Observations from Inside-Out

For the past few days, I have been at the Presbyterian Global Fellowship conference in Long Beach, California. PGF is an organization which exists to "to transform mainline congregations into missional communities following Jesus Christ". It tends toward the conservative, especially on hot-button denominational issues such as ordination of homosexuals. Many are concerned about the recent actions of the General Assembly to change the Book of Order for full inclusion, seeing it as a change from traditional Presbyterian standards. I need to say up front that I am as comfortable – and as uncomfortable – among this group as I am among the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, a notably liberal group within the denomination. I take Stanley Hauerwas’ description of the “resident alien” not only as a personal feeling of exile within the wider society, but also many times within the church itself. I worship as well in an emergent church as I do in Orthodox liturgy. I’m never quite at home in any context.

There is the threat, after this summer’s General Assembly, that there would be a split within the denomination. However, I am encouraged that much of the conversation among the leadership here at PGF is about how to live into that tension and division within the denomination, rather than finding a “way out.”

One proposal is to re-shape the denomination with non-geographic governing bodies that reflect the divisions over key issues, and would still maintain a wider unity of the denomination. I think there is great wisdom here, and I do hope that it gets some traction. I think it is far more fruitful to the health and faithfulness of the church and its witness than any kind of split we might find. Speaking very broadly, and from my point of view, we need the evangelical passion within the denomination for its insistence on the uniqueness of the gospel and of Jesus Christ. We also need the progressives’ zeal for justice and fairness. There are places where the two find common ground, but they are seemingly rare. “Mission”, in conservative circles, most often means “conversion.” “Mission”, in liberal circles, most often means “compassion.” For me, at least, the division is a false one. Thus the broader denominational tension is a healthy one.

As soon as I say this, though, I know that any such proposal will cause a personal crisis for me. If we are divided along these traditional lines, I’m not sure which way I will fall. If I could do “both/and”, then I’m probably good. But if it’s “either/or”, I remain in a more permanent exile.

And here comes the flaw that I see in the conversation here at PGF: there is an assumption that we are all systematic theologians, that there is no intellectual gap between our assumptions about God and God’s character and the positions we take on the positions of the day. In other words, a conservative theology leads to a conservative worldview; a liberal theology leads to a liberal worldview. I do not think that this is necessarily so, and I do think that there are many of us who cross lines quite fluidly. Two more academic illustrations of my point:

  • In South African theologian John de Gruchy’s book on art in liturgy, he examines the view that John Calvin had about the use of iconography by the church. Calvin saw icons in the light of his strong stand against idolatry and his radical focus on God, and thus opposed the use of religious icons. But what if, de Gruchy wonders, Calvin saw icons in the light of his strong stand on God’s accommodation toward humanity (e.g. incarnation, human language, etc.)? In other words, what if icons were a part of the way that God chooses human ways to communicate heavenly ideas? As systematic and logical and legally minded as Calvin was, even he had tension in his interpretive, intellectual lenses.
  • Richard Hays of Duke Divinity School has written profoundly on the “What Would Jesus Do” ideal in his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament. In it, before he digs into the controversial issues of the day, he sets up his hermeneutical/interpretational lenses from the New Testament. He sees three important ones: cross, community, and new creation. When he looks at the issue of sexuality, for example, he is ultimately convinced by the need for the church to present a different way of being as new creation as a call to traditional standards of sexual behavior. But what if he were to choose another lens, namely community, to be primary? What if it were Christ’s radical call for inclusion and expansion of who is “in” on this particular issue? Would this cause him to look at this issue differently?

I am not a systematic theologian. My theology is strongly evangelical. But the conclusions it leads me to most often (not always) look a lot more like those of so-called liberals. Perhaps I am confused. I am definitely post-modern. But here’s what I’m convinced of theologically: none of the divisions of the church have a monopoly on truth. The PC(USA) cannot be our ultimate eschatology. I myself do not claim to have any authority to speak on “truth”. And, most importantly, I know that living in the tension of friendships with different parts of the Body of Christ has been the most powerful way for me to continue to seek that truth. Dividing in these ways would simply reinforce the fact that we self-ghettoize along theological lines, rarely seeking friendship and/or conversation with those with whom we disagree.

Whatever the future of the denomination might be, my hope is that there would be an intentional way to encourage – and, perhaps, even force – us to seek relationships across traditional boundaries. That, to my mind, would be the best way to benefit from the challenging heart the gospel offers us.