Saturday, November 30, 2013

Devaluing People with Disabilities.... Again

I've said it before and I'll say it again: it is unacceptable for the value of human lives to be reduced to some notion of functionality. One rarely hears explicitly that the lives of the able-bodied and able-minded are more valuable than the lives of people with disabilities, but the idea is unquestionably "in the soup" of Western culture. It is deeply troubling to see this idea working itself out within our medical establishment. Please read this article on CNN describing the struggle of parents to save the life of their child, a child whose level of adult ability is yet undetermined. 

Friday, November 29, 2013

Christian Sorrow, Christian Hope

A reflection taken from a sermon I'm preaching this Sunday: 

Sometimes Christians, with all of the best of intentions, tell us that if we are sad, if we lose our joy, it is somehow a lack of faith. This claim is wrong. Sometimes we are sad, angry, or hurting because we are Christians, because we know how the world should be and we contrast that to what is actually going on. Don’t we sense righteous anger in the prophetic literature? Don’t we sense the pain the psalms of lament? Remember Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, and Paul saying, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” because most of Israel has rejected her Messiah (Rom 9:2)? 

Being a Christian doesn’t mean that you don’t move through the range of life’s emotions, but that sadness is not the endgame. Sadness and pain are real, but they are never absolute. Remember Paul’s words to the Corinthians, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed;  perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies” (2 Cor 4:8-10).

Because we bear Christ within us, we have hope. And that is what Advent is all about: the promise and hope of a redeemer. Christ is the redeemer of all creation, and to know Christ is to have hope. As we welcome Christ into the world in this season of Advent, we do so as people who live in the hope of redemption. Do not faint from fear and foreboding, for if you know Christ, you have hope.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Grateful for Our Faith

Today I’m grateful for the faith of the Church.  I’m grateful for this narrative of salvation in which the God of all creation became human out of love for us, was born of a virgin, and taught us how to live. This very God died on the cross in an act of atonement for the sinful rebellion of humankind, and after three days rose from the dead. God abides with us through the Holy Spirit, who teaches and sanctifies us, forming us into the kind of people we were created to be. In due season, Christ will come again, and we will live with God forever in the resurrection.

I’m grateful, moreover, for my colleagues at United who take this narrative so seriously, who have given their life and work over to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and who have dedicated and rededicated themselves to the training of spiritual leaders for the renewal of the Church. I’m grateful to be part not just of a school, but a movement, a worshipping community, and a community of theological friendship. God has brought a very special group of people together at United.

It’s easy to miss these blessings in the midst of day-to-day work, but I’m grateful for you, friends, as we seek communally to be faithful to the leadings of the Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Ever feel caught in the middle?

I‘m not the first person to observe that in the UMC our church politics looks very much like secular politics. In both worlds, it is the most extreme positions that grab headlines. Yet most people in the UMC don’t fit neatly into the ideological polarities. As they think through the vast array of issues that we face both in secular politics and the church, no single political platform appears to have all the answers. Clearly, for some, the cluster of ideas gathered at the polarities of the political/ideological spectrum simply make sense in relation to one another. Pro-life, pro-traditional family, anti-ACA, anti-gun control? Sure, why not? Pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro-ACA, pro-gun control? Makes perfect sense, right? Well, for some people, yes, it makes a lot of sense, but for others, not so much.

The ideas that are clustered together often have no organic relationship to one another, yet they function quite powerfully as markers of tribal identity. We call them “platforms” or “agendas” and lump them under larger rubrics, such as “Democrat,” “Republican,” “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive,” “evangelical,” or some other such descriptor. It tends to be important moreover, for members to promote the whole agenda, rather than just a part of it. For example, when someone such as Jim Wallis claims to be “evangelical” but dissents from many other evangelicals on matters of public policy, his evangelical credentials are questioned or denied.

A challenge we face in the UMC is that our covenant includes people from a variety of tribes, and the warfare that characterizes debates around public policy very naturally makes its way into our denominational discourse and politics. After all, the UMC, like the USA, makes policy decisions based upon votes from elected representatives.  I’m not saying this is a bad way of doing things. I certainly don’t know of a better way. It does, however, have its own liabilities.

Our tribal warfare in the UMC tends to be over matters of practice, the kinds of things one finds in the world of secular politics: gay marriage (and ordination), war, the ways in which we use money, and abortion. We tend not to have doctrinal arguments because the place of doctrine has been relativized by the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. De facto, then, we hold that ethics is more important than doctrine. We argue vociferously about sexuality; rarely do we become as animated about the doctrine of the Trinity.

This way of doing things, however, is backward. We would have a much better chance of maintaining our unity were we to conceive of our primary identity in terms of doctrine, rather than ethics or politics. This has, in fact, been the way that the Church (the Church catholic, not the UMC) has traditionally functioned, except for quite recently in mainline Protestantism. The creeds of the Church are doctrinal statements. There has never been a widely held creed of ethical behavior or moral imperatives. Rather, the Church’s claims about God have always been central, and its moral life has generally been a matter of debate and negotiation.

Let me put the matter differently: we have doctrinal standards in the UMC, but we have social principles. A standard is a normative measure of adequacy. A principle is a generally accepted truth upon which we base other claims or actions. In its current iteration, the Discipline gives pride of place to doctrine over ethics, while our denominational discourse functions in just the opposite way.

I’m suggesting that the UMC should be a place in which we front a deep and abiding commitment to the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, atonement, and the Resurrection. These doctrines are organically related to one another. They make sense in relation to one another, and when we take one out of the equation, the other doctrines make less sense. They are also embedded within the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith. Within these sets of commitments, we can abide a great deal of debate and disagreement about a great many issues, but at least we will have common doctrinal ground for our discussion. If you are a committed Republican, a committed Democrat, a progressive, an evangelical—or someone who doesn’t fit well into any of these categories—you have a place in this community of Trinitarian faith.

Wesleyanism is a branch of the orthodox faith of the Church with a heavy emphasis upon sanctification. It assumes all of the basic faith claims of the Church’s creedal tradition, stressing the claim that the Holy Spirit works progressively within us to recover the image of God that has been tarnished by sin. Many have seen Wesleyanism as defined by a commitment to Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. This is wrongheaded. Read the Wesley corpus. Wesley was concerned about God and the ways in which God worked in the lives of people. He cared about the poor, the last, and the least—because of his prior commitment to the God who is revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

I don’t really know what to call such a position, one that would be defined particularly by doctrinal claims but would have more room for dialogue regarding the moral life of the church. It is neither particularly conservative nor progressive. The term “evangelical” tends to carry with it a conservative social ethic. I don’t like the terms “moderate” or “centrist” because they sound like we are lukewarm in our convictions, when in fact that may be the farthest thing from the truth.

Please hear me: I’m no antinomian. Our ethical claims are important. They are very important; but they are not as important as our claims about God. Unless we have a basic sense of who God is, what God is like, and how God has acted for our salvation, we cannot properly reflect as Christians upon our moral life together. The UMC has long privileged ethics rather than doctrine in its corporate discourse. This may be why things seem so fractious now: we haven’t historically had a clear sense of the basis of our unity.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Bishop Johnson on Keeping Covenant

I've been thinking about and praying for Bishop Johnson lately as she has dealt with church trials in the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference. I have worked with Bishop Johnson on a number of occasions. She is perhaps the most visible advocate for people with disabilities in the United Methodist Church. I can't say enough about the significance of her ministry in the UMC. I believe she is one of the finest bishops in the connection. Recently she gave a wonderful sermon at a commencement ceremony at United Theological Seminary. 

She gives us a lot to think about in this blog post on keeping covenant. I commend it to your reading.

Monday, November 25, 2013

N. T. Wright and the Ethics of Blogging

A couple of days ago I was invited by my former student Joel Watts to participate in a conversation with N. T. Wright and a few bloggers.  The event was, in part, to promote Wright’s new book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Wright was on his game as usual. He commands an incredible range of material and has an amazingly lively mind. It was a privilege to listen to him reflect on a variety of topics.

One of the topics that came up was, as one might expect at such a gathering, the practice of blogging. If you spend much time on New Testament and/or Christian blog sites, you know that Wright’s work comes up quite often. He is one of the most visible and prolific Christian scholars of our time. At times, he has been harshly criticized by people who find his claims as a New Testament scholar and theologian disagreeable.

Disagreement, of course, can be a good thing. It can be a healthy intellectual practice. There are, however, helpful and unhelpful ways to disagree. Wright stated, “We badly need a new ethic of Christian blogging.” In saying this, he is referring to the kinds of “scorched earth” practices one sometimes encounters in the blogosphere. Bloggers need to represent others’ views accurately.  The practices of engaging in anonymous online “road rage” is neither fair nor productive. If you say something on a blog, you should be happy to say it in a crowded room, face to face. Anonymity in public discourse often gives license to unfair, inaccurate, and inflammatory comments.

I’ve made the case on this blog before that we need to invest ourselves deeply in intellectually virtuous habits of mind. (See the post, “Agreeing to Disagree is Not Enough.") In the blogosphere, writers must be particularly self-conscious of this since there is no peer review prior to publication. Anyone can say basically anything. If our goal, however, is to advance public discourse, then it is imperative that we blog ethically. Many bloggers do this. Some do not. This will likely not change, but the more of us who are conscious of this, the better off our communities of discourse will be. 

Wendy Deichmann: What's Right with Orthodoxy?

United Theological Seminary President Wendy Deichmann reflects in Catalyst on the virtues of Christian orthodoxy. This is definitely worth a read. You can find the article here. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

So, we're talking about the Quadrilateral again?

Maybe I just don't get it. 

It really could be that I don't get it. 

But I just can't see how the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is particularly useful for resolving theological questions. I can't see, moreover, why we hold on to this concept as Wesleyans. Bear with me in a bit of foolishness. 

It is fairly well known that Wesley never articulated the Quadrilateral. Rather, the Quadrilateral is a construct based upon Albert Outler’s historical exegesis of Wesley. John Wesley was an Anglican, and Anglicans of the eighteenth century, while distinct from Roman Catholics, were not entirely like Continental Protestants, either. Remember, unlike other forms of Protestantism, the Anglican Church did not separate itself from the Roman Catholic Church over theological matters, but over matters of authority within the Church. Richard Hooker, an Anglican “divine” (theologian) of the sixteenth century, was instrumental in marking out the specifically Anglican way of theological reflection. Hooker was dissatisfied with the Protestant notion of sola Scriptura, according to which Scripture alone was the source and norm of theological reflection. He claimed that there were two ways in which the Holy Spirit led human beings into truth: (1) through divine revelation, which comprised Scripture and tradition, and (2) through reason. This Anglican approach to theology using a triad of resources (Scripture, tradition, reason) represented a “middle way” between Roman Catholicism and Continental Protestantism.

In Outler’s formulation, Wesley added to this trilateral the element of experience, which in this context refers to the believer's assurance of salvation. (By the way, I highly recommend Kevin Watson's recent post on the meaning of "experience" in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.)  With the addition of experience, we arrive at the Quadrilateral.

Did Wesley actually do this? Maybe. He doesn’t talk about doing this. But it's important to keep in mind that the Anglican reliance on Scripture, tradition, and reason was a way of maintaining continuity with the major historic doctrines of the faith because sola Scriptura was thought inadequate for doing so.

One formulation of the Quadrilateral made its way into the Discipline during the 1972 General Conference, four years after the formation of the United Methodist Church. However, until 1988 the formulation of the Quadrilateral in the Discipline bore little resemblance to the Anglican tradition that began with Hooker and was modified in Wesley’s corpus of writings. Consider this statement from the 1984 Discipline (which echoes the language from '72):

Since our “present existing and established standards of doctrine” cited in the first two Restrictive Rules of the Constitution of The United Methodist Church are not to be construed literally and juridically, then by what methods can our doctrinal reflection and construction be most fruitful and fulfilling? The answer comes in terms of our free inquiry within Christian theology: Scripture, tradition, experience, reason. These four are interdependent; none can be defined unambiguously. They allow for, indeed they positively encourage, variety in United Methodist theologizing. Jointly, they have provided a broad and stable context for reflection and formulation. Interpreted with appropriate flexibility, self-discipline, and prayer, they may instruct us as we carry forward our never-ending tasks of theologizing in the United Methodist Church.

Every time I read this, I'm still flabbergasted by it.  (I've been wanting to use the term "flabbergasted" in a post for some time. Thank you, '72 Discipline.) The reasons are too numerous to go into here. One problem, however, is that, while we have these four sources, there is no sense of how they are to be used. Heck, there's no clear sense even of what they are ("none can be defined unambiguously"), and we end up with a theological free-for-all, with no common doctrinal identity. Yet the Anglican triad that Hooker formulated came about as a means of expressing how Anglicans could maintain their doctrinal identity, given their separation from the Roman Catholic Church and their dissent from the Protestant concept of sola Scriptura. Further, unlike the tradition that Wesley inherited, there is no understanding of divine revelation embedded in this formulation of the Quadrilateral.
The language of the 2012 Discipline, which reflects the changes made by the 1988 General Conference, expresses much more accurately a notion that we could rightly call “Wesleyan”: “Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.”

Scripture and tradition, then, ostensibly establish the parameters for Wesleyan belief. The faith that is expressed within these parameters is made real for us in our experience of the Holy Spirit (through assurance), and confirmed by reason. We have, then, much room for debate and discussion, while maintaining a doctrinal identity that is rooted in Scripture and illumined by the Church’s historic doctrines.

This sounds better, but it's still not enough. After all, there are a variety of ways to interpret Scripture, and even if we say that we interpret Scripture in light of tradition, tradition itself is such a broad category as to be of very little help. Wesley generally meant to refer to the "primitive church" of the first five centuries, and he was strongly influenced by the Book of Common Prayer. In other words, Wesley, like the Anglicans before him, assumed the Trinitarian, credal faith of the Church as he made use of Scripture, tradition, and reason. 

The Quadrilateral has ostensibly provided a way for people to think for themselves, not to be governed by dogma. But in making this move, other dogmas have simply filled the void. These are the dogmas of moralistic therapeutic deism. Faith can lead you to do what is right, can bring you a reasonable level of happiness, and involves a God who doesn’t bother too much in the day to day goings on of our lives.

I've never known an argument to be resolved by appeal to the Quadrilateral. In fact, the Quadrilateral, in its current iteration, cannot serve as a tool to resolve theological and ethical debates because there is too much latitude in the ways in which its four components are understood. The only way the Quadrilateral can be useful is if it is deployed in a context in which the credal faith of the church is already assumed. At that point, we share a common set of theological assumptions and we are speaking a common theological language. Without assuming the church's historic, orthodox faith claims, the Quadrilateral will create far more confusion than it resolves. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Dear UMC: Please study the nature and function of Scripture

So, the Schaeffer trial is over.

The debate over human sexuality in the UMC is not.

I’ve been watching social media pretty closely during this time. There are lots of hurt feelings and many people who feel a great distance from one another in the denomination. The rhetoric has been wild. The emotions have been strong. I wonder if we will have a chance to regroup, pray, and heal before the next such controversy emerges.

There are numerous issues swirling about in the controversies around Rev. Schaeffer and Bishop Talbert. One issue, of course, has to do with human sexuality. That’s pretty obvious. One issue has to do with the binding force of the Book of Discipline. A third issue has to do with the interpretation of Scripture.

This third issue, spoken of the least in these controversies, is perhaps the most significant. What we have seen recently is that people of vastly different theological and ethical positions can and do use Scripture in support of their arguments. Recently I’ve heard talk of “inerrancy” in the midst of the conversation, a term that really doesn’t have much currency in the UMC. (Insert indignant comments below.) Perhaps it's gaining traction because of the perceived vacuum of authority in the UMC. Perhaps there are other reasons. 

The use of Scripture in theological debate to support opposing positions is nothing new. Consider the Arian controversy of the fourth century. It wasn’t just Athanasius and company who were using Scripture in support of their claims. Arias and his partisans could quote Scripture with the best of them.  The debate could not be settled by simple appeals to Scripture because Scripture lends itself to a variety of interpretations.

Consider the following image. What do you see? Is this an image of the profiles of two faces or a chalice? 

The interpretation of texts, including the text of the Bible, is rather like this. We may see the same set of texts but draw different conclusions from one another. This is not to say that there are not better and worse interpretations. I'm not arguing for some form of relativism here. Imagine a concert pianist playing a well-known concerto. We might say that there is no right way for the pianist to play the concerto, but there are of course many wrong ways. The interpretation of Scripture is rather like that, and that is why we need more common standards of interpretation within our communal life. 

I’ve written before on the contributions of the biblical scholar James Sanders. In particular, his two books Torah and Canon  and Canon and Community are very helpful as we think about the nature and function of Scripture. Sanders talks about “sacred tensions” within the canon, and he describes the scriptural witness as “variegated.” In other words, the Bible expresses a variety of perspectives that have developed as people have prayed and reflected communally on the mysteries of God. In addition to the subjective nature of interpretation, this is another reason that Scripture can be used to support such different theological and ethical positions.

Scripture is complex. The nature and function of Scripture are not self-evident. Nevertheless, we deploy Scripture quite readily in debates regarding complicated and multi-layered issues. This practice leads to increased entrenchment and misunderstanding, as well-intentioned people cannot see why others view things so differently than they do. 

It would be helpful for the UMC to commission a study on the nature and function of Scripture which could be considered for adoption at a General Conference, much like our studies on the sacraments. This should take place prior to any further denominational initiatives regarding human sexuality. If we could draw upon a more commonly held set of assumptions about Scripture, we would have a better chance of engaging in meaningful dialogue with one another on topics related to the Christian faith and life. 

I have to admit, writing this makes me feel a bit vulnerable. The current climate of the UMC is so divisive that to raise questions regarding the authority of Scripture makes one suspect in many quarters. Let me be clear: I have spent the last twenty years working to teach and promote the Nicene-Constantinopolitan faith. My theological commitments are to the Trinity, the Incarnation, and Resurrection, not simply as metaphors, but as ontological realities. If that doesn't make me "orthodox" enough for you, so be it. I'll only note, however, that in the long history of the faith, the use of a doctrine of Scripture as a litmus test for orthodoxy is a rather new development, and, in my opinion, a negative one. 

Denominationally, we need to talk about not just what the pages of Scripture say, but the way in which we interpret Scripture. Of course, we will not all interpret Scripture in lockstep with one another, but we need a common set of principles for scriptural interpretation. We cannot resolve complex debates without a clearer sense of the common ground on which we stand. Right now the most prominent issue is homosexuality, but in the future there will be other pressing issues. Will we be prepared to talk about them? Right now, we most certainly are not. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

This is not about sex

Let’s get this out of the way: good people within the United Methodist Church, with all the best intentions, disagree on matters of human sexuality. There’s no way around this. Whether or not the General Conference petition by Mike Slaughter and Adam Hamilton would have made for effective legislation, the fact of the matter is that their proposed legislation reflected a truth that inheres within United Methodism: we disagree with one another about homosexuality.

In fact, we disagree about many things. That is why we have a set of regulations that effectively functions as church law. These regulations are contained in the Book of Discipline.

For years, many United Methodists have defied the Book of Discipline on matters of doctrine. Denial of doctrines such as the Trinity, Incarnation, and Resurrection are violations of our doctrinal standards, which are protected in the first Restrictive Rule. We have been able to deal with this matter, though, because of the gray area created by the section of the Discipine called “Our Theological Task.” In other words, for all its faults, the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral has created enough ambiguity to allow us to avoid church trials over matters of deviation from the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith.

Ethical matters such as homosexuality, however, while certainly related to theology and doctrine, fall into a different category. These are specifically matters of behavior and practice, and, at times, the General Conference has seen fit, rightly or wrongly, to issue clear regulations on ethical matters.

This is where church law comes into play. Church law emerges specifically because of our disagreement. When there is deep disagreement and debate over important matters, the church may see fit to regulate itself internally. The resulting regulations will necessarily make some people unhappy. Yet without such internal regulations, the UMC cannot function as a denomination. We have regulations regarding our internal hierarchy, our appointment system, the ministry of the ordained, and many other such matters. Granted, the level of adherence to these regulations has at times varied, but I don’t recall a time when there has been such widespread open defiance of the Discipline as is the case now in relation to issues of human sexuality.

We can say that we are held together in our love for Christ and the unity of the Holy Spirit, and indeed we are. We are held together as Christians in this way. Denominations, however, are held together by their internal self-regulation. If we disregard our church law, we are no longer a denomination.

The ministers of the church who are openly defying the teaching in the Book of Discipline are engaging in de facto schism. The question is not, at this point, whether the church will divide. It has divided because of the open defiance of the Discipline. It has not divided de jure yet, but continued de facto division will result in a de jure division. Perhaps this is the goal of such behavior. My own opinion is that dividing the church in this way would be a huge mistake, but it wouldn’t be the first huge mistake in the history of either the UMC or the Church universal.

With all due respect to Dr. Thomas Frank, who is widely recognized as one of the foremost experts in UM polity, referring this issue back to conferences for discussion among ordained clergy seems to repeat a process that has not worked. Annual conferences have discussed this issue to the point of neglecting other business of the conferences. The General Conference has repeatedly taken up this issue. No doubt, we will continue to have discussions along these lines, though the extent to which they will be productive is questionable. Our discussions of human sexuality have been more rhetorical than reasonable, more political than persuasive. Real discussion of these matters cannot take place in settings in which caucus groups control the conversations.

Dissolving our denomination will have tragic consequences. There are huge problems facing the world today, and not all of them relate to human sexuality. My own primary concerns relate to ministry with people with disabilities. I want the church to pay attention to this matter, to take it seriously, to make more of a tangible difference in the lives of people who live with disabling conditions. And yet there are more problems: a child dies from the effects of extreme poverty every three seconds. Half the world lives without clean drinking water. Christians in many parts of the world continue to be martyred for the faith. The list could go on. As long as we are consumed to the extent we are by a single issue—the issue of human sexuality—we divert proportionate time and resources from the myriad other issues facing the church today.

Church law matters because it allows us to go about our work together. It is not always right, but it is a necessary way of organizing our corporate life.  Apart from this realization, the UMC cannot exist.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Very good post on new atheist "churches"

United student Joseph Graves makes some very interesting points about the new atheist "churches." I commend this blog post to your reading. The most salient point he makes has to do with the degrees of difference between many "mainline" churches and these atheist gatherings. To what extent is God the center of our ecclesial life?