Normally I don’t get my spiritual direction and theological tips from the New York Times, not even back in the day when I thought Sunday mornings were for curling up with the Week in Review section instead of going to church. But I was caught up short the other day when I was tracking down the Times’ 2008 obituary of Krister Stendhal, a dean of Harvard Divinity School who also served as a bishop in the Church of Sweden. I’m interested in Swedish Lutherans, anyway; I’ve written about the churches they planted in America, and presented historical papers on Swedish-American immigration. But this went way beyond an academic interest. The passage read:

In an interview with The New York Times in 1974, Dr. Stendahl rejected Christians’ emphasis on life after death as “selfish” and as absent from Judaism and early Christianity.

Why, of course, I thought. That’s it in a nutshell.

When I was growing up down South, there was a pervasive evangelical Protestant focus on salvation, heaven, hell, fire and brimstone — as far as I was concerned, it was as much a part of the ambient atmosphere as sunshine and rainclouds. You saw “Jesus Saves” and “Prepare to Meet God” spray-painted on the rocks above highway cuts in the mountains, and you heard it from sidewalk preachers in Knoxville and a host of daytime-only 500-watt radio stations.

I don’t remember if “selfish” was the exact word I used, but it’s close enough. As a 16-year-old, I remember paraphrasing it — no doubt unfairly — as “I’m gonna get my ass into heaven, and it’s just too bad about all of the rest of you.” My own mainline Protestant church counseled us to love God and love our neighbor, but the fire-and-brimstone stuff predominated and it was one of the things that turned me off on organized religion.

So I was intrigued by the quote from Stendahl, which was kind of shirt-tailed onto the end of his obit in the Times.

Intrigued, I did what I always do — I got on Google and tracked it down. It came as a throwaway quote in the middle of a 1974 New York Times trend story on changing attitudes that mentioned Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ On Death and Dying, then on the best-seller lists; hospice care; and living wills, both of which were innovations at the time (the Times put them in quotation marks on first reference). Here it is in context:

Theologians, too, are giving new attention to the meaning of human mortality and raising old but neglected questions about the very purpose of human existence. With the notion of personal immortality through an afterlife receding, in the view of many theologians, some see a return to purer, less selfish, form of religion stressing faith in God rather than the promise of life after death.

“This enormous emphasis on immortality was not in Judaism or early Christianity — people use religion for selfish purposes,” said Krister Stendahl, dean of divinity at Harvard.

Now I was really intrigued.

Krister Stendahl was an interesting guy. An ordained priest (präst) of the Church of Sweden, he received his doctorate at the University of Uppsala in 1954, writing his dissertation on the Dead Sea Scrolls, and joined the faculty at Harvard Divinity in 1955. He spent most of his career as an academic in America, except for a stint in the 1980s as bishop of the Lutheran diocese of Stockholm. There he championed reforms including the ordination of women, what we now know as LGBTQ rights and the separation of the Church of Sweden from the state.

Returning to the Boston area after four years in Stockholm, Stendahl was a chaplain at the divinity school, a lecturer at nearby Brandeis University and a “regular presence at Harvard Divinity School events, sitting in the front row … and often asking penetrating questions of a speaker or a panel.”

More of a teacher, mentor and pastor than a systematic theologian, according to his students, Stehdahl wasn’t big on written theology. But in a 2001 address at Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church in Cambridge, he elaborated on the issues mentioned in that New York Times obit that grabbed hold of me. His talk was transcribed and printed in the divinity school’s newsletter under the title “Why I Love the Bible.”

There are, he said, “at least three quite distinct symbol systems, or paradigms, for Christian theology coming out of the Bible.”

(I think you can tell, by the way, he was a classroom teacher. Once you’ve taught for a while, you realize all human knowledge comes in threes — “my first point … the second … and third, are you getting this down, anyone? anyone?” — and they fit into 50-minute blocks of time —

(I think another way you can tell he was primarily a teacher, and a very good one at that, was the way he leaves you with more questions than pat answers.)

The first theological paradigm, in Stendahl’s telling of it, was God as judge; the second was a “sociopolitical model” of God as a lawgiver who covenants with humankind. “[T]hat’s Calvin and also the Jewish tradition,” he noted. It’s also the fire-and-brimstone tradition that turned me off so much back in East Tennessee.

The third paradigm he found in the Gospel according to St. John:

It’s all about life. Sin is sickness, not primary guilt. It’s not about obedience and Lordship. It’s life: He came that they should have life, and have it abundantly. In him was life. Out of his innermost parts, streams of living water will flow (John 7). And everything is to be born anew, born out of water and blood (John 3). That’s John, and that’s Eastern Christendom. There is no crucifix in an Eastern church; there is the icon, where the divine life shines through the human image.

Each of the four gospels is different, he said, and the letters of St. Paul are still different from each. “And even the Lutherans should not mix in a little Paul to make it kosher.” Even though Paul’s talk of justification, salvation and grace is the glue that holds Lutheran theology together. Instead, Stendahl advised, read Paul in the context of his own time, when personal salvation took a back seat to getting Jews and Greeks on board together before what was still considered the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God. Read each of the evangelists, he further advised, in their own context. And revel in the diversity:

Let a thousand flowers bloom. Richness. Plurality. Plurals. Yes, meanings is better than meaning. Isn’t that, in a way, what the Trinity is about? Isn’t that odd, these confused monotheists who speak about the Trinity: We couldn’t quite settle for something which was just oneness, we had to have more of a fullness of an interplay, of a giving and receiving. Do you remember how it is with the oneness in John 17, where Jesus prays that they all be one? And you, father, are in me, and I am in you, and they are in us. It’s like the biological world: Everything is interdependent. It’s a giving and a receiving. It’s a oneness that is not a glob, but a living interplay. Plural.

Stendahl had a final word of wisdom — at least I’m going to take it as final — for people like me who like to intellectualize and who truly enjoy a good theological argument, until we don’t. He suggested we be “not so uptight” about it all:

Apologetics, defending the Bible—defending God, for that matter—is a rather arrogant activity. Who is defending whom? I love to use the old Swedish expression, “It is pathetic to hear mosquitoes cough.” I don’t know why that is funny, but in Swedish it is funny. And apologetics is mosquitoes coughing. It kills so much of the joy in reading and practicing the love of the scriptures.

Anything I could say to that would not only be superfluous. It would be foolish.

References and links

Deirdre Good and Jane Redmont, “In Memoriam, Krister Stendahl,” Episcopal Café, April 22, 2008 https://www.episcopalcafe.com/in_memoriam_krister_stendahl/

Will Joyner, “Krister Stendahl, 1921-2008,” Harvard Divinity School, News and Events, April 16, 2008 https://hds.harvard.edu/news/2011/02/07/krister-stendahl-1921-2008

Douglas Martin, “Krister Stendahl, 86, Ecumenical Bishop, Is Dead,” New York Times, April 16, 2008 https://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/16/us/16stendahl.html

Robert Reinhold, “Attitudes to Death Grow More Realistic,” New York Times, July 21, 1974 https://www.nytimes.com/1974/07/21/archives/attitudes-to-death-grow-more-realistic-american-attitudes-on-death.html

Krister Stendahl, “Why I Love the Bible,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin, 35.1 (Winter 2007) https://bulletin.hds.harvard.edu/articles/winter2007/why-i-love-bible

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