Today's post is the fourth of a four-part series on the tensions between contextual theology and connectional polity in The United Methodist Church, written by Barry E. Bryant, Ph.D., Associate Professor of United Methodist and Wesleyan Studies at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.
In this series we’ve been exploring the problem taking a contextual theology and placing it into a connectional polity. The purpose of contextual theology is making Scripture relevant to the context of Christian faith, witness, and ministry. We have looked at Wesley’s practice of “searching the Scripture,” which consists of reading, meditating, and hearing. Reading and mediating on Scripture are indeed acts of piety but they are also the initial acts of contextualization. This time we’ll look at hearing as a way of trying to alleviate the tension between contextuality and connectionalism.
Ideally, Wesley wanted Methodists to attend the hearing of Scripture every morning not just with an act of devotion, but with an act of worship. The math is simple. One reader plus one hearer equals two and when they invoke the promised presence of Jesus that equals three. This is basic ecclesial math. But, the move Wesley makes here is much more profound. It is the return of the individual and her devotional reading of Scripture back into the community to hear and be heard. For United Methodists today, this means moving from a contextual reading of Scripture to a connectional understanding of hearing it read to us by other people and in return their hearing us read to them. We may read locally but we must listen globally. So, what facilitates global listening?
First, Scripture is most at home when being heard. For over 1400 years that was the primary way of being exposed to Scripture and was meant to be read aloud to an eager and listening community. Hearing is a communal act and Christianity is a social religion; social religion is constitutively relational and ultimately a connectional religion.
"Christianity is essentially a social religion, and that to turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it. By Christianity I mean that method of worshipping God which is here revealed to [humankind] by Jesus Christ. When I say this is essentially a social religion, I mean not only that it cannot subsist so well, but that it cannot subsist at all without society, without living and conversing with other men. And in showing this I shall confine myself to those considerations which will arise from the very discourse before us. But if this be shown, then doubtless to turn this religion into a solitary one is to destroy it." (“Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse the Fourth,” ¶ I.1.)
Wesley has pointed us in the right direction here. Listening to Scripture today means listening not just to the text. It means also listening and conversing with others while paying attention to the reader’s own theological context. In this case, context does not just mean the context of Scripture. It means to also listen to the context of the one reading the Scripture. This act of acknowledging the reader and his/her context is not just hearing. It is listening. We hear God’s word, and we listen to its reader. When we listen, we acknowledge the other’s experience of reading and meditating, or sacred reading.
Secondly, global listening is an important step in what Wesley has called the “catholic spirit.” The catholic spirit of hearing and listening becomes the theological foundation of “conference” as means of grace. When engaging in global listening as an act of conference, it means listening to others reading the Bible to us. It means hearing women read to us; it means hearing people of color read to us; it means hearing members of the LGBTQ read to us; it means hearing Palestinian Christians read to us. I think you get the idea.
Thirdly, the body of Christ needs to engage in the making of disciples who are social agents. Miraslov Volf describes this in detail in Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. The encounter of another through global listening can be accommodated through “social arrangements” by which others may be welcomed to the table. What is more demanding is forming disciples who are capable of being social agents with the desire to give one’s self to others as an act of welcoming and hospitality without judgement. More significantly, it also means readjusting our own identities to welcome them as readers and hearers of Scripture.
Fear is what drives exclusion. Love demands embrace. Our connectional polity with its myriad of contexts severely needs disciples of Jesus Christ who are social agents capable of global listening who can help hold the connection together.