Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Should GC Delegates Have to Demonstrate Theological Qualifications Beforehand?

People who seek to become naturalized citizens of the United States must pass a test to qualify for the privilege of reciting the citizenship oath.  And it’s an oral test (see http://www.uscis.gov).  No guessing on multiple choice questions.

Still worrying about the fallout from the 2012 United Methodist General Conference: what if potential delegates had to pass a test to qualify for election?  Has someone already thought of this?  One answer might be, “Yes, preparation for church membership and/or ordination should qualify a person.”  Oh, would that it were so!

A quick narrative detour: years ago I was invited to collaborate with another pastor on a “What United Methodists Believe” class in our local congregation.  We expected a handful of people and we agreed to go for 4 weeks.  We had more than 50 people (a right good number for our community) and we extended the 4 weeks to 6 in order to accommodate people’s questions and interest.  We had a lively time.

At the end of the study a dear sister in Christ approached me and said (I quote), “I’ve been a Methodist for more than 50 years and I didn’t know any of this stuff.”

She was a member in good standing.  She could have been elected a delegate to GC.  How many delegates go with lots of experience in the UM system but little to no awareness of our theological tradition?  Shouldn’t we be at least  somewhat unsettled by this state of affairs?

I can imagine two questions raised in protest:

1.  Just what is “United Methodist” theology?  Good question.  Could we start with the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith and have people study “Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task?” (Book of Discipline)?  And could we finally make somebody show us how to use the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral?”

But I digress…

2. Could we not just as well say that there are “United Methodist” theologies?  Of course, but simply asserting the fact does not move us toward resolving any of the issues rending our ecclesial fabric.

If General Conference – as the only body that speaks officially for the entire denomination – is going to function properly, should we not demand that people who serve as delegates be at least minimally theologically qualified to do so?  Notice how the pragmatic (a well-functioning General Conference) is affected by seemingly unrelated academic content.  Notice the link between doing and thinking.  Much thinking goes on before and at General Conference.  But are enough people able to think with the the necessary theological tools in order to fulfill their obligations as delegates?

We don’t have to draw “theology” here too narrowly.  Some people worry that when others – in other words, academics like me – start making references to theology, hair-splitting obfuscations follow that lead to more division rather than less.  But honestly, could we be any more divided than we are short of actually dividing?

Maybe it’s time to try theology!   I have to wonder if we could not avoid some of the problems bedeviling us if delegates had an adequate knowledge of the implications of their decisions relative to basic Christian and United Methodist beliefs.

So I entertain what likely seems to many United Methodists a ridiculous question: Shouldn’t we make our delegates pass a basic theology test in order to qualify?  If you think it preposterous, I refer you back to the narrative detour.

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May 16, 2012 Posted by | Doctrine/Theology, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Emotional Impact of Good Thinking

There is a long practice (or prejudice) in Christian history that separates “head” and “heart.”  It comes to us most strongly, perhaps, from the Pietist movement that began in Germany in the 17th century.  People who identify themselves as “evangelical” know this terrain very well.  We pietist evangelicals use this kind of language commonly to describe inauthentic religion (“mere” head knowledge) and authentic religion (heart knowledge).  I don’t like this trade-off and I’m sure I’m not the only one who doesn’t.  The head-heart trade-off is a false dichotomy.

It turns out that good thinking involves having the right kind of feelings, a point to which Christians need to pay close attention.  We need, therefore, to quit talking about “head knowledge” versus “heart knowledge.”

I rather feel like I’m stating the obvious here, but let me try out this idea anyway.  Let’s try to notice the difference between between two aspects of learning.  “Learning” can mean something like cognitive mastery – I “get” (i.e. understand and can manipulate) an idea and can make use of it in other ideas.  I’m afraid that, usually when we talk about learning doctrine, we put it in this framework.  But (by itself) it isn’t learning.  It is reductionistic and looks much like the “head knowledge” we decry.

If we follow the usual path, at this point we switch to “heart knowledge” for the corrective, but it is precisely here that we start going wrong.  We go wrong because with “heart knowledge,” sound doctrine (good thinking) tends to get downplayed.  Oh, yes, we know that believing the right things matters, but really it matters mostly to prove our orthodoxy, our being on the “right side” of a controversy.  For spirituality, by contrast, what  really matters is how one feels and what one does.  Does one feel love for Jesus?  Does one do what Christians are supposed to do (go to church, tithe, feed the poor, etc.)?

If we want to work on “heart knowledge” we tend to look to the spiritual disciplines to help us.  So, we read books on prayer and mysticism, or fasting, or some other practice.  We tend not to read books on theology, partly because “theology” has become so technical that only professional academics can use the lingo.

So we pietist evangelicals fall off the log the other direction and reduce the Christian faith to “heart knowledge.”   In truth – and it’s critically important that we “get” this point –  “learning” something means doing the hard cognitive work for understanding and being taken by, possessed by, the truth of God’s revelation.  It is still mental and conceptual, but it is more than mere mastery of concepts.  The ideas become personal – the will has yielded and “made it personal” in a more-than-merely-cognitive way.  In learning, I’m not merely manipulating an idea.  That idea permeates my whole being.   Clearly, this sort of learning affects our emotional tone and we become, over time, different, renewed, transformed people.

If my chain of thought is sound, it means we Christians need to spend a lot more time with doctrine/theology: reflectively, ponderingly, persistently, leisurely, slowly, prayerfully.

December 28, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Religion | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Stunting Pragmatism

I’ve been bothered for a long time by the impatience that many Christians seem to show about the intellectual content part of the faith.   Since I’m a college professor, I could be a suspect for the “intellectual elitism” charge.  I hope it’s not true of me, and I think it is not.  

I’m reading a book about St. Augustine, just good and started.  In describing Augustine’s spiritual vision, the author, Thomas Martin, writes, “Augustine concludes his arguably most profound theological exploration, On the Trinity, with a prayer, one that serves as a vivid reminder that for [Augustine] not only are spirituality and theology inseparable, but that both are deeply plunged into the mystery of God,” (Martin, Our Resltess Heart, p. 51).   

Theology and spirituality are inseparably linked.  I totally agree.  Our pragmatism, our hurry, gets in the way of effective Christian spirituality.  You don’t have to be a “great theologian” to think deeply, theologically.  Slowing down to think cannot but help.  

I’m not interested in turning everybody into contemplatives.  Some people are just plain doers.  But even they need to slow down and think.  I believe, if we did/do, we’d have a more productive Christian life.  And maybe gain some self-awareness.  And maybe even become better witnesses.

Slowing down to think actually has a beneficial practical effect.  That’s the irony.  

What do you think?  Are American Christians too pragmatic?

January 30, 2009 Posted by | The Church | , , , | 1 Comment