Looking for My Family

group of people symbolImagine this scene: a group of twenty or so United Methodist leaders are gathered in a circle for the opening prayer of a weekend training in spiritual formation.  The leader begins with asking each member of the group to center her thoughts on God “as you understand God…”  This seemingly innocuous qualification opens the door to some serious questions.

In one important sense, “as you understand God” acknowledges that, when invited to pray in the quiet of our own minds, each of us pulls into consciousness varied particular conceptions of “God.”  One person thinks of the famous Michelangelo painting of the creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.  Another thinks of God as Christ seated on a throne.  Another imagines Jesus in the midst of children, gathering them onto his lap.  Another may call to mind a beloved piece of art.  One of the United Methodist Church buildings I know has some brilliant stained glass that abstractly depicts the flow of movement of the Holy Spirit. That leader in using “as you understand…” is simply recognizing the breadth of our experiences.

But that is not all that is happening. Individual experience becomes isolation when not formed by communal concepts.  If we can have twenty different understandings of God, what unifies us?  Are there limits to the range of acceptable differences?  If so, where are those limits?  When does “as you understand God…” become license to a do-your-own-thing theology?  What is the difference between twenty United Methodists gathering to pray and twenty people from the world’s varying religions offering widely divergent prayers who just happen to be physically in the same space?

To answer these questions requires trying a bit of philosophical reflection.  When in prayer I call to mind a particular image or concept, philosophers call that conscious action “intending” an object.  I focus on it.  I consciously attend to it.  I “intend” it.  The abstract noun is “intension,” which is related to, but not the same as “intention.”  In the former, the reference is to the act of focused attention.  The latter refers to the act of purposefully choosing.  Right now, we are talking about “intension” (consciousness), not “intention” (purposefulness), though they often work together.

If a group of United Methodists can “intend” God in widely divergent ways, what holds us together?  Where is the common ground?  The easy answer is, “language.”  We have common terms woven into our corporate prayers and our liturgies that refer to a common set of stories, actions and purposes.  The Gospel reveals a particular God who has acted in particular (and very peculiar) ways.  This God calls forth a particular response from the people who believe in and identify with that God.  Our language helps us stay connected to this Story and this God.

This reference to a common language is a good start, but there is another question that nags me, especially these days.  What happens when we use common terms, but with differing “intensions?”  Remember what that word means.  Since I started with an example from corporate prayer, I’ll share a personal/professional dilemma as a university chaplain.  When I pray at a public, university function, I am expected to pray in a way that represents the religious diversity of our community.  (I guess it’s still OK to offend the atheists, but that’s another matter.) To be clear, my supervisors do not require me to use such language.  It’s one of the tacit expectations of university culture.  Thus, I resort to the word “God” a lot.  It may be “Gracious God” or “Holy God” or “Loving God,” but “God” is almost always the operative appellation.  Not “Heavenly Father.”  Not “Holy Trinity.”  Not “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”  Never “in the name of Jesus,” or “our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

The assumption behind this practice – an assumption I do not share – is that using a word like “God” allows at least the monotheists in the crowd to have a shared experience in the academic ritual without “imposing” the particular concept of one religion (even if it is the religion with which the university is officially related) on people who do not share that faith.  Using “God” allows us each to intend the dogmatic object of our particular religion.  “God” thus serves as a placeholder, an empty linguistic bucket that we can variously fill.  For monotheists we might be able to recognize some common Reality when using the word, but others who are not monotheists can just as easily use it to intend whatever they intend when they intend this Reality.  You see how hard this gets?

Which leads me to these two thoughts.  First,  the supposed neutrality of the practice of using a place holder term like “God” – then allowing people to fill in the blanks with their own content –  is not neutral at all.  There is clearly a dogmatic concept of “God” at work.  It is a pluralistic view of God, based on the assumption that God is ultimately unknowable.  That concept is fundamentally anti-trinitarian.  Christology inevitably and obviously takes a serious hit as well.  Were I, as university chaplain, to pray for university functions “in Jesus’ name,” I would offend significant segments of the community.  As representative of the community, I would be “intending” something in my prayer that does not represent the theology of members of the community.

This is more than a minor conundrum for me.  I am an old-fashioned, thoroughly Trinitarian Christian.  I am likewise a United Methodist elder.  I’ve read the Book of Discipline and I know what is expected of elders.  Being a chaplain in a university does not absolve me of that responsibility.  Maybe it does not extend to public prayers for the university, but I’m nonetheless ill at ease with working at a United Methodist-related institution and hiding Christ behind a veil of language that allows us all to fill in the “God” blanks with our whatevers.

Second, to the degree that we United Methodists permit or encourage this way of “intending,” we engage in a practice that corrodes and ultimately destroys unity.  I believe it is one of the reasons we are imploding as a denomination.  (There, I said it again.)  We cannot assume that using the same words represents shared “intensions.”  We must in certain basic and recognizable ways “intend” the same Object, the same Story, the same Meaning if we want to be a recognizable faith community.  This does not mean lockstep agreement on every question or item of concern, but it does mean some degree of unity on core substantive beliefs.

I think this logic I’m trying to work out here applies in a variety of extremely important ways.  I blogged a few weeks ago about “resurrection.”  Here’s another word we United Methodists can use together, but mean significantly different things.  If I mean “bodily” and you mean “symbolic, not bodily,” then we “intend” two different events using the same word.  Logically, we have the old problem of “A” and “not-A.”  “A” and “not-A” are mutually exclusive.  Practically, those different events lead to different experiences of “Gospel.”  And to different experiences of “God.”

Pretty soon, we have to start wondering if we really are of the same ilk.  And that’s my interest and desire.  Not who we can exclude.  Not some faux doctrinal “purity” for the church. Not a power grab for control of denominational levers.

I’m looking for my family.

 

 

 

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. Richard H says:

    It’s bad enough that we have to be genetically religious at public events – as you note it’s downright painful to have to be so in our own institutions.

    Reading William Cavanaugh this morning I came across a discussion where he says our culture now looks for catholicity in the state rather than the church. As long as the church is specifically Christian, it is sectarian, falling away from the Catholicity of the broader culture (benignly ruled by the state).

    • That’s a perceptive observation by Cavanaugh. I’ve noticed around here how people use the term “ecumenical” to refer to interfaith gatherings. So, the state is taking over functions of the church (not a new thing) and other religious terms are being stretched to mean something else.

  2. At my son’s graduation from American University (a UM-affiliated university) the graduation prayer was by a Muslim, but the prayer was so aggressively non-sectarian that you would have never known the person had any faith at all.

    That was the only remotely religious moment in the ceremony. All the other times God or religion came up during the ceremony it was to criticize them.

  3. I, too, am looking for my family in the church that ordained me and endorsed my for extension ministry. My setting as a military chaplain is somewhat different than yours – employed by the government, working settings that are at times secular, at times interfaith and at times broadly ecumenical. Even in the Christian environment of a “collective Protestant” chapel, I am still partnered with folks who understand the words we use quite differently than I do. When I am with my UM brothers and sisters, I have this feeling that it should seem more like “home” than it does. I’m sure some of it is my fault. I’ve changed in the last 30 years. It’s my Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran co-workers who have most influenced my way of thinking. But my perception of the United Methodist Church has changed in the last 30 years as well. At the beginning, it appeared to me that we were for the most part speaking the same language; now, we seem hopelessly fragmented – a Babel where our words have become empty shells.

    Anyway, I appreciate your reflections.

    If you’re interested, here are some thoughts about how I have approached the whole issue of ceremonial prayer in my environment:
    Chaplain Prayer at Military Ceremonies
    Human Need and Prayer at Military Ceremonies
    Praying in Jesus’ Name

    • Thank you, Mitchell, for the comments and the blog links. I read through these posts and they prompt a couple of thoughts. The phrase “in Jesus’ name,” can be and often is used as a kind of talisman, I agree. I’m not at all bothered by not saying those words at the end of the prayer. I am bothered, on the other hand, by never mentioning anything in the public prayers that reflects the belief that Jesus of Nazareth is the Word of God made flesh and the world’s Savior. This actually ties to the other thought. As a military chaplain, your pastoral challenges are both similar and different from mine. We’re both chaplains in religiously pluralistic settings. I work at a United Methodist-related university, a private school that is supposed to (in some way) help to advance the mission of the church. The truth is, to the extent that religion has any profile at all at my school, one would conclude that that religion is a civil (unitarian) religion.

  4. Charles Horton says:

    Perhaps a starting point as solution to the search for family is to regularly have one-on-one conversations with people – “discovery” sessions you might say – where each begins by reviewing, in a few sentences, the most fundamental, even immutable belief of their faith toward salvation, in the hope that both their intension and intention will turn out to be the same, or at the least similar enough for them to be able to say ‘as we walk together, we are agreed’ a la Amos 3:3. How can two walk together in agreement accept they talk it over first? For example, my opening words would be something like “Recognizing myself as one who sins and my belief in Jesus’ atonement for it, along with my belief in Jesus’ resurrection, thanks to hundreds of eyewitnesses described in the Bible, gives me hope for my own resurrection when he returns to the earth to rule with his saints, one of whom would be me, and another of whom would be you.” It’s kind of like the Israelite parents who were told to repeat over and again to their children the events of their escape from Egypt. It was as much so the parents would not forget as to teach their children.

    • Thank you, Charles. You suggest an idea that presents an interesting image to my mind. What would it be like to have a group of United Methodists who belong to the same congregation sitting around tables in the fellowship hall, having that kind of conversation. I wonder what it would reveal and I wonder, likewise, what kind of effect it would have on the way people talk about beliefs and, more importantly, on the life of the congregation going forward.

  5. James Lung says:

    Interesting post. As a Christian, I have a problem with the Alcoholics Anonymous invocation of the god of (my, your) understanding. That’s necessary because Alcoholics are insane, and have no business quarreling over theology. Our common ministry (family, if you will) is to not pick up a drink and take the message of sobriety through the 12 steps to another suffering alcoholic. Period. And the acknowledgement that we cannot do it without the help of a higher power is all the theology we need.

    I’ve previously expressed my disdain for the God language (using whatever gerund the speaker conjures up) in the context of what should be Christian worship. The tradition should be the source of our prayer language, and by tradition I mean what the church has always and everywhere believed taught and confessed upon the basis of the word of God concerning the Trinity. Certainly, lowest common denominator religion has no place in the family of the people of God who confess Jesus Christ as Son, Savior, and Lord.

    I’m just glad that you have to negotiate the language minefield in your important Ministry.

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