, “is an important step in reclaiming the word spirituality as applicable for Lutherans” as well as being very significant for ecumenical relations.

To re-read Luther in this new light, Stjerna suggested, is to return to the roots of the Reformation and its call for a church which could properly nourish people in both physical and spiritual ways. Understanding Luther’s “transformative experience of grace” enables us to see his Reformation insights as “spiritual and biblical discoveries first,” alongside their theological, practical and political implications.

Liberating role of feminist theology

Reflecting on the important role of feminist theology in reclaiming the role of the Spirit in contemporary Lutheran studies, Stjerna spoke of the spirituality of medieval mystics such as Saints Bridget of Sweden, Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen. Rediscovering these expressions of feminist spirituality, she said, has fueled the development of “Lutheran practices of spirituality and liturgical expressions of faith.”

Feminist theology and spirituality have also freed the church to become “more inclusive and multidimensional,” Stjerna added, “overcoming dichotomies of body and spirit, and ensuring the empowerment and transformation of individuals and communities.” Last but not least, she concluded, they have highlighted for Lutherans the importance of “Earth Care as an essential part of [our] spiritual orientation to life.”

Commenting on the presence of the Spirit within liturgical rituals, theology student Novrianna Hutagalung, from the Protestant Christian Batak Church (HKBP) in Indonesia, talked about the traditional practice of mourning as a means for trauma healing. When we use music and dance to express grief, mourning can become a way to experience “a grace of the Holy Spirit,” she said. In perceiving how “the Spirit mourns with us,” she added, we learn to accept the way that such “wounds always leave their mark,” an essential step in the healing and recovery process.

Spirituality for our time

LWF’s Program Executive for Identity, Communion and Formation, Rev. Dr Chad Rimmer, who moderated the webinar, commented: “Many of the injustices that we face today are spiritual problems. The climate crisis, rise in ethno-nationalism, the pushback against women’s rights are the consequence of binary or dualistic thinking, that separate our mind from our body, humans from nature, men from women, races or nationalities from one another. So, when we talk about spirituality, as Christians we are talking about our whole self and community being reintegrated in God’s Spirit.”

“The Lutheran tradition is a dynamic, active, living faith that motivates us to respond to the needs of our time. When we speak about ‘spiritualities’ of non-violence, work, food, sex, or eco-spirituality, we are saying that these faithful practices of daily life are rooted in God’s Spirit. Luther affirmed that faith was not just belief in a rational or emotional sense. Faith is Christ’s presence at work in us. So, our practices of prayer, music, sacraments, theological reflection or reading the Bible together root all of our ‘spiritualities’ in God’s Spirit that is constantly renewing the face of the Earth.”

Participants shared ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult to sustain spiritual practices such as sharing Holy Communion, singing or praying together. Rimmer noted, “our communion with God is mediated through our words, our use of water, and sharing bread and wine.” So while many people are safely finding fellowship through online platforms, “we are asking ourselves, is this ‘virtual’ communion, or is this ‘real’ communion that is digitally mediated? These are new questions for our time. But we face them together knowing that we are united in the same Spirit through baptism. That is the timeless source of Christian spirituality that equips us for our time.”


See all the Being Lutheran - webinar series videos

The next ‘Being Lutheran’ webinar on 4 November will focus on the priesthood of all baptized Christians and is entitled: ‘Every call is holy’. Register here.