Positive and Negative in United Methodism

Since reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality? thirty-something years ago, I’ve found great value in the definition of a tradition that he he offers there (p. 12).

A tradition is an argument extended through time in which certain fundamental agreements are defined and redefined in terms of two kinds of conflict: those with critics and enemies external to the tradition who reject all or at least key parts of those fundamental agreements, and those internal, interpretive debates through which the meaning and rationale of the fundamental agreements come to be expressed and by whose progress a tradition is constituted.

I’m a participant in the United Methodist tradition, which is itself part of larger traditions (Wesleyan, Protestant, Christian). We certainly have the “conflict” bit down, but I think we could understand it more fruitfully by considering MacIntyre. If we work from his definition of a “tradition” – and understand ourselves as participants in that tradition, we can deflate some of the tension we feel.

MacIntyre claims traditions have two kinds of conflict. The first thing we need to see is that having conflict in a tradition is normal. It’s unavoidable. It’s an essential part of what constitutes any tradition. Every living tradition has to continually answer questions of identity and mission: Who are we? What are we about? Traditions face those questions continually because our environment is constantly changing.

A second thing to notice is that conflict happens in two directions. We know there is external conflict, challenges and questions that come from outside the tradition. There is also internal conflict, “interpretive debates” within the tradition.

From these first two points I need to make two sociological observations. First, traditions are not “all inclusive.” There are people outside the tradition who are adherents of and participants in other traditions. Differentiating between traditions is part of the point of the conflict between them. The Wesleyan/Methodist tradition is not the Baptist or Roman Catholic tradition. Second, while they are not “all inclusive,” traditions are normally inclusive. They contain sufficient diversity that not all participants in the tradition always and forever only agree with each other. Difference that drives interpretive debates happens within and between traditions. I’ll come back to these sociological observations in a bit.

Given the two broad kinds of conflict MacIntyre sees (internal and external), we must consider third, what that conflicts are about. He uses the term “certain fundamental agreements.” Don’t allow pejorative uses of words like “fundamentalism” steer us away from this point. One aspect of fundamentalism is the tendency to eliminate the possibility of internal conflict by definition. Such a position would say, “Every thing that defines our tradition is essential. If there is any criticism, question, or debate about any point, that is a sure sign the person is not a member of our tradition.”

Having “fundamental agreements” is the starting point. These are what make a tradition what it is, what differentiate it from other traditions. Because the United Methodist tradition is not the Baptist or Presbyterian tradition, the fundamental agreements will look different from those other traditions. Since all three are instances of the Christian tradition, there will certainly be overlap. The doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation of the Son, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and the power of God’s grace to accomplish salvation are “fundamental agreements” common to these three traditions. When we consider the United Methodist tradition we see that the “fundamental agreement” regarding “the power of God’s grace to accomplish” salvation has a set of interpretations that differ somewhat from other Christian traditions. Sometimes these differences may appear as “conflicts,” or signs of incompatibility, sometimes they’ll be understood as different and perhaps complementary ways of talking about a common reality.

Two more questions arise when I consider our current denominational divisions. First, to what degree do we prefer to take ourselves as participants in a distinct United Methodist tradition or as participants in a distinct Wesleyan/Methodist tradition? If the emphasis is on the former, we will probably look for our fundamental agreements in this particular denomination from 1968 to now. If the emphasis is on the latter, there’s a good chance we will look farther back, probably to the 18th century and the formative first century for what we take to be the fundamental agreements. To the degree that we take this latter approach and are members of the United Methodist Church, we will read the post 1968 expressions and developments as more or less faithful to what we take to be the formative period.

We are somewhat handicapped here in that the official doctrine, what is publically identified as our “fundamental agreements,” has not and probably cannot change. The Articles of Religion, and the Sermons and Notes on the New Testament by Wesley remain the same. What changes is our interpretation and deployment of the fundamental agreements found therein.

Second, what stance do we take to these fundamental agreements? Do we approach them with “conformity” or “diversity” as the first word? I’ve seen some combatants in our current conflict who treat these two possibilities as absolute dichotomies. We either conform to our doctrine (our fundamental agreements) and are “accountable,” or we value diversity in our understanding and use of doctrine (maybe taking it “seriously, not literally”). One side will say of the other, “They don’t practice doctrinal accountability!” The other side will say, “They deny diversity and want to force everyone to conform.”

MacIntyre’s claim about the nature of traditions is a descriptive claim. It’s saying this is how traditions function, not that this is how they should function. As a MacIntyrean on this point, I think the dichotomous views fail. Except for the few that are complete relativists, each side values conformity, in some way, and to some degree. Similarly, except for the few who are fundamentalists, each side also values diversity. The original theological statement (in the Book of Discipline since 1972) made the interpretive claim of normative pluralism. A “diversity” of interpretation and deployment of our fundamental agreements was the official position of the denomination, our “doctrine about doctrine,” one might say. But did that theological statement reach the point of being a fundamental agreement about our fundamental agreements? The presence of profound critical questioning of this statement by groups like “Good News” and from pastors and laity, is the first detail that would lead me to say it didn’t. The second detail is the enactment of a new theological statement at General Conference in 1988. Just like the 1972 theological statement, this was an “official position” of the denomination. Our “doctrine about our doctrine” changed, and in the direction away from normative pluralism toward what could be called greater “conformity.” Like the 1972 statement, the1988 statement, which remains in the Book of Discipline today, has failed to become part of our “fundamental agreements.” The generation formed primarily by the 1972 statement – a generation that has controlled the teaching in most of our official seminaries (where most of our pastors are trained) – continues to stand for the normativity of the approach in that statement.

As I wrap up, let me return to the sociological observations. In our United Methodist experience we know there are traditions outside our own. Depending on where we stand in our own take on our fundamental agreements, we tend to identify our internal opponents with odious external opponents. It might be that some identify the other side as “Baptists in disguise” (since Baptists are detestable to them, and guilt by association carries a long way, or that some identify the other side as “no more than Unitarians” (seeing the Unitarian tradition as willing to part with most distinctive Christian doctrinal positions in favor of a humanistic religion). If I’m right, however, and we’re dealing with true internal conflicts, not conflicts with an external enemy/opponent/competitor, then perhaps it could be to our advantage to recognize this. We have been participants in the same tradition, yet having deep interpretive arguments about some (not all!) of our fundamental agreements.

I’m not making the claim here that “separation” can or should be avoided. It might be that our fundamental agreements (and our take on what to do with our fundamental agreements, our “doctrine about our doctrine”) have reached a point of sufficient divergence that continued internal conflict keeps us from achieving our mission. What our mission is is itself part of the conflict! Two positive things to remember as division happens, are that division has happened in the past and that as remain with in the larger Wesleyan/Methodist tradition, division now need not be the final word.

This entry was posted in Alasdair MacIntyre, Discipline, Diversity, Doctrine, Ecclesiology, Theology, Tradition, United Methodism. Bookmark the permalink.

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