It’s Sunday morning, 11:00, and I know I should be in church, worshiping. I’m not, however, and I haven’t in a few weeks.
I’d love to blame being down from all the recent losses. Except, of course, that should mean that I would be attending services with a vengeance. I could, were I trying to be oh-so-self-assured, claim that I have lost my faith. The truth is my faith has only deepened over the past year. I have found myself drawn deeper in to the mysteries and joys of grace. I am more grateful now than I have ever been that ours is a God first and foremost of love. I’ve never been more convicted that love means that this life, for all its toil and pain, is also filled with joy and laughter and light, and these are gifts from God to be celebrated each and every day.
The reason I’m not in church is far more prosaic. Probably, it’s also not sufficient for me to be keeping my distance.
This year, the United Methodist Church broke my heart. In a moment calling for courage strengthened by hope, we saw cowardice emboldened by fear. In a moment requiring defiant love, we saw servile exclusion. In a moment we should be celebrating the triumph of real grace, real love, real inclusion, we are instead seeing schism, the snail’s pace of “doing the same thing the same way” and wanting a different result, and little more than confusion.
The United Methodist Church has been my spiritual home all my life. Baptized, confirmed, educated, and married all within the walls of the United Methodist Church, it is the place that, when I went there, I knew I would be taken in. Now, however, I no longer feel I have a place within its proverbial and actual walls. I also feel that at my age, I’d be ill-suited to move to another denomination. Because of my family ties, that would also be more than a little awkward. So here I sit on a Sunday morning, feeling homeless and more than a little lost.
I have always had an ecumenical spirit. I see in other faith-expressions different facets and faces of what it is to be a Christian, and I celebrate them all. Even some with which I have serious problems. None of us have the entirety of the human experience of faith, individually or collectively. It would be a good thing, I suppose, to experience again the sense of deep time in an Orthodox service; perhaps taste and see within the sacramental structure of the Roman Catholic Church; hear the proclamation of the Word within the words at any of the various Reform-influenced churches, whether Presbyterian or the UCC. Perhaps sing with their founders gusto the hymns of the Lutherans. I could even venture into a charismatic church and see and feel and hear the power of the Holy Spirit moving within a people open to that limitless, creative power. I could do all these and I believe I might be filled for a bit.
Yet it is Wesley who speaks to me most clearly. It is from him that I have learned that “disciple” and “perfection” and “sanctification” are words of deep theological and existential import: Human life depends upon how we follow in the Spirit the example offered us by Christ. The depth and breadth of both the peril and possibility of the Christian life exist within the teachings of Wesley; we who are supposed to follow in his footsteps should know that ours is not a calling to timidity or fear. Except that is who we have become.
Overwhelmed by the demands of a vocal but shrinking minority attracted to a kind of facile enculturated “Christianity” or “religion” that demands moral purity rather than faithful obedience; that insists upon works rather than grace; that would rather divide the Lord’s garments yet again rather than rejoice at the empty tomb, the United Methodist Church no longer believes what it claims to believe. It no longer sees a world in need of holiness of heart and life. Instead, it sees a world in which the voice of the church is becoming ever softer and would rather rest within walls that were comfortable fifty years ago rather than challenge itself to leave all those walls behind and risk losing everything for the sake of the Gospel.
Within what is left of the United Methodist Church is only a cacophony of voices running around toppled Babel’s tower. We no longer even seek to understand one another. We no longer desire to live together in peace. I want no part of this ridiculous exercise in maintaining a facade of faithful obedience to our God of grace.
I’m jut not sure what to do. So here I sit on a Sunday morning, feeling faithful but no longer welcome within the spiritual home that has nurtured me, and not yet ready to try out other spaces. The hurt, I think, is too fresh, too new.
I’ve voted in eight national elections since 1984. To my recollection, exactly two of them – 1992 and 2008 – had somewhat cursory brushes with actual issues (the deficit in ’92; how to pick up the pieces W tossed all over the floor in ’08). By and large, our Presidential campaigns are little more than . . . what?
In the aftermath of the ridiculous 1988 campaign, in which then-VP George H. W. Bush promised to defeat the ACLU and make sure Willie Horton didn’t rape anyone else, political journalists Jules Witcover and Jack Germond wrote what may well be one of the best books on American politics, ever. Entitled Whose Broad Stripes And Bright Stars, the subtitle – The Trivial Pursuit Of The Presidency – captured the totality of that year’s Presidential campaign. Whether it was “Read My Lips” or whether or not Michael Dukakis would want to kill the man who raped and murdered his wife (I do so hope Bernard Shaw spends quite a bit of time in purgatory being asked this question over and over and over . . .); whether being a card-carrying member of the ACLU was a sign of being unAmerican or how one looked in a photo-op riding in a tank; that fall was a real graduate course in the politics of surrealism. That absolutely nothing that happened over the ensuing four years had anything to do with any of this is not only beyond dispute; I do believe the whole purpose of the campaign was to avoid talking about things that really were important.
Since then we’ve had reporters bashing Al Gore because he was smart. We had John Kerry’s on-the-record war record besmirched. In 1996, Bob Dole didn’t really get much of a fair shake, although I do think legitimate questions about his health were dealt with a bit too gingerly. And four years ago, alas, Mitt Romney stepped on his own a dick a few too many times, what with his binders of women and 47%-takers business. Poor Mitt got, “Please continue, Governor”‘d by Pres. Obama as Romney tried to claim Pres. Obama didn’t say something he actually had said (there was even videotape evidence). It got even sadder on election night when it became clear poor Romney actually believed the whole unskewed polls business. Viewers could see the utter disbelief on his face as the numbers starting coming in.
This year, however, we are faced with an actual choice with real consequences. Obviously there are always consequences to an election; just as one fer-instance, consider had John Kerry won in 2004 how much better off the people of New Orleans would be. Anyway, this real choice this year, qualitatively different from any of the previous 8 Presidential elections in which I’ve participated in one way or another, is between an admittedly Establishmentarian, status quo, middle of the road Democratic candidate and a man so unfit in so many ways to execute the office of the Presidency it would be a joke were it not all so real. Mrs. Clinton, with years of private and public service behind her, continues to be painted as a dishonest crook while Donald Trump, with decades of grift, bankruptcy (how many times can you bankrupt a casino? I mean, reall?!?), and leaving creditors and contractors with millions in unpaid bills, somehow doesn’t have “CROOK” attached to him in every article. Mrs. Clinton’s years of service for minorities apparently counts for nothing, being the real racist as opposed to Donald Trump, whose years of racist blathering is still out there for anyone interested in finding it, all the while surrounding himself with some of the worst America has to offer.
Part of the reason for this is we just don’t have the tools – journalistic, institutional, political – to confront the reality that’s plain to everyone except those who are only recently tuning in: There’s only one candidate this year who’s fit to sit in the Oval Office in January, and unfortunately she may well lose to the most dangerous man in American politics since George Wallace, or perhaps going as far back as Huey Long. The real test come January 20, 2017, should the American electorate be so foolish as to force Barack Obama to surrender the keys to the White House to Donald Trump, will be whether the American experiment, always a shaky prospect, will survive. Since there are military personnel who have already made it clear that under certain conditions they would not obey a President Trump’s order to use nuclear weapons, we are already facing a Constitutional crisis of the highest importance. Of course, we’re talking about Hillary Clinton’s coughing and the rating for Morning Joe on MSNBC. It’s clear enough Trump bought himself out of a state investigation in Florida with an illegal campaign contribution, yet the fact that the Clinton Foundation and Mrs. Clinton as Secretary of State dealt with some of the same people is far more important.
Thus it is that our Republic might not survive the second decade of the new century.
Hillary Clinton has endured fewer TV attack ads so far in the 2016 campaign than Marco Rubio.That remarkable fact underscores how virtually unchallenged Clinton has been on the advertising airwaves, as Democratic and Republican strategists alike say she has gone deeper into the election calendar than any non-incumbent president they can remember in the modern era without sustained, paid opposition on television. – Shane Goldmacher, “Hillary Clinton’s Historic Free Pass On The Airwaves,” Politico, August 23, 2016
But on Monday, Clinton was delivered a rude reminder that her long-running woes will likely persist all the way to November — and potentially beyond. A federal judge ordered that the State Department must review 14,900 documents discovered by the FBI as investigators probed Clinton’s use of a private email server during her four years at the agency, and he set a hearing date for next month about the “production” of such emails. That means Clinton could be a hit by a wave of fresh emails — possibly including deleted emails the FBI recovered — right before the election.(emphasis added) – Nick Gass, “Clinton Faces Late Summer Scandal Wave,” Politico, August 22, 2016
I weep for our stupid political insider reporting. Esquire’s Charlie Pierce calls Politico Tiger Beat On The Potomac, and the above articles are excellent examples why that works. First is the claim that, since there has been very little negative advertising directed at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, she has had “a free pass” during her candidacy for the Presidency. Just the day before, they published an article saying she faces “a scandal wave”, while the story itself uses the conditional “could”, a single word that carries the entire weight of the story on its possible shoulders. It’s an open secret Washington insiders detest the Clintons. While the Post is pulling out all the stops attacking Trump since he banished them from the press bus, the rest of the press corps works tirelessly asking Clinton questions about Benghazi, questions about her emails, questions about her health, and now questions about the relationship between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department during her tenure. This last in particular would be laughable if it weren’t being pressed with such dogged, if stupid, determination. She was Secretary of State for years. Not once during those years were questions asked about any possible collusion or conflict-of-interest. Now, all of a sudden, it’s a “scandal”. All because some emails are now public, released by Julian Assange who, it seems, doesn’t particularly like Sec. Clinton.
In the meantime, people continue to insist she’s personally responsible for the deaths of four foreign service workers in Benghazi in 2012, despite nine separate investigations finding nothing. The whole email nonsense – both the question of her using a private server for professional use as well as the recently dumped emails from Wikileaks – continues to be a non-story, no matter how often people insist it’s worse than Watergate. Recently, there is the whole nonsense about Clinton’s health, pushed by bottom-feeders like Roger Stone and Sean Hannity. Just to show what a horrible human being Roger Stone is, his new book recycles the claim that Webster Hubble is Chelsea Clinton’s real father, claiming the young Ms. Clinton has had multiple plastic surgeries (with no evidence whatsoever). Little different from Rush Limbaugh, back in the 1990’s, calling Chelsea Clinton a dog on his short-lived television program, this is the kind of nonsense that, thanks the Internet creating “buzz” about things that aren’t true, leads to the near-constant hounding both Clintons have faced for a quarter century.
To claim that Mrs.Clinton has received some kind of “free pass” is just to ignore the steady drip of nonsense that appears all over the news, as it always has, resulting in the widespread belief, among other things, that Mrs. Clinton is not to be trusted and is dishonest despite being the most honest candidate of the current election cycle. These things just don’t “happen”, but are the result of the mainstreaming of the wildest – and most horrid – conspiracy theories about Bill and Hillary Clinton. Even a poor Democratic National Committee staffer’s murder in Washington, DC didn’t escape becoming part of the hysterical narrative of the Clintons being mafiosi, selling drugs out of an airport in Arkansas and leaving a trail of bodies behind them that would make Ted Bundy jealous.
She has never received a free pass in her entire public career. That she continues on regardless shows how tough she is.
As has always been the case, there are legitimate questions the Clinton Campaign can and should be asked. This story by Rick Perlstein is the best among recent entries, and should be followed up. It seems the Clinton people wanted to separate sitting Republican officials from the Trump campaign, instead of chaining every single Party member running for office, whether it’s a County Coroner in Texas or the Speaker of the House of Representatives, to Trump’s sinking ship. This is the kind of nonsense that makes many Democrats and liberals, including me, absolutely crazy. It’s bad tactics and worse politics.
Instead, we have people who aren’t doctors, or doctors who’ve never been within shouting distance of Mrs. Clinton, claiming she’s an epileptic, suffers from the nonexistent “dysphasia”, or requires pillows to sit everywhere because she gets so tired all the time.
I’ll be so glad when this campaign season is over. Of course, that will mean at least four more years of conspiracy mongering about Hillary Clinton, so I suppose there just is no upside to any of this.
A lifetime ago I wanted to get a doctorate in philosophy. I knew exactly what I wanted to study – philosophy of science – and with whose ideas I wanted to wrestle the most – Sir Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. Although my interest in these two thinkers lay in a prior interest in how language not only shapes but gives substance to the constant flow of phenomena we call “the world”, it was precisely because both these gentlemen were committed to an image of science offering “the best way” to “know” the world, no matter how wildly they disagreed with one another that I intended to study them both.
Like I said, that was a lifetime ago. Then we had a child. Then we moved to the Midwest. Then we had another child. Then we had children to raise. While never forgetting all that I previously wanted to do, I satisfied myself with all manners of the mundane parts of living: keeping good jobs, making friends, being a pastor’s spouse, being a husband, being a father. In recent years other things have piqued my interest and curiosity and I’ve spent much time reading about music from all different angles.
The last three weeks I was in New York I stopped reading, even though I’d brought a couple books along; even though I was staying in a house overflowing with books. My energy was so focused, the intellectual and psychological effort to read and understand anything seemed out of my grasp. I kept trying, if only because I have always been someone who has kept a book handy, even if it was brain candy. Even that, however, was beyond me.
Now I’m home. I’m easing back in to my life here. Part of that “easing” involves finding something to read. I decided, more out of curiosity than anything else, to pick up Karl Popper’s essay collection Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. If that seems like an odd choice for light Sunday fare, in my own defense I only planned to read one essay. To which the obvious response is, “Sure. An essay in analytical philosophy. Why don’t more people just while away their alone time that way?”
Yes, I’m quite odd. I own that. Thus the photo above.
In any event, I was pleasantly surprised to discover how deeply I’d absorbed not only Popper’s thought in this particular piece (one I’ve read numerous times, even preparing some critical responses back in that previous life I wrote about); my own critical view both of this particular essay and Popper’s larger philosophical project were such a part of me that reading something I hadn’t read in about 20 years was as comfortable as putting on an old shirt that still fits, surprising us at how comfortable it is. I’m not going to go into the essay itself or my criticism of it, because that isn’t the point of all this. Rather, I’m just reporting how happy I am that something so simple and relatively inconsequential still rests easily with me.
I think I would have made a pretty lousy professor of philosophy. I have the look for it, I suppose, but at the end of the day I think academia is far better off without me than with me. All the same, I do still enjoy reading these things I found interesting and important when I was much younger, and that small thing brings a whole lot of happiness. It’s like being afraid a terrible accident would render you blind or deaf and discovering you can still see or hear; even though not “going on”, life does continue in its changed state and there are continuities with what went before and what is now, and that helps keep your life from feeling completely and utterly strange and terrifying.
So I think I’m going to read another essay this afternoon. Just because I can.
The past year, I’ve been thinking a whole lot about the Fourth Commandment. You know, “honor your father and mother”. Growing up in church, I along with just about every other child learned that commandment meant we needed to obey our parents because not to do so was a sin. Real teenage rebellion can be tough when you’re convinced the eternal status of your soul is at stake.
Starting last year, I’ve had conversations with my pastor, Rev. Jane Eesley, that have swirled around this particular commandment. Because, you see, this little bit of legal prodding has nothing at all to do with going to bed on time, doing the dishes when told, or otherwise saying, “Yes, sir,” or, “Yes, ma’am,” when Mom or Dad start asking you to do stuff. The commandment, rooted in a tribal culture where the strongest ties were intergenerational filial bonds through which passed the traditions, lessons, and religious and social practices that bound together disparate groups of people in to a more cohesive whole, is about saying, “Yes,” to the most important lessons your ancestors can teach. Most of all, it’s about honoring the bonds that link one generation to the next; grown children are the resource through which older parents can continue to live and thrive. We honor our parents not by making the bed or putting our clean clothes away (although that’s important, too); we honor our parents by recognizing the things they’ve taught us, the lessons from which we learned how to be productive members of society. We honor them by offering them the chance to live the end of their days with dignity and humanity, just as they offered us as children lessons that bestowed upon us that same dignity and humanity.
So it was this past late winter as my Mother lay dying. We gathered at the family home, each of us taking time and turns to make sure she was cared for. We were demanding because she would have demanded it. We kept an around-the-clock vigil in her room because we did not want her to be alone, especially as the end came. I know I left the room when they would wash and change her clothes and shift her in bed because I wanted my mother to have that little bit of parental dignity. The doctors and nurses said she wasn’t aware of what was going on around her. Maybe. That doesn’t mean I, for one, didn’t believe there was a part of her that was very aware, and was grateful for all we did.
So it is now, with my father, six weeks after entering the hospital with pneumonia and discovering he had congestive heart failure, he is finally in his home of nearly 46 years. He is much weaker than when he left, a product of age and physical decline. It seems at times to take all his energy just to remain seated upright and alert. The simple act of coming home this morning, moving through his rearranged house, and having lunch have exhausted him.
And as much as I miss my home and my family, I know that this is where I need to be: this place and this time, doing this work. I know I can’t stay forever. I also know I need to stay long enough to ensure both that the transition in his living status is relatively smooth, and that he and my sister settle in to a routine with which they’re both happy. Most of all, I am glad to be here now because I know the time is short. As I write this I really don’t want to believe it. The facts, however, are brutal, unfair, and plain as the nose on my face. So I am here when and as I can be, to be with and honor my father in these his last months.
In the way of things, I inherited from him a talent for and enjoyment of music. From him I learned the simple joys of reading a book, telling a joke, keeping a humorous and jaundiced eye on the world around me. I even learned what it is to be a father, both from the things he did right as well as the things he did wrong. Most of all, I learned what it is to be a man. Not some tough-guy; I learned it’s about maturity, thoughtfulness, love for your family and thoughtfulness for your friends; taking responsibility for the things that are yours while not getting too bogged down by things out of your control. I would never say he was a great man, because he was far better: he was and is a good man, filled with flaws and virtues. I wouldn’t be the son he raised me to be if I weren’t right here right now making sure this return home wasn’t something both easy and comfortable.
I know my family both understands and wishes I were home. There are some days I wish I lived just a little closer, but recognize that life has offered me many good things so I shouldn’t complain about things that are of little consequence. While we are no longer a people bound to a place and space designated holy we are still a people offered a time, a family, and a life in which we all lift one another up through all stages of life. This is what it means to honor our parents: To be the people we were raised to be, and to show that by the care we take for them as they enter the final stages of life.
I’ve had it. Up to here (imagine seeing me holding my hand just above my head, miming that I’m swamped by the shit rushing around about the Democratic nominating process). And, no, this is not a “pox on both your houses” post. It is rather a “pay attention to who might be stirring you up” post; a “nothing is decided on the internet so stop yelling” post; and a quick note to those few-and-far-between true Bernie Sanders’ supporters who really do exist (one is on my friend list).
After last week’s melee at the Nevada Democratic convention, at which supporters of Bernie Sanders, upset both over the outcome and the process, began throwing chairs and otherwise acting like children who’s binkie had been taken away from them, suddenly people who claimed to support Bernie, or claimed to support Hillary, started popping up all over the place, stirring the resentment and residual anger, getting people to start shouting at one another on the Internet. Then, folks like me and some others who watch all this with a jaundiced eye start complaining about “Bernie Bros”, and it soon spreads that the Democratic Party is experiencing a “civil war”.
As with all things, a few deep breaths, a quick survey of the landscape, and some thought lead one to one question: Who benefits? The answer, of course, is the Republicans and their putative nominee, Donald Trump. This is not to suggest what’s happening is some coordinated action being run by the Trump campaign. On the contrary, it usually takes very little to get people dedicated to a particular cause or issue suddenly to explode in anger at the least provocation. At least, online, where there are no consequences and a lot of the time anonymity allows all sorts of venting to occur. It really only takes a few somewhat clever trolls to type words like “rigged” and “stolen” and “Bern it down”, and soon enough a-tad-too-dedicated supporters for one or the other Democratic candidate start yelling at one another online.
Which leads me to my next point: Stop thinking that a bunch of hashtags, memes, and continually complaining about how “the system is rigged” will either convince people you are correct and therefore support your favored candidate; and stop thinking that telling Hillary Clinton supporters they are no better than Republicans, that she is a corrupt liar who gives secret speeches to millionaires for huge sums of money which proves she’s a corporate shill, and then sit and wonder why what seems so obvious to you might not be so obvious to everyone. No one, so far as I know, has changed their mind because of a bunch of memes, unsourced and long-debunked claims about corruption, or TYPING LIKE THIS BECAUSE ON THE INTERNET NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU SCREAM SO THEY HAVE TO SEE YOU SCREAM. No one’s suggesting that folks who support one or another candidate for President should dampen their enthusiasm. I am suggesting that trying to convince people who think that Bernie Sanders has run a good race – and maybe should stay until after the California primary! – but in the end should support (and urge his supporters to support) Sec. Clinton in the general election; trying to tell people like me that we’re actually Republicans, that we support corruption, that we aren’t real Democrats; that all that might well be counterproductive and make us – well, me – even less inclined to pay attention to you.
Finally, for those few-and-far-between true Bernie Sanders supporters who really do carry on about rigged systems and corrupt nominating processes: First, of course it’s rigged. Sanders entered the primaries and caucuses and conventions knowing it was rigged, but thinking he could use this rigged system to win, anyway. When he loses . . . don’t carry on that the system is rigged (it is); recognize that Sanders lost. Second, yes, the whole nominating process with its superdelegates and what not is corrupt and supports the status quo. This isn’t a shock or surprising, so stop yelling about it. Sen. Sanders entered this process knowing full well that both the system and those who support the system through the nominating process were against him. When Sen. Sanders loses don’t whine about the system being against him, because of course it is. He lost. Accept it and move on. Finally, Sec. Clinton isn’t Sen. Sanders when it comes to her positions on the issues, but that hardly means she’s a stealth Republican. Particularly in this election year, the differences between the candidates and their respective parties could not be more clear. While Clinton is certainly the status quo/stand pat candidate, compared to Donald Trump . . . well there really isn’t much at all of a comparison, now is there.
As for the rest of us looking on: There is not going to be a convention floor fight. There is not going to be more than one ballot. Mrs. Clinton will most likely arrive at the convention with enough delegates to win. I’m figuring that Sen. Sanders might well be offered a cabinet post – Secretary of Labor or HHS would be my guess – and, really, he’d be a fool not to take it. And if you really really really really believe the system is corrupt, that Sen. Sanders is actively being denied then nomination by an apparatus designed to prevent candidacies like his from winning, you are right, but remember – BERNIE SANDERS ENTERED THIS RACE KNOWING FULL WELL ALL THIS WAS TRUE. STOP ACTING SURPRISED THAT IT IS TRUE.
That’s all. Have a great week.
I have a short, thick volume in my library. It’s entitled Creeds of the Churches. Editor John Leith went about the monumental task of gathering statements of faith, expressions of belief, and affirmations of communal confession throughout Christian history, from the Scriptures through the formation of the World Council of Churches and the Second Vatican Council. Apart from the content of the work, which is invaluable when trying to figure out what, exactly, are the differences between the Reformed tradition and the Evangelical (Lutheran) tradition, or what the Assumption of Mary actually means (I made that up; that’s not in the book, although the declaration of Papal infallibility from the First Vatican Council is in there), by its sheer mass the book shows us the futility of settling on any single human statement of faith as full and sufficient for expressing the human faith in the God of Jesus Christ. Each and all, from the Scriptures to the present, are little more than snapshots in time of what particular bodies of Christians sought to affirm about the God they encountered in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.
Which is why I’m so glad I’m a member of a non-creedal tradition. That doesn’t mean we can’t and don’t read creeds, because of course we do. We United Methodists are non-creedal because we recognize there is no single, simple formula that captures the depth of the human experience of the Divine. Our Articles of Religion, Wesley’s Notes On The Old and New Testaments, and John Wesley’s Sermons lie at the heart of our faith because, let’s face it: How is it possible that any creed could express the fullness of our belief?
One of the things I like about our United Methodist system is that just ordinary folks can submit petitions for considerations by various legislative committees. A FB friend of mine, Joel Watts, submitted a petition that would have added the Nicene Creed to our Articles of Religion. Now, on the surface, this seems both uncontroversial and perhaps even beneficial. After all, the statement that emerged from the series of Councils at Nicaea and Constantinople in the 4th-5th centuries are the heart of our Trinitarian faith (albeit a tad weak in pneumatology, but I digress). The first such statement, printed above in its original Greek, was forged in a fight between two bishops over the metaphysical status of the Incarnate Son of God. Unable to win the fight “in the pews” as people might say today – the vast majority of Christians, including the Emperor Constantine’s mother were followers of Arius, who taught that, while certainly central to the faith of the believer, and whose sacrifice was necessary for the salvation of humanity, Jesus Christ was not Divine – Athanasius had the Emperor call a Council, making sure there would be sufficient numbers of Bishops present at the resort city of Nicaea to overwhelm any Arian bishops (and that all of it would take place before Arius could arrive).
I’m not saying this rather overwrought history means I’m not Trinitarian. On the contrary, the Trinity is perhaps the single most important religious and philosophical innovation in the West in 2000 years of church history. It violated everything people thought they knew about Divinity, Humanity, and their relations. It encapsulates the whole of what German scholars used to call Heilsgeschichte. Honestly, I believe took the dirty, underhanded politicking of that Imperial suck-up Athanasius and used it to further our understanding of who God is and how God loves us.
As I said, however, the creed we call The Nicene Creed is actually an amalgam of statements from several council over a couple centuries, demonstrating it is neither as simple or clear as it might seem. The Creed we read is in English, a language not even imagined when those Bishops gathered at the hot springs in Anatolia 1700 years ago. Most importantly, woven throughout the text are notions rooted in a mixture of neo-Platonic and Aristotelean thought that, quite rightly, is largely unintelligible to our contemporary ears. Affirming that the Son is of the same substance as the Father, after a few moments thought, seems rather odd to us. It was of vital importance to those Bishops who first gathered, however. Matters of physics and metaphysics were central to an understanding of the dispute between Arius and Athanasius. To say that the fully human Jesus of Nazareth was also fully divine – of the same substance – was to make a metaphysical claim that was absurd. Even with the floor packed with those who followed him, Athanasius only managed to pull off inserting a single word, homoousious, into their final statement by the skin of his teeth.
To ask of United Methodists to make the Nicene Creed a test of our faithfulness, then, involves much more than reciting some word. It asks of us to adhere to an outmoded philosophical system, a set of ideas on the nature of reality that have no meaning at all except to specialists. It is to make a measure of our faith a statement that existed long before John Wesley; long before Coke and Asbury; long before our Uniting Conference in 1968. Adding the Nicene Creed actually invalidates our Articles of Religion because they are rooted in a very different metaphysics, very different ideas about the nature of being and reality.
Words mean things. The meaning of the words in the Nicene Creed run deeper than matters of theology. Those words hold meanings that no one, really, can affirm say anything about the makeup of the Universe, or human beings, of what it means to exist as a created being as opposed to a Divine being. Adding the Nicene Creed as a test of faith strips it of its substantive meaning precisely because, translated from a long-dead language filled with its own baggage to a modern language unburdened by all that rigomarole about substances and essences and accidents, the real importance of the Nicene Creed is stripped away, leaving a husk of words that serve no purpose other than to make clear who is in and who is out.
Not just substantive meaning, however; inserting the Nicene Creed into our Book of Discipline robs it of its historic importance. In the 1964 Hymnal, on which I grew up, recitation of this creed was prefaced with the words, And now let us join in this historic expression of the Christian faith. That preface summarizes precisely what the Nicene Creed, and all formal creedal statements, are: historic expressions of the Christian faith. Moments captured in time, vitally necessary to the story of our faith yet not at all the end-all and be-all of our Christian confession. Our faith, like our God, is a living thing. We should always be ready and able to confess our faith as the Body of Christ. We should never claim that our confession at any one time is the sole and sufficient rule, containing all that is necessary to understand the lived experience of the Church. By refusing to allow the Nicene Creed to become some kind of test of fiath, we have staked our claim on the future as the hope of our faith. We have allowed the Nicene Creed to live on as it is, rather than killing it and stuffing it and shoving it in a museum called The Book of Discipline where it would sit while people walked by without seeing it. We have kept our faith alive, and kept the Nicene Creed alive in all its historic importance, precisely by rejecting it as some contemporary ruler to smack the hands of recalcitrant Christians.
Thanks be to God.