Communities with Multiple and Conflicting Conviction Sets

In a previous post I noted McClendon & Smith’s work on the nature of convictions. Convictions are the beliefs that are so important to us that they define our identity. If we give up or change these convictions, we become significantly different people. In another post I discussed their claim that convictions also define at least some communities. While some communities have their identity rooted in geography, economics, genetics, or demography, the identity of others is importantly formed by a set of convictions.

What about the United Methodist Church? Can we say that the UMC is a convictional community? On the surface, it looks like we are. As Christians, our liturgy shares in conviction bearing/producing documents and materials. The creeds and hymns we find in our United Methodist Hymnal, the Bible itself – these are important places to look for our convictions. As United Methodist Christians, we also appear to have convictions. We can again look to our hymnal (the Wesley hymns are particularly rich sources for identifying Methodist convictions) and our Book of Discipline. In the Discipline we find the Articles of Religion and the Confession (from our EUB heritage).

On the other hand, in the generations where liberal theology has been dominant in our tradition, some of our meta-convictions have pushed us in the direction of being a non-convictional (or minimally convictional) community. The normative doctrinal pluralism of our original United Methodist doctrinal statement and the non (or even anti-) convictional nature of our seminaries point us away from the idea that we are or should be a convictional community. This has been an ongoing argument in the church since the 1968 merger, with groups like Good News and The Confessing Movement characterized as pushing against the mainstream by claiming we are a convictional community.

Dropping my attempt at objectivity for a moment, the notion that the UMC is or could be a non-convictional community seems ludicrous. The question is not whether we are a convictional community but what those convictions are and the way they will be expressed in the church.

Inasmuch as convictions are a species of belief, we can speak of there being (generally) two kinds of belief. There are beliefs about the way the world is and beliefs about what we should do in the world. Borrowing some language from John Searle’s philosophy, we might describe the former as having a “belief to world direction of fit” (trying to represent the world rightly), the latter as having a “world to belief direction of fit” (trying to make the world right). That at least some of our convictions have an outward view means that convictions have “real world” consequences.

At least some of our current trajectories toward disunity lie in convictional differences. The presenting issue these days revolves around the issue of homosexuality, but draws on a network of convictions including those dealing with hermeneutics (the authority and interpretation of scripture), anthropology, soteriology, and ecclesiology. We are, as a proposed resolution at the last General Conference declared, “not of one mind” on the subject of homosexuality. Or, put in the terms used here, we do not have a shared set of convictions on the subject. Our convictional differences lie in both types. We have United Methodists whose conviction set about the way things are in the world connects with a set about what we are to do, that results in the consequent conviction that “full inclusion” is the only appropriate action. We also have United Methodists whose conviction set about the way things are in the world is rather different, connecting with an again rather different set of convictions about what we are to do, resulting in the consequent conviction that the practice of any form of non-heterosexual marital sexuality is to be avoided.

If we had a congregational or highly individualistic conviction set, the church could just settle into a fully “local option,” with each church and each pastor doing as they saw fit. Unfortunately, the United Methodist conviction set still (largely) contains convictions that mitigate against such individualism. We are the church together. We are all one church. Our theology of ministry (centered on the concept of itineracy) treats all clergy as functionally alike and therefore interchangeable.

The easiest way forward is for one side to give in and submit to the other, either willingly or under coercion. This is the way teleological communities (organizations) work, after all. Our current Discipline puts most of the pressure on those who advocate “full inclusion.” The Discipline explicitly declares that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” that same sex weddings are not to be celebrated by our clergy or in our churches, and the “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” are not to be ordained. These institutionalized convictions, inasmuch as they become less shared, are seen as purely coercive, rather than persuasive. Though these rules are still on the books, the past couple of years have seen them increasingly ignored in large swathes of the church.

Given where we are now, I do not know the way forward. I and others are loath to go the way of coercion. The willingness to talk about “amicable separation” is at least partly due to the desire to avoid coercion. I agree with McClendon and Smith when they note:

“If we regard integrity and a certain degree of consistency as important elements in being a person, we should neither expect not want others’ convictions to be easily changed or lightly given up. On the other hand, if we have a true esteem for our own convictions, we will want them to be shared in appropriate ways by anyone whom we regard.”

Thinking in terms of the Golden Rule, I would not like it if I were coerced to give up my convictions or to act contrary to my convictions. I would feel like my integrity was being violated. For this reason, I would rather our church not be an institution characterized by constant trials of dissidents or by numerous people being forced to give up their convictions.

Yet we are a convictional community as well. Just as I am against the idea of coercion, I am also convinced that a convictionally fragmented (or minimized) community will be a weaker and less effective presence in the world, less faithful to God and less able to speak a clear word to the world.

So where do we go? I will continue to explore these themes in future posts.

Posted in Theology, United Methodism | Tagged , | 1 Comment

My People Are under Attack!

I think Christians, regardless of race or ethnicity, ought to think of themselves as co-belligerents (without bellicosity!) for the Kingdom of God. For that reason, when I hear of stories like this (church burnings in multiple states) or the murderous attack in Charleston, I feel like I am under attack. These are MY brothers and sisters, my teammates.

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Convictional Communities

Yesterday I mentioned a concept of a “conviction” as developed by James M. Smith and Jim McClendonThey say of convictions:

A conviction [is] a persistent belief such that if X (a person or community) has a conviction it will not easily be relinquished and it cannot be relinquished without making X a significantly different person (or community) than before.

That little phrase “or community” is important. Just as people can be significantly defined by their convictions, so can communities.

Now, it need not be the case that a community is defined by its convictions. The street I live on with my family is a rather cohesive neighborhood. The residents meet together a couple of times a year to enjoy each other’s company and talk about mutual interests. Here we are, about 30 houses in a city of about 80,000. This community is not, however, a convictional community. We are, at most, a locational, community: we live in the same area. We probably share some convictions – maybe even many – but since those convictions play no central role in our community, we’re not even aware of convictional commonalities that may exist.

Can we think of the United Methodist Church as a convictional community? As United Methodists, we (mostly?) share convictions that connectionalism, itinerant ministry, and grace are all good things, that infants are proper subjects for baptism, and that Methodist life is bound by important institutions beyond the local church.  As United Methodist Christians, we also share convictions with the broader (and historic) Christian community.

For some time after the 1968 merger that brought the United Methodist Church into being, there was some doubt about how we could be a convictional community. In that era, up until the new doctrinal statement produced by the 1988 General Conference, we lived under normative doctrinal pluralism (in this context, I’m counting doctrine as a kind of conviction). It was not merely that Methodists across the connection had a variety of convictions (descriptive doctrinal pluralism), but that it was thought this variety was a good thing, something we ought to cherish. Though normative doctrinal pluralism has been (mostly) sidelined in the official language of the Book of Discipline, it remains a common ethos of those raised in that era or discipled by those from that generation.

If my claims in yesterday’s post are correct, the United Methodist Church, like other communities, will have a range of convictions. While all these convictions are important in the institution’s self-definition (that’s the nature of convictions, after all), some are more important than others. As they are confronted with challenges, some will be relinquished, some transformed, some strengthened or weakened.

This kind of change is inevitable. The challenge is that the United Methodist Church is a large, international organization. Most of the convictional challenges we face, though common from place to place, are faced locally. Changes in convictional content or status in one region will likely differ from changes in other regions. Over time, these changes bring about what we might call “disunity.” One does not have to have been around the United Methodist Church many years to recognize the irony of the common typo, the Untied Methodist Church. As the church prepares for the next General Conference (2016 in Portland), voices urging unity compete with those calling for separation (amicable or not). These voices are a natural consequence of an increase in convictional pluralism/difference.

One option, traditional in recent Methodism, is to decry doctrine (convictions, in this case) as necessarily divisive. If we want unity, we must set doctrine and conviction aside in favor of love and unity. My claim is that even if it were possible for United Methodists qua United Methodists, to cease being a convictional community, it is not possible for United Methodists qua Christians, to cease being convictional. As to the former possibility, I am doubtful that United Methodism to cease being a convictional community either way.

If we cannot help but be a convictional community, where does that leave us? I’ll take that up in the next post in the series.

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Dead Men Don’t Bleed?

You’ve probably heard this old joke.

Once upon a time there was a man who was convinced he was dead. After being badgered by his friends, he finally gave in and went to a doctor. The doctor took it upon himself to convince his new patient that he was not, in fact, dead. His approach was to examine the correlation of bleeding and being dead, to reach the conclusion that dead men don’t bleed. After taking the man through several biology and medical textbooks explaining the workings of the human circulatory system, the doctor’s work culminated in a visit to a morgue. The doctor presented showed the man several dead bodies, each of which failed to bleed when cut. In a final session back in the doctor’s office, the doctor said, “So what do you think? In light of the books we’ve read and our visit to the morgue, what do you conclude?”

“Well doc, the evidence is pretty strong. You’ve convinced me. Dead men don’t bleed.”

At that point, the doctor grabs a pin and pokes his patient. Immediately blood wells up on his skin. The patient exclaimed, “What do you know – dead mean DO bleed!”

Those of us who put a value on being and being considered rational like to think that we believe what we believe because of the evidence presented to us. Being rational, as new evidence is presented, we change our beliefs. We think of the patient in the joke as an irrational fellow, one who when confronted with clear and obvious evidence, simply refuses to believe the facts.

The problem is that most all of us have beliefs that are mostly impervious to evidence. Come what may, we will tenaciously and stubbornly hold to these beliefs. Such beliefs may change, but only at a high cost.

In his work with James M. Smith, Jim McClendon calls these tenacious beliefs convictions. They say of convictions:

A conviction [is] a persistent belief such that if X (a person or community) has a conviction it will not easily be relinquished and it cannot be relinquished without making X a significantly different person (or community) than before.

As a “species of belief,” convictions exist alongside many other kinds of belief. Many, if not most of these other beliefs are easily and often amenable to change. Let’s say I believe that avocados are on sale for a quarter at the Dairy Queen at the end of my street. My family (well, some of us) love avocados. DQ is close. A quarter for an avocado is much lower than I’ve seen the price anywhere in years. Acting on this belief, I walk down to the DQ. And what do you know? I discover that the DQ doesn’t even sell avocados! It’s a restaurant, not a grocery store, so it only sells prepared foods. Even though the claim “Avocados are available for a quarter at the DQ” is something I want to believe, something to my advantage given my taste for avocados, I will relinquish this belief fairly easily. It simply isn’t a conviction.

When it comes to “Eating avocados is a good thing for me,” I’m dealing with a belief I’m much less likely to relinquish. I’ve read articles to the effect that avocados are nutritional fruits, so even if I someday encounter another article that says they are really horrible, it will take more convincing to make me change my mind. Even so, my belief about the goodness of avocados, though not so easily relinquished, is not a conviction for me. I like avocados, I happily eat avocados, but they’re just not that important in the overall scheme of life.

The fellow in the joke I began with had a conviction” He was dead. When confronted with a strong theory and practical experience to support that theory, he stuck with his conviction. We may think this fellow is silly (that’s why we call it a joke), but we can learn something important from his story.

First, we all have convictions, deep beliefs that define us as who we are. Some have very few beliefs that are this deep and self-defining, others have several.

Second, we discover that a belief is a conviction only through testing. Apart from testing, we may think a belief is a conviction, but if it is easily relinquished, it doesn’t measure up to the criteria. On the other hand, we may discover through the process of testing that a belief we thought wasn’t very important to us is in fact a conviction.

Thirdly, sometimes our convictions are at variance with others around us. Since convictions are a major part of what defines us, this is only to be expected. If our convictions are at variance with the majority who live around us, we’re likely to generate more push-back (conflict), particularly if our convictions have some form of public manifestation.

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The “We Need More Guns” Solution

The standard response of one side to horrendous shootings is, “We need gun control!” I’m not going to address that now. The standard response from the other side is, “We need more guns. If we had more guns, particularly more good people with guns, they could stop rampaging murderers in their tracks.”

It is likely true that in at least some circumstances armed good guys will be able to stop armed bad guys before they perpetrate as much death and destruction as they would like. Columnist David French suggests that if one of the Charleston congregants had been armed, fewer, if any, would have died. The main point of his piece is to generate a readiness not only to be constantly armed in public, but to be ready to shoot when the need arises.

What does it take to be ready to shoot, not a target, but a person, a fellow human being? Soldiers (like French was) receive training not only in how to shoot, but also how to overcome natural proclivities against shooting people. What good is a soldier, after all, if he’s not willing and able to kill the enemy when under attack? Police also receive training, though (and here I speak from assumption, not knowledge), their training involves much less desensitization with regard to killing others. We want soldiers to be able to kill in normal soldierly situations; we don’t want police to do so normal policing situations. Killing in war is the norm; killing in police work is supposed to be the exception.

But what happens next? Suppose the soldier actually finds herself in combat? Enemies are shooting at her and her unit. She employs her training, shoots back, and kills the enemy. What’s her attitude then? Rejoicing? Triumph? Maybe so – at least as long as the adrenaline is flowing. But is that the end of the story?

What about the police officer that kills someone, even someone who is actively threatening the lives of others? Does that officer go home feeling victorious, “Yes, I killed the perp!” Again, maybe so, at least at some point. But is that the end of the story?

We hear over and over of the phenomenon of PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Soldiers come home from war suffering from PTSD because of what they’ve seen and experienced. That experience includes not only their suffering and the suffering of their fellow Americans. It also includes the suffering they have inflicted on others. Though desensitized by their training so they could shoot to kill, the residual effects of killing, even killing obvious enemies, don’t always sit well with their psyches. Likewise with police who are involved with shootings.

Is this package – desensitization and possible PTSD – what we want for everyone? Do we want the entire populace of law-abiding citizenry to continually mentally rehearse scenarios of shooting people?

Stanley Hauerwas writes that the greatest sacrifice we ask of our soldiers is not that they be ready to give their lives, but that they be willing to kill. Taking up that mindset – and acting on it – is a sacrifice. We don’t want people feel nothing when they’ve killed others, even horrible miscreants.

And what about Christians? The folks gunned down in Charleston were Christians engaged in a prayer meeting. If they took up the attitude, “I need to be armed at all times so I can be prepared to put down rampaging murderers,” or, with a more altruistic tinge, “I need to be armed at all times so I can protect the people around me,” how would they be in line with the New Testament? At what stage of his ministry was Jesus physically and mentally prepared to kill, either to defend himself or others? At what stage of their ministries were Peter, John, James, Paul, Priscilla, Barnabas and the others prepared to kill, either to defend themselves or others?

I confess I like the idea of defending myself and my family from evil people. I would like to be a hero, saving others from the perpetrators of evil. That form of heroism, however, is not recognizably Christian. I could say something like, “Well Jesus just didn’t understand how things would be today.” Or, “Jesus never had the option of being as highly armed as his opponents; we do, so we should grab the opportunity.” Or, “Jesus would want us to defend the innocent.”

I understand this last notion – Jesus wanting us to defend the innocent. Such an idea matches my natural inclinations. My problem is that interpreting it as “being ready to kill those who threaten the innocent” simply doesn’t fit with Jesus’ words, actions, or life as a whole. It also doesn’t fit the words, actions, or lives of those who immediately followed him. In the New Testament literature there are many admonitions to embrace suffering; none to inflict suffering.

I’ve cast my lot with Jesus. I don’t always understand or even like what he says. But I’m his to command.

Posted in Current events, Jesus, Stanley Hauerwas, Violence, War | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Paying for College

I’ve only been working full time in academia for a little over three years now, so feel free to take what I say here with a grain (or bucket) of salt.

College education costs a lot. I know, not just because I had to pay for my own (back when it was cheap[er]), but because I have kids of college age. When we pay for college, what are we paying for?

The obvious answer is that we’re paying for an education. There is so much to learn and colleges are the places to get that knowledge. If we want to get the knowledge, we need to pay the college.

Not exactly. Most of the knowledge available to college students is available for free these days. Between libraries, the internet, and educated friends, pretty much anyone in America who wants knowledge, can get knowledge.

College is more than knowledge, however. We go not only to gain knowledge, but to gain skills. Again, however, at least some of those skills can be gained by other, non-college means. Some of those non-college means are even free. Others skills, however, do actually cost money. I think here of some of the skills (and accompanying knowledge) in the sciences that are gained not through books, lectures, or conversations (as in the Humanities), but through working in a lab. Labs cost money – sometimes huge piles of money, depending on your field. So when we pay for college, we’re partly paying for the labs. The cost of the lab is not merely the hardware, but also the software, i.e., humans who know how to use the hardware and can lead us in doing so.

Famously (on infamously), a large part of college expense these days is all the amenities. Dorms have to be upgrades, recreation facilities have to be state-of-the-art. All this costs money. Ok, we’ll give the colleges some money for those, too.

But maybe we don’t live on campus, or don’t care about the amenities. We’re wanting to gain knowledge in a field that doesn’t require expensive labs. We can read 5 books a week, watch the MOOC videos, engage in online conversations about all we take in. Is that enough?

Well no. At least not for most of us. Most today seem to believe that the purpose of college is to get the knowledge and skills necessary to get a Good Job. Even if we can get all the knowledge and skills required for that God Job without actually going to classes we have to pay for, and without enjoying the lush amenities, there is one thing the college offers that we cannot get for free: the certification that we actually have the knowledge and skills.  We pay the college so we can lean on its reputation to show the world that the knowledge we claim to have is real.

One reason college prices continue to rise is that the certification process is becoming more and more complicated. Once upon a time a generally recognized institution could offer a diploma, and it would mean something. There have been enough scams run over the years that the old model wore out. Each year there needs to be more detailed specification of what has been learned and how that learning can be documented. Doing all that assessment and documentation of assessment takes time – and people – and money.

But is it better than the old way? If I say that the assessment my course is that students will be able to correctly answer at least 70% of “embedded questions” on a multiple choice final exam, does that mean anything? Well, if the appropriate campus committees and authorities says it counts as real learning, then it does. Doesn’t mean that students could do as well on the same test a week, month, or year later. All it says is that when presented with the final exam, whether in a classroom, or at home with all their classnotes in front of them, they did well enough to meet the predetermined requirements of the assessment.

But there’s more to assessment than what shows up on a report card or in the issuance of a diploma. The most important part of assessment is the continuous feedback given in response to expressions of learning. I can read books or watch MOOC videos all day every day and learn little to nothing. It’s as I do something with those inputs that they become learning. Interaction with those who have traveled this way before me, often called “teachers,” is what can lead me – and others – to learn things and come to know that I’ve learned what I think I’ve learned. Feedback, and more of it, makes for real learning. If you’re looking for a real education, this is what you ought to value paying for.

Unfortunately, learning and certification of learning are not always the same thing. And the latter routinely costs more than the former.

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Getting Past the Feedback Loop

If you are up on what’s been going on in the United Methodist Church over the past generation, you know that we’re stuck in a big feedback loop over issues regarding sexuality. On the one side are those who take a position expressed in the current Book of Discipline. On the other side, are those who would like to change the position in the Discipline. As these two sides talk, the debate gets shriller and shriller. More fear is generated. Feelings are hurt, careers derailed, churches destroyed. And we keep ramping it up because we know we’re right and we have to stand for what’s right.
I have definite views on the matters at hand, but that’s not what I’m addressing now. instead, I want to consider the dynamics of the “conversation,” the feedback loop in which we find ourselves. I’d really like “my side” to win the debate, but I’m also convinced that we lose if the “other side” is crushed. As long as we continue to play into the feedback loop we continue to pursue (probably unintentionally) a lose-lose strategy disguised as “We win!”

Does that make me a “moderate,” a “centrist?” I hope not, since I don’t really care for those terms. In my experience of political debates, whether secular or ecclesial, just about everyone claims to be a moderate while they label the Other Side extremists. I find that a deceptive (and self-deceptive) game to play, so I don’t want to play it. But I’d also rather not play the feedback loop game either.

Scott Alexander (pseudonym) writes from neither a Methodist or Christian point of view. As he addresses the current warfare in the broader culture between what he calls the “Social Justice Warriors” and the “Anti Social Justice Warriors” he picks up on the same feedback loop we see in the United Methodist Church. His point is that though each side sees itself entirely in the right and its opponent entirely in the wrong and that this difference totally justifies their rhetoric and response, the actions of the two sides are symmetrical. Apart from the issue de jour, he notes that both sides are characterized by fear and insecurity. When we have large power differentials working from both sides, people (again, on both sides) often have reason to fear for their livelihoods (more often than their lives). Fear is not entirely misplaced.

What can happen, he asks, when we recognize that both sides have something to fear, something to lose? Can we gain some smidgen of sympathy for The Other Side? When we recognize that the strategies of attack and marginalization taken up by our side mirror those taken up by the other side, can we edge toward reining ourselves in (or, using Christian-speak), repenting? Even a little bit?

Yes, yes, I know that extremism in pursuit of justice/truth/holiness/inclusion can never be a bad thing. Well, actually, if my “extremism” we mean “the end justifies the means” then I don’t know that. In fact, I deny it. If we follow a Jesus who fought to the bitter end to coerce his society and its institutions to Do The Right Thing, then sure, maybe that kind of extremism is the way to go. But that’s not the Jesus I see in the New Testament. There I see a Jesus who confronted the evils of sin, death, and hell – and their various manifestations in the world – by suffering and dying. The poor fellow didn’t even defend himself!

Of course, we might say, Jesus (and the apostles in the succeeding age) had it easy. They had the advantage of clarity: it was them vs. the world. In our debate we see no clear lines (despite our rhetoric that treats The World, with its full evil connotations drawn from scripture, as monolithic, and unambiguously allied with The Other Guys) between Church and World. Sin and wrongness is in here (the church) and not just out there (in the world). Even saying this can get us steamed and back into the feedback loop.

So I’m going to try acting as if the end does not justify the means. Jesus cares about the ends. I think I’ve correctly grasped at least some of those ends he cares about (and that some other folks are clearly wrong). But Jesus also cares about the way I pursue those ends.

I’m going to go ahead and make comments now and then, arguing as I think is right and beneficial to the church (local and universal). But I’m going to try not playing the game that leads back into our currently destructive feedback loop. We’ll see what comes of it.

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