David Watson, academic dean at United Theological Seminary, writes — in a much more theologically robust way — about the same topic in my last post.
In responding to an article that describes two kinds of liberal (or progressive) Christianity, Watson adds a third category:
There is, however, another type of Christianity that has attached itself to progressivism. I will call it “issues-based” Christianity. This type of Christianity leads with issues and couches the issues in God-talk. The goal of our faith is to transform society in such a way as to meet particular ideas of social justice. Salvation is primarily, then, a this-worldly social category. Issues of conversion, personal transformation, the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, the fruits of the Spirit, and eternal life are simply left out of the discussion. …
To be clear, as a Wesleyan I am thoroughly committed to the Church’s role in transforming society. My own passions in this area are mainly around people with disabilities. Our work in society, however, must be grounded in a full-bodied conception of the nature and work of the Holy Trinity. Our claims about God lead to our understanding of how we should live and what the world should look like, not the other way around. Theology must first and foremost be about God.
As I have begun to explore the issues of disability and theology, I have seen some of what Watson writes about here. The temptation is to start with people and let our conclusions about them shape or limit what are willing to say about God. I hear Watson calling for an inversion of this movement. That God-first approach is what I am trying to do in my own faith and spirituality.
Posted in a public place by about a review of the new Superman movie. The review puts an emphasis on the Messiah themes and images from the film.
I think this is why I have never liked Superman. He is a Jesus figure who is not really like the Jesus I prefer at all. He’s the Jesus that most dominionist Christians want- bumbling around saving people but not really relating to people at all-an alien. The Jesus I prefer is more human (but still divine).
I’ve been trying recently to hear the way people talk about their faith. This caught my attention because of that.
Patheos has an excerpt of a book featuring some of U2 lead-singer Bono’s reflections on Jesus and Christianity. I found this passage interesting.
Bono: I really believe we’ve moved out of the realm of Karma into one of Grace.
Michka: Well, that doesn’t make it clearer for me.
Bono: You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics; in physical laws every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so you will sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.
Michka: I’d be interested to hear that.
Bono: That’s between me and God. But I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I’d be in deep s—. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.
I find this interesting because I’m a United Methodist who reads John Wesley and sings “Blessed Assurance” on a fairly regular basis. In those last few lines above, Bono appears to be hoping for assurance that what he believes about Jesus is in fact true. The old Methodist response would have been to seek, and ye shall find. Assurance will be given to any who ask for it and seek it with persistence.
I don’t think we really teach that any more. I am much more likely to hear a variation on Bono’s hope than Wesley’s assurance. I wonder if Bono has ever heard of Fanny Crosby.
Fascinating exchange in my local paper.
A first-grade teacher is arrested and charged with heroin possession with intent to deal and other drug-related charges. In the comments thread on the news story, someone asks, “How in the world does a college educated person wind up with such a messed up personal life?”
It is a cultural item of faith for us that educated people do not do bad or stupid things, which of course is a patently ridiculously thing to believe as educated people do incredibly stupid and bad things all the time. And yet, we still are flabbergasted when it happens.
One good thing about being a Christian is that you do not have be surprised when “good people” or people who have had “all the advantages in life” do self-destructive things. We have a word to describe why that happens.
I pray for this young woman. She is caught in darkness beyond my understanding.
The RNS is reporting that the Southern Baptists Convention is being urged to “agree to disagree” about internal rifts over Calvinism.
The convention received a report on divisions over theology that the RNS summarized this way:
The 3,200-word report calls for mutual respect among the differing factions, saying opponents should talk to each other rather than about each other, especially on social media. Churches and would-be pastors also need to be honest about whether they embrace or shun Calvinism, it said.
The story quotes an interesting passage from the report:
“We deny that the main purpose of the Southern Baptist Convention is theological debate,” it says, noting that the next generation of Southern Baptists don’t want to wonder if the denomination is “on mission or merely a debating society.”
Here is the account of the handling of the clergy covenant proposed by a group within the Wisconsin annual conference.
“Rev. Steve Scott presented the Clergy Covenant report at Sunday morning’s Plenary session. The team was formed at the 2012 Annnual Conference session to address procedures for clergy in order to help resolve issues that harm the clergy covenant within the Wisconsin United Methodist Church. “This is all very personal,” Scott said. “We are the church together. What we have discovered is that we can either continue to debate over differences in theology or we can focus, as this team is charged to do, on living together in better ways.” Bishop Jung affirmed the document as “a tool to be used for future conversation, not as a document up for debate or approval.”
The report was presented to the clergy session according to this report. The presentation to the clergy session dropped a controversial recommendation regarding sexuality. The Q&A on the clergy covenant web site gives some indication of the discussion around that provision. Before the conference, the web site had said the covenant would be voted on by the clergy session. I cannot find sign of that now.
The Wisconsin conference website has a link to a video of the plenary session at which the covenant was discussed. The covenant discussion begins at about 1 hour and 8 minutes into the session. Here is a report of the clergy session presentation. Here is a report of the plenary session presentation. These appear to be advanced texts and not transcripts of the actual presentations.
In my brief watching of the video from the plenary session,
I believe I heard the presenter says that the recommendation about sexuality (recommendation 6 in the report linked in the first paragraph of this post) was not presented to the conference because doing so was the only way to ensure that everyone in the clergy covenant group returned to the group again when they started to meet again. I may be misinterpreting it, but it sounds like some conversation went on between the time the group published its report and the time the presentations were made at annual conference session.
Wisconsin’s clergy covenant team — a group that was commissioned by the annual conference after the Amy DeLong trial — released its recommendations for consideration at the upcoming Wisconsin Annual Conference. The group’s web site says the recommendations will go to the clergy session.
Jeremy Smith has written favorably about it here.
The purpose of the group was to make proposals to help repair the covenant among clergy in Wisconsin. One section that seems to capture the heart of the document’s goals is quoted here:
The Wisconsin Annual Conference will no longer participate in the Book of Discipline’s categorical discrimination of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people. Sexual orientation and partnered status create no barrier to effective and faithful leadership.
The Wisconsin Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church professes that any person whose gifts and call are otherwise affirmed will be welcomed into candidacy, ordination and appointment.
GLBT persons already ordained will now be free to live un-closeted and truthful lives, without threats of retributive action.
Additionally, United Methodist clergy in the Wisconsin Annual Conference will be free from complaint, punishment, prosecution or trial if he/she conducts same-gender Holy Union ceremonies.
My Indiana colleague Adam Roe wrote an interesting post a few days ago about the way reading Augustine helps us understand John Wesley. (I find reading the church fathers always helps me understand Wesley.)
Roe is concerned in his post that starting our exposure to Wesley with his first standard sermon “Salvation by Faith” sets the wrong tone for understanding Wesley’s theology. It obscures the degree to which Wesley’s theology starts and as built upon a foundation of joy in God.
The key to tying all this together is “glory and joy.” Wesley and Augustine share a sense that the heart is involved in a loving, glorious, joy-filled relationship both individually and within the context of the City of God, the church. This, for me, fundamentally changes Wesley. Rather than a call to severe works-righteousness, it places the emphasis back on being loved by God, and responding in love.
I found Roe’s point interesting because it brought back to my mind the first exposure I had to Wesley. The first sermons of his I remember reading — maybe not actually the the first ones I read but the first ones I remember — were “A Caution Against Bigotry” and “Catholic Spirit.” Although I find those two sermons are often mis-read by 21st century readers, they do set a different tone for me than if I had started with “Salvation by Faith” and “Almost Christian” and “Awake, Thou That Sleepest.”
That may be, in part, why when I read “Salvation by Faith” now, I notice that even there Wesley speaks of salvation as being about joy and love and peace.
They are also saved from the fear, though not from the possibility, of falling away from the grace of God, and coming short of the great and precious promises. Thus have they “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. They rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And the love of God is shed abroad in their hearts, through the Holy Ghost, which is given unto them.” And hereby they are persuaded (though perhaps not at all times, nor with the same fullness of persuasion), that “neither death, nor life, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate them from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
It would be an interesting inquiry. Does the way in which we first encounter Wesley change how we experience his theology?
From John Wesley’s second sermon on the Sermon on the Mount:
Because the merciful man rejoiceth not in iniquity, neither does he willingly make mention of it. Whatever evil he sees, hears, or knows, he nevertheless conceals, so far as he can without making himself “partaker of other men’s sins.” Wheresoever or with whomsoever he is, if he sees anything which he approves not, it goes not out of his lips, unless to the person concerned, if haply he may gain his brother. So far is he from making the faults or failures of others the matter of his conversation, that of the absent he never does speak at all, unless he can speak well.
The quote above comes from a long discourse on what it means to have mercy. I quote it here because it strikes me as a good rule for blogging and bloggers. I know too well the temptation to point out the errors of others. I’ve fallen prey to that before. Wesley reminds me here that it is not merciful, and therefore not Christian, to do so.
He makes one exception:
Sometimes he is convinced that it is for the glory of God, or (which comes to the same) the good of his neighbour, that an evil should not be covered. In this case, for the benefit of the innocent, he is constrained to declare the guilty. But even here, (1.) He will not speak at all, till love, superior love, constrains him. (2.) He cannot do it from a general confused view of doing good, or promoting the glory of God, but from a clear sight of some particular end, some determinate good which he pursues. (3.) Still he cannot speak, unless he be fully convinced that this very means is necessary to that end; that the end cannot be answered, at least not so effectually, by any other way. (4.) He then doeth it with the utmost sorrow and reluctance; using it as the last and worst medicine, a desperate remedy in a desperate case, a kind of poison never to be used but to expel poison. Consequently, (5.) He uses it as sparingly as possible. And this he does with fear and trembling, lest he should transgress the law of love by speaking too much, more than he would have done by not speaking at all.
How many of us who go by the name of Christian take such care before writing about the sins and errors of others?
I picked up a copy of George Lindbeck‘s The Nature of Doctrine last night. The book has hovered in the background of much I have read over the last decade. Lindbeck and Hans Frei have had a huge part in shaping what is sometimes called post-liberal theology. If you have read Stanley Hauerwas or Will Willimon, you’ve been exposed to their ideas.
The first thing that surprised me by the book was that it was written to tackle problems that arise in ecumenical discussions about doctrinal differences between churches. Lindbeck was trying to work out a way that churches could come to agree on doctrinal positions without actually having to abandon what they espouse. So at its core, Linbeck’s ideas are trying to solve ecumenical problems — as opposed, for instance, to help the church better articulate the gospel to outsiders.
Lindbeck sees three different ways to thinking about doctrine. Cognitive-propositional approaches see doctrine as making truth claims about reality that either are or are not true. Lindbeck writes that such an approach has no credence with educated people — like himself — since Immanuel Kant and the scientific revolution. The current dominant mode of thinking about doctrine, Lindbeck argues, is experiential-expressivism, which sees doctrine as an statement derived from internal feelings, attitudes, and spiritual experiences. Doctrines are not truth statements. They are an attempt to put into words what we know to be true based on inner experience. And importantly, those inner experiences can be shared by people of different religions even though they get put into doctrine in ways that contradict each other.
Lindbeck argues for a third view of doctrine, which he calls the cultural-linguistic approach. He carries this approach over from secular humanities. In this approach, religions are understood as languages or cultures and doctrine is best understood as a set of rules or regulations that allow or forbid certain truth claims and practices. Doctrine does not claim to be truth claims about an independent reality. Neither does it claim to be the expression of a universal or shared human experience. Instead, it is like the rules of grammar and syntax of a language.
I’ve only just started the book, so I am still trying to understand myself what he means — and how reading him can help me understand the theology of Stanley Hauerwas and other contemporary writers.
I’d be curious to learn of your reactions to or thoughts about Lindbeck and his project.