Theology

Theological Orientation of the UMC, great. Tell me about Samaria

This report has been making its way among the internet the past several days. The two main talking points are from the opening line of the report which reads:

The United Methodist Church is a big tent theologically, and people with conservative or traditional religious beliefs make up the largest group under that spreading canvas.”

This has been used to augment different arguments around the denomination about different positions. Conservatives/Traditionalists (C/T) argue that this is proof that there are more C/T and thus the church should move lightly if embracing anything that is progressive. Progressives/Liberals (P/L) say that this study also shows that we are a big tent and majorities are not always the measure of what God desires.

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Of course we forget that the average age of an United Methodist is 57 … and this was in 2014 (which was the latest that I could find in the time that I allowed myself to research this question). At the same time the clergy are getting older and there are fewer younger people in the pews and pulpits.

All I want to point out is that it is far more interesting (and relevant) to the future of the church to determine the theological orientation of non-members of the UMC.

Who really cares what the self reported theological orientation of those already in the Church is? If scripture has shown us anything it is that the theological orientations of the people of God are often wrong, misguided and susceptible to sin and corruption. One might imagine the people in the desert identifying as traditional as they desired to go back to Egypt. While others might have self identified as progressive as they melted down the gold to form their idol.

If the church of Jesus Christ is to go to “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth”, then it is of greater interest to know what those in “Samaria” believe so that the Church can reach to “the ends of the earth.”

Even Satan Knows He Does Not Exist

Photo by  NASA  on  Unsplash

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Pastor Brian Zahnd was explaining Satan to those of us who do not take the Satanvery seriously. Generally those are the people who are in the west, highly educated, wealthy, “rational” and suspicious of those things that are unscientific. A decent sized group of people.

In his efforts to explain the Devil, Zahnd described the way meteorologists would describe a hurricane. Hurricanes are powerful, destructive and are even given anthropomorphic names. But even as we name a hurricane, we know that the hurricane is the result of complex systems intermingling and colliding with each other. The hurricane cannot exist on its own.

Likewise Satan is powerful, destructive and given a name. We know that Satan is the result of complex systems intermingling and colliding with each other. As such, Satan cannot exist on its own. Satan is the result of the most complicated systems interconnected with the most complex animal on the planet.

Those of us who have read Stanley Hauerwas may recall how he wrote in his book Matthew, “That is why the devil is at once crafty but self-destructively mad, for the devil cannot help but be angry, recognizing as he must that he does not exist.”

God's Insistence

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The debates of the existence of God drive me bonkers. Not only are they usually staged between two people entrenched in their views but they generally talk past each other in order to score points so to “win” the debate. The whole process is just silly because, and this may be shocking, but it is a fools errand to talk about God’s existence. God is much less one who exists but rather the One who insists.

For example, when you look at a landscape painting, you will see distance and perspective. Asking if the mountains in the painting exist is a question that misses the point. The mountains do not so much exist as they insist. They are there on the canvas, insisting their presence even as they do not exist.

God’s insistence is how we come to know God’s presence. Most people do not have a “burning bush” experience or an angle coming from the clouds telling them a message. Most of us move through our lives and bump into moments of beauty, love, joy and hope. These moments insist there is something beyond what we can sense, something within and yet beyond the material world.

There is an insistence to creation. That insistence to life and love, joy and hope, we divine.

Some of us even call it God.

It is because of God’s insistence that God’s existence is real.

Orthodox, Heterodox and Heretic

I grew up in the “crazy” streets of a sub-urban cul-de-sac neighborhood. It was there, in those secure and safe streets that one rule reigned supreme among the neighborhood kids. Majority rule. When we all got together to play, the majority decided what will be played. It did not matter if you wanted to play soccer, the majority had roller blades and so it was decided that street hockey was to be played. Majority rule. It was the indisputable logic and rule of the “sacs” (the name we gave to the collection of dead end streets in our neighborhood).

By in large, majority rule is still the reigning rule of groups not just in group decisions or politics but even in theology. Of course, the Church does not call it “majority rule”, the Church word is “Orthodox”. What is considered orthodox is what has been agreed upon by the majority of people in a given time and place. Sometimes those majorities rule for a long time but others change with high frequency, however the underlying assumption is it is the will of the majority that rules.

Of course as long as you are in the majority you are probably happy, but once you come to disagree with the majority then what do you do? In the “sacs” the minority positions would be banished from the conversation and you either got on board or you went home. Thus, making decisions becomes a zero-sum game. There are those who “win” and those who “loose”.

In the life of the Church, this zero-sum approach shows up as there are those who are “orthodox” and those who are “heretic.” It becomes the task of the heretic to get on board with the orthodox and it is also the task of the orthodox to convince the heretic to join the majority.

The Heterodox Beauty

The Heterodox Beauty

Many people in the Church do not hold the majority (orthodox) position but they are not heretical. For example the UMC upholds that women can be in any level of leadership. However there are many in the denomination who do not agree and refuse to accept a female pastor. Those who do not accept a female preacher hold a minority position in the UMC. Of course this position is the majority in another denomination.

Minority positions in the church are called “Heterodox”. The heterodox position is one that is of dissent to the orthodox position. It is the voice that challenges and critiques. It is not heretical, it is heterodoxal.

So what are we to do with those who hold minority positions in the denomination?

As a side note: I wonder why the majority/orthodox positions become frustrated with the minority/hertordox positions? Why would the majority be annoyed by the minority if not but out of fear of loosing the prestige of being in the majority? If the majority is really threaten could it be because on some level those in the majority know there is truth in the minority position?