"Tend Always to Reconcile": On Refusing the Given Categories

Image courtesy PhotoPin.com, via Creative Commons.
Image courtesy PhotoPin.com, via Creative Commons.

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.

His Holiness Pope Francis, via Wikimedia Commons.
His Holiness Pope Francis, via Wikimedia Commons.

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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  1. I saw this post and commented on it on the Evangelical United Methodists Facebook group. I wrote the following. I’d be glad for some of you who identify with the “Methodist middle” to interact with this:

    This post reminds me why I’m not in the “Methodist middle.” By all means, if we were talking about questions of liturgy or polity, I would see the author’s point. The issue that’s dividing our church, however, pertains to nothing less than salvation itself: engaging in an unrepentant behavior, condemned in the strongest terms possible in both Testaments, which risks excluding someone from God’s kingdom. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

    Of course, many Methodists—probably readers of this blog—disagree with what I’ve just written. But unless or until these Methodists make their case from scripture, I’m sorry, their “logic, tenor, and language” will not be “recognizably Christian or Wesleyan.”

  2. A view from a UMC pew: This theological diversity within the UMC became so toxic for me, and I became so confused as to what Christianity is about, I distanced myself from all things church, wandered into the Calvinist camp in the form of the Calvinist-leaning Heidelberg Catechism; was led to three very modern books about it and was finally taught the glorious truth about basic orthodox Christianity; it was done in a passionate, yet modern way that did nothing to diminish the “Wow” factor. In fact, I still do not understand why I had never been taught these things about the triune God of holy love who is most definitely way more verb than noun and myself. Christianity went from feeling like rocket science to being simply unfathomable! And basic orthodox Christianity as handed down by the saints is NOT modern fundamentalism! Basic orthodox Christianity has not been clearly or consistently taught in my lifetime: I was 59 years old when I found myself finally standing in the wide open space of God’s amazing grace!

    And yes, Wesley drew from many Christian traditions but if you think he would be pleased with the lack of theological consensus currently holding sway in The United Methodist Church, then I suggest you make a very careful reading of the second half of his sermon on the catholic spirit. like me, you will probably be very surprised at his description of a person who is truly of the catholic spirit.

    And I do not claim to be a Wesleyan scholar, but I have read many of his sermons and other writings, including his journal; read a book about him and the big point everybody is missing is that Wesley’s Priority #1–the thing he absolutely never ever wavered from– was not addressing social justice issues but was rather about connecting individuals to God in a life changing way and then to each other. Here is how he once defined the church (formatting and gender neutral wording are mine):

    “This is the original design of the Church of Christ. It is a body of [persons] compacted together, in order,
    first, to save each [their] own soul;
    then to assist each other in working out their salvation; and
    afterwards, as far as in them lies, to save all [persons] from present and future misery, to overturn the kingdom of Satan, and set up the kingdom of Christ. And this ought to be the continued care and endeavor of every member of [their] Church; otherwise [they are] not worthy to be called a member therof, as [they are] not a living member of Christ.”

    “Wesley on the church”, posted on John Meunier’s Arrow though the Air Blog, April 24, 2012

    Methodism came into being because Wesley preached about God to the poor and marginalized. When people wanted to know and understand what this meant for their lives, Wesley responded with guidance. He made his famous prediction about “form without power” because within his lifetime, he saw the economic status of Methodists improve so much that they became complacent in their faith!

    Wesley was right to fear that Methodism would never cease to exist but would become simply the “form of religion without the power”. After everything I have learned, my life long loyalty to the UMC feels nothing more than a spinning of my wheels.

    1. Betsy, I think the problem is that “theological diversity” (which is a good thing) is often confused with doctrinal indifference. John Wesley was far from indifferent on doctrine, particularly on the matter of predestination. There is much room for theological speculation, but only within the beautifully ordered playground (Chesterton’s term) of orthodoxy Christian belief. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

  3. These “categories” may bear language commonly used in the secular world (anything based on orthodoxy tends to ruffle feathers) but the origins of the divide originate from within our gospel witness, not without. For orthodox Christians, biblical anthropology, Christianity, Scriptural infallibility, etc., are not equivalent to secular political camps; they are foundational to our faith, witness and proclamation. I have plenty of “points of contact” with those fellow UMCers who’ve left orthodox understandings (and I count many among my friends and ministry partners), but we present very different gospels with little but moralism in common.

    When I do find commonalities, they (surprise, surprise) tend to be almost identical to those I share with the Kiwanis Club, the local YMCA, and the Hindus down the street.

  4. Drew,
    Excellent post.
    I suppose a part of me draws on the Anabaptist stream in the movement always seeking a Third Way. It is not necessarily a middle way, but a different one all together as I seek to converse with my friends caught up in the categories from outside which they have accepted for their own. I live in Illinois where people don’t ask if you’re Republican or Democrat, progressive or conservative, but whether you favor the Cubs or the Cardinals. A Mennonite turned United Methodist who is a member of my congregation says it’s a false choice: there are the White Sox.

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