Tag Archives: Yoder

When a Controversy is Not a Controversy

An oil platform under construction.
An oil platform under construction.

Home is where the heart is.  My wife regularly makes fun of me for being such a vocal advocate for my seminary, Duke Divinity School.  My friends that went to other seminaries give me grief, and I give it in return. This is all in good fun.  I appreciate my alma mater, warts and all, just as others do.  That’s why I have been disturbed at some of the hubbub surrounding recent events at the Divinity School, which occurred – strangely enough – before classes even began this year.

The basics: at a panel on diversity that was part of new student orientation, Dean Richard Hays – the guy who basically invented the faith of/faith in debate in New Testament studies – mentioned Duke’s identity as a United Methodist seminary and the UMC’s stance on homosexuality (i.e. that all are of “sacred worth” but that infamously ill-defined “homosexual practice” is not condoned in Christian teaching).  Depending on who you listen to, Dean Hays was either abusing his power as a straight white man or sharing the denominational position as one of many positions welcome at the seminary.  Opinions vary as to whether or not Hays’ timing was poor, whether or not he had a right to speak (when does the Dean not have a right to speak??), and whether or not the student who asked the presenting question was wronged by his answer.

To be fair, I was not present at the event in question. I have tried to read as much as possible (which is limited), and also talk to current Duke students and staff about what went on.  So while my take is not perfect, I have attempted due diligence.  I linked to a progressive perspective, shared by Reconciling Ministries Network and others sympathetic to the student, above.  Dean Hays’ open letter can be read here.  Part of the outrage seems to be that Hays did not offer an apology.  But Hays never claimed he was attempting to apologize.  The open letter  was written to clarify some misunderstandings, not apologize.

Moreover, this so-called controversy was a non-starter from the outset.  What does it say that Hays’ view (which, right or wrong, is also the view of the seminary’s denomination) was not welcome by some students at a panel on diversity and inclusion?  Perhaps the most significant factor in this matter is what it says about our larger relationship within the church.

We have come to a point in the sexuality debate where merely hearing a contrary opinion is seen as bullying.  For instance, the Tea Party of the UMC left, Love Prevails, claimed that “harm” was done at a Connectional Table discussion where one very, very tepid quasi-conservative spoke, simply because he had the temerity to half-heartedly defend the UMC stance.  I believe something quite similar happened here.  Much like Love Prevails’ prevailing strategy, a student was seeking to raise their own profile and influence through a manufactured controversy before the first lecture even occurred.

Why is it that all too often the people most ostensibly committed to tolerance are the least tolerant of anyone who dissents, and the first to demand punishment of said offenders?  Some of the resulting commentary from this incident has insinuated that Duke is not a friendly place for LGBT persons.  I fully agree that LGBT students, UMC or not, should be welcomed as any other students.  But that hospitality should also extend to conservative students and students from other traditions.  It seems that many of the critics would prefer to see Duke go the direction of many of our UM seminaries, which are not especially welcoming to traditionalist students.

Seminary is a wonderful, but often challenging environment.  As much as I love Duke and recommend it heartily, I had my rough patches there. I was a just war advocate in a place that seemed stuffed to the gills with Yoderian pacifists, some of whom look at all other Christians as sub-standard.  Sometimes I felt like one of the only students who wasn’t some kind of legacy (no one in my family is a pastor or big-wig in the UMC).  I felt like an outsider some days, and that isn’t fun.  For those reasons, I sympathize with those students who genuinely do not feel welcome in their seminaries of choice.  In diverse communities, friction – and with it, conflict – is going to happen.

Anywhere people are in relationship, including the academy and the church, conflict will rear its head.  But we have a choice as to how to handle such occurrences.  Will we, as Steve Harper suggests, sit down at the table and work things out – or will we issue press releases, organize rallies, and do everything but actually relate to each other as people?  Activism has its place, an honored place in fighting injustice and speaking truth to those who’d rather not hear it.  But within a Christian community – be it a seminary or a church – we should be quick to assume the best and quick to forgive.  In our social media and platform-driven world, I fear that more and more the gravitational pull is precisely the opposite.

All that said, I appreciate that I went to a seminary where I found some of my sacred cows challenged at the same time my faith was deepened.  I was grateful to get to know a lot of students from varying backgrounds: gay and straight, Yankee and international, Lutheran and liturgical Baptist (yes, they exist).  I could have gone somewhere that was more homogenous, that did not stretch me. I am glad I did not.

Duke Divinity School represents a rare find among United Methodist seminaries: it is a theological school dedicated to forming pastors for the local church, passionate about the faith once and for all given to the saints, and yet also tied to a truly excellent academic institution with concomitant standards for intellectual rigor.  The more pastors I meet from other places, the more glad I am that I went to Duke.  There are other wonderful theological schools, please don’t misunderstand.  For me, however, Duke was an excellent fit.

And maybe that’s what it comes down to, really.  In this day and age, it is a bit shocking when a United Methodist academic shares a tidbit from the Book of Discipline without apology, but it’s probably positive that this can happen in a few places.  That may not be for everyone, of course.  I respect that.  To each their own.  But there’s the rub:

When is a controversy not a controversy? When the real issue is a bad fit coupled with miscommunication, exacerbated by demands and public statements, minus relationship.  We are the Body of Christ.   We are family.  Let’s work things out as such.

Rethinking Christ & Culture, Again

https://i1.wp.com/www.earlbarnett.com/images/ChristAgainstCulture.jpg

In contemporary theological conversation, H. R. Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture is both loved and hated, adored and despised.  Admirers will tell you it is a theological “classic” that deserves a reading by each successive generation, while detractors will (and I’ve seen them do it!) spew venom and the mere mention of the title.  For those unfamiliar, in this work Niebuhr gives a typology of Christian responses to culture.  Thus, he argues, throughout the course of time, the ship of the church has navigated its way through the world with 5 identifiable responses/reactions to its surrounding culture:

Christ against Culture. For the exclusive Christian, history is the story of a rising church or Christian culture and a dying pagan civilization.
Christ of Culture. For the cultural Christian, history is the story of the Spirit’s encounter with nature.
Christ above Culture. For the synthesist, history is a period of preparation under law, reason, gospel, and church for an ultimate communion of the soul with God.
Christ and Culture in Paradox. For the dualist, history is the time of struggle between faith and unbelief, a period between the giving of the promise of life and its fulfillment.
Christ Transforming Culture. For the conversionist, history is the story of God’s mighty deeds and humanity’s response to them. Conversionists live somewhat less “between the times” and somewhat more in the divine “now” than do the followers listed above. Eternity, to the conversionist, focuses less on the action of God before time or life with God after time, and more on the presence of God in time. Hence the conversionist is more concerned with the divine possibility of a present renewal than with conservation of what has been given in creation or preparing for what will be given in a final redemption.

Props to Wikipedia for the descriptions above.  In the ensuing decades since the publication (1951) of his book, Niebuhr has been the subject of sustained critique for various reasons.  Some claim that his vision of “culture”, always a nebulous term, is undefined and unhelpful in the Yale professor’s telling.  Others say that it was an insidious work because it obviously favored the last model, ‘Transformation’, to the detriment of the others.  Thus, Yoder writes, “Behind this posture of humble nonnormative objectivity, it will become clear to any careful reader that Niebuhr has so organized his presentation as to indicate a definite preference for ‘transformation.’. . . ‘Transformation’ takes into itself all the values of its predecessor types and corrects most of their shortcomings.”

But there, I think, is the rub.  Many of Niebuhr’s critics, in my view, are those whose views have been most marginalized (or exposed by?) his work.  Thus, those usually raising the loudest ruckus against Christ and Culture are those who feel dismissed by it.  These would include Yoder, his protege’ Hauerwas, and all of their theological fanboys (of which there are many, at least in the blogosphere).  A more reasoned and helpful reading of Christ & Culture recognizes its shortcomings but still finds value in the discussion.  This, I think, is supplied by Geoffrey Wainwright in the opening chapter of his massive co-edited volume The Oxford History of Christian Worship.  His background in ecumenical discussion and interest in liturgy and missiology shines through brilliantly here:

“Rather than taking [Niebuhr’s] five “typical” attitudes as fixed and divergent stances of the Christian faith toward all human culture, it may be more appropriate to see them as indicating the possibility of, and need for, a discriminating attention on the part of Christians toward every human culture at all times and in all places.  Whereas a particular cultural configuration may appear as predominantly positive or negative in relation to the saving purposes of God, it is likely that most cultures will contain some elements to be affirmed; some to negated, resisted, and even fought; some to be purified and elevated; some to be held provisionally in tension; and some to be transformed.  The liturgy can function not only to sift but also to inspire a surrounding public culture.” (The Oxford History of Christian Worship [Oxford: Oxford University Press 2006], 17)

Such a nuanced take on Niebuhr’s work is, unfortunately, rather novel these days.  Those who critique it have good reason, on occasion; unfortunately, just as frequently as they have cause to critique it, they throw the baby out with the bathwater and seek to make it anathema for contemporary readers.  This is a shame.  Wainwright has given us a measured and helpful response that will hopefully keep Christ & Culture part of our discourse for decades to come.

Note: The Yoder quote comes from Gathje’s article found at:

http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2641

Blessed Are the Peacemakers? [Advent 2]

https://i0.wp.com/vintageinternetpatents.com/Images/ffu222.jpg

The second Sunday of Advent is traditionally a time where we reflect on the coming Christ as the Prince of Peace, as the founder of a kingdom in which the lion will lay down with the lamb (and not eat him).  This was reflected in this week’s (alternative) Gospel lection, in which the Benedictus promises us that the One to come will “guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Lk. 1:79).  But what does that mean?  What does a life bent towards the peace of Christ look like as the world waits for the kingdom to be fulfilled?

Christians have traditionally argued over this.  Some, like Tertullian and later the Anabaptists and their descendants, advocated a nonviolent witness as the only option for Christians everywhere and at every time.  More recently, inspired by Ghandi and later King, Christians have taken up the nonviolent banner as a means of achieving peace.  (Same means, but different ends.  The former are concerned primarily with fidelity and witness, while the latter practice nonviolence for larger purposes, usually the overturning of a particular injustice).

Since Ambrose and Augustine, the mainstream position has been some variant of the ‘just war’ position.  This holds that war may be right/necessary/just/justifiable under certain conditions.  This was the position held by such luminaries as Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and Barth.  But the consensus, particularly among evangelical Christians, seems to be shifting.

A generation of young people raised by parents who lived through Vietnam, themselves disillusioned with campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and without the historical acumen to place these in any kind of perspective, are being drawn to the pacifist position with alarming regularity.  This has a lot to do with authors such as Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder, who have given the Christian pacifist stance renewed legitimacy and intellectual firepower over the last decades.

Obviously these issues are too big to handle here, but I’d like to point out a problem that no pacifist has offered a legitimate solution to: the police function of the state.  In my experience, even the most strident pacifists will say that the state still has a legitimate police function, that criminals must be brought to justice and restrained from doing further harm.  Presumably, this means Christians can participate in these functions without fear of apostasy.

“Blessed are the peacemakers,” indeed.  But if the police function is viable, how is it nonviolent?  Violence is essentially force, and police can and must force wrongdoers, restraining their evil and sometimes stopping them fatally.  As good as things like stun guns and pepper spray are (and they are not non-violent, just non-bloody), it is likely like cops will be carrying guns and nightsticks for the foreseeable future.  How, then, can one support the police function and still claim nonviolence?

Furthermore, if these peacemakers are legitimate and blessed, then why not soldiers?  The difference is one of scale and direction of force.  Bad guys externally need to be restrained as much as bad guys internally.

This is why, last Sunday, in prayer time I remembered the soldiers of our congregation and around the world, and asked God’s blessing on them as peacemakers.  Peace is not a simple achievement, not something we gain by acting peacefully: as Donald Kagan points out in his On the Origins of War and Preservation of Peace, peace must be fought for and actively maintained.   That is why the service of peacemakers is blessed.  Their work is hard, bloody, and until Christ comes in final victory, it will be violent.  It will be a wonderful day when their service is not needed, but that day is not today.  Come, Lord Jesus – but until that day, raise up men and women of courage and justice who will work for the gift of peace – fleeting and incomplete as it will be – here and abroad.

P.S. Theological brownie points for anyone who can tell me why I posted the picture above.