Thursday, September 5, 2013

Chickens Talking to Ducks (Part I)

Today's post is by guest blogger Dr. Robert A. Hunt, Director of Global Theological Education, Professor of Christian Mission and Interreligious Relations, and Director of the Center for Evangelism and Missional Church Studies at Perkins School of Theology at SMU.  This post will be the first of four by Dr. Hunt over the month of September. 

The United Methodist Church increasingly wishes to imagine itself as a global church. I'm not sure we understand the depth of that challenge theologically.

Christian unity has always been understood as essentially unity in God's Spirit, the Spirit of Christ. And therein is the problem. Globally, we have fundamentally different ways of understanding how that Spirit is experienced in human lives and societies. And it is the experience of the Spirit in the life of the church that makes visible unity possible. 

For the Catholic and Orthodox churches there is an understanding of a clear, uniting charism or outpouring of the Spirit that apportions itself among the bishops and thus unites them and their clergy and churches in Christ. Related to this is a clear theology of the Spirit's presence in the sacraments, making them universal.

Could we use this ecclesial model or sacramental model to ground our structural unity? It seems doubtful. Our bishops are, by design, general superintendents set apart from the clergy only by a temporary job assignment and united only by possession of a common task carried out in different geographical regions. They possess no special charism. They are not "bishops" in the Catholic and Orthodox sense. Nor do we have an actual theological unity around the meaning of the Spirit's presence in the Sacraments. Although we at least arguably have a starting point in the Anglican theology of Wesley's day, my experience with Methodists outside the United States is of a variety of sacramental theologies. 

We might also begin a process of global theological reflection on how our unity in the Spirit is experienced through the concept of "Holy Conferencing," which for now is more a slogan than an ecclesiology. But even then we still face a problem, one articulated most clearly by Charles Taylor in his book "A Secular Age." 

On Taylor's analysis, there exist in our world at least two different understandings of what it means to be a human being in relationship to transcendent reality. It is this difference, sometimes attributed to specific cultures but actually running much deeper, that we have yet to confront in our discussions of how to be a global church. 

Taylor makes three critical points. 

1. Personhood in the West is characterized by what he calls "the buffered self." For those of us in the West, there is always a buffer between the self and the world of the spirit. The primary form of this buffer is the intellectual reflection that we place between the immediacy of our experiences and our interpretations of them. We don't naively attribute an upwelling of emotion, or a loss of self-control, or even consciousness to a spiritual presence. Even if we reach that conclusion it is a conclusion based on a process of reflection. It is characteristic of the West that we place our thoughts between ourselves and not only the world, but our own bodily experiences. We assume that the self exists independently of the body and can thus judge (and even control) what is happening to it. 

2. Taylor points out that in the West we reflexively locate the meaning of our experiences in the immanent world. When we reflect on what our experiences mean we discover both their origin and their end in the human and natural world. Thus a horrifying dream is more likely to be interpreted as a reaction to bad food or a troubling conscious experience than a message from God. And even if we attribute the origin of our experiences to God, typically their end is in the immanent world of human society and action. 

3. This presupposition relates to the consensus emerging in the 19th century that the primary and possibly only purpose of religious life is human flourishing, which is assumed to be God's sole desire for humanity. At the extreme, worship in this mode of thought isn't undertaken because what God desires most for us is to live in relationship with the divine.  It is undertaken in order to therapeutically heal our psychological deficiencies and motivate us to engage in the mission of making the world a better place. 

(For an example of worship in an immanent frame versus that oriented toward transcendence, compare two hymns adjacent to each other in the Methodist hymnal, numbers 660 and 661. Fred Pratt Green writes, "here the servants of the Servant seek in worship to explore what it means in daily living to believe and to adore." A.T. Olajide Olude of Nigeria writes, "Jesus, we want to meet on this thy holy day. We gather round thy throne on this thy holy day. Thou are our heavenly friend; hear our prayers as they ascend; look into our hearts and minds today, on this thy holy day.")

One can see the how this consensus affects religious self-understanding by looking at the difference between the present purpose statement of United Methodism and its predecessor statements from 300 years ago: Currently the UM church defines its purpose as "Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." Compare this to the definition of the first Methodist societies: "a company of men having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their salvation." 

Even when contemporary American Methodist worship moves beyond preparing people to be good so that they can do good in the world, it does so primarily through aesthetics: seeking to be "uplifting" through grand music, ritual, and oratory. And that aesthetic appeal will be through a consciously mediated experience of transcendence based on a personal "appreciation" of Western art prepared for presentation by highly trained liturgists, musicians, and preachers. (This idea of uplift can, of course, move "down market" to popular music forms and motivational speaking, but the conscious mediation - generally through expertise in marketing rather than high art - is still key.)

This blog post will be continued in another installment next week.

1 comment:

  1. Very thoughtful post, Robert. Looking forward to the next post on this topic.

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