Friday, September 17, 2021

Robert A. Hunt: United Methodist Divides as a Site for Interreligious Dialogue

Today’s post is by Rev. Dr. Robert A. Hunt. Hunt is responding to “Love and the Christian Way of Being in the World,” a piece by Don Manning-Miller, which is itself a response to “Lifestyle Evangelism and Moral Convictions” by David W. Scott, which draws on essays by Hunt and by Thomas Lambrecht.

While continued conversation is welcome, Don Manning-Miller’s recent response to David Scott’s piece misses the point a bit – primarily because he’s driving toward a standard of his own, and one long embedded in the conversation of progressives in this regard.

As I read this post, Manning-Miller begins with what seems unassailable: an assertion that love is the fundamental “ethic” that forms Christian ethics. Yet, despite his mischaracterization of Lambrecht’s work, Manning-Miller knows, I think, that the claim of love as an ethic is problematic when everyone claims it.

So, as he ends his post, he acknowledges that making ethical judgments, in particular judgments about those with whom to fellowship is possible, is indeed necessary. Then he offers what seems to an airtight basis for such judgments: Do the ethics of a group cause harm? And of course, he asserts that the ethics of Good News do indeed cause harm.
The problem is that the definition of harm is no more obvious and shared among United Methodists than the meaning of love. And this gets us to the real problem. Good News and the WCA operate out of a classical ethic based on attaining the teleos for which each creature, including humans, was created. In this view, that which causes harm is that which prevents a person from reaching the end God has designated for their personhood as a human and as an individual.
The progressive ethic, which Manning-Miller expresses, is not teleological, in my view. It is a process ethic in which the name of the process is love and in which there is no particular teleos to be seen. The Reign of God is less an end than a set of values that guide the process. As long as all those engaged in the process of love manifest those values, their behavior is ethical. At best, any discussion of an end or purpose for humankind would be couched in terms of ever-changing forms of human fulfillment. But this fulfillment can’t refer to a true teleos, because it isn’t linked to a genesis.
So, Lambrecht could say in perfect sincerity that the ethics of the Good News/WCA/Traditionalist United Methodists doesn’t cause harm, even if it does cause pain. In fact, he could claim their ethic prevents harm by keeping individuals and the church moving toward their divinely appointed teleos, when all those who either refuse their divinely appointed end or hinder others, that is (to quote scripture) “the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” (Rev. 21:8)
But for Manning-Miller, this approach certainly causes harm because harm is anything that interferes with the discernment and realization of human fulfillment. Put another way, the concept of harm is embedded in the concept of fulfillment, and a classical and a process understanding of fulfillment are fundamentally different, as are their understandings of the Reign of God.

This fundamental difference between these two perspectives demands the hard kind of dialogue, the kind that is met in real inter-religious dialogue, the dialogue between groups that do not begin at the same place in understanding the nature of reality. Schubert Ogden and Mark Heim recognized this back in the 80’s.
The question remains whether those holding the classical view of reality and those holding a process view of reality can find a way within their distinct worldviews to accommodate some kind of cooperation with the very much other. A fair amount of work has been done on this in the world of inter-religious dialogue, but I see no evidence that either the WCA or UM Progressives have thought of one another clearly in these terms.

Thus, neither group has formulated a sensible and internally coherent approach to dialogue with the other, and as a result, both engage in polemic primarily intended to shore up the support of their own faithful while wondering why they keep talking past rather than to each other.


  1. Very helpful post Bob! Concise and thoughtful. Not enough has been written on what I think you begin to describe as the competing process vs telos nature of the conflict in the UMC. We're really not debating that one side doesn't read the Bible enough while the other side simply doesn't want to hurt people. Our conflict is over more fundamental world views that you've helpfully described. Thank you.

  2. Bob, thanks for the forthright response. Your reflection has furthered the conversation.

    In Wesleyan theology, the teleological ethic and the love ethic are tightly held together because love is a reflection of God’s good character and shows God’s goodwill toward humanity. God desires that all should be saved because God loves all people. Also, love is a verb. God is actively seeking to bring all people into a right relationship with Godself. God desires our good in this life and in the life to come.

    From a teleological perspective, God’s love calls broken humanity to reconciliation with God. That reconciliation is manifested in a promised new creation in which loved people live in a perfect relationship with God and each other. Based on the love ethic, that which leads people away from the telos that God has desired is not good.

    At this point, we have to make an arbitrary determination. How do we know God’s telos and God’s will? For Wesleyans, the scriptures function as the primary authority for knowing God’s will. If people reject this starting point, they may come to a different determination about ethics and what causes harm.

    Philosophical humanism undergirds the larger conversation. That is the guiding force behind the love ethic as it has been articulated by progressives. In Wesleyan thought, love and holiness are intertwined. Perfect love is a state in which one is perfectly aligned with God. When one receives the grace of perfect love, one does not entertain willful sin. Sin is defined as an intentional violation of the know will/law/purpose of God.

    Deontology plays into this. When one knows what is right, one is obligated to pursue it if one desires to be right with God or the powers that be. In fact, one can be compelled by the internal knowledge of righteousness to forsake momentary happiness or things that could contribute to human happiness if the teleological conclusion is separation from God and unhappiness. In fact, people have a duty to pursue God and God's righteousness.

    Once again, I am thankful for this conversation.