Does God Talk to Us or Not?

In all our United Methodist fussing with one another, one question consistently emerges in my mind: do we think that God actually talks to us?  How would we recognize divine speech if we think God does talk to us?

At the Connectional Table meeting in Chicago a couple of months ago, Bishop Minerva Carcano reportedly said that she “felt the Spirit leading” her in a particular direction on the issue being discussed.  How did she know?  How (by what means) did the Spirit lead her?  With words?  Her testimony suggests divine communication of some sort.  Did God in fact communicate?  How do we test the bishop’s testimony?  Test it we must, for she is taking action on behalf of the church.

Before I go further, let me make an assumption clear.  For Protestants, I think, of any sort, we regard the Bible as the primary means through which God speaks to the Church.  So, I’m operating in this post on the notion of a connection between the Bible and divine communication without prescribing any particular theory of how that relationship works.

(Whatever one thinks of Adam Hamilton’s latest book on how to understand the scripture, at least he has admitted that he thinks some statements in the Bible are not God’s communication to us now, even if they might have been to someone at some time.  We need a means to find agreement on how/when/on what topics/in what manner God speaks to us now.)

Recently, I’ve seen several critical remarks about some United Methodists’ views on divine inspiration and the Holy Scriptures.  “Inerrant?!”  “Infallible?!”  “These words don’t reflect how United Methodists think!”  OK, let’s work with this claim.  It tells me what we don’t believe about the Bible and divine speech.  What, then, do we believe?

I know that discerning God’s will – an action which assumes that God somehow communicates the divine will – on specific matters is supremely challenging.  People can agree on a theory of divine inspiration, infallibility, inerrancy – whatever – and wind up with opposing conclusions about a particular topic or passage of scripture.  Exegetical and hermeneutical questions abound.  But we should not give up on trying to find some common ground on how we think God talks to us.  Unless we admit that we’re just making it all up, then we need to put forward some understanding of divine communication.  A counsel of despair cannot stand in the place of theoretical guidance.  An operant anti-theory – even if unstated – is still a theory.

Why does it matter?  If we cannot agree to some parameters for how we think God is speaking to us, then we admit that we don’t know and that, when we argue, we’re just engaging in attempts at rhetorical dominance.

Right now, the fight is pretty one-sided in United Methodism, it seems to me.  I don’t remember reading any criticisms of Bishop Carcano for her testimony to divine communication.   She has been criticized of course, for the particular conclusion she drew (on sexuality – and that’s the only time I’m mentioning that topic), but I’ve heard no one say [cue eye roll], “Phtthhh!  She actually thinks God talks to her!”

Do we United Methodists think that God speaks to people?  What do we mean when we refer to divine revelation?  (I’m curious for how many UMs H. Richard Niebuhr is the guide.)

Do our bishops ever talk about such things?  I know that they’re swamped with impossible demands, yet I would love for our bishops to teach us about divine speech.  We have many challenges in front of us.  It would be nice to have at least a working theory of divine revelation.  We don’t have to make it absolute or unchangeable, but we at least need to try for some shared understanding.

When delegates gather for GC 2016, will God speak?  How will we know?  Through the will of the body?  Do votes represent God’s mind?  Through prophetic speech and actions?  Again, how will we know?  Is it pay-your-nickel-take-your-choice?  If we have no idea what we’re talking about when we talk about divine communication, then we probably should just stop talking about God altogether.

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

Comments

  1. Ken Parker says:

    Is this not the issue on all sides of critical issues within the Protestant churches, especially on critical issues when we seem not to be able to find common ground? I am often reminded that laity and clergy on either side of critical social issues that in some form or another God has spoken, God has spoken to them or God is speaking through them.

    While I agree that this is an important and underlying factor as we move into General Conference season, I am not sure there will be a path towards agreement nor do I necessarily believe many see a need for common ground.

  2. Dr. Rankin,
    As I read this, I kept getting the impression that for a Methodist to say they believe that God speaks to them is some form of heresy. Now, I am not going to get into a debate about the nature of the Bible and what composes it (for the record, I see the Bible as the work of a collection of authors, perhaps inspired by God, perhaps not).

    But I do believe that God speaks to me and through me. Many times I have begun writing a piece for a Sunday message with a particular thought in my mind, only to have something entirely different appear on paper. For me, that was God speaking or directing where I was to go with the message.

    The problem is two-fold. Too many critics of religion are quick to associated such conversations with mental illness, saying that someone who hears the voice of God is incapacitated in some way. And too many times, that may be the case.

    There are many preachers today who proclaim that they and they alone know the Word of God but what they pronounce to be God’s words, spoken to them in some sort of privileged conversation, appears to be based on the preacher’s own prejudices and beliefs. I personally think that much of the conversation taking place in the Methodist Church today is of this type.

    God’s word is true but we often can’t hear Him speak because we are too busy trying hearing other people speak. And sometimes I think God wants us to think about what we hear and look beyond the moment, which I think we are not doing.

    And what I know at this moment is that the voices of hatred and division, which cannot be by ay stretch of the imagination, words from God are very loud at this moment. It will take some doing to get them to quiet down so that all who gather together in His Name hear His Voice and hear the same words.

  3. Gary Bebop says:

    I’m curious why someone would declare doubts about the authority of the Bible as God-breathed but make claims for their own ecstatic authority. Such claims seem fatuous. We reject the divine canon as anachronistic, but we insist God is speaking a new word “to us” in our time. This is obviously a postmodern swap.

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