So the Council of Bishops have called for a special session of General Conference for 2019. The reason for the session will be to receive the report of the Committee On The Way Forward and act on its recommendations. Of course, we all know the matter of the future of the United Methodist Church as a coherent denomination will hang in the balance. All over the matter of human sexuality. Precisely because we as a people called Methodist have no idea how even to begin doing a theology of human sexuality, we have been trapped for 45 years discussing a couple sentences in our Book of Discipline, which manage to reduce human sexuality to acts of sexual contact, rejecting some while implicitly accepting others. That these sentences contradict the assertion of human sexuality as a good gift from a good God should be clear enough; absent any clear understanding of what, precisely, human sexuality is, what it entails, and how it fits in the larger order of salvation, we have gone around and around this particular dog track so many times and for so long the runners have disappeared into the deep hole we have all helped dig.
It’s no secret what I stand on this matter. So I found myself in the uncomfortable position last year, watching proceedings on the floor of General Conference via live stream, agreeing in principle with those most vocal in their insistence that the language be removed, some sort of apology offered to those effected by the language, and we move forward affirming all persons and their place in the Kingdom of God. On the other hand, however, I was also quite tired of their speech-making, their constant demands to be heard, their attempts to bully whoever might be the presiding Bishop, and their smug assurance that their own righteousness and the correctness of their position (with which I wholeheartedly agree!) would be enough to sway people voting on legislation. It was clear, however, from the very start this relatively small yet loud group had not done the one thing necessary in a political climate: they had organized no groups to side with them. In politics it is never about being right. It is always about power. In this case, what were these folks bringing to the table other than their sense of moral correctness?
They didn’t bring anything at all.
Meanwhile, the far right of the denomination was well-organized, working with delegations from African Conferences and others to block any attempt not only to change the language of the Discipline, but to alter the procedural method by which the Conference could arrive at some kind of consensus. Many people (including me) found it far too close to overstepping certain ethical boundaries, that Good News should not have been hosting these delegates, offering only a singular perspective on these important matters. All the same, it showed that while Good News, the Confessing Movement, and other such groups affiliated with our Church might well be bad at theology, they are most excellent at organizing. Looking at the final vote tallies regarding matters surrounding the removal of the questionable language from the Discipline, had General Conference only been an American affair, the language would have been removed. By wooing the delegates from the African Conferences, however, Good News managed to block any such change.
So, perhaps, rather than ask the same question – Should the language regarding the incompatibility of “the practice of homosexuality” and Christian teaching be removed from the Discipline? – perhaps because we know what the answer’s going to be, we should be asking a completely different question. That question should center on the mission and ministry of the United Methodist Church; on the Biblical and Wesleyan mandate to preach, to baptize, to make disciples of Jesus Christ, and to work for the transformation of the world. Since we have never settled on the matter of what, exactly, constitutes “homosexual practice”, how it does or does not violate Christian teaching, or anything else pertaining to the place of human sexuality in the life of the disciple, we perhaps should be asking about how we move forward together, differing in our opinions regarding matters of human sexuality, yet unified in our mission to transform the world through making disciples. Perhaps we should accept the reality that we shall never, indeed, be of one mind regarding questions of human sexuality, and that as such they should be set to one side while we focus on moving forward together.
My experience as a United Methodist, particularly as a clergy spouse, is the matter is far less urgent among our church members. By and large matters of human sexuality in general and matters surrounding sexual minorities in particular are difficult ones about which to speak. I have heard from more than one lay person in more than one area of the country voice the opinion they would far rather the issues just go away. They don’t see it directly impacting their faith lives or the mission and ministry of their local church. Now many would put this down to a preference to avoid difficult matters for those about which discussion and consensus are far easier; that such a preference is passive-aggressive, avoiding tough matters.
Perhaps, however, we should listen to these voices. People want to talk about how their church is fulfilling its mission, both locally and within the connection. People want to share their stories, not talk in the abstract about what other people do largely within the privacy of their lives outside the work of the church. Even when the question is less abstract, such as a congregation member answering a call to ministry, seeking the endorsement of the local church through the charge conference, and matters of sexuality suddenly intrude themselves into the process (as it now seems the Judicial Council demands we do), I believe most churches would insist that regardless of their feelings on the matter, the question of suitability, of the reality of the presence of a real call, their support of this or that individual would not rest upon matters of the person’s sexuality. Certainly if the person before the charge conference was otherwise morally reprobate, perhaps including abusing the gift of sexuality in ways that have nothing to do with whether than person is straight, gay or bisexual, these are matters that need to be addressed with seriousness. If, however, a persons seeks endorsement as a candidate for ordained ministry, their life and actions demonstrate the presence of the Holy Spirit, whether than person were or were not straight might well carry very little weight in the eyes of the local charge conference.
Which is why, I believe, it is important to change the conversation. There are those voices that are insistent, demanding, uncompromising, going around and around the language of the Discipline without regard to anything else the Church is supposed to be about. They shall always be with us. Which is precisely why we need to listen to other voices, ask other questions, and perhaps move forward together in one heart if not one mind. Our conversation long ago ceased to have any meaning, to exclude all but those most firmly committed to one extreme or another. That is why I think we might yet have the opportunity to salvage something from our current wreckage, becoming again the people called Methodist, making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
So the Judicial Council’s decision came down late yesterday afternoon. I sure hope no one was surprised. Looking for a ruling of law on a matter clearly set out in law that is nevertheless contradictory to that law . . . Yeah, that’s not going to happen.
Who wants to be the first member of a Conference Board of Ordained Ministry to ask about someone’s sex life? How awkward is it going to be asking single ministry candidates if they’re celibate? If they’re a practicing homosexual (and Oh! My! God! what the hell does that mean?)? Who wants to be the first BoOM to codify such a set of questions?
How is this rule enforced? For decades people have gone through the process, and there are so many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and othered clergy. Their ministries are not validated by any Board or agency, but by the fruits of that ministry. Does this ruling suddenly declare all those whose lives have been changed because of their servant leadership are not actually Christian? Are their baptisms null and void? Are couples not legally married? Are the hungry fed, naked clothed, lonely visited not actually fed, clothed, and visited? At what point does this absurdity end?
What happens when all the sexual minorities in a Conference declare themselves openly? Do we spend tens of thousands of dollars on useless, meaningless trials that have nothing to do with the efficacy of their ministry, but rather their very personhood? Do we degrade ourselves, weeding out any and all clergy who violate our rules regarding sexual morality? Do we declare that how an individual loves determines their worth to be bearers of the Gospel? Do we deny the reality of the call of the Holy Spirit in the lives of gay and lesbian folk? Our Boards of Ministry now know better than God?
Twenty-eight years ago, my ministry mentor said something that has stuck with me: Celibacy in singleness is a nice ideal. We need to stop thinking and practicing a sexual theology that understands this reality of our incarnated reality to be evil, or the source of sinfulness. Few things are as beautiful as sexual intimacy. Obviously, human beings have debased sex; we have also debased eating through gluttony. We debase ourselves with pride. How is any of this relevant? Does being a sexual human being mean one is incapable of serving the Church as one called out for the service of Word, Sacrament, and Order?
At some point, we need to stop, take a step or two back, and realize how absurd, how ridiculous, how unChristian our ongoing obsession over sex and sexuality is. Were we engaged in heated discussions regarding the abuse of human sexuality in all its various forms, that would be one thing. Sexual violence by clergy is not limited to the Roman Catholic Church. We all know that. Rather than have a healthy discussion about that, however, we are actually insisting that the healthy expression of human sexuality in and of itself disqualifies some few among us from serving as called by God. It is, quite literally, an unrealistic set of demands that deny both the beauty of human love in all its forms and the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers.
And garments will be rent. Hard words pass back and forth. People will line up against one another. Clergy and laity and congregations will threaten to leave, one way or another. Yet we do not once ask the simple question:
We have wasted so much time and money and energy on the impossible pursuit of enforcing rules that no longer make sense practically, theologically, or ministerially. We have destroyed the lives of hundreds of people whose identity was determined by others rather than themselves; we have declared them to be unworthy of the work of Christian ministry not because of anything they’ve done but because of who they are. We are destroying our denomination because of bigotry and sinfulness. Our obsession with human sexuality has become more important than anything else. It’s absurd. It’s nonsensical.
We all know what’s coming, of course. All of which was avoidable by the simple act of prayer and discernment. All of which was avoidable by a careful examination of the Scriptures, our traditions, our reason, and the experience of the Church in our world today. All of which was avoidable were we grown-ups and put sex in its proper place in the lives of individuals and the Church.
We deserve our death. We have committed suicide, a cowardly, prideful act that denies the goodness of human life (trust me, I’ve been suicidal; I know what I’m talking about). I do so hope all those sexually prurient moralizers are happy with what they’ve wrought.
As much as I’ve been very vocal over a quarter century regarding the necessity for full inclusion – it only acknowledges what is an ongoing reality of gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, and other-sexed persons serving lives of faithful servant leadership across the denomination; everything else is just political jostling – I couldn’t care less what the decision will be. Not because I don’t care about matters of justice, particularly within the bounds of our church; not because I do not care about the integrity of the mission and ministry of the United Methodist Church. No, I don’t care because I was confronted with the reality of a faith stronger than the vicissitudes of a history of conquest; stronger than the persecutions of sworn enemies; stronger than time itself and the folly of human forgetfulness. I’ve always “known” that ours is just one moment, a fleeting phase in the life of the Church Universal. It is one thing to read about it, and proclaim it. It is quite another, however, to stand in the presence of a living witness that has withstood the rise and fall of Empires, the defies the logic and rationality of our age as it declares the presence of the physical remains of a Biblical saint.
The Church of St. Lazarus in the port city of Larnaca, Cyprus is a living witness to the power of a living faith in the face of all that time and tide, human sin and folly, pride and violence can direct at it. In 890, a small church built over the tomb of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, was replaced by a larger church befitting an Episcopal Seat. Byzantine Emperor Leo, known as The Wise, took all but a few of the bones of Lazarus back to Constantinople in exchange for the new structure. Across centuries during which the Byzantine Empire weakened, Crusaders would come for pilgrimages on their way to the holy land; later Crusaders would sack Constantinople and steal the holy relics, only to lose them once they had brought them back to Marseilles. The ancient city of Kition, fallen into neglect and all but abandoned, couldn’t support the maintenance of the church building, so it fell into disrepair.
After the Ottoman Turks conquered Cyprus, local officials petitioned to have the church restored. It took 22 years – 1589-1611 – but the building was restored to its present state. Through it all, lying forgotten in the stone sarcophagus from which the rest had been stolen, the few remaining bones sat, only to be rediscovered in the late 20th century. They were placed in a reliquary and sit in the main sanctuary of St. Lazarus to this day for veneration by the faithful who still come from all over the world to pay homage to the Biblical saint of whom it is said in legend Sts. Paul and Barnabus, during their first mission journey to the island, laid hands on the raised Lazarus making him the first Bishop of Kition.
A worship space has existed on the above spot for roughly two millennia, with the current building dating to the ninth century, repairs here and there visible enough. Through centuries of the rise and fall of Empires, the folly of the human pursuit of power and the declarations of those who would pass judgment upon the propriety of veneration of Holy Relics and the foolishness of holding on to ancient legends, this holy space is a living witness to the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit who continues to breathe new life to the surrounding city through its ancient stones. Emperors have come and Sultan’s have gone, soldiers from Rome and Venice and Byzantium and Nazi Germany and the British Empire have died, their names long forgotten while the presence of St. Lazarus has endured.
So what if the United Methodist Church splits over the matter of homosexuality? Will the Gospel pass to dust? Will the lives changed by our work together become null and void? Will the self-appointed arbiters of heresy and orthodoxy look any less foolish than they already do? Even if the United Methodist Church, whose life and witness has been bound up with most of my adult life, were to dry up and blow away, would the truth of God’s love cease to exist? We are part of a living tradition that spans continents and oceans and centuries and confessions, that’s survived the tumult of human history only to continue as a living witness in the midst of our current moment. Should the Judicial Council declare that sexual minorities have no place in the life of the Church, does that really mean much of anything, considering the great cloud of gay and lesbian, bisexual and questioning witnesses who have already served faithfully and rest from their labors? Are we really at a crossroads in the life of the church Universal? Rather, are we so caught up in insisting we know who has the right to tell the story we’ve forgotten that the story needs to be told, and only God calls those to tell it, wherever they are?
We are far too self-absorbed to remember how insignificant we really are. We are only vessels, our life poured out in faithful witness to the power of the Gospel over all that continually declare themselves the true power of the moment. The Gospel will be preached. Gay ministers, lesbian clergy couples, trans and questioning people will as they always have serve the Gospel of freedom in whatever capacity they are called by God to fill. And that Gospel and the life it brings will sustain communities far beyond our current historical moment.
I don’t care about the Judicial Council’s decision because, in the end, only the power of God sustains the faith, and that power is not and will not be usurped by any institution or persons, no matter how powerful or correct they may feel themselves to be. The Gospel will out because there are living witness across the globe that testify to its ongoing presence and power over whatever stumbling blocks human beings place in its way.
Perishing with commencing time, in the light which was created by God, by the second day, the infinite waste of waters is revealed as the absolute antithesis of the ordered world of “heaven and earth,” as an enemy of all life, as the death of every possibility of life. It is this power as such which is radically broken by the creative work of the second day. What is basically secured by thisw ork is the theatre of life, and therefore of man. In precise correspondence to the announcement made in the creation of light, it consists in the establishment of a boundary. The delineation of this boundary will be continued in the work of the third day. Its commencement consists in the radical crushing of the sovereignty of the element of chaos; in the liquidation of its finality, form and structure; in a division in to “waters above” and “waters below” in which it can no longer speak a fina linimcal and moral word, but can only be a last threat which cannot make man and his world impossible and thus destroy them. It is separated. It can exist only in this separation. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol III, Part 1, p.133.
The other day I mused on the possibility – or even the need! – for a so-called “theology of the natural sciences”. My reason for these thoughts are my current reading of Vol III, Part 1 of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, in which the great Basel doctor pays careful attention to the two creation stories in Genesis. It occurred to me today, after reading Barth’s careful work on Gen. 1:6-8, the work of the Second Day of Creation, that a careful look at how Barth reads just these two little verses should be a demonstration both in how to do theology (Biblical exposition), and how different are the questions it asks and the answers it offers from those of the natural sciences. This is an object lesson in why Christian Doctrine, particularly the doctrine of Creation, have nothing at all in common with astrophysics, cosmology, or quantum mechanics. It also demonstrates just how stupid creationists really are.
By way of some general observations, Barth’s strengths moving forward are a focused dedication both to the text as text and his prior methodological principle of the priority of such a focused reading always being done through the lens of the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the real revelation of who God is and what God has done and is doing. I doubt such a careful and thorough theological hermeneutic will or could exist in the future; relying as it does on a certainty that the particular narrative of the Christ-event defines how we approach the entire canon of Christian Scripture, living in a time when such meta-narratives, even as a functional device, are no longer tenable, such dedication and clarity and thoroughness are no longer either possible or desired.
This particularity of focus, however, gives Barth the power and authority to declare both that the events in the first two chapters of Genesis are real history and to set aside any conflict with a scientific account of the creation of the Universe as a primary misreading of the texts in question. Yet it is precisely here at his boldest that Barth’s weaknesses become most apparent. He spends an inordinate (to this reader at least) amount of space trying to define the Creation-event both as historical and outside the ability to research using proper historical (or one could add scientific) methods (pp.59f). Part of the confusion here stems from the tortured use of a weird German distinction between two kinds of history, reflected in the development and growth of meaning of two different words English translates as “history”. One refers to History with a capital “H”, History as meta-history, the overarching movement of forces – either metaphysical (Hegel) or theological (Barth) – that determine, define, and provide meaning for what most of us think of as “history”, that ebb and flow of events, of names and dates and places and events we usually consider history. Even knowing all this, even vaguely, Barth’s attention to this point is both labored and tortured and – dare I say it? – smacks of more than a little bit of apologetics.
The other weakness, and here we encounter Barth in discussion with his contemporaries in Old Testament studies regarding literary styles, is a curt discussion of “saga” (pp. 42f). By attempting to define an understanding of the text by defining the literary style, Barth is yet again – gasp! – sneaking an apologetic concern through the back door, as it were, of his stated disdain for apologetics. Which is not to say that our reading of the Bible should ignore matters of literary form and style. It is only to suggest that, in this particular instance, Barth’s arguments are both rather weak (which is rare enough) and seem, in the end, to be beside the point. Historical or just historical, saga or myth or something else entirely, Barth’s focused discussion on each word, each line, each phrase, each day of Creation sets these matters aside almost completely.
In any event, it is the event of Day 2 – the setting of the firmament in the heavens to separate the waters above from the waters below – that, for me, show both how powerful and distinct a theological reading of the Bible can be as well as how little any of it has to do with contemporary scientific questions regarding cosmology. It is also precisely here that creationists – ideologues who use the Bible as a hammer against others – show themselves to be very poor exegetes. First, those “waters above” and “waters below” were once unseparated, those waters over whose face the Spirit shone just before the first creative act. While both the Church Fathers as well as Protestant Dogmaticians of the 16th and 17th century claimed these “waters above” were clouds and mists, Barth uses evidence both from other parts of the Bible as well as the particular description of these “waters” from the opening lines of Genesis to show this is not at all what the author of Genesis had in mind.
On the contrary, the “waters” over which the Spirit hovered is the primordial chaos against which God’s good creation stands both opposed and victorious. Like the darkness that is broken by the creation of light (not a pre-scientific description of the Big Bang), the setting of a firmament separating the waters below – rivers and seas and rain and clouds – from the waters above – the primordial anticreation – these first two events of creation, by setting specific barriers against and separation from those forces and things (darkness and the primordial chaotic waters), creates the space and time and conditions under which the rest of the creation called “good” can proceed. Only by splitting darkness with the creation of light, which creates day, and the First Day, is that darkness that opposes the light created by God defeated and set in its proper place. Only by separating the waters with a firmament, keeping away from God’s ordered creation the chaos whose depths reflected the Spirit and are defeated by it.
The first two days of creation, rather than talking about particular specific acts that can be dated and fixed upon a timeline, offer a theological view of what creation entails: It is the defeat both of darkness and chaos, their subjection to the creative love of the God who wishes ours to be a world both of order and fitting for God’s very good creation, man and woman. We are not in the realm of “saga” (always a poor word choice to describe the literature of Genesis 1) or “history” at all. Barth’s setting aside such matters once he picks up the cudgels of theological exegesis demonstrate how little such discussions and definitions have to do with understanding the events of Genesis 1. While it is certainly true enough it is possible to read in Genesis 1 an account of events that actually took place on particular dates that can be discovered a la Bishop Usher, such a reading strips the text of their meaning and import. Anyone using this particular part of Scripture to defend a particular ideology robs them of the richness and fullness they actually contain.
Ours is a God of prodigal love who has chosen not to be alone but rather to create an Other to love that would seek God’s glory in return. Ours is a God who saw the original darkness and chaos and banished them, forcing them either to become part of God’s good creation or separating them entirely from Creation because their very existence as what they were posed a threat to the creation God was even then beginning. Ours is a God who would not have us creatures face the terror either of endless darkness or all-powerful chaos. Rather, ours is a world of order, discernible and discoverable, an order that provides space and time not just for survival, but for life, abundant life. We learn about our God, first, and our world and what kind of world it is God has created for us, second. Anything else the text might or might not say is less than unimportant.
As for Creationists who would continue to insist these texts give us a “real” history of “real” events that took place at a particular time, all I can say is by stripping the text of its theological depth and import, they have left nothing behind from which a reader can learn about God, or about the kind of creation in which we live, or any relationship between these events and the Christ event, the light that shines back offering the believer a particular perspective from which to understand the God of love who is the Father of Jesus Christ. Creationists aren’t really concerned that much with Christian faith as much as they are with having power over others by forcing a particular unBiblical and certainly unChristian reading upon others.
However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philisophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God. – Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, p. 175
Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply a refusal to deny the obvious. Unfortunately, we live in a world in which the obvious is overlooked as a matter of principle. The obvious must be observed and re-observed and argued for. This is a thankless job. It carries with it an aura of petulance and insensitivity. – Sam Harris, “An Atheist Manifesto”
[Creationist Ray] Bohlin managed to recruit state board members to join in his quest, even going so far as to claim that removing any mention of creationist opinions in science would somehow prevent students from being able to ask questions in classes. (A false claim). He further claimed the majority of the committee was engaged in “a quick and concerted effort by the majority of the committee to remove the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS).”
“I don’t advocate for any kind of creationism to be taught in the school. That does not belong in the TEKS. I’m simply concerned about the fair representation of the evidence for evolution,” said Bohlin. – Sarah K. Burris, “Creationists attack Texas education board for trying to eliminate junk science from school textbooks”, Raw Story, October 5, 2016
The theological principle which I accept without a rival has made it almost compulsory that I should first present the doctrine of the work of the Creator as such in the old-fashioned form of a radical exposition of the contents of the first two chapters of the Bible. This exposition is the kernel of the present book. I realise that it is in many ways strange, for I had not myself expected that this would be the result of a closer consideration of these passages and the problems involved. It will perhaps be asked in criticism why I have not tackled the obvious scientific question posed in this context. It was my original belief that this would be necessary, but I later saw that there can be no scientific problems, objections or aids in relation to what Holy Scripture and the Christian Church understand by the divine work of creation. Hence in the central portion of this book a good deal will be said about “naive” Hebrew “saga”, but nothing at all about apologetics and polemics, as might have been expected. The relevant task of dogmatics at this point has been found exclusively in repeating the “saga”, and I have found this task far finer and far more rewarding than all the dilettante entanglements in which I might otherwise have found myself. There is free scope for natural science beyond what theology describes as the work of the Creator. And theology can and must move freely where science which really is science, and not secretly a pagan Gnosis or religion, has its appointed limit. I am of the opinion, however, that future workers in the field of the Christian doctrine of creation will find many problems worth pondering in defining the point and manner of this twofold boundary. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine Of Creation, Part 1, pp. ix-x
The central faith-claim of the Christian Church is the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world. This particular claim is perhaps the most radical statement ever made: It says everything there is to know about God, who God is, what kind of God this God of Jesus Christ is, the state of humanity in its relationship to God and its mutual interrelationships, how best to live one’s life, and whether or not death is to be feared or considered part of our broken yet healing creation. The claims of the Christian Church are, quite literally, life and death for those who make them. Far too comfortable in our middle-class “religion” of reassurance, we forget that, in the words of the late Rev. Dr. William Homes, “to live is to risk”.
The bulk of the Christian proclamation should remain focused upon this particular point. It must stress the grace and love that is the beating heart of that proclamation. That this is both confessional and pastoral should be obvious; it is confessional because this is the God to whom we give testimony, and it is pastoral because this beating heart gives new life to those who hear it and believe. The whole liturgy of the Church focuses upon grace and love, and we who go forth from worship have this new heart beating within us.
And yet . . .
Buried within the central proclamation is the confession that this “world” – really everything from quasars to elementary particles, gas giants circling other stars and your pet cat – is the product of the creative act of love of our prodigal God. This faith statement – God created the heavens and the earth – seems both pretty simple and straightforward. Alas, as the natural sciences have pushed further and further what is theorized concerning both the beginnings of our Universe and its constituent properties, that simple faith claim sounds as if it is in direct conflict with our best theories concerning cosmology and the origin and development of life here on Earth.
And yet . . .,
Here in the United States (of all places) scientific knowledge is under attack on an unprecedented scale. Everything from medical science, genetics and food science, through the physics and chemistry of the earth’s atmosphere and climate, to those perennial arguments over the theory of evolution is questioned, has groups organized to protest both the reality of scientific understanding and the growth both of that understanding and various technological benefits from genetically engineered foods and vaccines to the teaching of evolution in public schools. The nation that has both pioneered and benefited from scientific research and the application of that research to technologies that benefit us routinely ridicules basic research, denies scientific theories that have yet to be disproved even in some small detail, and now even has an anti-science advocate – “Dr.” Jill Stein – running for President. These attacks upon the most successful method we humans have yet developed for figuring out how the world works and helping us live better, healthier lives should be of concern to anyone who continues to benefit from all that science and technology has offered us as a species.
We in the Christian churches should be as concerned as the rest. One of the first things we should acknowledge is that the ability to figure out our world and how best not just to survive but thrive on it is indeed a very good gift from a loving God. Just as we recognize the entirety of Christian Doctrine exists within the central proclamation of the churches, we should also acknowledge that “good gift” of understanding is part and parcel of the particular Universe in which we find ourselves. A Universe capable of the kind of relatively stable biochemistry capable of becoming alive would, it should be obvious, endow that life with the ability to understand that Universe and so survive within it. Our rationality, that particular habit of considering evidence in order to grasp particularly important information regarding our world, is a direct result of the kind of Universe in which we live.
For there to be some kind of conflict between science and Christian faith, one would have first to deny that we are creatures endowed with the ability not just to understand but to act upon an understanding of the world so that we can thrive and grow in it. To deny scientific theories, whether it’s about global climate change, the Big Bang, the chemical theories regarding mental illness that have produced successful drug treatments, or the theory of evolution, is to deny that God has made us as we are – as creatures able to learn stuff and use that learning. A denial of science at any level is, at heart, a denial of faith in the God of Jesus Christ.
And yet . . .
Science’s success has led some scientists (and non-scientists) to come to accept it not just as the best method yet of figuring out our world and how best to live in it; they believe the very existence of science both as a method and as a body of knowledge excludes other ways of understanding. Not just religion in general and the Christian faith in particular (because both Christianity and science are European phenomena what points of contention exist between the sciences and “religion”, by and large, involve Christianity), but a kind of scientific reductionism across all sorts of human activity from patriotism through individual behaviors and deviance to romantic love can be encountered. Which isn’t to say that science doesn’t have something to say about why it is we human beings prefer the company of those more like us than not, say, or why it is we not only fall in love but some cultures persist in enforcing life-long pair-bonding over and against what seems a far more likely serial mating among the best candidates available. It does have things to say, and should say them.
The problem is, they aren’t the only things that can and should be said about these and other phenomena. When it comes to religion in general, and the claims of any particular faith, science should recognize, first and foremost, that the claims of believers are not and by their nature cannot be addressed as science addresses such matters. This isn’t just a question of “falsifiability”, as only those questions to which a negative answer is at least potentially possible were the only questions worth asking. It is precisely because science and religion, in fact, do not inhabit the same sphere at all. They do not address the same specific questions; they do not attempt to answer them using the same tools; they do not offer answers that can be stated interchangeably in the vocabularies of science and religious faith. At heart, the efforts of some scientists and some people of faith to fan the flames of conflict is fundamentally to misunderstand that we are dealing with two distinct vocabularies developed to address distinct issues and problems and offer solutions to those problems in terms that exist wholly within the distinct vocabularies used.
The Christian faith has nothing much to say at all about “the reality” of the Big Bang, biochemistry, or the evolution and development of life. Science has nothing much to say about the revelation of the God revealed to the world in Jesus Christ, the salvation of our broken Creation, and the promise of New Life and New Creation to come. In the first case, the only thing Christian theology should do is give thanks to God both for a Universe in which scientific knowledge is possible and that we are creatures so endowed in order to grow and thrive. The only thing science should say about Christian proclamation regarding Creation is that it answers questions that have nothing at all to do with what science teaches us. To do other than this is, in the end, to devolve into arguments that are, for all intents and purposes, like one German speaker and one Danish speaker arguing with one another in their own languages over which language is better.
So is a “theology of science” even possible? I’m not so sure it’s as much a question of its possibility – for surely we humans are ingenious enough to come up with all sorts of things that sound convincing – as a question of its scope and place within the larger concerns of Christian proclamation. At best it is and should always be considered a peripheral matter, sitting at the edge of the proclamation of creation. Recognizing both that science both as a body of knowledge and a way of coming to that body of knowledge exist should be yet more reasons for praising our good and loving God. Beyond that, however, I guess I’m not sure what more can or should be said.
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.
I have been dismayed by the “entitlement” mentality that stand is stark contrast to the humility we were invited to yesterday. I am watching my brothers and sisters speak angrily and horribly to wait-staff, hotel-staff, convention center staff, and even to one another. At a restaurant, a “gentleman” reduced his server to tears and at the top of his voice screamed, “No way you get a tip!” Today, a booth scheduled to open at 7:30 had the audacity to not open until 7:38. People took their annoyance out on the poor volunteers working the booth. On person spat, “I am much too important to be made waiting this long.” And another muttered abut the “stupid assholes” who couldn’t tell time. I wish these were the only two incidents I could name, but they are examples of multiple encounters I have seen in the past two days. What a witness to the world about United Methodists… – Rev. Dan Dick, “GC2016 – Day Three”, United Methodeviations, May 12, 2016
What I worry about, however, is whether we have any ability to call ourselves Christian in the wake of how we treat one another. Granted, we have valid differences and our passion for our beliefs can lead us to use language and maintain a tone that is somewhat divorced from the call to gentleness, patience, and kindness mentioned in the scriptures. I understand passion, and often say things that I later regret, so I get that sometimes our words get away from us.
The bigger concern for me is the sense of entitlement held by several who think that their position, their office, or even their election as a delegate grants them a status beyond that of “sinner in need of God’s grace.” Humility seems to be less valued than certainty and that often misunderstood quality known as “leadership.” In the face of self-importance, God’s command of love often gets trampled. – Jay Voorhees, “Commentary: And Are We Yet Alive?”, United Methodist Reporter, May 12, 2016
But this is the one to whom I will look,
to the humble and contrite in spirit,
who trembles at my word. – Isaiah 66:2b
I had high hopes for this General Conference. I really did. After the disaster in Tampa in 2012, one would think everyone would be mindful of the need not just to do things differently, but to do them better. The sad fact is there seems to be even more anger and animosity among the delegates, even more distrust and disrespect, and pretty much none of the humility toward which the Bishop’s have been calling us each morning.
Which leads me to ponder something I thought about yesterday. I was speaking to someone about my impressions of General Conference so far, and the one thing that’s stuck out for me has been the gulf between what is powerful, Spirit-filled worship and the rancorous deliberations on the floor. There is much commentary in the Hebrew Scriptures on worship. Over and over again the message is clear: authentic worship is humility, an open and contrite heart. The prophets in particular deliver words that show Divine disgust at worship more concerned with outward devotion to ritual than with the inward Spirit of love for one another, a community gathered knowing they are sinners before a God both of love and justice, a God that desires Holy Community rather than liturgical exactness.
So after three powerful worship services so far, during which the presence of the Spirit was palpable, I have to wonder . . . who was really worshiping?
Which brings me to a radical thought rooted in sadness: I think General Conference needs to start all over again. Before anyone enters the main auditorium, rather than being prayed over, delegates should the prayer Jesus said on the Mount of Olives: Not my will, but yours be done. Rather than following Robert’s Rules of Order – endlessly exploitable by those who understand their confusing intricacies – our General Conference should follow different rules. Only speeches that build up the body should be allowed. Only words that seek to bridge gaps and heal divisions should be heard.
I am all for anger. I am all for the silenced to be heard. There is, however, a time and a place for everything, and the floor of General Conference is no more the right place for grandstanding than it should be the place for parliamentary maneuvering and sowing seeds of confusion and mistrust.
For all the glorious worship and music, for all the calls for humility, this General Conference is descending quickly in to a morass of mutual spite. If Dan Dick’s stories are true, this is spilling over in our dealings with those with whom we have no disagreements, those outside the circle of General Conference. We need a do-over and we need it NOW. For the sake of our church, its ministry, and how we might live together and serve together going forward.