In commenting upon the ever present theological and ethical conflict that United Methodist is embroiled within, Timothy Tennent, the President of Asbury Theology Seminary, makes the following observation in his most recent blog post in discussing why many people are leaving the United Methodist Church, particularly in America.
This observation needs to be heard by United Methodists across our land. We have a spiritual treasure that is in jeopardy. We have lost our connection to our own vibrant heritage. There has never been a movement which so powerfully united evangelical fervor rooted in historic orthodoxy with social engagement and societal witness. What is at stake is not merely a resolution of our struggles over human sexuality, though that has become the presenting issue before us. What is at stake is nothing less than the apostolic witness. What is at stake is our commitment to Scriptural Christianity. What is at stake is our own vibrant heritage of vibrant evangelism, church-planting, travailing prayer, ardent discipleship, and our identity with the poor.
At sake then is that many people are leaving the United Methodist church in search of what the Wesleyan heritage originally stood for. If such a vibrant way of life is absent from the halls of many of the churches, then the dissonance between faith and where one is involved in the practice of this faith will lead people to either shift/abandon their faith to conform to their context or, as in the case of this article, leave their context for something they feel to be more authentic to what they have come to believed and learned. Speaking of one such person who left precisely in that fashion, Tennent says:
He acknowledges, as I do, that there are thousands upon thousands of United Methodist pastors who still stand for all of these things and who faithfully minister the gospel week in and week out. He acknowledges that there are millions of current United Methodists who still stand in hope that this great heritage can be restored. I am among those. But, we should not be naïve. There are powerful forces aligned firmly against our own heritage of Scriptural Christianity. There are powerful forces who are determined to re-shape our heritage into something unrecognizable to the vision of our beloved founders. There are powerful forces who want us to normalize what the New Testament explicitly forbids. We must rise up and say “no” to anything which would trade our sacred history for the latest mess of cultural pottage.
Now, if I were to describe this as an amateur anthropologist, I would suggest that there is a clash of different cultures, whose practices, values, relationship to history, and overall worldviews are in clash and tension. Should United Methodist retain its continuity with its holy past, or must it unshackle the chains of the oppressive past? Is sex to be understood in the context of personal desire and fulfillment, or should it be considered a part of life that intimately affects our relationship with each other and God and brings forth something new? I might even move into a postmodern analysis, suggesting such claims are actually playing for the prominence of oneself and one’s cultures in a struggle the establish the prominence of one’s own life-world. Tennent’s own appeal recognizes the power that is present in the opposition, although he does not characterize mass of faithful ministers in terms of power.
However, while the psychological, anthropological, and postmodernist perspectives certainly have some truth to their analysis, to stay there would frame the conflict in a relativistic frame where there is no real common/”universal” normative ground to unite the contrasting theological cultures. This does not fit the reality of the United Methodists; there is at one level a “common ground.” While there are certainly exceptions, most progressives and evangelicals do hold in common certain language. We all talk about God, Jesus, the Spirit, grace, forgiveness, love, etc. Almost all of us appeal to the language of the Scriptures, although some appeal more so than others. We can even go beyond language and suggest that amongst the intellectual representations amongst progressives and evangelicals, they even share a common respect for the historical study of Scriptures, the value of studying theological tradition, etc. We share a common store of practices, particularly amongst the clergy, in the process of ordination, the practice of conferencing, etc. With so much in common, how can we be so divided?
The answer: differences in epistemology. For those unfamiliar, epistemology is commonly referred to as the philosophy of knowledge: how is it that we know, what justifies our beliefs so that we can call it knowledge, etc. But I would refer to this as a reflective epistemology, where we have attempted to understand and think through the grounds for gaining knowledge and our confidence in this knowledge. But we all have the sources we trust for gaining knowledge and we all have our own reasons for trusting what we know; we are just not usually aware of this. While sustained reflection can help to form our own epistemic frameworks, it is predominately formed unaware to us by our relationships, practices, liturgies, experiences, etc. It gets ingrained in us in churches, schools, politics, etc. where we imitate the examples provides to us by our clergy, teachers, elected officials and learn it through feedback from our own attempts as learning, whether it be in the form of social feedback in grades, approval/disapproval, etc., or our own experimentation where we discover if our thoughts and actions lead to and predict the results we expected. Our pre-reflective epistemologies become engrained and sustained through this set of events occurring again and again and again over the course of the years, with us rarely being able to look back and see how it happened.
Occasionally, however, if we are open to seeing it, sometimes we discover whole new ways of acquiring knowledge. For instance, all through college, I was a rather analytical person, starting in computer science which entailed clear analytic, algorithmic thinking; even as I switched to psychology, I still thought of people in algorithmic fashions. Even my theology reflected this as I likened God to a big supercomputer, whose actions were always in accordance to a complex set of conditional rules, which we might refer to as God’s nature. I even studied the Bible in this fashion, thinking the words had a clear, specific, unchanging meaning as if they are technical terms, thus it was simply a matter of reading the Bible enough to pin down what every significant word such as forgiveness, salvation, grace, etc. meant. Knowledge was only in the form of clear, unchanging principles/rules that governed everything Then, during my first years in seminary, I happened upon readings that engaged in historical critiques of society. The idea that the practices of a society, both its virtues and its sins, could be connected to historical circumstances of ideology, economics, etc.1 opened my mind to a whole new way of knowing. Knowledge was murkier, and the way to know was to study the context so deeply and fully so that what was true (or at least, what I thought to be true) would emerge from a mind that engages the whole of the situation. Without the reflective awareness that I now have today, I was excited by this new way of learning. It grappled my imagination and made me, as I look back, to think much more like the Continental philosophers do. As a result, my theology and study of the Bible shifted. I began to be open to seeing God more in terms open theistic terms; I even flirted with process theology in the end, although I ended up finding it untenable for Christian faith based upon the Scriptures. God was also a God who related to us like a person who was concerned about my feelings, my circumstances, etc., rather than simply a supercomputer who gave certain outputs based upon certain inputs. My reading of the Bible shifted to try to wrap my head around it in a new way, where it must be connected to the circumstances of history. In addition, the meaning of the words of the Bible was something that emerges from the usage of the words together in its historical context, and thus every pericope, text, genre, part of the canon, should be taken on its own terms. In the midst of this shift, I even considered the idea of “Spiritual exegesis” where we can only truly grasp the meaning of the text by inspiration of the Spirit.
If I may describe these events, it was as if I had an epistemic conversion.2 To be clear, I am not stating this as some salvific conversion, but only as a recognition that our epistemic frameworks that influence our learning can be dramatically changed. However, this change occurs by something unfamiliar to us that grabs out attention and appeals to us in some fashion, evoking our desire and/or fears.
Now what does this have to do with the United Methodist theological conflict? At the core, it is this basic premise: most of us have not gone through an epistemic transformation. Whether it be the method of learning taught to us by our schools and politicians, or if it is what we learned in our churches and other religious settings, most of us have been taught to acquire knowledge through very particular practices. For evangelicals, one gains knowledge through reading and studying the Scriptures. One may also appeal to certain religious authorities, such as pastors, who we trust have read the Scriptures well and are qualified to teach from them. For wider society, one gains knowledge through accumulating observations of a wide sample of objects or persons, and thus this influences much of progressive Methodism, where theological truth is often times determined by the various experiences and perspectives of the persons. Rather, what happened to us is that we simply retained our epistemic frameworks that controlled how we understood and interpreted the Scriptures, the practices and liturgy of the church, our own experiences, etc. We may have a similarity of faith in a vague way, which shares common language, practices, etc.
But if we look at the apostle Paul’s description of his own practice of apostolic ministry amongst the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 2, he is specifically concerned not just that the Corinthians have “faith,” but that this faith is rightly directed. Instead of appearing as a knowledgeable philosopher that the Stoic’s lauded in the form of an ideal sage, Paul sought to place the emphasis on two sources of knowledge about God, the testimony of Jesus death and resurrection and the power of the Holy Spirit. By these sources, one would perceive the nature of God’s power working in the context of weakness and foolishness in the eyes of the world. For Paul, it wasn’t simply that one had faith; it was how one has faith through looking to the specific ways God chooses to make himself known and not through Paul as a philosophical authority. In so doing, Paul was challenging the epistemic practices of the Corinthian culture, which would have been influenced by Roman Stoicism. The way of acquiring knowledge that the wider society had, whatever value it had for other forms of knowledge, was not the way one was to learn about God. However, that the Corinthians seems to still look towards the ministers of the Gospel like Peter, Paul, and Apollos, all in this light, the aligned themselves with certain teachers and thus placed their trust in theological authorities; hence they were a church sown with division and conflict as they may have some true beliefs about God, but it was not truly justified knowledge obtained by apprehending the power of God. They were not united in Jesus Christ because their epistemic frameworks made them focus on something else other than the powerful work of God.
However, the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ and the powerful works of the Spirit would have presented for people an critical point where they could come to learn about God in a way entirely different from what they were accustomed to. To grow into the maturity that Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, one must first come to a trust in the power of God. This trust didn’t come by rational argumentation. It didn’t come through Paul saying “the Scriptures so so you should believe” as if the words themselves were evidence themselves.3 While Paul nowhere rejects other epistemic frameworks as bearing no truth value, all other epistemic frameworks mislead and misdirect people, and thus one must come to shift the way one learns to be in accordance to how God chooses to make Himself known.
I would suggest the problems rests in the end with how people came into faith. We have been focused upon the generation of right belief, that is what we might refer to as orthodoxy, although different people and traditions may construe orthodoxy differently. However, there has not been the self-conscious attention that the Apostle Paul had in how is it we come to this right belief. For Paul, it wasn’t simply about orthodoxy, but epistemic orthodoxy: coming to the right belief in the right way, through attention to what God selects and uses to make Himself known. The end result is that while we might accept and common set of ideas, languages, practices, etc., our understanding of them as a whole is dramatically different because we arrive at the common language, belief, and practices in different ways that dramatically diverge in other language, beliefs, and practices. The problem rests then in our evangelism and discipleship, where we focus on transmitting right beliefs and not also transmitting the appropriate way we come to know this right belief; we are either mired in the doctrine of Protestant4 sola scriptura or Enlightenment rationalist and empiricist ways of learning, which all have their uses, and not first and foremost the engagement with the ways God chooses to make Himself known in Scripture and in the course of our lives.
So, at the core, our United Methodist divide is, I would suggest, not at it’s foundation a divide in theology, ethics, culture, etc. It is an epistemic divide that impacts how we understand the aspects of our faith that we might share on the surface. And it is a blame that I would suggest is largely shared by both progressive and evangelicals, although, to avoid the appearance of false impartiality, I do think in general evangelicals are closer to Paul’s and the New Testament’s epistemic understanding of faith.