So much of the contemporary theological and ethical conversation in the United Methodist Church is just damned boring.
We pantomime the culture wars that we see repeated ad nauseam, we speak exactly in their vicious tones and monolithic categories, and then self-segregate into caucuses that mirror precisely those ideological divides. And then we wonder why we are gridlocked and frustrated.
In such an environment, the only sensible move is to refuse the given choices.
Actually, scratch that.
To do justice to the risen Christ, who explodes our categories and turns the very world on its head, the only faithful move is to reject identification with these anti-gospel cultural constructs (conservative/liberal/traditionalist/progressive/etc.) with the capacity only to distort Christian identity and stifle our witness.
In his advice for fruitful reading from his masterful book The Intellectual Life, the Dominican A.G. Sertillanges suggests that we should
“…tend always to reconcile our authors instead of setting one against another. The critical spirit has its place…[but] it is futile to linger endlessly over differences; the fruitful research is to look for points of contact.”
Too often, the UMC mirrors Western culture rather than acting like the ekklesia of God. We “linger over differences” rather than “points of contact” from which we might build consensus and grow more effective in our shared mission. To do so will be swimming upstream, but isn’t the way of Jesus usually against the current?
I resonate with the spirit of the Catholic writer Elise Italiano, who draws on Pope Francis’ admonition to “make a ruckus” of things and argues:
“It would be easy to take shelter in the categories determined by cultural and political ideologies: so-called conservative Catholics are expected to reject or downplay the urgency of environmental protection, and so-called liberal or progressive Catholics are expected to downplay marriage as the union of one man and one woman. However, Pope Francis has called us to resist such categories, as they reduce people. It is possible—and necessary—for us to witness to the fullness of our faith. The Gospel is too expansive for limits set on it from the outside. Perhaps he will say that we millennials must ‘make a mess’ of the ideological constraints imposed upon faith in order to live it fully.”
What would it look like for United Methodists to witness to the truth that “the Gospel is too expansive for limits set on it from the outside”? It would look like a hermeneutic of appreciation, a genuine effort to think with the whole church throughout time and space, and not just in the predetermined boxes that cable news gives to us. It would be a conversation both deeper and wider. It would be radical (“to the root”) in living out Wesleyan holiness, and aggressive in doing so in ways accessible to 21st century ears. It would be what L. Gregory Jones has called “traditioned innovation,” neither stiflingly nostalgic or myopically neophiliac. In brief, it would be gloriously different than the United Methodism of today.
In the footsteps of Wesley, a refusal of the given categories would mean an ecumenical revival, not just in terms of drawing on various branches of the Christian family tree, but in taking seriously a wide swath of human wisdom, past and present. As Sertillanges says, honey comes from many different flowers (and if you’ve ever looked at Wesley’s Christian Library, you know how many different flowers from which our honey has been made):
“The man who wants to acquire from his authors, not fighting qualities, but truth and penetration, must bring to them this spirit of conciliation and diligent harvesting, the spirit of the bee. Honey is made of many kinds of flowers. A method of exclusion, summary elimination, and narrow choice is infinitely harmful to a man’s formation…[s]uch an intelligence grows narrow; instead of looking at everything from the point of view of the universal, if falls to the level of a spirit of clique and gossip.” (164-165)
Many of my friends and colleagues are put off by the current state of the UMC because it is rancorous. I appreciate that, but I would much rather have spirited and interesting debate than the paint-by-numbers efforts with which we are currently presented.
I am not a sunny-eyed optimist. This is a difficult work. By looking for true reconciliation among our differences, which will only come about by refusing the given categories, I don’t know if all of our problems can or will be solved.
But if we can move in this direction, we’d at least have the beginnings of an interesting discussion whose logic, tenor, and language is recognizably Christian (and perhaps even Wesleyan). I long for that day. And until we get there, I will continue to try and model and encourage the kind of conversation I think we need to be having. I will keep refusing the categories. I will continue to look for points of contact across the divides. I hope you’ll join me.
Where do you see examples of Methodists and other Christians who are refusing the usual categories and seeking reconciliation? How can we be better about looking for “points of contact” instead of focusing on where we disagree?
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