I was always a different sort of kid growing up, who sought to be
However, in the recent division in the United Methodist Church, I have found myself increasingly rejecting even the moderate identity. I have seen in these “moderate” forces rhetorical appeals that sharply diverge from the actual realities as I understand them that try to maintain unity around maintain the status-quo with only a few alterations. This is not to mention how they advocated for a type of inclusion in such a way that I felt to be clearly counter-productive and against the Christian way of life. Then, at the same time, I also saw how a US government that essentially governed in the center in its actual policies has left a large portion of the population disaffected and angry, leading to the rise of populist presidential candidates that were either naive about their visions, like Bernie Sanders, or narcissistically delusion, like Donald Trump. The middle way was no more honest, in line with the truth, or effective than the “extremes.”
This has lead to somewhat of a challenge for myself in that I have not felt any real identification with any political or theological movement, though I do marginally identify with evangelicals. It seems that nowhere I looked there was truth, honest, and effectiveness. I couldn’t be conservative or progressive; I couldn’t really even consider myself moderate. But, over the past few
But this is not simply some pious-sounded virtue signaling statement of how I am above the fray and argument or some statement that we should “just love one another” in such a way as to dismiss the arguments and ideas altogether as being inconsequential. Rather, it is a deep criticism of the whole edifice of Western-American politics, and even theology to some extent, that is joining the fray to say it is fundamentally mistaken from the point of view of Christ. Allow me to explain.
Before the time of Jesus and then the Apostle Paul, the transition Rome made from being a Republic to an Empire was joined together with the appeal to philosophy,
So, what Rome would have called wisdom and philosophy, today we call politics and ethics. But they share many similarities, for instance, that both tend to work from certain abstract concepts and principles and then try to apply these principles across the board in as many ways they can. Libertarians will focus on having the least about of outside interference in people’s personal lives. Moderates will focus on the idea of a wide-ranging inclusion, trying to include as many people and their ideas as possible in the decision-making process and decisions. Progressives will
However, there is one notable difference between philosophy during the Roman Empire and today. Whereas politics and ethical views are categorized based upon their basic ideals and principles, Roman philosophy, like Greek philosophy before it, was organized based upon a line of traditions that emanated from specific people. One was Platonic, or Epicurean, or Stoic which people knew refer to the traditions starting from Zeno and Chrysippus, etc. One would organize oneself around a specific tradition, or even a specific teacher, who would have a myriad of ideals and principles that the espoused. There would be an underlying coherency behind the thoughts of individual teachers, although this wasn’t always as clear for the traditions/schools of thought. So a notable difference is that whereas today, we align ourselves to cognitive ideas when it comes to politics and ethics, in the Roman Empire people were much more concrete in their allegiance to specific persons and/or the traditions that spawned from them.
So, when we look at Paul in 1 Corinthians warning against people saying “I am of Paul” or “I am of Apollos” or “I am of Peter,” he is actually addressing the way people were accustomed to how philosophy worked when it came to political and ethical life during that time period. They were seeking to align themselves with these persons and the ideas they espoused, just like they would with philosophy. Therefore, when we align ourselves with progressive, moderate, conservative, etc., we are actually doing the same thing the Corinthians were doing, by finding something, rather than someone, that we align ourselves with when it comes to our political and ethical views.
Paul’s criticism of the practice of Corinth is to say that we are all the body of Christ, so we shouldn’t divide based upon the teachers. However, this was not merely some pious statement about how people should just forget their differences and be united. Paul is not that shallow, nor manipulative. Rather, for Paul, Christ is the very center of wisdom as in 1 Corinthians 1:30-2:16. The nature of this wisdom is unlike what the wisdom is in surrounding society. Instead of the popular Stoic idea that you grasp God by grasping the whole of the world, instead to come to know God and His Power through two specific things, the story of Jesus Christ and the dramatic actions of the Holy Spirit. Instead of the popular Stoic idea that God and creation are the same so that to know one is to know the other, Paul says that Christians have received a Spirit
So, if our politics and ethics today are analogous to the wisdom and philosophy in the Roman Empire, then when we align ourselves according to the progressive, conservative, or moderate principles we hold onto, we are not simply dividing ourselves in the Body of Christ. Rather, we are hindering our acquisition of God’s Wisdom in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. The way we obtain this political and ethical knowledge and what this knowledge looks like constricts our sense of our faith in God, lopping off and stretching different parts of the wisdom of God in Christ to fit onto the Procrustean bed. Whereas the Corinthian’s faith actually rested in human wisdom rather than the in the power of God, when we align ourselves to the principles we see in conservatism, progressivism, or the middle, we are actually placing our faith in human thinking about politics and ethics, rather than in the power of God to transform, make new creation, and raise from the dead.
This isn’t to deny any and all importance of the ideas we see from moderates, conservatives, and progressives. The ideas they have certainly may have value. But ideas are tools, not rules. They are sometimes we discover when they are best used to accomplish what is needed, rather than something we must always use in every conceivable instance. Similarily, as Abraham Mahlerbe notes in Paul and the Popular Philosophers, Paul was well aware of and used many of the philosophical topoi/ideas, but he used them for his own unique purposes; as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10:5, “we make every thought captive to obey Jesus Christ.” But what all this does deny is the divine-like status off these ideas, as if they should be given absolute prominence over all other ideas or all people. It is the rejection of ideologies that not only propagate a certain set of ideas, but automatically rule out competing ideas from the get-go.
Instead, one discovers by faith in and the love of God as known in Jesus Christ and the Spirit the will of God. Furthermore, by engaging with people in love, we discover where they are in life. Then, we see how these ideas we are aware
This means you might in one topic look like a progressive and then the next instance, look like a conservative. For instance, I can look like a moderate in that I deeply value unity in the Church, but given that my unity is grounded in the epistemic work of Jesus Christ, I can look like anything but a moderate when I suggest it is better to separate than to continue to fight over the battle lines of progressivism, conservatism, and the middle in the United Methodist Church; by the way we value the ideas in the midst of engaging with the division, we actually pedagogically train ourselves to
At the end, what I trust to be knowledge is determined first by my love of God. Then, my love of people fill out my knowledge more fully. Then, after that, the love of ideas, principles, systems, etc. can be used to serve the love of God and the love of neighbor. The usefulness of ideas hangs upon the love of God and the love of neighbor. Therefore, as a follower of Christ I can not be a conservative, progressive, or moderate. The ideas are simply tools, not rules, that I seek to learn how to use in the service of God and for others.