Conjectures from This Guilty Bystander — Part III
The church is always undergoing change. A distinctive of Protestantism is said to be ecclesia semper reformans, semper reformanda. Must United Methodism serve as a painful example of what happens when the Protestant Principle is lost by Protestants? The core of those who “Protested” was that “the church is to be reformed and is always reforming“? Our United Methodist divisions are expressed in regional ways, in varied theological expressions, in cultural differences. Many of these differences have hardened into the cured-cement animosities that look more like some bitter family feud than honest and respectful conversation among those who represent different expressions as members of the body of Christ open to reform.
In this we are reduced to binaries, to dualisms that are rooted in accumulated grievances. I know them well — it was the stew in which I was marinated as a child and young adult. One side is the “Holiness” side of Methodism. Holiness can be a great gift and a great danger. There is some cause for these folks to feel wounded. Too often Asburians were all too easily dismissed as “fundamentalists” and excluded from the table. Sadly, the distance between holiness and fundamentalism has diminished. Today much of what is supported by a group called the Wesleyan Covenant Association is more like a shallow Calvinism, a fundamentalism of the worst kind, that suggests that some are destined to be saved (themselves) and some damned (those who differ). What has been lost is significant… as the dance toward purity focuses on one group and seems to miss a call to repentance and welcome for all.
Okay, I have been lumped with the Progressives on the issues that divide the church. Yes, I stand proudly in that tradition, but it does not fully capture who I am or my faith journey. — It is, I believe the appropriate place for Twenty-First Century followers of Jesus, shaped by Wesleyan-Arminian theological frames, to stand. AND, this stance is also one that welcomes those who differ, who will struggle to continue to move toward new understandings and expressions of the faith. I continue to plow my way slowly through Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, starting over again and again, and/or dipping into this tome in middle sections. Most helpful to me is reading the last two chapters. Taylor speaks of alternatives to a mindless, grinding secularity. He writes of the gift of CONVERSION for persons and our structures. How might the conversation change if “traditionalists” and “progressives” reclaimed the value of personal experience alongside a holiness that reforms the nation?
A favorite place for reflection and renewal is New Harmony, Indiana. Here, in the 19th Century, the Rappites and Harmonists lived in utopian communities. A sign in the heart of that village speaks of these communities as mere “attempts.” These were more than “attempts” at community. New Harmony gave witness as a center of early commerce along the Wabash and Ohio rivers. New farming techniques were established here. Here is the place where the idea of free libraries was established and where women were educated, voted and held elected office, long before there were suffragettes. Attempts at community? Nonsense. Call them instead a “foreshadowing,” or “incubators of renewal” or “test plots” for the reforming of our society.
Is not the division in United Methodism like the political and ideological divide in the United States? Suffice it to say, Methodists have, since the 19th Century, mirrored the larger trend lines in the nation. From our division over slavery that anticipated the Civil War, to the establishment of the United Nations following WWII, Methodism played a role and modeled a future that sought to make space to all who sought a safer, less tyrannical world. (Where else would the language of “General Secretary” derive for the leaders of our agencies in recent decades.) Just as in earlier epochs, our optimism got ahead of the realities of human sinfulness… and, yes, the need for ongoing accountability and repentance.
Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander offers a model for holding both a prophetic and self-critical stance. He speaks of the illusory view that monastic life as somehow superior, or more Godly, or even that different from the non-monastic experience. Rather he calls on all, everywhere, to look and listen for God at work in the world beyond their particular location or culture.
He writes, “John Wu is a man of profound and Zen-like humor, a humor which adds to the depth of his Christianity… He spoke to us in the monastery and said blandly: “You monks can be happy and you can laugh, in this monastery, since you know that nothing worse can happen to you.” I wish some of us had the sense to see it that way. When one of the monks asked him what he thought was most “dangerous” to American monasticism he did not reply “love of comfort” or anything like that, but “a spirit of pragmatism.” Bull’s-eye!” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton, pp 231-232.)
Mertin writes: “Where custom and law systematically conceal rights and truth, then the Holy Spirit inspires men to carry out actions that violate custom and law in order to bear witness to truth. Even in their unjust judgment, truth and right become clear” (p. 228).
The church is always undergoing change — and so should those of us who are among the baptized.