Toni Morrison, Theologian

Toni Morrison’s name at birth was Chloe Ardelia Wofford. “Toni” became her name when she joined the Catholic Church at age 12 and took her baptismal saint’s name from Anthony of Padua. (Morrison was her married name, the one she tried too late to avoid using on her first novel. That fact and many others below are from this interview with Terry Gross.)

St. Anthony is that popular guy whom people ask to intercede for them to find lost things. Far more importantly, in his life he was known for powerful preaching of the Gospel, and for his devotion (as a Franciscan, no surprise) to the sick and the poor. In 1946 he was declared a Doctor of the Church. How appropriate a saint for this author who continually wrote of lost things (and people) found, the sick, the poor, the despised, the abandoned, the crushed, the excluded, all brought into the light of a Love bright enough to expose every hidden thing.

For all that, however, it was maddening when Morrison died and several Catholic authors and bloggers claimed her as Catholic. Yes, she was formed by the Roman Catholic Church, but for Catholics (especially male and white Catholics) to claim her in that way was so wrong, not just for plenty of normal reasons that religions and ideologies shouldn’t claim people who don’t claim them. (Specifically, in the case of Morrison and others, sharing publicly that you like some things Pope Francis has said does not mean you embrace the Roman Catholic Church.) This was even more deeply wrong because it so went against her own voluminous work and its deepest themes.

And now, having lambasted others for claiming Morrison for their church, I will argue that she is a deeply theological writer. I do not just mean “spiritual” in some nebulous way, nor “religious.” She is indeed a writer of works both spiritual and religious, but more specifically she is a theological writer. She writes about God, about how God relates to people, about how people relate to people, she does it well, and she does it in ways that have the power to form other people’s lives and understanding of God and humankind. That’s a theologian.

After Morrison’s death I began reading one of her novels I had missed: Paradise, published in 1997. The following is just one passage which theologians, professional and amateur, would do well to reckon with. The characters Misner and Pulliam are two pastors, representing two factions threatening to split what was once a seemingly idyllic town. The setting is the beginning of a wedding, with bride and groom standing there at the front of the congregation as this scene unfolds:

Suitable language came to mind but, not trusting himself to deliver it without revealing his deep personal hurt, Misner walked away from the pulpit, to the rear wall of the church. There he stretched, reaching up until he was able to unhook the cross that hung there. He carried it then, past the empty choir stall, past the organ where Kate sat, the chair where Pulliam was, on to the podium and held it before him for all to see–if only they would. See what was certainly the first sign any human anywhere had made: the vertical line; the horizontal one. Even as children, they drew it with their fingers in snow, sand or mud; they laid it down as sticks in dirt; arranged it from bones on frozen tundra and broad savannas; as pebbles on riverbanks; scratched it on cave walls and outcroppings from Nome to South Africa. Algonquin and Laplanders, Zulu and Druids–all had a finger memory of this original mark. The circle was not first, nor was the parallel or the triangle. It was this mark, this, that lay underneath every other. This mark, rendered in the placement of facial features. This mark of a standing human figure poised to embrace. Remove it, as Pulliam had done, and Christianity was like any and every religion in the world: a population of supplicants begging respite from begrudging authority; harried believers ducking fate or dodging evil; the weak negotiating a doomed trek through the wilderness; the sighted ripped of light and thrown into the perpetual dark of choicelessness. Without this sign, the believer’s life was confined to praising God and taking the hits. The praise was credit; the hits were interest due on a debt that could never be paid. Or, as Pulliam put it, no one knew when he had “graduated.” But with it, in the religion in which this sign was paramount and foundational, well, life was a whole other matter.

See? The execution of this one solitary black man propped up on these two intersecting lines to which he was attached in a parody of human embrace, fasted to two big sticks that were so convenient, so recognizable, so embedded in consciousness as consciousness, being both ordinary and sublime. See? His woolly head alternately rising on his neck and falling toward his chest, the glow of his midnight skin dimmed by dust, streaked by gall, fouled by spit and urine, gone pewter in the hot, dry wind and, finally, as the sun dimmed in shame, as his flesh matched the odd lessening of afternoon light as though it were evening, always sudden in that climate, swallowing him and the other death row felons, and the silhouette of this original sign merged with a false night sky. See how this official murder out of hundreds marked the difference; moved the relationship between God and man from CEO to supplicant to one on one? The cross he held was abstract; the absent body was real, but both combined to pull humans from backstage to the spotlight, from muttering in the wings to the principal role in the story of their lives. This execution made it possible–freely, not in fear–one’s self and one another. Which what love was: unmotivated respect. All of which testified not to a peevish Lord who was His own love but to one who enabled human love. Not for His own glory–never. God loved the way humans loved one another; loved the way humans loved themselves; loved the genius of the cross who managed to do both and die knowing it.

But Richard Misner could not speak calmly of these things. So he stood there and let the minutes tick by as he held the crossed oak in his hands, urging it to say what he could not: that not only is God interested in you; He is you.

Would they see? Would they?

It’s impossible to name all the talents that made Morrison one of the best, but to me her greatest talent is the way that when she creates a character, she enters that character and sees through their vision, their perspective. Lesser writers warp their characters when they get inside their skin, stretching them out to match the author’s own shape. With Morrison, for all that readers have been taught that writers’ perspectives and their characters’ perspectives are not the same thing, her skill baits the trap for us to think that we now understand what Morrison herself believed, in this case, about the cross. We don’t.

Hopefully, however, we have been forced to question and possibly re-form once again what we ourselves do know. This is what the best theologians have the power to do.

Bonus: My pet (i.e., unsubstantiated) theory is that as Morrison wrote the above passage, she couldn’t resist a dig at a particularly virulent bestseller then topping the charts: Laurie Beth Jones’ Jesus, CEO.

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Love in the Ruins

This week the Illinois Great Rivers Conference of the United Methodist Church has its Annual Conference. I’m not alone in already having disrupted sleep, messed up digestion, and anxiety gathering across my shoulders as we near the gathering.

Our first and thorniest business is to elect delegates to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, our denomination’s global gathering, which will be in Minneapolis from May 5-May 15, 2020. General Conference 2020 is so important because it will likely host the first concrete steps to dismantle the United Methodist Church as an institution. While there are an increasing number of people trying to frame yet another schism of Christ’s one Body as “mitosis,” there are several reasons why we cannot call it that. Reason one: this schism will end some local churches’ ministries due to splits within those local bodies. Reason two: this schism will kill some individual believers’ faith. Reason three: this schism will make the church less able to do works of mercy in the world. Reason four: by this schism we continue to witness to the world that the Church is no different than the world. (We do not love others as ourselves. We do not love across difference. We do not love our enemies. Christ has made no difference for us, so why would anyone want to join us in Christ’s way?)

Finally, mitosis is a term that denies our agency and responsibility. We are not automatically following genetic instructions inside a cell. We are human beings looking at one another and saying we have no need of one another, then deciding to walk apart from one another. The United Methodist Church is pursuing a divorce, and as we elect delegates this week we are deciding who will represent us in our divorce proceedings. Of course it’s causing us anxiety and grief (which may include, yes, anger).

In recent American Christian history, when churches have divorced, some have spent a lot of time and money in court. The Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was decisively responsible for her denomination’s spending tens of millions of dollars in holding onto property. There are reasons to hope that the United Methodist Church will not follow the same path. But again, this makes it clear that this is not mitosis for the whole body’s growth. This is a divorce, and it contains the disputes that accompany a divorce. It contains massive conflict.

Even in 2016 (the most recent regular General Conference, which set the stage for the 2019 special General Conference), although it was clear that competing visions of Christian sexual ethics were going to be central, there was also a sense that the United Methodist Church was bigger than that division, that because of the context of our larger relationship to one another, our love for one another, there might be some hope for reconciliation within the body. In the 2015 Annual Conference, when we (well not me, since I wasn’t eligible to vote that time around) voted, we could and did send a group of delegates which we knew disagreed on human sexual ethics, and we did so with a clear conscience. Yes, there were progressives unhappily represented by conservatives and vice versa, but as a whole, we generally felt accurately represented in our United Methodist democracy.

This time around, however, battle lines seem to be drawn more clearly. The Traditional Plan is official United Methodist teaching. UMC Next officially rejects that teaching. In my Annual Conference, there is at least one major conservative group and one major progressive group trying to make sure they control who goes to General Conference 2020. That’s not what chromosomes do. That’s what people trying to gain the most favorable terms of a divorce for themselves do. That’s what people trying to win do.

We should consider, then, what our Christian faith says about divorce and then what our Christian faith says about winning.

Jesus’ teaching in Mark is that divorce is always a sin, and not only a sin but a sin which births other sins. But the United Methodist Church joins a long tradition (the other Gospels, the epistles, the teaching of the Orthodox Church) of setting Jesus’ teaching in Mark inside the context of Jesus’ whole ministry and teaching. When I recently preached on that teaching in Mark, for instance, I urged my folks to look at how Jesus actually treats the divorced people he meets (most obviously, the woman in John who has been divorced four or five times). With compassion and love, Jesus turns us broken people into those who proclaim our Healer.

Thus The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church 2016 can offer this nuanced approach to marriage and divorce:

God’s plan is for lifelong, faithful marriage. The church must be on the forefront of premarital, marital, and post marital counseling in order to create and preserve healthy relationships. However, when a married couple is estranged beyond reconciliation, even after thoughtful consideration and counsel, divorce is a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness. We grieve over the devastating emotional, spiritual, and economic consequences of divorce for all involved, understanding that women and especially children are disproportionately impacted by such burdens…It is recommended that methods of mediation be used to minimize the adversarial nature and fault-finding that are often part of our current judicial processes, encouraging reconciliation wherever possible.

Although divorce publicly declares that a marriage no longer exists, other covenantal relationships resulting from the marriage remain, such as the nurture and support of children and extended family ties. We urge respectful negotiations in deciding the custody of minor children and support the consideration of either or both parents for this responsibility in that custody not be reduced to financial support, control, or manipulation and retaliation. The welfare of each child is the most important consideration…

Divorce does not preclude a new marriage. We encourage an intentional commitment of the Church and society to minister compassionately to those in the process of divorce, as well as members of divorced and remarried families, in a community of faith where God’s grace is shared by all.

¶161.II.D.


Back in 1968, we United Methodists lacked some premarital counseling, even as we entered into covenant in good faith. In the decades since, we could have used some marital counseling for the ways we chose to relate to one another throughout the regular frustrations that come in every marriage. (Of John Gottman’s “four horsemen” which he claims from his research are the most accurate predictors of divorce, at least Contempt, Criticism, and Stonewalling were recently acted out on General Conference microphones, and Defensiveness has since joined the other three for regular rides across United Methodist blogs and social media.) But I am most struck by the Book of Resolutions‘ claim that there is also such a thing as “post marital counseling.” There is no such thing as post-mitosis counseling, because everything is just fine and both new cells are just fine and natural and even good. But if this is a divorce and we recognize it as a divorce, then we can choose to enter the divorce process grieving together that we could not figure out a way to reconcile. In this way we can end one way of relating with a blessing rather than a curse. We can choose the spirit (or Spirit) with which we approach the divorce process. Because of the Spirit this is possible even if you are mad, sad, and hurt as Hell by all that has come before.

Continuing with the Book of Resolutions‘ understanding, if we recognize what we are choosing to do as divorce, then we can be intentional in moderating its effects on the vulnerable people and groups and even institutions and agencies who will be affected by our decisions. As others have already pointed out, there are ways in which we can choose to support some of our important works of mercy, education, and more, even after the divorce is final. But we have to be intentional about that work. More damage is all that will be done if we do this swiftly, haphazardly, or if we assume things will just work themselves out.

This finally brings us to that theme of “winning.” What does our Christian faith have to say about our will to win? Jesus says the last will be first and the first will be last. Paul says that certain kinds of conflict we enter into with one another as Christians are losses for all involved. Luther helped clarify the vast gulf between the Way of the Cross and the Way of Glory. Trying to “win” at Annual Conference in order to “win” at General Conference is a game everyone loses.

So how do we seek the one and the ways of the one who took a cross as his throne?
1) We tell the truth. (This is a divorce. It isn’t mitosis.)
2) We grieve together with God. (We are breaking up because we are broken.)
3) We invest as much love in our divorce proceedings as possible.

This week, when we choose delegates, we are not choosing champions to battle and win for us (because we only have one champion, and He won by losing everything). We are choosing people we sense have been gifted and called by God for a particular kind of peacemaking, dreaming, and yes, loving our enemies.

Please pray, and as you turn to the Scriptures as part of your discernment, I’d encourage you to look not just for single Bible verses or laws or principles or precepts, but ask God to bring to mind particular saints of the Scriptures, people who show us how to grieve and to hope and to dream and to plan rebuilding even while the house is still on fire. Here are a few places to start: Abraham, Moses, Rahab, David, Esther, Ruth and Naomi, Ezra and Nehemiah, Mary.

Bartimaeus

I am not Bartimaeus.
I am not the son of Timaeus.

When Jesus summons I do not leap up,
I do not leave everything behind,
I do not fly straight to Jesus,
Forgetting that I am blind.

I sit, I consider, I weigh the call,
Weigh it again,
Ponder my options,
Measure my abilities,
Guess my future.

When I stand, I creak, I groan,
Pins, needles, fire,
Spine having forgotten vertical.

I leave nothing behind.
I pack and repack:
Clothes and extra clothes, food, money, keys,
toothbrush, guitar, dishwasher, HOA dues,
401(k), Netflix subscription.

And now my toes stretch, grab earth, pull me
Forward into the dark,
Utmost concern to never stub,
Never stumble, never bruise,
Arms waving high and low,
Scanning for obstacles.
I take stops to rest,
I reverse, then move ahead again,
It takes years.

When I arrive I find
the Son of David has not moved on.
He’s still stopped in the road,
blocking traffic, waiting for me.

He asks me:
“What do you want me to do for you?”

A Vow Too Far (for Now)?

I’ve begun reading Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, edited and with commentary by Brian Kolodiechjuk, M.C. This was the book that shocked many (but not all) at Mother Teresa’s death with its revelation that she had suffered from spiritual darkness and aridity for most of her ministry. But the book starts earlier than that, using her correspondence with her priest/confessor/spiritual director and her archbishop to tell the story of how she was formed and called to the streets of Calcutta.

The first piece of this calling, a “calling within a calling” was a private vow (meaning that she was already a professed nun, and then took a vow beyond her religious vows) she made in April 1942: “I made a vow to God, binding under [pain of] mortal sin, to give to God anything that He may ask, ‘Not to refuse Him anything.’” (p. 28, Kindle edition)

Just to share what this meant to Teresa, I’ll share a longer quote Kolodiechjuk supplies from her “Explanation of the Original Constitutions of the Missionaries of Charity” (p. 29, Kindle edition):

“Why must we give ourselves fully to God? Because God has given Himself to us. If God who owes nothing to us is ready to impart to us no less than Himself, shall we answer with just a fraction of ourselves? To give ourselves fully to God is a means of receiving God Himself. I for God and God for me.”

“Not to refuse God anything.” In theory, that is what being a disciple means. That is, there’s no disciple but the one who refuses Jesus nothing. The followers of Jesus we find in the Gospels and in history show us, however, that we all follow Jesus with daily varying levels of commitment and hourly varying mixtures of faithfulness and unfaithfulness in our deepest places. Sanctification can in this light be defined as our synergistic movement in the Spirit toward becoming those who refuse God nothing, just as the incarnate Son refused the Father nothing.

But I’m afraid.

There’s a common enough joke among Christians that you have to be careful about offering God all, or God might call you to the exact places where you most don’t want to go. In reality, the joke masks anxiety not about places or life conditions, but something at the bedrock: Is God to be trusted? Is God good? If God is actually trustworthy and good and loves me, then truly it wouldn’t matter where I go or what happens to me. But if I doubt those basics, it’s going to be very difficult to refuse God nothing.

We joke because we don’t want to admit that we are all that rescue dog brought home from the shelter who, at the offer of a kind touch, cowers, shakes, and pees himself. We all need a whole lot of healing and patience from a caregiver till we learn to trust. For some of us, we need a whole lot of healing before we even learn not to bite. Our hope is this: God chooses to bring us home knowing all that sometimes difficult road with us, having committed to not toss us back to the streets. Why? Not because God pities us, but because God delights in us. God is that friend you have who always has a new rescue dog, cat, squirrel, pigeon they found and are trying to home.

For now, maybe the question for me from Saint Teresa isn’t, “Will I vow to refuse God nothing?” but “Will I notice what goes on in my rescued heart (and body too) when God draws near?” Am I anxious? Am I afraid? Do I jump back? Or am I comforted? Do I more and more often jump up into God’s lap in affection and trust? After all, trust is just another word for faith. And from our dog’s-eye-view, affection is another word for love.

Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon

These extended excerpts are a way to share Kiese Laymon’s beyond powerful and beyond devastating book, Heavy: An American Memoir. It is at least formally addressed to his mother (the “you” in the first quotation).

I understood that day why you and Grandmama were so hungry for black wins, regardless of how tiny those wins were. For Grandmama, those wins were always personal. For you, the wins were always political. Both of y’all knew, and showed me, how we didn’t even have to win for white folk to punish us. All we had to do was not lose the way they wanted us to.

p. 53

===================================================

I looked at Grandmama and told her I felt like a nigger, and feeling like a nigger made my heart, lungs, kidneys, and brain feel like they were melting and dripping / out of the ends / of my toenails.

“It ain’t about making white folk feel what you feel,” she said. “It’s about not feeling what they want you to feel. Do you hear me? You better know from whence you came and forget about those folk.”

p. 56

===================================================

Before both of us went to sleep, I asked Grandmama if 218 pounds was too fat for twelve years old. “What you weighing yourself for anyway?” she asked me. “Two hundred eighteen pounds is just right, Kie. It’s just heavy enough.”

“Heavy enough for what?”

“Heavy enough for everything you need to be heavy enough for.”

I loved sleeping with Grandmama because that was the only place in the world I slept all the way through the night. But tonight was different.

“Can I ask you one more question before we go to bed?”

“Yes, baby,” Grandmama said, and faced me for the first time since I gave her the notebook.

“What do you think about counting to ten in case of emergencies?”

“Ain’t no emergency God can’t help you forget,” Grandmama told me. “Evil is real, Kie.”

“But what about the emergencies made by folk who say they love you?”

“You forget it all,” she said. “Especially that kind of emergency. Or you go stone crazy. My whole life, it seem like something crazy always happens on Sunday nights in the summer.”

p. 60

===================================================

I’d heard Grandmama whimper over the loss of her best friend and her sisters. I’d heard Grandmama yell at Uncle Jimmy for daring to disrespect her in her house. I’d never heard Grandmama scream while begging the Lord to have mercy on her until that night in the hospital…
With one hand in the pockets of my mesh shorts, and one hand holding hers, I told Grandmama it was going to be okay. Grandmama said she had faith in the white doctor who was taking care of her. She kept calling him “the white-man doctor,” though he was really a short, light-complexioned black man with a dry, red Afro.

“The white-man doctor got my best interest at heart,” she said. “Grandmama will be fine directly.”

The black doctor with the dry red Afro asked me to leave the room because they had to do a small procedure. He said the infection was deeper than he thought. It started in the middle of her head and went down the back of her neck. “We’re gonna help her with this pain,” he told me. “The infection is seeping into her bloodstream.”

I walked out of the room but he didn’t close the door behind me. “Lord Jesus,” Grandmama kept saying before she screamed. “Please have mercy. Please have mercy.” I knew, but didn’t want to admit, why Grandmama was screaming, why the black doctor with the dry red Afro didn’t give her enough anesthetic, why he thought cutting a full inch and a half deep into the back of her scalp was for her own good.

Folk always assumed black women would recover but never really cared if black women recovered. I knew Grandmama would act like she recovered before thanking Jesus for keeping her alive. She would never publicly reckon with damage done to her insides and outsides at the hands of people who claimed to have her best interest at heart. She would just thank Jesus for getting through the other side of suffering. Thanking Jesus for getting us through situations we should have never been in was one of our family’s superpowers.

I spent the night in the room sitting in a chair next to Grandmama’s bed and holding her hand. Grandmama didn’t say a word. She just looked out the window of the room, with her cheek pressed into the thin mattress until the sun came up.

pp. 169-170

As you can see, Heavy is a difficult read, likely even re-traumatizing for some readers. That’s part of what the title means. My initial difficulty when finishing the book and attempting to review it was that I worried for its author. I had a similar experience reading Tara Westover’s Educated: A Memoir last year. A few years before that, it was something by Augusten Burroughs (although this makes me more hopeful). In each of these authors’ works, his or her story has many ups and downs, then things close on an up. In each case, I am left wondering whether this was an editor’s suggestion, whether it was for the purposes of narrative, or whether things really are getting better in some more or less permanent way.

Laymon, who shares his life to the bone and writes like a poet, also reminds me of the confessional poets. This article on that movement names some of its most important figures: John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Silvia Plath, Ann Sexton, W.D. Snodgrass. Of those Berryman, Plath, and Sexton all took their own lives. Lowell (my first favorite poet) was hospitalized multiple times for bipolar disorder. Snodgrass, meanwhile, wrote his first collection out of the experience of being separated from his daughter after his first divorce, and then was married three more times before he died of cancer in 2009. All this frightens me for artists who seem to sweat blood on every page.

It took me two or three days to realize the other piece that unsettles me in Heavy. It’s the same reality I opened with: Is Laymon writing about the 1920s and 1930s or the 1970s and 1980s? Does progress ever come for racial and economic justice? Heavy is not at all a hopeless book, but it makes clear–again back to the meaning of the title–that even to feel hope placed on your shoulders is to bear a heavy load, one which you did not choose, and one which Laymon does not feel free to un-choose.

Read this book, and be disquieted.

Bonus: While you are waiting 38 weeks for your local library hold to bring the book to you, check out this interview with Laymon (beginning at 26:19 with a reading from Heavy) from the always excellent NY Times Book Review Podcast.

Living Under What Authority

Particularly in the wake of the United Methodist Church’s 2019 General Conference, I’m working to progress through that stack of books I’ve carried around in various lists and in the back of my head for at least a decade, those books on theologies of human sexuality, theological anthropology, and Biblical hermeneutics that would give me clarity for myself and language to speak to others. I started with Dale Martin’s Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation, and because I am unable to read one book at a time, I also began N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today. Martin is an anti-foundationalist, while Wright is committed to historical criticism, albeit from a broadly evangelical perspective.

Starting with Martin gave me a particular lens for reading Wright. Martin is basically correct when he charges that Wright defends historical-critical questions so strongly that it’s difficult to know what the Church was doing with its Scriptures between the 2nd or 3rd century and the 18th or 19th century. That is, if the historical methods are the right methods, how was the church faithful in its reading of Scripture between the first couple generations–those who could draw on memory and personal testimony–and the post-Enlightenment creation of the historical-critical method?

It’s particularly disappointing that Wright neglects a real engagement with premodern readings, because Wright’s decision erases so much of historical theology, which is itself largely Biblical commentary, and which might give him some stronger foundations for his own method. (Luckily Christopher A. Hall’s Reading the Scriptures with the Church Fathers exists.) Wright likewise dismisses other more recent theological readings of Scripture, offering major figures–John Webster, Karl Barth, all of Radical Orthodoxy, almost all of postmodernism–only a sentence or three. There are plenty of important thinkers he never mentions at all. The only framework he works with is his own, which is framing the story of Scripture as a five act play: Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus, the Church. While I think Wright made this decision because he wanted to sharpen his focus on his own way forward, I still believe he should have engaged more deeply with others’ thoughts.

What still brings this up to a 4-5 star book after those critiques is that 1) Wright is writing as a pastor to the Church, and this pastoral emphasis shapes every page, and 2) Wright’s conversation about sources of authority in the church is offered through the lens of Richard Hooker and John Wesley.

As a United Methodist pastor turning to Wright while United Methodism appears to be flying toward schism, his writing about how these sources of authority interact is just terrific. He is especially helpful in speaking about how for Hooker and Wesley (and most of the Christian Tradition) reason is a particular kind of reason—not just the ability to think rationally, but reasoning within the Church, with its Scripture. Reason is thus a traditioned form of theological reasoning with the Scriptures. Experience, meanwhile, insists Wright, is no source of authority at all but rather the end of authority, if we take “experience” to mean that my individual experience determines my theology, rather than that experience is an important shaper and affirmer of our theology from other sources of primary authority.

In Wright’s own words (ellipses at the ends of paragraphs are mine, to shorten this lengthy excerpt, but italics are his, as is the bracketed Scripture reference):

For Wesley himself, scripture remained the primary authority; the “experience” upon which he insisted was the living experience of God’s love and the power of the Holy Spirit, through which what the Bible said was proved true in the life of the believer. It is quite an illegitimate use of all this to see “experience” as a separate source of authority to be played off against scripture itself, though this move is now frequent, almost routine, in many theological circles (“Scripture says…tradition says…reason says…but experience says …and so that’s what we go with”)…

Actually, for a start, “scripture, tradition, and reason” were never the same kind of thing. The image of the stool with three [or four] matching legs is itself misleading. They are not so much like apples, pears, and oranges as like apples, elephants, and screwdrivers. As we have seen, a long line of theologians from Aquinas through Hooker to many writers today would insist that “tradition” is the legacy of what the church has said when reflecting on scripture, and “reason” is the rule of discourse by which such reflection is saved from random nonsense and integrated into a holistic view of God and the world. This too, however, can only be part of the story, and might imply a more solid and fixed form for “tradition” and “reason” than the story of the church warrants…

But there is a more profound problem to be addressed, indeed a logical problem. The “experience” of Christians, and of churches, is itself that over which and in the context of which the reading of scripture exercises its authority. It is precisely because “experience” is fluid and puzzling, and because all human beings including devout Christians are prey to serious and multilayered self deception, including in their traditions and their reasoning (as Jeremiah lamented, the heart is deceitful above all things [17: 9]), that “authority” is needed in the first place. That, too, is one of the main things we discover by “experience”! To speak of “experience” as an authority, then, is to admit that the word “authority” itself is being dismantled, unable now to function either as “court of appeal” in the old wooden sense or, in the more biblical sense, as “that through which God exercises Kingdom-establishing power.” That dismantling— the muzzling of the challenge of God to the idolatrous world— was one of the main (anti-Christian) aims of the Enlightenment, continued in a different mode within postmodernity. If “experience” is itself a source of authority, we can no longer be addressed by a word which comes from beyond ourselves. At this point, theology and Christian living cease to be rooted in God himself, and are rooted instead in our own selves; in other words, they become a form of idolatry in which we exchange the truth about God for a human-made lie. This, or something like it, is what we find with the popular modern varieties of Gnosticism, in which the highest religious good is self-discovery and then being “true” to the self thus discovered. But to elevate that imperative (now radically challenged by postmodernity, though this is not usually noticed in the relevant discussions) to the supreme status now claimed for it is to take a large step away from all known forms of orthodox Christianity…

The positive force of the appeal to “experience” is much better expressed in terms of the context within which we hear scripture. Experience, as the necessary subjective pole of all knowing, is the place where we stand as we hear God’s word, know his love, and understand his wisdom. It is vital that Christians should “experience” the power and love of God in their own lives. This is never simply a mechanical application of “God’s authority,” as though human beings were mere ciphers rather than image-bearers. And, precisely because of the problem of evil within us as well as within the world (the problem which the Enlightenment sought to belittle), we need to be addressed and challenged within that place, that subjectivity, not simply informed that we are all right as we are.

pp. 101-104, Kindle edition.

By the end of this book, it was not that I agreed with every particular of Wright’s argument, but that I knew Wright has provided a set of arguments that are worthy of our engagement. And I greatly appreciated being reminded that the voice of someone, even a bishop, of a different tradition could shed light on the issues affecting the United Methodist Church. Even with some level of breakup on the horizon for the United Methodist Church as we know it, it was an encouraging witness to the mysterious unity that forever marks Christ’s “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” Body.

Our Hope Was Never in General Conference, Part I

Perhaps like you, I’m trying to figure out what General Conference meant. One question for me is the question of how faithfully the Church is able to listen, to hear, and then to proclaim the voice of the God who speaks in our midst.

Every Council of the Church (or General Conference of the United Methodist Church) has been an attempt to hear the voice of God speaking among the people of God. The whole work of theology is not only words about God but a humble (and sometimes not-so-humble) attempt to speak to God’s people on behalf of God. Every sermon is attempting to do this same work. That is to say, today I’m certainly on-board with God still speaking. A whole lot of major life decisions rest on that conviction. A whole lot of every week of my life rests on that conviction.

I also have experienced the troubles of God speaking, or at least the troubles of the way God has chosen to speak. It’s Biblical. Moses meets with God on top of a mountain which God’s presence makes look like a volcano, and not only do the people not hear what God is saying up there, but they are so unconvinced that God might be speaking in the midst of all that fire, cloud, and noise, that they decide Moses is dead.

In the New Testament, at Jesus’ baptism, God says, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” It couldn’t be clearer! Unless you were an onlooker who heard no words, just thunder. Adding to these difficulties, in Christian communities I have experienced firsthand that sometimes people speak for God, and it is a way to short-circuit communal discernment. It’s a trump card, ending all possibility of conversation, whether or not the person had good intentions in sharing what they believe God has spoken.

Wesley and the rest of the early Methodists practiced “holy conferencing” in recognition that God speaks through people to other people, that our understanding of God is clarified and refined by relationship and conversation with one another. It’s a beautiful insight, but it doesn’t make things easier. Over time, “holy conferencing” became Annual Conference, General Conference, Jurisdictional Conference. Not only did a lot of the holy go, but a whole lot of the actual conferring with one another did too.

The 39 Articles of Religion in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer had a nifty Article XXI, which both the American Methodists, by Wesley’s own choice, and the Episcopal Church left behind:

“General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.”

I don’t know enough about Wesley’s theology or internal deliberations to know why he removed Article XXI as he slimmed the 39 Articles down into the 24 Articles of his Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America (1784). I at least know that revolutionary American Methodists and prospective Methodists didn’t want to be told anything about princes. I wish I knew if Wesley was so much of the Tradition that he couldn’t bear to question the teachings of the seven ecumenical councils (the seven meetings of the Church before East and West excommunicated each another), which this Article does.

In the wake of our General Council a week ago, I wonder what was lost with Article XXI. Practically, this article reminded us that when people get together to hear God, we don’t stop being people. Yes, God calls us to listen, to love, to be holy. But God knows we are going to miss the message sometimes. And still God chooses this way to speak.

Article XXI reminds us that the Creeds came from humans wrangling with what they believed God was speaking in their midst. I believe every word of the Nicene Creed, and I believe that God spoke to us and still speaks to us through the work of the church councils which crafted those words. We say it every week at some of our churches, but we have no clue about and give no thought to what arguments went into it, what punches were thrown, what swords were drawn, what relationships were broken by those arguments, and who gave up on the Church or its Lord altogether, because they could not take the way that Christians were warring with one another any longer.

If I’m not careful, I can find myself assuming that the Nicene Creed (and other dogmatic declarations of the Church over time) descended from Heaven on a cloud attended by an angelic choir. But the Son of God didn’t come to us except by becoming a human being. Scripture didn’t come to us except by human hands. Likewise our Councils and Creeds are products of divine and human cooperation.

To return to the language of Article XXI…If the men who made up the General Councils of the Church were not all governed by the Spirit and the Word of God, then General Conference delegates are not all governed by the Spirit and Word of God. If General Councils may err, then General Conferences may err too. If General Councils have erred, then General Conferences have erred in the past and will continue to err in the future.

The difficult part is not to admit that the process is human or to admit that we will sometimes get it wrong. The difficult part is to continue to Conference with one another when we know we will sometimes be wrong, sometimes deeply wrong, sometimes hurtfully wrong.

For me, that makes me hopeful, because it means General Conferences and their decisions are not our hope. It is not just wrong but idolatrous on our part to have ever made General Conference our hope. God is the only one who will ever remain faithful, no matter how faithful or unfaithful we are. That, after all, has always been the whole of the Gospel. God’s love has always been about God’s eternal choice to close the distance between us, to turn even the enemies of God into friends, by the Son’s free offer of his own death on the cross.

If we know that General Conference (or Annual Conference or Jurisdictional Conference or Charge Conference, for us conference-mad Methodists) is not our hope, then we can come together not seeking to control the proceedings, or one another, or God. Rather we come together most of all to learn of the love of the God which has been revealed in Jesus Christ, to experience the Spirit who keeps speaking to a people who are hard of hearing, hard of heart, and slow to respond.

And for those who come to this idealized end thinking that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for General Conference 2020 to be truly holy and truly a confer-ence, you’re right. But nothing is impossible for God.

[3/14/19 edit: There’s now a Part II.]