And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ – Matthew 9:10-13
N.B.: I am totally stealing this from my wife, Rev. Lisa Kruse-Safford, who shared her reflections with me this morning. It’s in so much accord with my own thoughts, I wanted to share it.
Being middle aged has both good and bad points. Having some decades of life experience offers perspective. It also, however, offers the false comfort of a sense of security. Reaching the comfortable shores of middle age relatively intact can make a person think he or she has this whole thing called life all figured out. Worse, it offers the far-too-tempting sense that such hard-won gains in wisdom and insight need to be shared, particularly with those younger than we are.
My wife is in a leadership position in the Conference of which she’s a member. This would seem to add to the pressure to ensure that those under her care, who look to her for leadership, should hear her words and see her ways as authoritative beyond merely institutional obedience. All the same, we in Northern Illinois no less than the rest of the United Methodist Church are in the midst of a very real struggle over issues that should, in the normal course of events, require very little effort to address. Sad to say, the power structure of our denomination has been entrenched for over 40 years in a position in which it has, for all intents and purposes, declared particular persons outside the bounds of the grace of God. While the larger American society and culture has come to an almost nonchalant acceptance of sexual diversity, religious leaders, including some in our own denomination, continue to declare such diversity an abomination – a Biblical term that means one is ritually unclean.
Behind the current moment, I believe, lie more than just differences of opinion regarding sexual minorities. These arguments, really, are stand-ins for other more pressing issues. It’s difficult to accept that one has become a part of the power structure of the Church, when the acceptance and use of power holds no attraction for you. Worse, it’s difficult to realize that one has two decades of ministerial experience, yet the changing weather in the Church are leading to choppy waters that are just too frightening, too fraught with unknowns. In such situations, the tendency of the powers-that-be is to retrench, to demand the status quo be honored. All the business about doctrinal purity is a symptom of this larger unease among folks my age and older – unease that the Church is moving to places we neither recognize, nor have as much space for such as us. Far better, it seems, to declare such territories forbidden, lairs of monsters and evil.
As always, Jesus is there, reminding us that his Way is something New. We are in the midst of a generational change that hasn’t been seen in over a 40 years. Schooled, in large part, in decades-old understandings of theological method, Scriptural interpretation, and mission and ministry, we face a world in which these ways of approaching the practice of ministry and the life of Christian faith seem less sure. We are, sad to say, that old garment. We are the Pharisees who are trying to understand something new through eyes schooled in old ways of seeing. We come to Jesus and wonder why he is eating with tax collectors and sinners instead of blessing our long-fought-for place of authority and power with the Divine Presence. Worst of all, we are told we need to go back and learn something we should have come to understand through years of study and practice and meditation: We are in the business of mercy. We mouth the words, yet Jesus is here – right here! – telling us we need to go and learn what that means.
Our youth and young adults have deep faith. They have a passion for mission, a desire for the Church to be the Church in ways that sound and appear strange – perhaps even heretical? – to our ears and eyes. The Church is being pushed rather than led in directions that are both exciting and frightening. As I often say about current pop music, folks my age don’t like it not because it’s bad but because it isn’t music created for middle aged white folks. In the same way, the new directions in which the Church is moving are outside our ability to grasp, perhaps even to envision.
And that is more than OK. That’s the way it ought to be. No offense to all those holding fast to their house built on a wadi. The rainy season has finally arrived, and what seemed such a solid foundation is crumbling because the waters have come. For all our pride in our accomplishments, we need to hear what Jesus is saying to us. Rather than demand our youth and young leaders conform to our ways of thinking and living and believing and being in ministry, perhaps we should see in it something not at all for us. Rather than worry that, because we don’t quite see what it might look like or believe it is something in which we have a place of prominence, perhaps the best thing – the only thing – we can do is create space for this New Thing. Rather than insist children, youth, and young adults come and fill empty spaces, all the while sitting still and remaining silent, being that new cloth trying to patch the old cloak of the United Methodist Church, we should stand to one side, pray, encourage, and look on in wonder at the new wine skins being created around us.
Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’ – John 18:37-38
I’m taking a break from my Lenten Journey today. See, Sunday’s don’t count as part of the season of Lent, because centuries ago the Church realized that Sundays are, in and for themselves, little Easters, during which we celebrate the Eucharist, and recall the death and resurrection of Jesus. How is it possible to maintain a discipline rooted in following Jesus to the Cross if on Sunday we declare Him already raised? That’s why Lent is actually longer than the 40 days advertised. We don’t count Sundays.
It probably won’t come as a shock to some of you there is actually a group calling themselves “United Methodist Scholars For Christian Orthodoxy”. They even have a website (who doesn’t these days?) in which various Seminary professors extol the multiple virtues of adherence to orthodox doctrine. Pretending, of course, that we do not have Doctrinal Standards or Articles of Religion that are clear, orthodox, and that make clear that to which we United Methodists hold fast in faith, in love, and in hope. Wedded to an individualistic idea that the faith of the Church is only as strong as the declarations of any particular one of its members, these “Scholars” don’t quite get that they are both unnecessary and redundant. The United Methodist Church in and for itself is Orthodox in its profession of faith and practice of ministry, as set out in The Book of Discipline. That individuals across a denomination counting over nine million members in multiple countries, speaking multiple languages, coming from multiple ethnic, cultural, social, and political contexts might well be a bit different in their approach, apprehension, and use of our Orthodoxy is to be expected. It just isn’t a big deal.
Except to this group of mostly white, mostly men, all North Americans who seem to insist that our quadrennial proclamation of faith just isn’t enough; they live in fear and smoldering anger that someone, somewhere, believes differently than they do, and it must be stopped at all costs.
Actually, I exaggerate. Their sole reason for existence is to demand adherence to a particular interpretation of doctrine in order to prevent full inclusion of sexual minorities in the life of the church, and ministry to them including presiding at their legal weddings. You see, this is what it’s come to in the United Methodist Church. “Scholars” are using “doctrine” as a weapon to build up forces against full inclusion. Is it any wonder I, for one, have little to no interest in adherence to doctrine, particularly in the way they insist it is to be done?
Let’s take a ferinstance. The latest post, dated February 23 (apparently the situation isn’t nearly as dire as they would want us to think), concerns “Jesus Christ in United Methodist Doctrine: Exploring the Biblical and Creedal Basis”. It is written by Rev. Dr. Kenneth Loyer, Senior Pastor of Otterbein United Methodist Church of Spy, York, PA. If the title isn’t enough to make your jaws creak with a yawn, let’s venture forward and see what the good Rev. Dr. has to say.
At the very center of Christian faith and practice stands Jesus Christ. Christians throughout history and around the world today, regardless of their ecclesial traditions, hold that basic claim in common. For those of us in the United Methodist tradition, and for other interested parties, several questions then emerge. What specifically does United Methodist doctrine teach about Jesus Christ? To what extent does United Methodist Christology represent the teaching of Scripture and early Christian creeds, and why does that matter? Guided by such questions, this post will explore, albeit initially, the biblical and creedal basis of United Methodist Christology as set forth in the Articles of Religion (abbreviated as AR followed by the article number) and the Confession of Faith (CF).
I will focus on two articles in particular, AR 2 and CF 2, which can be found here:http://umorthodoxy.org/documents/. These articles present a number of key themes that not only express the essence of Christology in United Methodist doctrine but also illuminate the biblical and creedal basis for confessing Jesus Christ in the United Methodist tradition.
Which could have been shortened to: “Let’s see what United Methodists say about Jesus.” Because, of course, part of being a scholar is using a whole bunch of words, when a few will suffice. I think it comes from having to pad all those 25 and 30 page papers we get assigned in Seminary. Anyway, I want to skip through and highlight a particular part of this post.
Full divinity and humanity. The two articles cited above also affirm the two natures of Christ, fully divine and fully human. The unity of these two natures in one person is described in ways similar to the Definition of Chalcedon and its balanced statement of the two natures of Christ united without confusion, change, division, or separation: the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus Christ are “never to be divided” (AR 2) and are “perfectly and inseparably united” (CF 2). Furthermore, both articles mention the Virgin Birth (cf. Matthew 1:20-25) as part of the explanation of the hypostatic union.
Why is it important to believe that Jesus is fully divine and fully human? Actually, our very salvation stands or falls on this question. If Jesus were not fully divine, could he redeem us (that is, would he still have the power to redeem us)? If he were not fully human, could he redeem us (that is, could his saving power be applied to us mere mortals)? As nothing less than true God in human flesh, Jesus identifies fully with us and is like us in every way except that he is without sin—precisely in order to save us from our sins. (emphases added)
Now, doctrine is all about words. Repeating words without defining them or understanding them is a bit like being told to make an omelet with hollow eggs. No matter how hard you try to tell the person insisting you make that damn omelet that the eggs are empty, all you get as a response is, “I don’t care! You’re supposed to make an omelet! Now get cooking!”
There are a couple things I want to note about what Rev. Dr. Loyer wrote above before I get to the main point. First of all, he is not “doing” doctrine here. Nor is he really doing theology. He is, rather, telling people why using particular words and phrases is necessary – our salvation, our redemption, the person and work of Jesus stands or falls on whether or not these particular words and not others are used – without taking a single moment, a phrase here, a sentence there, to tell us what any of these words mean. Hypostatic Union? What the hell is that? Definition of Chalcedon? Who is Chalcedon and why is it necessary that whatever it is defined as be held up as the cornerstone of our faith?
I’m joking of course. I know what the Hypostatic Union is. The Definition of Chalcedon, which we in our churches recite as “The Nicene Creed”, is about who Jesus is: Son of God, Begotten of the Father, Begotten Not Made, Very Light from Very Light. All that good stuff. I will also state, up front before I go any further that I believe all this stuff, as weird as it is. Not that my adherence to this or any other Doctrinal formula is actually a matter of concern either to God or to anyone else (except the church ladies in United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy).
Here’s my real question. It’s simple, actually: What is “divinity”? What does it mean to be “divine”? I mean after all, this is Divine:
Yet, there are other images that capture, at least in part, the Christian idea of the Divine.
And there are, of course, non-Christian notions of divinity that can be captured in an image:
With all these images and understandings of “Divine” that float around our world, none of which can or should take precedence over any of the others without looking and sounding like an uptight, imperialistic douchebag, I guess I’m confused about what, exactly, the word “divine” means, or is supposed to mean, to us United Methodists. Which, I suppose, leads to a bit of a challenge, should any of my “Orthodox” brethren and sisters feel up to it.
Define divine and divinity for me. Three things, though: You can’t reference centuries-dead metaphysics that are even more confusing than the vocabulary of so much of our Christian faith; and you can’t rely on tautology, e.g., “God is Divine, therefore whatever is Divine is of God.” This isn’t a definition. It’s a concession that you have no idea what the hell you’re talking about. Finally, don’t go quoting someone else’s book. You can start with the Scriptures, of course – that kind of goes without saying – but please don’t rely on some other scholar or author. Since you’re so concerned about what each of us United Methodists say and believe, I’m sincerely interested if it’s possible for any of you to give a coherent understanding of “the divine” and “divinity” in your own words, words than express something meaningful about your life and faith.
I’m trying to make a point. We in the United Methodist Church not only hold up our Doctrinal Standards and our Articles of Religion. We also hold up our Theological Task as a necessary part of the faith and life of the Church. Without performing our theological task, those “Scholars for Orthodoxy” would have us recite empty words, meaningless phrases, without any clue they actually mean something, something vital, something life-affirming, life-changing, world-changing.
So, who’s up to the task? And remember, don’t turn it around on me, because I asked first: What is “Divine”? You don’t have to link to me. After all, I read you folks far more than you read me.
N.B.: Not only is Rev. Steve Manskar the head of Covenenant Discipleship for the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship. He was a classmate of mine at Wesley Theological Seminary, and I do believe I have a picture of him at my wedding reception (although I may be wrong about that). I have always had a great deal of respect for Steve, his work, and his faithfulness expressed in his yearly devotionals. The criticisms I have here are rooted more in theological differences than anything personal.
The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. – Ephesians 4:11-16
The United Methodist Church’s recent marketing tag line, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors: the People of The United Methodist Church” is a prime example. It implies that United Methodist congregations are open to all expressions of faith, all ideas, and all people. The slogan intentionally downplays the denomination’s historic identity in Jesus Christ and his mission. It deliberately sets Jesus aside in order to convince the world that openness and inclusiveness are the denomination’s most important values.
Every church should have open hearts, minds, and doors. Inclusiveness is an important attribute of the church. The doors of the church must be open to everyone. The hearts and minds of the people should be open to accept and love all people as they are. We need also to understand that true, universal inclusiveness and openness are possible only when Jesus Christ is Lord of the church. Such virtue is possible only when hearts are open to his grace and the power of the Holy Spirit to work through each life to make open hearts, minds, and doors a genuine reality. This means that the church must understand that true inclusiveness and openness are the fruit of a people who pursue holiness of heart and life.
As admirable as inclusiveness is, when it replaces holiness as the telos of the church we end up with a people who possess little or no understanding of basic Christian doctrine or discipline. – Rev. Steven Manskar, “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself”, wesleyeanleadership.com, December 17, 2014
For quite some time now, we United Methodists have been hearing and reading that ours is a denomination that has lost its way. We are too liberal. We try too hard to “fit in” to our current historical moment. We have lost contact with our historic traditions. Worst of all, we do now know our doctrinal roots, which ground our teaching, our liturgy, our mission, and most of all our sense of ourselves. The call for some kind of renewal, a new Pentecost, a revival of our historic roots in the teaching, preaching, practice of ministry, and most of all that unique Wesleyan word discipline are variously offered as the key to getting ourselves back on track. Manskar’s criticism of our claim of openness as expressed in our marketing slogan, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” is neither new, nor in the end, all that original. They are criticisms similar in spirit if not in content to those I’ve made myself many times right here on these pages.
That with which I take issue, however, is the same perspective with which I have criticized Rev. John Meunier, another of those to whom I refer as “Wesleyan Fundamentalists”. They are folks who turn to Wesley for inspiration, for which they should be commended. More of us need to read Wesley more often. Yet, we must do so with discernment, with thoughtfulness, and most of all remembering John Wesley is not an early-21st century Christian, but a mid-18th century Christian. It takes a whole lot of exegetical work, an honest historical criticism, and a hermeneutics of translation and reinterpretation to take the dead words from a long-dead man and make them live for us, here in our place and time.
Let us consider, specifically, Manskar’s emphasis upon “doctrine” as a cornerstone to strengthening our churches and – perhaps – helping spearhead a Methodist revival. There is nothing wrong with doctrine. It is, without a doubt, what helps shape the identity of the Christian Churches. In particular our historic emphases, highlighted in our Book of Discipline make it clear how it is we United Methodists are different from other parts of the Body of Christ. Yet, I continually wonder, is it necessary to lead with doctrine? This, of course, begs the question of Manskar’s description of our churches as filled with those who are either ignorant or forgetful of our doctrine. I would argue that is not only an insulting description of our congregations; it demeans the work of clergy and laity alike who keep the flame of proper teaching alive in times and places where it can look impossible. That we do not act like or look like the classes and churches Wesley originally envisioned is not the fault of doctrinal forgetfulness. It is the result of changes in time, historical context, socio-economic conditions, cultural shifts, and even theological and Biblical understanding that would make much of our world, including our churches unrecognizable to people from the 18th century.
To be faithful to Wesley means to be faithful to the spirit of Wesley. Recognizing the need for a disciplined approach to the Christian life, Wesley first understood he had to evangelize a largely unChristian nation. To do so, he had to take his message to the people, rather than expect them to come to him or the churches. While repeatedly being denied pulpit time was one of the reasons for Wesley’s turn to preaching outdoors, it was also a missional approach to ministry that we United Methodists have not only lost, but I would argue we fear it. Expecting people to approach our old, stodgy, mostly white churches, hearing the demands placed upon them for everything from proper speech through proper behavior while in worship to being quiet and listening rather than asking questions is the quickest way to continue to lose members. Wesley stood at the openings of mines, with dirty, smelly, probably drunken miners walking in and out past him, preaching his message down the mine shafts, his words echoing off the walls to the deepest places the coal could be reached. Wesley stood in village squares and started preaching. People gathered. Sometimes they were clean and neat; other times they weren’t. Wesley didn’t tell the dirty, the drunkards, the hecklers to go home. He just kept on preaching.
Wesley preached and ministered in the Spirit of Christ. It is this, I would argue, that we must emulate and imitate, rather than focus so much attention of “doctrine” and “discipline”. As Manskar made clear, Wesley knew that living the Christian life is a life-long process. Yes, it calls for focus on proper teaching. It most especially takes discipline. Doing anything for a long period of time does so. Yet, we must first open our doors to all those who might just want to hear our message, but cannot overcome the stumbling blocks we have set out for them. Proper dress and behavior. Proper language and decorum. Not speaking so their stories are affirmed but listening because the only story that matters is the one we have to tell them. If this is the path we take, insisting on placing doctrine and discipline ahead of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, then we shall surely fail, but ironically precisely because we no longer hold fast to our historic faith, preferring to place our trust in methods and teachings before the Living Head of the Body of Christ.
Yet, thank God for all of us, Wesleyan Fundamentalists and post-modernists alike, for older clergy and laity far too stuck in their ways to change and young people yearning for change, Jesus Christ is head of the Body whether or not we accept that reality or not. The Spirit blows where it will. It is up to us to follow the bending trees and rolling leaves back to their source, where we might just discover those outcast, forgotten, ignored, dirty, drunken and drug-addled, who yearn to hear the Word of Life. They first, however, want their stories, their lives, affirmed by having someone listen and say, “Yes. Even you are a beloved child of God.” These are people who may well know the Good News. What they have yet to hear from our mainline churches is that this is Good News for them, because we have spent far too much time worrying about sex and who’s in and who’s out and things like doctrine to hear the cries from so many just to listen.
I do not believe we have really lost our way, because Christ is still the Head of the Church, which is His Body. I do not believe the Lordship of Christ is mitigated one bit by our confusion, our inability to see and hear the signs of the times, or our willingness to change to meet them. I do not believe we are “enculturated” the least little bit; on the contrary, I believe we are so far outside current socio-cultural trends that we aren’t so much unrecognizable as irrelevant. Indeed, we need to be more enculturated rather than less. We need to speak the idiomatic slang of the day; we need to grow comfortable with what scholar Daniel White Hodge calls “the neo-secular sacred”, which often includes all the ugliness, profanity, and vulgarity that is our sinful world. It is precisely that world to which we are sent by the Great Commission, as well as our own United Methodist Mission Statement. It is precisely that world that God loves, that God acted to save, and for which God is patient, wishing to bring all to salvation. Worrying overmuch about things like “doctrine” and “discipline” without remembering who’s in charge, and that these things only have their place once we learn how to listen and live in our much-changed reality, that’s the surest way not only to continuing to shrink, but worse – irrelevance. Not that the Good News is irrelevant. Rather that we, United Methodists, would be considered irrelevant precisely because we would rather others change to suit our needs before we do the work of looking and listening and venturing outside the comfortable walls of our old church buildings and seeing with the eyes of faith what is possible.
‘No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins – Mark 2:21-22
What follows are just more semi-random thoughts prompted both by Christ UMC’s Charge Conference and the post I wrote late yesterday afternoon. It isn’t just the quick, thoughtless rush to judgment that bothers me. I have to wonder – what, exactly, does Rev. John Meunier mean by “sin” and “sinner”? I got thinking of that whole nest of snakes this morning, and I realized that at the heart of my frustration with all those who demand adherence to doctrinal orthodoxy; all those for whom ministry begins when we pronounce not release to the captives but condemnation upon this generation of vipers; all those for whom “relevance” somehow means watering down the Gospel message; all of this flows from something so simple and clear it’s easy to miss. It’s all about, as I keep saying, the meaning of words.
And, yes, words do mean things. Very important things. Life-giving, life-altering, sometimes life-ending things. Yet, few words are univocal in their meaning. When it comes to matters of faith and doctrine, we enter a minefield of meanings, some contradictory, some dispensable, some in dire need of updating. Consider the word “atonement”. The Bible actually presents evidence for three completely distinct, perhaps contradictory, perhaps complementary, “doctrines” of atonement. Which one is the “true” Biblical understanding of atonement? My guess is simple: Who cares? That it happened is far more important than the specifics of how we understand it. Atonement, after all, is nothing more than God’s eye view of Christ’s death and resurrection, something about which we can certainly speculate, but as for actual knowledge, we have not a whit.
So, too, with the idea of “sin”. Sin had been defined as all sorts of things, from rebellion through concupiscence and the inability of human beings to initiate a relationship with the Divine from our side to the reality of our world ruled by death, the result of a broken relationship with the Creator. I have often given away my own position on this matter, with this last being my preferred understanding. That does not mean I am right and the other definitions and understandings are incorrect. On the contrary, I usually work with the thought that I am quite wrong. That doesn’t keep me from moving forward, stating my understanding even as I doubt its complete veracity. All any of us can do is the best we can do as we understand it; that understanding is never complete, usually as wrong as it is right, and should only exist as a guide – or perhaps excuse or ex post facto rationalization – for our action. An action we call ministry.
And we can’t do ministry if we’re unclear about why we’re doing it because we’re arguing about the meaning of words. We can’t do ministry if we are trying to patch up an old cloak with new cloth, when perhaps it’s best to go buy a whole new coat that serves the same purpose. When I read people who search ancient writers, the Reformers, the Wesley’s even 20th century thinkers from Bonhoeffer and Barth to Tillich and Moltmann, for keys to understanding our current predicament, I have to wonder how well that stitching is holding up. Because, as Jesus understood, if you go to wash that cloak, that new cloth is going to shrink, tearing an even bigger hole, making things worse.
Which is not to deny the importance of the witness of the past. On the contrary, we need that witness if only to remind us how “doctrine”, the ministry of the churches, and the question of relevance are all part of that witness. Perhaps not explicitly. Yet, I cannot help but think of Martin Luther, for whom Satan was a real being, one he encountered in his monk’s cell, flinging crap from his pail to get rid of him. I cannot help but think of Luther, believing that when we die, our souls have to run a gamut of air filled with demons ready to grab the holiest of souls and drag it to hell. I cannot help but think of Luther insisting that the Pope was the actual anti-Christ, the Roman Church the Whore of Babylon, and that his Reformation heralded the End of Days. Luther was, without a doubt, a bear about doctrine. He was also a preacher for whom relevance was front and center. The whole Roman system of the sale of pardons, plenary indulgences, the intercessory role of the priest as opposed to conveyer of the message of redemption through the power of the Spirit in the whole worship service had become irrelevant as much as it was heretical. That millions refused to accept his verdict; that others accepted a different indictment, following the Swiss Reformers Zwingli and Calvin, is as much testimony to the question of relevance, the place of doctrine, and the centrality of ministry and the meaning of words in our lives.
Paul Anka had some fun taking some rock songs and arranging them for a swing band. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s kind of fun! All the same, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was not for nothing a song that kicked off a musical and even social change. It brought danger and threat back to a music too long tamed by record companies insisting on palatable fare. What the record companies were foisting on the public no longer spoke to them. It didn’t speak to their frustrations, their anger, their sense of betrayal and national aimlessness. A song like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” reminded them there were those out there who got it. Even though poor Kurt Cobain had no desire to be the voice of a particular group or generation, it was precisely his ability to use his own contradictions and problems to represent for millions their own mixed-up feelings about the world and their place in it. What Paul Anka has done, no disrespect intended, is not only rearrange instrumentation, tempo, volume, timbre, and rhythm. He has, by doing what he did, ridiculed the very real angst of all those for whom “Smells Like Teen Spirit” said what they felt and thought but could not put in to words. He has belittled the rage and fear, making it fodder for late night comedians.
So, too, all those “doctrinal purists”, “Biblical literalists”, and others who strip from the history of the faithful the variety, contradictions, real enmities, and ongoing pluralism within the Body of Christ, insisting instead on some kind of purity of vision rooted in definitions that are not only arbitrary but ignore the marvelous diversity that is both the history and current reality of the Christian witness and ministry. We should be ready and willing to act all the while understanding that what we believe we understand about everything from the oldest doctrine of the Church – “Jesus is Lord” – to our favorite verse in the Bible undergoes radical reevaluation. If we are to be faithful to the heart of the doctrine of the Church, witnessing to the Good News of Jesus Christ whose coming even now we prepare ourselves for, we will constantly seek to make that message relevant to a world both that needs to hear it and will reject it the first, second, third, thirty-third time it hears it. Like the God who is the author of our salvation as described by St. John Chrysostom in a homily to which I linked yesterday, we must never ever ever ever give up, shrug at unreformed and unrepentant sinners, and be on our way. Even as Jesus told his disciples to shake the dust of those towns hostile to their message from their feet, I’m guessing those same disciples returned to those towns again and again and again, trying this then that then the other thing, never once forgetting the people who constantly reject the Good News are still beloved creatures of God, the God who did not spare the life of the Son.
I cannot stress enough that those who dismiss the issue of relevance are acting either in ignorance of the reality of Church history and the Biblical witness, or deliberately falsifying the matter in order to maintain some kind of power over those to whom they speak. We must always work to make the Good News intelligible, for ours is the same generation Jesus called faithless, seeking a sign when it was the repentance of Nineveh that is the sign. To those who believe relevance is some kind of insidious syncretism, I can only ask when the church has not sought to use whatever tools lay around it at the time to get its message across.
In order to stay well-grounded, one must become crystal clear about the difference between core Christian doctrine and theological innovation; between the content of the essentially static but historic Christian creeds on the one hand and the more creative, ongoing, historically conditioned theological task of the church on the other. – Wendy Deichmann, “The Sturdy Anchor Of Doctrine”, Catalystresources.org, Sept. 30, 2014
I often lament the failure of the teaching office of the church. For far too long, our churches have been filled with reasonably pious people who are staggeringly ignorant even of the most basic tenets of the faith. The meaning of the Trinity, for example, is a case in point. Perhaps the singular contribution to religious thought by Christians (whereas so much else is borrowed and baptized, whether it’s the virgin birth or the resurrection of Jesus from the dead), the Trinity makes the remarkable declaration that ours is not a singular God existing apart from the reality of the world; ours God already exists as a community of Divine Persons, united by love for one another, working together for the creation, sustenance, salvation, and ultimate redemption of creation. From this doctrine flows an understanding of the Incarnation of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, in the man Jesus of Nazareth, who was both fully human and fully Divine. From this doctrine flows an understanding of the Church as a Trinitarian institution, given birth by the Holy Spirit to be the body of the Son for the glory of the Father. We Christians, whether we realize it or not, living a Trinitarian reality.
There is more besides the inability to grasp this most basic doctrine of the faith. The back-and-forth over predestination and grace; over the role of choice versus Divine intervention; heavenly bliss versus perdition – these are all not just theological debates, but deeply rooted doctrinal positions that differ between, and sometimes even within, denominations. I am quite sure there are United Methodists who firmly believe that some people go to hell just because they’re bad people: Ted Bundy, say, or the BTK killer of Kansas, never once considering the reality of Divine Grace, not as irresistible, but certainly as prevenient, as justifying, and as sanctifying. This doctrine of grace flows from our Biblical understanding of Divine Love as that which never gives up on us, which pursues us constantly; in an image from a sermon by St. John Chrysostom, like a beggar that follows us as we travel through a city. Without removing the horror of these men’s crimes, theologically I cannot condemn them to eternal perdition because of what they did. To do so is to condemn all humanity because we are, all of us, deserving of nothing but damnation.
In “The Sturdy Anchor of Doctrine”, Wendy Deichmann makes the categorical claim that doctrines are “static”, while theological discussion and “innovation” is part of the theological task of the Church. The latter is most certainly true. The former, however, is not. Indeed, to write such a thing is to display yet another failure of the teaching office of the church – the ability to think historically.
“Doctrine” is teaching. It is created by human beings, using human languages, to describe our collective Christian experience of Divine interaction with Creation. Being human, consisting of human language, doctrine is no more “static” than any other human creation. It changes constantly. It is fallible. Differences, even those that seem (to outsiders) irrelevant can become sources of violent disagreement. Consider the above doctrine of the Trinity. When first tentatively formulated in the early 4th century, the issue surrounded the pre-existence of the Second Person of the Trinity. Precisely because there is no mention of the Trinity in Scripture, and the evidence for the exact nature of the Three Persons sketchy at best, some believed it perfectly plausible to insist that Jesus Christ, while certainly the Son of God, was just that – a created being whose Divine Nature was not that of the God the Father. Others, insisting that salvation demanded a unity of what was then called “substance” to make salvation efficacious, insisted that the Son co-existed with the Father from all eternity. The latter group, led by Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, rigged an ecumenical council in the city of Nicaea in what is now Turkey, formalized what we now read as “The Nicene Creed”, and anathematized and excommunicated those who disagreed with them, principally the Bishop of Antioch, Arius, and Arius’s followers. Ironically, Arius was both more popular and had more followers than Athanasius. Athanasius, however, had connections with the Emperor. In other words, the doctrine of the Trinity owes as much to power politics as it does to Divine Intervention and searching of the Scriptures.
Just knowing this history, however, isn’t enough to demonstrate the historical, therefore contingent, nature of doctrine. What we read as “The Nicene Creed”, more properly considered the “Nicene/Constantinopolitan Creed”, because of its reaffirmation and tweaking at another council in the Imperial Capital sixty years later, was composed in koine Greek, the lingua franca of the eastern Roman Empire. In the nearly 1800 years since its first formulation, it has been translated and retranslated. We North American Christians read it in a language not imagined by those who formulated it. Furthermore, the meaning of the words of the original are almost wholly incomprehensible to contemporary North American Christians, rooted as they are in neo-Platonic philosophy, disagreements of Divine “substance”, and an entire metaphysics that is little more than gibberish to all but a few specialists. For those who formulated the creed, however, it wasn’t gibberish; it was the very air they breathed. They took for granted that the doctrines they were affirming were not only sensible, but intelligible. The explanation of the Trinity I gave above, however, would be nonsense to its originators, however; perhaps even considered heretical precisely because I do not once mention the over-riding concern of those gathered in Nicaea – the pre-existence of the Son and the substantial unity of the Son and Father. Precisely for these reasons, when I say I affirm the doctrine of the Trinity, I am actually saying something very different from those who created the doctrine in the first place; it might as well be a different thing completely.
Consider the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. Wrapped up in that doctrine is a seminal theory of original sin. Jesus was born to a virgin in part because she would be free from the taint of original sin, which was believed to be passed through the procreative process. It didn’t take long for some to ask the question, well, if Mary gave birth without sin, she would have had to be free of sin as well. Thus was born the doctrine of the immaculate conception, which refers to the fact that Mary, while conceived like any other human being, was yet conceived without the taint of original sin. While most Protestants (including United Methodists) continue to affirm the Virgin Birth, how many of us affirm the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception? Why do we affirm the doctrine of the Virgin Birth when we know that original sin is not something passed through sexual intercourse and conception? Of what value is the doctrine of the Virgin Birth except to demonstrate what was once considered a miraculous event – the conception and birth of a child by a woman who had not had sexual intercourse?
Doctrine, as Deichmann points out, is an anchor. It keeps a ship in one place. If not careful, during a storm, an anchor can cause a ship to capsize, even sink. Anchors can drag ships to their doom if not used properly. Anchors are for those who wish no change, to acknowledge something true, universal, and original that, while created by human beings, yet contains some “thing” that allows it to transcend the vicissitudes of time, space, language, history, culture, and social upheaval. I can acknowledge the Trinity as a teaching of the church without ever once believing this doctrine is little more than human creation that may or may not describe the divine reality. I can acknowledge the doctrine of the Trinity while also acknowledging that my understanding of it is so different from those who created it as to be not the same teaching at all. I can cast aside the doctrine of the Virgin Birth as irrelevant to the Gospel without once discounting the importance of Jesus’s human parents, or believing for one moment that admitting I couldn’t care less about Mary’s virginal status makes me somehow less a Christian than those who insist upon its necessity. Thinking historically also means thinking humbly, recognizing the limits of one’s own perspective.
I would not tie my faith to an anchor made of human hands or words. My faith rests, as the hymn says, on Jesus’ blood and righteousness. Doctrine, well, we’ll keep working on that for as long as there are Christians. My faith is in the God who saves us.