One of my favorite professors at Wesley Seminary was Roy Morrison. Roy was smart. Roy had volumes memorized that most people didn’t even read. His interests ranged from model trains to the philosophy of Heidegger, the theology of Tillich, and the literature of African-American protest. No one would have called Roy a Christian, by any means. He was the professor of philosophy of religion, and his skepticism – and occasional animus – toward religion was a healthy antidote to the sometimes overpowering earnestness both of students and faculty.
One thing Roy didn’t like about Christianity was the series of inherent contradictions embedded within our most important doctrines. The Trinity, read through different lenses, is nothing more than a crazy puzzle, a circle of nonsense with neither beginning or end. One God, but Three Persons, but One Substance, but Three Distinct Objectifications, always within One Subject who is three persons . . . It’s a nightmare, really. Another of Roy’s favorite targets was the resurrection: It is impossible for a person to be both dead and alive at the same time. To say that Jesus was dead is to make an ultimate statement about Jesus’s condition. There are no stages of dead; despite The Princess Bride, no one is ever “only mostly dead”. Once a person is dead, well, dead is dead. To claim this same dead person is, after having been declared dead, now alive, is both a logical and biological impossibility. To continue to declare it true precisely because it defied both logic and our understanding of how death works borders on insanity.
There are some folks, good and faithful Christians, who would consider Roy’s objections blasphemous. There are even more who, while not going that far, would certainly insist someone who thinks this way has no place in a Seminary, where people are being trained for ministry. And, of course, there are those who would go to great pains not only to demonstrate Roy’s errors, but offer such demonstrations as general argumentative principles for dealing with “objections” like Roy’s. These last, self-proclaimed “apologists”, are kind of like Calvin Trillin’s fruitcakes. You never see more than one in the same place; apologists pop up using the same words and phrases and sentences; no one really likes apologists but we always smile indulgently when one is pointed out to us.
There are another set of reactions to Roy. None of these involve either showing Roy how wrong he is, showing the world how right we are, or otherwise demonstrating that this game of intellectual point and counterpoint is a zero-sum game. This set of reactions involves two moves. The first is hearing what Roy is saying, acknowledging the objections as legitimate and worthy of consideration. In so doing, these objections force us to make even more clear what it is we believe and why we so believe. Rather than reject the questions, perhaps embracing them as showing the inherent mystery at the heart of our faith is one tack that can be and has been taken. The acknowledgment of mystery is supposed to be bad right now; because we have “doctrine”, because ours is a “faith seeking understanding” (as if St. Anselm only ever said those three word), even nodding toward the mystery that is the Gospel message of grace, redemption, and holiness is somehow either anti-intellectual or . . . I don’t know . . . too much “all the feels” as kids say these days and not enough . . . what? . . . “thinks”? Anyway, mysticism, spirituality, the declaration that the heart of the story of Infinite Divine Love is this dark hole that no amount of thought can penetrate, people who do this right now, particularly in Protestant circles, are allegedly doing something bad.
Yet ours is a faith that exists precisely upon the simplest contradiction I, for one, can imagine: Why does God give a shit about me? That’s the question Deists, for example, decided to answer with a vigorous, “Actually, God doesn’t.” Thus it is they figured God wound the Universe, and is currently in the Divine Recliner binge-watching House of Cards, and waiting for the spring to unwind all the way. Fundamentalists, in many ways the opposite of Deists, insist that all Creation – black holes, exploding galaxies, viruses that can wipe out whole populations, worms that live at the mouth of superheated vents on the ocean’s bottom, and anoles all exist so that you and I can have a personal relationship with Jesus. God not only gives a shit; God made all this stuff so that each individual can have an individual, personal – please read private when I type personal – relationship that will culminate in each person with such a relationship going to heaven when he or she dies. That’s it, and that’s all. The “fundamentals” all move with a logical force Aristotle and Occam would have envied toward that one ineluctable conclusion.
The rest of us, however, still wonder. No matter how long we’ve professed and confessed our faith in the crucified and risen Jesus, we’re still left with this weird notion that each of us matters in some final, eternal, ultimate sense. That all of us together, once we are grasped by the love that teaches us this lesson, well, we have a job to do. We have to tell the world this story in a way that people will understand. And they’ll have all sorts of questions, some of them the questions Roy asks while others will be different questions, all of which boil down to “Why does God love me?” We have the resources of Christian doctrine to move toward understanding. Understanding, however, isn’t the same thing as as answer. An answer is a final, satisfying, loose-end-tying conclusion; it’s the mathematical equivalent of that single equation that contains, defines, and explains both the source and end of all other equations. The problem, both for mathematics and Christianity is such things just don’t – indeed cannot – exist. At least not as the Universe we inhabit is currently constituted. We are always in the midst both of creation and destruction, of beginnings and endings, and at some point, no matter how hard we push, the only answer we arrive at is . . . “Just because.”
Ours is a world filled with contradictions and conflicts. Resolving them in one way or another has been the goal of the modernist project, and the ruins of that project are all about us as we begin the first tentative steps forwards with a whole different set of questions, ends, and problems. One thing that should not be and certainly isn’t (at least for some) a problem is the reality of contradiction, both logical and existential, in our world. That includes in our faith. No, it makes no sense that the God who created more worlds than we can know has chosen this tiny sphere orbiting a nothing star on the edge of one spiral arm of your Average Joe galaxy to be the realm of Divine Revelation. It makes no sense that a tiny strip of land that otherwise is relatively insignificant is the center of a story that involves the recreation of all that is without the taint of sin. It makes no sense that a carpenter was the physical embodiment of Divine Love and Grace, who lived, died, and – Yes! – was raised from the dead so that the first stirrings of the coming Kingdom could be seen and heard and felt and tasted all around us. None of it makes sense and wouldn’t it be better if just got rid of all those pesky questions and contradictions? Isn’t our time better served by telling other people how right we are and how wrong they are? Isn’t demonstrating our prowess at answering objections, at showing just how wrong others are, much more important than loving people to the point there are no longer any “others”? Especially those “others” who are ever so much like us, but write different sentences and say different words when they tell the same basic story we do?
I think it’s easy to see the scales, once tipped so far to one side the other seemed not to exist, is now righting itself ever so slowly. The growing acceptance of difference, of mystery, of the limits of human knowledge – particularly about the Divine Life, including the Gospel story – points toward a healthy understanding that some questions just don’t have an answer, that some contradictions can’t be resolved, and our efforts are far better put toward telling our story by loving one another, working to make things a bit more bearable in these times before God’s final consummation of all the promises made to us.
This is what’s called “holding things in tension” and it’s the one phrase that Roy once told me he hated most of all about Christianity. That’s OK. It’s OK that some folks just don’t get it and don’t like the answers they get when they ask questions for which the only answer is a smile and the repeated affirmation of love. That, too, is a contradiction – questions with no answers; answers to questions not asked – that is part of our story.
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.’ Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’ But the law does not rest on faith; on the contrary, ‘Whoever does the works of the law will live by them.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. – Galatians 3:10-14
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. – Philippians 2:3-13
The problem with claiming unity in Christ goes back to the matter of theological pluralism,as I have argued before. The simple fact of the matter is that we don’t all confess these truths about Christ. – Dr. David Watson, “Unity In Christ?”, Musings and Whatnot, August 2, 2015
The incessant demand that we in The United Methodist Church all assent to doctrine before we truly become “United” is getting more than tiresome. It does, however, need to be addressed both in love and with clarity. Denying that we are united by the words we say or the things we think about Jesus, God, etc. is not to say that doctrine is unimportant. On the contrary, doctrine is the church’s continually evolving sense of what it believes, which defines who it is. Precisely because the time and place and collective language are always changing, however, we must always be aware that doctrine is always changing, because our collective sense of our own identity is always changing. None of this means that the Gospel has changed, or that the Spirit has left the Church, or that innovation is a mark of heresy. It is what it is: We in the Church are always reflecting on our sense of Scripture; allowing it to interpret our experience, as well as allowing our experience to enlighten our hearts when reading Scripture; we discover new things about our collective tradition that offer insights we might not have had before; reason graced by the Holy Spirit moves through this person or that person, offering new ways to think about God.
Even if there are those who would dismiss what I just wrote, we should always remember that confessing the faith in English is not confessing the faith in French is not confessing the faith in Hindi is not confessing the faith in Russian is not confessing the faith in koine Greek. These languages are all too human, all too historical constructs, each different. Speaking words in one have no exact equivalent in any of the others. To claim that our collective confession in either the Apostle’s Creed or Nicene Creed provides unity pretends that language, at least language about God, has some essential quality that all other language does not have. Isn’t it more fruitful for faith to acknowledge our unity in the Spirit, and to hear in the words of the Creeds spoken in different tongues the possibilities of different insights, different ways of living the faith, ways that have never occurred to us?
Yet, as noted in the link above, there continues to be an ongoing insistence that it just isn’t enough to declare that we are the Church of Jesus Christ. Not only do we have to have the right words; we have to make sure when we speak them, we all have the same understanding of the words. Otherwise, we aren’t confessing the faith properly. Dr. Watson brings up our now-outdated statement on our theological task – yet again – declaring it “theological pluralism” without either defining the term or defending his claim (again). Perhaps he means a pluralistic approach to religious understanding, which is the affirmation that our sources and norms of God-talk are not restricted to the Christian Scriptures, but could incorporate non-Christian and even secular sources as authoritative. Whatever he might mean by “theological pluralism”, it’s a red herring, a non-issue because the General Conference in 1988 set new Doctrinal Standards and a theological task before us as a Church. Continuing to reference anything prior to that as having any relevance to us as a church is a bit like insisting we need to affirm the supremacy of the Papacy because the Christian churches used to do that before 1517. Just as our understanding of doctrine is ever-changing, so to are the reference points for beginning a discussion on doctrinal matters. We are in a different historical period as a denomination. We have firm guidelines, with our special Wesleyan emphases offered as tools to become a more fruitful Church.
Our unity in Christ, as St. Paul noted in many places in many letters, is rooted in our collective experience of the presence of the Holy Spirit revealing the grace of the Father in the Son. Ours is a unity rooted in the Persons of the Divine Trinity. Ours is a unity rooted in the Great Commission, to go make disciples of all nations, a commission itself rooted in the revelation of the risen crucified Christ. We are not united by our declarations of our current identity contained in our doctrinal statements, our creeds, our words, or how we define or understand those words. The insistence that is the case flies in the face of the Scriptural testimony and two thousand years of Christian practice. I cannot say it enough: Doctrine is our collective understanding of our identity. Our unity is rooted in the grace made real in us by the Holy Spirit in the Son for the glory of the Father. These reference events in our collective life – events that continue to shape our mission and ministry, our preaching and teaching, and, yes, our ongoing discovery of who we are as those claimed by the crucified and risen one.
I’ll just close with some more words from St. Paul:
For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. – Galatians 1:11-12
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.
After the final no there comes a yes / And on that yes the future world depends. – Wallace Stevens
Like the time you ran away/I turned around and you were standing close to me. – Yes, “Awaken”, lyrics by Jon Anderson
I often feel we never quite “get” the whole God’s love and grace thing. For far too long, the whole “born again” idea, taken from St. John’s Gospel, in Jesus’s encounter with Nicodemus, has been understood – both far too literally (which was Nicodemus’s problem) and far too narrowly – as defining and describing what it is “to become” a Christian. Even St. John’s Gospel offers other metaphors and stories to describe the process of redemption.
Part of my problem with the whole “born again” message, while still important and necessary, is it becomes far too final. One either is or is not “born from above”, at a particular time, a particular event proscribing the “moment” one “accepts” Christ, or one is not. Far more in keeping with both the tone and narrative of the whole of Scripture is the idea that ours is a life spent in various stages of a pursuit, like the lover and beloved in The Song of Songs, to be captured, then escape yet again.
Taking the whole of Christian Scriptures and Doctrine seriously, both Old and New Testaments present God as passionately, selflessly desiring only one thing: to be in a loving relationship with Creation, with first the children of Abraham as those through whom this message of Divine Love would be made manifest, then in the Incarnation the definitive statement of the lengths to which God’s love will go in order that our relationship with God is real, that God’s love is real, and that God never ever gives up on us.
The redemptive “moment”, if you will, is the whole Passion Event. It always moves from God to us. That includes the Divine “No”, as Karl Barth (and Wallace Stevens) called it. That “No” isn’t directed at us as objects of Divine love and grace. It is, rather, directed at all the ways we continue to reject even the possibility of such a relationship. If the doctrine of original sin is to mean anything at all, it means at the very least that God’s constant pursuit of a particular covenant relationship with humanity, as a means toward the end of the final recreation of all things, is too overwhelming, too restrictive, too demanding. Too impossible even to consider. That God begins with a “No”, often with a “No” in response, is hardly the end of it all. It is that “Yes” that always – always – follows that “No” that changes the nature of the relationship. That “Yes” dogs our heals, invades our hearts and minds, has us turning our head left and right. We reject the “No”, but too often we also reject the “Yes” as well. Our refusal, however, is never the end of the conversation. It is, in fact, just the beginning of a pursuit that continues, even after we might give a tentative “Yes”.
I admit this is no less incomplete, and no more definitive, than the whole “born again” idea. It is, however, a too often neglected aspect of our lives as Christians. It is the source of the church’s insistence on compassion and mercy defining our justice; on our ministries even to those who have committed the most heinous crimes; and so much Christian spirituality that comes to see ourselves as insignificant precisely because that first “No” always haunts us. The Divine pursuit of humanity, as the Scriptures narrate it, is endless; it is the love that is more powerful than death, the passion that is as boastful as the grave; it is what the Incarnation is all about. To view the Christian life as a series of non-repeatable events, limited in time and space – including to a human lifespan – is to ignore the weight of the testimony of Scripture; it is to devalue the meaning of the Incarnation to a once-for-all event, a take-it-or-leave-it moment of decision that leaves us bereft of any help. Compassion, Divine agape, dry up and disappear if we insist that God’s offer is only once; that our acceptance and rejection at any particular time are definitive for our eternal fate. This capricious God is not the Divine Lover of the Bible; it certainly isn’t the Triune God revealed in the Incarnation, a Godhead whose very Being is mutual, interpenetrating, selfless love that nevertheless respects and holds intact the distinctions among the Persons. Unless we understand grace as the central component of the Divine-Human encounter, a grace that is always before us, around us, and ahead of us, we will never really hear the Divine “Yes” that pursues us all the days of our lives and beyond.
Benjamin Corley recently wrote a blog post, “5 Areas Where Progressive Christian Culture Completely Loses Me.” Some of them are things with which I couldn’t agree more – policing borders being the biggest one. On the other hand, what, precisely, is “mishandling Scripture”? As soon as Corley can point to any Christian in history, from St. Peter to me and himself, who hasn’t done that, I might say, “You know, you have a point.” We “mishandle” Scripture because we’re human. And Scripture isn’t a hammer; if we “mishandle” it, we aren’t going to break a thumb. At worst, we might end up insisting on all sorts of things various Christians have claimed as true over the centuries, from Coptic Incarnational theology through the Orthodox rejection of the “filioque” clause in the Confession of Constantinople to sola scriptura. So, I’ll just remain befuddled.
Where he loses me completely – and apparently, I have lost him – is the issue of the doctrine of atonement. Derived from ancient legal theories, essentially the doctrine deals both with the need for and mechanics of God’s saving act in and through Jesus of Nazareth. Never mind the antiquated wording – “sin nature”? Really? Is essentialism a thing again? – the whole matter of the doctrine of atonement (a) answers questions dealt with elsewhere, particularly in teachings about grace – prevenience, justification, sanctification – and (b) is rooted in thousands-years-old understandings of the role of blood, of getting someone else to pay the price for one’s crime, and is this odd combination, therefore, of ancient biology and legal theories that have zero-zilch-nada to do with our life today.
Furthermore, on the whole matter of sin: Mr. Corley, this isn’t about you. I mean no disrespect, but the salvation that comes to all of us in and through Jesus Christ is something that is both once for all – the passion/resurrection event – and something we must all seek after each day, each moment of each day, coming afresh, in new ways and images, in new words, even whole new languages! To be a Christian is to live this tension at all times. That, Mr. Corley, is indeed in Scriptures, in the testimony of the Risen Crucified Christ to his disciples prior to his ascension (a matter upon which Mr. Corley says nothing at all).
What God the Father did in and through the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was not get rid of something called “sin nature” because there is no such thing. No matter how hard Mr. Corley looks in Scripture, he won’t find those words, he won’t find that concept, he won’t find that description of humanity. The death of Christ was not a legal action done so that a debt humanity owed God could be paid through the magic of blood spilled. Jesus was not the scapegoat upon whom the people of Israel poured their sins, to be sent to the desert, most likely to die. Jesus was the beloved Son of God; that love that binds them is the Holy Spirit, in which and through which God not so much paid our debt (or at least our bail) but healed the wounds we had inflicted in the relationship between Creation and Creator. This isn’t “atonement”, because there’s no magical blood in a fountain that washes us white as snow. There’s no debt or ransom paid in order to set our individual legal standing before God correct. It is, and always has been, grace. The prodigal, overflowing love of God for this fallen Creation, a love that literally stopped at nothing, including the emptying of the Son of God of all that “divinity” might mean in order to become human and take upon that human form not just any form, but that of a slave – a slave obedient even to death on a cross.
Now, I understand that these things are important, even necessary, for Mr. Corley’s self-understanding as a Christian. Not only can he, but he should continue to hold them fast. They are part of his identity. I wanted him to understand, however, there are those of us no less committed to a life in and for Christ who find “atonement” not only meaningless, but a stumbling block to understanding what it is God in Christ was doing for Creation (don’t even get me started on the whole Virgin Birth thing).
Doctrine isn’t the proclamation of God. They are all too human statements that have emerged, sometimes through painful processes involving death, as the Church wrestles with the Truth that while we were yet sinners (not having a “sin nature”), God in Christ came to us and for us, proving God’s love – the Holy Spirit in action – for all of us. Doctrine is important, don’t misunderstand me. Doctrine is little more than human talk about that about which language ultimately fails – who and what God is in and through the Christian experience of God. Every doctrine, no matter how time-tested, no matter how often we repeat it, is no more right than it is wrong. It’s just, us imperfect people living in the midst of confusion and tension trying as best we can to let other people know who we are and why we are. To my mind, using a thousands-year-old legal theory (that includes magic blood, don’t forget that!) that has to be explained first, before the actual doctrine itself can even begin to make sense, has long outlasted its usefulness. That there are better, clearer ways to say what God was doing in Christ for all of Creation; that there are ways in contemporary thought, imagery, and language that people can readily understand; these need to be borne in mind as we continue to discuss the matter of doctrine in the Church.
Unless we as a group who follows and believes in God in Christ, not teachings, not theology, not doctrine, are willing to take a good hard look at how doctrine is as much a hindrance as it is a help in our identity and our explanations to others, we are failing at the one task we’ve been given – to go make of all disciples, baptizing in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
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.
O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care. Come and show your people the way to salvation. – The first of the seven Antiphonal responses to “O Come O Come Emmanuel”, usually used in the week before Christmas, usually during Vespers.
Today we begin the first season of the Christian calendar. It is Advent, which means “coming”. We prepare ourselves for the coming of the Christ Child, the Light of the World, the One through whom and with whom all that was made was made. As with all proper Christian meditation, Biblical interpretation, doctrinal exposition, liturgical element, and even public action, there are elements that not only actively recall (anamnesis) the history of the faith; there is also the anticipation (prolepsis) of what God has promise God will do in the future, God’s future, the future that is the Church’s work.
What better place to begin a contemplative Advent than with Creation? If there were a contest for a more abused Christian doctrine, the Christian teaching on Creation would certainly have difficulty finding another to supersede it. A proper understanding of Creation, a Biblical understanding of Creation, a Trinitarian understanding of the Biblical texts regarding Creation, is one of dynamism, of the interpenetrating love that is the heart of the Divine Life unfolded and unfolding and perfected in all that is. We Christians have a unique perspective; we are both created and yet offered the opportunity to see through the Divine Love that lives through the Church in us. As the Psalmist wrote, while it is a wonder the LORD acknowledges our existence, we are yet just a bit below the angels. That we are those who have broken the Oneness of Creation and Creator is true enough. Yet, Scripture and a Trinitarian understanding both of justification and sanctification (as well as Creation) leaves us with eyes opened (like St. Paul’s in Damascus) by faith to see this Creation as God intended it to be; to see it as Godd will perfect it in that New Creation inaugurated in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
An omelette cooked is praising God. A piece of straw praises God. The fog outside my window this morning praises God. All that is praises God just because it is, and that it is, and continues to be – that is Creation, beloved by God, called Good, and redeemed through the acts of Jesus on the Cross and through the empty tomb. We begin this Advent listening for Creation’s praise. We begin this Advent seeing in the brown grass and leafless trees the Love of God for our broken world. We begin at the beginning – praising God, because all that is, is and continues to be in and through the Love of God. Creation is testimony to Divine Love, and the promise of Divine Love for the perfection to come, a promise made clear in the birth in a barn of a baby. We prepare ourselves for this birth by starting at the beginning, and understanding what it tells us about the ending, and that the whole thing between the times is one with beginning and ending – Creation in, through, and because of the overflowing love that is our Trinitarian God.
*I’m using Finley’s little book for my morning Advent meditations. You’ll probably get tired of reading these reflections. Too bad, you, is all I have to say.