Room for Deterioration

Reading Albert Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty:

“The wide latitude human societies have for deterioration is the inevitable counterpart of man’s increasing productivity and control over his environment. Occasional decline as well as prolonged mediocrity—in relation to achievable performance levels—must be counted among the many penalties of progress.”

Sometimes dogs need discipline (I’m thinking here of discipline as negative consequences). They eat something they’re not supposed to eat, or destroy some valued object. I’ve heard that dogs can learn from discipline in these circumstances, but only if the discipline comes immediately enough that they can make the connection between the discipline and their action.

Maybe humans are that way too. When we experience negative consequences from our actions, we can learn to avoid those actions and choose some others. Sometimes the consequences of our actions come at such a distance from the actions themselves that we can’t see the connection. “Climate change” can go in this category. What we humans do – what we put into the atmosphere – in a single day, or even a single year, doesn’t have much discernible effect. Over time we start to see an effect. The effect comes so slowly, with no directly perceived relation to our actions, that we might be dubious about the connection.

What would happen if we there were immediate negative consequences to our putting increasing amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the air? Would that be a help? Surely the immediate negative consequences of putting our hand on the burner tell us DON’T PUT YOUR HAND ON THE BURNER!

We can turn to ethical matters. In the Old Testament, for example, we see God commanding the people of Israel to “make no graven image.” Idolatry is clearly a bad thing. God promises consequences. Generally, with a few notable exceptions, the consequences from God (as we read the Bible) do not come immediately. It seems that Israel can linger in idolatry for generations before judgment (consequences) comes. Wouldn’t it be better if those consequences would come immediately? Then we would be much clearer both as to exactly what constitutes idolatry and that we should avoid it.

What if there were no time for deterioration – no gap at all between our actions and their (total!) consequences? Surely in such cases, the more total the consequences, the less possible we could learn. We sin, we die. That quick. But, again, we almost never see that pattern in the Bible. There’s a lag between going wrong and being shown to be wrong.

In the quote above, Hirschman is looking at human societies (groups, communities, enterprises, businesses, etc.). Due to progress, these societies are not constantly at subsistence level. If they were at subsistence level, the first instance of “consequences,” or to use his word, “deterioration,” would be fatal. As things are, we can, as Hirschman notes, go along for quite a while, not doing really well – being just plain mediocre – but still getting along.

Like other institutions in our time, our United Methodist Church (in America, at least) is at the stage of deterioration. We’ve been losing members for over a generation now. We’ve closing far more churches than we’re opening. Through the 1950s and even into the 1960s we thought we were doing great. We’d made progress. considering were we stood in comparison with the general population of the US we were largely deceiving ourselves, but degree of progress we experienced – taking us to somewhere around 14 million members – gave us room to “deteriorate,” and to deteriorate slowly enough that we’ve continued to exist, even, occasionally, to think we’re doing ok.

What’s the cause of this deterioration? Our current conflict over sexuality gives us a context for explaining our deterioration. We can say, “Accepting, legitimating, and pushing revisionist accounts of sexual ethics is the cause of our deterioration.” Or, on the other side, we could say, “Our stubborn resistance to revised accounts of sexual ethics that take modern discoveries and the needs of contemporary people into account is the cause of our deterioration.” Either – or both – could be factors, but that’s not point in this essay.

In the first place, the beginning of our deterioration antedates by a good while the rise of these issues to the fore in the church. Neither, therefore, is likely to be the origin of our deterioration.

In the second place, neither action produces immediate consequences unambiguously enough for us to understand them as the cause of deterioration.

In the third place, I’m skeptical of monocausal theories. Our deterioration is longstanding, its causes complex.

Finally, my point in this essay is to point to the temporal gap between causes and resulting deterioration. This gap gives us time to act. From what I see, however, our time is running short.

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United Methodist Convictions

In their book Convictions: Defusing Religious Relativism, James Wm. McClendon, Jr., and James M. Smith work from this definition:

“A conviction… means 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.”

The X I’m concerned with is the United Methodist Church. In this regard, I have a few questions:

  1. Can we accurately describe the United Methodist Church as a “convictional community?”
  2. If the answer to the first question is affirmative, what are those convictions?
  3. What is the connection, if any, between our “convictions” and our “doctrines?”
  4. To what degree and in what way are these convictions shared across denominational membership?
  5. What role, if any, do our convictions have in our actually being “United?”
  6. How have our communal convictions, if we have any, changed over the years?
  7. What forces lead to change in our communal convictions?
  8. Are there size limits on a convictional community?
  9. Are there temporal limits on a convictional community?

Let me take a stab at answering these.

First, as a pastor and teacher in the United Methodist Church, I take the church to be a convictional community. We have at least some persistent beliefs. Some of these beliefs have persisted since our origins in the work of the Wesleys and their co-laborers. Other beliefs have persisted since the movement came to America, or since their generation in various moments in the American experience.

This way of answering the question is appealing to a normative definition. What if we were instead to do a study of how United Methodists and their churches actually live? Would the lived convictions match the declared convictions? Before the 1988 Book of Discipline the United Methodist theological statement supported normative doctrinal pluralism. This is no longer the de jure position of the church, but for many it has remained (and for others it has become) the de facto position. In some cases it would sound like such persons are making a claim that a key communal conviction is that we do not have communal convictions.

This may sound like utter nonsense – how can it make sense to have a conviction that one does not have convictions? We could generously interpret the claim (more often implicit than explicit) not as primary conviction, but as a secondary conviction, that is, a conviction about convictions. Now, I don’t think United Methodism (or the Wesleyan tradition) – or Christianity for that matter – can work that way, but I don’t want to argue that yet. Jumping ahead to question 10, I simply want to acknowledge that whether the United Methodist Church ought to be a convictional community is a disputed question.

Second, if one were to ask an “official” United Methodist spokesperson (yes, only the General Conference can officially speak for the Church, but professional Methodists generally fit the bill for what I’m getting at here) today about our persistent beliefs, our convictions,  such an official would likely point to some elements easily recognized as “beliefs,” while others pertain more closely to “practices.” “Grace” would be at the top most lists of beliefs, while practices such as “episcopacy” and “connectionalism” would be prominent in lists of practices.

Third, it would be natural to think there is a close and deep connection between our convictions and our doctrine. If this were so, one could point at our official doctrine, found in the Articles of Religion, the Confession, and Wesley’s Sermons and Notes, as presenting our convictions.

Surely, to some degree, this equation probably works. Article III, for example, says, “Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature, wherewith he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth until he return to judge all men at the last day.” Inasmuch as United Methodist Churches celebrate Easter, one would think they believe in the resurrection of Jesus, i.e., that this Article regarding his resurrection expresses one of our communal convictions.

McClendon and Smith, as we saw above, define a conviction as a belief that “persists,” that “will not easily be relinquished and it cannot be relinquished without making X a significantly different person (or community) than before.” If United Methodists stop believing Jesus was raised from the dead, then we would, in fact, become a “significantly different community” than we were before. Perhaps then, we are justified in saying that Article III, taken as a point of our official doctrine, is, in fact, also expressive of one of our communal convictions.

What about Article XIV? “The Romish doctrine regarding purgatory, pardon, worshiping, and adoration, as well of images as of relics, and also invocation of saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warrant of Scripture, but repugnant to the Word of God.” How different would the United Methodist Church be if we stopped disbelieving in Purgatory (picking one item from the Article)? Currently, belief in the resurrection of Jesus is central to who we are and what we do. Our Sunday worship is predicated on the fact of Jesus’ resurrection and current life and lordship. The way we do funerals and minister with the dying is rooted in our convictions regarding the resurrection of Jesus. Our life as Christians (not to mention United Methodists) would change dramatically if we set aside the belief in Jesus’ resurrection.

John Wesley was a life-long Anglican. The Anglican Church came into being through conflict/separation with the Roman Catholic Church. In that process it was important to declare ways in which Anglicans WERE NOT Roman Catholics. In Wesley’s day, differentiation from Roman Catholicism was still important enough that his editing of the 39 Articles retained this “Anti-Romish” doctrine. In our current social setting it is still true that United Methodists are not Roman Catholics. We can remain NOT Roman Catholics even while we step away from DEFINING ourselves as not Roman Catholic.

In my experience, United Methodists are barely aware we even have Articles of Religion. Insofar as our convictions match up with our official doctrine (as expressed in the Articles), that match is more due to pastoral appropriation of that official doctrine and presentation through preaching and teaching. We preach and teach on the resurrection much more often than we do on purgatory. I don’t recall ever hearing any preaching in line with Article XIV’s denial of purgatory at any time in my growing up years. If we change our official doctrine by dropping Article XIV – or even modify it by dropping denial of purgatory while retaining its other denials – that would not make us a “significantly different community.”

It would seem then, that at least some of our communal convictions find expression in our official doctrine, and at least some of our official doctrines express some of our communal convictions. We have seen, however, at at least some of our official doctrines are not expressive of our communal convictions.

Fully answering the fourth question would require a broad survey. I can say that in my experience, communal convictions can very from United Methodist to United Methodist and from congregation to congregation. Some, for instance, have a conviction that faith in Jesus is essential for eternal life. Others have a conviction that God’s love is so great that while faith in Jesus is a good thing, it is not essential for eternal life. Some of these will make comments like, ‘There are good people in all religions. In fact, I’ve known people who have no religion at all who are better than I am. Surely God will let them in.” Still others will affirm that because God loves allall will be accepted alike into eternity (since “all means all”). If a United Methodist has a conviction that personal faith in Jesus is essential, then particular practices and actions will ensue; if, on the other hand, one rejects the need for personal faith in Jesus, then other practices and actions will ensue.

United Methodists also, famously in our current period, differ on issues of “sexuality.” We seem to share, contrary to Wesley and people in his period, a belief that there is such a thing as sexuality. Beyond this shared conviction, we differ on many other aspects of the concept and practices related to it. Given that the church is on the point of dividing (whether we actually do or not, we are undeniably on the point of doing so). we have groups that differ in their communal convictions on this regard. Members of the Confessing Movement and members of Reconciling Ministries Network, for example, have substantially different convictions about sexuality. With the first, we might strategically claim that our convictions match up best with Christian beliefs through history and around the world. With the second, we might strategically claim that our convictions not only fit the current beliefs of most Americans, our ministry context, but also are truest to love and justice.

For my purposes here, the truth of these groups claims is irrelevant. What matters is that in our current context these convictions have become central to communal identity in these United Methodist subgroups but are not shared across the whole church. If the convictions of the Confessing Movement were to prevail over the church as a whole, those who are members of the Reconciling Ministries Network would be forced to become “significantly different.” Likewise, if the convictions of the Reconciling Ministries Network were to prevail over the whole church, those who are members of the Confessing Movement would be forced to become “significantly different.”

Turning to question 5, our shared convictions may be substantial. They may even be talked about more frequently. But our differing convictions are currently talked about more loudly. Perhaps we all know that we agree on things like the incarnation, the Trinity, and the resurrection. Since we have those things (things that are at the very core of the Christian faith) in common, we can safely take them for granted. As convictions, if we were to change them, we would surely become “significantly different.” But the time seems to have passed, at least in the general church (I could be wrong here), when these basics of the faith face substantial challenge within the church. (Thirty years ago I heard stories from friends who attended a denominational seminary that told of being openly mocked in class for believing that Jesus was literally raised from the dead. That it was the “rise of Easter faith in the disciples,” maybe, but we moderns, it was said, could not believe that a dead person would become alive again.)

My perception is that though we are united on fundamental Christian beliefs, they do not currently function to make us be united. Rather, we are united around institutions and relationships. In our congregations we are united around relationships with fellow congregants, lay and clergy, with our common worship and service in the community. We also also united locally in being this church and not those other particular churches, whether of our own or other denominations. We are united through our Annual Conferences and their institutions: the meetings we hold, the function of oversight from the bishop through the district superintendents, the seminaries we attend. These institutions and relationships tie us together more than our beliefs.

The purest reason we could contend for unity is that Jesus prays for it in John 17 and Paul commands us to “Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” in Ephesians 4. For myself, these are good reasons, but if I’m honest, not primary. My primary reasons for wanting us to remain united are that it’s easier (fragmenting a denomination and figuring out what’s next sounds complex, expensive, and tiring) and I actually like many of the people who believe differently from me. We may have important convictions on which we differ, convictions that determine what we preach, how we lead our churches, and how we conceive of what we do, but I still like them. (Sure, it’d be more Christian to say I “love” them, since “love” is prominently commanded in scripture, while “like” is not. For that reason, however, it’s too easy for “love” to remain merely theoretical and not actually lived out.)

Question six, like so many of the others, is a large and complex question. Our communal convictions have changed other the years. In early Methodism, what we would call “small groups,” i.e., the society and band meetings, were the core of Methodism. They were built on the premise that life transformation, growing into likeness to Jesus, aka, holiness, was essential to the Christian faith and happened in a communal setting (“no holiness but social holiness,” as Wesley put it). American Methodism lost that conviction by the middle of the 19th century. Oh, we still have small groups, but not only are they incidental to what Methodism is these days (we commonly have many more in attendance at worship services than in small groups), but their purpose is entirely different. Whereas the Methodist societies and bands aimed at life transformation through mutual accountability and provocation, current small groups are built on information transfer. Judging by what we do, our communal conviction is that “discipleship” (a word that occurs only three times in the Jackson Edition of Wesley’s works) refers to gaining knowledge, not something like “learning to obey everything Jesus has commanded us.”

If we come at the question from the angle of our official doctrine and asked Methodist to do something like, “List the most important Christian convictions,” the lists might be quite similar through time. We might see things like the Trinity, the incarnation, the resurrection of the Jesus, the virginal conception of Jesus – things we confess in the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds.

I don’t think, however, that it is these basic Christian beliefs that drive our current conviction sets, however. In his definition of a tradition, Alasdair MacIntyre says that the fundamental agreements that make that tradition what it is are “defined and redefined” through conflicts. These include interpretive conflicts that are internal to the community that bears the tradition and conflicts with those outside the tradition to challenge the basic claims of the tradition. Traditions – and I count the United Methodist Church as a community that bears a tradition – necessarily have these internal and external debates. As the questions coming at us, whether from within or without, change, the convictions that we see as most necessary will change also. We might have the exact same conviction set (though this is unlikely), but the relative importance of each conviction in the set, and the role that each conviction plays in the life of the community will change over time. We United Methodists have given insufficient attention to this phenomenon. We are more prone to say, “Change is progress. Progress is good. Change is the work of the Holy Spirit.” Or, “Change is bad. We need to hold onto and maintain the truth as it is found in Jesus.”

I’m obviously already looking at the seventh question. Forces internal and external to our United Methodist community force change in our convictions. If we have a conviction that our churches are full of good people, and that good people make it into heaven, we will be hard-pressed to keep believing that good people who are not in our churches won’t make it into heaven. Our initial conviction changes as we experience the genuine goodness even of non-Christians. (Yes, the conviction that goodness is what gets us in with God IS antithetical to the gospel. Nonetheless, the conviction has been very common to Methodists I have known and pastored.)

John Wesley traveled incessantly to bring the gospel to people. Through preaching and organizing the awakened he set in motion the coming to faith of thousands. His conviction set told him that people needed Jesus. A similar passion, for a time, characterized American Methodism, suggesting a conviction set that echoed Wesley’s. Something changed in the conviction set of the Methodist community between that day and ours. First, perhaps, was a transition to the conviction that human goodness was the determining factor. As Methodism became more successful in bringing in second generation Methodists, we became less good at bringing in first generation Methodists. Second generation Methodists, that is, our children, were raised in the faith from infancy. They didn’t need a conversion the same way real sinners did, since being raised in a Christian home they were already (mostly) basically good. Absolute goodness was pretty rare, so that basic goodness seemed more realistic. The Methodist conviction regarding the nature, possibility, and pursuit of holiness fell by the wayside.

We could also look at doctrinal change with regard to sexuality, our current flashpoint. The sinfulness (or non-sinfulness) of homosexuality wasn’t a central conviction of Methodism in the beginning. If the matter came up, I’m sure Methodists from John Wesley on would most likely express a conviction in line with our current disciplinary prohibition. The change has been that what was not a live issue in the 18th century is now a live issue.

Consider, for example, our General Rules. Though sometimes abstracted into “Do no harm,” “Do good,” and “Stay in love with God,” Wesley’s presentation of them put more meat on the bones by providing numerous examples of each. Under “do no harm” – which Wesley strengthens into “avoiding evil of every kind,” I read that this includes “The ‘putting on of gold or costly apparel,’ particularly the wearing of calashes, high-heads, or enormous bonnets.” Apparently wearing something called a “high-head” was a live option in the 18th century – and it was a really bad thing! If Wesley were promulgating the General Rules today I doubt that particular illustration would make the cut; the “evil” (or is it a “harm?”) mentioned is not a live option today. But other actions and practices today are live options.

We live in a society where marital heterosexuality is no longer the norm. “Do what you want, as long as you have proper consent,” is the ethical standard upheld by American culture; the actual practice (what an updated version of the General Rules would inveigh against) would be something like “Do whatever you can get away with to maximize your pleasure.”

American Methodism, with not only its doctrine but its General Rules ossified in the 18th century (and that in the foreign culture of England!), has not had the institutional tools to deal with “live options” for sin and harm as they have evolved over the centuries. The lack of mechanisms for faithful change/adaptation, has been a major factor in paring down the General Rules to the “Three Simple Rules” to mere abstractions. As abstractions they give the feeling of being points of unity. “Surely we can all be unified around the ideas of ‘Doing good,’ ‘Avoid harm,’ and ‘Stay in love with God.'” Yes we can – but we get to put our own meaning into those terms, since they have been shorn of Wesley’s (admittedly culturally limited) examples and not replaced with new ones. If we use the same words, but use those words with different content, we are strained to remain a common convictional community.

I’ll take questions eight and nine together, since they deal with limits on convictional communities. Is there a size limit on convictional communities? Can a set of convictions function to define a community of unlimited size? My guess is that the strength of the convictions of a convictional community is inversely related to the size of the community. The larger the convictional community, the more diffuse it becomes in the society as a whole, the more likely the conviction set of members is to be diluted by convictions from outside the community in view. In our setting, American Methodists, spread out across the nation as a whole, take on convictions from the world around them. This is how southern Methodists in the 19th century could take on, vigorously defend, and go to war for the defense of slavery, an institutional inimical to primitive Methodism. This is how American Methodists, as the nation grows in wealth and prosperity, could take on acquisition and defense of that wealth as a positive good. This is how American Methodists, who came to understand themselves as Americans, could take up the nation’s causes when it came to war.

A deviant conviction set, i.e., a conviction set that deviates from broad cultural norms, is harder to maintain in the face of societal pressure. Strong ties in the convictional community are required to do so. The larger the convictional community, and the more diffuse that community (and Methodism is more diffuse since the demise of the class system), the weaker our ability to maintain the strong relationships that make deviant convictions possible.

Conviction sets are also difficult to maintain over time. This is especially true when the convictions in view deviate from cultural norms (which themselves change over time). Also, as our setting changes, some of our convictions that dealt with “live options” at one time, say the wearing of “high-heads,” those convictions no longer address live options. If we even know what a “high-head” is, the declining relevance casts a pall over that conviction; this pall can then extend to other neighboring convictions. While those convictions may remain beliefs, they no longer remain convictions in McClendon & Smith’s sense.

I realize this has been a rather roughly written composition. It’s largely my thinking “out loud.” I have more thinking to do on he subject, and will turn next to these questions:

  • Should the United Methodist Church seek to be a convictional community?
  • Can the United Methodist Church avoid being a convictional community?
  • If the United Methodist Church is a convictional community, what relations does it have with other convictional communities?
  • If the United Methodist Church is a convictional community, how are those convictions inculcated and reinforced?
  • Are there any convictions the holding of which entails the communal rejection of the “anti-conviction?”
  • How does the United Methodist Church deal with its constituents’ membership in other convictional communities?
Posted in Culture, Current events, Ecclesiology, United Methodism | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Our United Methodist Mission

The mission of the United Methodist Church is “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

As a slogan goes, it has deeper rooting in the Christian tradition than our marketing slogan, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” It’s a very short jump from Jesus’ “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” to “Make disciples of Jesus Christ.” We even see the same words occurring in each.

A case can be made for a Christian reading of “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors,” but it’s not so direct. If by “Open Hearts” we mean something like “love your neighbor as yourself,” “love one another as I have loved you,” or “hangout with sinners and outcasts like Jesus did,” the meaning is plainly Christian. If by “Open Minds” we mean something like, “Think clearly and apply yourself to becoming educated” or “Be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit,” we can also read the second admonition as at least amenable to interpretation as consistent with Christianity.

The problem with “Open Minds” lies in the meaning it has in the broader culture, the erstwhile audience of this marketing slogan. To many in our age “Open Minds” is more likely to mean “Be ready to set aside traditional (even traditional Christian) convictions” or “let whatever the preponderance of current scientific/scholarly opinion says replace what you used to believe.” It may be that the “preponderance of current scientific/scholarly opinion says” is worthy of our belief as Christians. But surely it’s not difficult to find instances through the ages of this not being the case.

Nonetheless, I count being an open-minded Christian to be a good thing – as long as my open mind finds its home in my allegiance to Christ. As an open-minded Christian I will seek new learning – even be hungry for increased knowledge. I will turn away from dogmatism and seeking to coerce others to believe exactly as I do. I will also, however, eschew “doctrinal indifferentism” or convictionless Christianity, as I seek to follow John Wesley in maintaining a “Catholic Spirit.” I will also learn from a Catholic Christian of a previous generation, G.K. Chesterton, and I paraphrase from memory: “The purpose of an open mind, like an open mouth, is to close on something healthy and nourishing.”

“Open Doors” is also easily read as a Christian descriptor of a Jesus-oriented church. I’ve been acquainted with too many churches that turn people away for some reason or another. Sometimes it’s been their race. Sometimes it’s been their social class. Sometimes it’s been their age. I’m happy to affirm that I want to lead a Jesus-oriented church with an open door to all sinners, regardless of what sins have currently entranced them. I know I’d be in trouble if the church had shut its doors to sinners of my predilection. Church is a place where sinners are welcomed with open arms.

But church is also a place where sinners are healed and transformed. One of our central Wesleyan convictions is that sin can be overcome. There is no sin we partake in that is necessary, no temptation to which we cannot, through the power of the Spirit, say NO. As a “open-doored hospital for sinners,” we bring them in and lovingly confront their sin. Doubtless, one only needs a superficial knowledge of church history (recent or further back) to know that we’ve not only failed too frequently to have open doors – we’ve also too frequently failed to identify sin as sin and to bring the healing devices of the Spirit into play. Each age seems to have a particular set of sins we rail against AND another set that we coddle and justify.

“Open Doors” can also get us into trouble. Let’s stick with the hospital metaphor for a moment. Hospitals may have open doors – taking all the sick and injured they can so they might heal some. I bet – I hope! – however, that the role of “nurse,” “doctor,” “surgeon,” “therapist,” etc., isn’t immediately open to all comers. If I’m going to be a patient in a hospital, I want people who are well-trained in medicine, who can closely approximate true knowledge of my condition, and who can be skilled in joining in the healing process. Likewise, in church, I want leaders who have the essential Christian convictions, who connect up adequately with reality as construed by the Christian tradition, who can then join in with what God is doing and wants to do.

As United Methodists we have been less than clear in recent generations on that “connecting up adequately with reality as construed by the Christian tradition.” Although we have substantive doctrinal standards, we lack a shared understanding of what those standards say, how they are to be interpreted, and how they are to be put into action. Steve Rankin, Chaplain at Southern Methodist University, recently suggested the need for a “Methodist Magisterium” to overcome just these weaknesses.

I think we’re too far gone as a denomination to make a move to a magisterium. In the first place, for many in our leadership, the normative doctrinal pluralism of our pre-1988 Book of Discipline is still our de facto denominational position. In the second place, our lack of unity will make it impossible to settle on who should serve as the magisterium. Some would say, “Hey – we have official denominational seminaries, surely we can just trust the faculty of those seminaries to function as the magisterium!” Others will note in response, “Not only do some of our seminaries not require faculty members to be United Methodist, they don’t even require them to be Christians.” The United Methodist Church lacks the unity and trust required even to create a magisterium – assuming we became united around the idea of wanting one.

Let’s go back the beginning – to our current mission statement. How are we to read it?

There are two parts: “Make disciples of Jesus Christ” and “for the transformation of the world.” From what I see, our current major factions are willing to claim both parts. But do we share an understanding of what each part means and how each functions? I’m afraid not. The heaviest burden falls on the word “for.”

We can read the mission statement as a statement of means and end. The end, the goal, is the “transformation of the world.” The means to that end is “making disciples of Jesus Christ.”  We can also read the “for” as indicating result: We “make disciples of Jesus Christ” and this results in “the transformation of the world.” My perception is that first reading is more common among progressive United Methodists while the second is more common among traditionalist United Methodists. Both value disciplemaking; both value transforming the world; it’s the emphasis that differs.

Our factions also differ on what we mean by each part of the mission. What does it mean to be/make disciples? What are the specifics of the transformed world we’re looking to produce?

It’s tempting to observe that “transformation of the world” can be read as “achieve our political agenda.” That political agenda may or may not have any connection to the Christian tradition. The more contextualized our churches and ministries, the more we are in danger of settling for a transformation agenda that owes more to our culture than to Christ. I identify this as a temptation; the temptation lies in imagining this is only a danger for the “other team,” the factions of the church I don’t align with. None of us, no matter our protestations to stand for something like the “pure gospel” or “original Wesleyan Methodism” are immune to the influences of our culture. We are always immersed in some particular culture that shapes our world.

Given this reality, I’ll close with two suggestions.

First, when we talk about “transformation of the world” we must begin with the fact that the major transformation of the world has already happened. Because Jesus, God in the flesh, has been crucified and raised from the dead, we live in the new creation. This new creation in Christ is now our fundamental reality. Any approach to transforming the world apart from the reality of Jesus’ resurrection is at best sub-Christian. As those who “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” we must be centered on “Jesus Christ” who is the embodiment of transformation.

Second, Andrew Walls’ concept of the Pilgrim Principle and the Indigenizing Principle can help us hold our connection with the Christian tradition and our host cultures in proper tension. The Pilgrim Principle claims that we are a holy people, God’s chosen people, redeemed by the blood of Christ, set apart for God. We are moving on to perfection (to use the Wesleyan term – which Walls doesn’t). Our destination – our destiny – is defined around Jesus and his kingdom, not this world.

The Indigenizing Principle is what compels us to connect with the world through culture. Drawing from the reality of the incarnation, the Indigenizing Principle is the background of Paul’s self-description in 1 Corinthians 9. Paul “becomes all things to all people” so that he can win them over to Christ. We operate in our local cultures. We learn the local languages and ways of being. We translate the gospel and the kingdom life rooted in it so that through God’s prevenient grace we become bridges for those who are currently outside to come inside.

Posted in Discipleship, Discipline, Diversity, Doctrine, United Methodism | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Psychiatry and Ministry (sort of)

Pretend this piece on Slate Star Codex isn’t about psychiatry but about ministry. Alexander describes two ways of understanding psychiatry:

Attitude 1 says that patients know what they want but not necessarily how to get it, and psychiatrists are there to advise them. So a patient might say “I want to stop being depressed”, and their psychiatrist might recommend them an antidepressant drug, or a therapy that works against depression. This is nice and straightforward and tends to make patients very happy.

Attitude 2 says that people are complicated. Sometimes this complexity makes them mentally ill, and sometimes it makes them come to psychiatrists and ask for help, but there’s no guarantee that the thing that they’re asking about is actually the problem. In order to solve the problem, you need to unravel the complexity, and that might involve not giving the patient what they want, or giving them things they don’t want. This is not straightforward and requires some justification, so let me give a few cases where Attitude 2 seems to me obviously correct.

Consider the two viewpoints in the context of ministry. To the degree that the sinners we work with have adequate (a) knowledge of themselves, and (b) knowledge of maturity and healthy life in Christ, #1 would be the way to go. To the degree either of these is lacking, #2 would be indicated. If our ministry is entirely about meeting “felt needs,” or our theology has its primary roots in our own experience, we are effectively choosing attitude #1. I’m inclined to think attitude 2 is more fitting, given our limitations.

What do you think?

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I Want a Principle Within

The Charles Wesley hymn, I Want a Principle Within, isn’t sung as often as it used to be. It’s a powerful tool in our quest for holiness, however, so it’s well worth recovering.

At first glance the “principle” we “want within (ourselves)” can be seen as akin to computer programming. As we sing, we’re asking God to make it so that our internal programming, our guidance system, is one conducive to “watchful godly fear.” We want to be able to see things from God’s perspective and to act accordingly. Now if we go beyond the first glance and explore Wesleyan theology more deeply, we notice that this “principle” isn’t some impersonal code, law, or rulebook. This principle is the Holy Spirit, God himself living within us.

We sing that we want an “early warning system” (to use a modern metaphor) for sin. We want to know when it’s come near or entered our lives. Even more, we want to experience PAIN when we feel sin near. Why pain? Charles Wesley desires to feel sin as pain so we will respond to it the way we respond to pain – getting away from it, recognizing its danger and destructive power.

In the second stanza we sing, “Quick as the apple of an eye, O God, my conscience make; awake my soul when sin is nigh, and keep it still awake.” “Apple of an eye” is an ancient image for our pupil. Our pupil is very lively (quick), directing its gaze here and there rapidly. When we sing this we’re asking for God to sharpen our perceptual skills so we can see sin when it comes our way. We also ask for help staying mentally (and spiritually) awake and aware. If we go to sleep, or are dull in spirit, we won’t know what’s hit us until it’s too late.

In the final stanza we sinners cast ourselves on the grace of God offered us in Christ.
Almighty God of truth and love,
To me thy power impart;
The mountain from my soul remove,
The hardness from my heart.
O may the least omission pain
My reawakened soul,
And drive me to that blood again,
Which makes the wounded whole.

In Jesus we find the healing we need if we are to escape sin and live the full life God intends. We need the cleansing power of his blood applied.

This can be a difficult song to sing. Oh, I don’t mean musically (though it may be that if you’ve never heard it). It can be difficult if we’re currently in love with sin. Well, we wouldn’t say we’re exactly in love with sin, but it sure is comfortable. Also, as citizens of the world, our culture (whichever culture that might be) has certain pet sins that it excuses and even extols as part of the good life. This song hits us at the point of our desire. We’re not just singing for God to deliver us from present sin in our lives, we’re also asking for the DESIRE to be rid of it, whenever and however it comes near.

Here’s a rendition from my Texas Annual Conference compatriot Mike Whang:

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Everything (not) Going My Way?

Sunday morning while I was standing outside greeting people as they were entering church someone’s greeting (and I’ve heard this before from time to time) was, ‘Is everything going your way?’ They were trying to be nice & I know the expected answer was ‘Yes,’ but whenever I’m asked that I always take it as a real question and say – emphatically, maybe even with a short laugh of incomprehensible derision, “NO!” I have some inkling of how God wants the world to go, here in our community, around the state, the country and the world. I read enough news to know that most often things fall far short of where God wants them to be. Part of my calling as a Christian – which I think should be a common calling for all who follow Jesus – is to want what he wants for the world and its peoples. So if things aren’t going HIS way, I can’t say they’re going MY way.

Well, I guess I could say they were going MY way as a way of confessing my sin. “Yes, I have been sinning lately, preferring my way over God’s ways. Maybe not everything is going MY way, but too many things are, and I need to learn to ‘seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.'”

Should I worry about this? The Bible, especially in the New Testament, seems to frown on worrying. We’re supposed to give all our cares to God, because he cares for us. We’re supposed to let him carry our every worry and anxiety. So should I be concerned that things AREN’T going my way – or that things ARE going my way, the way of the sinner I am?

As a parent, I share (bear?) some of my kid’s worries. One child is graduating in May. She’s worried that she won’t find a job in her area. Now my “worry” in that context is somewhat different than hers. I “worry” that she’ll be so exacting that she won’t seize other opportunities that may be available. I “worry” that she’ll worry too much and passively expect jobs to show up on her doorstep. I “worry” that she won’t seek out wisdom & advice from people who know more than she does (her parents about some things, her teachers about others).

It’s when our worries become exclusively OURS & unshared with God that we get in big trouble. Otherwise, at least some (probably a great deal) of the things we call “worries” are things where we see a gap between the way things are and the way things should be. Is awareness of this gap a bad – or unChristian – thing? I don’t see how. What do you think?

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Thinking about Immigration

Immigration has been a contentious topic in the USA for some time now. If one pays any attention to our political discourse, it’s hard to miss. Here are some of my thoughts and questions on the subject.

  1. Why do we allow immigration in the first place? It’s conceivable that a country could decide that it is already perfectly awesome in every way. Its culture is stable, its ways of operating are good for all citizens. In such a state surely the introduction of new people would bring imbalance. Even if we have zero immigration from other countries, we’re still bringing in new people – through birth. Those little people are destabilizers to our current culture and ways of doing things. If you don’t believe that, try having some children (even one would do). As they – and we – age, we look for new opportunities. If we are happy with a static society where change is extremely minimal, having zero immigration (and few children) might be a good idea. But what if  young people want jobs? Do they have to wait until older people retire? What if someone wants a promotion? Or a raise? Thinking from an economic perspective alone (and no, there’s no reason to think in terms of economics alone), new people can bring dynamism to a country. Their demand for goods and services put pressure on suppliers to expand their efforts and offerings.
  2. Or let’s consider the cultural question. Adding new people through birth would seem to be the way to go if we think our culture is already awesome. After all, we train these young ones into our culture, its values and ways of doing things, as they grow up in our homes. They assimilate by growing up with us. Immigrants from outside, most of them already enculturated to a particular culture’s values and ways of doing things, are foreign entities in our national body. So we should keep them out! Or should we? Even if our current culture is awesome in every way, that is a belief about today’s instantiation of our culture. What about our transition to the future? Maybe we need some input into our culture to keep it fresh and adaptive to an ever changing world.
  3. But assimilation is a problem. Well, at least we think it is. Some of our people think that assimilation itself is an evil. Every individual should be completely free to be that particular individual, down to the level of even choosing their own gender. What we call assimilation is an evil imposition on people, a true act of oppression. Or maybe the evil of assimilation looks at other levels of identity. Perhaps we should aim for a true “salad bowl” rather than the old oppressive “melting pot,” where everyone keeps their own cultural identities, where all cultural values and ways of doing things are treated as equally good and worthy of adding to our national culture. The view of immigration commonly called “conservative” is at least partially based on a rejection of the rejection of assimilation. Conservatives like our country the way it is – at least generally. We don’t want North Korean Juche or Muslim Sharia imposed on us. The claim that those immigrant values would just exist alongside our existing cultural values doesn’t look so good when considering their totalizing claims. Conservatives believe that unlimited immigration with only the most tepid assimilation of immigrants will destroy their country.
  4. I believe assimilation of immigrants is a good thing; but it’s not a simple or unmitigated good. In the first place, it’s not simple, because our current culture is not monolithic. We have a profound cultural chasm now expressed between liberals and conservatives. To which American subculture do we want new people to be assimilated? Conservatives would be more open to immigration – I think – if there were a greater possibility that immigrants would be enculturated in their direction. On the one hand, though, liberals control many of the institutions of enculturation: education, entertainment, government bureaucracy, news media. On the other, conservatives have been profoundly unwise (I speak more gently than I’m normally inclined to do), as expressed in our fearless leader’s recent imprecations toward certain countries, in not promoting immigration from cultures where the move to their own way of seeing and operating in the world is not a long journey.
  5. We can also question whether our country is now (or ever was) as totally awesome as we’d like to believe. Thinking in terms of political ideologies, each side tends to think, “If only we were in charge and could put the evil/stupid liberals/conservatives in their place! Once we consolidate control and can make everyone live according to our wisdom, THEN we’ll be totally awesome!” I realize this is the point in the conversation where it’s normal for someone to chime in, “We need each other. We need the wisdom of both sides. We need to split the difference, then we’ll be totally awesome!” I’m too skeptical to make that move. More immigrants – especially if we’re open to learning from them – might help us to see third, fourth, fifth (you get the idea) ways of looking at things that take us beyond our current deep bifurcation.
  6. Some people come to America by choice. They see us as the land of opportunity, not just in general but particularly for them and their families. Others come to America by the choice of some other person – parents bringing their children, and in the past, slaves brought by those who considered them objects, tools and not humans. And now, some number of years later, whether just a few as with children recently brought here, or centuries as with the descendants of slaves, here we are, living in America, trying to get by and get ahead the best we can. Some of the people who have come in the past century came in ways that accord with the law; others came by other means. It seems to me that if people are here, working to better themselves and their families – and their communities, it’s worth our while to keep them.
  7. But not everyone appears to be out to better themselves, their families, and their communities. Some are living wretched lives, totally dependent on others, with no current desire for a different life. Some of these are in that position by their own choices; others are in that position because it’s been inflicted on them and they can’t see any other way as a live option. The thing is, I’ve seen nothing to convince that this has anything to do with one’s immigration status. Sure, some immigrants are bad for our country. I’d look for ways to discourage them from coming. But even more of our native born seem to be bad for our country. Some of these might be totally awesome in their own minds, and for themselves, but an utter disaster for others around them.
  8. We desperately need an improved immigration system and path to citizenship. Many people do the hard work of trying to work within the laws. It’s neither easy nor quick.
  9. We are limited. We, like every other country on earth, have a limited carrying capacity. We can think of this in cultural terms. Assuming assimilation is good and necessary, and I do, to at least some degree, we can only assimilate so many people so quickly. We don’t have a three thousand year old culture like China that is so deep and pervasive that it can assimilate most anything and anyone. Our own culture is new, changing, and contentious. We don’t want to be Mexico, Haiti, Norway, France, or India. We want to be ourselves (even as these and so many other cultures have made contributions to make us what we are). We’re also limited in terms of resources. As a Christian, I can say it’d be a good thing if we were to take in the poorest billion people on the planet and enrich their lives. But I don’t think it can be done.
  10. We’re interconnected. While people talk about building a wall on our southern border, why not a wall on our northern border? In the first place, it’s way too long. The main thing, however, is that their aren’t hordes of people pushing into our country from the north. We see huge numbers coming from the south and think, that’s where we need a wall! But we should think about why hordes aren’t coming from the north. How are the countries to our north different from the ones to our south? At the very least, there is a huge economic difference. Our northern neighbor is far ahead of our southern neighbors economically. It would seem that it would be to our advantage for our southern neighbors to advance economically. Can we do anything to help them (which would in turn help us, if we assume decreased immigration from the south is a good thing)? I think we can.

Well, those are some of my thoughts on immigration. I don’t see them matching up with what either of our current parties are proposing. Since I’m politically homeless, that’s ok with me.

As a Christian, I think it’s great that God is bringing people from all over the world here. Many are coming from what used to be called “unreached countries,” countries where it was nearly impossible to send missionaries. Well, we could send them, we just couldn’t keep them alive, out of prison, or expect them to make it home. For that reason, I personally count immigrants to be a blessing.


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