Further Thoughts on the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation

My first post about the Protocol seems to have quickly become the most-read post on my blog. It received some “likes” (though they remain ambiguous to me as what they’re supposed to mean) and some clear disdain or passionate argument, both of which I elected (after an ill-advised first decision to engage) to ignore. As such, I think it’s worthwhile to more fully expand on my thoughts on the subject and to take care of a few ancillary issues that have arisen.

First, some may have some questions about who I am. I am an attorney by profession but an aspiring lay theologian and writer of speculative fiction (hence the blog). I am also a foster father with a hope to eventually adopt, which constitutes the “Fatherhood” section of the blog, of course.

It will not take much work to find my name, but I do not overtly advertise it because my wife is a clergyperson in the UMC (in which we were both raised) and my thoughts and opinions are not hers and I prefer that they not be associated with her by default for fairness’ sake.

Like my wife, I was raised in the UMC. Like many young people (but not my wife), I left the Christian church in my late teenage years because I was given an impression by conservative elements in the Church that Christianity was something that it is not: something oppressive, judgmental and that makes the world a darker place, not a better one. I remained personally and professionally (as a scholar of the medieval and Renaissance periods for a time) deeply interested in philosophy and theology.

Thankfully, that interest eventually taught me better than what I’d earlier been led to believe about Christianity. I came to realize that Christianity, as is best known through the living God expressed through the incarnation of Jesus Christ is in fact the best sort of revelation I could ever hope for, a revelation of a God who deeply loves us despite our flaws and who offers abundant and meaningful living now and forever. An example of what I mean by that might be found here. I even found that Wesleyan theology actually matched up with what I had come to believe through my own reading and reflection and that it was hearing theologies that were expressed as Methodist but which were not that had driven me from the Church. Even so, I (re-)became a Christian intellectually before I had an inexplicable and direct encounter with Jesus Christ while participating in a “Bible in 90 Days” program.

To be clear, while that encounter convinced me personally of the truth of Christianity, it gave me no ability to prove that truth to others, nor any special interpretive theological insight. I have no prophetic gift. I consider my spiritual gift to be teaching but believe that that is a matter of the entirely-natural strengths with which God has endowed me combined with my personality and personal inclinations. I think it’s important that I am clear in stating that, as passionately as I argue for my theological assertions, as convicted of them as I am, I make no claim to special priority or authority in making those assertions and arguments. If they don’t stand on the basis of the arguments made, they certainly don’t stand because I’m the person making them. Also, while I’m making disclaimers, if there’s any uncertainty, I do not speak with any position of authority within or on behalf of the United Methodist Church. I am a lay person within the church who has held some minor leadership roles but the thoughts expressed herein are entirely my own.

As an aside, part of the reason I feel that I am called to lay theology is so that my thoughts and arguments can avoid the entanglements of being within the UMC establishment (especially as clergy) where I would have to worry about my career, my next appointment, etc.

Part of the call that I feel as theologian is my belief (from experience) that the misinterpretation and misuse of Christianity has done the most harm to the Gospel–we are, in our words, our thoughts and our actions, often our worst enemies. My passions, preferences and convictions sometimes get in the way of my compassion as well; I am not above human nature.

A summary of my theological approach can be found here. A rough chapter from a theology book that I am working on (off and on again between my other projects) may be found here. My goal is to use all of the logical tools God has given us in our effort to understand Scripture and the divine while arguing that logic and science have their (logical) limits and that the irrational (I’d prefer the term “superrational”) and mystical must necessarily have a place in faith.

I’d also like to make my biases clear to you for your review as you evaluate my thoughts. I am unabashedly progressive in my theological leanings. I reject categorically any argument that the Bible should be read literally in all circumstances. Others have more fully set out the arguments for that position than I (I particularly prefer Karl Barth’s analysis of the difference between Scripture as the word of God and Jesus as the Word of God, which I address somewhat here, here, here and here.) I believe in full inclusion of members of the LGBTQ+ community within the Christian faith in general and the UMC in particular; I have laid out some arguments for this in the series here. I believe that those same persons should be allowed to be clergy if they have been called to be so. I vehemently disagree with the invocation of Christianity as an excuse for very un-Christian actions by our hardline conservative politicians (see here, here and here).

I have been a lay delegate to the Texas Annual Conference of the UMC for several years now and have reported my thoughts on several annual conferences on the blog. Here are some of my previous thoughts on the current human sexuality issue facing the Church (given mostly to be honest in my biases for all readers):

(1) A split of the UMC by any means other than by detailed agreement between all parties will be devastating to our witness and our missions. See here.
(2) I believe that the Church’s continued mission and relevance is best expressed in progressive theology, but that conservative theology (willing to engage honestly and in good faith with progressive theology) will always be important for accentuating certain aspects of our walk and faith, and that there should be a place for both in the UMC. See here.
(3) I believe that the One Church Plan provided the best avenue for various theologies to remain in productive fellowship with one another. See here.
(4) I believe that the Traditional Plan is, practically speaking, unenforceable and that the insistence upon it represents an unwillingness to compromise by some (not all) traditionalists within the UMC. See here.
(5) I found the actions of the hardline traditionalists at the Called General Conference in 2019 to be devastating, obstinate and infuriating. See here.
(6) I do not think it is right or proper to expel anyone from any Christian church, but especially from the UMC. See here (my first post to the blog, actually).

Okay, that’s a lot of introduction, but I feel that its necessary for me to be open and honest about my positions and thoughts, to hide nothing from readers (whether they agree with or like what I have to say or not) and to allow anyone who spends time reading my thoughts to evaluate them with their own discernment and standing in proper context. In other words, I believe that this information must be provided if I am to comply with the “Catholic Spirit” and the idea of “Holy Conferencing” as described by John Wesley. If you’re still reading, thank you. If you’ve spent time investigating the links I’ve provided throughout, I am touched and honored. If you’ve already left, I won’t know the difference.

Now, a continuation of my thoughts on the Protocol as promised. I’ll try not to repeat myself overmuch from my first post. Prepare for some stream of consciousness, people.

I still wish that the UMC would not split. I think that we are honestly better together and that a diversity of theologies and interpretative positions help us come closer and closer to a true understanding of God’s will for us.

I believe, and have said repeatedly, that the human sexuality issue before the UMC is only a proxy war for a much larger conflict between conservative and progressive approaches to Biblical interpretation. That has at once made the issue much more difficult (and is the explanation I give to those who ask why we’re still fighting about human sexuality) and, simultaneously, using this issue to fight about something else is unfair in the extreme to those affected: the LGBTQ+ community.

I think that it is hypocritical of those traditionalists who have taken the stance that their position is a “matter of conscience” for which there may be no compromise or compassion for disagreement while seeking to punish clergy who have violated the UMC’s Book of Discipline (by performing same-sex weddings or being a “practicing homosexual,” for instance) as a matter of their own conscience and theological convictions.

I acknowledge and respect that there are compatibilist (meaning, willing to continue to live in fellowship with progressives and others who disagree with their own theology) traditionalists. I wish that they were louder so that they might be better heard over the hardliners.

I acknowledge that there are hardline progressives who want to push any traditionalist element out of the UMC. I find it easier to sympathize with them than with hardline traditionalists given the injustices suffered by the LGBTQ+ community, but I still heartily disagree with their position and retain my preference for inclusion–including those of conservative/traditionalist theology willing to live compatibly with those who disagree.

Nevertheless, I believe that the hardline traditionalists have left no option but for a split in the UMC–my impression of the GC 2019 was that the progressives and centrists mostly (not entirely, but mostly) plead for a way to live together and the traditionalists stated that anyone who didn’t agree with their narrow hermeneutic had no place in the Church.

I argue that the acceptance of people who are not cisgendered, who are not gender-binary, whose gender is not the same as their biological sex, who have transitioned from one biological sex to another or who love someone who is the same gender or sex as them is not a matter of “rewriting Scripture” or of “culture corrupting Christianity.” I would liken it to C.S. Lewis’ “natural law.” Lewis argued that our conscience trying to guide us one way or another is the action of the Holy Spirit within us, that some aspects of wrong and right are known through the direct and personal revelation of God without a need to reference Mosaic or Levitical law. In that sense, I think societal acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community is the Holy Spirit telling us what is right.

Before the arguments on that front begin, I would also argue that a good interpretation of Scripture supports what society is saying about LGBTQ+ acceptance, not vice versa. I’m not going to lay out those arguments here, there are plenty of excellent places to find them (just Google or search Amazon).

If you aren’t aware, an earlier commission of the General Conference (not the Commission on the Way Forward; this was the Committee to Study Homosexuality) gave its report to the 1992 UMC General Conference and made a similar statement (admittedly expressed in the negative form against condemnation rather than a positive assertion for acceptance). The majority report stated:  “The present state of knowledge and insight in the biblical, theological, ethical, biological, psychological and sociological fields does not provide a satisfactory basis upon which the church can responsibly maintain the condemnation of all homosexual practice.” Dorothy Lowe Williams and the United Methodist Church (U.S.) Committee to Study Homosexuality, The Church Studies Homosexuality: A Study for United Methodist Groups Using the Report of the Committee to Study Homosexuality (Nashville: Cokesbury, 1994), 36.

So what do all of these statements and assertions mean with regard to the Protocol?

First, I applaud the ability of some within each of the “factions” within the argument to come together to attempt a compromise. This is an example to us all.

Simultaneously, I think that, as honest Christians, we should lament and own that the best our human nature seems to allow us to do in this situation is to split as amicably as possible. This is choosing the best among terrible scenarios. I think that we can rightly compare this to the standard Methodist outlook on divorce: Divorce is not something that God wants, but our reality in this fallen world is that sometimes divorce is preferable under the circumstances to remaining in a broken and damaging relationship. God will not condemn one who leaves an untenable marriage; neither should we.

At the same time, we need to make clear, as Christians, to the unchurched that this is a result of our inability to fully live into Christ’s example for us, a further reminder that we, too, are in need of God’s grace. That in fact, is why we are Christians, not because of some hubris that allows us to look down our nose at those who are not Christians. I think most Christians agree with that premise but we do a terrible job of owning it and communicating it to others; our perceived arrogance and judgment is a primary source of ridicule and rejection of the Christian faith. That’s not a logical argument, but if we take evangelism seriously, we must admit that sometimes perceptions of us are more important than realities.

To that end, I find myself reluctantly supporting the Protocol. To be honest, I’m growing tired of fighting. I’m seeing less and less value arguing with those who disagree with me, no matter how respectful and genial I can keep myself (which isn’t always very, I admit) and I’m beginning to think that my own efforts are better spent where they will have greater effect, cutting my losses with traditionalists who will never listen to anything that possibly diverges from their established beliefs. Part of me wants to say, “I’ll leave that to God, that’s God’s job, not mine.” But I don’t like quitting, and a church split feels like quitting, even if it is necessary.

I want to point out a few things that I very much appreciate in the Protocol, though. First and foremost, the Protocol seeks to protect the material assets (namely retirement and benefits) of all UMC clergy, regardless of whether they stay or go. I don’t think that it is grace for anyone to test the willingness and ability of another person to follow his or her conscience by increasing the cost of doing so. Removing a choice about whether to keep the benefits one has worked so hard for for so long or to sacrifice all of it for conscience’s sake represents the moral obligations to one another our faith instills within us (or should at least), no matter which “side” you’re on. I sometimes feel drawn to aggressively argue my position against traditionalists, and not always in the kindest of ways, I admit. But I can honestly say that I wish no harm upon those who disagree with me, and the Protocol represents a communal agreement to the same.

Likewise, provisions for allowing local churches to keep their possessions and property will be essential and I very much appreciate the efforts of all parties on that front. If you’ve followed the links above (or the history of the split of any other Christian denomination in the U.S.), you know well how much money and acrimony gets devoted to sorting out property rights, taking resources from the Church’s mission. As an attorney (and a real estate attorney at that), I’m fairly comfortable saying that in much property litigation it’s the attorneys who come out best. This should be avoided at (almost) all costs.

As I mentioned in my first post on the Protocol, I do feel some vindication at the Protocol’s provisions that it is an alternative traditionalist denomination that will be formed. Much of this, I admit, is an emotional (and neither rational nor beneficial) reaction to those at the 2019 GC who seemed to say that the UMC is not my church. It is, and as so many progressives have made clear after the 2019 GC, I will fight for it if forced. But it’s better for everyone if we don’t and I’d much prefer not to be driven to say or do things I might later regret.

Still, I think that the circumstances as a whole make the departure of the traditionalists the more reasonable choice. I understand that neither side wants to leave the UMC; both sides want to claim it for their own. I have some empathy for that; it’s a very human inclination. Ultimately, I’m not sure that there is a right answer about who should leave. But my own (again biased) opinion is that, if it is the hardline traditionalists who refuse any compromise that allows us to live together, it seems fair that they be the ones to leave.

As I also mentioned in my first post, the Protocol is not a done deal. I imagine that it, too, like the Traditional and One Church Plans, will come to be hotly contested at the 2020 GC, that some will use Machiavellian maneuvering to attempt to stack the deck in their favor, that hopes will be dashed, that relationships will be broken and that spirits will be disheartened in what is to come. I hope that we can be better than that, we’re called to be as Christians, but experience doesn’t make me want to hold my breath.

Part of me thinks that the hardline traditionalists will never accept the Protocol and that they will attempt instead to do what they did in GC 2019–anything they can to get their way to the exclusion of all else. My greatest fear, if we’re being honest, is that they might succeed.

This fear is born out of my analysis of the flow and procedure of UMC conferences. Having gone through the transcript of the 1972 proceedings that led to the “incompatibility” language in the first place, I think that the condensed time frame and procedural confusion in the body (and leadership) of the Conference had as much to do with the change being passed as anything else. Likewise, I’ve seen plenty of circumstances in the Texas Annual Conference where scheduling and procedure seem to take on a life of their own in determining the course of decisions. Some of that may, of course, be tactical manipulation on the part of very savvy actors. More, though, is simply the difficulty of managing a large group of people, most of whom have no idea how things are supposed to proceed and little understanding of how they’re actually proceeding.

Personally, I think that we should, with great regret and reflection on our corporate failings, push for the approval of the Protocol. If this is a great divorce, then the time has come for us to stop talking about the substance of our disagreements and to start trying to be genial as we handle the administrative tasks necessary to end the relationship. I hate that that’s where I end up, but from my very mortal perception I do not see an alternative. The Spirit could always do something unexpected (though I think that perhaps the Protocol may well be that thing).

The Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation

Even if you’re not a United Methodist, you’ve probably seen on any given major news outlet the announcement that “The United Methodist Church is set to split over gay marriage…” (The Washington Post) or something similar. If you’ve gotten more than the headlines, you may have seen that the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation” was released today, having been signed on December 17th, 2019.

After you’re done snickering about the irony of the title (I know I did), let’s talk first about what the Protocol is (and isn’t). The Protocol is an agreement in principal between important “players” or “Powers that Be” within the UMC that includes a proposed separation between the more conservative branch of the denomination and the more progressive one. So, this is not binding law, a definitive action, a done deal, or anything final in any respect. The Protocol will need to be turned in to legislation that can be passed at the 2020 General Conference, at which point it can start to take actual effect.

Only sixteen people signed on to the Protocol as those directly involved in the agreement, but they represent much larger groups of likeminded people from large swathes of the Church, some directly, some indirectly. Most importantly, I think that the signatories to the Protocol represent all of the major positions that need to be considered as the Church finds its way forward.

I think it’s reasonable to expect that the Protocol represents an actual “way forward.” Using a well-respected attorney to mediate between the gathered power blocs within the Church, the Protocol represents a plan of separation that (hopefully) avoids litigation and further dispute.

As I’ve written before, my preference would truly be a means for conservatives and progressives to continue to be in fellowship together. That said, human nature being what it is, I (reluctantly) acknowledge that that does not look feasible any more. The Protocol, then, may be our last best hope at a resolution.

Under the Protocol, a traditionalist alternative denomination will be formed. Monetary resources from the UMC will be used to initially fund the denomination (and those churches wishing to move to it by vote will keep the local church property) and all other claims to UMC resources will be waived. That’s a fair and gracious resolution, I think.

I do think that the traditionalist position contributes to injustice in our world when it comes to certain issues–LGTBQ rights and acceptance as a local example of the consequences of a judgmental and literalist interpretive hermeneutic as the global issue is Exhibit A. But I also believe that, on other issues, traditionalists do alleviate suffering, increase justice and diligently serve the Lord. Because of that, I don’t take issue with providing monetary support for an amicable (as possible) separation.

Realistically, though, as I’ve also written before, I think that the traditionalist faction that is created won’t be of lasting significance. Christianity does not have a relevance problem–ours is a faith as meaningful and far-reaching today as it ever has been. But the archaic tradition of a very narrow and literal interpretation of the Bible, the focus on God’s judgment and on making sure everyone “does the right thing” over showing mercy to all people to the greatest extent possible, and the refusal to allow others to be who God created them to be is becoming increasingly irrelevant. That’s not a result of secular culture imposing a new and heretical view of Biblical authority; it’s a result of humanity’s maturity in its understanding of God and theology as expressed through the careful and well-meaning application of all of the tools God has given us to the interpretation of Scripture and the search for greater understanding of the nature of God as expressed in Jesus Christ.

I also (vaingloriously, I admit) feel vindicated by the fact that it is the traditionalists who will leave. In a previous post, I remarked that the Traditional Plan is untenable in the UMC: even if it narrowly passed at the Called General Conference, the resistance within elements of the UMC (I’d like to include myself in that group, though I have admittedly little influence on the actual shape of things) makes enforcement unfeasible. I feel that the Protocol acknowledges that reality. Is that a useful or edifying feeling? Of course not. But it still feels good.

Most important, though, the Protocol represents a good-faith effort by the various factions to come to an agreement as to how to move forward other than one side trying to force its praxis on the other. That is a testament to an attempt by all involved to genuinely live out their faith in Jesus; a message that our world desperately needs in a time of tribes, “us and them” (of which I’m fully guilty, I admit), and demonization of those who disagree with us.

When the Traditional Plan passed at the GC, those of us who felt dejected and rejected by that decision continued to hold out hope that the Spirit might still work something new in the UMC. I’d like to think that the Protocol is just that. It’s maybe not anyone’s first choice (which probably indicates a reasonable compromise), and it’s not exactly what anyone expected, but it may be exactly what we need.

Part of me wants to end on that note of hope, but it’s too early for that. The Protocol still needs to be turned into an actionable collection of legislation and a plan of amicable (and non-litigious) separation that garners the support of the larger UMC (or at least those who get to vote at General Conference this year). There is much work to be done.

I’ve further expanded my thoughts and provided some additional background to my perspective in a follow-up post available here.

Chasing the Spirit

This will be a short post–probably. You all are aware of my proclivity to wax verbose.

Christmastime is my favorite time of the year. Or, that’s what I think every time it rolls around, even though I tend to think that springtime is my favorite time of year every Spring. The combination of nostalgia for past Christmases, the emotional response to the meaning of the season (even if we probably celebrate it in the wrong time of the year and all of that), the chance to see and spend time with family, and the chance to put work aside for a short while and just enjoy being human for a change all hits a sweet spot in my soul. But every year, I seem to complain that I haven’t been able to “get into the Christmas spirit.” At least not fully.

This may simply be the “can’t complain, probably still will,” mentality that tends to grip me in my curmudgeonliness (at least I recognize that, I suppose), but I feel that this year, I’m at least partly to blame. Yes, this has been a busy and hectic time. K is serving her first Christmas as a commissioned pastor in a new position (she put on a wonderful children’s Christmas service yesterday!)–which means, of course, she’s working crazy hours; we’ve got the kiddos to prepare Christmas for, and then there’s all that work to do, which has been busier than usual this December. There just hasn’t been that much time for enjoying Christmas.

But there’s been some, and when there has been, I haven’t availed myself of it unless forced to. I took Hawkwood to yesterday’s children’s service because of my husbandly obligation to attend and my fatherly duty to take my three-year-old. I found the service to be moving and to be one of the most enjoyable Christmas services I’ve attended in a long while, so I was exceedingly glad to have gone. But had I not felt obligated, I probably would’ve skipped it in favor of trying to catch some aseasonal relaxation–video games, writing, working on Frostgrave and RPG projects, watching the rest of the Witcher, etc.

I’m wrestling with that. Honestly, my attendance in church is something I regularly struggle with, and that’s just writ large at Christmastime. I always am glad to have gone to a church service–it helps center me, returns me to a remembrance of what is important, reminds me of how grateful I ought to be for the many blessings I’ve received. But it’s not the place where I feel closest to God. Church music is fine, but it doesn’t fill and inspire me like it does for others. I am fascinated by the ritual and liturgy of a church service, but not particularly moved by it. The sermon is typically the part of a service I enjoy most, but it’s not what I need from church attendance. I spend plenty of time reveling in the intellectualism and mystery of theology–it’s the emotional connection and the existential, mystic experience I don’t get enough of.

There’s the crux of it, I suppose. I’m not putting the effort into really seeking that elusive Christmas feeling, but lamenting not having it all the same. Maybe you feel the same way. If so, you’re in luck–there’s still time and grace for both of us.

An Ad Hominem Homily: Luke 16:19-31

This past Sunday’s text in the Methodist lectionary was Luke 16:19-31.

It’s a difficult passage, the story of that other Lazarus. In this short parable, Jesus tells us of an unnamed rich man and (the other) Lazarus, a disease-afflicted man who lies at the doorstep of the rich man’s home hoping for scraps from the man’s table. Both die, with Lazarus being carried by angels to Abraham’s bosom and the rich man going to Hades.

The rich man calls out across a great divide to Abraham to send Lazarus to bring him water, but Abraham tells him that none can cross the chasm. The rich man then begs Abraham to let Lazarus go to the rich man’s living family to warn them about his fate. Abraham objects that his family has Moses and the prophets to guide them. The rich man retorts that they may not heed the message from the prophets, but will certainly listen to someone returned to the dead. Abraham ends the parable by explaining that those who will not believe Moses and the prophets will not even believe one who rises from the dead.

Jesus sometimes has words difficult for us to hear, and even one such as myself whose theology focuses on the love, forgiveness and benevolence of God would be a fool to ignore the warnings in such passages.

The warning hits especially close when, as with K and I’s new church home, one must walk past homeless folks to enter worship.

The Rich and the Poor

I certainly do not want to de-emphasize the message in this parable about how we should treat the poor, the afflicted, those less fortunate than us. This warning is the clearest part of the passage, and perhaps the one that resonates most with Jesus’s other sayings.

But I’m going to make my comments on that aspect of the passage quickly and move on to less-frequently-discussed ideas conveyed by the text.

I’ll point out the purple robe worn by the rich man. Purple dye–at least the best of it–was known as Tyrian purple; it was produced by the Phoenicians in Tyre (and later elsewhere along the Mediterranean), a city north of Israel in modern Lebanon and visited by Jesus according to Mark. Tyrian purple comes from the secretions of sea snails from the Muricidae family. Even before the first century C.E., writers remarked that the dye was worth its weight in silver. The expense of this purple dye caused it to be known as “royal purple” or “imperial purple.” According to Strong’s, the word that we translate rather feebly as “dressed in” (at least in the ESV) has a meaning more like “habitually dressed in.”

Everyone hearing Jesus’s message at the time would have immediately understood his meaning–this was not just a wealthy person; this was a person with the means to squander money on lavish clothing, not for special occasions, but for everyday use. I suppose it’s like saying the man drove a Ferrari or Lamborghini past Lazarus every morning.

This is poised next to the statement that “Even the dogs came and licked his sores.” There are two ways to read this statement, I think. The first is what we instinctually read–that the dogs licking his sores is a further insult and embarrassment to Lazarus. But, through both experience and reading, I know that dogs can smell disease in humans (and Lazarus’s seems to be pretty obvious besides) and will often lick wounds in an effort to comfort and promote healing–this is their instinctual reaction. So, I think that the juxtaposition here is not just about Lazarus’s lowliness; it’s also about the fact that even the beasts who survive off of scraps from the table know to treat Lazarus better than the rich man does.

Truth and Seeing

As I mentioned above, I don’t think that the real point of this passage is simply about behavior and punishment. In fact, I don’t think that we should read the afterlife scene depicted should be taken as a statement of actual reality at all.

One hint of this, I think, is Jesus’s use of the word Hades–he’s making reference to a Greco-Roman cosmology that he surely doesn’t believe in. Now, on the one hand, Jesus is speaking to a culture now firmly entrenched in the ideas of the Greco-Roman world, but he’s also speaking primarily to Pharisees here, and it would seem that, were he wanting to make a statement about what to expect in the afterlife, he might have used the Hebrew word sheol instead.

So, with that argument made, I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the ideas of afterlife justice and punishment here–I just don’t think that’s the point and I don’t think that’s where we should be spending our interpretive time and effort with the passage.

Instead, I want to focus on the substance of the exchange between Abraham and the rich man rather, with the setting allegorically informing the conversation rather than being a demonstration of reality. In transparency, this is probably a break with tradition–this parable is frequently depicted in medieval art, probably because of its treatment of the afterlife.

When the rich man is dead and in Hades, he can see that Lazarus is with Abraham–the text tells us this plainly. Based on the text, we are well within our rights, I think, to assume that the rich man is founded in the Hebrew beliefs of the time. It follows, then, that he should immediately understand the situation as it is, with Lazarus being rewarded and him being punished. And yet, he persists in the worldview he had in life, the one that caused him to ignore Lazarus in the first place–that, by virtue of his wealth and status he was necessarily better than Lazarus and deserved to be higher than him and served by him.

Let’s make that clear: in spite of seeing Lazarus being rewarded and in the presence of Abraham, and being himself in a place of torment (and assumedly punishment), the rich man still thinks its fitting to ask Abraham to tell Lazarus to serve him.

For me, this changes the way that I look at Abraham’s response when he says, “And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.”

I read this not as a statement about the inability of the dead to move between punishment and grace, but as a statement that the worldly status quo, the dominance of the wealthy and powerful over others, cannot be enforced in the afterlife. Were the rich man not blind to reality, he would have seen this in his situation and would not have made the request in the first place. We see him as foolish in asking for such a thing, and I think that’s entirely the point given what follows.

If you’re like me, you find it strange that the rich man then asks Abraham to send Lazarus and not him to warn his (the rich man’s) family. This could be because the rich man still refuses to look past the disparity of social rank and privilege he enjoyed in life despite Abraham’s explanation, but it could also be that he believes Lazarus might have the privilege to speak to the living where he does not or that Abraham’s side of the chasm is connected to the land of the living and the rich man’s is not. Here, we have a break with Greco-Roman views of Hades, I think, given the number of stories in both Greek and Roman culture in which a spirit of the dead communicates with the living.

Regardless of the why, it’s the substance of the exchange that follows the request that matters most. Ultimately, Abraham says that those who do not believe Moses and the prophets will not believe even someone returned from the dead.

Abraham’s response to the rich man is an application of logic to the ad hominem fallacy engaged in by the rich man–it’s the truth of the message that matters, not the source of the message. Those who have already rejected the truth upon hearing it will not suddenly believe it because someone else–even one risen from the dead–tells the truth to them again. Those who choose to remain blind to the truth when it is staring them in the face, as the rich man does throughout this passage, will find ways to continue to do so.

Social science seems to back this up–just this week I heard on NPR about a study that seems fortuitously related to this topic. In that study, the political beliefs of participants were assessed before and after they participated in a program of interaction with people of different political beliefs and backgrounds. Our assumption, as is so often the case, is that exposure to different ideas, the building of relationships with people of differing beliefs, will naturally cause us to become more open-minded–or at least empathetic to differing views. But this particular study showed that a significant number of participants with very strongly-held views became more entrenched in their views after participating in interactions with people of differing views, choosing to use those interactions as confirmation of their pre-existing beliefs rather than evidence that it might be reasonable to believe otherwise.

The current state of American politics–particularly as Republican congresspersons and officials engage in impressive mental gymnastics to remain loyal to an embattled president with a history of willful ignorance of the ideals of American government–provides further evidence. But if I’m going to be fair (and I should be, shouldn’t I?), the problem lies on both sides of our political divide, because the biases and extreme positions of some Democrats have given an excuse to make the argument that any action taken against the President is a matter only of political bias. Just this morning on the drive to work I head a Republican congressman not just imply but state that the current Ukraine scandal might not have any merit because the whistleblower involved might be biased against Donald Trump. The ad hominem fallacy again raises its ugly head–it doesn’t matter at all whether the whistleblower was biased in blowing the whistle; it only matters whether the allegations of misconduct and abuse of power are true. But I digress.

As those of you who follow the theological posts on my site well know by now, I take an existentialist approach to my theology. I’ve argued that the process of sanctification (and therefore participation in the present Kingdom of God) is a matter of changing oneself to see reality more clearly. In many ways, that’s the argument of this parable–I’m willing to argue that, had the rich man seen reality the way God created it and communicated truth about it to us through Moses and the prophets, he would have treated Lazarus as he should have and never would have ended up in the situation in which we find him. Righteous action flows from righteous thought, which flows from righteous seeing.

Jesus’s Self-Referential Meaning

I haven’t heard or read anyone discuss the irony in Abraham’s final words in this passage. When Jesus gives this parable, he is going to die and return from the dead with messages for the Disciples and for us at large. So how do we relate this statement to Jesus’s death and resurrection (and its effect–or lack thereof–on believers)?

It’s possible that this is evidence that Jesus’s death and resurrection was never intended as a sign to create belief in God. If we take the message of Luke 16:19-31, that makes sense, right? For those whose contact with Jesus already convinced them that he was the Son of God, his resurrection was simply confirmation of their belief, not the source of new belief. Those who rejected Jesus’s divinity before his death and resurrection had ready arguments for continuing to disbelieve. Someone stole the body. Jesus only swooned on the cross and never actually died. The crucifixion never actually occurred.

This, existentially speaking, is the condition in which we, as human beings in the modern age, find ourselves. We have no way to prove the reality of the resurrection itself, much less to use it prove Jesus’s divinity. We have Moses and the prophets, and the Disciples and letter-writers; if we don’t find truth in them, where will we find it?

I need to carry this further, I think. As I argued in my last theological post (Speaking Creation), Jesus is the reality of our creation and sustenance, with the Bible’s primary value as a gateway to a personal encounter with Jesus that transcends all other human ways of knowing or seeing. Jesus is the right seeing of the universe. The incarnation and crucifixion, then, are revelations of truth, not for the purpose of forcing us to see clearly, but for giving us the possibility of seeing clearly if we are willing to see at all.

For us Methodists, it’s the prevenient grace of the Holy Spirit that allows us to be open to seeing before the truth is ever clear to us. But that is a mechanism beyond my understanding except in the most abstract of senses.

This idea, that the crucifixion and resurrection are not about causing belief, naturally requires the question: “What is it about, then?” Jesus answers that question, at least in part, elsewhere, when he tells us that “No greater love have a man than this; that he lay down his life for his friends.” As Paul writes, “But God demonstrates his own loves for us in this: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

This knowledge returns us to the chasm between Abraham and the rich man. If that chasm were ever intended to represent a real divide between the forgiven and the unforgiven, it cannot remain after the redemptive act of Jesus’s death and resurrection. Abraham speaks to the rich man in terms of impossibilities, but through Jesus, all things are possible.

Synchronicity and Application

I had the very good fortune to hear J.J. Warren speak this weekend at a Reconciling United Methodists of the Texas Annual Conference event. If you’re not sure who J.J. Warren is, search for him in Google. Start with his speech from the floor of the Called Special Session of the General Conference of the UMC earlier this year and go from there. His first book, Reclaiming Church: A Call to Action for Religious Rejects, is available for pre-order on Amazon.

He spoke/preached on the prophet Amos, whose warning to the Hebrew people was that God found the worship and supplications of the Hebrew people distasteful (to put it mildly) while they refused to engage in the pursuit of the social justice that God had called them to.

The application of this message in the warning that we, as United Methodists, ought to be very carefully scrutinizing whether we’re seeking God’s justice with our actions, not just with regard to LGTBQ+ issues but also in matters of immigration, wealth disparity, inequities of power in our nation, the lack of justice in our judicial system, and many other issues both “secular” and political, resonates deeply with the passage from Luke. After all, that’s the very warning the rich man fails to heed in his ignorance of Lazarus: are you pursuing justice or allowing injustice?

Was Amos at the forefront of Abraham’s mind when he warns the rich man that those who are heedless of the prophets will not heed even one risen from the dead? Something to think on…

Speaking Creation

A picture may be worth a thousand words in terms of raw content, but even a few words can be more precise than a picture. And when words create pictures, an emergent gestalt of the minds of writer and reader, where do we put that in the hierarchy? When our words shape, craft and regulate thoughts, how do we categorize that most fundamental structure of reality?

The idea that language, whether deterministically or only by influence, shapes cognition and perception, is formally known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. It’s a far-reaching idea, particularly for both the writer and the theologian. Here, I’ll focus on the latter.

The Book of John tells us, or at least very heavily implies, that Jesus is the Word of God, co-eternal with the Father, that “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” I’ve talked about my perceived misapplication of the phrase “Word of God” to the Bible rather than to Jesus in a previous duology of posts.

Indeed, in Genesis, God speaks Creation into being. Both Tolkien and Lewis picked up on this, though they  also incorporated music into the speaking of Creation in their respective worlds. As medievalists, they would have been familiar with the idea of the music of the spheres, and perhaps that influenced their choices in worldbuilding and writing. For both, I think, as for me, the act of writing fiction, of using words to create something new, is both an act of worship and the exercise of the most Godlike of human endowments–creativity itself–in imitation of our source.

Just as God and the created thing are separate and distinct, language (as a medium of creation) and creation itself are separate and distinct. Any scholar of semiotics (or philosophy for that matter) will tell you that the description or word for a thing is not the thing itself. I’ve before referenced Magritte’s The Treachery of Images as emblematic of this idea.

Nevertheless, I think it is impossible to overstate the importance of speech in the creative act in the Book of Genesis and the linking of Jesus Christ to both act and medium of creation. But what do we do with that?

We turn to words, of course. Our fiction is full of the idea that speech is the moderator of thought and experience, at least for human beings. In Orwell’s 1984, Newspeak allows the government (to attempt, at least) to control the thoughts, perceptions and self-expressions of the citizens of Oceania. Even more fascinating (to my mind) is China Mieville’s Embassytown, where the evolution of the Language of the Ariekei “Hosts” coincides with changes in their consciousness and perceptions. In my review of Brooks Landon’s Great Course on Building Great Sentences, I spend a fair amount of time on the idea that good sentences are essentially consciousness hacking. Certainly, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis supports such an idea.

That is what fascinates me most about the use of speech in the Biblical story of Creation. Even if, as I do, you interpret Genesis as being far more metaphorical than literal, this detail communicates something undeniably true about human existence. Like it or not, language structures experience. When was the last time you thought to yourself purely in terms of abstract images, feelings and ideas? I can’t think of time ever when my own internal monologue was not yapping away.

This is why the study of foreign languages is so mind-expanding–coded within the words and structure of a language are fundamental perceptions and assertions about the nature of existence and reality. This goes far beyond how many words for snow a language has (though that is itself a telling example of a manner of perceiving the world) or that in Latin actor and subject of action sometimes require the reader to make assumptions about how the world is, as in the sentence “Miles puella vincit” (“The soldier conquers the girl,” or, “The girl conquers the soldier” since both nouns are in the nominative declension). There are subtler effects, too subtle to describe here, involved in the availability and specificity of words in any particular language or even words within a language. This isn’t a post about the mechanics of how language shapes thought, but one about the consequences of that fact.

Before we go further, just a little more about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Linguistic research in recent decades has lent support to the “soft” school of the Hypothesis–that language may influence but is not deterministic upon cognition and perception. That matches with “common sense” philosophy and experience, I think–I’ve never encountered, personally or second-hand, a specific instance of language preventing someone from changing his mind about something, an assertion with any plausibility that all speakers of a language share the same ideas on a particular topic, or an event where a language barrier proved insurmountable to compromise between different peoples in any but the most practical of senses. So, the analogy, as all analogies must at some point (if they are actually analogies and not two instances of the exact same thing held up to one another), begins to unravel here. Nevertheless, I proceed.

The assertion that Jesus is the Word of God carries with it the claim that Jesus makes in John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” But it does so in a way that is far more nuanced and complex than the fundamentalist idea that salvation is exclusive to those who profess Jesus as Lord with their mouths.

Instead, the idea tells us that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, not in some categorical sense exclusive to other worldviews, but in the fundamental sense that Jesus is God’s fullest expression to man of the very nature of Creation and reality itself. This being the case, anyone who catches some glimpse of reality is in some sense glimpsing Jesus, regardless of the name they put to it. This comports with the claim in 1 John 4:8 that “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (The congruence of these ideas might provide some argument in support of the idea that the writer of the Gospel of John and the First Epistle of John are one and the same).

If Jesus is the truest language, that is, the truest medium and structure for accurate perception of and cognition about all created things, we must add the action of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to what we’ve seen of Jesus Christ and the Father in Genesis.

At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends upon the crowds gathered around the apostles so that all clearly understand the divine message spoken by the apostles on that day–each as if hearing in his own tongue. The idea hear is clear–Jesus, as the fundamental structure for understanding all questions existential, is available to all.

This idea allows for some ecumenical respect for other faiths while preserving the primacy of Jesus as a person of the all-sovereign triune God. It allows us to respect the genuine striving for God that members of other faiths seek while asserting that the clearest, most beneficial view of God is in the person of Jesus Christ.

I don’t know a thing about Neal Stephenson’s religious beliefs, but as I’ve mentioned in several other posts, some of his works have inspired particular insights into my own theology, and I would rate him up with Joss Whedon as one of my “unintentional mentors” in that regard. This seems as good a time as any to discuss Snow Crash in brief. Spoilers in the next paragraph (didn’t see that coming in this post, didja?).

One of the plot-critical philosophical thoughts behind the plot of Snow Crash is the idea that the Asherah cult and pagan belief constitutes a sort of meme-virus in Sumerian language and that the separation of languages in the story we know as the Tower of Babel is a counter-virus intended to inoculate against the deleterious effects of the Asheran cult. It’s a brilliant fantastical use of Biblical narrative and, like the other fictional works I’ve mentioned here, more than a little in line with the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. It carries with it a great warning itself in the person of Reverend Wayne, who seeks to combine the Snow Crash drug with his personal charisma and authority co-opted from Christianity to distribute his own meme-virus. I don’t think I need to do much to tie this example into the ideas above.

Salvation aside, this idea, that Jesus is both the medium and the structure of Creation, should profoundly influence our idea of sanctification. It tells us that seeking the person of Jesus is coming to a clearer paradigm for understanding existence as it actually is. This is an existential understanding of sanctification, as I have elsewhere argued (see the “Brief Outline of My Theology” for a quick and dirty overview). It states that seeking Christ causes change within us–of our way of understanding our relationships to all else in existence rather than some subjugation of our unique personalities–and that this change in understanding is what allows the more abundant living and the participation in the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to offer us, through his teaching, yes, but even more profoundly through the direct experience of him. The giver becomes the gift, all one.

What do I mean by “New Mysticism”?

Today I was reading an interview between CNN’s Daniel Burke and comedian Pete Holmes, star of HBO’s “Crashing” and author of the new book Comedy, Sex, God.

I want to copy for you here a portion of that interview that really struck me. He says: “But what we’re talking about is symbol systems and labels. And those are good; those are helpful. (But) we’re trying to get our inner reality to respond. So in the book, I’m trying to rescue some Bible verses, I’m trying to rescue some ideas of Christ. I’ll always get a lot juice out of rescuing something that Jesus said. It’s healing to me, psychologically, to do that with words that were used to convince me that I was in danger of going to hell. It might be my favorite thing to do, is to go like, “Oh my God, it was right there.” We just didn’t have eyes to see. We didn’t have ears to hear. We were listening wrong. We were listening with an agenda. We were listening with our egos. We were listening with a deep desire for membership and identity and certainty. We weren’t looking as the mystics are. And when you look at the Bible the way a mystic sees it, it opens like a flower and you’re like, whoa.”

This really resonated with me, as did the general story of Mr. Holmes’ spiritual journey from evangelical Christian upbringing to spiritual voyager. His use of the idea of mysticism also struck a cord.

I have casually remarked in my posts on this blog that I have given the (haphazardly) systematic theology I am slowly developing the name “New Mysticism.” Pete Holmes’ comment above (and perhaps his comments more broadly) seems to provide a good entry point into discussing what I mean by that term.

I am not qualified to be a mystic in the classical sense. I cannot sit still long enough to meditate. I am too busy (over-)thinking to calm my mind. I have too strong a sense of self to be satisfied with the idea of the unio mystica, though I have a deep desire to feel a strong connection with God. I have no supernatural gifts that allow me to see the fabric of reality other than through a glass, darkly. I have no divine message to share, only the thoughts and feelings of a human inescapably drawn to pondering the nature of existence and reality, subject to my all-too-human limitations in finding definitive answers to the many questions I ask. I am no mystic as the term is often intended.

Why “New Mysticism,” then? As I’ve laid out in a Brief Outline of My Theology, my theological approach is both existential and epistemologically skeptical; some amount of mysticism seems an inexorable conclusion from such a starting place.

In existentialist thought, we acknowledge that our understanding of all things is mediated by experience, by imperfect sensory apparatus analyzed by imperfect minds. We must acknowledge some slippage between what we perceive (the existential) and what actually is (the essential).

Skepticism of our ability to know follows closely. I’m not one to take epistemological skepticism to absurdity (if our knowing is flawed, how can we know that we know?), but I do acknowledge that the human mind has its limits.

The philosopher David Hume once made the argument that we cannot definitively know that causation exists. What we observe is a (very) strong correlation of events. To borrow his analogy, we see the cue ball hit one of the other billiard balls and then the second ball begins to move. Through math and science, we can even protect the force and direction of that movement based upon the angle of impact, speed and rotation of the cue ball (and myriad other details, such as the evenness of the pool table). But we have no way to, beyond any doubt, prove that the cue ball is causing the other ball to move rather than that we are only observing a very consistent “coincidence” that is caused by forces and factors we cannot perceive.

We cannot live and function should we focus on that doubt, of course. We must live with the very great probability that this is in fact causation (it hasn’t failed us yet, after all). We cannot meaningfully interact with the world around us, certainly cannot plan such interactions, without taking for granted causation exists and we believe it to.

Do not be misled into thinking that I am making some argument against either knowledge generally or science specifically; experience seems to demonstrate (if not prove) that we can know some things reliably enough and science is in fact the best tool to understand the nature and action of the world around us.

But there are limits to the sorts of questions that the human mind may understand. Science can show us with relative certainty that the universe began with the Big Bang. It cannot, no matter the angle at which we hold it nor the manner in which we dissect it, tell us why in any sense behind the mundane and lifeless. The question of, “If the Big Bang caused everything in the universe, what caused it?” stretches to infinite strings of causation or some manner of causation we cannot perceive. Either way, the answer is beyond us. When God tells us that God’s name is “I AM” or “I AM THAT I AM”, that is a mystical answer to a question that defies logic. There is nothing we can understand about God in any temporal sense; God simply is God. We must either accept or reject that, there is no way to prove it or explain it.

It is here that we find the necessity of mysticism; that is: a belief that some knowledge is not susceptible to human logic, that there are things we may know from experience that we could never prove to anyone else, that there are ways of understanding apart from cold logic. I know of no other way to describe such things other than “mystical.” But it strikes me that that mysticism is not entirely the same as the term has been formerly understood. It may also be a mode of experience, but in my mind it is first a worldview, one without which we are not open to such modes of experience, no matter the labels we place on them.

And so, I find my theology to be firmly rooted in the mystical, the supernal, the sublime. How could it be otherwise? The spaces between cold logic are where faith, hope and joy come alive, where we find (or create) the only meanings that, at the end of the day, really matter to any of us.

This mysticism is different, perhaps, from the mysticism of the past in another way. It does not dismiss, nor reject, nor argue against logic and science, instead recognizing that these are God-given tools to develop understanding to the extent that we can. If there is a God, and God created everything that exists, then every rule of science, every geological fact, every evolutionary development represents in some manner the will of God. Understanding the operation of the natural world may thus give us some understanding of the nature of God. Even if it doesn’t, such understanding proves quite useful, and we’ll need more of it if we are to hope to undo much of the harm we, as a species, have done to the world.

This “new” mystical approach allows science and faith to co-exist by understanding that, just because a story in the Bible is not historical fact does not mean that is not True in the most important, dramatic and essential ways by telling us something meaningful about existence itself. If only we are able to understand, whether by logic or by divine revelation.

“New Mysticism” is intended as a middle road between an unquestioning faith and an equally unquestioning materialism, one that gives fair play to all manner of knowing and seeks to incorporate all of the experiential, the existential, into a meaningful whole.

 

After-Action Report: TAC 2019

This year’s conference was a whirlwind. K got commissioned as a deacon this past Tuesday night in what was a beautiful ceremony with a great sermon by the Bishop. I can’t say how proud of her I am; I just don’t have words for it. That’s something, as this blog is itself proof of my usual verbosity.

Amidst all the doom and gloom surrounding the United Methodist Church of late, I left the conference with more hope than I had upon arrival. It’s a voting year for 2020’s General Conference, so nothing that happened at the 2019 Called Special Session of the General Conference is really set in stone yet. Palpable tension settled upon the conference from the beginning, thickening as we approached the clergy voting session Tuesday morning.

Despite extensive technical issues with the voting system, issues which seemed not to affect the voting results but simply to drag out the process, the clergy muddled through in their first voting session to astounding results.

The Texas Annual Conference had nine spots for delegates to General Conference, an additional nine spots for delegates to our Jurisdictional Conference, and spots for four alternates–this each for clergy and for laity, voted on separately.

At the end of voting (clergy voting had to be continued yesterday morning because of the time it took to fight with the electronic balloting system), the clergy had elected progressive/compatibilist delegates for all but two of the alternates, who were from the Confessing Movement/WCA slate. I’m told with some frequency that the Texas Annual Conference is the most conservative conference of the UMC in the U.S., so this was quite a surprising sea change from our last elections (in 2015). I’m not prepared to say that this represents a majority of clergy favoring full-inclusion, as I don’t know that. I do have confidence that this represents a majority of clergy that want to keep the church together, to be in fellowship in our disagreement with one another on theological issues. I can also soundly say that these elections constituted a firm rejection of the Traditional Plan’s passage at the 2019 GC.

A quick note on the word “compatibilist”: it is used within this context (and I believe within the UMC as a whole at present) to mean someone who supports maintaining the unity of the Church despite our theological differences. There are compatibilists on both sides of both the sexuality issue and the issues of theology and scriptural interpretation that underlie that more visible issue.

The laity elections, on the other hand, went exactly the opposite. You will recall, I imagine, that I ran as a lay candidate for the 2020 General Conference this year. As both a staunch progressive and a staunch compatibilist, I had the honor of being part of the “That We May Be One” slate of candidates. Despite having about 45-percent of the lay votes, we were soundly defeated by the traditionalist/Confessing/WCA contingent, electing only two alternates among the 22 total spots for GC and JC. I was not among those elected.

As much of a beating as the election itself felt, the numbers still give me hope. If the lay delegates of the Texas Annual Conference are still forty-five percent on the side of keeping the Church together and finding a way forward in unity, and if we are in fact the most conservative of the U.S. Annual Conferences, I think we’re in for a very interesting delegation to 2020 GC.

Voting this year also pointed out to me a great problem with the Book of Discipline structure of the UMC.

Under the current rules, each delegate gets to vote a number of times equal to the open spots being voted for. So, if we’re voting for 9 GC delegates, each voting member of the conference (again, separated between laity and clergy) gets nine votes.

But each vote must be for a different candidate. To be elected, a candidate needs 50% of the votes cast during that ballot. So, if a group controls 50% of the votes, they will, minor anomalies aside, control all of the delegates elected. This is exactly what happened in our voting this year.

The solution is simple: we go to corporate-style voting. Under corporate voting, each delegate would get nine votes if there are nine spots. But these votes could be allocated between candidates however the voter wishes. So, a voter could give all nine votes to the same candidate. This would ensure that a minority group could get some representation to GC while also maintaining the ability of a majority group to have the majority of the spots. In other words, the results of the election would be a more representative slice of the annual conference the elected delegates are supposed to represent.

Except that they’re not. Delegates are expected to “vote their conscience” at the General Conference and are not actually given any duty to represent those who elected them. On the one hand, this makes sense, as we’re (sometimes) talking about sensitive theological and moral questions. But the practical reality is that it means we’ve essentially taken the worst parts of the American-style democracy on which the UMC governance is based to form our electoral system and the expectations of the delegates to our legislative body.

There’s no fixing this right now. Elections are happened, these rules would have to be changed by the General Conference, and the 2020 GC already has enough on its plate. But this is something to consider for the future of the UMC if we are (as I continue to hope we will be able to) able to keep it together or the successor denominations if we are not.

During the evening session of laity voting, I had a somewhat contentious conversation with an older, conservative lay delegate. I tried to be civil–but did not succeed as well as I should have. Nevertheless, I want to bring up a few points we discussed in case they are common to others or some of my readers encounter them in the future.

The first argument that this man made were that “sociology” (he meant “social issues” rather than the soft science discipline) and theology should be kept separate, as they are separate things.

I could not disagree more. In the immediate, issues of social justice, the treatment of others, who we marry and ordain, and how we view our morality (if we are going to rely on the argument that morality is absolute and comes from God) all soundly fit within the realm of theology. More broadly, if our goal is truly to follow Christ and to “become perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect,” everything is theology. I’ll probably write a full post to treat that issue.

But we cannot separate our politics or our social beliefs from our faith. That’s a careful line to walk for me, because I both believe that my faith should guide my politics and that there ought to be a separation of religion and government. This also merits a full post (or a book!) to treat fully. For now, suffice to say that I do not believe that we compartmentalize our social or political and spiritual beliefs when they are contradictory. In my opinion, the conservative Evangelical right as a political force in this country is emblematic of what happens when we do compartmentalize.

The second argument–really a statement of belief–that the man made was that the sexuality issue is “destroying our church.” I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but I’m sure that this man and I have very different ideas about the why and how. More important, the principal factor that guides us should be, “what is God calling us to,” not “will this change the institution to which I am accustomed.” I realize that this argument could be used to suggest that the UMC should split, but I believe that we are called to unity in addition to social justice and must attempt as best we can to walk that line.

As I mentioned above, the clergy voting seems an indication of a desire to walk that line. The laity voting, not so much. We would do well to continue to ask ourselves, “Are we destroying the Church?” I don’t know that there’s a right answer to that question, and it’s the one that must inevitably follow that I care about most: “Whatever we’re doing, are we doing it out of an earnest desire to follow after Jesus and live out the Gospels for a world in desperate need of the Good News, or are we pushing our own agendas, propping up our own senses of identity, reshaping our Christianity to fit our preconceived notions, or adapting those notions in light of our faith?” There are no easy answers here, nor should there be.

 

Texas Annual Conference 2019 – A Fiery Start

K and I arrived at the Hilton of the Americas this afternoon at about 4:30, just ahead of the start of our annual “meetings vacation” (her term; she likes meetings way more than me). By good fortune, we managed to avoid the long line to check into the hotel–turns out there’s an app for that now. The future is here.

Of course, checking in remotely didn’t get us a room key, and the app told us we’d have to present ID at the desk to use the phone as a key. I took a chance and asked the concierge whether she could check our IDs and give us phone access to our room. She didn’t seem to be aware that that was a thing, but she was able to make us a physical keycard, so no harm no foul. In the middle of her programming the keycard, she got a phone call. After a few short words exchanged, she apologized to me and made another phone call. I overheard something about a car being on fire on the side of the building. About that time a fire truck rushed by outside.

In all honesty, I didn’t think much of it. I took the keycard and went to check that it worked before K stepped out of the line for check-in. Once inside the room, I first sent a text to Kate telling her that she could meet me upstairs. Then, I sent a message to a colleague asking for confirmation that our 5:30 meeting was still on. She responded with, “The building is on fire.” A non-sequitur if ever I’ve seen one.

I looked out the window from the hotel room and could see black smoke billowing skyward, a disturbingly dense cloud. I left the room in hopes of meeting K and found her coming down the hallway toward me, determinedly, and with her face held tense as she does whenever she worries. “We need to leave. I see smoke,” she said, matter-of-factly.

I went back into the room, grabbed my briefcase with my computer, and we decided to take the stairs. The Hilton of the Americas has internal stairwells as wide as the Champs Elysee, if you didn’t know–and we had them all to ourselves. It wasn’t until we reached the first floor that we heard the fire alarms: piercingly high-pitched and all but irrelevant at that point.

We made a beeline outside, where we were able to confirm that, yes, there was a fire. But it wasn’t actually the hotel, but the parking garage across the street and the skybridge between the two buildings. The parking garage, mind you, where we’d parked our car an hour earlier.

The smoke on the street, couple with the crowds and the multitude of firetrucks, quickly proved unpleasant. We decided to journey a few blocks away and find a place to take refuge. We chose the site of our impending meeting and ended up having a pleasant dinner with great company (which is usual for TAC).

The fire was taken care of in due time, with little permanent damage. The skybridge was reopened, our car and all of clothes (which had remained inside while we got checked in) and everything else turned out fine. The opening worship ceremony was delayed by fifteen minutes, but other than that, everything proceeded as normal.

It’s election year, and as I’ve mentioned, I’m running as a delegate to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, with idealistic hopes of finding some middle ground that can bring inclusion and some amount of justice to my LGBTQ brethren and sistren while preserving the unity of the denomination. It’s a tall order, and the deck isn’t stacked in my favor. Let’s just hope our fiery welcome was not an omen.

More to come…

Temptation

This post is something of a confession; prepare yourself. It’s nothing so tantalizing as a comment about the temptation of drugs or sex; it’s about another insidious temptation with which society often plies us. Lately, I’m feeling its pull more strongly, it seems.

That temptation is the one of comparison. You know the one. It’s the one that gnaws at your soul a little, whispers doubts in the back of your mind, every time you open up a social media platform. You see people living their “best lives” and–even though you consciously know that 99% of what you see posted is manufactured and exaggerated, conveniently glossing over those problems, dilemmas, failures and weaknesses that everyone has and no one really wants to share–you still wonder, “Am I not doing as well as everyone else?” “Am I just not as good?”

I’m no exception, and lately I’m thinking about this much more than I’d like to. Part of it is a function of age: I’m thirty-five, fast closing in on thirty-six. But I can’t really lay the blame on that, because it’s just another measure I’m using for comparison.

I, like many people from upper-middle-class suburban backgrounds, was raised on a steady regimen of the importance of achievement. Explicitly or not, I was taught to weigh value based on achievements reached, things accomplished. To add to that, I fell into the belief (though I can’t, admittedly, say that anyone drilled it into me) that real achievers achieve things early and often.

This was an easy thing to satisfy when I was younger and in school. I maintained consistently high grades, took all of the advanced placement classes available to me and entered my first semester of college with forty-seven hours of credit already under my belt. I spent the next decade or so earning degrees, tangible (kind-of) certifications of achievement.

Now I’m much farther removed from academia, and I’ve become much more responsible for intrinsically maintaining my sense of self-worth.

And therein lies the battle. I have very consciously chosen certain ideals and values to live by, ideals and values inspired by my faith and my idealism, ideals and values about which I am convicted and passionate.

Sometimes, those values are counter-cultural. A significant point of my personality is the value I place on my independence. Combined with my moral compass, that’s very much influenced my career path as a lawyer. Those choices are not without consequences. One of my wisest friends once said, “you’re only as free as you’re willing to accept the consequences of your actions.” Fulfilling that statement is truly living without fear, and it’s something that has resonated with me ever since I first heard it.

So–most of the time–I’m perfectly content with the career choices I’ve made. I work in a small firm with two partners who are like family, I have great independence in how I do my work and for whom I work. This has given me a lifestyle balance that truly fits with who I am, and I often tell people that I wouldn’t be happy lawyering if I was working for someone else.

But it also means that there are consequences. Balancing my broader life goals against my career and placing my moral values first when working mean that I sometimes turn down work that might be lucrative or that I perform my work in ways that place income as a secondary concern. I don’t take on new clients when I don’t believe that I can achieve anything for them; I don’t bill my clients for every little thing; and I don’t charge the exorbitant fees I sometimes see other attorneys charging.

I feel those choices every time I look at my bank account. Don’t get me wrong, I make a decent living and my practice grows with each passing year–it turns out that being honest and capable actually is a good business model! I’m happy to accept the consequences of those choices; I’ve found in the past few years that I need far fewer material things to be happy than I thought I did, and I have mostly disdain for the pursuit of wealth, power and status.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I was scrolling through Facebook over the weekend and happened across a post by a couple I went to law school with and felt a pang of jealousy. Here’s the strangest part: my jealousy was about the background of the picture, about their kitchen. I’ll be very excited to see K’s reaction when she reads this, because she knows me well and knows how little stock I typically put in the size and fanciness of a person’s home.

Of course, my feelings weren’t really about the kitchen. They were the result of the doubting my own adequacy in light of the financial success this couple presumably enjoys. These feelings were really about me asking myself if I’m really good enough, according to a standard I don’t believe in and actually reject!

I don’t want a house like theirs. I don’t want the type of life consequences that are attached to such a choice (which is not intended to be a judgment of their choices, simply a statement that that is not the path for me). But it doesn’t matter who you are, that temptation will reach its ugly tendrils into each of us at some point, if not regularly.

When it comes down to it, though, career achievement is the place where the temptation of comparison to others is easiest for me to bear. I’m very proud of how I conduct my business and uphold my values; that I try to practice the Christian ideals I so often discuss on this site. Again, that’s not intended to be a judgment on others, just a matter of trying to keep my own hypocrisy to a minimum.

The two other temptations I frequently feel to compare with others hit closer to home. The first of these is about parenthood; the second: my writing.

Those of you who have followed this blog for some time, or perused it in depth, or who know me personally, know that K and I plan to foster to adopt, and that we’re again waiting for a placement of kids. That’s difficult enough as it is, but we’re quickly approaching a time where it seems that we’re the only ones without children. One of my partners at the law firm has two; the other is expecting his first this Fall. My (younger) sister is pregnant with her first (and I am very happy about this and excited for her!) and I’ve got several siblings and cousins–many of whom are younger than me–who already have children as well.

I know better than to think of having children as a matter of achievement, really I do. But the fact that I have to write that here is revelatory in and of itself, is it not? And I know that K and I are not the only ones to deal with such comparisons with others–not by a long shot.

For me, my writing is where this temptation cuts deepest. If I can discern any sort of divine calling for myself, it lies in writing fiction and theology. If there is a personal pursuit about which I am truly passionate,  it is in writing. If there is a single most-powerful, non-divine source of my sense of self-worth, it is in my writing.

I’ll make a true confession by way of example, so get ready for some vulnerability on my part: This past weekend Rachel Held Evans died. She was an outspoken writer for progressive Christian values and, even in her short life, accomplished much in service of Christian faith and demonstrating to the unchurched (and perhaps millennials in particular) a Christianity that rejects fundamentalism, embraces the Gospel truth of love and reminds us that Christ calls us to pursue an agenda of social justice that does not rely on identity politics, a rejection of immigrants, or fear. (Here is one article with some information if you’re not familiar with her).

To my shame, I have to admit that, in addition to the sincere sorrow I feel at her passing, I was awash in a sense of unreasonable jealousy. She was only a little older than me and already had five published books! Obviously, my feelings of inadequacy have nothing to do with her; they’re really about me questioning myself, worrying that maybe I just don’t have what it takes.

I told myself that I’d get my first major work published before I turned 40. As that time slips ever closer, I find myself often looking up other author’s ages when they were first published. I can say that I understand that their life isn’t mine, nor should it be. I can write that I know that the value of a writing originates in the writing itself, not how old the author was at the time of creation.

And that knowledge, I think, is where the truth will out. Particularly in my theology, I talk about the importance and beauty of ambiguity. I also admit the difficulty we naturally have with the ambiguous. And let this post be evidence that I don’t stand above that difficulty; I’m not free from that struggle.

There are no easy ways to judge the value of a writing, whether fiction or non-fiction. Style is so highly varied and individual, the myriad ways in which a story might be told so dependent upon the consciousness in control of the tale, that there can be no single measuring stick. And yet, we humans like to have some certainty, even if that certainty is artificial and illusory.  For me, I can find some tangible standard of measure by looking at age at time of publication as a meaningful comparison (though I know in my heart it is not).

Again, the craziest part about falling into self-doubt by making such comparisons is that I intellectually do not value them! In my fiction, I follow after Joss Whedon: “I’d rather make a show that 100 people need to see than one 1,000 people want to see.” At this point in my writing, I’m not sure that I can do either, yet, but the point is that I’m more interested in deep connections with a smaller group of people than broadly appealing in a commercially-viable way. The same goes for my theology–I’d rather write something that resonates deeply and inspires just a few people to legitimate faith, that gives even a single person permission to practice Christianity in a way that isn’t “one-size-fits-all,” than to establish some great presence in the history of theology.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I’m not even sure that I’m interested in traditional publication avenues right now. I’d love to be able to make a living writing, to devote all of my time to it, but not at the cost of having to cater to publishers or what will be successful on the current literary market to do it. My self-comparisons with published authors, though, makes me wonder if all of this idealism is simply cover for the fear of failing. “Know thyself,” the oracle says. “I’m trying!” I complain in response.

Ultimately, the temptation to compare ourselves comes from a positive place–we want to be meaningful, to be creators of meaning and to live lives where others can easily recognize meaning. That is a natural and divine thing. It’s where we let society tell us that meaning must look a certain way that we go wrong, where we try to make someone else’s meaning our own that we lose ourselves. Perhaps that is what Jesus means when he warns us about the temptation of the world, what Paul is alluding to when he warns us not to be “conformed to this world.”

What I do know is that I am passion about writing, and in particular I’m passionate about writing speculative fiction and easily-accessible theology. I’m working on the discipline to match that passion, and with every passing day I’m probably coming to understand the art and craft of writing just a little bit better–no that anyone truly ever masters it. Those things need no comparisons to be true, to be inspiring, to be fulfilling. So why look beyond them? As with so many things, easier to know what to do than to actually do it.

How do you cope with such temptations? Having read the blogs of some of my dear readers, I know that there is insight out there, meaningful stories to share. If you’ve got one, comment, or post a link to a post on your blog, or send me a message!

Post Script: Maybe in talking about my struggles writing, it would be useful to give a short update on where that writing stands:
(1) Children of God: This is the tentative title of my first theological book. I’ve had finished about 75% of a first-draft for several years now, but it needs a rewrite from the beginning and I need set aside the time to do that.
(2) Wilderlands: This is the first Avar Narn novel I’ve seriously set to working on. The first draft is about 40%-50% complete. I’m starting to feel an itch to return to the story; I’m not sure whether I’ll do that soon or wait until NaNoWriMo this year (which is how it started). It needs to be finished and then needs some significant rewrites in the portion already written.
(3) Unnamed Story of Indeterminate Length: This is an almost-noir-style story set in Avar Narn and what I’ve been working on most recently. I had envisioned it as a short-story, but it’s already swelled to 16,000 words and I’m not finished. I’ll be sending to some volunteers for review and advice on whether it should be left as a novella, cut down significantly, or expanded into a novel. I’ve got several other “short stories” in mind with the same major character, so this could end up being a novella set, a collection of short stories, or a novel series. I’ve also got an unfinished novella-length story with the same character I may return to while this one is under review. If you’d like to be a reader, send me a message.
(4) Other Avar Narn Short Stories: I’ve got several other short story ideas I’m toying around with, but I’m trying not to add too many other projects before I make substantial progress on the above.
(5) Avar Narn RPG: I have a list of games to spend some time with and potentially steal from for the rules here, but I’m mostly waiting to get some more fiction written to elaborate the setting before continuing seriously here. I’m occasionally working on additional worldbuilding and text that could fit in an RPG manual.
(6) The Blog: Of course, more blog posts to come.

 

What Jesus’ Fulfillment of Prophecies Tells us about Biblical Literalism

As my dear readers have come to understand, one of my biggest assertions in my theology is against any purely literal or uncomplicated reading of the Biblical text. In this post, I want to demonstrate how a number of interpretations of Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophetic scripture requires the insertion of metaphor and a rejection of purely literal reading.

This is, of course, not to say that there aren’t parts of the Bible that are intended to be taken literally. There are. But determining which scriptures those are is not a matter of blind acceptance; it is a matter of using all the analytical tools God has given us to separate the wheat from the dross. That extremely complex and difficult task is a discussion for another time (and a long one at that). For now, I just want to look at how certain prophecies generally (but not universally) accepted by Christians as applying to Jesus require us to leave behind the literal meaning of the text or, more commonly, to allow one of Chesterton’s “furious paradoxes” in seeing both an immediate (more literal)  prophecy and one (more metaphorical) that looks toward fulfillment in Jesus.

Let’s start with Isaiah 7:13-17. Verse fourteen is often translated “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” It’s rather easy to see how this might be applied–retrospectively–to be a prophecy of Jesus. But that requires ignoring the context. The word often translated as “virgin” does not necessarily mean “virgin;” it could also fairly be translated to indicate a “newly married woman” or a “young woman (of marriageable age).”

The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary I happen to have at hand at the moment of writing states that calling the (soon-to-be-born-in-Isaiah) child “Immanuel” should not be equated with a claim that the child so-named is God in human form as we believe Jesus would later be. Instead, the commentary argues that the prophecy simply means that the coming of the king of Assyria would occur before a child to be born to a woman present at the time the prophecy is uttered reaches the “age of accountability” (held by Jewish custom to be 13 but not explicitly named in the Bible).

Indeed, Ahaz calls upon Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria (against Isaiah’s warnings) for assistance; Tiglath-Pileser captures Galilea and later Samaria for himself. Jerusalem itself is besieged by Sennecharib in 701 BCE (though Hezekiah is king at this time).

So, on a literal reading of the prophecy, we should only apply it to 8th Century Israel and Judah, not to the coming of Christ seven centuries later. But the metaphor still seems so clear as to be unavoidable. That’s the problem with well-constructed prophecy, isn’t it? It seems in retrospect so easy to find a successful prediction and yet we like to think of that link as inevitable. Which makes it suspicious and susceptible to reasonable questioning, as the human predilection for inserting patterns into chaos is well documented.

Much ink has been spilt on the topic of the Christianization of Old Testament scriptures like this one, and I’ll defer to the scholars on that discussion. For this post, I’ll limit the topic to the fact that, right or wrong, to see Isaiah 7:13-17 as a prediction of the Messiah requires us to leave the literal text behind. I don’t at all believe that that is wrong, but I do think we need to acknowledge what we’re doing when we make that argument.

Likewise, Isaiah 9:1-7 (From verse 6):

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.”

The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary again warns: “Christians have used some aspects of the passage to help them understand the significance of Christ, but the passage as a whole does not directly apply to Christ and the NT does not so apply it.”

While conceding that “Verse 7 does express what Christ will yet do,” the commentary goes on to describe how the passage represents an imminent deliverance from Assyria of the Israelite people by Yahweh.

Again, it is easy to see, looking back from the Gospels, how readily this passage might be applied to Jesus as the Messiah, but that is an ex post facto interpolation. That doesn’t necessarily mean that God didn’t intend for Isaiah’s prophecy to have both an immediate meaning and a cosmic one–I think that’s a fair interpretation for the Christian to make. But, in doing so, we must maintain the honest position that neither Isaiah 7 and 9 do not prove the coming of Christ through Old Testament prophecies.

Rather, we ought to formulate the statement as something like: “As a believer in Jesus as the Son of God and in the Gospel message, I believe that the God, speaking through the prophets in the Old Testament, gave the Israelites double-pronged prophecies that had immediate and literal importance to the hearers while also containing a metaphorical cosmic prediction of God’s action through Jesus Christ, though the prophets and hearers of the time would not have considered or looked for this second, metaphorical meaning.”

Again, the specifics of our interpretation of these passages are not the point of my thoughts here. We’re instead focusing on the need to resort to metaphor and non-literal thinking to make the popular Christian interpretation of these scriptures the least bit functional.

Some more examples:

Isaiah 52-53: Like Isaiah 7 and 9, there is a very strong metaphorical relationship between this text and the life of Jesus Christ. But we must also conveniently overlook some inconsistencies between the description of the “suffering servant” and Jesus or again assume that this text had both a more immediate interpretation and more metaphorical applicability to Jesus.

Psalm 2:7: “I will proclaim the LORD’s decree: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father.” This cannot be a literal reference to Jesus if you are a Trinitarian Christian, as such an interpretation would result in the heresy of “adoptionism.”

Zechariah 12:10: The passage about “the one they have pierced” and those that follow certainly seem to have correspondence with the Crucifixion–you might have read this passage during Good Friday services. As I have above, I’m not asserting that this passage doesn’t have anything to do with the Gospels. However, if we look at the first verses of Chapter 12, I think we have to consider that this passage is not literally referring to Jesus’ on the Cross and that our (probably correct) temptation to read that relationship relies on a metaphorical relationship.

As I’ve tried to indicate in the preceding paragraphs, I’m going to accept the applicability of the Old Testament passages cited above to Jesus. There are many more examples to be given, but I’m going to try to keep this post short(ish).

To accept that we should assign Christian meaning to those OT scriptures and maintain some semblance of logic and intellectual honesty, we must acknowledge that metaphor is sometimes required in the “proper” interpretation of the scriptures.

If we do that, we cannot hold both that these passages point to the Messiah and that the Bible should only be read literally and without layers of indirect meaning and complex interpretation. Interesting, n’est pas?