A guaranteed way to fail your theology final

I’ve been rereading Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ. It was an important book in the formation of John Wesley’s faith, and therefore important to the development of our Methodist way.

This goes out to all my friends in seminary writing doctrine and theology finals.

What avail is it to man to reason about the high, secret mysteries of the Trinity if he lack humility and so displeases the Trinity? Truly, it avails nothing. Deeply inquisitive reasoning does not make a man holy or righteous, but a good life makes him beloved by God. I would rather feel compunction in my heart for my sins than merely know the definition of compunction. If you know all the books of the Bible merely by rote and all the sayings of the philosophers by heart, what will it profit you without grace and charity? All that is in the world is vanity except to love God and to serve Him only. This is the most noble and the most excellent wisdom that can be in any creature: by despising the world to draw daily nearer and nearer to the kingdom of heaven.

Eventually

God’s message to us in the book of Revelation is that in the present we are not always going to win; our lives will not always be characterized by triumph. That is a lesson hard to accept — in fact, impossible — except that it is balanced on the opposite side with this hope: eventually we will win because Christ reigns. These poles …. cannot be brought together because of the intervening reality of opposition from the powers of evil. …

 

Many twenty-first century Christians find these convictions almost impossible to accept. Instead they have espouse a theology of “victory, healing, luxury, and blessedness” that The Revelation does not teach. God does not promise us a rose garden — at least not one without legions of thorns. And there are many roses in life, they fade, too — with the promise that they will come again next season. …

 

The Revelation teaches that God always gives victory eventually, but that the meanwhile entails suffering.

– Marva Dawn, Joy in Our Weakness

The measure of a great team

From Patrick Lencioni’s book The Advantage:

Some people find this extreme emphasis on results to be a little cold and uninspiring. But there is no getting around the fact that the only measure of a great team — or a great organization — is whether it accomplishes what it sets out to accomplish. … See, no matter how good a leadership team feels about itself, and how noble its mission might be, if the organization it leads rarely achieves its goals, then, by definition, it’s simply not a good team.

When I read this, I detect a couple problems for the United Methodist Church.

First, I’m not sure most local churches or our denomination as a whole can state what it is that we are setting out to accomplish. We have things we say, but I’m not convinced we say it with the kind of clarity we need to actually judge our own accomplishments.

John Wesley said some vague things, too. You could argue “spread Scriptural holiness across the land” is not terribly specific. But he did flesh this out with quite a bit of detail in theory and in practice. Among his more specific statements was the word to his preachers that they have nothing to do but to save souls.

What are we trying to accomplish?

The second thing that emerges for me as I read this is discomfort. I want to wriggle away from what Lencioni is saying. I want to come up with a reason to deny what he claims. I don’t want to agree when he says a team that fails to achieve its goals is not a good organization or lead by a good team.

I want to avoid this because agreeing with him calls for action.

A place for the center to stand?

One of my problems with the centrist and via media proposals in the United Methodist Church is that they often don’t appear to have an actual positive statement to make about the very issues that are tearing the church apart. They tend to come down on some version of agree-to-disagree about the underlying doctrinal and theological differences.

I suppose this is a positive statement in a sense. It is saying that all this talk about sex and marriage and ordination is of minor importance to the true work of the church. It is all secondary or tertiary, perhaps even a matter of indifference.

I don’t remember reading it being put quite that directly, but it appears to me to be the attitude behind much of the agree-to-disagree talk.

I, personally, don’t find that a sustainable argument. You can’t do much pastoral work with people in America today without questions about sex and marriage boiling up to the surface. You can’t do the work of the church and be mute on these matters. At least, that has been my experience.

So what would a centrist or via media positive statement on homosexual sex and relationships look like?

Allow me to answer that by writing about a book I read recently.

(Disclaimer: I’m not persuaded by the argument I am about to sketch, but I am thankful for it.)

Someone suggested to me, not long ago, that James V. Brownson’s book Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships was a must read. Being blessed to work right across the street from one of the best university libraries in the world, I ran over and picked up a copy.

Brownson’s argument, in a nutshell, goes something like this.

  1. We cannot understand biblical morality if we don’t understand the reasons behind the commands of God.
  2. Traditionalists (Brownson’s term) believe the reason for prohibitions against homosexual sex has to do with gender complementarity. Male and female sex organs are made to go together and therefore that is natural and God-designed. When traditionalists talk about “one flesh,” they are thinking of how body parts fit together and how men and women complement each other in other ways.
  3. Brownson argues that the Bible does not support the “look at the plumbing” argument, but instead bases the notion of two becoming “one flesh” on ideas around kinship and intimacy. He argues that becoming one flesh is about a spiritual and emotional bond between individuals that is a kind of kinship.
  4. Therefore, he writes that biblical prohibitions are not against physical acts in all circumstances. Brownson argues that the biblical vision for sex is the transformation of the desire for self-gratification into a self-giving love. He calls this moving from longing into loving. Brownson argues that the Bible is against promiscuity rather than a certain combination of body parts.

I’m sure I have not done full justice to Brownson’s argument. His book is nearly 300 pages long. But I think this is a fair outline of some of his major points. His book is worth a closer read than I have given it. It is certainly worth your time if you care about these matters.

The biggest value I see in this book for our denominational debates is that it lays out a position that might be adopted by centrists. Here is that position stated positively: God’s intention for sex is that it occur within and foster between two people a loving, long-term, and intimate union of lives. Sex that occurs outside of such a relationship is against God’s will, sinful, and contrary to salvation.

I am not persuaded that this is this is correct doctrine. That is, I don’t think it says enough. I agree with what it says. I just don’t think it says everything God does. Nonetheless, I think it would be a good doctrine for someone in our denominational debates to take up and champion with energy. And by energy, I am thinking at a minimum of writing up a revision to the language in our Social Principles and Book of Discipline.

I think it would be useful for that to happen because it would focus our debates. It would also force everyone to acknowledge that there are many practices that, in fact, are contrary to God’s will, even when they happen between two consenting adults.

I suspect taking up such a position would get push back from some in the LGBT community who are already distressed by the efforts by the community to win acceptance in the culture by becoming more like straight people. And that push back would be helpful to us as a church because it would force us to clarify what we believe and why we teach it.

Such a position would also get push back from those who argue that the Bible is a musty, old book that does not have anything meaningful to say to 21st century people. One of Brownson’s primary concerns is to provide an argument that does not dissolve into that.

Such a position would also be criticized by evangelicals on exegetical and interpretive grounds.

In short, adopting this position would be a positive contribution to an ongoing debate. It would not settle anything, but it would help clarify some things. It would help us see where common ground might exist. And it would force those who reject Brownson to state clearly their full understanding of God’s will in these matters. For the most part, evangelicals have done so. I don’t have a very strong sense of the response to Brownson’s full argument from other groups, though.

Some hope of truth

Christian Century has published a number of responses to the 25th anniversary of the publication of Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon. I skimmed a couple of the responses, but what I found most interesting was Hauerwas and Willimon’s response to the responses. (Warning: You can only read a handful of Christian Century articles without having to sign up, so I’d start with the Hauerwas and Willimon piece. But that is me.)

These two paragraphs were particularly nice:

Again we say: when Christians are asked to say something political, we say church. The reason we say church is that the church for all its limits is where we have some hope of being a people who do not lie to one another.

If Resident Aliens has a bottom line, it is that the hidden violence intrinsic to our manipulative relations with one another that are so often identified as “love” can only be named and transformed by a people capable of telling one another the truth. Of all people, Christians should be capable of truth-telling, trained as we are Sunday after Sunday to confess we were there when they crucified the One who is truth itself.

Three marks of evangelicalism

I came across a wonderful little book at the university library earlier this summer. Timothy L. Smith’s Whitefield & Wesley on the New Birth contains sermons and writings from the two great Methodist preachers. It also includes a lucid and edifying essay by Smith tracing the essentials that bound the two men and the differences that divided them on matters of theology. The book is out of print, but worth picking up if you find a copy.

In Smith’s essay, he summarizes his view of the three points on which Wesley and Whitefield always agreed. Smith writes that the pair shared these convictions with Quakers, Baptists, German Pietists, Mennonites, Moravians, and Presbyterian, Anglican, and Congregationalist heirs to the Puritans.

All such “evangelicals” affirmed the moral authority of the Bible, declaring that it called human beings to righteousness that is not only imputed to them in Christ’s name but actually imparted to them by His grace. All stressed the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing sinners to repentance and faith in Christ, assuring them of forgiveness, and, by His presence thereafter in their hearts, nurturing in them the love and holiness that please God. Evangelicals also declared it the duty of all who had discovered these truths and experienced this grace to proclaim the good news of salvation everywhere, at home and abroad. From that day until this, these three convictions have marked the boundaries of evangelical Protestantism.The Bible is its authority, the new birth its hallmark, and evangelism its mission.

There are others schemes that people try to use to define what it means to be an evangelical, but I find Smith’s summary quite appealing.