Not of One Mind

Like many United Methodists (and others watching us), I have been trying to keep up with the details of the plans on offer to the 2019 General Conference.  As alternate proposals and modifications are advanced, the picture both clarifies and gets more complex and confusing.  As the King of Siam loved to say in “The King and I, “It’s a puzzlement.”  Except it’s far more serious.

I won’t go over ground already well gone over by others, and maybe they have also already commented on what I’m about to say, but, as I began to work through the plans, I was immediately stopped dead in my tracks.  The One Church Plan, which is the first the reader encounters, in its opening sentence, proposes to amend paragraph 105 of the Book of Discipline with these words: “We agree that we are not of one mind regarding human sexuality.”

With a little thought, this opening statement reveals itself as a stunner because it works on a volatile ambiguity.  If “we” refers to the opinions of individual delegates or the positions of caucus groups, then “we are not of one mind” is blindingly obvious and superficially persuasive.   But “we” also must include the General Conference vote as a whole.  “We” in this second sense is radically different than “we” in the first sense, a distinction that makes all the difference.  From the standpoint of General Conference decisions, individual opinions or group positions don’t ultimately matter.  What matters is the final vote.  That vote renders a decision.  That vote represents the mind of General Conference.

In principle and in fact, when General Conference decides a matter, then General Conference by definition has spoken with one mind.  It could not be otherwise.  A simple majority is all that is required for the lion’s share of votes taken at General Conference.  Regularly, delegates on the “losing” side are unhappy, disappointed, even angry, but no one starts yelling “We are not of one mind,” and calling for a “do over.” Imagine the scenarios if delegates did.  Of course, they can and do take Parliamentary steps to reconsider decisions or make other moves to modify them.  Such procedural moves are part of the Parliamentary process, designed to help a body function properly, not undermine its own decision-making function.  When the process is abused and manipulated, nobody wins.  Nothing good can come from it.

From a Parliamentary point of view, then, “we are not of one mind” is plainly false and should not be written into the Book of Discipline.  The outcome of enacting this falsehood has been a long, costly, arduous and ultimately inconclusive process.  I have read reference to members of the Commission on a Way Forward admitting, “No one’s mind was changed.”  Mutual understanding?  Yes?  New friendships?  Yes.  Deep prayer and honest conversation?  Yes.  (All valuable, to be sure.)  Movement on the question before them?  No.  Improving the likelihood of a decent and orderly GC 2019?  No.  Think of that  for a moment.

In effect, then, a group of delegates at GC 2016 managed to avoid one more round of agonistic but probably status quo votes by procedural sleight-of-hand that trades on the ambiguity of “We are not of one mind.”  Individual delegates clearly were and are not of one mind.  But General Conference not of one mind?  No.  I am stating an obvious Parliamentary fact.

Consider this irony.  The vote that set in motion the Council of Bishops’ formation of the Commission on a Way Forward and all that has transpired since GC 2016 was decided by only the slimmest of majorities.  I myself heard a bishop who is enthusiastically promoting the One Church Plan say so.  Think about that for a moment.  By the logic of “We are not of one mind,” then that vote should also have been questioned, etc., ad infinitum.

Think about the ramification of writing this statement into the Book of Discipline.  Any time a vote goes contrary to the way some bloc of delegates prefers, they can claim with good precedent, “We are not of one mind,” and call for an alternate process that buys them time for advocacy that might sway the subsequent vote.  It fairly begs to be used whenever a group of delegates deems it necessary.  Does this situation not look very similar to what is happening in the United States Congress?  It is to our shame.

I hope an amendment to the One Church Plan removes this troubling statement from paragraph 105.  But more importantly, I pray that we come to recognize how much “We are not of one mind…” tellingly (and again, ironically) diagnoses the disease of our body ecclesial.

On the Topic of Divine Speaking

I recently read a book that I’d like to commend: Mats Wahlberg, Revelation as Testimony: A Philosophical-Theological Study (Eerdmans, 2014).  Why?  United Methodists need to have serious dialogue about how we view scripture as a whole (and what principles of interpretation we use) rather than continuing to fight about whether the Bible says A, B or C about topics like homosexuality.  In other words, opponents need to expose and examine their assumptions about scripture to each other with the goal of understanding first, before trying to settle the argument.

Books like Revelation as Testimony help tremendously.  The author’s key claims are (1) testimony is a form of knowledge, and (2) the scriptures stand as divine testimony.  “God reveals by speaking and we acquire knowledge of God and divine things by believing what God says.” (2)  In very clear prose, he explains why he thinks these claim are true.

Before getting to some of his major points, a word about epistemology, or the philosophy concerning knowledge.  How do we know that we know what we think we know?  A huge question.  Philosophers generally identify the following as sources of knowledge.  First is perception.  I sit at the kitchen table looking at my laptop while I key in these words.  I immediately perceive a computer (without having to think it through to a conclusion) and I trust that my senses are working properly (they can be deceived, but generally, we trust our senses).  Second is memory.  I think about a conversation I had with Joni yesterday and memories come to mind.  (Again, memory can be faulty, but under normal conditions, we trust our memory beliefs, therefore we can say that we know what we remember.)  Next is inference or induction.  I want to determine what I know about the talks between Kim Jong-Un and President Trump.  I read two or three news articles from a variety of slants.  I work through logically to what I think are the best conclusions.  Finally, testimony also is widely, though not universally, regarded as a source of knowledge.  (See, for example, Robert Audi, Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction.)

Now back to the book.  Wahlberg first criticizes what he calls the “manifestational” theory of revelation associated with a number of well known thinkers.  That is, God does not speak, but reveals God’s nature only through historical events or through transcendental experience.  Words may attend these experiences, but the words come from humans trying to make sense of the experience or event.  Wahlberg takes on the likes of Immanuel Kant, Friederich Schleiermacher and, more recently, Gordon Kaufman.  Their views, Wahlberg says, dismiss divine speaking such that we ultimately can know very little about God. Wahlberg has much to say about how and why he thinks their conclusions are weak.

Wahlberg then unpacks his view of testimony as knowledge.  Much of our knowledge comes to us via testimony.  What qualifies as testimony?  One example: when a teacher summarizes a bit of historical background on some major personality or set of events, the teacher is effectively testifying to us, the listeners, from what she knows.  We do not try to confirm independently everything the teacher claims.  The same with textbooks we use in class.  The content of the textbook is effectively the testimony of the author.

Second, Wahlberg uses Nicholas Wolterstorff’s work, Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks, and his use of speech act theory to get at how God speaks through human means.  This part of the book is particularly important because it shows how one can hold to a propositional sense of divine revelation without lapsing into problems related to claims of inerrancy.  Wahlberg concludes that the scriptures contain propositional content that results from and rely on divine speech.  Many of us learned in seminary to be very wary about (no, frankly, we learned to dismiss pretty much out of hand) talk of propositional revelation.  Wahlberg is no fundamentalist.  He is, in fact, a Catholic philosopher/theologian making sophisticated, nuanced arguments.

This book is carefully and irenically written.  In addition to his substantive claims, he discusses the morally important principle of “doxastic responsibility.”  “Doxastic” is a term that refers to how we form knowledge beliefs (yes, it has connections to “__dox” in “orthodox).  All of us form beliefs about God’s speech and activity and we need to form those beliefs carefully and responsibly.

Now, why do I bother bringing up what seems like an annoying, abstract, academic argument?  Because I believe very strongly that theologically trained leaders of the church need to go back to school.  We need to return to questions that seem long-answered and unnecessary to revisit, but in fact, we do need to revisit them.

As I said, we need to get our basic assumptions about scripture out in the open for our opponents to examine.  If I have a “manifestational” view of revelation, I will read the texts as more or less exclusively human documents, as, at best, witnesses to divine revelation.  I will be aware of their diversity and their timebound characteristics.  If I believe the Bible is God’s Word, but I don’t really have a good way of understanding how divine and human speech work together in scripture, then I should be subject to the criticism that my view is simplistic and not fitting for good interpretation.  I need to explain why and how I think the Bible is God’s revelation.

Perhaps more than anything – and here I show my true colors – I wish for those of you who think we evangelicals and “conservatives” are no more than fundamentalist wolves in sheep’s clothing, that you would realize we actually have good, strong reasons to think as we do.  Our “high” view of scripture is not just mindless fideism, but carefully considered and compelling.

A lot of good work has been done in biblical studies as well as in philosophy of religion that supports an orthodox understanding of scripture and the Christian faith.  On the topic of revelation, in addition to the two books I have mentioned, I add Billy Abraham’s Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation, Colin Gunton’s A Brief Theology of Revelation, Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief, William Alston’s Perceiving God, and Caroline Franks Davis’ The Evidential Force of Religious Experience.  They are all scholars of the first rank.

I doubt that taking a step back to expose and examine our basic beliefs about scripture as a whole will change much in how votes go down at General Conference.  But I do believe that we could once again look at each other as Christian brothers and sisters who have carefully thought-out beliefs.  We might find some common ground, but if we don’t, then at least we can part from one another peaceably.

 

Misusing Fowler’s Faith Stages: An Object Lesson

James Fowler’s Stages of Faith has been a staple in certain seminary courses since the 1980s.  While subsequent scholarship has criticized and refined the theory, it continues to exercise wide impact.  Unfortunately it also has been misused, with dreadful results.

Fowler’s theory involves six stages, from childhood forms of faith (intuitive and mythic), to adolescent and emerging adult forms that call for moving from belief on the basis of external authority to critically considering, sorting and “owning” one’s faith.  In later stages (conjunctive and universalizing) generally more middle age or older folk become possessed of the deep mystery and are able both to hold firmly to their particular commitments and remain open – the virtue of epistemic humility –  to more expansive expressions of faith.   Each stage is generally associated with a certain segment of the life course, but these transitions or “conversions” are not automatic, nor tightly restricted to a particular chronological age.

Fowler’s stages 3 and 4 are of particular concern because so much of the misuse has happened here.  Stage 3 is labeled “synthetic-conventional” faith.  It is described as sincere but unreflective reliance on “what I was taught” by authority figures: parents, teachers, pastors, youth leaders.  If a person settles for conventional stage 3 faith (Fowler calls the settling”equilibrium”) it means that a person’s system of beliefs and values, though sincerely held, remains tacit, unexamined. (p. 161)  The growth challenge is to make the uncritically-accepted system of beliefs “the object of reflection.” (p. 162)

As a person becomes aware that she or he has never seriously reflected on the conventionally-held belief system, she or he is challenged to “leave home,” so to speak.  (Going off to college is both a literal and metaphorical leaving home, which is why the college years are understood to be so important.  Enlisting in the military is also a big leaving home.)  “Leaving home” provokes critical reflection and the opportunity for growth toward stage 4, an “individuative-reflective” faith, which leads to more adequate (critical) awareness of one’s beliefs and taking responsibility for refining them and making them truly one’s own. (p. 182)

Stage 4 faith, therefore, is considered a more mature version of faith than stage 3.  And precisely here the insidious, corrosive misuse of Fowler’s theory starts.  I would bet that almost all of us who received instruction on Fowler in mainline seminaries picked up the idea (whether we agreed or not) that traditional Christian doctrinal beliefs are “conventional,” suggesting that those who maintain traditional, orthodox beliefs are stuck in stage 3.  They have “foreclosed.”  They refuse to grow to a more mature faith.

The first mistake in this sincerely held, usually gently put, but still condescendingly delivered viewpoint is of the category kind.  Fowler’s theory is about psychological processes, not theological reflection per se.  (Fowler had his theological commitments, which I’ll get to momentarily.)  As James Loder pointed out and as Fowler himself said, this theory is about ego development.  It uses the word “faith” phenomenologically, not tied to any specific theological or religious viewpoint.  Everyone needs to move  from stage 3 synthetic-conventional to stage 4 individuative-reflective faith, not just traditional Christians.  Modern, mainline Protestant theological education is rife with the bias that somehow traditional, conservative, evangelical, orthodox students especially (solely?) need to do this work. There is an appropriate word for this prejudice, which I won’t use here, but anybody hanging around cattle knows what it is.  Worse, it is a terrible disservice to students, maybe even abusive.

Yes, traditional students need to do this reflective work toward stage 4 because everybody needs to do this work.  Linda Mercadante’s book on the spiritual-but-not-religious, mentioned in a previous post, provides examples.  She discovered a significant number of people who grew up in atheist or agnostic homes who, by Fowler’s theory, are classic examples of stage 3 faith. (Remember, “faith” does not have to be tied to religion.)  In my nearly twenty-five years of working with college students, faculty and staff, I have encountered many people “stuck in stage 3” and their “stuckness” had nothing to do with their theological viewpoints.

One particularly egregious scenario is of the student (or a college-educated person) who “took a class” in religion and “now knows” that the Bible is full of fairy tales and textual corruptions.  Or that the Council of Nicaea was little more than a political grudge match among bishops.  How did they come to this conclusion?  Perhaps a few on the basis of careful engagement with a range of ideas, but far more because the professor (or the book) said so, probably not overtly, but by means of suggestion and inference.  This person, now thinking that she or he is well-informed because of the class (or the book), has simply shifted allegiance to the new point of view on the basis of the new authority.  They have traded one version of “what I was taught” for another.

A second significant problem serves as an important object lesson for our United Methodist battles.  Because Stages of Faith is scientific and descriptive, it is generally understood as not suffering the problem of bias like traditional Christian doctrines supposedly do.  After all, Fowler’s work is based on thousands of hours of clinical research.  It is rigorously empirical, which purportedly gives it privileged epistemic status.  However, as one quickly realizes, even empirical work is based on theory, on background belief(s).  Fowler’s views were shaped by Immanuel Kant’s critiques.  (See Stages, p. 44.)  I won’t take the space here to detail Kant’s distinction between noumena and phenomena, but it bears directly on how many mainline Protestants, including Fowler, think about Christian doctrine.

Therefore, if you “buy” Fowler’s work uncritically, you are also “buying” his Kantian biases.  They predispose people to think of “faith” as a universal human phenomenon that is primary and all theological systems of “belief” as secondary constructions, subsequent to the experience of faith.  Yes, belief systems are important because we use them to “make meaning,” (a ubiquitous phrase, or is it an ubiquitous phrase?), but all belief systems stand in a dependent relation to “faith.”  This bias privileges “spirituality” over “religion” and downplays the epistemic value of religious dogma or doctrine.  Notice how Sharon Daloz Parks, Fowler’s famous PhD student and an enormously influential writer in higher education, characterizes “dogma” in her widely read Big Questions, Worthy Dreams

Serious reflection on Fowler’s faith stages theory should help us see both its value and its limits.  His theory instructs all of us regardless of our theological identity.  Anyone can be unthinkingly tied to a set of beliefs.  It is not the special problem of Christian traditionalists.

A United Methodist Magisterium

A couple of weeks ago, I shared my view that a future United Methodism, whatever form(s) it takes, will still need clear doctrine, strong teaching, and effective measures of accountability.  Let me try to extend that thought by suggesting that, with regard to clarifying what we believe and teach, we United Methodists need something like a magisterium.

By using this term, “magisterium,” I allude to the Roman Catholic Church’s body tasked with this teaching authority.  I do not mean that we simply borrow the structure, but we need something like it.  Maybe our standing committee on faith and order can develop into something comparable.  It remains to be seen.

Perhaps, some may think, I’m just being sensationalistic, seeing a problem where there isn’t one.  Consider this example.  For a writing project I’ve undertaken, I just finished a book by Professor Linda Mercadante of Methodist Theological School in Ohio (METHESCO).  She is an expert on the spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNR) and this book shows that expertise.  She brings to light some of the common beliefs and sensibilities that she surfaced during interviews.  For instance, the SBNR generally believe in an impersonal energy or life force rather than a personal, interactive God.  They are monists (e.g. all reality is one, no God distinct from creation).  They privilege the individual self as the “locus of authority” rather than a community.  Even though they in principle value community, they are suspicious of groupthink and of being “pinned down” to any one tradition.  They also exhibit a utilitarian sensibility about ethics, with happiness and “what is beneficial” as the supreme good.  There is much more, but hopefully this little bit shows that, on examination, SBNR looks more like a “religion” than practitioners probably want to admit.

One of the other noticeable features of Mercadante’s book is how often her interview subjects grew up with no stable religious background or in mainline Protestant congregations that tended to avoid the “exclusivity” associated with doctrinal particularity.  Here we get to the rub.  I winced at the number of times the book mentions a SBNR person talking with a United Methodist pastor who seemed to affirm the SBNR path:

Jack Campbell was another especially articulate interviewee.  As a child he had been a very active and conservative Catholic.  But now he was trying to live “hybridly,” considering himself “a decent Buddhist” but also involved in a United Methodist Church.  When he told the pastor about his dual allegiance, the pastor told him it did not matter, saying, “It’s a broad tent, and you decide.  I don’t decide.” (p. 105)

What, exactly, “does not matter?”  In what sense, does a pastor “not decide” the doctrinal leanings of a congregant?  Of course, no one can make a person believe a belief, but should a pastor abdicate the authority of the teaching role by this allegedly democratic reply?  I am aware that people explore affinities between Christian and Buddhist practices, but the implication that “all faiths teach basically the same thing” (i.e. the “broad tent”) – a point Professor Mercadante criticizes – is one a United Methodist pastor should not encourage.

This example raises another question.  Does a United Methodist clergy have the freedom to adopt this approach to pastoral ministry?  To teach in her or his parish or place of ministry doctrines that she or he thinks are true and good, even if they go contrary to United Methodist teachings?  (The Book of Discipline says no, but my purpose at this point is not to get into matters of accountability.)  I’m curious how this pastor got the idea that it does not matter that a member is both a practicing Buddhist and a United Methodist Christian and, further, that both systems fit within a (single) “big tent.”

And more to the point, should the denomination as a whole, represented by a qualified group tasked with clarifying and upholding United Methodist doctrine, have a stake in this pastor’s response?  I think the denomination does have a stake in what an individual United Methodist clergy teaches.  And I think we need a qualified body to help us clarify and promulgate United Methodist teaching, with the authority to say, “X is (or is not) what our church teaches. To be a member in good standing, one must accept and live by this teaching.”  We need more than mere assent to statements, of course, but, for starters, we need to (re)gain some clarity about what we believe and teach.

We have resources.  We have the ecumenical creeds.  We have the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith.  We have the General Rules.  We have Wesley’s Standard Sermons and Notes on the New Testament.  And we have the Social Principles and, more distantly, the Book of Resolutions.  We have many resources to hand. What we don’t have is clarity with integrity.  We need help.  We need to extend beyond the Articles of Religion, etc. to get at other topics.  What are beliefs and practices that inhere in, that logically follow, from our doctrinal standards?  Not only what they are, but also how to rank them, so that we have some guidance on the relative importance of any given teaching, somewhat along the lines of the Catholic principle of subsidiarity.

This undertaking will take time.  And patience.  And the fruit of the Spirit evident in those tasked with the job.  And Christian charity from the rest of us.

I wonder how the past forty years might have gone differently, had we had such a body in place.  I’m not talking about study commissions or committees.  We’ve had plenty of them.  I’m talking about something much more stable and long term, with people qualified in character and content.  Given the kind of polity we currently have, we won’t be a truly mature, mission-focused church until we also have something like a magisterium.

 

What We Would Still Face if United Methodism Holds

The Council of Bishops have gathered in Dallas for the latest round of discussions about United Methodism’s future.  We eagerly and anxiously await a word.  Many United Methodist are praying for wisdom for our leaders, for good outcomes, for unity.  In my daily prayer time, I pray for our bishops and other leaders.  As I was praying this morning, a thought came back to me.

Let’s say that, by some dramatic move of God, The United Methodist Church remains united. We come through the fire with new life.  Where would we stand in general?  What challenges would we face?

First, we still will need a core of doctrinal unity, a core that matters to all of us.  There is a deep reflex in United Methodism to downplay doctrine for the sake of mission.  I sometimes put it facetiously this way, “Yeah, we all know we love Jesus.  Let’s just go do something (good for the world).”  We should know by now that we cannot trade doctrine for mission.  They are inextricably bound together.

So, which doctrines?  Take Easter, for example.  What do we celebrate on Easter Sunday (and every other Sunday)?  The bodily resurrection of Jesus?  Do we believe – as a denomination – that Jesus “did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature…?”  (Article III of the Articles of Religion)

Either Jesus rose bodily from the grave (by the way, I’m NOT talking about resuscitation, but resurrection) or he did not.  If he did, then we think in radically new ways about the world, about human life and destiny, about reality.  If Jesus did not rise bodily from the grave, then we may have reason to honor his memory and teachings, but a dramatically different religion emerges than one proclaiming that God Incarnate died and rose again.

Yes, there is overlap in activity of course.  If you believe that Jesus rose from the grave, you still take his words to heart, “Just as you did it (or did not) to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Mt. 25:40)  If you do not believe that Jesus rose bodily from the grave, but nevertheless came to show us the reign of God, you take these words to heart.  But the motive for doing so is different and the envisioned outcome – what we think we’re bearing witness to –  is entirely different.

Think of how the bodily resurrection affects our understanding of atonement.  How does the cross look if Jesus did truly rise from the dead or if he did not?  Is it God Incarnate hanging on a cross and dying for the world’s sins or is it the heroic death of a human filled with God consciousness?  Think of how this belief affects how we structure worship?  How we talk about all manner of faith questions.

There can be real value for people in a religion that does not understand Jesus to have risen bodily from the grave, but, whatever else it may be, it is not the faith once delivered to the saints and it is not in keeping with United Methodist doctrinal standards.  A future United Methodism will have to get very clear about basic points of dogma like this one.  Otherwise, we will repeat a very sad history.

Which leads to a further point: if we stay together, we still will need effective means of accountability and discipline for when we wander from our core beliefs and mission.  Any organization that does not have a good accountability measures is not worth joining.  If we want to win young people, we had better show them that we take our own stated beliefs seriously enough that we are willing to bench people for not keeping faith with our mission.  Otherwise, they won’t bother joining us, and why should they?  In a new United Methodist future, we will need to face this challenge squarely, courageously, lovingly, effectively.

Can we be flexible and generous?  Of course!  Accountability does not mean that we’re hellbent on kicking people out.  It means that we prove in practice that we believe what we say we believe.  If we really believe we serve God’s transforming mission, then discipline in light of that vision is a necessity.  It is too important a task to wander from it and act as if wandering doesn’t matter.  If we are lax in discipline, we bear witness to the world that we really don’t believe what we say we believe.  And that makes us not worth listening to.

Because of these first two reasons, we need, thirdly, to re-assert the critical role of the teaching office in the church.  In theological education, we need to teach rising pastors how to be good teachers.  Jesus was called “Teacher.”  Notice how often the Gospels refer to his teaching.  The pastoral letters remind us, as do others, that the teaching office is crucial for the health of the body.  Our pragmatist bent in United Methodist culture has been devastatingly bad for our members. My heart breaks when I teach about United Methodist beliefs and structures and hear someone say, “I’ve been a Methodist all my life and I didn’t know any of this stuff.”  If a rising pastor is not a dedicated and effective teacher (and there is a wide range of effective teaching styles and venues), that person should not be ordained to the office of elder.  We cannot dodge or delegate this responsibility.

I am praying for the healing of The United Methodist Church.  If we divide, I honesty don’t know what I’ll do.  Whether we split or don’t, we will still be left with the need for clarity about core beliefs/teachings/dogma and for courage in effectively holding ourselves accountable to the vision we believe God gave us.

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