Good Friday, Trinity, and Atonement

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For many Christians, Good Friday brings up aspects of Christianity they would prefer to minimize, or leave behind entirely.  Themes like sacrifice, suffering, guilt, and blood make many followers of Christ uncomfortable.  Jeremy Smith has recently argued in favor of moving the locus of atonement further away from the cross.  Indeed, the cross remains to followers of Jesus what it was to people in the ancient world: foolishness and a stumbling-block. (1 Cor. 1:23)

In Death on a Friday Afternoon, Fr. Richard Neuhaus explores various attempts to re-imagine the atonement and finds them wanting.  He looks at the cross through the lens of liberal, existentialist, and liberationist theologies and finds in them little to no hope at all.  But neither is he (pardon the expression) satisfied with expressions of atonement that emphasize the wrath of God the Father punishing Jesus on the cross.  Instead, he suggests we see the cross as an act of love by the whole of that great mystery we name as God: the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The book as a whole is marvelous, and I would commend it to your reading. The section to which I refer is worth quoting in its entirety:

“We do well to get rid completely of the notion that the atonement is about what God did to Jesus. This requires returning to the truth that the God who brought about our atonement is the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Atonement is from beginning to end the work of the three divine Persons of the triune God. In collusion with the Father, the Son, in the power of the Spirit, freely takes our part by becoming our representative.  A representative is different from a substitute. The atonement is not a quantitative matter. It is not as through there is a certain amount of wrong for which a certain amount of punishment is due, and so somebody must be found to take the punishment. That way of thinking produced the ritual of the scapegoat, a ritual reenacted in many different ways throughout history. Christ’s atoning sacrifice is not about quantitates of sin and punishment but is intensely personal. It is the mending of a personal relationship between God and humanity that had been broken.

Justice requires that  satisfaction be made; we were and we are in no position to make such satisfaction. Jesus Christ actively intervenes on our behalf, he freely takes our part in healing the breach between God and humanity by the sacrifice of the cross.  To speak of a collusion between the Persons of the triune God suggests the word ‘conspiracy.’ It is a helpful word when we remember that conspire means, quite literally, ‘to breathe together.’ in the beginning, God breathes life into Adam; Jesus breathes upon the disciples and says, ‘receive the Holy Spirit.’ The triune God conspires for our salvation. The entire plan is love from beginning to end, and the fullness of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is engaged every step of the way.  It is not an angry Father punishing an innocent Son, with the Spirit on the sidelines helplessly watching. No, it is the Father, Son, and Spirit conspiring together to save us from ourselves.  At the Father’s command, the Son freely goes forth in the power of the Spirit to become one of us.  On our behalf, as Representative Humanity, he lives the life of perfect obedience that Adam – and all of us ‘in Adam’ – failed to live. And he completes that life by dying the perfect death.” (220-221)

The cross is a conspiracy of love by the triune God.  That’s why we call it Good Friday, and that’s why we run away from the cross to our peril.  Let us, with John the Baptist, behold and marvel at “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29) Thanks be to God.

Review: Seeing Black and White in a Gray World by Bill Arnold

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I recently finished Dr. Bill Arnold’s new book, Seeing Black and White in a Gray World: The Need for Theological Reasoning in the Church’s Debate Over Sexuality (Franklin: Seedbed 2014).  Dr. Arnold, a professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, has written this book in response to Adam Hamilton’s popular book (of a similar name) Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White.  Professor Arnold is going to be one of my conversation partners at an upcoming forum in New York, and I thought reading his recent book would be helpful preparation for that discussion.

In short, I found much to appreciate in Arnold’s work. His purpose is fairly straightforward.  As he describes in the preface, Arnold read Hamilton’s book in advance of his service as a delegate to the (now infamous) 2012 General Conference in Tampa.  His initial description hints at many of the critiques he develops later in the book:

“I was not disappointed in Adam’s honest and straightforward book seeking a ‘third way’ through and beyond the controversies confronting the church today. I was disappointed, however by other features of the book.  I was surprised by the number of unsupported assumptions, errors of reasoning, and flawed arguments running throughout the book.  I also had questions about some of the theological assumptions, and Adam’s reliance on pragmatism, sometimes at the expense of theology.” (xv-xvi)

If you’ve never before studied logic, you are in for a crash-course. Arnold offers a helpful introduction to logical fallacies at the outset.  When reading, it is critical to catch these as he describes them because Arnold refers to them throughout.  Especially helpful is Dr. Arnold’s discussion of Scripture from a Wesleyan point of view, including his critique of the rampant misappropriation of the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral and the need for a canonical reading of the Bible (what Wesley referred to as the “whole tenor” of Scripture).

Furthermore, I found Arnold’s discussion of the “myths” (as he calls them) that hinder our debate about same-sex relationships in the church quite helpful; these include “orientation” as determinative, liberation as a desired telos, and civil rights as an analogy for the current church struggles over same-sex relationships.  For my own part, I would grant that these would have a great deal more purchase on questions our society faces vis-a-vis civil unions and rights of visitation, inheritance, etc., but they are not adequately theological categories to ground discussion within the church.

There are some difficulties in consistency with Arnold’s work.  He accuses Adam Hamilton of the fallacy of “false dilemma” for asking, “Are John Shelby Spong and Jerry Falwell our only options?” but then goes on to hammer the extent to which (using a Yogi Berra quote) questions about same-sex practice leave us two paths.  “Sometimes we simply stand at a fork in the road. There is no sense complaining or crying over it. We have only two choices before us.” (86)

Similarly, he frequently disparages the search for a middle way (and of course I take this a bit personally), but yet approvingly observes in the preface that the current UM position already is a third or middle way:

“The current UMC approach is already a balanced and healthy third-way alternative…between those who simply accept and celebrate same-sex practices on the one hand, and those who condemn both the practices and the people who experience same-sex attraction on the other.” (xvii)

Later, Arnold will also stringently critique Adam and others like him who seek a compromise or middle way between any two alternatives for falling to a logical fallacy called begging the question: “Instead of asking whether or not such a middle way is possible, this time Adam has failed to consider whether such a middle way is preferable.” (97)  It appears, though, as if middle ways are preferable when he likes them, or can picture them, but to be avoided when he cannot envision them.

This is important because Arnold is not always accurate when deciding which questions are black and white (“fork-in-the-road”) or when compromises are possible.  For instance, he discusses Adam’s reflections on just war and Christian pacifism, concluding: “His is no gray area position. He has effectively taken a position on the side of justifiable warfare.” (166)  This overlooks that Just War is itself a middle or alternative way between the extremes of pacifism and realism, and that there are many construals of Just War theory, some of which would agree with Hamilton’s position (supporting the first Gulf War but not the second), and some of which would not.  Of course, this could be something overlooked by Hamilton as much as Arnold.

It’s worth pointing out, and it is to his credit, that Dr. Arnold is very complimentary of Adam Hamilton and says he counts him as a friend (though he seems to be making a cottage industry of critiquing Church of the Resurrection’s pastor).  By and large his reading of Hamilton is thorough and when he is critical, he is fair.  I wonder, though, about Hamilton as the conversation partner for this particular book.  It is not often that books are written that so directly refute another book, and in this case we have a very odd dichotomy: Arnold, an Old Testament scholar who was heretofore not written much at all in the popular vein (as he admits from the outset), taking on a popular and successful pastor whose work is more practical than scholarly.  Moreover, while Arnold says (on xvi) that he is only “using Adam’s book as representative of others in the same vein,” he never names who those others might be.

This leads to perhaps my most significant question about Arnold’s work: he has few conversation partners, to judge from the footnotes, who would disagree with him.  That is, a large number of his interlocutors are folks of similar conviction: names like Billy Abraham, Kenneth Collins, Joy Moore, and Maxie Dunnam come up regularly, but critics from the other end of the spectrum, or even from the middle, are largely absent – though Richard Hays might be a noticeable exception.  All that to say, it seems a somewhat problematic to write a book about the virtues of “seeing black and white” if the footnotes indicate one mostly only consulted those who already agree from the outset.   Arriving at the promised land of “black and white” is a cheap victory if it is done by not engaging opposing voices.

Lastly, I am not as convinced as Arnold in his conclusion that, “the problem with the church today isn’t that there is too much black and white, but not enough.  What we really need is less gray, not more.” (198)  Many things, even great and central matters of the faith, are not all that “black and white.”  At our best, Wesleyans, similar to the Christian East, have not shied away from mystery when it comes to the things of God.  The two foundational doctrines of the church’s faith, the Trinity and the Incarnation, are mysteries at their very heart.  Moreover, in a few short days Christians will observe Good Friday, and remember the affliction of Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity; the Fathers of the Church would remind us, however, that somehow he suffered “impassibly.”  Finally, the Eucharist is described in our own liturgy as a “holy mystery,” which harkens back to the Wesleys, who had little interest in delving into the quagmire of sacramental mechanics that occupied previous generations.  Thus Charles, showing a distinct lack of concern for “black and white” understandings of Chris’s presence at the Table, would have us sing,

How can heavenly spirits rise,
By earthly matter fed,
Drink herewith Divine supplies,
And eat immortal bread?
Ask the Father’s Wisdom how;
Him that did the means ordain!
Angels round our altars bow
To search it out in vain.

Sure and real is the grace,
The manner be unknown…

(Hymns on the Lord’s Supper, #57)

Gray, it turns out, is not something from which God’s people should flee.  In fact, it is impossible.  Nevertheless, Professor Arnold’s new book has given us some helpful paths forward and named some of the major problems with how we are going about our most pressing conversations.  I am not convinced that dialogue is dead, mostly because we have not been doing dialogue well at all.  Bill Arnold’s book, if read and received by many across the ideological divides in the UMC, would help us all be more charitable, clear, and effective conversationalists.

A prayer for those considering schism

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Anger is easy.  Prayer is hard, especially for one’s enemies.  And yet, that is the work we are called to do as Christ’s body.

News today broke that is not totally surprising and yet nonetheless sad – pathetic, really.  “Conservative” UMC leaders are openly having discussions about actions ranging from withholding apportionments to outright schism.  While division over matters of sexuality and covenant has been ramping over the years, the group stated, “the present reality, where a growing number of United Methodist bishops are unwilling to enforce the Book of Discipline, is unacceptable and untenable.

Apparently the childhood lesson we all learned has not sunk in to this group: two wrongs don’t make a right.  I am also concerned about the response of some bishops to breaches of the Discipline, and yet I don’t see that as a reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

And so I offer this prayer from the United Methodist Hymnal, #564.  Oddly enough, it is a Chinese prayer, no doubt from the pen of a Christian who appreciates the true nature of oppression, and the need for a unified church to witness against all that is dark and evil. I offer this prayer for myself and for others, on all sides and on no side.  May the Spirit of the Christ who prayed that we “might be one” prevail against all self-righteousness and individualism.  May the Holy Spirit drive out the spirit of this age in all its forms.

Help each of us, gracious God,

   to live in such magnanimity and restraint

that the Head of the church may never have cause to say to any one of us,

   “This is my body, broken by you.” Amen.

Where is the Good News? (Or: Please Stop Giving Money to the Caucuses)

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Emmett Kelly, courtesy Wikimedia commons.

Good News, a conservative evangelical caucus, is not pleased with how things are going in the UMC.  A statement following a recent board meeting, denouncing our current state of affairs as “untenable,” read in part:

“We see the present situation as untenable. We are aware of conversations taking place among leading pastors and other groups around the country to examine what options are available for those of us who are biblical Christians and who have agreed to live by The Book of Discipline.  Those options include sweeping reform of the church or the creation of a different kind of future.  If we are one church, we cannot act as if we are two.  If in reality we are two churches, it may not be wise to pretend any longer that we are one.  Many are discussing the wisdom of churches continuing to fund a denomination that is unwilling to live by its policies and whose chief officers do not enforce its beliefs.  Some have already curtailed their financial support in protest.  Concrete and dramatic actions are likely to come out of those conversations in the next few months.”

Notice the vague language: “We are aware of conversations”; “leading pastors”; “some” and “many,” etc.  This got me thinking about how complaints and controversial matters are handled on church boards.  One of the rules that any healthy church holds among its decision-making bodies is something like “speak for self, use only ‘I’ statements.”  This is because often times people will attempt to manipulate a process of discernment by implying that untold numbers of persons have a problem with thus-and-such.  You’ve probably heard of conversations like this.  “Pastor, a bunch people are really upset about [x].”  Or, “I’ve been talking to a lot of people, and they are thinking about leaving unless you do something.”  Oftentimes, the unnamed masses are really just one or two ornery troublemakers who are attempting to augment their influence by claiming others as anonymous co-conspirators.

I would hope that Good News, composed as it is of many who serve in various leadership capacities in local churches, would be astute and honest enough to avoid this kind of power play.  These kinds of veiled threats are, on the whole,  unbecoming of the body of Christ.  What is true at the local church level is equally, if not more so, true at the level of denominational advocacy.

A particularly troubling tactic is the threat of withholding funds unless the one gets their way.  An all-too-common ploy, this is often reserved by power brokers in a local church to use when all else has failed.  Again, what is true of the parish is true of a caucus; hostage-taking should be beneath an organization dedicated to the renewal of the church.  It is, pure and simple, a manipulative tool unworthy of Christians in covenant together.  Apportionments are not dues paid when all is well, but the shared burden that makes shared ministry possible.  As I would say to someone in my church, you aren’t withholding from the local church, you are withholding from the God to whom you have promised a portion.

One last request: can we stop resorting to the self-righteous rhetoric that declares some Christians “biblical” and others (by default) “un-biblical?”  Perceiving oneself as following Scripture on a particular ethical question probably doesn’t mean that one follows every jot and tittle of Scripture at all times.  In that sense, none of us are “biblical.”  This is the conservative equivalent of the Christian left accusing anyone who questions their agenda “homophobic.”  Both are often crass and self-serving adjectives that say nothing helpful in furthering a conversation.

Perhaps the time has come for the people called United Methodists to withhold their funds from these caucus groups, which seem to be more and more intent on running headlong toward a cliff.  They don’t seem to be getting us anywhere: they aren’t sharing good news, they aren’t interested in reconciling, they aren’t confessing anything interesting, they only want love to prevail through bullying and intimidation, and rather than “religion and democracy” they are promoting idolatry and ideology.

Mind you, this is just a humble proposal.  I’m not aware of any others expressing a similar desire. So I won’t promise you that incalculable legions have my back on this.

I’m just speaking for myself.

Ignatius of Antioch on Unity in the Church

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Icon of St. Ignatius, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In a letter to the church at Philadelphia (the ancient one, not Rocky’s city), Bishop Ignatius exhorts the church to unity under Christ as he prepares for his impending martyrdom.  Christ, he says, “is our eternal and enduring joy” particularly when the church is “in unity with the bishop, the presbyters, and the deacons.”  He sounds downright Pauline when commanding them to run from division:

“Wherefore, as children of light and truth, flee from division and wicked doctrines; but where the shepherd is, there do ye as sheep follow. For there are many wolves that appear worthy of credit, who, by means of a pernicious pleasure, carry captives those who are running towards God; but in your unity they shall have no place.”

Ignatius suggests serious consequences for schism, which, while quite harsh to Protestant ears, reflects a view of church discipline that is sorely lacking in most communions today:

“For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of repentance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ. Do not err, my brethren. If any man follows him that makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”

Talking schism is all the rage now in the United Methodist Church.  Jack Jackson of Claremont argued breaking up was “hard, but the right thing” for the denomination last year.  As if whispers and worries over a split were not bad enough, recently a Facebook group was formed named Clergy For a New Methodist Denomination (though, happily, it hasn’t picked up much steam).  The newly formed Wesleyan Covenant Network is not proposed as a new denomination, though it sounds (in its title and its core values) very much like the new ECO Presbyterian denomination that has been stealing prominent churches – like John Ortberg’s Menlo Park – from the PCUSA.  I could easily see something happening with the Wesleyan Covenant Network that has happened with the Fellowship of Presbyterians and ECO: what begins as a network of likeminded folks within a denomination very quickly gives way to schism.

Ignatius is a strong tonic against such temptations, which treat the unity of the church as a small matter.  How telling it is that one of the original Apostolic Fathers, possibly a disciple of John himself, writes with such conviction in the generation after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension? This is not some medieval Catholic reactionary speaking, but one of our earliest witnesses to the faith.  We could learn much from his teaching that the unity of the Church is both the will of God and to the benefit of the gospel’s proclamation, as he also indicated in a letter to the Magnesians:

“As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the the apostles, so neither do ye anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavor that anything appear reasonable and proper to yourselves apart; but being come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and joy undefiled. There is one Jesus Christ, than whom nothing is more excellent.”

In the icon above, Ignatius is depicted at his martyrdom, torn apart by lions.  There are many forces that seek to tear the UMC apart, from different directions.  My prayer is that we can avoid the fate of other Mainline denominations and find a way to live together.  What God has joined together, let us not tear asunder.  As Jesus said, “May they be one.”

(Quotes courtesy of the Church Fathers Lenten Reading Plan).

Heresy Always Simplifies

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I recently finished Ross Douthat’s masterful tome Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. Whether one is Christian or not, it is worth a read. His thesis: one of America’s great present maladies is not too much religion, nor too little, but (ahem) bad religion. Specifically, psuedo-Christian heresies like prosperity preaching, “God within” faux spirituality, and uncritical nationalism.  But he begins by stating a positive case: once Christian communions that were ascendent in the US had a strong, orthodox consensus around central dogmas such as the Trinity and incarnation of Christ – dogmas which defy an easy rationalism.

“What defines this consensus, above all – what distinguishes orthodoxy from heresy, the central river from the delta – is a commitment to mystery and paradox. Mysteries abide at the heart of every religious faith, but the Christian tradition is uniquely comfortable preaching dogmas that can seem like riddles, offering answers that swiftly lead to further questions, and confronting believers with the possibility that the truth about God surpasses all our understanding.” (10)

Throughout its long history, the Church constantly chose the side of mystery and paradox. Jesus? He was fully human and fully divine, not one or the other.  Did Jesus suffer on the cross, or is God truly impassible? Yes – to both.  Should we harmonize the gospels to make one, clear-cut narrative that smooths all the rough edges between them? In this and all other cases, the Church decided that the more complicated path was also the true path.

“The great Christian heresies vary wildly in their theological substance, but almost all have in common a desire to resolve Christianity’s contradictions, untie its knotty paradoxes, and produce a cleaner and more coherent faith. Heretics are often stereotyped as wild mystics, but they’re just as likely to be problem solvers and logic choppers, well-intentioned seekers after a more reasonable version of Christian faith than orthodoxy supplies. They tend to see themselves, not irrationally, as rescuers rather than enemies of Christianity – saving the faith from self-contradiction and cultural irrelevance.” (11-12)

So it may be understandable that we want a faith, want a deity, that is easy to comprehend, reducible to bumper-stickers and theo-nuggets. There could be some appeal to “updating” Christian doctrine so it is more relevant, more pedagogically palatable or accessible to the faculties of reason. But the end result would be something other than “the faith that was once  for all entrusted to the saints.” (Jude 1:3)  Such dogma would be simple, but it would be simply heresy.

How Not to Renew the Church: The IRD and the Need for a Better Conversation

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We can do better than this.
Image courtesy freedigitalimages.net.

Recently John Lomperis, the director of the United Methodist arm of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, blogged about how progressive UM leaders had supposedly conceded that they had lost the debate about human sexuality. This was a distortion of what Reconciling Ministries Network president Matt Berryman had indicated in his comments, but that is a separate issue. What most troubles me is how Lomperis spent three paragraphs (read them yourself at the link above) attacking the progressive UM position in what he called a “fairly summarized” manner.  The rule of Bible translation is that every translation is also an interpretation, and in that regards Lomperis’ interpretation of the progressive position was more caricature than summary. And that was far from the only problem with Lomperis’ post.

I attempted to offer what I felt was a friendly and fair critique, but alas, my response was not approved.  Here is my comment, unaltered from what I attempted to submit at the bottom of the post in question on the IRD’s Juicy Ecumenism blog:

Since when is it acceptable to simply put words in the mouths of one’s opponents for paragraph after paragraph? This is a hatchet job. There is no news here, it just a screed designed harden the opinions of fellow right-wingers.

This is particularly ludicrous: “…the usual arguments between theologically liberal and culturally conformed vs. biblical and counter-cultural approaches to the Christian faith.”

First of all “biblical” is a meaningless term in this context, as both sides claim the Bible in support of their views. Secondly, the obviously right-wing political tactics and linguistic hyperbole frequently employed by the IRD are clearly in line with the typical methods of the – highly secularized, mind you – culture wars and are in no way “counter-cultural.”

Lastly, if you are going to pontificate about bullying, anti-Golden Rule behavior, get the log out of your own eye before pointing out the splinters of others.

There is a place for criticism and we need voices on all sides UMC, and of course you have a right to your opinions. But you need to rethink your tactics if you think this kind of work is going to further your cause. It should be beneath any organization ostensibly dedicated to the renewal and strengthening of the church.

For more:
http://www.pastormack.wordpress.com

Of course, there is an irony to calling yourself the Institute for Religion and Democracy if you cannot bear to hear critical voices.  What is even more sad is a look at some of the comments that were approved, including this (a direct quote):

Jared says:

The gays in the UMC should simply give it up because everyone knows that Homosexuality is unnatural, abnormal, shameful, vile affection, perverted, and God has promised to judge all unrepented [sic] homosexuals! Stop trying to force people to believe the nonsense that you’re spouting.

Now, most of what the IRD puts out is far from this flagrant and malicious, but what does it say about them that this kind of support is publicly allowed while a relatively benign critique like mine is verboten?

Encouraging the worst elements in the church while stifling conversation is not the way forward. Renewal will not come by attempting to “win” some sort of ideological battle while burying our heads in the sand to other voices.

We need a better conversation: one that is able to hear other voices, not just lampoon them. A conversation in which all sides are firm in conviction, but charitable and fair to others in both language and tactics. We need to hear each other, and not just lob bombs before retreating back into our respective bunkers.

If that interests you, I encourage you to join my friends Stephen, Evan, and myself with a new project we are working on called Via Media Methodists. We are looking for a better way. We think God has plans for the United Methodist Church, that there is a way forward, and that it will only be discovered as those of us from different places (geographically, theologically, and ideologically) begin to converse, pray, and wrestle together.

There is a better conversation beginning to happen. I hope you’ll be a part of it.

Wasting Time With God

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The Monks of St. Mary Magdalene at Mass

Could you live every day wasting time with God? In the majestic documentary Watchmen of the Night, viewers follow along the daily routine in the life at St. Mary Magdalene Monastery in Le Barroux, France. These holy men, following the Rule of St. Benedict, have their whole lives shaped by prayer, and everything that is not prayer and worship (either corporate or personal) is lived under obedience to the Abbot (a term derived from “Abba,” or Father, who is in charge of the monastery).

As one of the monks interviewed put it, “You make one choice: to become a monk. After that, you have no more choice.”

And yet, there is a profound freedom in the discipline and order of their days, and we see joy interspersed in and with their work and worship. For me, the most profound statement came near the end, in a voiceover during Compline (the last of eight offices of prayer celebrated each day). This addresses what many viewers no doubt wonder as they watch the Benedictine day unfold:

“People often say to us,
‘You serve no purpose. What do you do? Praising God for 5 or 6 hours a day. That’s pointless.’

That’s the highest compliment we can be paid.
It’s true, it serves no purpose.
We do not serve a purpose.
We serve someone.
We serve God.”

As Marva Dawn put it, worship is A Royal “Waste” of TIme. It serves no purpose, it has no utility in the conventional sense. The purpose of worship is union with and adoration of God.

Who needs a “purpose” when you can have that?

I recorded Watchmen of the Night on EWTN, but it is also available in its entirety on YouTube. I commend it to your viewing and would love your own feedback. What appeals to you about the monastic life? What would you ask these monks? Have Protestants lost something in largely rejecting the monastic vocation?

Postliberal ≠ Progressive: A Response to Roger Wolsey

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Sometimes it pays to take a closer look…

Recently, Roger Wolsey (known for suggesting that fish should kiss) blogged about the distinction between liberal Christianity and progressive Christianity, and why progressive Christians aren’t necessarily progressive politically. Reading his piece, I had the overall feeling that he “doth protest too much,” but at the end of the day I don’t have a big dog in that fight. My canine did enter the fray, however, when he identified progressive Christianity – again, as distinct from liberal Christianity – as a “post-liberal” form of Christianity.  I quote him here with his own emphases included and at length to hopefully avoid the charge of prooftexting:

“Progressive Christianity is the evolution of liberal Christianity. Liberal Christianity was a modern-era movement that was a fruit of the Enlightenment, which embraced academic biblical scholarship, and deferred to the authority of contemporary science. While open-minded in many ways, it was patriarchal, elitist, colonial, and ceded too much clout to the tentative insights of science. It also over emphasized the intellect and reason an minimized passion and the heart. It missed out on the beauty of embracing the apophatic (the ultimate unknowableness of God), paradox and mystery. In so doing it missed the forest for the trees – albeit missing a different part of the forest than fundamentalists do.

Progressive Christianity is a post-liberal movement that seeks to reform the faith via the insights of post-modernism and a reclaiming of the truth beyond the verifiable historicity and factuality of the passages in the Bible by affirming the truths within the stories that may not have actually happened. Progressive Christians are open to the reality that God is vitally at work in other world religions; that Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on the truth; and that it’s best to take the Bible seriously, but not always literally.”

Notice the logic: liberal Christianity is Enlightenment Christianity, and “progressive” Christianity is post-modern Christianity. Of course, the problem with this is that the very idea of “progress” is an Enlightenment construct; this line runs right through the scientific revolution, receiving (for instance) theological expression in the social gospel of the early 20th century and political expression in the “war(s?) to end all wars,” and continuing in our various modes of discourse to today. The basic narrative: “we” (and Wolsey is right, this is a privileged “we”) are advancing in knowledge, morals, wisdom, art, etc. and – because this is a quintessentially modern construct – we are doing so by the power of our own sublime rationality. The conviction that we must be more enlightened than those who have gone before is also why we moderns have made tradition and authority (and, above all, traditional authorities!) the boogeymen (boogeypersons?) of our cultural landscape. As David F. Watson so aptly described in a recent post, the actual line between “liberal” and “progressive” is hardly as firm as Wolsey suggests:

“At some point, liberal Christians stopped using the term ‘liberal’ and started using the term ‘progressive.’ I’ve really never understood this move, except that the term ‘progressive’ expresses a positive value judgment that ‘liberal’ does not (at least, in our current context). Progressive Christianity now includes a very broad range of positions influenced by a existentialist, process, and identity-based theology. It is still the dominant form of thinking in mainline Protestant traditions and theological education.”

So, if progressive Christianity really is just a more fashionable name for classic liberal Christianity, then it becomes somewhat obvious why it can’t also be “post-liberal.”  We’ll circle back to that momentarily. It is worth noting, for fairness’ sake, that postliberal theology is notoriously hard to define (not unlike the so-called “New Perspective” on Paul).  Associated with the Yale dons George Lindbeck and Hans Frei (many of whose students were my teachers), the postliberal approach is more about method than content (though, because of that method, it tends to  yield particular kinds of content). As John Webster puts it,

“…there is, once again, no ‘school’ here, held together by a firm dogmatic frame. Postliberal theology is more a set of projects than a position…it is not so much an investment in specific doctrines which characterizes postliberal theology as a particular family of approaches to the task of doctrinal construction.” (Webster, “Theology After Liberalism?” in Theology After Liberalism: A Reader [Oxford: Blackwell 2000], 54, emphasis added.)

In his seminal work The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, Lindbeck named the two primary ways of theologizing and of conceiving doctrine and, based on their inadequacy, proposed a third: “The difficulties cannot be solved by, for example, abandoning modern developments and returning to some form of preliberal orthodoxy. A third, postliberal, way of conceiving religion and religious doctrine is called for.” (Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine [Philadelphia: Westminster Press 1984], 7, emphasis added.)

He would go on to name the two primary paths something like cognitive propositionalist (denoting pre-modern and related approaches) and experiential-expressivist (following the modern “turn to the subject” emphasizing experience). For our purposes, his dialogue with the liberal, i.e. experiential-expressivist modes of doctrine is most important.  Lindbeck puts the difference between liberal and postliberal (which, following Clifford Geertz and others, he names a “linguistic-cultural” model) in stark terms:

“It remains true, therefore, that the most easily pictured of the contrasts between a linguistic-cultural model of religion and an experiential-expressive one is that the former reverses the relation of the inner and the outer. Instead of deriving external features of a religion from inner experience, it is the inner experiences which are viewed as derivative.” (Lindbeck, 34.)

This is the exact opposite approach of people like Freud who insisted that religion originates from interiorized fears and anxieties, or of Christians like Schleirmacher and Harnack who made inner experience the key to the kingdom in their systematic theology.  Perhaps the best nail in the coffin of Wolsey’s argument comes near the conclusion to Lindbeck’s dense little volume, when he argues

“…the crucial difference between liberals and postliberals is in the way they correlate their visions of the future and present situations. Liberals start with experience, with an account of the present, and then adjust their vision of the kingdom of God accordingly, while postliberals are in principle committed to doing the reverse…Postliberalism is methodologically committed to neither traditionalism nor progressivism…” (Lindbeck, 126.)

Liberals start with an account of the present and adjust accordingly, whereas postliberals do the reverse. Note Wolsey’s own description of “progressive Christianity” (given in full above) once more: “Progressive Christianity is a post-liberal movement that seeks to reform the faith via the insights of post-modernism.” (Emphasis added.) In other words, “progressive” Christianity looks around, “experiences” post-modernism, and makes the necessary changes. While on the surface this looks like a “post-modern” move, in actuality it lines up perfectly with Lindbeck’s general description of liberal Christianity: it surveys the landscape, and then alters itself as necessary.

The promise of a postliberal approach is precisely not that, having gained insight from post-modernism, it can tweak Christian faith and practice to better fit the challenges of this new world. Postliberal method seeks to make Christian faith, and the Christian narrative, confident in itself. It does not look outside for cultural credibility, whether to modern or post-modern norms, but rather  seeks to maintain the integrity of Christian doctrine by aggressively avoiding the prostitution that entails from seeking legitimacy from outside authorities. Liberal Christianity has, for centuries, specialized in seeking its authority from extra-Christian sources and translating its content through these foreign modes. However, as Lindbeck argued, “To the degree that religions are like languages and cultures, they can no more be taught by means of translation than can Chinese or French.” (Lindbeck, 129.) Something is always lost in translation. Thus the answer, simply put, is that one must instead retrain the tongue and learn new words if one wishes to “speak” and live Christian-ly. The late William Placher, a great advocate for and practitioner of postliberal theology, narrated the gains of this understanding of doctrine and religion thus: “In the world of academic theology right now, helping Christian theology speak forcefully in its own voice seems to me the most pressing task, and I think the postliberals therefore put the emphasis in the right place.” (Placher, Unapologetic Theology [Louisville: WJK 1989], 20.)

The church, as well as her theologians, owes a great debt to Lindbeck, Frei, and other voices within postliberal theology. There is much work yet to be done. Part of that work is – and I suspect will continue to be – continuing to define the cultural-linguistic/postliberal approach over against the cognitive propositionalists and experiential-expressivists who attempt to Robin Thicke everything (blurred lines, anyone?) and put the genie back into the bottle.

I have dealt here with heavy, complex notions, and I am sure I have been unclear in some places and left important pieces out in others. Nevertheless, I believe I have demonstrated that which I set out to: a postliberal approach to theology is wholly different from anything that would call itself “progressive” Christianity. As we’ve seen, this is just liberal Christianity with different window-dressing.

As I close, hear me out: I have no beef with someone wanting to identify as some iteration of progressive or conservative Christian. In fact, one can be a progressive/liberal or conservative/traditional Christian and have a postliberal understanding of doctrine. But – and this is crucial – neither progressive, nor any iteration thereof (and ditto for conservative and its instantiations) is a synonym for postliberal. 

If you’ve hung on this long, color me impressed. If you think I’m wrong, tell me how and where, and I’ll look forward to the dialogue.  For now, though, I am happy to declare: “mischief managed.”

Breaking Free in the UMC: The Guaranteed Appointment as Relic

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Despite our Protestant leanings, United Methodists do indeed revere relics. Not sure what a relic is? Let Webster‘s help:

rel·ic: noun \ˈre-lik\

1 a: an object esteemed and venerated because of association with a saint or martyr

  b: souvenir, memento

2: plural:  remains, corpse

3:  a survivor or remnant left after decay, disintegration, or disappearance

4:  a trace of some past or outmoded practice, custom, or belief

In our case, the relic in question is not the pinkie of some obscure saint. Rather, it is what David Noer calls an “old reality” system of relating the organization to the employee. I am, of course, referring to the ecclesially infamous so-called “Guaranteed Appointment.” The gist: once made an Elder in Full Connection (read: ordained and granted tenure), under our present system it is nearly impossible for the United Methodist Church to exit its clergy. While there are a whole host of offenses possible that could, de jure, lead to de-frocking (basically a clerical defenestration), in practice an Elder has to be grossly incompetent, caught embezzling, or found to be committing sexual misconduct to be ousted (and even with these, it sometimes seems to require multiple or especially egregious offenses).

As presently arranged, our current system baptizes dependency, and is a classic example of what consultant David Noer warns against in his Breaking Free:

“Engaging in a strategy that sets up long-term dependency relationships with employees is expensive and limits organizational flexibility. Dependent employees are motivated by pleasing, fitting in, and, most of all by staying employed. They are not the independent, customer-focused risk takers you need to thrive and compete in the new reality.” (215)

This clearly implies that the GA is straight out of a previous reality, which Noer unpacks later:

“The old reality, the old psychological contract, or the old paradigm are labels for a pattern of beliefs that held that a person who maintained proper performance and compliance with the organizational culture could count on remaining employed with one organization until voluntary departure or retirement. The reciprocal organizational belief was that loyalty required the individual’s total commitment. The organizational response to this commitment and dependence was an acceptance of the obligation to provide a life-time career.” (237, emphasis added)

My jaw fell when I read these descriptions, written by a lay business consultant, that so aptly narrate our own situation.  Of course, General Conference 2012 attempted to get rid of the GA but was rebuffed by the (not nearly activist enough) Judicial Council. Systems love homeostasis, after all, whether a country, an ecosystem, or a denomination.  But what if homeostasis isn’t healthy?

The Guaranteed Appointment fits into every possible definition of a relic. In our system, it is revered; the GA is a souvenir or memento of an old and non-functioning reality, a corpse (albeit a lively, zombie-ish corpse, because it doesn’t seem to know it’s dead). I have no clue if it will be challenged in 2016. I hope it will.

Healthy organizations do not function this way anymore. In reality, they have not in some time. Noer wrote these words in 1996 – almost 20 years ago.

The Guaranteed Appointment is a relic, and should be discarded with all possible haste. To paraphrase Jesus, the church does not exist to serve pastors, but pastors to serve the church.

A conversation about following Jesus and being the Church from an ancient, ecumenical, and Wesleyan perspective.

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