Soldier in the Fight for Religious `Literacy'

In the first of five interviews with American religious thinkers, Robert Goeser observes that society has `ruled out' asking moral questions. But as the problems of war, power, and personal integrity loom larger, he says, such questions must be taken up.

THE sound of chalk hurrying across the blackboard keeps rhythm with the controlled, scholarly passion in Robert Goeser's voice. He wants to get to 16th-century reformer Martin Luther's exegesis of Galatians. But first this quietly dynamic, white-haired professor must review last week's insights into the young Luther's thoughts on Genesis 3. The English Puritan congregationalist John Robinson once wrote that ``There is still more light to break forth from the Word of God.'' That might sum up Dr. Goeser's approach to theology - and most especially to its teaching. Goeser is of the school that teaching can be a form of ministry. Many of his students and colleagues regard Goeser as one of the most influential teachers of theology they have encountered, a man who shows by example what a commitment to religious ideas is all about.

He turns to the class:

Luther ``is struggling to find a gracious God. He's moved past late medieval thought. And he unearths the idea that God's goodness is what threatens because it always calls me into relationship with Him, when what I prefer is isolation, creating my own garden, a fantasy world, what Luther called incurvatus in se or `being curved away from reality.' Thus it comes as a shock to Luther to find that the real human problem is not so much being naughty about this or that, but that we want to become a saint on our own! A false saint!''

For 30 years, Goeser has taught Christian thought - specializing in Luther and Danish philosopher S"oren Kierkegaard - at the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, located high in the hills of Berkeley. At a time when many divinity schools in the United States are criticized for a lack of divinity, or for not taking the Christian tradition seriously, Goeser fights against academic detachment. For him, the timeless issues of sin and grace, good and evil, must come alive - today. He wants more reading of Christian sources, and fewer layers of faddish analysis.

``Text demands engagement,'' says the Lutheran scholar in an interview from his office looking out to the Golden Gate bridge. ``The Scriptures - the New Testament writings, for example - were not written to become source material for historical method. They were written finally to be proclaimed. In class, you are trying to open up material which in one sense is not itself unless it is aimed at engagement, to get you to ... be involved.''

Goeser's seminar is one of the most popular courses in the Bay Area consortium known as the Graduate Theological Union. Remarkably, Goeser himself is basically unknown in scholarly religious circles. Why? Because he is a teacher. The classroom is where he works. He has never published a book, never tried to be on any cutting edges. His students, however, regard him as a hidden treasure. Carol Been, a Methodist minister, dragged her husband Michael, leader of ``The Call'' (a Bay Area rock band), to Goeser's class. Now The Call's songs echo Goeser themes.

Says Ted Trost, a PhD candidate at Harvard: ``The ideas [Goeser] exposed me to have filtered into everything I do. Take Luther's exposition of the fall, where God comes to Adam and asks him `Where art thou?' In Goeser's hands, that is an address made to each one of us - asking us ... to own[ where we are, and to confront that in ourselves. Or, take the idea that it's not people who are consciously bad who are always the problem - it's often the presumption of righteousness that good people have. But I can't point Goesar out in a footnote.''

Now near the end of his teaching career, Goeser feels that engagement with religious ideas has become more important. Politically, and as a society, he says, ``we've ruled out moral questions.'' Schools don't raise serious religious questions, he argues. Yet the problems of war, power, and personal integrity have increased in the past decade, he says, a time when it was seen as ```enough' to be successful economically.''

Students need help to see that, historically, ``One simply doesn't know where one comes from unless one deals with the Judeo-Christian roots of Western culture,'' Goesar says. Even divinity students have little knowledge of the 2nd through the 5th centuries AD, he notes. Students tell him the period isn't important. Goeser replies: ``This was the time when the Biblical tradition with Augustine and the classical tradition are coming together and they are creating Western civilization. And you have never encountered it.''

At a more personal level, students need better equipment to ``read'' the modern world in a moral sense. He's quick to argue against moralizing. But students need a religious ``literacy'' to think through and apply such basic concepts as faith, redemption, human nature, and good and evil. ``One can't escape the question, Who am I? Where am I going? and why?'' Goesar says. ``Our society doesn't want to raise the question `Why?'''

During the Vietnam War, Goeser helped prepare a student for court who wanted to argue for conscientious objector status. Goeser found the young man ``had no concepts, no symbols - absolutely none. He had some feelings that war was wrong. But he couldn't articulate them. He was totally naive. Like the soldiers who went to Vietnam and saw and did dreadful things, he had nothing in his mind to help him make sense of the experience, or to deal with evil.''

THE 20th century witnessed a mass, impersonal brutality in thought and ideas that cries out for religious perspective, Goeser states. Science in the 19th century assumed it could rule out romantic questions about responsibility, purpose, and ``why?'' An ``icy detachment'' settled in. German scholar Erich Heller asked of that time: What will happen when there's a union of icy detachment and a hot lust for power? ``He was looking ahead to the 20th century and fascism,'' says Goeser. ``The scientist Richard von Weisacker asks the same question: What will happen when justice and love are detached from power? Well, that's the demonic. Augustine says marvelously in the `City of God' that the demonic is power without justice.''

The problem, Goeser intones, is that Americans too often ignore basic questions of evil. He traces this in American thought to overzealous assumptions of America as a New World stripped clean of ``corrupt, old, evil Europe.'' The result is a ``false innocence,'' a ``Leave it to Beaver'' syndrome, Goeser says. Americans need to remember they aren't ``innocent of responsibility,'' he adds.

Among the tools Goeser uses to illuminate theology, literature is key. Shakespeare's ``Macbeth'' becomes an example of the fallacy of personal righteousness. Goeser is especially fond of ``Huckleberry Finn,'' and today launches into an exegesis: ``Huck is nearly killed by his father when his father's in a drunken stupor. Huck realizes he has to escape - that this is not a game, as it is for Tom Sawyer.... cho, who, you remember, attacked caravans that turned out to be Sunday School classes. It was make-believe... For Huck, it's for real - it's life. He goes for the island, meets Jim, and they start down the river. And Jim is acting like the father Huck never had. Everything goes nicely until Huck realizes he's helping a runaway slave to escape. He determines he must turn Jim in. Then there's the great chapter where Huck prays to God and realizes `You can't pray a lie' and says `Well, even if I have to go to hell I can't turn Jim in.' The greatness of this is that he's alone and nobody can make this decision for him. And in making the decision he goes against society, but I would argue that in doing so he joins the human race.''

With that, Goeser blinks and starts off about the concept of ``misplaced concreteness.'' He isn't even winded.

The lesson of the Goesers of this world, say students and colleagues, is that if the study of religion is to be kept alive and healthy it will be as much by the example of an honest, passionate searching, as by anything else.

TODAY: Influential teacher Robert Goeser

Feb. 25: Christian radicals Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon

March 4: Philosopher Carol Ochs

March 11: Black lecturer Cornel West

March 18: Christian Century editor James Wall

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