When I look at the current landscape of United Methodism in America (and beyond this ecclesial context), one of the divisions I see is about where our concepts find their definition. We Methodist Christians have some important vocabulary, mostly shared with other Christians. Concepts central to our way of talking include things like God, Love, Spirituality, Justice, and Peace. At least some of these, Love and Justice seem to be at the fore these days, are particular flashpoints for us.
How do we know what these words mean? One way to approach the definition of these terms is to burrow into the scriptures and the Christian tradition. When we examine those sources we find significant use of these terms and their cognates. We see them fleshed out in various ways over the last few millennia.
Another way to understand these words is in terms of our culture. These words all have a meaning in our culture (and except for Spirituality, have long histories of use). When we look at our culture we see a multiplicity of ways in which these words are used, with perhaps one or two uses coming to the front as most important.
If we take this second approach, a possible strategy is to say, “We already know what these words mean. When we turn to the Christian tradition we may or may not find them illustrated or instantiated.” Culture, for example, tells us the meaning of “God.” God is the supreme being, that which is of ultimate concern. When we turn to the Bible, we see that the God of Israel (in the Old Testament) and the God of Jesus (in the New Testament) are illustrations or manifestation of this god we know as “supreme being” or “ultimate concern.” We do not require the Bible or the Christian tradition to tell us about this god. This god has already made this god known to all people, to at least some degree.
One might take this approach with the other concepts mentioned. Our culture already knows what “justice” is. When we look at the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, we see a recurring concern for justice. At least sometimes the justice of the Bible matches up with our current understanding of the term.
At the point we can make a chronological assessment. History is going somewhere – it is going forward, it is advancing. It is obvious that we know more now than did our ancestors. We need go no further than the massive advances in science, though we can also point to advances in morality. Where the ancients, including those in the Bible, once put forward admonitions like “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth,” we now recognize that as barbaric. We now know better than they did then.
That these two basic approaches exist is by no means new. In the late 18th century Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote a series of “speeches” to the “cultured despisers” of Christianity. They had taken the position that their generation, so far advanced in reason as it was, had advanced beyond the need for religion. Religion was for the primitives, the uneducated, the non-rational. Modern and rational people could not take it seriously. Schleiermacher (and later those who came in the tradition stemming from his work) asked them to hold up. The very values his enlightened friends took up, were the same values of the Bible. If they examined the Christian tradition the right way, they would find those values and truths illustrated there.
The Schleiermacherian position has not gone unchallenged. Most famously, Karl Barth subjected it to his general criticism of natural theology. Barth took a version of the first position I mentioned above. For Barth, we could not know God apart from revelation. We could not even know the meaning of God (if we can speak of God having a “meaning”) apart from God’s self-revelation. He would not allow that we bring to our study the concept – or even the question – of God, and then find that god instantiated in the Bible or Christian tradition.
We can imagine the same approach with regard to the other concepts I mentioned above. Following the Barthian track, we do not know what Love, Justice, Spirituality, or Peace are, apart from revelation, apart from the Christian tradition. Without deep centering in the Christian narrative and tradition, each of these remains an abstraction of vastly variable meaning.
Though our current United Methodist conflicts are ostensibly about other subjects, I believe this division lies, if not at the core, very close to it. Yet it is mostly unacknowledged. Those who adhere to the first position will say that those who hold to the second need to read their Bibles and the Christian tradition more carefully. But they are, at least for the most part, reading their Bibles and consulting the tradition. From what I see, however, they cannot imagine that meanings of these terms can find their ultimate rootings in ancient texts and the ancient (and unenlightened) cultures that produced them. On the other side, those who adhere to the second position, say that if the other side would read their Bibles properly, they’d see how important Love and Justice (in particular) are, and stop denying them to so many people.
If you’ve been following the discussion (heated arguments?), then you can see that I’m coming down with those who see the dividing issue as primarily hermeneutical. I differ from some, though, in that I don’t think it is the interpretation of particular texts that divides us (though they do) as much as it is the way our hermeneutical approaches (I use “approaches” rather than “theories” because I think the difference is more visceral than intellectual) to texts, concepts, and the cultures where they are found and where we live.
I realize I have not offered any solutions here. I don’t have any. But maybe I’ve shed a tiny bit of light.