Thursday, June 22, 2017

Steven Ybarrola - Response to Wonder, Love and Praise

This blog post is one in a series containing responses to the denomination's proposed ecclesiology document, "Wonder, Love and Praise." These responses are written by United Methodist scholars and practitioners around the world. This piece is written by Dr. Steven J. Ybarrola, Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Asbury Theological Seminary.

Let me begin my reflection on the “Wonder, Love, and Praise” document by situating myself in this conversation. I am a secularly trained anthropologist (PhD Brown University) who taught 15 years at a loosely church-affiliated liberal arts college, and for the past 11 years have been teaching anthropology and missiology at a Wesleyan theological seminary (Asbury). Therefore, I approach this document more from a theologically-informed social scientific perspective than a social scientifically-informed theological one. Also, I am not a member of the United Methodist Church, so approach the document from a critical outsider’s perspective, which has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that I am not encumbered by longstanding theological discussions and divisions within the denomination when it comes to the topics covered. The disadvantage is obviously the same—I am not evaluating the document based on issues that the UMC may have been dealing with for some time now. What follows is an anthropologically and missiologically Wesleyan-informed outsider’s perspective on this important document.

Based on my reading, I find this document to be a positive attempt to deal with the global diversity found within the Body of Christ. As the demographic shift has taken place from the West to the Majority World as far as the growth and expansion of Christianity is concerned, churches like the UMC, which tend to be declining in the West but growing, and in some cases thriving, in the Majority World, have had to come to terms with how to deal with this cultural diversity. This document, “Wonder, Love, and Praise,” seems to be a welcome response to this demographic shift of Christianity (though I will leave that final judgment to my brethren in the Majority World).

Following the teaching of Christ, and given the limits of space, let me concentrate on love. The document does a very nice job of pointing out that the UMC is but one manifestation of the Church universal, and as such, needs to take a humble and loving approach to our brothers, sisters, and their respective denominations, when it comes to working together in the missio Dei. The mission of God is not confined to any one denominational expression or understanding of God, but is what should unite us, even while we acknowledge and appreciate our different practices and, to some extent, beliefs. As the document states, “We might want to say, then, that, theologically understood, the church is not an association of like-minded individuals serving purposes they may have devised for themselves. Instead, it is a community established by God, grounded in the very life of God, an aspect of the new creation” (lines 400-403). The ecumenical focus of the document is refreshing, emphasizing as it does our unity as the Body of Christ without sacrificing or watering down the key elements of what it means to be the church in our contemporary global context.

The tension between our unity in Christ and our cultural/theological differences is a key theme in the document. As an anthropologist, this is a tension I am quite familiar with, as anthropologists distinguish between the emic (i.e., experience-near) and etic (i.e., experience-distant) in our research and analysis (see Geertz 1983 for an anthropological discussion of this distinction, and Priest 2006 for a more theological discussion).

The Scottish theologian and missiologist cited in the document, Andrew Walls, cogently discusses this tension by delineating the “Indigenizing Principle” and the “Pilgrim Principle.” Most of the readers of this blog will be familiar with Walls’ distinction, but let me briefly outline each of these as I believe it gets at an important element that this document is addressing. The indigenizing principle as Walls describes it is the idea of “[t]he impossibility of separating an individual from his or her social relationships and thus from his or her society [which] leads to one varying feature in Christian history: the desire to ‘indigenize,’ to live as a Christian and yet as a member of one’s own society, to make the Church…‘A place to feel at home’” (1996, 7).

In other words, when people become Christians they do so within their sociocultural context, and as such become Christians within that particular understandings of the world. This may be referred to as the “particular” aspect of the gospel—to truly take root it must always be understood within its local sociocultural environment. But Walls continues that we as Christians should never feel too much at home in these environments, because we are also called to something greater, to see ourselves as pilgrims in whatever sociocultural context we find ourselves. He states,

Along with the indigenizing principle which makes his faith a place to feel at home, the Christian inherits the pilgrim principle, which whispers to him that he has no abiding city and warns him that to be faithful to Christ will put him out of step with his society; for that society never existed, in East or West, ancient time or modern, which could absorb the word of Christ painlessly into its system….Not only does God in Christ take people as they are; He takes them in order to transform them into what He wants them to be” (1996, 7).

This can be understood as the “universal” nature of the gospel, that the Kingdom of God calls us to be countercultural in whatever context we find ourselves, and unites us with believers from all over the world and from very different cultural backgrounds.

What this calls for, and which the document acknowledges (lines 107-109, and elsewhere), is an intentional reflexivity. As culturally different believers in the Kingdom of God we must be willing not only to learn from each other, but we must also be willing to take a critical look at our own beliefs and practices in light of how God is working in these different contexts. This has been one of the great blessings, and challenges, I have had in teaching students from different parts of the world, as well as traveling to different parts of the Majority World. Interacting with these believers has made me realize how deeply affected I have been by a modernist view of the world which, among other things, focuses on the material over the spiritual. I recall sitting in the international airport in Nairobi after participating in a consultation with believers from different contexts in east Africa, and feeling like a fraud because what I said I believed was just a shadow of what the Christians I interacted with had actually experienced. This is one of the real advantages of being reflexive in the context of world Christianity.

I’m certain there are constructive criticisms to be made of the “Wonder, Love, and Praise” document, some of which I’ve read and appreciated, but from a critical outsider perspective I believe the document is a positive step forward for the UMC as it struggles to maintain its unity not only as a denomination, but with Christianity globally, amidst the tremendous cultural and theological diversity that makes up the Body of Christ worldwide.

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