March 6th, 2019

hound of heaven

In order to believe, first you have to believe

A friend announced on FB that he was "evolving" on the subject of the ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexuals in The UMC. I expect more of this. The UMC is in extreme pain right now, and nobody wants to be left holding the spear that has pierced its vitals.

A lot of people "evolve" on all things LGBTQ when someone they know and love "comes out" as gay or bisexual or transgender or something. They fear to lose their relationship with their loved one -- and sometimes, there is more than just an implicit threat that they might -- so they quickly endorse everything said loved one claims or does. They go from denial to justification in rapid order.

Side note: I have a cousin in prison for murder for hire (she was on the procuring end, not the killing end). Her mother, my aunt, is the last person to still maintain her innocence: "She was railroaded by a corrupt DA," and all that. This refusal to face facts is understandable, but it's still short of the claim that "some people just need killin'." But there are people who will go even there for their loved ones.

Anyway, my point is, there's an awful lot of confirmation bias involved in all our values. Most of our arguments for or against things -- religious, political, even scientific -- are all given to convince ourselves, not other people. And lest you think I'm exempting myself from that, let me point out to you that the Apostle Paul makes precisely this argument in his thesis statement in the Letter to the Romans:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, "He who through faith is righteous shall live" (Romans 1:16-17).
That expression, "through faith for faith" (Greek: ek pisteós eis pistin) is one of the most difficult to express in English, and lots of Bible translations and paraphrases do a really poor job of getting it across. Which is why you still need human interpreters to preach and teach it; the bald statement in print doesn't explain itself.

Paul here is getting at the same kind of thing that the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews was getting at when he said, "whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him" (Hebrews 11:6b). In order to believe in Christ -- that is, to put your trust in him -- first you have to believe in him; that is, you have to believe that he can do what he says he can do before you can believe that he'll do it for you. A faith that it's true, or might be true, or that you at least would like it to be true is necessary before you can come to believe that it is, in fact, true -- which means, experiencing it as true.

Which is why no evangelism is of any account until and unless the Holy Spirit opens the mind and heart of the skeptic or otherwise unbelieving person to receive what God has to give. Faith is not something we do, it is a gift God gives. Then we go about arguing ourselves into accepting all the propositions that support our acceptance of that gift. Generally speaking, we don't work it out first, and then believe; we believe, then justify our conversion.

So for what it's worth, let me say, I would be glad to go along to get along. I find it very painful and distasteful to be on the outs with so many people who have decided that X or Y is just peachy-keen. I stand out in the crowd, and my standing in the eyes of those whose good opinion I would like to retain is often lessened. But I'm as tied to my data as any good scientist. Every time my values are challenged (whether religious, political, moral, or what have you), I sit down to re-work the problem. I go over all the data. I count the costs. And in the case of Scriptural morality, I keep winding up in the same place. I just can't make the Bible say what it manifestly does not say.

Oh, I've "evolved" on many things, including some things in the Bible. But integrity demands that I try to read what the writers actually said, not what I wish they had said. And what they say is plain enough. So, even though all my friends should burn the pinch of incense in salutation to the genius of the Emperor, I just can't.

Death and Rebirth (maybe)

From all that I'm reading, I think that within two years, The United Methodist Church as we have known it will start to split up. Quite a few prominent voices in the church are suggesting that we do so now, that we take the opportunity to negotiate a division of assets and a setting up of separate organizations before General Conference meets in May, 2020.

I'm not sanguine on that possibility. That would take humility, grace, and the facing of many painful facts. Tough enough when there are no egos involved. And even if people are ready to deal, there's not a lot of time left before we reach the deadline for legislative petitions to GC20 (some time this summer). But what are the alternatives to such an orderly and gracious process?

If we just kick off the second half of the match between progressives and traditionalists, we're screwed either way. If the traditionalists prevail again, the chances of which are better than even right now, I can't see the progressives accepting it. Various large chunks of United Methodism will begin to peel off. They are functionally separate now; it wouldn't take much to simply formalize the process.

And if the progs reverse the victory of the trads next year? I think that would be the equivalent of pulling a barbed spearhead back out the wrong way. It would tear all the muscles and big veins on its way out. The Africans, certainly, would probably disaffiliate from the whole. A large minority of the American trads, including perhaps several whole Annual Conferences, will leave, too. We could easily wind up with not two, but three or more successor denominations. And the legal hassles would continue to plague us for years.

Unless God has a miracle up his sleeve, I don't see any likely scenario yielding a functionally whole UMC after GC20. Now, I believe in miracles, but assuming that one will come along and rescue you before you go smash is poor planning. On the other hand, I do think we can count on God bringing good out of evil, and rebirth following the death of earthly hopes.

Whatever comes out of GC20, God will be with us. What matters now is how we conduct ourselves in the playing out of things. If you want the church you eventually wind up with to be blessed by God, you don't want its (re-)creation to be marred by hatred and skullduggery, at least not yours.

In Genesis, we read of the parting of Jacob and Laban. They set up a memorial stone and said, "The Lord watch between thee and me while we are absent one from another." This is called the Mizpah Blessing. What we often miss in quoting this, however, is how deeply Jacob and Laban disliked and distrusted each other. They were glad to be quit of each other. Their witness stone basically marked a boundary each was agreeing to stay on the other side of, and you could translate their mutual blessing as "Remember, the Lord is watching when our backs are turned."

But however they did it, and with what feelings, they parted in peace and quit scheming against each other. And the children of Jacob became the children of Israel when he received his new name on the way back to Canaan. Maybe when we quit fighting each other, the fragment we inherit will find a new name and a new wholeness on our way to where we need to go.