Thursday, July 10, 2008

Of Two Minds

In my United Methodist tradition, at least in these latter days, there is a phrase bouncing around when serious debate is engaged: "of two minds." We seem to be a denomination cloven or, more charitably, ambivalent. The joke is that we are the "untied Methodist church," no longer blessedly bound, at least not as Charles Wesley rhapsodized.

Our official, "united" stands are achieved democratically, by vote of our quadrennial General Conference, but among the delegates, in the agencies, out in the pews, we are possessed of "two minds" (at least) about many of the salient issues before us.

For example, while we are a "peace" church we have many hawks among us--and a bunch in between the pacifists and the militarists who deep in their gut are convinced that while we are against war, of course, there may be a just time to fight one (we are by far mostly agreed that the present one was not). We are an integrated denomination but one of my own congregants ceremoniously walked away from our fellowship when I did not denounce Jeremiah Wright's thunderations (when in fact some of what Dr. Wright said and, later, did could hardly be called prophetic preaching or prophetic symbolism; it was more like hate-mongering and derogating gesture), but instead allowed as to how I myself and, I imagined, many of those who worship with us had heard at least as bad from white preachers through the years (and for my own part, one of them my dad, though not so much his sermons as in his conversation and attitudes). In point of fact, I said, we had most of us heard much worse.

We United Methodists are of two minds, like most everybody else, regarding homosexual couples and marriage, and ordination. Of course, on either flank of our ranks are folk who aren't ambivalent at all. Those in between them, most of us, choose to believe that the folk advocating for clergy ordination and marriage for gays do so from pastoral, theological and relational foundations: they read Holy Scripture through the lens of agape love and social justice, and what they see leads them to this position, advocating as best they understand it for those long on the margins, the disenfranchised, the ignored.

At the same time we believe that those who defend the historic position of the church in these matters--that homosexual practices (though not orientations) are disqualifications for the ordained ministry because they are and incompatible with Christian teaching--do so from pastoral, theological and relational foundations. They read the Holy Scriptures through the lens of inspiration and authority and their best understanding leads them to conclude that, in C.S. Lewis's words, tolerance is not the same thing as love, that not every opinion, experience or behavior is bless-able, even when those seeking the blessing are themselves professing Christians. "Test the spirits," they say, "to see if they are from God."

"Exactly!" say the folk calling for change. "See if this is not a fresh movement of the Spirit."

I myself am of two minds on the subject, which is to say I can argue, in rudimentary form, both sides of the debate. I am, as the book of James describes it, "dipsuchos aner," a "double-minded man," and yes, sometimes unstable and tossed as if at sea when fouls winds gust from one direction or the other (James 1:6-8). The good news, though, is that Jesus did not talk much about these topics and so I feel some freedom to follow his example. I am sure there are circumstances that would make me take a more urgent approach, one way or the other. But for now, like many--perhaps most--United Methodists, and like the denomination itself, I am of two minds. Which is to say that while my "official position," should anyone ever ask, conforms to the "vote" of our General Conference (nor can I even begin to imagine Wesley himself thinking any differently on the matter), for good or ill I do not lose a lot of sleep over it.

I DO lose sleep, though, over another--and to my thinking more fundamental--issue, one that strikes at the foundations of our theological house, and not just United Methodism either. At issue is what might be called the "current" church's anthropology and ecclesiology. What is the Christian understanding of persons, of individuals, but also of the community of persons we call the church. What we believe about those doctrines has implications for soteriology, too--our view of salvation--and also for ethics. I am concerned that we have a deep "double mindedness" about who we each of us are and what we all of us are all about.

What brought the crisis to a head, or at least to the forefront of my thinking, was a vinyl sign I recently saw posted in an empty lot announcing plans for the construction of a new congregation near here. "The Champion Christian Center," is going to be built next door to an existing Lutheran congregation, "Christ the King." It is possible, of course, that a passerby might see the new construction as an extension of the existing church's ministry: Christ the King's new Family Life Center or Educational Wing, the place where Champion Christians are formed.

Careful observers, however, will see at the bottom of the sign a different web address than Christ the King and also this phrase: "Expect to Win." On the sign itself is a picture of a young man with fists raised high in the air, and the message is unmistakable--come here to be a winner!

On the steeple of Christ the King is a cross, of course. The cross is a sign of failure. Of weakness. Of suffering. Jesus' hands were not fisted, except perhaps around the nails. His arms were not raised high but stretched out. As Terry Holmes has put it, "How can we serve a Lord, the symbol of whose failure is above our altars, on top of our churches, on our stationary and around our necks, and claim to be strangers to failure?" He recounts, ironically, the story of a candidate for bishop who was asked, "How do you handle failure." His answer was, "I don't recall ever having failed."

Sitting there side by side, each in their own way--with steeple or sign--what these two churches sentinel in historic terms is the contrast between theologia crucis, "the theology of the cross" and theologia gloria, the "theology of glory." The debate between proponents of these various interpretations of the gospel has been long and intense. Those who advocate the former see the suffering of Jesus as both expiation and example, and so the crosses above the altars of their churches still suspend Jesus between heaven and earth, his blood-streaked face contorted in perpetual agony. Those who worship with an empty cross on their back wall, or no cross at all, often see the resurrection as, in effect, canceling the death and suffering of Jesus--and ours, too, as we live by the power of Easter's glory.

The church is of two minds about Jesus death and resurrection--and about discipleship. Perhaps Paul's letter to the Romans, his counsel to "rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep" signals along with everything else the fact that the argument was already joined.

Whether or no, it seems that the debate is especially relevant today--though we are mostly talking about other things. Are we to take up the cross to follow Jesus with weeping, or lay it down (or wear it only as jewelry) and follow with rejoicing. If the theologia crucis in its extreme forms may be interpreted, superficially or rightly, and therefore dismissed as a masochistic vestige of medievalism with a resulting emphasis on suffering, poverty and guilt, the theologia gloria may likewise be construed as a happier, feel-good, be a winner with Jesus gospel, a sign of these times when prosperity, atomistic individualism and winning at all costs and are the highest orders of the day.

While folk on either flank are unambivalent about the choice, perhaps those of us in the middle see a need for both theologies, held in responsible tension, for reasons theological, pastoral and relational--not superficially interpreted in any way but deeply rendered. That to say we need to do away with both the cross as invitation to masochism and the cross as strategy for acquisition.
Instead, the aged, the sick and dying, need the theology of the cross to remind them that our faithful suffering and even death is of value and abiding importance--what a prophetic word for a world that craves health and vitality along with other prosperities. And in a world where failure and the abdication of personal responsibility is often given therapeutic absolution,the young need the theology of glory and its call to courageous faith and joyous daring.

Or should it be the other way around?

I am of two minds about it.


Anonymous said...

I've really just glanced at a couple of your posts on this blog, but I'm certainly intrigued. I was raised in a religious household (Lutheran, actually), but have drifted away because I could not intellectually justify those beliefs and because the humility and struggle I saw as the heart of Christian life is missing from most public Christian behavior I see these days.

I don't know that I'm really looking to "come back to" the church, or any church, but I greatly appreciate an intellectual (and especially an intellectually honest) approach to struggling with faith. Based on what I've seen here, you seem to offer that rare approach, and it seems clear that what you have to say on these subjects is probably well worth reading. At first glance, at least, it's deeply refreshing. I don't spend a lot of time reading on religious thought, but I just wanted to take a moment to let you know that if that amount of time increases in the near future, it will likely have to do with your writings on this blog.

Take care,

Andy in Missouri

Tom Steagald said...

thanks for your good note, Andy. I trust that your path will find its way to a place, a people, a pastor who can provide a context to bless the struggle we all, if we are honest, face.

Part of my humility, if it is that, comes from a deep sense of personal and professional failure, but like Luther I also have a strong sense of grace that transcends that (if not always in obvious or practical terms).

I would commend my first book to you, Praying for Dear Life, though it has a perfectly ridiculous cover. It is a memoir related to my "recovery" from a personal failing and a return to ministry--that might in some sense echo your own journey away and back.

Again, thanks for writing.

Mike Smith and Rami Shapiro said...

This is a thoughtful and thought-filled post, Tom. You've identified the core concern, even as you cast light on several matters. I hope you continue to think through this matter and offer us additional commentary.