Are We Witnessing the “Suicide of Thought”?

chesterton
G.K. Chesterton

“There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.”

-G.K Chesterton, “The Suicide of Thought,” in Orthodoxy

Satire is effective because it wraps a kernel of truth in packing that, if well-constructed, is hilarious.  An example of effective satire is this “story” from The Onion:

Saying that such a dialogue was essential to the college’s academic mission, Trescott University president Kevin Abrams confirmed Monday that the school encourages a lively exchange of one idea. “As an institution of higher learning, we recognize that it’s inevitable that certain contentious topics will come up from time to time, and when they do, we want to create an atmosphere where both students and faculty feel comfortable voicing a single homogeneous opinion,” said Abrams, adding that no matter the subject, anyone on campus is always welcome to add their support to the accepted consensus. “Whether it’s a discussion of a national political issue or a concern here on campus, an open forum in which one argument is uniformly reinforced is crucial for maintaining the exceptional learning environment we have cultivated here.”

dissent-is-hateOf course, college campuses are not alone in tending towards a sort of intellectual univocality.  Various corners (or are they cul de sacs?) of the church vie to have their views not only recognized, but made sacrosanct.  We see it also in our wider culture.  I am not among those who thinks that the sky is falling due to the Oberfell ruling; nevertheless, Justice Alito was probably correct in saying this decision will be used against those who will not “assent to the new orthodoxy.” (For all the bleating about “thinking for oneself,” every community has its own orthodoxy, after all.)  He was similarly prophetic in his concern about “those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent.”

But it isn’t merely the reduction of valid viewpoints that is at issue, it is the manner in which those viewpoints are decided.  Another aspect of what Chesterton called “the suicide of thought” is the power play that the injection of a kind of fundamentalist identity politics as brought to contemporary discourse.  In many corners of American intellectual life, what matters is not what one argues but one’s identity which determines (before a word is spoken) the validity of what is proffered.  A self-described liberal college student aptly described the illiberality of such power games in a thought-provoking piece titled, “Social Justice Bullies”:

“But here’s the thing — who I am does not (or should not) have any bearing on facts. The problem with this brand of modern social justice advocacy is that who one is as a person (race, class, gender, etc.) is the be all and end all of their capacity to have a certain viewpoint. A millennial social justice advocate can discount an opinion simply because it is said or written by a group they feel oppresses them. It is a logical fallacy known as ad hominem whereby one attacks the person saying an argument rather than the argument itself. But this logical fallacy has become the primary weapon of the millennial social justice advocate. It is miasma to academia, to critical thinking, and to intellectual honesty. Yet it is the primary mode of operating on college campuses nationwide.”

To be clear, at issue is not the ends to which contemporary “social justice bullies” aim but the means employed (side note: if you are worried you may be a SJB, check here).  Any means that rules out certain thoughts or ideas based solely on the identity of the person who holds them (outside of, say, a KKK or Nation of Islam member, someone who self-describes in a prejudiced way) is the opposite of the liberal ideal, which values exchange of ideas and wrestling for the truth.  Orginos elaborates:

“What I am talking about so far is not meant to discredit feminism or any social justice position that seeks to empower oppressed people or remedy social ills. As I made abundantly clear to begin with, these are fundamentally good and necessary goals. What is the issue here are the tactics used by some from a purported place of moral high ground to immunize themselves from criticism while promoting a close-minded authoritarian vice-grip on society through chillingly sinister tactics.”

It is both disingenuous and counter-productive to demand conversation about serious issues facing our society AND police attempted conversation so tightly that only the pre-determined righteous elite can come to the table.  This is at least part of the reason for the gridlock we currently face; those who set the terms of the debate have done so in a manner that predetermines the outcome, and then shame those who refuse to play their power game as unwilling and backwards.  The faux empathy which demands to settle ahead of time not just what can be said but how it is said  – resulting in the exchange of “one idea,” as The Onion so aptly put it – is regressive in the extreme. Rabbi and systems theorist Edwin Friedman called such gridlock “a failure of nerve”:failure of nerve

“…societal regression has too often perverted the use of empathy into a disguise for anxiety, a rationalization for failure to define a position, and a power tool in the hands of the ‘sensitive’…I have consistently found the introduction of the subject of ’empathy’ into family, institutional, and community meetings to be reflective of, as well as an effort to induce, a failure of nerve among its leadership.”

It’s tempting to be an alarmist about all this.  But the good news is that the flesh-and-blood people I talk to in my community, or pray with at the church I serve, are more fully-orbed than this.  I worry that, with Chesterton, “We are on the road to producing a race of [people] too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.”

But most people I know – those not trying to get a book deal or grow their Instagram following – are not like this.  If you pay too much attention to the thought police – the basement bloggers, armchair theorists, and self-obsessed justice tourists – it’s easy to become convinced that truthful speech and honest, vulnerable conversation are at an end in the 21st century West.  But we can do better.  Thought need not be destroyed on the altar of ideology masquerading as empathy.

But fighting this trend will require all of us – left/right/center, libertarian and communitarian, Christians and atheists and agnostics, progressives and traditionalists – to embrace a hermeneutic of charity that will allow us to be more interested in genuine engagement than in scoring points with the home team, more desirous of actually achieving progress than being seen as an expert in demanding it.  Otherwise, we are fated to continue trying to move forward as a church and society while fighting over the few, narrow, pre-determined views.

What do you think? Are we witnessing the suicide of thought? What institutions, places, arenas are there for genuine engagement across the usual battle lines? Leave a comment below.

Give More to Have More [video]

local byteSomething cool happened last week: I learned to use a teleprompter.  I’ll never make fun of a politician again!

There is a new online magazine here in Randolph County, NC called The Local Byte.  I was invited to be the first guest on a show they have called An Inspirational Moment.  I really appreciate Mike, Terry, and the team letting me do this, and I look forward to more in the future.  This installment is called, “Give More to Have More.”

You can watch at this link.  (Note: some people have reported trouble viewing via Mac products, so you might need to try a smart phone or tablet.)

As this is something new for me, I would appreciate any feedback you have to offer.  Thanks for reading, listening, and (I can now add) watching!

3 Myths About Young Clergy

U.S. Army Capt. Vasquez, a chaplain, reads a sermon during a Christmas Eve Mass at Camp Lemonier, Djibouti, Dec. 24, 2008. Camp Lemonier is the hub of Combined Joint Task Force in the Horn of Africa, providing humanitarian relief, security and anti-terrorism activities to the nations in the Horn of Africa. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Joe Zuccaro/Released/Courtesy PhotoPin via Creative Commons)
U.S. Army Capt. Vasquez, a chaplain, during a Christmas Eve Mass at Camp Lemonier, Djibouti, Dec. 24, 2008. (U.S. Air Force photo by  Sgt. Joe Zuccaro/Released/Courtesy PhotoPin via Creative Commons)

As a pastor under 35, I often encounter disinformation about myself and my fellow young clergy.  Congregations, older clergy, pulpit search committees, and denominational leadership often fall victim to mythology about young pastors.  There are many myths out there, but here are three I find most significant:

Myth #1: Young Clergy = Young Families

One of the most persistent myths about young clergy is that if a church hires (or a Bishop sends) a young pastor, young people and their families will instantly flock to the church.  This is a serious fallacy.  While a young pastor *could* be especially insightful in reaching young adults for Christ, discipling them, and building relationships with them, it won’t matter a hill of beans if the church itself is not invested in doing the same.  If you have never asked a Christian young adult what they think about the world or what they are looking for (if at all!) in a faith community, you need to rethink if you really want young adults in your church.

Reality: A young pastor can help, but it takes a congregation dedicated to knowing, investing in, and serving with young adults to reach young adults.  If you are praying for a young pastor to come so that she or he can do all the work of reaching young people, you are setting up that pastor to fail.  You want a magic wand, not a pastor.

Myth #2: Young Clergy Don’t Like Older Adults

We live in a society where different generations don’t interact with regularity.  The breakdown of the family means that we might not know the generations before or after us.  Where ancient cultures valued the wisdom of age, our marketing-driven economy only wants the self-indulgent wallets of the 20-40 crowd. Many churches are convinced that young clergy don’t care about or aren’t interested in ministry with older adults.

Reality: This is a deep lie.  Most of my young clergy colleagues value not only older clergy, from whom we have much to learn, but also the older adults we are blessed and called to serve.  Stubbornness and close-mindedness are not limited to any age, and neither are joy or spiritual maturity.

Myth #3: Young Clergy All Want to Work with Youth and Children

Many of my young clergy friends who staff larger churches are often pigeonholed as the youth and/or children’s minister.  While many young pastors serve very effectively in these roles, one’s age does not necessarily correspond to giftedness with various generational ministries.  Just because a young pastor has three young children, it does not follow that she or he wants to work with children day-in and day-out.  Just because a young clergy likes the same bands that the youth do, doesn’t mean that the new young pastor is a good fit for the youth program.

Reality: Young clergy all have different gifts, skills, and interests.  Some might be great at planning contemporary worship, and others might love traditional liturgy.  Some may love doing the children’s moment and others might hate it.  You will meet young pastors who love visitation and pastoral care, and others who loathe it.  There are young pastors passionate about administration, and others who are allergic to meetings.

The Bottom Line

Don’t assume a young pastor has a specific set of skills or interests.  Ask where they are gifted, be upfront about expectations, and be realistic about desired results.

Fear of God as the Pathway to the Love of God

love the harbor“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
    and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
    all those who practice ithave a good understanding.
    His praise endures forever.” 

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear;  for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (1)

Are love and fear opposites?  In the popular sentimentality of the 21st century West, fear is on a spectrum “negative” emotions to be avoided at all costs (including sanity, truth, and virtue).  Christians often like to quote 1 John 4:18 as evidence that our faith should have nothing to do with fear. Others seem to base their whole faith on fear, reducing the gospel to fire insurance.  But a more nuanced, canonical approach reveals that the Bible is not as paranoid about fearing God as we modern Christians are.  Taking a more holistic view thus undercuts

  • Fundamentalist Christians, who use texts like Psalm 111:10 and Proverbs 9:10 to justify a fear-based approach that is both effective and damaging.  I can’t tell you how many times I “got saved” as a youth because a preacher scared the hell out of me (literally) and sent me careening toward the altar convinced that God hated me.  It’s important to remember that the only people Jesus scared were the uptight religious folks and authorities of empire; the fundamentalist wing of Christianity tends to do the opposite: apologize for empire and religious authority while putting fear into the common folks and ignoring the plight of the poor and marginalized.
  • Progressive Christians, who use texts like 1 John 4:18 as proofs against fear having any kind of role in the Christian life.  It’s common to hear progressives talk about their “conversion stories” (meaning their transition out of conservative Christianity) as a move from a “fear-and-law-based” faith to a “love-and-grace-based” faith.  While I am sympathetic to this journey because it is similar to my own, the truth is that too often Christianities that are solely focus on “love” have such a Westernized, emotive view of love that it tends towards cheap grace and even pantheism.  If God is love, and love costs nothing and elicits no response, then discipleship, worship, mission, evangelism matter little.
  • Cultural Christians, who have neither fear nor love for God.  One significant strand of this is described well by Kenda Creasy Dean from Princeton as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  Cultural Christians are those who identify as Christians but have no active relationship with God and/or a faith community; they may pray when the chips are down and go to church at Christmas, but day-to-day their decisions and actions are governed by something other than the Triune God.  They have neither fear nor love for God, but might occasionally try to use God to get what they want.

But can we get to the love of God and wholly bypass fear? St. Isaac the Syrian suggests this is impossible:staniloae

Just as it isn’t possible…for someone to cross the great sea without a ship, so someone can’t reach love without fear. We can cross the tempestuous sea placed between us and the spiritual paradise only with the ship of repentance, borne by the oarsmen of fear. If these oarsmen of fear don’t handle the ship of repentance well, by which we cross the sea of this world toward God, we will be drowned in it.  Repentance is the ship, fear is the rudder, love is the divine harbor. So fear puts us in the ship of repentance and we cross the tempestuous sea and it guides us to the divine harbor, which is love where all those who labor and have been enlightened by repentance arrive. And when we have reached love, we have reached God. And our journey has ended and we have reached the island which is beyond this world.

In his classic work Orthodox SpiritualityDmitru Staniloae expands on this by noting that the fear at issue is chiefly fear of a lower love of God, or fear of remaining egotism which would keep us from reaching the harbor of pure love (Wesleyans would call this Christian Perfection, the East would call it theosis or union with God):

The will for a greater love will keep us on board and help us to steer a straight course. It will keep our heads above the giant waves of evil and the egotism which rises up within us. It will lead us straight ahead. Only in the vessel of repentance do we constantly pass over the sinful waves of egotism, which tend to rise up from deeply within us and beneath us. Only by it are we always above ourselves and moving onward from our present position, moving closer to full love, closer to the paradise where the tree of life is, in other words to Christ, the source of love which feeds our spirit. (2)

I love the vision of the life with God as a journey.  Like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Eastern spirituality reminds us that there are “many danger, toils, and snares” on the way to the full love of God. (3)  A proper and holy fear of failing to reach “perfection in love” and thus the fullness of the life God intends to give us seems, as St. Isaac suggested, a part of our pilgrimage we cannot avoid if we would reach that harbor for which we were made.

What do you think? Does fear have a role to play in our journey towards a full love of God? Are repentance and fear necessarily linked? How would you preach or teach this journey? I’d love to have your feedback below.

Notes

  1. Proverbs 9:10; Psalm 111:10; 1 John 4:18.
  2. Staniloae, Orthodox Spirituality: A Practical Guide for the Faithful and a Definitive Manual for the Scholar (South Canaan: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2003), 140-141.
  3. “Amazing Grace,” by John Newton.

Avoiding Conversation is No Way to Advance the Debate

Tin Can Telephone, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Tin Can Telephone, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

How do have the conversations that matter most?  Like many things in life, most of it is just showing up.

We United Methodists just came through Annual Conference season; this is the yearly gathering of United Methodists in a given region, represented by clergy and laity, where budgets are set, legislation debated, and an array of training, lectures, studies, worship, and mission opportunities are offered.  Here in Western North Carolina, we had an interesting afternoon at Annual Conference (AC) last Friday.  Let me explain.

We voted on two pieces of legislation on that afternoon.  The first of these, from our Justice & Reconciliation team, asked the Bishop to form a team to begin a series of holy conversations around controversial topics in the UMC (the unstated chief of which centers around questions of sexuality).  A couple of laity spoke against this measure, trotting out some pretty unsophisticated arguments for why this should be a settled question, but all in all it passed easily.

Next up was a proposal that has been attempted at all of our recent Annual Conferences in recent memory: a petition to ask the General Conference to change the language about sexuality in our denominational rules, the collection of which is called the Book of Discipline.  Over a dozen ACs passed similar petitions this year, none of which are binding, because only the General Conference (meeting every four years) speaks for the whole church.

Here’s where things got interesting.  As soon as this petition was introduced, a pastor from one of our Reconciling Ministries Network (a caucus that advocates for changes in UM policy) churches asked for a suspension of the rules to move toward an immediate vote.  This was approved, and we began the painstaking process of voting, which took a while because we had to be counted by hand as we stood to either vote for, against, or abstain.

A friend of mine, afterwards, asked a question to the Bishop which I had myself wondered (and tweeted):

I’m still not sure of the motivations behind the motion to go straight to a vote.  It may have been that the sponsors thought they had a better chance of ‘winning’ without the debate, or that the discussion would be offensive (most of my friends’ responses to my tweet indicated the latter concern).  But regardless, it was a strange juxtaposition.  Conversations do not become easier by avoiding them.  Even unpleasant comments (of which we hear too many at AC, as we did last year) are helpful, in that they tell us how much more work remains in advancing the conversation.  This general trend towards avoiding difficult or painful dialogue is troubling.  Our society has become so dominated by the therapeutic mindset that sometimes it seems that even hearing an alternative or critical view of something is considered damaging.  Should we be concerned about the prevalence of such rhetorical moves?

Hanna Rosin argued in The Atlantic,

“A proper argument takes intellectual vigor, nimbleness, and sustained attention. If carried on long enough, it can push both parties to a deeper level of understanding. Oxford debaters hack away at each other for something like two hours. Socrates could sometimes go on for weeks. But who has that kind of time anymore? Better to just shut things down quickly, using one of a new array of trump cards.

Want to avoid a debate? Just tell your opponent to check his privilege. Or tell him he’s slut-shaming or victim-blaming, or racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or transphobic, or Islamophobic, or cisphobic, or some other creative term conveying that you are simply too outraged by the argument to actually engage it. Or, on the other side of the coin, accuse him of being the PC thought police and then snap your laptop smugly.

In the art of debate avoidance, each political camp has honed a particular style. Conservatives generally aim for the prenup approach, to preempt any messy showdowns. If you want to join the club, then you have to sign a contract or make a pledge—no new taxes, no abortions, no gay marriage—and thereafter recite from a common script. Progressives indulge a shouting match of competing identities that resembles an argument but is in fact the opposite, because its real aim is to rule certain debates out of bounds.”

I recall an interview with N.T. Wright, the retired Anglican bishop and eminent New Testament scholar, in which he was asked about the same-sex marriage debate.  His comment was telling: “Our problem at the moment is that we aren’t having the debate, we are simply having bits and pieces of a shouting match.”

Too often we are content with “bits and pieces of a shouting match” rather than deep engagement.  Whether it is about sexuality, doctrine, race, liturgics, immigration, or creation care, too often we Christians fall into the world’s ways of doing – or, in this case, avoiding – things.  We can do better.  But it requires a commitment on all parties to a) a hermeneutic of charity, b) arguing against ideas and not people, and c) dedicating ourselves to hearing the best version of the opposing view, and not merely extreme examples or straw men easily dismissed.

In the church and in our national conversation, it is always easier to retreat into echo-chambers, eschewing critics and alternative viewpoints.  The gnostic church of our own imaginations is always a neater, less challenging place than the flesh-and-blood church of Jesus Christ.  But maturity doesn’t come by disengagement.  I’ll let Rosin have the last word – a word of warning about this cultural malaise:

“The tactic has lately proved surprisingly effective, but it comes with a high cost…empathy, or humility, or actually hearing out your opponents.”

Bishop Spong, the Fundamentalist

Bishop John Shelby Spong of the Episcopal Church, retired. Courtesy Scott Griessel via Wikimedia Commons.
Bishop John Shelby Spong of the Episcopal Church, retired. Courtesy Scott Griessel via Wikimedia Commons.

In our last post, we looked at how fundamentalism is actually a modernist phenomenon, and not its opposite.  As I have continued to read through Billy Abraham’s excellent The Logic of Renewal, he makes these relationships even more explicit.  It’s not only that fundamentalism is representative of modernity, but that the most thorough-going modernists can also be fundamentalists.  Case in point is Bishop John Shelby Spong, the infamous Episcopal bishop (now retired) known for questioning virtually every distinctive Christian belief and yet – somehow – remaining a bishop.  Abraham explains:

“Converted within the boundaries of modern fundamentalism, he has never really recovered from the thinness of its doctrines or the narrowness of its structures. The marks of the former Fundamentalism in his preaching and teaching are obvious.  There is the same sense of alienation from tradition, the same angry self-assurance, the same hunger for intellectual and scholarly recognition, the same boundless evangelistic energy for the cause, the same pretentious self-importance, the same note of apocalyptic urgency, and the same faith in simple, sure-fire arguments that will shoot down the opposition in flames.”

Having spent many years among conservative fundamentalists, I find it pretty easy to recognize that streak among progressive fundies as well.  As Abraham so aptly names, the same tone, methodology, and simplistic world-view is found in the left-wing fundamentalism of Spong as it is in the right-wing fundamentalism of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Fundamentalism, in other words, is not a matter of the left or the right.  It’s a quintessentially modern habit, found in any faith or faith leader co-opted by its norms and modes of discourse.

Where do you see fundamentalism – right and left-wing – in the church today?

 

Source: William Abraham, The Logic of Renewal (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 2003), 40.

Fundamentalism as Modernity

Richard Rohr has helped me to be wary of focusing too much on what I dislike or despise.  He argues, as we’ve said before, that what we fight against too long or too hard often becomes determinative for us.  We become what we hate, if we aren’t careful.

An excellent illustration of this is the fundamentalist/modernist split in the early 20th century (a fight still being waged, though pseudonymously).  The crux of that divide is often cast as “modernists who embrace Enlightenment, rationality, science, etc.” and “fundamentalists who reject all of the above.”  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  Both fundamentalists and modernists drink deeply from the waters of modernity.  William (Billy) Abraham from Perkins Theological Seminary describes it thus:

“The fundamentalists clearly see the elemental problem of the church as intellectual and theological. More precisely, they are betting the future on a very particular epistemology of theology. The solution offered, however, is wildly off base. For one, the whole attempt to secure the kind of formally approved foundations required is precisely the heart of the whole Enlightenment project. Hence, contemporary fundamentalists are throughougly modern creatures committed to the same intellectual aspirations as their secular enemies.  If the Enlightenment has caused so much trouble, it would be odd in the extreme to argue that we could get beyond it by accepting its basic premises and modes of operation. Second, as I have argued at length elsewhere, the Fundamentalist doctrine of Scripture is deeply flawed. The crucial weakness is that it has historically depended on a doctrine of divine dictation or on a latent confusing of divine inspiration with divine speaking and related speech acts of God.  Thirdly, and most importantly, the move to include the inerrancy of Scripture as the linchpin in a new creed for the church involves not only a radical departure from the actual canonical decisions of the church as made in the great ecumenical councils but also a profound reorientation of the inner structure of the church’s intellectual heritage and vision. It involves a shift from soteriology to epistemology.”

Read through the lens of intellectual history and philosophy, it thus becomes clear that the fundamentalist/ modernist spat, however vicious, is a civil war.  They are neighbors, not opposites.  it is a war of brother versus brother over whose mode of epistemological certainty is better.  This is why Christians who try to “prove” dogmas such as the resurrection false, via the means of scientific discourse, or prove it valid though Biblical or historical inquiry, are essentially doing the same thing.  They have both made the (mistaken, if well-meaning) choice to try to prove Christian doctrine rather than celebrate, confess, pray, or teach it.

As Abraham so insightfully points out, the decision to privilege epistemology over soteriology or some other aspect of Christian truth is not a neutral one.  In pursuing this, both do damage not only to the visible church, but to Christian doctrine, witness, and unity.

Where do you see evidence of this capitulation to modernity – in either its modernist or fundamentalist forms – in the church today?
Source: William J. Abraham, The Logic of Renewal (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 2003), 20.

Our Hope for #UMC General Conference 2016

GC 2016 banner

                      The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord;                  she is his new creation by water and the Word.
       From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride;
                   with his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.                        – “The Church’s One Foundation”

“Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.” -Pope John Paul II

Something broke inside me during the 2012 General Conference.  I watched the proceedings via live stream and followed the conversation on social media.  I read the reports and stories.  I lamented and pulled out what little hair I had left.  But my Rubicon was not legislative in nature, despite the horror of watching the Judicial Council’s determination to guarantee gridlock.  Oddly enough, what affected me so strongly (and from so far away) happened at the Lord’s Table.

A group of people, in protest, seized the Communion table and held a kind of mock Eucharist.  The reasons do not matter, for it would have been as problematic to me no matter the motivation.  This was, to me, a signal that something was deeply wrong.  The means of grace that is our most cherished gift from Christ was abused.  We tried to use God rather than enjoy Him, to employ an Augustinian formula. It was an embarrassment, a low point during a gathering that would become famous for doing nothing.  The blog post I wrote in response was the first really significant piece of writing I ever published about denominational matters.  I wasn’t ordained yet. I was concerned that speaking out might cost me.  But I couldn’t be quiet any longer.  Much of my writing, my subsequent motivation for in the Via Media Methodists project and WesleyCast podcast began with that schismatic Eucharist.  Whether you enjoy my work or despise it (or something in between), you can blame that malformed psuedo-sacrament as the genesis for what has come after.

Several years and many shenanigans later, I remain committed to the denomination that sometimes vexes me.  At the wonderful church I serve here in North Carolina, we sang the lyrics above last Sunday before I preached on 1 John 4:12b: “If we love another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (NRSV)  With Christ as our sole foundation, the church is called to a mutuality of love, in imitation of the love shared between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As a denomination, such mutual love can be hard to spot.  In the midst of Annual Conference season, temperatures are running hot as delegations are being elected and legislation being recommended to General Conference, taking place in 2016 in Portland.  Depending on who you think should “win” in 2016, some of the delegations look promising, and some look horrifying.  I don’t think it’s about winning, though I confess to a degree of dread about what is ahead.  But I do not believe the Spirit permits me to distance myself from the ugliness.

I recently told a friend of mine, who finds it difficult to stay in his own ecclesial home and wondered about the pathologies of my denominational family, that this is the church in which I have been led to Christ, nurtured in faith, and called to ministry.  This church, our embattled UMC, is who has supported me despite my failures, and given me opportunities to serve that have been deeply humbling and formative.  I cannot abandon her simply because the road ahead is fraught with difficulty. As we say in the South, “You gotta dance with the girl who brought you.”  R.R. Reno puts slightly more eloquently:

“However chaotic and dysfunctional the institutional and doctrinal life of the church, we must endure that which the Lord has given us.” (14)

All of us have our own ideas of what the church should look like, how it should function, and what she should teach and exhort.  There is no sense in pretending otherwise.  We have competing visions.  That is okay, so long as those competing visions don’t become anvils on which we hammer the Body of Christ.  That’s how a vision becomes an idol:

“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.” (Bonhoeffer, 36)

Those competing images, though they are usually genuine in nature, make it tempting to either 1) retreat into enclaves of the like-minded, or 2) withdraw from the fray altogether.  But to avoid the dissension in favor of echo-chambers and indifference is to do exactly what Christ has asked us not to do: to distance ourselves from his body.

“We need to draw ever nearer to the reality of Christian faith and witness in our time, however burdensome, however heavy with failure, limitation, and disappointment. The reason is simple. Our Lord Jesus Christ comes to us in the flesh. We can draw near to him only in his body, the church. Loyalty to him requires us to dwell within the ruins of the church.” (Reno, 14)

Distance is tempting.  But, to paraphrase Peter, to whom would we go?  Methodists have always known that we cannot hope to grow nearer to God absent companions on the journey.  That is why the church, the community of faithful, is a gift from God.  We neglect this too often.  Thus, Bonhoeffer reminds us:bonhoeffer lt

“It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are still permitted to live in the community of Christians today.” (30)

If he is right, our neighbors who are sometimes exasperating are yet a means of grace.  The fellow United Methodists whom I sometimes long to throttle are beloved children of God, with whom I am called to be in community.  That community is not based on our shared vision for the future of the church, on mutual agreement on this or that question, but solely on Jesus Christ.  Again, Bonhoeffer notes,

“Our community consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us….we have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we really do have one another. We have one another completely and for all eternity.” (34)

As the Confessing Church leader hints at, the church will endure, and we shall be graced with one other forever, not based on anything other than the fact that Jesus, in his life, death, and resurrection, has been pro nobis.  I do not need to agree with someone to recognize that Christ is for them just as Christ has been for me.

My hope for Portland in 2016 is not based on this-or-that plan, or in the “right” delegates being elected. My hope for Portland is in Jesus.

“Though with a scornful wonder, we see her sore oppressed,
by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,
yet saints their watch are keeping;                                                       their cry goes up: ‘How long?’
and soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.”

Brokenness and discord are perishing.  They have no future in God’s Kingdom.  One way or another, God’s church will endure.  Her foundation is upon Christ, and though the winds blow and the rains beat down, the Christian family is not going anywhere.  Despite all our efforts to tear asunder the Body of Christ, we will feast at his heavenly banquet together one day.

I suggest, if you’ll permit a bit of realized eschatology, that perhaps we should go ahead and learn some table manners now.

This beautiful rendition of “The Church’s One Foundation” comes from the choir of Clifton College, Bristol, United Kingdom.

Sources:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together & Prayerbook of the Bible: Works Volume 5 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2005).

R.R. Reno, In the Ruins of the Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos 2002).

Holy Communion: Celebrating God With Us [Book Review]

holy communion book

I am not interested in any church renewal that is not sacramental – which is to say – is not Christian in any kind of historically or liturgically identifiable sense.  Anyone can draw a crowd, but happily God loves us too much to leave us with only marketing tricks and technocratic delights.  Instead, God has called His Church to glorify him through prayer, service, song, witness, preaching, and celebrating the sacraments.  Chief among the sacraments, the most potent of the means of grace, is the Eucharist, also known as Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper.  United Methodist pastor and professor Kenneth Loyer has just written a book on this sacred meal that explains not just its importance as a rite of the church, but the critical role it can play in the vitality of the local congregation.

Holy Communion: Celebrating God With Us is part of the new Belief Matters series by Abingdon, edited by retired UM Bishop and Duke Divinity School professor Will Willimon.  Willimon wrote the first volume on the Incarnation, and my Western NC Conference colleague Jason Byassee has written the next entry on the Trinity (which I am told is excellent).  This series “takes as its task the joyful celebration of the wonder of Christian believing.” (xi)  It seeks to make doctrine accessible and interesting to both laity and clergy alike, a much needed task today.

Loyer organizes his book in terms of the Communion’s own structure and ethos.  Thus, he begins with a discussion of thanksgiving, which is what what most of the Eucharistic liturgy actually is – an epic prayer normally called The Great Thanksgiving in Western practice.  Much of this chapter is a kind of commentary on the whole of the liturgy itself, which is a highlight of the book.  The next chapter focuses on the practice of active remembering; the liturgy re-members us (literally, puts us back together) as the Body of Christ remembers all that God has done in Jesus Christ to effect our salvation.  Drawing on John Wesley’s own Eucharistic piety, Loyer reflects, “we neglect this gift of God’s grace at our own peril.” (44)

From St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Ohio, by Nheyob courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
From St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Ohio, by Nheyob courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

After thanksgiving and remembering, the author turns to celebration.  Communion does not merely invite us to recall what God has done, but to celebrate the risen Christ’s continued, transforming presence with us now.  The story in this chapter of Mandela receiving communion with one of his prison guards is worth the price of admission.  In the final chapter, we explore the eschatological dimension of the Eucharist.  At the Lord’s Supper, we not only remember what Jesus has done and celebrate his continued grace through the Holy Spirit now, we also look forward.  Communion is thus a Kingdom meal that gives us a foretaste of the coming heavenly banquet that Isaiah foretold so well. “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples,” a feast which we anticipate every time we gather around Christ’s table today. (Is. 25:6)

Interspersed throughout is Loyer’s own pastoral experience.  Specifically, he connects the initiation of a mid-week Communion service to a revitalization in ministry for his congregation, Otterbein UMC in Pennsylvania.  “God has used this feast of our faith,” Rev. Dr. Loyer notes, “to nourish us in Christ and to generate an increased desire for God that has spread throughout the life of the congregation.” (63)  While the author does not emphasize this and I do not find it the most interesting claim he makes, it’s worth noting that under Loyer’s leadership his church has grown from 90 in attendance to 170.  At a time when many of our small churches are stagnant or are in decline, this a feat worth attending. Of course, it should be no surprise that spiritual and missional renewal and the Eucharist are heavily linked.  The Walk to Emmaus and similar communities have attested to this reality for decades.

To sum up: I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Holy Communion, spiritual renewal, or church vitality.  Loyer’s offering is highly readable yet still substantive.  Indeed, there is plenty of meat on the bones here even for those well-read in liturgical theology and worship or church growth more broadly.  Moreover, each chapter contains a series of reflection questions and a prayer, making it ideal for small groups and Sunday School classes. I highly recommend this new resource for both, as well as church-wide study.

There is no renewal in the church worth having unless the sacramental life is at its center.  Ken Loyer’s book both makes this case and helps us imagine what it might look like in practice.

William Sloane Coffin on Atheism’s God

wsc coverImagine a movement to abolish film based only on the work of Adam Sandler, or to abolish the radio because of Justin Bieber.  What if I began a series of blogs arguing for the closing of all art museums because of the laughable efforts of my 5th grade neighbor that aren’t even worthy of a refrigerator magnet?

Most atheists, in rejecting God, are not rejecting a God I recognize.  Having read much of the atheist literature, including some of the prominent voices of the virulent strain of anti-theistic writing called the ‘New Atheism,’ I am often left underwhelmed with the depth of analysis.  William Sloane Coffin, near the end of his life, wrote a great little book called Letters to a Young Doubter.  In it, he imagines a dialogue with a freshman college student and friend named Tom, who is navigating faith and family and studies and doubt as he begins his undergraduate career.  He warn Tom,

“It may, however, be worthwhile to tell you about what I have found to be a common phenomenon in American universities today. Professors judge poetry, novels, art, and music by their very best works. Why then do so many judge religion by the worst examples of it? I used to ask professors, ‘Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.’ I know that 99 chances out of 100 I wouldn’t believe in their kind of God either.”

As Coffin hints at, the New Atheists and their fandom constantly argue against religion by highlighting its worst possible exemplars.  Critical readers will recognize this tactic as arguing against a straw man – a fallacy that is unfortunately as common as it is effective.

Give me Nietzsche any day: an atheist with the intellectual virtue to actually know that which he rejected.  He despised Christianity on its own terms: the life and witness of Jesus was to him disgusting, as it led to the “slave morality” he despised.

At least Nietzsche cared enough to read the source material at its best.  If only today’s atheists would do the same.  Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart puts it thus, with his characteristically sharp quill:

“The principal source of my melancholy, however, is my firm conviction that today’s most obstreperous infidels lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefathers in faithlessness. What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants, or a great lover because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel. So long as one can choose one’s conquests in advance, taking always the paths of least resistance, one can always imagine oneself a Napoleon or a Casanova (and even better: the one without a Waterloo, the other without the clap).”

In proving the undesirability of “gods” that no one, perchance for a few extremists,  actually worships, contemporary atheists are not so much making arguments as they are reinforcing the boogeymen of their own imaginations.  And, of course, book sales.  Hysteria always sells, after all.

Sadly, in rejecting out-of-hand what they do not understand and have not critically engaged, the New Atheists and their ilk are mirroring the behavior of those they most despise: religious fundamentalists.  Thus, they become two sides of the same coin.  As we’ve said before, beware what you loathe, because you will become it.

(For more of David Bentley Hart tearing down New Atheist straw men, see video below.)

Source: William Slone Coffin, Letters to a Young Doubter Louisville: WKJ 2005), 17-18.

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