Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton heads the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, based in Chicago, has questioned her own beliefs at times but says, “There are some things we need to doubt so that we can come to a greater faith — I think that doubt is just an intensifying of one’s relationship with God.”
A lifelong Lutheran, Elizabeth Eaton was raised in Cleveland. “Being a Cleveland sports fan for now six decades, I am an example of faith.”
“I was a music education major in college” and thought about being a band director.
She didn’t always go to church back then (“Sunday morning coming after Saturday night is a bad arrangement in college”) and had some doubts of faith — “probably typical questions of someone in one’s early 20s about ‘Is there a God?’ ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ ”
She worked that out enough by the time she graduated that she enrolled at Harvard Divinity School, where “the question first wasn’t ‘Why are you some brand of Lutheran?’ It’s ‘Why believe anything?’ And then once you can say, ‘This is why I . . . believe something,’ then: ‘Why Christianity, as opposed to other world religions?’”
And then: “Why not Orthodoxy or Catholicism or Protestantism?”
“To answer those questions really sort of focused and refined my understanding of how God works in the world, and I became a better apologist for my tradition, while respecting other people’s traditions.”
“For me, the Christian voice answers or tells the story about God working in Jesus in a very specific way that I think is liberating and also leveling, at the same time. So our emphasis on grace . . . really points out that none of us . . . is capable of saving ourselves . . . So that means there’s no way any one group of people can ever claim superiority over another group of people. And nowadays I think that’s really important to point out, that we’re all in this together.”
“But the relief is [salvation has] been done for us in the love of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Which means we don’t have to spend our whole life trying to justify ourselves or make ourselves right . . . or good enough because that’s just a relentless and exhausting and fruitless pursuit that people get into.”
Eaton’s husband is an Episcopalian priest, “a brilliant theologian. So we do have times where we run ideas back and forth.”
Has Eaton ever had doubts of faith since becoming a pastor?
“Oh, sure, yeah. I mean, there have been several times . . . I used to be afraid of doubt because then that meant I wasn’t a good Christian. But now I’m not [afraid] for . . . many reasons. One is: God has this, and, if I’m having some doubt, it doesn’t mean that God is having doubt about me or the world.”
Besides, “there are so many other brothers and sisters who walk with me and carry me when I’m going through those times.
“There are some things we need to doubt so that we can come to a greater faith — I think that doubt is just an intensifying of one’s relationship with God.”
What does God look like to you?
“It’s not the one in Michelangelo’s fresco.”
Martin Luther, whose criticisms of the Catholic Church in the 1500s helped spur the Protestant Reformation, “encouraged us to be little ‘Christs’ to each other and to see Christ in the other.”
Today, “looking into the eyes of a ‘Dreamer’” — someone who came with family to the U.S. illegally as a child and was raised here and now could face deportation under a shift in policy by President Donald Trump — “I can see Jesus in that person’s eyes.”
Eaton spoke out in response to Trump’s attempts to bar transgender people from serving in the military.
Her branch of the Lutheran Church — with more than 9,200 congregations and about 3.6 million members in the U.S. and Caribbean — views discrimination, including excluding people because of gender identity, as “contrary to how we understand God’s expansive love, that diversity is actually a gift.”
Eaton, 62, was her church’s first female presiding bishop, chosen in 2013, with a term lasting until 2019. Has she encountered problems being a woman bishop?
“On the macro level so far, it’s been a good reception . . . On the micro level, though, you just see these things on our Facebook page or things that I get on Twitter, and the notion that a woman should be somehow in authority, it makes some people crazy. And so they’ll say some pretty hurtful things. Or they’ll question my gender identity. . . . But mostly it’s been pretty good.”
Charitable groups, including churches, can get tax-exempt status from the federal government but can’t endorse or oppose political candidates.
Trump and others have talked about allowing religious groups to become more overtly political and keep the tax exemption.
Eaton thinks that “would be a disaster.”
“It’s so ironic to me that, when I say something on behalf of the church, that some of my people will say back to me, ‘Well, don’t be so political, stick to the spiritual.’ And now we have an administration that wants us to get into the political. I just don’t know how that would work for congregations, to have their pastor endorsing a particular candidate, because we’re the pastor to everyone.”
“We’re pretty famous for music in the Lutheran tradition.”
“Prayer’s pretty portable.”
Surveys by the Pew Research Center suggest divisions between Protestants and Catholics are not nearly as profound today as they once were. Lutherans and Catholics have struck a strong ecumenical tone with each other in recent years.
On “core things like the trinity, like baptism, like our understanding of Christ, we are right there.”
But there are still “some differences, and I think that that’s good because it brings a particular flavor or spice to the way we understand. And together we have a clearer understanding of who God is and how God’s at work.”
Humor is important in religion.
“There are times when being serious is appropriate . . . I don’t crack jokes throughout an entire funeral.” But humor helps people walk “more lightly through life. I think it’s an important thing.”
Though ELCA members generally are not “biblical literalists,” Eaton believes “the Bible is inerrant because it got it exactly right about how God was rescuing the world through Jesus Christ.”
One of her favorite Bible stories is in John’s gospel, with Mary Magdalene, wracked with grief, visiting Christ’s tomb and not realizing he’d risen from the dead. She doesn’t know it’s Jesus until he says her name.
“This is a beautiful story about how we are so completely, thoroughly recognized by Jesus that we are now able to have resurrection vision, too, and see Jesus.”
Fewer people are going to church services in mainline denominations.
“I think, in some ways, the church had a very privileged position in our culture and society, particularly during the Cold War. And that’s gone now, which might actually be good for us.
“Resting on our own laurels and just expecting people to walk in, that’s not being very faithful to telling people about the ‘good news.’”
Growing up “No one had a youth soccer league on Sunday.”
Nowadays, “Families are so busy, for us just to expect that . . . we don’t have to make the case that belonging to a worshiping community . . . is something that’s going to make your life better . . . then we’re fooling ourselves.”
Then again, “In a lot of ways, American church attendance has never been really great.
“I don’t care what they say on ‘Little House on the Prairie’ or ‘Andy Griffith Show.’ ”
After World War II, attendance was stronger because it was one way of showing “we were against Godless communism.”
What does heaven look like?
She once had a dream of driving to pick up lightbulbs and taking a wrong turn and coming upon a place where “all the animals were getting along . . . a sense of peace and beauty and wholeness. So that’s what I think it looks like.”
Is there a hell?
“There may be, but I think it’s empty.”
“Jesus was clear” in the Bible that after he was “raised up he will draw all people to himself.”
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