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.