Thursday, October 27, 2016

Barry Bryant: The Rorschach Wesley Test

Today's piece is written by Barry E. Bryant. Rev. Dr. Bryant is Associate Professor of United Methodist and Wesleyan Studies at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

“Look at the inkblot and tell me what you see.” That phrase has long been associated with the Rorschach inkblot test and the response says more about the one doing the looking than the nature of what is being seen. Reading Wesley can often be something akin to a Rorschach test. What one sees in Wesley says as much about the one doing the “looking” as it does about what is being “seen.”

The first thing to consider is the nature of what may be seen in Wesley. Of course this is not unique to Wesley or his readers and looking at Wesley is not an entirely subjective experience. There is more meaning and structure in Wesley than what’s in an ink blot. There are reasons why some see what they see in Wesley and there is a variety of things to be seen. Wesley was an intellectual pack rat and an accumulator of ideas over a long period of time. He lived in every decade of the 18th century and during those decades while the essence of what he thought remained constant the nuance of his thinking changed and varied over time. At all times he sought coherence.

While he considered himself a “man of one book” obviously he didn’t read only the Bible. He read a plethora of books on a variety of topics, ranging from Greek and Latin poets, to Shakespeare and Milton, to natural science and philosophy, to secular and sacred history, to Biblical studies and a wide spectrum of theology. He was also an indiscriminate reader. He read those with whom he agreed and disagreed, writers who comforted and enraged him, writers whom he imitated and appreciated.

As much as he read, he also listened to the experiences of others. Wesley’s journals, diaries, and letters reveal someone who valued the testimonies of how grace had transformed Methodist lives. These narratives in all of their complexities had a significant influence on the shaping of Wesley’s theology, leaving some to conclude it is a practical theology by nature.

All this resulted in an eclectic and ecumenical theology that reflected a variety of traditions: Puritan, Pietist, Anglican, Apostolic, Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Calvinist, and an emerging Methodist tradition. In all this he tried to hold together faith and works, an Arminian understanding of predestination, robust doctrines of original sin and prevenient grace, a doctrine of personal sin and Christian perfection, and his Anglicanism with his evangelicalism.

It should be no surprise then that so many different traditions find something in Wesley that resonates with their own theology. Indeed, different people look at Wesley and see different things in the Wesleyan Rorschach, and this is how we end up with so many different “Wesleyans”: Methodist Wesleyans, holiness Wesleyans, process theology Wesleyans, evangelical Wesleyans, fundamentalist Wesleyans, and Pentecostal Wesleyans, just to name a few.

At this point an important distinction needs to be made regarding the term “Wesley” and “Wesleyan,” and “Methodist” and “Methodism.” Not all Methodists are Wesleyan, and not all Wesleyans are Methodist. Each of these groups of Wesleyans are on a quest for coherence and an organizing principle, or a single concept that helps all the material gain more coherent meaning, assuming that coherence is gained through the use of an organizing principle.

In the very least an organizing principle functions as a type of “thesis statement,” or as a way of arguing a particular theological point. On the other hand, and more significantly, an organizing principle can function as an interpretive lens through which all the material is seen and understood.

Is there a single concept around which one might definitively organize Wesley’s theology? Probably not, particularly given the very nature of the complexities, first of the material at hand, and more significantly because of the complexities of the interpretive process itself. Indeed, the arguments for an organizing principle in Wesley are plentiful and varied, often resulting in conflicting conclusions. This is not a bad thing. Having a variety of organizing principles actually demonstrates the nuanced complexity of Wesley’s theology and accounts for the theological variety in his theological progeny.

Each one reads Wesley in a peculiar setting with a different set of assumptions and even a differing set of presuppositions that are in turn shaped by Scripture, reason, experience, and tradition (now there’s another topic). These presuppositions often predetermine the outcome. The problem with the way some use organizing principles is that it is a way of justifying the exclusion of some of the more difficult, disagreeable, and possibly some irreconcilable parts of Wesley’s theology. From there it is easier to exclude other “Wesleyans.” The Wesleyan tradition is a big tent with lots of room. So, what do you see in Wesley?

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Recommended reading: Composition of Commission on a Way Forward

The Council on Bishops has released the names of the 32 members (11 laity, 11 elders, 8 bishops, and 2 deacons) of the Commission on a Way Forward, which is authorized by General Conference 2016 to craft plans for the future of The United Methodist Church in the face of significant and long-standing disagreements over homosexuality in the church.

United Methodist Professors of Mission who advocated for the inclusion of a missiologist on the commission will be interested in several of the members: Dr. David N. Field, academic coordinator of the Methodist e-Academy in Europe, is a contributor to this blog. Rev. Dr. Mande Muyombo is the Executive Director of Global Mission Connections for Global Ministries. Rev. Alfiado Zunguza is the Executive Secretary for Africa for Global Ministries. Mr. Jacques Akasa Umembudi is an aviation missionary for Global Ministries.

We pray that the missiological insights of these commission members may be of service to the commission and that the Holy Spirit may guide and bless all of the commission members in the task before them.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Recent Public Access Articles by United Methodist Professors of Mission

Today we introduce a new feature. This blog is a project of the United Methodist Professors of Mission, and it is important to engage with each other's scholarship. Thus, below are links to and abstracts for two recent missiological articles written by United Methodist Professors of Mission. Both are available for public access, though Dana Robert's article will only be so for a limited time.

William Price Payne, "Folk Religion and the Pentecostalism Surge in Latin America," The Asbury Journal 71 no. 1 (2016), 145-174.

Abstract: "Latino Pentecostalism and the Roman Catholic Charismatic Movement have experienced massive numerical growth since becoming viable options for the masses in the late 1960s. Contextualization theory suggests that they have experienced exponential growth because they have become indigenous faith systems that mesh with Hispanic cultures and give folk practitioners functionally equivalent alternatives to the syncretistic practices associated with popular religion. Specifically, as a native religion that engages all aspects of the Latino worldview, Latino Pentecostalism operates at the level of a popular religion without being inherently syncretistic. In this regard, it can be described as 'folk Christianity.'"

Dana L. Robert, "One Christ--Many Witnesses: Visions of Mission and Unity, Edinburgh and Beyond," Transformation 33 no. 4 (2016), 270-281.

Abstract: "This paper surveys the relationship between mission and Christian unity from the Edinburgh 1910 conference to the present. It then identifies several factors that cohere in recent missiological reflection, and concludes with a scriptural model for our contemporary pilgrimage together."

Other United Methodist Professors of Mission with recently published scholarly articles are invited to send information about such articles to the blogmaster, David Scott. Such information will be collated on this blog approximately once a quarter.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Glory Dharmaraj: The Impact of Christianities in Motion

Today's piece is written by Dr. Glory E. Dharmaraj, retired Director of Mission Theology for United Methodist Women.

In an earlier article on “The Global and Local: A Mutuality of Exchange,” I referred to Odysseus and Penelope, protagonist and his spouse, in the twin epic, Iliad and Odyssey, in order to convey the complex nature of global and local mission. Penelope and Odysseus are no longer singular monolithic subjects representing changeless principles of rootedness and roaming. 

This article is about re-naming Penelope’s identity relative to migration, which is helpful for today’s diasporic mission, while making room for the Christianities in motion in the midst of us. In the Odyssey, Penelope is left at home to raise her infant son. Harassed by men and her family property stolen, she resorts to an upper room in the house, away from the public space in her house, and commits herself to the laborious task and cunning device of weaving and unweaving a shroud in order to ward off the advances of her suitors. Her son, grown up in the interval of twenty years, sets out to look for his father, and the epic story ends happily with reunions.

While acknowledging that Odysseus is not someone we would describe as a migrant, it is worth looking at Penelope’s human predicament as a spouse left at home to fend for herself and naming this condition. Far from the imperium-making routes of yester years, the major migratory routes of today are paddled with oars and made with shovels by those fleeing disasters, wars, oppressions, and persecutions. Migrants take multiple routes through multiple settings, but there are inseparable connections between the migrants and those loved ones left behind.

The erstwhile dichotomy of categorizing these two entities, Odysseus and Penelope, as mere “roaming” and “homing” does not do justice to naming their respective struggles, especially the ones left behind. Migratory interpretation of diasporic mission needs to factor in women like Penelope and their interconnectedness. Penelope is not identical or exactly the same as today’s people left at home by their migrant relatives abroad. But there are parallels between her condition and that of those left at home in modern day migration.

Penelope in Motion
For Paulo Freire, a great transformative educationist, re-naming is a form of radical action. For those engaged in diasporic mission, re-naming the weight of the human existence of one massive category of people left behind in the physical migration of their loved ones is a helpful way to formulate further actions.

Often missing in the migration mission narrative is a key insight that women, men, and children left at home in their home countries are also people in migration, since they, too, bear the painful and lonesome burden of migration, though differently. In a holistic diasporic missional understanding, beyond the “push and pull” forces in migration, there are fragile human links and relationships being lived out. A mere instrumental view of migrants as remitters of funds and boosters of their respective home economies, or potential tools for the host countries revitalizing our declining churches does not represent their gifting fully.

Recent research has shed more light on women and men left at home. Fifty percent of the world’s estimated 232 million worldwide migrants are women.  Advocacy organizations such as Women and Global Migration Working Group (www.wgmwg.org) lift up the migrants as agents of change. At the same time, with a focus on women, this advocacy group names the women left behind as “women in migration.” As a religious non-governmental organization (NGO), United Methodist Women works with such organizations that amplify the voices of the migrants as well as those left behind.

Christianities in Motion
Diasporic missional undertakings by Christian communities in the U.S. such as the Hmong, Cambodians, Filipinos, the Middle Eastern etc., among their own dispersed and displaced communities may not be fully visible on the missional radar of the structural United Methodist Church. The migrant church and its members are often alienated by the dominant culture and marginalized by settled Christianity. Often they are relegated to the status of belonging to a minority “foreign Christians.” There is much reluctance and hesitancy to cross the threshold of culture that separates us.

The church that embodies the mission of Christ cannot remain indifferent but must rather expose itself to the lived global Christianity in our midst by interacting with migrants in an ongoing basis. We simply cannot repeat the entrenched narrative. The experiences of migrant, refugee communities, their collective experiences, and their invisible network of relations with those left behind in their home countries or in a third country constitute the center of diasporic missional theology.

Here Be Dragons
Some of the ancient geographical maps had references to “here are dragons” (hic sunt dracones) pointing out the threatening nature of the unexplored areas. Maybe it is time to give ourselves to one of the following in this fall season:
  • Spend a Sunday immersed in a worship environment, not typically our own, but in a congregation comprised of migrant or refugee Christians.
  • Try to talk to a family and strive to understand their journey to this place by asking questions and listening to their stories, their community's history, language skills, linguistic challenges, and their traditional customs and norms.
Knowing something about their dreams, aspirations, and goals will indeed demonstrate that we care for them, and will also remove much of our anxieties that here be dragons. Seeing rightfully and acting justly draw us into the fuller circle of emerging Christianities in motion with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Why Africans Will Determine the Outcome of GC2018

United Methodists are already speculating about what might happen at a proposed called General Conference in 2018. There has been much commentary online about what positions and strategies American conservatives and progressives will take.

A lot of this commentary overlooks an important point, however: No matter what American progressives and conservatives do, African United Methodists, at 30% of the total General Conference votes, will have a deciding block of votes.

Any constitutional changes would need 96% approval among other geographic regions to pass without substantial African support. Imagine getting 96% of extreme progressives and extreme conservatives to agree on something in the UMC. Now you understand why Africans will be the deciding bloc.

Moreover, it would be ethically questionable of the church to move forward with a plan that was not supported by such a substantial minority within the church. Developing a plan that will ensure African support is critical for the work of the Commission on a Way Forward.

Hence, I’m going to list several things that I think many African delegates will care about in a GC2018 (and two I think they won’t), but first a few caveats: 1. Africans are a diverse group, so not all Africans will want the same things out of a plan or find the same things acceptable. 2. I’m not an expert on African United Methodism, so I could be wrong on some of these. 3. While many Africans certainly share some theological concerns with American conservatives, their goals, objectives, and motivations should not be seen as a mere echo of American conservatives. 4. Just because Africans may care about all these issues doesn’t mean they will need to get their way on all of them to support a plan. They will, however, need to get their way on some of them.

Things I think Africans will care about:

1. Affirmation of the supreme role of the Bible in the life of the church. This was the overwhelming point of the recent statement put out by the UMC Africa Initiative. The UMC Africa Initiative doesn’t speak for all African GC delegates, but it does have substantial influence with them. Whether or not one agrees with the UMC Africa Initiative’s approach to biblical exegesis, the very high value they place on the Bible is clear.

2. Continuation of the current denominational stance opposing homosexuality. While American progressives see an accepting stance toward homosexuality as consistent with the Bible, Africans by and large do not. Both because of the type of biblical exegesis common and because of prevailing cultural mores, most Africans want to hold the line on homosexuality.

3. Bishops. American United Methodists might take the existence of bishops for granted, but African United Methodists don’t. The opportunity to have bishops is, after all, one of the main reasons Cote d’Ivoire Methodists joined the denomination. At GC2016, Africans were promised five new bishops in 2020, and they will want to ensure that there is a UMC or a successor denomination willing to honor that promise.

4. Funding. Currently, African annual conferences are not self-sustaining. There are overwhelming economic disparities between the United States and most African countries (e.g., DRC’s per capita GDP is less than 1% of the US’s), and these are wedded to long-term patterns of financial dependency. While GC2016 approved a first-ever apportionment plan for the central conferences, it is unrealistic to expect African annual conferences to become self-sustaining within the next four years while continuing to follow current denominational organizational patterns. Either these patterns will need to change dramatically, or funding will need to continue to come from the US to support them.

5. Programmatic assistance from general boards and agencies. Some of this assistance comes in the form of funding, but this is a broad category which also includes expertise, educational resources and opportunities, and personnel. Such forms of assistance from partners around the connection make a significant impact on the life of the UMC in Africa. Africans will be reluctant to cut these ties.

6. International connections. Such connections can be useful for purposes of domestic political advocacy and domestic political protections. International connections, especially to a powerful country like the United States, can legitimize and advance the work of the UMC in contexts where it is a minority or facing oppression.

7. More voice and votes in UMC decisions. Africans know that their percentages of members and General Conference representatives have been on the rise within the UMC. They are likely to want to receive greater recognition of their voices and more votes on boards as they seek to assert their legitimate desire for influence in their own denomination.

Things I think Africans will not care about (at least as much as Americans):

1. American church decline. Africans are certainly sympathetic to the fate of their coreligionists, and American decline could interfere with long-term funding, but African churches are growing, and there is no coming “death tsunami” in Africa. Indeed, continued American decline and African growth leads to more African voice and votes in UMC decisions. Moreover, American decline and African growth provides rhetorical strength for casting Africa as the champion of the gospel the West has abandoned and thus provides Africans with moral as well as political capital.

2. Polarization. Many American United Methodists bemoan polarization in the church and the way it reflects polarization in the wider American society. It is important to remember that African churches and annual conferences aren’t polarized around LGBT issues the same way some American annual conferences are. Africans experience polarization at General Conference and in their engagement with the life of the broader denomination, but this debate is not a symptom of pervasive and deeply felt polarization at all church levels for Africans in the same way that it is for Americans. Moreover, even though there are significant political and other cleavages within African countries, they do not map onto United Methodist arguments in the same way American political and cultural divides do. Thus, United Methodist polarization is not a reflection of a wider societal problem for African delegates the same way it is for Americans.

I cannot pretend to be able to predict what Africans will do with this range of concerns as part of the Commission on a Way Forward or at a called General Conference 2018. Nevertheless, it will behoove all in the denomination to be listening to the unique concerns of our African brothers and sisters.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Recommended reading: Women and technology in Africa

This UMNS news story relates new from the first-ever Africa Summit on Women and Girls in Technology. While the summit was led by secular leaders, several United Methodists connected to United Methodist Women were among the attendees. The story is of interest because it connects to several themes explored previously on this blog: the intersections of mission with gender, technology, and education. The education of women and girls for the sake of their empowerment has been a long-standing mission priority, and this summit reflects a form of that old concern, one that focuses on education in the use of digital technology.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Recommended readings: Climate care theological resources online

On this, the last day of the Season of Creation, I thought it appropriate to pass along several free, online resources related to mission as climate care.

First are a couple of resources, in English, from globethics.net. For those unfamiliar with globethics.net, in its own words, it "is a global network of persons and institutions interested in various fields of applied ethics. It offers access to a large number of resources on ethics, especially through its leading global digital ethics library and facilitates collaborative web-based research, conferences, online publishing and information sharing." It's important to emphasize from that description their amazing free electronic library of ethics and theological resources.

As the WCC reported, globethics.net recently published a new e-book entitled Eco-Theology, Climate Justice and Food Security: Theological Education and Christian Leadership Development. A digital version is available here. While this resource will be of general use to those interested in ecological mission, Kapya Kaoma's chapter "From Missio Dei to Missio Creatoris Dei" will be of particular interest. In addition, globethics.net also has an earlier publication entitled Global Ethics Applied: Environmental Ethics. A digital version is available here.

Second is a resource, in both Spanish and Portuguese, from the Council of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches of Latin America (AIPRAL), entitled Estamos a Tiempo/Ainda ha Tempo/We Are on Time. As the WCC reported, the book is intended as a pedagogical tool on creation care. While the resource is not cast in terms of mission, its pedagogical intention and the languages in which it is published make it of interest. A Spanish digital version is available here, and a Portuguese digital version is available here.