My Theological Journey



Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia[1]

(José Ortega y Gasset, “Meditaciones del Quijote”).


[1] The work of theological and ethical reflection is done by particular human beings in specific circumstances, imbued by the ethos and pathos of the Sitz im Leben[2] in which they have been formed and in which they live, think and write. For that reason we as a publishing team thought it might be of some value in this month's issue to offer JLE readers a glance into some of the formative ideas, perspectives, circumstances and hopes that shape our work at JLE. Since I have already shared my ideas on the future of JLE elsewhere [3] I will focus here on my theological journey and some of the greater influences on my Lutheran theological formation as new editor of JLE.


Lutheran by Choice and by Accident

Looking for a church

[2] I was not born Lutheran, I became Lutheran by confirmation. The first seven years of my life were spent traveling around the world, first with my father and then with my stepfather in their various army deployments. At age eight we returned home to Puerto Rico. Church had always been important to my parents and to me. As an infant I was baptized in the Catholic Church, as a child I was presented at the altar in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and as a young boy I was taught the biblical narratives in the Pentecostal church. When I returned to Puerto Rico, at age eight, I discovered the Lutheran Church and decided to make it my church. I was attracted to it by its strong sense of community and its active youth program, but it was for another reason that I finally decided to become a committed Lutheran.


Finding Luther

[3] When I was in middle school we studied the Reformation in our history class. The teacher gave us the homework of interviewing a Lutheran pastor to learn more about Luther’s thought and the reformation movement. It was then that I came to fully realize that I was a Lutheran! I became fascinated by Luther’s courage and the lucidity of his arguments. Somehow I found the Spanish translation of Roland Bainton’s, “Here I Stand” and devoured its pages, then I found the Book of Concord, and ever since then I have not been able to stop reading Lutheran theology. It was not just the books that fascinated me though, as a youth I was captivated by the living witness of many of the Lutherans I was surrounded by; their faith, their love and their hope-against-hope was deeply inspiring and contagious.


Discovering Lutheran Theology and Liberation Theology

[4] Then, during my university years at the University of Rico (Rio Piedras Campus), I took a class in academic writing and chose “Justification by Faith” as the topic of the research paper that I was required to write. When church members found out they told me that I had to talk to Pastor Jose David Rodriguez Sr., because he was the expert on Lutheran theology on the island, he was a Lutheran pastor and a professor both at the ecumenical seminary and at the university. So I requested an interview with him and he did more than that, he took me in as a mentee.


[5] Those Saturday morning conversations at José David and Doña Carmen’s home were my first exposure to the intellectual depths of Lutheran Theology but also of Liberation Theology. In fact, for José David those two were inextricably linked, like two faces of the same coin. For him good theology always had to be contextual, practical, and unapologetically linked to the church’s practice of faith-active-in-love. But it was not love in the abstract, it was always love for the sake of the holistic liberation (spiritual, psychological, economic, etc.) of the marginalized and oppressed of society as well as of those who benefit from the oppression and marginalization of their brothers and sisters without realizing how they too are captive to the same demonic structures of sin that subject their sisters and brothers to infrahuman conditions. Justification and Liberation are therefore two aspects of the same salvific reality. Theology is nothing other than the church’s attempt to listen to and obey the word of God addressed to the church today through the Scriptures for the sake of the salvation of the world. Jose David’s writings continue to be a largely unexplored treasure trove of a Lutheran Theology that was forged in the trenches of the painful experience of the church in Latin America and the Caribbean as it tried to be faithful to an authentic praxis of faith-active-in-love in the midst of brutal dictatorships and utopian liberation movements.[4] 


Called to Build Bridges

[6] At the same time that I was learning Lutheran theology from Jose David on Saturday mornings, I was a Chemistry major in college and something curious began to happen to me while working at the Organic Synthesis Lab. I didn’t just see molecules interacting inside the beakers, as I was supposed to, I also began to wonder why molecules followed the laws and rules they did. This was not just a scientific question; it was a theological question as well.


The Spirit in the beaker

[7] I saw beauty in chemistry but I also saw the hand of God in the beaker, and I was fascinated. I became intrigued by the question of the relationship between Spirit and matter, between God and the world. So I began to search for ways to bridge my scientific curiosity with my theological yearnings.


Bridging Science and Theology

[8] From among many excellent possibilities I chose to go to seminary in Chicago, at the Lutheran School of Theology (LSTC). At LSTC I learned to build bridges among radically different worlds. At the Zygon Center for Religion and Science I learned to read evolutionary theory through the lenses of creation theology, and to do theology by engaging the best scientific knowledge available.


[9] I learned how to analyze science and theology, through the critical lenses of various hermeneutics of suspicion. I also learned about the need to “yoke” (therein the name “Zygon”) theology and science for the well being of creation, including us the human members of God’s creation. Such "yoking" can inspire new insights of how to bring about healing and wholeness to our broken world.[5]  I no longer had the pleasure of synthesizing molecules in the lab, but I was now learning how to facilitate the formation of different kinds of bonds and bridges to bring at last a little bit of wholeness to or broken world.


God & the Brain

[10] During my Ph.D. studies I became particularly interested in neuroscience and how the brain might be an ideal site to observe that interaction between Spirit and matter that had fascinated me in the lab during my college years. However, my interest was not to find proof of the presence of God in the brain.[6] I sought, rather, to understand how the Spirit of God is at work “in, with and under” the human brain bringing about the holistic liberation that I had learned about in my studies in Lutheran and Liberation theology and that I had personally witnessed especially in the work of the church among the poor and the disenfranchised. The result of that interest was my Ph.D. dissertation: “Symptoms of God’s Spirit? A Dialogue Between Pneumatology and the Cognitive Sciences of Religion.” That dissertation provides the basis of a course that I have been teaching at Georgetown University since 2011, called: “God & the Brain.” As a parish pastor I have also been trying different ways to integrate the fruits of such theological research into various aspects of the practice of ministry.


The Journal of Lutheran Ethics

[11] I bring those life experiences and formative influences into my work as editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics. Perhaps that is why I see the mission of JLE as being about building bridges and experimenting with ideas about how to translate our rich and polyphonic Lutheran theological heritage into practice or how to theologize about the practice of faith-active-in-love in specific social, cultural, economic, political and ecclesial contexts and circumstances.


An Incubator of Ideas

[12] Strictly speaking JLE is not an academic journal but an ecclesial one. As an ecclesial journal on theological ethics (understood in its broadest sense) its mission is to inform and critique the practice of the church. It is called to do that, however, without falling into the trap of a prescriptive legalism or a restrictive scholasticism. It is meant to be experimental, serious, but also playful in the sense of playing with ideas in order to discern the most adequate ones.[7] Therefore the JLE welcomes a wide variety of perspectives, methods, and approaches to doing theological ethics. The hope is that from that variety of theological fruits the church in its many expressions will be nourished, inspired and informed in its walk of discipleship.


Prophetic and the Pastoral

[13] If the church is to be relevant it must often seek being controversial. If theology is about discerning the word of God for us today and theological ethics is about how to be obedient to that word, then the church will sometimes have to wear the clock of the prophets. JLE should be one place where such prophetic proclamation can be tested and discerned. Likewise, the church is called to accompany the oppressor as well as the oppressed, even as it calls him or her (or them) to repentance. JLE should be a safe space where we discern together how to be about the work of pastoral accompaniment without falling into the trap of cheapening the grace that has been granted to us at such a high price. JLE should be a place where ideas can be shared not just for the consumption of others but for their constructive criticism, discernment and maturation. 


God’s Work. Our Keyboards

[14] I am grateful to the ELCA for entrusting me the responsibility of being one of the stewards of this privileged space of inquiry and conversation that is the JLE. And I thank God for the spiritual journey that has brought me to this place, and for the great cloud of witnesses that has guided my through the journey. I pray that through our collective work JLE may be a place where we may put our ideas at the service of the mission of God’s Church.


 ​Carmelo Santos ​is the Editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics. He also serves as a parish pastor as well as a lecturer at Georgetown University.

[1] A rough translation would be: ‘I am I and my circumstances.”

[2]Sitz im Leben translates from German to “setting in life,” meaning context that impacts why a text was written and how it was meant to be interpreted by contemporaries.

[3] Carmelo Santos "Monologues to Conversations: Reflections on the Future of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics," Currents in Theology and Mission 43, no. 1 (2016).

[4] In addition to essays and articles published in different venues, some of his work has been published in book form: La Iglesia, Signo y Primicia del Reino: Reflexiones pastorales desde el Caribe y América Latina (Centro Luterano de Formación Teológica, Seminario Evangélico de Puerto Rico, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and Centro Basilea de Investigación y Apoyo, A.C., 2003); Introducción a la teología (Centro Luterano de Formación Teológica; El faro; Centro Basilea de Investigación y Apoyo, A.C., 2002), El precio de la vocación profética (México D.F.: El faro, S.A. de C.V., 1994).

[5] This has to be done without falling into the triumphalism or works righteousness that would result from ignoring the Lutheran tensions of “already and not yet,” and of “law and gospel.”

[6] Such pursuit would entail an unacceptable objectification of God and a misunderstanding of the relationship between the brain and spirit in general

[7] See Roger Willer’s essay in this edition of the JLE.

© April 2016
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 16, Issue 4