Tag Archives: Polarization

Maybe the Thought Police Aren’t Such a Bad Idea?

Base of a human brain, from Vesalius' Fabrica, courtesy Wikipedia.
Base of a human brain, from Vesalius’ Fabrica, courtesy Wikipedia.

Human beings are thinking creatures.  To be sure, we are embodied, and our flesh-and-blood living matters, too.  But while our capacity to think is a quality that separates us from the beasts, this too often goes unused.  This is tragic for all people, but especially those who claim to be followers of Jesus.  Christian faith is not about the abandonment of critical thought but about its enlivening, about its highest end.  N.T. Wright argues that the Church – the body of people, alongside Israel, called to be and to bear God’s message to the world – cannot be herself without thinking:

“If the ekklesia of God in Jesus the Messiah, in its unity and holiness, is to constitute as it were its own worldview, to be its own central symbol, it needs to think: to be ‘transformed by the renewal of of the mind’, to think as age-to-come people rather than present-age people, to understand who this God is, who this Messiah jesus is, who this strange powerful spirit is, and what it means to be, and to live as, the renewed people of God, the renewed humanity.  This is a worldview, in other words, which will only function if it is held by humans with transformed minds, and who use those transformed minds constantly to wrestle with the biggest questions of all, those of God and the world.” (Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 567)

If you spend too much time in the wrong internet haunts, you quickly get the impression that Christians today have no capacity for or interest in critical thinking.  Oh, to be sure, there are a lot of rhetorical grenades tossed about, many blogs and articles written, read, and shared, but most of this takes place within very defined and uninteresting echo chambers.  The conservatives quote Witherington, Piper, or Al Mohler, and the progressives quote Borg, McLaren, or Rachel Held Evans and likely post 15 articles from HuffPo Religion, AKA theology’s Mos Eisley.  It’s all quite dull, really.

Christianity cannot be sustained absent renewed minds that come about by prayer through the gift of the Spirit.  This is a non-negotiable part of our faith, though many seem to want to make it option  (just look at my previous post’s comment section).

noll scandalI suggest the church needs thought police.  Not, mind you, to police what is thought – but simply that thought occurs at all.  While I don’t count myself a progressive or conservative Christian, I can appreciate such Christians when they engage their own and others’ faith traditions with depth and sincerity.  Unfortunately, too much of our conversation in the church turns on surface-level ranting that makes MSNBC and Fox News look academic.  Two decades ago, Mark Noll charged that The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was that there wasn’t much of one.  Unfortunately, rather than rising above that, many progressive evangelicals and other populist Christian voices have continued this trend.

As Wright notes, there is no church without renewed minds marked by Spirit-imbued intellectual effort.  There is much more, of course, to being God’s people.  But when lived out truly, our vocation to the church will always include, treasure, and encourage the life of the mind.

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For the Sake of the Bride: Steve Harper on a Third Way

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If you care about the state of the Bride of Christ, the church. read this book. Soon.

Aren’t you tired?  Aren’t you worn out by all the nasty wrangling?  I think many of us are getting hungry for an alternative to the culture wars that dominate our political culture in the US and in the church.  In particular, the Mainline denominations, especially my own United Methodist Church, have been riven by partisanship that would make the most radical Tea Party or Code Pink gathering blush.

Myself and a growing number of others have been calling for an alternative kind of church, a better discourse, and more and more I sense a hunger in others for something deeper, less shrill, and more Christocentric than ideological.  If that sounds like you, then you are in luck. Retired seminary professor Steve Harper has just provided an excellent primer on why a third way is needed and what that path forward might look like in his new book For the Sake of the Bride.  Agree with his conclusions or not, I posit that it would be difficult for anyone to come away after reading this book without respect for Harper’s prayerful and heartfelt analysis both of our situation and a potential path through the present morass.

As someone who has invested a considerable amount of time in seeking out a Via Media between the extremes that dominate our church (and churches), I am deeply grateful to Dr. Harper for his work.  Below are collection of quotes pertaining especially to the third way as Harper narrates it (the largest number of quotes come from chapter 4, entitled “A Third Way”).  I highly encourage you to buy, read, share, and discuss this book with your classes and small groups as soon as possible.  In a perfect world, this would be required reading for all General Conference 2016 delegates, if for no other reason than its basic ecclesiological focus: a concern for the health of the Bride of Christ that is usually not evident in those who seek to tear her to shreds in order to get their way.

But enough from me.  Here is your sample – but make sure to pick it up and read it in full for yourself.  I would love to hear your own feedback on these quotes or the  full book in the comments section.

“Early in my experience I saw more clearly than ever before that Jesus was able to make friends with people who were unable to make friends with each other. I saw that this was a deliberate choice on his part […] In short, I saw the inability of dualistic thinking to take us where we need to go in restoring intended honor to the Bride.” (9)

“Dualistic thinking pervades nearly every part of our lives, especially evident in advertising, which reinforces the ‘good, better, best’ mentality and which (even if kindly) tells us that one product is superior to another. Dualistic thinking not only tempts us; it trains us to use the same tactics when we deal with people, places, and things. Almost without realizing it, we are conditioned to enter into life not simply differentiating, but dividing and conquering.  To come out of this process requires insight and courage. The insight is fundamentally that those who choose a third way will not be welcomed by either of the sides. And because we like to be liked– by somebody, anybody– we gravitate toward a side rather than calling the process of taking sides into question. Jesus challenged the status quo when he told his disciples not to trust the yeast of the Sadducees or the Pharisees (Matthew 16:5). Neither side had the complete picture. The whole ministry of Jesus was a third way…”

“The very nature of the third-way enterprise will be limiting and incomplete, because we do not often see it attempted. We do not see it fully applied in the divisive issues of our day. And when we do, it is often caricatured as inadequate by the dualistic thinkers who must have it one way or the other.  An invitation to a third way is actually more difficult than choosing a side and then defending it to the death.” (14)

“…this book is a call to find a third way that enables the sides of the debate to bring their best to bear upon finding a new way to move forward into the future.” (62)

“…the old processes have patterned us toward negativity and divisiveness. The way of love does not accept these attitudes and actions as the only options that we have.” (86)

 

You Become What You Loathe

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Image courtesy Wikimedia commons.

What if we become what we despise?  During a heated exchange with two of her critics from my alma mater (Stanley Hauerwas and Paul Griffiths), Jean Elshtain cited Cardinal George in defense of her book Just War on Terror.  The Cardinal, likewise responding to radical critics of the American project,  stated that one “cannot effectively criticize what [one] loathe[s].”  This gives us some insight into ping-pong rhetoric that passes for conversation in so much of our church and society. Social media has only made this worse.  But why is it that we cannot critique what we loathe? Is it simply because hatred is blinding?

Turns out it goes deeper than that.  In his new book, Fr. Richard Rohr observes,

“We all become well-disguised mirror image of anything that we fight too long or too directly. That which we oppose determines the energy and frames the questions after a while. Most frontal attacks on evil just produce another kind of evil in yourself, along with a very inflated self-image to boot.” 

Thus the one who hates crime becomes the vigilante; hatred of racism can beget reverse racism; those who despise socialism may end up embracing an unmoored capitalism that is as problematic and vicious as that which they were trying to avoid.

At the risk of committing my new favorite logical fallacy, an excellent historical example would be Stalin and Hitler.  As I was taught in my history coursework (my original academic love), these leaders had such polar opposite ideologies, they were so far from each other on the political spectrum, that they practically touched.  Other historical examples could be deployed here, of course.  The French Revolution, despising monarchy, ended up with an Emperor.  The Russian Revolution, in hoping to empower the peasants against the despised monarchy, likewise ended in tyranny.

We cannot critique what we loathe, because we become what we loathe – and never do we have less insight than with our own flaws.  Hatred not only blinds, it transforms us into the object of our hate.  A vicious, pathetic cycle indeed.

A healthy, but scary question: how are you similar to that which you despise most?

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.

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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.

N.T. Wright, Trivialized Discourse, and the Need for a Third Way

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Surely we can do better.

I’ve been working my way through N.T. Wright’s brilliant (albeit dense) opus Paul and the Faithfulness of God. I am about a quarter of the way through and while it is far from an easy read, thus far the juice is worth the squeeze. It is amazing how often, amidst detailed discussions of, say, historiographical arguments between scholars of late antiquity I’ve never heard of, he drops a gem that makes me do a double-take.  One of my favorites so far was this jewel:

“The shallow social and political alternatives bequeathed to contemporary western society by the Enlightenment and its aftermath, in which every issue stands either to left or to the right on some hypothetical spectrum, and every political question can be answered in terms of ‘for’ or ‘against’ – this trivialized world of thought cannot cope with the complexities of real life either in the first or the twenty-first century.” (PFG, 314.)

This trivialized discourse in which so many elements of the church and the world seem trapped has been highly visible this week, in the UMC world and elsewhere, with news of the Schaefer defrocking and half the world losing its mind over the firing of a reality TV star.  Many of us, by all appearances, are just one headline away from retreating into our ideological enclaves and lobbing bombs at the drop of a hat – especially if human sexuality is on the docket. We then pat our fellow left/right-wing cohorts on the back as we throw around platitudes that make a mockery both of substantive Christian discernment and reasonable, civil debate.

What we are doing isn’t working. Bishop Wright is right; the current state of our cultural and ecclesial conversation cannot carry the heavy water of real life, and the way too many of us  are acting is not worthy of the Christian community or the Gospel to which we have been called to witness. Continuing in this path is nothing short of mutually assured destruction.

A growing number of us are looking for a different way, a third way, or at the very least something that doesn’t repeat the culture wars ad nauseam. Who’s interested?