I long for us to argue better. I long for us to seek holy ends by holy means. How we go about this conversation matters; I do not believe coercion is a legitimate strategy for intra-church debate. We are not utilitarians, and “anything that works” is not Christian logic.
So let us argue as sisters and brothers in Christ, both in form and content. By re-narrating this debate in terms of our views of divorce, binding and loosing, and holiness, we might find a more fruitful debate. We might even find a surprising unanimity among otherwise disparate factions.
I yet hope that our decades-long fight can be over. I hope we can find a way to welcome our LGBTQ neighbors more fully into the life of the church. I likewise hope that this can be done in a way that does not drive away folks who are evangelical or traditionalist. – Drew McIntyre, “3 Theological Reasons the UMC Should Reconsider Its Stance On Same-Gender Relationships”, Ploughsares Into Swords, May 2, 2016
This second offering of things to consider as we head into Portland, OR and General Conference, should, perhaps, have been written first. Before anything else, we are the Church, the Body of Christ, specifically the inheritors of those John Wesley called “the people called Methodist”. As the Church, our first aim always and everywhere should be to remain faithful. Before we consider anything, we should reaffirm our faith, prayerfully considering how we have neglected this or that or the other part of our collective confession, asking for guidance and strength as we go forward.
Prayer is the practical side of our declaration of faith. St. Paul insisted we should pray without ceasing. To that end we should in all times and places where we gather together seek in and through prayer to remain faithful to the God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who creates us, saves us, and gives us life and new life. How would it be possible to deliberate as the Church if we did not pray and confess our faith together?
For a very long time there’s been a whole lot of talk about the place of confessing the faith within the life of the United Methodist Church. Ours is, after all, a non-creedal Body. There is no distinctive United Methodist Confession of Faith. Over 20 years ago, some people bemoaned this part of our life and formed The Confessing Movement, to the end that the programs and ministries of our Church be held accountable to the confession of Jesus Christ as Son, Savior, and Lord. While some, including me, have wondered at some of the things the Confessing Movement has written and said, their goal shouldn’t be all that controversial. After all, if there is no guidance and limit to what we as a corporate Body preach and teach and witness, why call ourselves as “Church” at all?
Doctrine, a word much misunderstood and abused, is an expression of our collective identity. Too often used synonymous with “theology”, Christian Doctrine is the collective profession of our identity as this Church, this particular living Body of Christ at work in the world. Much bandwidth and ink has been spilled over the status and role of Doctrine within the life of the Church. I sometimes think arguments like this, substitutes for our real grievances against one another, are more entertaining than anything else. That it, until some either dismiss our Doctrinal Statements completely or insist that Christian Doctrine is some unchanging “thing”, existing since time immemorial, vouchsafed to us only to defend and pass on, unmarked by time and circumstance. At these points, I think we’ve entered loony land.
Doctrine is now as it has always been, our collective expression of our identity. People what to know what it is to be a Christian, what that means, all we really need to do is point to our Doctrinal statements and say, “Read this.” The words, their interpretation, different emphases (for example, our particular Wesleyan emphases on grace and Christian Perfection, on mission and discipleship) are always changing because languages change, people change, history changes, circumstances dictate what should be shouted from the rooftops and what should be whispered in secret. This is neither interesting nor surprising.
Gathering in Portland our delegates have a duty to reaffirm our collective profession of faith. In so doing, they should also prayerfully ask that our Doctrinal Standards be their rule and rod, their guide and limit for all they deliberate and decide. Only thus, in an attitude of prayer and in full knowledge of that which marks us as distinct, can our deliberations and decisions be understood as the fruitful outcome of faithful living, prayerful deliberations, and mutual love.
While I still believe that at least some of the emphasis upon Doctrine has been either code for calling those with whom they disagree heretics thus outside the bounds of Christian fellowship or a distraction from other matters, it needs to be repeated and emphasized: We either stand together under our collective expression of identity as professed in our Doctrinal Standards or we shall always be divided by the winds of whatever controversy comes down the pike. We cannot forsake our profession of faith and remain the Body of Christ, regardless of the outcome of our deliberations.
In prayer and profession, only there are we truly The United Methodist Church.
N.B.: This is one of those technical pieces. It’s going to have jargon in it. It’s going to be a not-easy read. I figure about three people will read it. Two of them will disagree with me.
While doing reading for a topic that involves Christian theology in dialogue with popular music, I still felt there were pieces missing when it came to theoretical considerations regarding the relationships between Christian teaching and contemporary life. It isn’t enough to posit particular doctrines as having some determinate relationship with contemporary life; the dynamics of interaction should allow for something more in keeping with the general dialectical nature of Christian teaching itself. What that was – how to name it and therefore understand it – was the issue. It was coming across the related ideas of transactional relationships in interpreting texts and what is called transgressive discourse, readings that are described as being on the liminal edge of our larger social conversation that I found at least part of the missing piece.
Part of this reading process sounds rooted in a particular school of theological exegesis. The basic theory is one described for reading poetry. It is inadequate to posit either the poem itself, or the reader’s response to the poem, as being the primary text. Rather, and here is where theological bells began to ring, positing that the text lies in between the two in the event that is the readerly act on the one hand and the textual fact on the other. Reading, then, is neither a passive bringing in the words of the text nor the active over-riding of the text by a reader’s freedom in interpreting a text, leaving the interpretation to exist within an affective space limited both by the poem as well as the social and cultural location of the reader and the larger interpretive community with which the reader identifies.
The notion of Christian doctrine as transgressive only means that, as a body, the teachings of the Christian church, along with all their other meanings, as an event push past the boundaries of larger social acceptable discourse. To say that the event of reading Christian doctrine occurs at the liminal edge only means that the act of involving oneself in the event of Christian doctrine places always at the edge. This is the space such reading inhabits; the resulting act is transgressive precisely because the teachings that are Christian doctrine push the reader outside what the rest of society accepts as normative discourse. In lay terms, just reading Christian doctrine makes one a radical; one enters a space outside what American civil discourse considers acceptable.
At the same time, Christian doctrine is transgressive precisely because it is reactionary to that same acceptability. While “radical” in the original, literal sense of getting to the root of matters, the event of reading Christian doctrine, always bringing the reader toward that liminal edge, can never do so completely. None of us is capable of escaping our experiences, our social location, the histories in which we are embedded. While certainly offering a radical critique of social norms and practices, Christian doctrine does so in a way that reacts to those social norms. Thus it is we have the possibilities of falling too far to one side of this dialectical tension or the other: We can favor radical confrontation, the “No” that always seems to be at the heart of Divine speech toward creation; or we can favor a reactionary “Yes”, the “yes” that follows on the “No”, the Divine Yes that affirms social and cultural and religious structures as means of grace, upholding the created order not as socially constructed but rather as social fact.
Thus it is that, while transgressive, there is a dialectic at the heart of the interpretive possibilities, events that are determined as much by the reader as the text itself. It is easy enough to fall to one side as the other, precisely because we as readers – individually and collectively – are never lifted fully out of the affective space we inhabit. Thus it is that the encounter with Christian doctrine is never and can never be one thing or the other. It is a category error to mistake one’s own affective space as the sole generator of textual meaning. On the other hand, recognizing the dialectical nature both of Christian doctrine and the interpretive possibilities does not mean we are free to inscribe meanings either as final or solely, On the contrary, our interpretative events should always be tentative not only because of the purported nature of doctrine, but precisely because what becomes the text is the event of the encounter between the reader and the fact of the written object. None of us are dealing with the same “text” precisely because none of us inhabit the same affective space or are part of the same interpretive community. Thus the possibilities for encounters between Christian doctrine and secular discourse are always dynamic, fluid, and offer possibilities as event that cannot be understood either in traditional ways of understanding a reader’s encounter with a text, what constitutes that text, and even the history of the interpretations of particular texts.
Interpretations do not inhere in within texts, nor do they accumulate, adhering to them over time like barnacles. The idea that the history of interpretation is part and parcel of the limits on affective space mentioned above misses the point that the text is not the print on the page/dots on the computer screen but the negotiated space between that and the reader’s encounter understood as event. While the reader may well be aware of that history, there is neither normative nor theoretical reason to assume the history of interpretation is or ought to be a guide. Such history is only a relative rather than absolute determinant of the affective space available. We must never make the category error of believing only a particular reading offers a description of the event in question. Thus it is that no one is ever wholly right – or wholly wrong! – when encountering Christian doctrine. Thus it is possibilities for encounters between specific secular discourses and Christian doctrine expand rather than contract as long as we recognize and name the dialectical nature of any such event.
One of my favorite professors at Wesley Seminary was Roy Morrison. Roy was smart. Roy had volumes memorized that most people didn’t even read. His interests ranged from model trains to the philosophy of Heidegger, the theology of Tillich, and the literature of African-American protest. No one would have called Roy a Christian, by any means. He was the professor of philosophy of religion, and his skepticism – and occasional animus – toward religion was a healthy antidote to the sometimes overpowering earnestness both of students and faculty.
One thing Roy didn’t like about Christianity was the series of inherent contradictions embedded within our most important doctrines. The Trinity, read through different lenses, is nothing more than a crazy puzzle, a circle of nonsense with neither beginning or end. One God, but Three Persons, but One Substance, but Three Distinct Objectifications, always within One Subject who is three persons . . . It’s a nightmare, really. Another of Roy’s favorite targets was the resurrection: It is impossible for a person to be both dead and alive at the same time. To say that Jesus was dead is to make an ultimate statement about Jesus’s condition. There are no stages of dead; despite The Princess Bride, no one is ever “only mostly dead”. Once a person is dead, well, dead is dead. To claim this same dead person is, after having been declared dead, now alive, is both a logical and biological impossibility. To continue to declare it true precisely because it defied both logic and our understanding of how death works borders on insanity.
There are some folks, good and faithful Christians, who would consider Roy’s objections blasphemous. There are even more who, while not going that far, would certainly insist someone who thinks this way has no place in a Seminary, where people are being trained for ministry. And, of course, there are those who would go to great pains not only to demonstrate Roy’s errors, but offer such demonstrations as general argumentative principles for dealing with “objections” like Roy’s. These last, self-proclaimed “apologists”, are kind of like Calvin Trillin’s fruitcakes. You never see more than one in the same place; apologists pop up using the same words and phrases and sentences; no one really likes apologists but we always smile indulgently when one is pointed out to us.
There are another set of reactions to Roy. None of these involve either showing Roy how wrong he is, showing the world how right we are, or otherwise demonstrating that this game of intellectual point and counterpoint is a zero-sum game. This set of reactions involves two moves. The first is hearing what Roy is saying, acknowledging the objections as legitimate and worthy of consideration. In so doing, these objections force us to make even more clear what it is we believe and why we so believe. Rather than reject the questions, perhaps embracing them as showing the inherent mystery at the heart of our faith is one tack that can be and has been taken. The acknowledgment of mystery is supposed to be bad right now; because we have “doctrine”, because ours is a “faith seeking understanding” (as if St. Anselm only ever said those three word), even nodding toward the mystery that is the Gospel message of grace, redemption, and holiness is somehow either anti-intellectual or . . . I don’t know . . . too much “all the feels” as kids say these days and not enough . . . what? . . . “thinks”? Anyway, mysticism, spirituality, the declaration that the heart of the story of Infinite Divine Love is this dark hole that no amount of thought can penetrate, people who do this right now, particularly in Protestant circles, are allegedly doing something bad.
Yet ours is a faith that exists precisely upon the simplest contradiction I, for one, can imagine: Why does God give a shit about me? That’s the question Deists, for example, decided to answer with a vigorous, “Actually, God doesn’t.” Thus it is they figured God wound the Universe, and is currently in the Divine Recliner binge-watching House of Cards, and waiting for the spring to unwind all the way. Fundamentalists, in many ways the opposite of Deists, insist that all Creation – black holes, exploding galaxies, viruses that can wipe out whole populations, worms that live at the mouth of superheated vents on the ocean’s bottom, and anoles all exist so that you and I can have a personal relationship with Jesus. God not only gives a shit; God made all this stuff so that each individual can have an individual, personal – please read private when I type personal – relationship that will culminate in each person with such a relationship going to heaven when he or she dies. That’s it, and that’s all. The “fundamentals” all move with a logical force Aristotle and Occam would have envied toward that one ineluctable conclusion.
The rest of us, however, still wonder. No matter how long we’ve professed and confessed our faith in the crucified and risen Jesus, we’re still left with this weird notion that each of us matters in some final, eternal, ultimate sense. That all of us together, once we are grasped by the love that teaches us this lesson, well, we have a job to do. We have to tell the world this story in a way that people will understand. And they’ll have all sorts of questions, some of them the questions Roy asks while others will be different questions, all of which boil down to “Why does God love me?” We have the resources of Christian doctrine to move toward understanding. Understanding, however, isn’t the same thing as as answer. An answer is a final, satisfying, loose-end-tying conclusion; it’s the mathematical equivalent of that single equation that contains, defines, and explains both the source and end of all other equations. The problem, both for mathematics and Christianity is such things just don’t – indeed cannot – exist. At least not as the Universe we inhabit is currently constituted. We are always in the midst both of creation and destruction, of beginnings and endings, and at some point, no matter how hard we push, the only answer we arrive at is . . . “Just because.”
Ours is a world filled with contradictions and conflicts. Resolving them in one way or another has been the goal of the modernist project, and the ruins of that project are all about us as we begin the first tentative steps forwards with a whole different set of questions, ends, and problems. One thing that should not be and certainly isn’t (at least for some) a problem is the reality of contradiction, both logical and existential, in our world. That includes in our faith. No, it makes no sense that the God who created more worlds than we can know has chosen this tiny sphere orbiting a nothing star on the edge of one spiral arm of your Average Joe galaxy to be the realm of Divine Revelation. It makes no sense that a tiny strip of land that otherwise is relatively insignificant is the center of a story that involves the recreation of all that is without the taint of sin. It makes no sense that a carpenter was the physical embodiment of Divine Love and Grace, who lived, died, and – Yes! – was raised from the dead so that the first stirrings of the coming Kingdom could be seen and heard and felt and tasted all around us. None of it makes sense and wouldn’t it be better if just got rid of all those pesky questions and contradictions? Isn’t our time better served by telling other people how right we are and how wrong they are? Isn’t demonstrating our prowess at answering objections, at showing just how wrong others are, much more important than loving people to the point there are no longer any “others”? Especially those “others” who are ever so much like us, but write different sentences and say different words when they tell the same basic story we do?
I think it’s easy to see the scales, once tipped so far to one side the other seemed not to exist, is now righting itself ever so slowly. The growing acceptance of difference, of mystery, of the limits of human knowledge – particularly about the Divine Life, including the Gospel story – points toward a healthy understanding that some questions just don’t have an answer, that some contradictions can’t be resolved, and our efforts are far better put toward telling our story by loving one another, working to make things a bit more bearable in these times before God’s final consummation of all the promises made to us.
This is what’s called “holding things in tension” and it’s the one phrase that Roy once told me he hated most of all about Christianity. That’s OK. It’s OK that some folks just don’t get it and don’t like the answers they get when they ask questions for which the only answer is a smile and the repeated affirmation of love. That, too, is a contradiction – questions with no answers; answers to questions not asked – that is part of our story.
Too many people think this is what “theology” is: Big old books that are unreadable.
Laments about the status of theology in the Church are as old as the Church. Remember in St. Peter’s Epistle, that reminder to be ready to give a defense of the faith? What else is that but a plea for people to get straight how they talk about what they believe. We in the United Methodist Church, unclear on the distinction between “theology” and “doctrine” carry on as if the words are interchangeable. Then of course there are people like this guy who warn of Zombie Theologians, as if ignorant lay people are going to eat our brains if we don’t teach them theology! Aside from the lousy and misused metaphor, all this Sturm und Drang and clothes-rending is ridiculous. Our churches do theology all the time. Sometimes they do it quite well; sometimes they do it poorly. That is to be expected. Even the best theologians of whom we know got all sorts of stuff wrong. Rather than bewail our communal failures teaching “the Christian faith” and “theology” – not at all the same thing; I would have thought a Seminary professor would know the very big difference – perhaps we should celebrate all the ways our clergy, lay people, church staffs, congregations, and hierarchy are out there doing theology all the time.
First of all, theology is not just a specialized academic discipline, producing books and articles read by fewer and fewer people, couched in a specialized vocabulary that even the initiated struggle with. Theology is also what people do when teaching children the Bible. It’s what Disciple Bible Study is all about. Church committees, right up to those most important ones like Finance, Trustees, and Administrative Council are theological to the core. If a church or Conference or even General Church budget isn’t a theological document, what else could it be?
We too often confuse “using a specialized academic vocabulary” with doing theology. That vocabulary is important. Its precision is necessary for reasons of clarity of expression and exposition. That is not what makes a particular discourse “theological”. The faithfulness of those engaged in such discourse; the way faith in Christ is the center around which such discourse takes place; the refusal to allow pat answers or shiny objects distract from the necessity of being faithful; these are some of the marks of theological discourse. If the folks so engaged aren’t using a particular specialized vocabulary, yet are arriving at the same place by a different route, what is the problem?
Now, if the issue isn’t a matter of the vocabulary and discourse, but rather expressed ignorance about basics of the faith, then I think all of us share equal blame for that. Clergy and laity all need to work together to ensure people are engaged in our faith seeking understanding. It is not enough to declare oneself a Christian, to point to a moment or series of moments that one’s life shifted because of an experience of God. If there is a basic inability to articulate the content of one’s faith – to say more than “It is this God in whom I believe” – that is a failure all of us share. We don’t need to be busy teaching people to read St. Thomas or Peter Abelard or Calvin or Langdon Gilkey, although if you want to more power to you. At the very least, however, we do need to engage people in thinking about and being willing to answer the question, “Who is this God in whom you believe?” That is the beginning and end of theology, right there.
The standard question in Seminaries when courses in Systematics roll around is, “What does this have to do with being a pastor?” Interesting question. Since being a pastor is more than marrying and burying; since it’s more than administration and paper-pushing; since it’s more than devising a worship outline and a sermon each week; it would seem that anyone charged with serving a congregation would at least be curious about what it’s all about. Of course like so much else in education from elementary school through post-doctoral work, how we go about getting people to understand why acquiring even the rudiments of a theological vocabulary are important run up against the simple fact that our schools are not designed to educate people, i.e., to teach them to think for themselves. Our whole education system is designed to turn out workers, to separate those who succeed in our service-based economy such as bankers, attorneys, financial traders, and doctors from those who will not succeed. Theological education, at least at its formal level, is no more immune from these socio-economic pressures than it is from other social and cultural ailments. All the efforts at reforming theological education that don’t admit this is the reality within which it operates will always fail.
If people aren’t hearing real theology being done in our churches, perhaps we’re listening for the wrong thing. If people aren’t recognizing the faithful wrestling in which our congregations engage, perhaps the matter isn’t a lack of theological understanding on the part of lay people (and why for God’s sake is it always the lay people?). Perhaps the people so desperate for “real” theology in our churches are really talking about something else, and using the long-running assumption of congregational theological ignorance as a way of talking about something else.
It’s too easy and convenient . . . oh, hell, it’s just downright lazy to carry on about theological ignorance. If you think the problem is so bad and pervasive, devise a curriculum to address it! Oh, wait . . . that’s all ready been done. If the matter is so pervasive because you believe there are clergy who claim they are too busy to teach the faith, perhaps you should offer an example or two. Teaching the faith, after all, is about more than leading a class. It would seem that would include sermons with no theology in them. It would mean weddings and funerals without the Good News being declared. It would mean meetings that don’t begin with an prayer for God’s presence. It would mean Bible Studies that somehow evade the meaning of the texts being considered. I’m sure such things happen. I just have not seen, in almost fifty years in the United Methodist Church, any evidence our congregations are not theological. They are, often deeply so. There isn’t an understanding of the technicalities of academic theological discourse; there often is ignorance of particular doctrines – again, not the same thing as not knowing or being able to articulate theology – but that is easily remedied. I just don’t see any evidence either of theological ignorance or an unwillingness to engage in doing theology in our churches.
Our churches do theology. Our people are able to articulate that in which they believe. More importantly as congregations, they live out their theology in so many ways that touch both their local communities and the whole world.
Theology? We’re soaking in it.
People naturally do not shout it out, and least of all into the ears of us ministers. But let us not be deceived by their silence. Blood and tears, deepest despair and highest hope, a passionate longing to lay hold of that which, or rather of him who, overcomes the world because he is its Creator and Redeemer, its beginning and ending and Lord, a passionate longing to have the word spoken, the word which promises grace in judgment, life in death, and the beyond in the here and now, God’s word – this it is which animates our church-goers, however lazy, bourgeois, or commonplace may be the manner in which they express their want in so-called real life. – Karl Barth, “The Need and Promise of Christian Preaching”, in The Word Of God And The Word Of Man, p.109
The only source for the real, the immediate, revelation of God is death. Christ unlocked its gates. He brought life to light out of death.
Out of death! The word cannot be spoken significantly enough. The meaning of God, the power of God, begins to shine upon the [people] of the Bible at the boundary of mortality, . . .
The human correlate to the divine aliveness is neither virtue, nor inspiration, nor love, but the fear of the Lord, mortal fear, the last, absolute, perfect fear. – Karl Barth, “Biblical Questions, Insights, and Vistas,” in The Word Of God And The Word Of Man, p.77
A proper theology makes no compromises. That is what distinguishes it from church administration and leadership. And to the extent that it makes no compromises, theology performs a critical function in church leadership. As a theologian, Karl Barth performed this function in many ways. The whole of the Church Dogmatics is to be read as a textbook of church leadership. It is therefore an eminently critical text, for it measure the reality of the church against the criterion of evangelical truth, namely, the person of Jesus Christ. Dogmatics is thus an aggressive science, but not in the sense of a fractious, querulous, pseudoacademic, or obscurantist attachment to the status quo. The Church Dogmatics assalt the church (and not only the church) with the gospel. That is what makes it of service to the church. Barth’s theology is a deliberate assault with the gospel. Hence it is not only an uncompromising theology, but also an uncompromising theology. – Eberhard Jungel, Karl Barth: A Theological Legacy, p.127.
Yesterday, our daughter had to undergo a long procedure to correct a dangerous arrhythmia. It was a very long day, and to keep myself from going completely crazy, I took along a book to read. For some reason, my wife thought I was a bit odd taking the collection of some of Barth’s early lectures (pre- and concurrent with The Epistle To The Romans), entitled The Word Of God And The Word Of Man. I haven’t read these in decades; approaching them was like reading them for the first time. It was also, perhaps unsurprisingly, like reading something so familiar, my own words from another’s mouth, written almost a hundred years ago in another language in another time against a backdrop of a very different krisis for the Church.
People find it difficult to fathom that, from beginning to end, Barth was a theologian first and foremost dedicated to the business of the local church preacher in the pulpit. Coming as he did from the Reformed tradition, the sermon was understood as the heart of our Sunday worship; the preacher in the pulpit occupies a point that separates those longing people in the congregation of which Barth writes above and the Bible open on the pulpit. For Barth, this moment more than any other made true or false the call of the minister of God. Barth’s love for the Church was always tempered by an absolute commitment to the Gospel, a message that not only offered Good News and hope, but also offered judgment, a judgment of death, upon our all too human, all too preposterous presumption to do this task with anything more than inadequacy. Success for Barth was not the number of faces looking up from the congregation; in one lecture, given in Germany in 1922, Barth notes that many churches may have just one or two “old ladies” that are the congregation, a situation not too far from our own reality today. For Barth, success was how willing the preacher was, in and at that impossible moment, to be open to the Spirit to make those human words in to The Word of God.
There is much rending of clothing over the place of doctrine within the United Methodist Church. I’ve been a part of that discussion. I think it is important to remember that doctrine is a servant, not a master; it is a teaching, not a revelation; it is our identity at any given time, but always changing precisely because it is time-bound. While I certainly can’t agree with everything Barth says, I have always admired his militancy regarding the centrality of the Christ event; that this event is not only a reality “in time”, but a reality for us, here and now, our job being to declare it; and that this reality, always present with us, stands over and against any and all human attempts to capture it, tame it, domesticate it, and have a final word about it. It is humbling to remember that the life of faith is just that – a life. We – most especially me! – have a lifetime to be faced with the ever-present revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and along with declaring it trying as best we can to understand it. This is what we are called to do; this is what we will never accomplish with any satisfaction. The reality of the Gospel assails all our all-too-human attempts at clarity and profundity, reminding us just how far we always have to go.
This morning, I had what I consider a fruitful and important exchange with someone with whom I have disagreed, yet celebrate as someone on this same journey of faith as so many of us. I admire, and share, the desire to get it right. Our biggest difference is that, each day, I remind myself that I don’t completely agree with some things I may have said yesterday or last month or ten years ago. Not because I was wrong, but because time and place and circumstances have changed. I have changed. The one thing I do believe, however, is that God’s grace is with me in the midst of all this. That I feel compelled to speak and write of the salvation offered the world in Christ does not permit me ever to believe I have found a place of quiet rest in the midst of it all. Rather, the Gospel, the ever-present reality of the revelation of God in the Incarnation, is there telling me just how wrong I have been. We should always allow ourselves to be assaulted by the Gospel in order to leave ourselves enough room to do this impossible possibility without ever thinking we have found some key to the Kingdom. The Kingdom, you see, is there around us. We stand within the midst of it. It lies before us, our hope, our goal.
And always always always that which stands in judgment over our sinful belief to have it right.
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.’ Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’ But the law does not rest on faith; on the contrary, ‘Whoever does the works of the law will live by them.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. – Galatians 3:10-14
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. – Philippians 2:3-13
The problem with claiming unity in Christ goes back to the matter of theological pluralism,as I have argued before. The simple fact of the matter is that we don’t all confess these truths about Christ. – Dr. David Watson, “Unity In Christ?”, Musings and Whatnot, August 2, 2015
The incessant demand that we in The United Methodist Church all assent to doctrine before we truly become “United” is getting more than tiresome. It does, however, need to be addressed both in love and with clarity. Denying that we are united by the words we say or the things we think about Jesus, God, etc. is not to say that doctrine is unimportant. On the contrary, doctrine is the church’s continually evolving sense of what it believes, which defines who it is. Precisely because the time and place and collective language are always changing, however, we must always be aware that doctrine is always changing, because our collective sense of our own identity is always changing. None of this means that the Gospel has changed, or that the Spirit has left the Church, or that innovation is a mark of heresy. It is what it is: We in the Church are always reflecting on our sense of Scripture; allowing it to interpret our experience, as well as allowing our experience to enlighten our hearts when reading Scripture; we discover new things about our collective tradition that offer insights we might not have had before; reason graced by the Holy Spirit moves through this person or that person, offering new ways to think about God.
Even if there are those who would dismiss what I just wrote, we should always remember that confessing the faith in English is not confessing the faith in French is not confessing the faith in Hindi is not confessing the faith in Russian is not confessing the faith in koine Greek. These languages are all too human, all too historical constructs, each different. Speaking words in one have no exact equivalent in any of the others. To claim that our collective confession in either the Apostle’s Creed or Nicene Creed provides unity pretends that language, at least language about God, has some essential quality that all other language does not have. Isn’t it more fruitful for faith to acknowledge our unity in the Spirit, and to hear in the words of the Creeds spoken in different tongues the possibilities of different insights, different ways of living the faith, ways that have never occurred to us?
Yet, as noted in the link above, there continues to be an ongoing insistence that it just isn’t enough to declare that we are the Church of Jesus Christ. Not only do we have to have the right words; we have to make sure when we speak them, we all have the same understanding of the words. Otherwise, we aren’t confessing the faith properly. Dr. Watson brings up our now-outdated statement on our theological task – yet again – declaring it “theological pluralism” without either defining the term or defending his claim (again). Perhaps he means a pluralistic approach to religious understanding, which is the affirmation that our sources and norms of God-talk are not restricted to the Christian Scriptures, but could incorporate non-Christian and even secular sources as authoritative. Whatever he might mean by “theological pluralism”, it’s a red herring, a non-issue because the General Conference in 1988 set new Doctrinal Standards and a theological task before us as a Church. Continuing to reference anything prior to that as having any relevance to us as a church is a bit like insisting we need to affirm the supremacy of the Papacy because the Christian churches used to do that before 1517. Just as our understanding of doctrine is ever-changing, so to are the reference points for beginning a discussion on doctrinal matters. We are in a different historical period as a denomination. We have firm guidelines, with our special Wesleyan emphases offered as tools to become a more fruitful Church.
Our unity in Christ, as St. Paul noted in many places in many letters, is rooted in our collective experience of the presence of the Holy Spirit revealing the grace of the Father in the Son. Ours is a unity rooted in the Persons of the Divine Trinity. Ours is a unity rooted in the Great Commission, to go make disciples of all nations, a commission itself rooted in the revelation of the risen crucified Christ. We are not united by our declarations of our current identity contained in our doctrinal statements, our creeds, our words, or how we define or understand those words. The insistence that is the case flies in the face of the Scriptural testimony and two thousand years of Christian practice. I cannot say it enough: Doctrine is our collective understanding of our identity. Our unity is rooted in the grace made real in us by the Holy Spirit in the Son for the glory of the Father. These reference events in our collective life – events that continue to shape our mission and ministry, our preaching and teaching, and, yes, our ongoing discovery of who we are as those claimed by the crucified and risen one.
I’ll just close with some more words from St. Paul:
For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. – Galatians 1:11-12
Geoffrey, I think this is a helpful step forward for you and for the conversation. What I have always found needful in your writings is for you to couch your very valid critiques of others’ views in ways that focus on the argument, and only refer to the maker of the argument when it is imperative that the person and her/his context are essential to what is being said. I believe you’ve taken a good step for yourself and given all of us a model to ponder as we move actively into preparation for the 2016 General Conference. Yes, make amends for the ways in which your arguments have been couched, but don’t berate yourself for the arguments themselves. You have uncovered fallacies and logical lacunae that others of us missed. To that end, I encourage you to follow this path of saying what you mean in ways that are more approachable than in the past. And BTW, even Jesus had his moments; see “brood of vipers,” “children’s food to dogs,” and “get behind me, Satan!” Oh, and there was that time in the temple … Hugs to you! – Comment on Facebook link to yesterday’s post, “Love Keeps The Door Of His Lips”
When I linked yesterday’s post on Facebook, I invited two particular individuals to respond to it. Above is one of those particular responses. I have read it, and read it. I have sat and thought about it, the whole, the parts, what I like, what I don’t like, and realized that before I went any further, I had not so much to respond as I did to demonstrate that I was pausing to take stock. I wanted to show that I was listening, not just casually reading.
Can I confess the comment has a stumbling block for me? It’s a word, one simple, clear word: “berate”. In all honesty, I don’t believe I am berating myself at all. I do know that this whole self-reflection thing has offered more than glimpses of me doing and saying things about which I am embarrassed to say the least. Yesterday, I made that point as clearly as I could without slipping into self-flagellation or any kind of pose as a morose martyr. On the contrary: After I wrote what I did, I was happy. It was more than a little bit like cleaning out a wound. Rather than lounge in my hair shirt, I felt like moving on.
Then I saw this comment, and thought, “I need to read this and think about it.”
I’ve dealt with the specific word “berate”, and how it feels a bit like a stumbling block for me. There is more in there, however. Like the following: “What I have always found needful in your writings is for you to couch your very valid critiques of others’ views in ways that focus on the argument“. In all honesty, I do believe that the time for argument is long over. The time for playing games with others – “critiquing” their views, showing the world how clever I am – exhausted itself years ago. Precisely as the General Commission on General Conference has offered a different way forward for considering matters of human sexuality that come before the body, I believe it is imperative to model that, rather than continue the endless circle of the same tired arguments, the same bitterness, the same mutual destruction that is the end result of the constant claims of purity of motive and the apostasy of the opposition.
That whole mindset – that there are sides; that this is a question of opposition with winners and losers – needs to be given the old heave-ho. We are in this together. How is it possible to pretend to care a whit about continuing to be in covenant community together, all the while dismissing others, degrading them, showing off one’s alleged superiority and moral righteousness? That only sows the seeds of bitterness and schism. To that end, I am no longer going to engage in argument of any sort. Since many of those “arguments” were ones I started, that’s the best way to stop.
Furthermore, as I wrote in part in response to another comment, continuing to play the game of arguments, of winners and losers begs a question we in the United Methodist Church should face squarely: What, exactly, would “winning” mean? If there are “sides”, and one side “wins”, what, exactly, will either “win”? I always insist this matter is not about any particular individual’s feelings, any particular individual’s beliefs or preferences. I have written over and over again that this is about the United Methodist Church as a whole body. I do believe that. If so, however, what do we as the United Methodist Church gain by playing a game with “winners” and “losers”? Who gains anything by continuing to argue about who is more Biblically, doctrinally, theologically, and morally correct? This is why I embrace the General Commission’s recommendations for suspending the rules of debate regarding human sexuality and having real face to face dialogue about our church, our mission and ministry, and our identity. Obviously matters of Biblical interpretation, doctrine and theology, and morals and ethics will be involved in these discussions. What they won’t be is the focus of our discussions. If adopted, we will no longer be hamstrung, arguing over absolutes. Rather, we will be sitting across from and side-by-side with people whose views are very different from ours, yet who love the United Methodist Church, believe in its mission, its ministry, and are just as concerned and hopeful about its identity as we are. It will certainly be more difficult to carry on as so many have when seated together, rather than resting comfortably in the false freedom the distance and even anonymity the Internet affords.
For now, because I just don’t trust myself to model what I claim I believe to be in the best interest of the Church, I am just going to allow myself to be pulled in to these discussions, at least as they continue to play out on the Internet. I have always said the best way to “win” a game is not to play. To that end – no more. If anyone is really interested in my thoughts – and it isn’t like anyone is knocking my door down! – I will only say that my thoughts are that someone has to begin modeling this new way of discussing these matters, and I’m just not that person.