Friday, January 31, 2014

The Bible--Well... It's Complicated

There are many people who don’t identify as progressive and who don’t read the Bible like “fundamentalists.” (Actually, fundamentalism as a movement has to do with a lot more than a way of reading the Bible, but that’s neither here nor there. If you want to learn more about this matter, though, check out this article.)

Ok. I’m glad that’s out of the way now.

So… there are, within the blogosphere, a couple of recent of posts on how to read the Bible, one from a progressive perspective, and one from a more evangelical or conservative perspective. Gentle reader, I implore you: do not be drawn into the polarity expressed in these two articles. (But thanks, John Meunier, for pointing these out).

Let’s take the first post, “16 Ways Progressive Christians Interpret the Bible,” by Roger Wolsey. Many of these sixteen characteristics would also describe the way many more conservative Christians read the Bible. In my own tradition of United Methodism, there are many people who would self-identify as evangelical who do not affirm total biblical infallibility, read the Bible using the tools of critical scholarship, give ample consideration to historical and literary contexts, read prayerfully, make use of their knowledge of biblical languages, and read in community.

The points in Rev. Wolsey’s essay that are the most significant are numbers 11, 12, and 13. These refer to ways in which the theological and ethical convictions of readers inform their judgment about how best to interpret a particular passage of Scripture. Whether we admit it or not, we bring certain value systems to the text, value systems that in many cases are formed by our faith communities. These values, rather than a particular scriptural hermeneutic, tend to determine which of the “camps” we most identify with. The relationship between the Bible and our communities of interpretation is dialectical. Our values are formed by the Bible, while they also come to bear on the ways in which we understand the Bible.

As for the second post, "Stop Taking the Bible 'Seriously,'" Rev. Chad Holtz argues that the issue is that Christians must approach the Bible with a posture of submission, and the position represented in Rev. Wolsey’s post is not properly submissive. Were I Rev. Wolsey, my response would be, “I submit to the Bible, but I have a different idea than you do about the Bible’s ethical imperatives.” Rev. Holtz says that we should not pick and choose which passages of the Bible to honor. Nevertheless, all Christians do this. We do it all the time. Simply saying we don’t doesn’t make it true. Conservatives do it. Progressives do it. Evangelicals do it. Orthodox do it. Roman Catholics do it. Fundamentalists do it.  It is unavoidable. The only real question is on what basis we “pick and choose.”

As should be clear by now, I found the analysis in neither post persuasive. Our doctrine of scripture involves a particular religious epistemology. In other words, it involves a certain account of how we can acquire religious knowledge. Our faith claims as Christians are not necessarily dependent upon our religious epistemology. In other words, we could have two Christians with very similar beliefs about God, Christology, resurrection, and the Christian life, who have different understandings of the nature and function of scripture.

As United Methodists, we really need to get more clarity on the nature and function of scripture. I think even Wesley himself had some considerable confusion about this matter. The way he talked about the Bible and the way in which he used the Bible were not always consistent. (I wrote an article in which I discuss this. If you’re interested, see “Scripture as Canon” in Wesley, Wesleyans, and Reading Bible as Scripture, eds. Joel B. Green and David F. Watson, Baylor, 2012). Getting clearer on scripture, of course, won’t solve all of our problems, but it will help us to avoid some arguments that we really don’t need to have.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Seedbed: Planning Church Events with Special Needs in Mind

Many Christians wish to be more inclusive of people with disabilities, but the "how to" can at times seem complicated, even daunting. Check out this short article on Seedbed on planning church events with special needs in mind. It's written by Chris Roberts, Director of Special Needs at Woodlands UMC. 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

People with Disabilities--This Time It's Personal

If you read this blog very much, you may have noticed that I blog on issues related to disability a great deal. This topic is close to my heart because I have a seven-year-old son named Sean who has Down Syndrome. We also have another son, Luke, who is eleven. My wife and I have learned a great deal about a great many things as parents, and parenting Sean has had its own set of lessons, challenges, and bumps in the road.

I don’t talk about my personal experiences very much because…well…they’re personal. I do write about the Bible, theology, the Church, and disability, but rarely from a first-person perspective. I’m a pretty private person, as is my wife. Recently, however, Jason Vickers asked if Harriet and I would be willing to share our experiences as parents of a child with Down Syndrome at the upcoming Light the Fire conference. This conference will focus on church renewal and people with disabilities. We agreed, and we’ll be speaking at three breakout sessions. The description of our talk is as follows:

Sean Watson was born on Thanksgiving Day, 2006. Four hours after his birth, his parents were told that he had Down Syndrome. At four months of age he had open heart surgery. Now seven years old, he is a lively, precocious, mischievous boy who loves to jump on his trampoline and play Angry Birds. For his parents and brother, learning to raise Sean has been a journey of faith, joy, heartache, patience, and celebration. In this session, David Watson, Academic Dean at United, and Harriet Watson, a stay-at-home mom and United Methodist layperson, reflect on what they have learned about God, the Church, and loving a child with Down Syndrome. 

So… If you have any interest in our talk or many of the other fine offerings at this conference, I hope you’ll attend. You can find out more information about the conference by clicking here.

Is an "abnormal" fetus less important?

The case of Marlise Munoz presents a number of serious ethical quandaries related to life, death, pregnancy, and life support. If you haven’t read about it yet, you can do so here.  It is a very sad story, not only because of the unforeseen tragedy of the brain death of this young mother, but also because she was fourteen weeks pregnant at the time of her collapse. She was kept on life support by staff at John Peter Smith hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, because of a Texas state law requiring life-sustaining treatment for pregnant mothers. This is a sticky wicket indeed: should the mother be kept on life support in order to preserve the life of the fetus?

Yet in the CNN report also mentions another item, though with no comment on its significance: apparently, the fetus was “distinctly abnormal.” In a related report, CNN quotes a statement from the family’s attorneys:

Even at this early stage, the lower extremities are deformed to the extent that the gender cannot be determined. The fetus suffers from hydrocephalus. It also appears that there are further abnormalities, including a possible heart problem, that cannot be specifically determined due to the immobile nature of Mrs. Munoz’s deceased body.

How are we to understand the significance of this statement? At one level it is simply descriptive, but at another level, the statement seems to imply that removing Ms. Munoz from life support is more acceptable because the fetus is “abnormal.” I’ve not read or heard of anyone saying this directly, but why report on it if it doesn’t come to bear on the ethical decisions involved?  

Few people will admit this, but the prevailing ethos in our culture is that fetuses that demonstrate atypical traits are diminished in value compared to those that appear typical throughout the pregnancy. This says a great deal about how we understand human beings and their value. 

Update: NBC reports that the fetus is "not viable" at the present time. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Is the UM Ordination Process Too Arbitrary?

I’m an ordained elder in the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church. My path to become ordained, however, was more difficult than it should have been. When I say this, I know that I echo the sentiments of many people who have gone through the ordination process in the UMC, whether they are seeking ordination as a deacon or an elder. 

To be clear, I am not saying that ordination should be easy. Our standards for ordination should be high. I believe that the Church is the most important institution in the world, and the standards for ordained leadership in the Church should be commensurate with the importance of the Church. I am saying, however, that ordination should not be unnecessarily difficult.

When I was coming up through “the process” (please note: this was not in the West Ohio Conference) I was often told that I was “too intellectual” or some such thing.

Too intellectual? I was planning on a career as an academic.

Why, then, they would ask, do you want or need to be ordained?

This question always struck me as bizarre for two reasons. First, I was called to ordination. This sense of call was and is very clear to me. The fact that I didn’t articulate it in the same terms as the members of my District Committee, however, seemed to be problematic. Was I not emotive enough? Did I need to start crying? Did I not use the right code words? In retrospect, I realize that certain members of the committee had a set of informal and unstated criteria that they were using to assess my readiness for ordination. The problem was that the criteria were stated nowhere in the Discipline or in the candidacy materials that I had been given. The criteria were arbitrary.

Second, I could never figure out why so many of the people interviewing me saw congregational pastoral ministry as the only appropriate route for an elder. (My comments here will relate to the office of elder, since that’s where my experience lies, though this is in no way to diminish the significance of the order of deacon.) The Discipline allows for extension ministries. Ostensibly, the UMC values these ministries. I was also puzzled, however, by the idea that we would want to take actions that would reduce the number of ordained elders in our colleges, universities, and seminaries. If the sacraments are means of grace, wouldn’t it be important to make these readily available to students in our UM institutions of higher learning? Don’t we want professors who care deeply about the church, the salvation of human beings, and the cultivation of holiness? What I was proposing to do was clearly within the boundaries of UM polity, but again the people interviewing me were utilizing informal and unstated criteria to make decisions about my readiness for ordination.

 As I went before the Board of Ordained Ministry (also not in West Ohio—hey, I have to protect the innocent), I went to the committee that was to examine my theology and doctrine. One member of the interview team asked me, “You said in your paperwork that the Nicene Creed is the most important creed.” He looked at me with the suspicious glare of a detective questioning a suspect. “Who gets to decide what the most important creed is?” Another member of the committee began to nod in approval. “Yeah,” she said. “Who gets to decide that?”

Honestly, the question left me beyond puzzled. In terms of its historical importance, its formative effect upon later doctrine, its liturgical usage, its catechetical significance, the Nicene Creed is in a class by itself. So I asked—and I promise that it was an honest question—“What are the other options?”

“We’re the ones asking the questions here,” my interlocutor replied.

Oh. Ok. I get it.

Finally, I did make it through the process, and I have dedicated my vocation to serving the Church through a ministry of theological education. There were several times, though, when the process was so discouraging that I almost quit. Had it not been for a deep sense of calling, I’m sure that I would have. Make no mistake: there were very supportive people along the way. I owe a great debt to them. The process itself, though, was deeply problematic.

Since my ordination I have served on the District Committee for the Miami Valley District of the West Ohio Conference, as well as the West Ohio Conference Board of Ordained Ministry. I’ve reflected a great deal on the ordination process and the proper work of committees and boards who have oversight of the process. I have much more to say about this matter, but there is one item that I want to highlight in this post: the biggest problem with our ordination process is that it is not undergirded by a clear theology of ordination.

Begin with ¶ 301 in the Discipline. There is considerable discussion of what the ordained should do. There is little or no discussion of what ordination is. How can we have a fair process of ordination when we have no agreed upon theological understanding of what our bishops are doing when they ordain? It’s no wonder that our process is given to arbitrary criteria that can vary from conference to conference, team to team. As a church, we need to get clearer about what ordination is.

This would help us with another problem as well: clergy burnout. As a seminary professor and dean, one of the most common problems I see among my students is that they don’t know what the parameters of their jobs are. Too often, young pastors think that their job is everything. It isn’t. The primary role of a pastor is to bring people into relationship with God, to bring the Holy into the ordinary lives of women and men. Without without a clear sense of the ministry into which they are ordained, pastors will be much more prone to leave the ministry.

I’m currently heading up a team for my annual conference to review our candidacy and interview process. I know many of you reading this blog will have strong opinions about the ordination process. If you do, let me know what you think is working and what isn’t. Please help me to think constructively about this matter. I consider the work of this team to be very important, and I would very much appreciate any insights you may have to offer.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Inclusiveness? Get serious.

Many Christians I spend time with are deeply concerned about matters of inclusiveness. Sometimes by this they mean that they wish that their churches were more racially diverse. Others wish the church was more accepting of gay and lesbian people. Sometimes they mean to talk about socio-economic diversity. Only occasionally, however, are they talking about creating a church that is more welcoming of people with disabilities. 

Most often, we understand inclusiveness as a change of attitude. The idea is that if we, or others in our congregations, can simply get past our prejudices, we can be a more inclusive church, one that reflects more fully the kingdom of God. Surely there's some truth to this, but it's not nearly enough. Changing the demographics of any congregation will take more than a change of attitude. It takes sweat equity, shared leadership, and a willingness to live and worship in new ways. 

One in five people has some form of disability. Think of the wide range of conditions that we refer to when we talk about people with disabilities: autism (which now accounts for one in eighty-eight live births), Down Syndrome, impairments of mobility, blindness and low vision, deafness, PTSD, dementia and Alzheimer's, and many other conditions are considered disabling. People with disabilities are all around us, all the time, and yet many feel shut out from the life of the church. Quite often, parents of children with disabilities simply don't go to church because (a) they don't feel their child is welcome, (b) they don't feel the church is equipped or the staff trained to deal with their child, or (c) it's just too difficult. How many people are not hearing the gospel, not experiencing Christian community, because they or a family member has a disability? How many children with disabilities are missing out on an upbringing in the church? 

"But I don't have any people with disabilities in my church." 

First, this is probably not true. Many people have hidden disabilities that they conceal in order to prevent others from forming prejudicial opinions about their level of ability. 

Second, people with more obvious disabilities might be more willing to show up to a church that is intentionally welcoming of them. This means more than having a wheelchair ramp. It means having staff who have some orientation/training related to welcoming people across a broad range of disabilities. It may mean having a sign interpreter in worship, having accessible bathrooms, and creating space in the sanctuary for wheelchairs. It means having Sunday school teachers who are prepared to welcome children with special needs. It means many other things as well. If you are not sure what needs to be done in your church to welcome people with disabilities, you can have a disability audit. We just had one at United, and part of what we learned was how much we still have to learn about hospitality. Being welcoming is not easy business, but it is crucial for the fulfillment of the church's mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ. 

For all of the talk about inclusiveness among mainline Protestants, many of us are still failing to welcome into our churches thousands and thousands of people who need to hear the gospel. And this leads me to the conclusion that we really need to rethink what we mean by "inclusiveness." Where is the furor over the unwitting exclusion of these people? How much time will we spend at our next General Conference talking about this matter? 

Each year, United Theological Seminary and Ginghamsburg UMC jointly host a church renewal conference called "Light the Fire!" This year's conference will be on church renewal and people with disabilities. It will be held on May 8-9 2014. If you have any interest in learning more about these matters, please see the information below: 

Registration for this year's Light the Fire! 2014 conference is open to the public. United is offering a special rate of $99 each (that's a $50 savings!) if registered by March 21st (World Down Syndrome Day).
Light the Fire! 2014: The Fullness of Christ -- A Church for All People will be held at Ginghamsburg Church, 6759 S. County Road 25A, Tipp City, OH. Featured speakers include Marva J. Dawn, William "Bill" Gaventa, Barbara J. Newman, Jeremy Schipper and Mike Slaughter. 

This year's Light the Fire! conference will equip clergy and laity to be faithful in ministry with people with disabilities. The conference will include theological discussion with plenty of "how to" sessions for creating a church of people of all abilities. For more information or to register, visit United's website.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

What is a Liberal Christian?

We often talk about various Christians in broad categories like  “conservative,” “liberal,” “evangelical,” “progressive,” and “moderate.” In this post, I want to explore the term “liberal,” because I think of these terms it is the most difficult to define.

Part of the reason for the difficulty is that "liberal" has at least two meanings that are really quite different from one another. On the one hand, “liberal” could mean a commitment to intellectual virtue. In this sense, a liberal is someone who wishes to get all the ideas out on the table and argue them out using the tools of reason and logic. Opposing ideas are given fair consideration and are accurately represented. Conceivably, one’s mind could be changed on even very deeply held convictions. This is the idea behind a “liberal” education. Students are taught to think, not simply what to think. Yes, there are certain facts and ideas that one should simply have in hand, but all ideas, at least in theory, are subject to critical examination. Theology, then, is as Anselm put it, faith seeking understanding. While it is entirely permissible, even expected, that one will hold certain faith claims, all ideas are subject to intellectual, reasonable, and critical examination.

On the other hand, Christian liberalism represents a set of theological positions. Because this is a blog post, I’m going to have to paint in broad strokes, so please bear with me. Most often, Friedrich Schleiermacher is identified as the father of liberal theology. For Schleiermacher and others like him, individual experience authorized theological claims. This idea would come to bear in powerful ways on subsequent liberal Christian theology. Scholars such as David Friedrich Strauss and Albert Schweitzer would advance theological claims based upon their own modernist formation and experience of the world. In the 20th century, existentialist theologians such as Bultmann and Tillich, owing much to the philosophical writings of Kierkegaard and Heidegger, would become leading voices in Christian theological discourse. These scholars, and Bultmann in particular, would have a tremendous influence upon biblical scholars. Bultmann’s project of “demythologizing” the Bible came to bear in extraordinary ways up on the methodological presuppositions of many who came after him. Ostensibly intellectually responsible scholarship would have to proceed from a modernist perspective in which God’s direct intervention into the cause and effect of history was methodologically eliminated from consideration.

Later, particularly in mainline Protestant traditions, process theology would come to dominate the theological landscape. While not incompatible with existentialist theology, process theology does involve a set of metaphysical claims that differentiate it from other forms of liberal theology. Scholars such as Charles Hartshorne, Schubert Ogden, John Cobb, and Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki are among the leading figures in this area. Like existentialist theologians, process theologians do not see God’s direct intervention in the cause and effect of history as reasonable. The resurrection of Jesus, for example, must be understood as a story or symbol, but not as an accurate representation of a historical event. In this sense, both existentialist and process theologies involved significant revisions, and even abandonments, of many of the claims of historic Christian orthodoxy, even while employing much of the same language. The popular Christian writer Marcus Borg is heavily indebted to process thought, as is made apparent in his book The God We Never Knew.  It is difficult to overstate, moreover, the effect that these traditions had upon theological education in the so-called “mainline” traditions.

At some point, things changed again. In particular, during the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s, theological positions emerged that were grounded explicitly first and foremost in the life-situations of particular communities. One’s lived experience authorized particular religious claims. In a way, we’re back to Schleiermacher now, except that lived experience is now defined communally, rather than individually. Essentially, the argument goes that belonging to a particular community of interpretation gives one a unique perspective that authorizes faith claims that people outside of this community are ill-positioned to see. Liberation theology often proceeds in this way. Clearly there is a great deal to say for this position. Our communities and life settings do in fact come to bear in remarkable ways upon how we see the world. People who write from the perspective of disability studies, for example, have things to say that able-bodied and able-minded people may not see at all.

One liability of this type of argument, however, is that some people see the claims made from inside a community as immune from critique from outside a community. If you criticize the position of a community not your own, you are only demonstrating your own prejudice against that community and therefore validating its claims to marginalization. This is an intellectually unhealthy perspective. A second liability is the danger of emphasizing communal experience to the neglect of divine revelation. Yes, our lived experiences shape the ways in which we think about God, but that is not to say that they should be wholly determinative of our faith claims. Christians have long held that God has taught us things about God’s own nature, being, and relationship to humankind. We sometimes talk about this as “special divine revelation,” meaning that these ideas are not ones that we could discover on our own.

This type of identity-based theology is not necessarily revisionist in the senses that existentialist and process theologies are. In other words, you need not significantly revise traditional understandings of the Trinity, Incarnation, Resurrection, salvation, and other historic doctrines in order to speak out of the experience of a particular community of interpretation. If, however, one gives epistemological precedence to communal experience over divine revelation, then it is likely that the historic doctrines of the faith will do little heavy lifting.

At some point, liberal Christians stopped using the term “liberal” and started using the term “progressive.” I’ve really never understood this move, except that the term “progressive” expresses a positive value judgment that “liberal” does not (at least, in our current context). Progressive Christianity now includes a very broad range of positions influenced by existentialist, process, and identity-based theology. It is still the dominant form of thinking in mainline Protestant traditions and theological education. It is difficult to identify what characterizes progressive Christianity today, but I’ll go out on a limb (and I’m putting on my Kevlar jacket right now). Its emphasis is on social justice, variously conceived, rather than on the Trinitarian economy of salvation. This is not to say that progressives necessarily reject the Trinitarian economy of salvation (though some do), but it is not the main emphasis of their proclamation. Some progressive Christians, however, would identify salvation as almost entirely defined by social justice.

Now, I don’t know any Christians who would say that they are against social justice. We may conceive of it differently from one another, but, generally speaking, we all believe that God offers to us a righteous, life-giving way of ordering our relationships. What sometimes gets lost in talk about social justice, however, is that, as Christians, we cannot know what social justice is apart from God’s self disclosure through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. In other words, special divine revelation is necessary for us to know what social justice is. Additionally, the Christian life is not simply about emulating Jesus or abiding by his teachings (though these are important), but the transformative power of Jesus’ cross and resurrection mediated to us by the work of the Holy Spirit. In other words, a well-articulated understanding of the Trinitarian faith of the Church, and an experience of the Trinitarian economy of salvation, are necessary in order for us to reach a point at which we can talk about social justice as Christians.

This is why I stopped identifying with progressive Christianity years ago. It’s not that progressives don’t have important things to say.  Clearly they do. It’s that, for me, Christian proclamation must lead with a clear articulation of the nature and identity of the God we serve. This God is revealed to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This God shows up in history. This God really did become human, really did die, and really did rise from the dead. And this God does not leave us alone, but is at work powerfully, all over the world, leading people into more righteous lives that will continue into eternity. An emphasis on social justice that does not first reckon with these beliefs is not enough, at least not for me. I’m a liberal in the first sense discussed in this post: I believe in getting the ideas out on the table and having open, honest, intellectually virtuous discussion. The emphases of the liberal/progressive Christian movement today, however, are not such that I feel comfortable identifying with it.

I’ve tried to represent liberal/progressive Christianity as fairly as I can here. I’m sure I’ve left things out, and perhaps gotten a few things wrong. I think this is the longest post I’ve ever written (and congratulations if you made it to the end) because it deals with a very complex topic. I welcome your comments, but I’d appreciate your adopting a liberal perspective (in the first sense).