“The Futures Of Her Rapists Were More Important Than What They’d Done To Her”: Evangelism In Our Day And Age I
It wasn’t enough that ABC aired a rosy profile of one of the now-convicted rapists before the trial, emphasizing his happy mood the night of the rape and his football career. Instead, CNN anchor Candy Crowley and correspondent Poppy Harlow talked about how hard it was to watch the convicted rapists break into tears, given their good grades and, again, their football-playing prowess. NBC’s Ron Allen spoke eloquently about the boys’ “dreams” of college and, again, their football skills now wasted by their convictions. And, of course, the AP, USA Todayand Yahoo stories about the convictions all led off with how the victim in the case – of whom the boys were convicted of raping – was reportedly drunk on the night in question. The convicted rapists’ intoxication, or lack thereof, was not, apparently, editorially important.
Generally speaking, the news media don’t lament the theretofore bright futures of young men (or women) convicted of other violent crimes, such as the killing of girlfriends or executing down-on-their-luck job-hunters. They don’t grieve at the loss of college football careers for kids convicted of drug-related offenses, or empathize with would-be murderers who break down in tears when faced with consequences for the crimes they committed. They don’t assign deeper motivations to the tears of men and women who must now contend with the most openly broken part of the American criminal justice system – incarceration – to which around 2.2 million Americans are currently consigned (at 730 prisoners per 100,000 citizens, the highest rate of imprisonment in the world) and which is widely recognized as minimally rehabilitative and maximally punitive.
But rape isn’t any other crime in America, or elsewhere. Statistics show that every 100 rapes in America results in only five felony convictions. It’s the only crime in which the level of intoxication of the victim is considered by some, like the convicted rapists’ lawyers and some in the media, to be mitigating evidence. It’s the only crime in which the perceived attractiveness of the perpetrators to other people or the victim is considered relevant information. It’s the only one in which we’re encouraged to sympathize with why perpetrators picked their victims – their supposed drunkenness, their clothes, their reputations – and then blame the victims for making themselves attractive targets. – Megan Carpentier, “Steubenville And The Misplaced Sympathy For Jane Doe’s Rapists”, The Guardian, March 18, 2013
On the campus of Indiana University this week, a fraternity was closed down after a video surfaced featuring about half the members of the house cheering on and engaging in sexual immorality with a pair of woman paid for their participation.
. . . Alpha Tau Omega bills itself as a fraternity founded on explicitly Christian — as opposed to Greek — ideals. The name of the fraternity itself is a reference to Scripture.
. . .
It all has me wondering how the Church engages with the culture that forms young people who will do such things, make videos of them, and release them into the Internet. So much talk these days is about being contextual and meeting people where they are. If this is seen as normal by large numbers of people, where is the ground on which we might meet these young people? – Rev. John Meunier, “Where Do You Even Begin”, An Arrow Through The Air, October 9, 2015
A few weeks back, driving to a DJ job, the song “Harper Valey PTA” came on the radio, celebrating the opening of another school year. I’ve always loved this song, and learning that Tom T. Hall wrote it made me happy. What I love about this song is how Mrs. Johnson throws down to the PTA. They judge her based solely on how she dresses. She judges them on what they actually do. That “Kiss My Ass” ending is so perfect.
In contemporary parlance, she is calling out privilege. More than merely naming hypocrites, Mrs. Johnson is making clear that those in power in Harper Valley are no less prone to bad behavior, from drunkenness to adultery, than anyone else. The difference between the PTA and the rest of the town is the actually believe they ought to be given a pass on any consequences for their behavior. Particularly by someone like Mrs. Johnson who likes to wear short skirts. Class privilege, male privilege, and the demand that accountability does not run from the top down but throughout a community – this song is still a great smackdown of what is far too common, whether in small towns or our largest cities, private clubs and fraternities, a weekend in Vegas or a week in Monte Carlo: folks who have the means to set aside not only the rules for proper moral conduct also should not be held accountable for doing so. That is one of the perks of power, after all. It always has been.
I read Rev. John Meunier’s post over the weekend, and offered some initial comments that, I thought, addressed some of the concerns he had regarding doing the work of the Church with people who, well, seemed impervious to moral norms. I want to make clear that I am not making light of John’s question; it is both an honest and serious question. It needs an honest, serious answer.
First, it is most important to rid ourselves of some delusions. Ours is not some depraved society on the verge of moral and cultural collapse. On the contrary, compared to the America of fifty years ago, we are a far more accepting, (small “d”) democratic society than ever before. Despite resurgence in religious-based and race-based violence; despite on-going refusal among many to address our national cancer of racism; despite our ruling elites willingness to tear down our political system rather than accept the many changes that render so many of them obsolete; for all this there has not been a better time to live in the United States. Our larger social moral code is both firm and expansive. While we accept particular behaviors previous generations attempted to poo-poo, we have done so in order to be a more honest society, recognizing the reality that, say, sex prior to marriage and long-term commitments without marriage might well suit some people just fine. We are also far more aware, and more strict, regarding those who break not just laws but just the general moral order: those who are openly racist or homophobic are no longer acceptable; violence against women that once was seen as normal – from date and marital rape to domestic violence – has now become criminalized; the last log-jam is our general social frustration with increasing economic inequality. By and large, this is a great time to be alive.
Compared, say, to the Britain in which John Wesley’s revival occurred. Consider the following description of Covent Garden in London:
In Vic Gatrell’s 18th century evocation [Covent Garden] was a place ‘thick with coffee-houses, bordellos, bawds and privileged rakes on the razzle’, dedicated to buying and selling of all kinds of things, cultural or otherwise. The bordellos and bawds may still be here somewhere (how would I know?) but the selling of all things continues. Back then, this was a teeming, disordely quarter where, from Soho and Leicester Square across Covent Garden Piazza to Drury Lane, and down from Long Acre to the Strand, creative types rubbed shoulders with rakes, prostitutes, market people, craftsmen, and shopkeepers in an often brutal world riddled with criminality and poverty, but also bursting with irreverence and exuberant high spirits.
This was a the time when gin emerged as an economic and social palliative among the working class. Popular sports like bear-baiting were prevalent, part of a larger gaming culture that respected no social class. Human life was cheap; that conditions in the slums of London, Newcastle, Manchester, and other rising urban centers were deadly, outside a few “mission” houses few cared. The landed aristocracy took to measures such as “poacher traps”; larger and more violent even than bear traps, they were hidden in the acres of enclosed land poached by the rural poor for food. After being trapped, and being unable to spring the trap loose, the poachers who didn’t die from shock were summarily executed by groundskeepers.
One reason Wesley and the Methodists were so despised was not only their religious seriousness. They were seen as far too morally serious in a time when moral laxity was commonplace. To preach and teach not only an earnest and serious piety, but a morally upright and virtuous practice, both personally and socially, were both seen as antithetical to the spirit of the age. To be “serious” was then understood much as it is now: to be a party-pooper, to be no fun, a wet blanket, etc. Both the anger at Wesley and the success his mission work had led to frequent death threats, the tar-and-feathering of Wesley’s local preachers (and the boiling hot tar would probably have been life-threatening if not lethal), indicate not only how much Britain at the time was in need of moral uplift; like the open violence against the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, such reactions demonstrate the underlying anger and pervasive acceptance of violence as a proper method of social and civil control.
Let’s get back to the question: How do we begin, as John says, to meet these people where they are? I noted above that we rid ourselves of the delusion ours is some kind of exceptionally depraved age. We must also be clear that having the label “Christian” attached to something or someone does not mean there is either some higher standard to which such ought to be held, or that such are immune from the temptations of sin that might come in the combination of race, class, and gender privilege and the urge to sexual debauchery. Precisely because one of the marks of class privilege has been rampant promiscuity without consequence, many revolutionary societies have enforced a moral code far more strict than anything taught by the western Christian Churches. Part of the reaction against the rise of women’s sexuality as part of the second wave feminist movement was the feared loss among men to have access to whatever women they want without consequence. Should women be accepted as sexual equals, that’s a serious blow to one of the age-old perquisites of male privilege.
The last bastion of much of what used to be simple male privilege is usually now labeled “rape culture”. As the story about the Steubenville, OH gang-rape case demonstrates, the tropes that have been so common live on in many places, even in our national media. That the larger society is increasingly refusing to accept either the acts or the rhetoric used to defend it is yet another sign of how ours is a far better, far more moral society. That what is unacceptable is still prevalent only means we have a lot of work to do.
As to the alleged “Christian principles” of the fraternity in question, and their relevance to the issue at hand, I have to ask when Christians were exempt from sin. Particularly when there are many lived examples calling themselves Christian, separated by Confession, by class, by race, and by region, to pretend that slapping the label on Christian on anything – I don’t care what it is – makes it so is ridiculous. The first true awareness of an honest Christian is the awareness not of our salvation and holiness; it is the awareness that we are separated from God by a chasm of our own making. We call that separation “sin” and one of the gifts of the Reformation was the rediscovery that even the most pious among us, the most dedicated, the most holy are yet sinners. The final recreation has begun. It will only be completed in and by the fulfillment of the New Creation as the Triune God brings to Life all that has been laid low by death. Until then, we Christians – again, no matter how serious and earnest, no matter how virtuous and no matter how many years of faithful living one has – are always just as susceptible to sin as anyone else. The only difference between Christians and non-Christians is the awareness of our propensity to sin. We are not different because we don’t sin. To pretend that a “Christian” fraternity is somehow exempt from the social, economic, and cultural force of privilege is to deny the power of original sin. It is to pretend we Christians have access to virtue rather than the blessing of grace.
So: How do we meet them? We begin by a realistic understanding of our times. We refuse to accept the facile and false description of our times as somehow extraordinarily immoral; we asses the historical record and see how moral, open, free, and accepting of diversity we have become. Rather than lament the distance between ourselves as Christians and others as somehow so different, perhaps we should recognize our common humanity, our own susceptibility to sin which leaves us no moral high ground from which to pronounce judgment. We understand how social realities like privilege, the pervasiveness and reality of rape-culture, and on-going social ailments from racism to social inequality create conditions in which some people feel it is acceptable to act in ways many find reprehensible. Rather than determine the actions in question are primarily or even solely moral, we might consider them to be social and cultural; rather than pervasive and broadly accepted, perhaps we should understand such actions as limited by socio-economic boundaries and not acceptable by many if not most people. We should recognize that there will always be people who think such things are acceptable; the phrase “boys will be boys” has excused everything from theft through rape to murder.
We meet them where they are as fellow human beings. We do not meet them as morally superior bearers of a message of condemnation but rather as people who have a story to tell. Before we start telling that story, perhaps we should listen to their stories. We might be surprised by what we hear. We meet them as children of our loving, holy God who loves them as much as God loves us.
This is the first of Two Parts that address issues of evangelism and the church in our world.
It has come to my attention that some of the people in our United Methodist family have gone on the internet and purchased ordination certificates from a number of websites. Lay people as well as local pastors with limited sacramental privileges are getting these certificates. Some have performed weddings and consecrated communion using the authority of these ordaining bodies. Some have seen it as a way to qualify for tax exemptions. The process is very simple and it requires no seminary training, interviews or screening. Literally anyone can become ordained and hold ministerial credentials using this method and some sites do not even charge for this service.
This is not in any way condoned by the United Methodist Church, the Philadelphia Area, the bishop or the cabinets.(emphasis added) – UM Bishop Peggy Johnson, Philadelphia Area, “Ordinations Online?”, Bishop’s Blog, Oct. 10, 2013
Getting an online ordination separates you from the UMC. Not oppression or injustice. Just is. Blog post from 2013 before a dust up this year in Michigan.(emphasis added) – Rev. John Meunier, “Bishop’s Blog: Ordinations Online?”, Sep 5, 2015
When you unite with another denomination, you are by that very action forfeiting your official membership within the UMC . . .
To read the response that came out from RMN, you would think that Ms. Mikita was excommunicated from the UMC. In fact, the response uses that very term more than once. . . .
This kind of rhetoric has one goal: to shame. Its purpose is to shame the pastors and denominational leaders who were involved in the complaint against Ms. Mikita. But the fact of the matter is, she withdrew herself from the denomination. The response from RMN may be rhetorically effective, especially to like-minded readers, but it is inaccurate. The spirit of the RMN response was picked up by blogger Jeremy Smith, who has developed a network of conspiracy theories regarding the attempted expulsion of progressives from the UMC. Apparently, the pastors who wrote the letter to the West Michigan Conference officials were attempting to expel one more progressive. The funny thing is, they didn’t have to. She expelled herself.
Misinformation, inflammatory rhetoric, the idolatry of “winning,” the subordination of truth to ideology, the politics of shame… These kinds of tactics ultimately serve no one. – Rev. Dr. David Watson, “More Thoughts On Christian Public Discourse”, Musings and Whatnot, Sep. 4, 2015
I am the local pastor of the woman whose case hit you so hard (and rightfully so!). I have *not* written “withdrawn” on her membership record and I *have had* very close communication with her throughout all that has transpired. Not all relevant voices have been heard; this story is still in progress. – Rev. Robert Eckert, blog comment
Four years of Seminary. Several more in local church ministry. Papers and interviews with the District Committee on Ordained Ministry. More papers and interviews with the Board of Ordained Ministry. Continuing Education. To become an Elder in full connection in the United Methodist Church was expensive, intellectually and emotionally taxing, providing ups and downs and more hoops through which to jump than the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Watching and supporting Lisa go through this gave me so much admiration not only for those who made it through (and I know many who didn’t); it gave me a great deal of respect for our denomination, that it took the special vocation of ordination that seriously.
Yet we live in a place and time when both church membership and ordination just aren’t all that valuable. Indeed, ordination has become a commodity, obtainable online with a credit card. As a wedding disc jockey, I can’t tell you how many weddings I’ve worked at which a family member or friend purchased one of these ordination certificates in order to perform the ceremony. I must admit when I first learned about it all, I was a little taken aback. Then it occurred to me that in our capitalist society everything has a price, and the worth of all things comes down to what others are willing to pay for it. We in the United Methodist Church may well hold ordination in high esteem. That doesn’t mean everyone else does.
The matter of Ginny Mikita receiving an online “ordination” from The Universal Life Church has become the focal point of much of the discussion surrounding what John Meunier understatedly describes as “a dust up”. Supporters of Ms. Mikita’s excommunication insist action was taken, from writing a letter to the actual expulsion, because she obtained an online ordination in violation of our Book of Disipline. They point to a blog post by Bishop Peggy Johnson (because we all know how authoritative blog posts are, especially from United Methodist Bishops) in which she writes that such “ordinations” are “not condoned” by our denomination.
Except, of course, we don’t really know that. Just how relevant to church membership is it if a person, having been asked by a friend to perform a wedding, buys one of these pieces of paper, does the wedding, and continues attending worship and participating in the ministries of the local church? Has membership been forfeit? Did Ms. Mikita’s actions mean she expelled herself from her church?
That, it seems, would be an interesting question of church law. What I find fascinating in all this is that these online ordinations and their use has been around for a long time; before that were mail-order ordinations for people to do much the same thing. I haven’t seen any big stories of the United Methodist Church polling their members to see who has done this. I can’t imagine, what with all the Sturm und Drang about church membership decline, the summary expulsion of all those who have done so. Indeed, I would like to know if anyone, anywhere, can find a few actual stories from the past five years or so in which a member of a local UM Church was so treated.
What those writing in support of Ms. Mikitia’s excommunication forget is that even if the matter of her online ordination were front and center the Book of Discipline calls for specific actions to be taken by specific people. None of them include either her Bishop or District Superintendent. For Meunier to say no injustice was done is to ignore the way the Discipline violated in this case. For Watson to say that Ms. Mikita expelled herself ignores the fact that she continued as an active member of her local congregation. Is this matter of online ordinations such a threat to the integrity of United Methodist congregations that the processes set out in the Book of Discipline can be set aside in order to uphold another part of the same BoD?
That Ms. Mikita took the action she did to officiate at a same-sex wedding of a former West Michigan Conference clergy member looms more and more as the real reason she was excommunicated. Some folks want anyone who defies our denomination’s stance on sexual minorities and same-sex marriage punished. Driven out. If it takes mass trials, some Bishops are willing to go that far. To sit around and pretend this is about the threat of extraordinary ordinations, a practice that’s existed for decades in different forms, s to play games. The obfuscation and dishonesty is appalling. When one of those participating in such nonsense insists that “honesty” is one of the key intellectual virtues he tries to instill in his students, I just shake my head. If we’re going to talk about online ordinations, let’s do some surveys of local churches. All those who have them get kicked out. Period.
Otherwise, can we talk about what’s really going on?
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.
The guy would come to the bookstore every once in a while. Elegantly dressed, he was Senior Pastor at a large Baptist Church in the DC area. I was always intrigued by the fact that in a Seminary bookstore, he would talk down a Seminary education, even calling Seminary “Cemetery”, as if a place to educate and nurture future church leaders was really a place faith came to die. Doing this all the while buying books . . . it made my head hurt.
I sat in on a couple class meetings of a Seminar led by our then-Academic Dean, Dr. M. Douglas Meeks. The class was reading Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Volume IV, Part 1 and during the very first meeting, a student asked the relevance of something as dense as Barth’s theology in the local church. Doug turned to me and offered me a chance to answer, as I had, by this time, spent time as a clergy spouse in a local church. My answer was simple and clear: Because this is what people in our churches hunger for. They may not have the technical vocabulary, but folks in the local church demonstrate a need for ways to think through and speak their faith. They look to clergy to help guide them. To be able to do that, a minimal understanding of the vocabulary and movement of Christian God-talk is necessary. That’s why there are classes on Systematic Theology, advanced classes on Biblical theology and Seminars on particular theologians. Not only is clarity of exposition necessary; knowing why our particular theology as heirs of John Wesley is distinct from Reformed, Lutheran, Baptist, and other theologies helps congregations understand who they are.
I recently got all technical with Rev. John Meunier over the matter of “truth”. Just yesterday, he published a piece about “saving souls” being the primary business of the church. Again, I am not picking on Rev. Meunier (I’m really not!!!). Still, I think it is necessary to highlight why theological education is necessary, particularly when it comes to such technical matters as questions of theological truth, the matter of “souls”, what salvation means, etc. I am going to assume, for the moment, that Meunier has, at the very least, the basic theological education, including Systematics. Continuing one’s education beyond this most basic class – really a historical and doctrinal survey class more than anything else – becomes important, particular when it comes to discussing matters of import about ministry, mission, and the nature of the Church’s proclamation. Clarity is impossible without understanding that the words we use are hardly simple or have one clear definition. One need not be involved in contemporary technical philosophical or theological discussions but still should understand that writing, say, “Wouldn’t it make more sense to found our unity and our discipline on truth?”, begs far more questions than it would seek to settle. To insist that “saving souls” is the business of the Church without being clear about what “salvation” means, about what the author means by “soul”, leads both to confusion and further questions.
The United Methodist malaise is due in no small part to our inability as a connection to have a coherent theological discussion in which all parties accept the terms of debate, from “doctrine” right up to “evangelical” (a word hijacked by particular factions in a denomination whose very identity is evangelical; thus so much of our “discussion” becomes a debate over who can call themselves such when all United Methodist, clergy and lay, are in the business of spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ). At the very least, we need to accept that the particular vocabulary of theology might well use everyday words whose commonsense understanding just doesn’t work within the context of serious God-talk.
So, to all those clergy and laity out there who think all that theological and philosophical mumbo-jumbo has nothing to do with being Church, remember: If you can’t articulate not only what you believe, but why you believe it, in ways that do justice to the specificity of the Revelation of the Trinity in Jesus Christ, then, perhaps, you need to reevaluate why you’re in ministry in the first place.
In the end — and let me apologize for the rambling nature of this post — I find myself wondering why we have Social Principles at all. If they really are just a list of carefully thought out opinions about various social issues, then what purpose is there in putting them in our Book of Discipline? Opinions — in either the classic or contemporary sense — are no basis for unity or uniformity. They are things over which we expect difference.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to found our unity and our discipline on truth? – John Meunier, “Do We Have More Than ‘My Truth’?”, United Methodist Insight, July 17, 2015
Personally, I agree with Richard Rorty that questions of truth are not so much wrong-headed as uninteresting. Because “reality” is opaque to language – because many of our arguments over the truth-value of science are, in essence, arguments over wor’ds about reality, not reality itself – and because there is no meta-lingusitic judge to which all can appeal for the correctness of one’s view, we end up arguing over definitions. More interesting are the ways we figure out, through language, story, and our readings of various texts, how to live in the world. There is nothing special about “truth”, nothing talismanic, nothing final, nothing ultimate to the view that, if we grasp the truth, we have a hold of something that definitively addresses all sorts of matters. – Me, “On Truth”, March 17, 2007
Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ – John 14:6
I had made a resolution to myself that I wasn’t going to “go after” other writer’s expressed views. My goal was and is to be positive, to present a particular set of options that promote discussion, or at the very least thought. Reading John Meunier’s article at United Methodist Insight, however, seemed to offer me an opportunity to say – what turns out to be again – something that is central to how I live. My eight-year-old post, linked above, says much and it would probably be easiest to copy and paste it here. To be fair to Rev. Meunier, however, I need to deal with the specifics of what he wrote in order to make the points I wish to make. Furthermore, I’m not “going after” John at all. I am, rather, offering a different perspective, one I believe offers something fruitful for the Church in its struggles. And I will apologize here and now because some of what follows will be a bunch of philosophical and theological mumbo-jumbo. I do hope I can present what I want to say clearly and intelligibly. If I don’t, it isn’t because the concepts are difficult; it’s because I’m a lousy writer.
Meunier’s musings on the difference between truth and opinion cover familiar ground: Plato gets a shout-out, of course, as well as the United Methodist Articles of Religion. In the midst of his discussion, however, are assumptions that are both rarely spoken aloud as well as, lets be honest, pretty parochial. We in the West have multiple traditions regarding matters regarding “truth”, and while Plato certainly offered one answer, he was hardly the first and definitely not the last. In the mid-20th century, German philosopher Martin Heidegger taught a course in which he offered the view that, in fact, much of the western tradition of metaphysics is rooted in the distinct opinions of two men who taught centuries before Plato: Heraclitus and Parmenides. Heraclitus is remembered among philosophers for his dictum, “No one steps in the same river twice.” The only constants are change, which brings conflict. Nothing is ever settled, even human identity. Parmenides, however, insisted precisely the opposite is the case: all that is exists as a single, dimensionless whole. There is no distinction between things; there is only this singularity, both infinite and infinitesimal. This, for Parmenides, is “truth”. Our human inability either to perceive or understand this is the result of “opinion”. Thus, for Heidegger, was born our western obsession with “truth”.
Much of our tradition, whether we acknowledge it or not, follows Parmenides. The kind of unity of which he spoke was rooted in the assumption that, to all questions there is now and can only ever be a single correct answer. Pushing this assumption to its logical conclusion, then, Parmenides insisted that not just truth but existence itself is undifferentiated, a single Being that is indistinguishable within itself, yet also imperceptible, leading to differences of opinion and the (false) perception of movement and change.
Recently, however, the idea that some “thing” called “truth”, a property that inheres in particular words, sentences, and texts, has not so much been attacked as it has been set aside. This isn’t a matter of “relativism” as it is too often portrayed. Rather, it is a matter of people finding far more interesting questions to ask about how it is we human beings work out living in a world we now understand to be governed by the theories of quantum physics and general relativity as well as the theory of evolution. Philosophy no longer has dominion over questions that science addresses both more clearly and more definitively. That leaves philosophers wondering less about things like being and truth and more about how best to be human and negotiate our differences in ways that are fruitful for all of us.
Richard Rorty, the most prolific and clear proponent of this view, offered the following justification for his life-long philosophical project: In the late 18th century, Immanuel Kant asked whether there was really something called “being” that humans could discern and understand. Did “being” add anything to our understanding of really existing things? Rorty asks the same question about “truth”: Does the idea that a sentence is “true” add anything to that sentence that wasn’t there before? Do human beings react differently to sentences that are “true” than to those that are not “true”? Like Kant, Rorty’s “No” didn’t so much end discussion as become fruitful for a completely different set of questions, questions about how human beings structure what Rorty called their webs of belief, adding and subtracting particular words and sentences to their stories over time. For Rorty, this offered fruitful thought and discussion about negotiating differences among stories, understanding different sentences as important to some while meaningless to others. Bridging that gap is the philosopher’s – and the poet’s, and the novelist’s – task.
For Meunier to set to one side centuries of skeptical discussion over the concept of “truth” – really from William Ockham through Hume up to the analytical philosophers and pragmatists – is misleading, to say the least. It is uncomfortable to assent to the idea that a word as important as “truth” should probably be set aside. All the same, particularly at a time in our United Methodist Church’s history when all sides in our conflicts brandish truth about like cudgels and swords, I think it would be far better for all of us if we accepted the emptiness of “truth” as a philosophical category worthy of any attention.
As for the theology of the matter, the famous quote from St. John’s gospel above is the starting point for any Christian attempt to define “Truth”. Truth is not a quality of facts or sentences. It isn’t something that inheres in things or words. It certainly isn’t something we human beings can “have”, or at least some of us can have and others can lack. Truth, for Christians, is the Person of Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity Incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. Truth isn’t a thing. It isn’t something that exists within particular words or phrases. It most definitely is not something we sinful mortals can ever claim to have. On the contrary, truth is a Person, a distinct, specific, individual Person whose ministry, passion, and resurrection are not “truths” to which we assent. Rather this Person in and through these events grasps us in our lives and define us. The Christian churches are not truth-tellers. The Christian churches are those communities who believe themselves in the hold of Truth, a Truth to be shared with the world in word and deed in the proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord.
To understand Christian truth in this way offers us a way forward through the morass of arguments and difference our Social Principles call us to recognize without allowing such differences to create barriers to community. To understand Christian truth as Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead, is to understand ourselves as sinners even while we declare ourselves redeemed. As such, the Truth bridges the gap within our lives, offering us the opportunity to share the Good News without worrying overmuch about whether or not our words are true.
Theological truth as an inherent quality of the words of our proclamation disappears in a puff of air when we understand our Truth is Jesus Christ who saves us. That is the basis of our Social Principles, as well as the acknowledgement of our many differences. It is the heart of who we are as Church, as the people called Methodist. It is how we will continue to live and move and have our being once our current worries and conflicts have passed.
I was at the movie theater when a preview for a Hillsong movie played. One of the only two other people in the theater said to the man sitting next to her, “Why do they think we’d want to watch that?”
Her words reflect the culture in which the church find itself. The crisis of relevance has been with us for a long time. The idea that Christianity is not only unwelcome but also dismissed as ridiculous is gaining wider currency. And, of course, we in the church find ourselves wondering how to respond.
A good question for us is this: What is the cause of people’s negative reactions?
Many people will point to the church itself as a cause. They have no end of advice about ways we can make ourselves more attractive to those who disdain us. But allow me to propose a different interpretive approach.
Is it possible that people disdain Jesus and the church because they are unconverted sinners? – John Meunier, “To Which Heart Should We Be Relevant?”, John Meunier: An Arrow Through The Air, December 8, 2014
On the lips of one who has understanding wisdom is found,
but a rod is for the back of one who lacks sense. – Proverbs 10:13
Let us reflect how oft we insult Him after numberless goodness, yet he standeth and calleth us to Him, and how often we run by Him, but He still doth not overlook us, but runneth to us, and draweth us to Him, and catcheth us in unto Himself., For if we consider these things and such as these, we shall be enabled to kindle this longing. For if it were a common man that so loved, but a king who was thus beloved, would he not feel a respect for the greatness of the love? Most assuredly he would. But when the case is reversed, and His beauty is unspeakable, and the glory and riches too of Him that loveth us, and our vileness so great, surely we deserve the utmost punishment, vile as we are and outcasts, treated with so exceeding great love by one so great and wonderful, and yet wax wanton against His love? He needeth not anything of ours, and yet he doth not even now cease loving us. We need much what is His, and for all that we cleave not to His love, but money we value above Him, and man’s friendship, and ease of body, and power, and fame, before Him who valueth nothing more than us. For He had One Son, Very and Only-Begotten, and He spared not even Him for us. But we value many things above Him. Were there not good reason for a hell and torment, even were it twofold or threefold or manifold what it is? For what can we have to say for ourselves, if even Satan’s injunction we value more than the Law of Christ, and are reckless of our own salvation that we may choose the works of wickedness, before Him who suffered all things for us? And what pardon do these things deserve? What excuse have they? Not one even. – St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans, Chapter 2, Verse 16
It is not for nothing that the post prompting this response comes during Advent, when we should be preparing ourselves for Christmas, for recalling the coming of the Messiah even as we remember the promise of the Messiah’s return and the fullness of the Kingdom of God. From the random comment of a stranger flows a judgment upon their stance before the Throne of God, rooted in a view of Wesley I have never heard before. He relates this to the matter of relevance, insisting that Wesley’s view of “relevance” was certainly to go to the people, yet to bring with him the Gospel, as if it were something that Wesley had not adapted to the circumstances of his day and time through language and custom and history and politics and all the other things that mark him and his message as uniquely that of the 18th century. In other words, the question of relevance, at least as happens in our contemporary churches, is not so odd after all, but something with which the Church struggles throughout its history.
Further, the very idea that some Other is an unrepentant sinner is as alien to the Gospel as is the idea that there are different kinds of “hearts” which the Gospel encounters. The long excerpt from Chrysostom makes it clear that, since the beginning of the Preaching Church, it is not They or Them, some Other, who is in need of the message of salvation. Rather it is we, us – all of us and each of us, each day anew, every day in a bit different way – after whom Christ consistently runs, ignoring each rebuff, forgetting each slight, never once giving up. In a prior section of this particular homily, Chrysostom recounts the history of the killing of the prophets and martyrs, the way the Old Testament recounts the many ways the people of God ignored and even scoffed at the one who had called and created them a people who were once no people.
And this is the Gospel message, after all. This is the message summed up in that indelible image, a young couple in a stable, their newborn baby wrapped in rags, lying in a cow’s trough, surrounded by shepherds. The Incarnation is not an event for Others, for those unrepentant sinners who would dismiss a “Christian” film out of hand, thus demonstrating their hearts hardened by nature, incapable of hearing the word of Grace that is the Gospel. As Chrysostom makes clear through the use of the first-person plural, it is we – all of us and each of us – to whom and for whom God became flesh and dwelt among us.
When Meunier says the church has many failings and things for which to repent, surely this is chief among them: forgetting that it is we for whom Jesus was born; making the story about a need some Other – however we imagine and name that Other – might have, rather than a story we need to hear often, recall often, and should call us each day to repent and remember how we have failed to live and love as we should. It is not a matter of what kind of “heart” we have. Nor is it a matter of “relevance”, at least as that word is used here. It is, rather the ease with which some Christians make determinations about others based solely on an overheard phrase or snippet of conversation. To look outward at the world and expect unrepentant sinners to abound without accounting for the unrepentant sinner that always abides with us is chief among the church’s sins.
It would be far better if we remembered that the issue of relevance lies precisely in the blind spot exposed by Meunier’s post: we have Good News of great joy that shall be for all people. Considering some to be unrepentant sinners, impervious to the Good News when in fact they may be tired of being told they aren’t good enough to be loved of God, when in fact the whole message of the Bible, and in particular of the Incarnation in the birth narrative is the exact opposite message. Furthermore, that is a message that is not for “them”. It is for us. We are the ones who need to hear, and hear anew, the angels words to the shepherds, and rather than wonder about others, get up and go see what all the fuss is about. If we aren’t announcing Good News, who’s going to hear it? If we consider Others to be Unrepentant Sinners, why bother?