Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Darryl W. Stephens. Dr. Stephens is director of United Methodist studies at Lancaster Theological Seminary and a clergy member of the Texas Annual Conference. He is author of Methodist Morals: Social Principles in the Public Church’s Witness (University of Tennessee Press).
In a recent post, my colleague Philip Wingeier-Rayo wrote about mission to the religiously unaffiliated in the US. He and I are in agreement on many points, not least the importance of faithfully inculturating
the gospel so as to reach the nones and dones. However, one aspect of his analysis deserves further consideration: the roots of “our greatest divide.”
Wingeier-Rayo wrote: “I believe that our greatest divide is that certain sectors give more primacy to Scripture and tradition, while other sectors place more authority with experience and reason. These tendencies might be representative of the values of Boomers and Millennials, which generally live within modernist (belief in the Truth) vs. post-modernist (truth is relative) views toward authority.”
Yet, these binary distinctions do not hold up to closer scrutiny. While there exist clear generational patterns regarding attitudes toward homosexuality (see Pew study released June 26, 2017), I believe the roots of the divide are neither primarily generational, postmodernist, nor dependent on privileging one or more aspects of the Wesleyan quadrilateral. It is true that folks differ in how they weigh the different theological sources of wisdom. It is also true that some people might be described as modernist and others post-modernist. However, it is not at all clear that these persons are easily correlated and grouped into identifiable sectors, particularly as an explanation of differing views on the issue of homosexuality, the most visible
manifestation of the divide in the church today.
If we want to understand what divides, we need to examine power and authority—not the authority of various sources of wisdom but the authority of those persons wielding these sources and how they choose to exercise their social and institutional power.
Reason. A century ago, Protestants in the US were sharply divided over science as a form of human reason. Modernists embraced historical criticism of the Bible and Darwin’s theory of evolution over and against Christians who embraced creationism as an alternative to science. Nevertheless, there were points of agreement. White Christians of both perspectives leveraged their power, either citing the curse of Ham (Gen 9:22-27) or the new “science” of Darwinian-inspired eugenics, to justify the racial superiority of whites. When the interests of white males in these opposing camps overlapped, the result was a powerful system of social and legal oppression of non-whites in Methodism and society. General Conference repented for past racism in 2000 and for past support of eugenics in 2008.
Contrasting modernist versus postmodernist perspectives does not illuminate any consistent pattern in the selective embrace of scientific reason by Methodists since the 1920s Scopes Monkey Trial. For example, the UMC’s stance on homosexuality, legislated into the Social Principles in 1972, seems immune to advances in scientific knowledge about sexuality and gender. Today, scientific evidence indicates that sexual orientation is naturally
occurring (like left-handedness) and is not a choice.
Yet, few United Methodists supporting the current language of the Discipline on homosexuality are anti-Darwinian creationists. Rejection of scientific truths is not a consistent indicator among these United Methodists who otherwise have no trouble “believing” in everyday technologies dependent upon the scientific breakthroughs of the past century (nuclear power, GPS, semiconductors, etc.). It’s not a matter of giving reason primacy or not; it’s rather a matter of how particular rationales are leveraged to support the
material interests of those with power. An appeal to other parts of the quadrilateral provides no more clarity about the divide.
Experience. Likewise, it’s not a matter of whether to give experience primacy. Rather, it’s what kind of experience counts as authoritative. For evangelical Christians, experience is privileged over all other sources of theological insight. The quintessential religious experience among evangelicals is being saved through a personal relationship with Christ. Without this experience, one cannot be saved (and consequently, cannot discern God’s will or what is morally right). For charismatics, the ongoing experiences of God’s grace through actions of the Holy Spirit are primary. For many
progressives, the experience of God’s grace through the charism of radically inclusive love of all persons (regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity) defines how they understand their faith. Christians across the theological spectrum privilege experience in different ways.
Tradition. Which aspect of tradition counts as a source of wisdom? As I have argued in Methodist Morals, public engagement in the moral questions of the day is a predominant aspect of Methodist tradition. This tradition of social witness is dynamic and responsive, requiring the church to function as a community of moral deliberation as it discerns how to be faithful in the world. United Methodists supporting full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church are faithful to this tradition. Conversely, an insistence on a “literal” interpretation of the Bible as the only faithful reading is a distinctly modern phenomenon, upending a centuries-long tradition of much more varied approaches to scripture, including ways in which the Bible interprets itself.
Scripture. Privileging Scripture as a source of wisdom is no less complicated. It’s not a matter of whether to give Scripture primacy. Rather, it's a matter of how one engages Scripture and on which issues. By what scriptural account did Methodists promote Prohibition of alcohol, that defining moral crusade of the last century? By what scriptural account did Methodists cease to consider remarriage after divorce a moral issue and focus, rather, on homosexual marriage? By what scriptural account do Methodists choose to welcome the immigrant, speak out for war, support international cooperation, or embrace US exceptionalism? Scripture has been used and abused to support a wide variety of moral crusades in Methodism.
Power and authority. There is a pattern among these divisive issues, but the distinction is not between one unchanging Truth and an evolving or relativistic understanding of truth. Nor is the distinction between the primacy of one or more sources (Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason) by various interpreters. Rather, the roots of division reside in human power and authority. To understand “our greatest divide,” we must ask: What existing forms of authority are threatened? Who stands to lose power? Who stands to gain power? What ideologies and which material interests are being threatened?
In a patriarchal, racialized, economically stratified church and society, it is not difficult to imagine whose authority and power might be threatened when
Methodists and others decide to discern anew what the Lord requires. The attempt to control our own destinies and to wield control over others rather than to trust in God and to love one another—these tendencies feed what really divides us as United Methodists.