Let Me UnConfound You.

In a recent editorial in Good News Magazine Rob Renfroe  confesses that he is confounded by the fact that the majority of  UM bishops favor the “One Church Plan.” (https://goodnewsmag.org/2018/09/september-editorial/)  

He professes to comprehend progressives who want same-sex marriage and ordination of LBGTQ persons to be universally allowed in the UMC. After all, they are simply insisting, like traditionalists, that their interpretation of scripture be worked out in the governing of the church. What confounds him is bishops who could accept both a traditional and a progressive position in the same denomination. 

And he suspects that this is because the bishops don’t take seriously enough how committed the traditionalists are to their understanding of God’s order for human sexual relations. He feels misunderstood, which is the way we all feel when someone disagrees with us. 

Renfroe is not alone in being confounded. Progressives are often equally confounded that anyone could contemplate allowing room for the traditional position within the UMC, given that in their view it is antithetical to the teaching of Christ. They also feel misunderstood, so much so that the most radical of them believe the only possible way to act is through resistance. 

It is a basic assumption of cultural intelligence that if someone’s behavior confounds you it is probably not because they are irrational or have bad intentions. It is probably because they are operating out of a fundamentally different set of cultural assumptions than you. And if you find that you and someone with whom you disagree both find the same thing confounding then its almost a law that you and your opponent share a common set of cultural understandings that are different from those who confound you.

In this case traditionalists and progressives in the UMC, both fully embedded in modern culture, share two things in common. The first is that there is a clear and compelling meaning to scripture, in this case in relation to human sexuality. The second is that there is or should be a direct line of cause and effect between the meaning of scripture and church law. 

They disagree on the meaning of scripture, but not on whether it has a clear teaching, and not on whether it should be worked out in the life of the community. 

There is another rational position available; the position that appears to be shared by both the bishops and many other supporters of the One Church plan. 

That position is that scripture does not have a clear teaching on human sexuality. Or at least its meaning isn’t clear enough at this time to warrant dividing the church. It follows that there is thus no clear path to implementing scriptural teaching in church law, which necessarily must be changeable and flexible. And as a result the bishops and many others can logically support a position that is essentially agnostic at an institutional level, leaving it to individuals and congregations to decide according to what light is available to them.

So the One Church plan isn’t confounding at all. It is simply based on a fundamentally different understanding of the role scripture has to play in the church on this issue at this time. Really it arises out of a different culture, one that no longer shares the certainties found in a modern understanding of authoritative texts. One can disagree with the bishops on this, but their position isn’t irrational or incomprehensible. 

The problem it seems to me is that United Methodists on both sides of this divide find the possibility of ambiguity in the teaching of scripture, and thus agnosticism with regard to its meaning, profoundly troubling. We have built our faith for more than two centuries on the notion that scripture is an utterly reliable guide to both belief and behavior and thus to salvation. We cannot imagine faith in Christ apart from trust in the Bible, and so the idea that it gives no clear instruction on something as fundamentally human as sexual relations is a direct threat to our hope of salvation.

We see this in seminary settings such as mine, that spend vast amounts of time teaching students how to reliably exegete scripture and construct dogmatic systems that will give the church the kind of unambiguous guidance necessary to feel confident of being saved, or at least righteous. 

But again there is another comprehensible possibility. True faith, the hope in the unseen known only to God, has the courage to not know God’s full intention for humans as sexual beings. True faith has the courage to doubt itself and trust in God. True faith has the courage to embrace the possibility of being wrong, and therefore to build relationships on something other than being united in orthodoxy or orthopraxi. 

But there are other positions on what constitutes true faith than mine, and although I disagree with them, I am not confounded by them. They belong within the span of human reason deployed by limited humans like myself, reason which can thus bind us together in reasoning even if we ultimately choose to live apart. 

Comments

  1. Ambiguity is the very essence of the human experience. And since ALL theology is metaphor, and language can, at best, only point toward that which is beyond language, every theological position that does not allow for at least some degree of ambiguity is simply being disingenuous. However, as you say, since we are saved by grace through faith, not by having the right answers or by embracing orthodox beliefs, ambiguity is not a problem.

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  2. Respectfully, this issue is more complex outside of a seminary. The UMC is a connectional denomination. Bishops are bishops throughout the connection. Clergy are clergy throughout the connection. Elders have guaranteed appointment. Local churches have no veto. Currently, churches throughout the USA that pay their full apportionments are forced to pay for an episcopal office occupied by a person who proclaims that they do not meet the ordination standards of the denomination. None of that is sustainable. Something is going to have to change.

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    1. Your response sounds as if you didn't even read the blog post. The mention of a seminary context is peripheral to the point being made. The gist of the original post is the necessity of being comfortable with--or at least resigned to--theological ambiguity, and how faith makes this possible. But you don't even mention either of those key terms in your response.

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    2. Keith, it appears that YOU are the one who didn't bother to read.

      How much "comfort" with how much "ambiguity" is sustainable in a connectional denomination? It already isn't working well in congregational denominations like the Episcopalians and UCC. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not to their own facts.

      If you and Dr. Hunt believe that the best solution is to change our ordination standards, you are obviously entitled to that opinion. But, when the rest of us point out that it hasn't worked well in other places, you should respond with something better than accusing people of just not understanding your evident brilliance.

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    3. Goodness, CS (whatever your name actually is), no need to get snarky. I read your comment--apparently more closely than you read mine. And, I read widely on this topic and comment on it extensively in my own original writings. But all that is beside the point I sought to make--i.e. your response is about SOMETHING OTHER THAN the author is talking about. If you are unable to see that, or see it but are unwilling to admit it, you have no business engaging in conversation with serious people.

      As evidenced by your not even mentioning the two key terms from the original post, you used the post as a springboard to trot out your own talking points, rather than engaging in a dialogue. Maybe you don't have your own blog, so you have to use the comment thread in those of others to get anyone to read what you have to say.

      And whom exactly do you envision as "the rest of us"? There are many UMs who favor the One Church Plan, including the Council of Bishops. So, whoever this "rest of us" is, it isn't ALL of us, by any means.

      And for what it's worth (I'm sure not much to you, but everything to me), I've been part of this connectional church since 1970 and ordained in it since 1976, and I am quite comfortable with ambiguity. It's only a certain mindset that can't quite grasp the difference between unity (which is a gift from God) and uniformity (which is a cheap human imitation thereof).

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    4. Dr. Jenkins, it is a shame that you continue to refuse to engage on the merits. I continue to ask how you see this working in the denomination?

      Unfortunately, the majority of the Council of Bishops has been in favor of "local option" for quite a while even though it consistently fails to attract a majority at General Conference.

      I realize that you are so very much more wise and gifted than I am and I apologize for my failings.

      Creed Pogue

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    5. "I realize that you are so very much more wise and gifted than I am and I apologize for my failings."

      That's an important first step on the road to wisdom, and I'm proud of you for taking it, Creed. But don't be too hard on yourself.

      I don't "refuse to engage on the merits," as you say. I just don't want to....at least not here and now, or with you. I have written and talked about the "merits" of the argument till I am sick to death of it. I am firm in my position (though my recognition of how ambiguous all such human endeavors are keeps me from proclaiming it RIGHT), and I don't anticipate being able to change your mind. And that's fine, because I don't think either of us NEEDS to be convinced otherwise right now.

      Like Dr. Hunt, I am exploring other possible routes to take that avoid that distinctively human curse, binary opposition, that can see only black and white, wrong and right, and is willing to fight to the death for its convictions in order to prove them RIGHT.

      WHY NOT simply decide to stop arguing about it and get on with the work of the Kingdom? WHY NOT think and allow others to think on this topic? WHY NOT decide that it is too peripheral to the core of Christian belief to split the Church over? We managed to make disciples of Jesus Christ before 1972, when the BoD made no mention of homosexuality and its relation to a person's status in the Church. WHY NOT do so again.

      And do you know what it take to make this happen? EXACTLY what Dr. Hunt advocates at the heart of this essay! EXACTLY what you have still failed to address, even though you're supposedly commenting on this essay. And THAT is exactly why I choose not to waste any more time on you or on "engag[ing] on the merits."

      But keep working on that humility, Creed. Even though your statement was sarcastic, there's a chance you can fake it till you make it.

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    6. It is sad and amusing to hear people who are so quick to lecture others about how THEY should comport themselves but utterly fail to model that behavior when it is their turn.

      You don't want to acknowledge any of the practical problems with the position that you and Dr. Hunt have. That is fine.

      It is also both sad and amusing to hear all the talk about "ambiguity" or self-determination get thrown out the window in the fact of opposition. Instead, we should just let you and Dr. Hunt handle it because while you graciously admit that you don't have all the answers, we should just let you handle it. How incredibly arrogant. Nice exchange of views!

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  3. "It is also both sad and amusing to hear all the talk about "ambiguity" or self-determination get thrown out the window in the fact of opposition." Wow! Sad AND amusing at the same time. I didn't know I could pull that off.

    Do yo, perhaps, mean in the "face" of opposition? If so, then you're even less perceptive than I give you credit for. I didn't throw ambiguity "out the window"; I freely acknowledged that neither side has an undisputed claim to being RIGHT, because RIGHT is something we finite humans don't achieve very often. I stated I was fine with you holding your beliefs as long as you let me hold mine--ya know, think and let think, agree to disagree. So please explain to me how that is throwing ambiguity out the window "in the fact[face] of opposition."

    I'm waiting.

    Still waiting. Oh well, moving right along.

    "Instead, we should just let you and Dr. Hunt handle it because while you graciously admit that you don't have all the answers, we should just let you handle it. " I'm confused. Are we supposed to handle it twice? Or are YOU saying that WE are saying that YOU should just let US handle it? If it's this second option, forget it. I never said I want to "handle" anything. I'm retired. I am merely stating what I think would work . . . as long as both sides would agree to it, which--if you are any indication of the perspicacity of the Traditionalists--hasn't a snowball's chance in Hell.

    "How incredibly arrogant." Yes. Thank you for noticing.

    "Nice exchange of views!" I told you I wasn't interested in exchanging views on this topic here and now, or with you, but then I went ahead and put myself out there and offered some brief thoughts, and you respond with this kind of ham-fisted sarcasm? What do you want, Creed? I've already wasted far more time than you are worth.

    Or are you just determined to get the last word? If that's the case, I'll let you. Go ahead and reply one more time. I promise I won't say anything.

    Toodles!

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  4. You are absolutely correct in your assumption that we are all approaching this from completely different understandings and perspectives. However, as a pew person, I am completely confounded by how you think an organization can function effectively when everybody is working from completely different and contradictory perspectives of the organization and what its mission is. I call that a house divided against itself and Jesus very clearly states what the end result of that is: The house cannot stand. Given the fact that The United Methodist Church in America has recently marked 50 years of numerical decline that appears to be accelerating, I think it is safe to say that it is already starting to crumble.

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  5. "True faith has the courage to embrace the possibility of being wrong"... I don't see much of that in the writer's attitude. As a lay person, I have faith in the scriptures, and they are clear. The majority in the UMC agree and have done so for years. Amassing an education or being swayed by culture and society may change the opinion of some bishops and the progressives, but it does not change the unchangeable Word of God.

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  6. "'True faith has the courage to embrace the possibility of being wrong'... I don't see much of that in the writer's attitude."

    And what about you, Peaches? Are you willing to "embrace the possibility of being wrong"? I don't see much of that in what you are saying.

    "As a lay person, I have faith in the scriptures, and they are clear."

    The Bible is many things, but one thing is ISN'T is "clear," at least not all the time or on all subjects.

    "The majority in the UMC agree and have done so for years."

    A VERY SMALL MAJORITY. That means a sizable minority thinks differently. Majority rule may be fine in secular government, but maybe in matters of such importance the Church should require a higher standard of agreement.

    "Amassing an education or being swayed by culture and society may change the opinion of some bishops and the progressives, but it does not change the unchangeable Word of God."

    It isn't "some" bishops. It is almost all of our bishops. That should mean something, since they are our leaders.

    While scripture may be "unchangeable" (although that really depends on what exactly we mean when we say "scripture," since manuscript copies exist that don't say the same thing), the interpretation and application of its message by the People of God has always been a flexible, dynamic, living thing. The Bible itself even gives us a model for doing this, as later writers quote and reinterpret the words of later writers, applying them to new and changing circumstances.

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