Saturday, June 29, 2019

Christians and the Future with Global Climate Change

Throughout Christian history, official theologians--whatever I mean by that--as well as the common person have often reasoned using a "God of the gaps" logical method.  As in, "We can't explain or imagine how this could be, unless God..."  William Paley's 'Clock Maker' analogy to counter the then growing momentum of evolutionary theory is the classic example: eyes and other parts of animal bodily function are simply too complex to imagine developing without a maker, like a clock is simply too complex to imagine without a clock maker.  Paley, accidentally, proved the follies of backward and unimaginative thinking, especially for religious persons.  When a "God of the gaps" is debunked, as it regularly has been, religious persons who hold such theology are put in the awkward position of either rejecting their God or rejecting reality (both of which, as far as I'm concerned, are the same).  Yet despite the routine defeat of the "God of the gaps," of backward and unimaginative thinking, Christians and perhaps persons of other religions still, on the whole, haven't learned the lesson.  We still reason, discern, decide and act based only on what we know and not on what is unknown but could be.

I'll get around to the environment and global climate change, but I think this is a grand opportunity to bring up a pet thought experiment of mine: what if there are aliens?  What will Christians do then?  After centuries of claiming that God created our world and we humans specially, if people from some faraway galaxy who don't look at all like us show up, then I imagine that most people will choose one of three options: 1) the world is ending because the aliens are going to attack us and it will look like Revelation; 2) the Bible must be wrong, so God must be wrong; 3) rapidly scramble to invent some other theology and look, rightfully, terribly silly to the rest of the world.  None of those options are great.  It would be better to instead create a theology now that incorporates the possibility of other intelligent lifeforms in the universe.  Otherwise we'd be left with a classic no-good-terrible choice.  If developing a theology that thinks ahead to incorporate the possibility of aliens sounds like a compromise, well, it's certainly not as much a compromise as rapidly scrambling if an alien were to greet us.  So as not to risk the rejection of God or the rejection of reality, we shouldn't reason, discern, decide and act only on what we know now but should instead reason, discern, decide and act in ways that also incorporate the unknown and what could be.

 This brings us to the inimitable problem of global climate change.  Of course, there are those who still deny the severity of the problem or even that it exists.  Doing so is, logically and frankly, silly.  If we're concerned about jobs, then combating the problem will simply transfer jobs from one set of industries to another set; and the risk of not combating the problem is great.  If the danger is as great as scientists say, then my three and one-year olds are entirely screwed.  If the scientists are right, it is the greatest problem and threat to human existence.  Why not look ahead to the problem now?  Indeed, why didn't we look ahead to possible damage of the environment generations ago?

As Christians it seems we have taught the world that what is, is good and will last forever, and what is not, is bad and won't ever come.  If those are the conditions under which we reason, discern, decide and act, then we needn't ever plan for harmful consequences.  We can roll out new technologies with great expectations for increased production and luxury but without worry about any possible footprint.  Carson's The Silent Spring and the so-called revolution it sprang don't seem to have dented prevailing modes of thought.  Yet because of Carson's work and the now unanimous scientific record on global climate change, we know that we should have known better.  Any time we introduce into nature a chemical or gas that is unnatural, non-native, or in higher quantities than nature typically produces, we should stop and think far longer than we ever have.  To you and me that probably seems commonsense now but it wasn't before.  Still, though, we should have known better.  Of course, we didn't know better, because we were and are operating under a false mode of reasoning, discerning, deciding and acting.  The weight of Christian theology and living for the past two thousand years has convinced us that it's impossible to know better except in hindsight.  Because we've hidden behind bad theology and reasoning, we're now in a dreadful state.  "We should have known better" can't help us now. 

Regardless, I have hope.  The reason for my hope may sound rather pessimistic to you, however, so prepare yourself.  I have hope because of a clever story by Isaac Asimov, "Night."  Asimov's story is of a people who have never experienced night because of their three suns but now, for the first time in hundreds and hundreds of years, all three suns will set at the same time and there will be night.  It's the end of the world!... or so the people think.  Thus, naturally, most people descend into chaos.  One scientist, however, has been doing his research and discovers that, actually, this is not the first time a developed civilization on that spot has experienced a night.  That previous civilization--and perhaps there were more than one--also descended into chaos thinking that the world was ending.  The scientist's discovery, of course, proves that night is not the end of the world and the people should instead plan for ways to endure the night and come out the other side intact.  Like with most other things he wrote, Asimov's story is brilliant.  It's also relevant.  There are people out there, myself included, who believe, with some supporting evidence, that developed civilization appeared prior to the last ice age.  The Sphinx in Egypt, for instance, could date to many years prior.  Unfortunately, we are too obsessed with one of two story lines to accept such a dating: either we believe that humans have progressed over time and that we, right now, are the height of human progress, and therefore everything before now must have been worse, making the Sphinx and other similar buildings and sites a great mystery; or we mostly agree with the first argument but can't deny the existence of certain structures and, therefore, there must have been aliens.  Both are ridiculous.  Humans have always been humans and thus capable of great things. 

All of this is important, while possibly sounding crazy to some, because whether the alternative history of the Sphinx and human civilization is correct--that, because humans are wonderful creatures, we could have developed civilizations in an advanced way with advanced knowledge well before our history books, which deny human greatness, tell us, possibly even prior to the last ice age--we are on the brink of destroying ourselves again.  If you've ever seen the movie, The Day After Tomorrow, you should know that the science present in that movie is accurate.  Indeed it is possible that the climate change so much, particularly if our oceans warm, that certain climate functions simply cease and the Earth responds with a massive counterattack.  As the movie hints at, there is evidence that is how the last ice age began, suddenly and ferociously.  Suddenly and ferociously enough that most signs of civilization would disappear.  Again, whether any of this is correct or not, we are on the brink of destroying ourselves and we are ignoring the danger.  Whether an ice age suddenly destroys us or if we gradually come to be living in a desert, but only realize it at the last second, it seems to me that we won't have much time to react before our night begins.  Yet part of the reason I've come to believe in an alternative history of humanity that respects our potential as creatures is that we can then use Asimov's story as a source of hope: yes, we will destroy ourselves, but we can leave notes and traces behind so that future scientists can discover what we've done and experienced and do better the next time around; to analyze what went wrong and develop technology and 'progress' harmoniously with our environment.  Our night is not far away, we are not responding quickly enough, but we can start preparing for the future beyond.

I thank shows like Ancient Aliens and other related 'alternative' history programs for reminding us of the type of technology that past civilizations have used.  Obviously, we could all do without the assumption that humans are and were not capable of advanced knowledge and techniques, including a spiritual and intellectual connection to nature to discover the places with strange phenomenon.  We need not assume that aliens must have created a star gate in those places or handed down knowledge because we humans are amazing and spiritual beings.  Instead we can simply admire in awe what we've done and try hard to learn from our past accomplishments. 

Learning from our past accomplishments, rather than merely gawking at them as unsolvable mysteries or the work of aliens, would teach us that the Egyptians and other civilizations hardly ever built anything grand and awesome, from the pyramids around the world to Stonehenge to the Sphinx to Pumapunku, without some nod to deep natural knowledge.  Spirituality often also plays a major role at these places, thus tying together nature and spirit, the body and soul.  There also exists evidence that many ancient structures and techniques were intended either to produce zero impact energy or connect us to or remind us of the natural electronic and life-giving energy present on our amazing planet.  Whether any ancient structures or techniques were ever able to harness natural energy or not almost doesn't matter.  What matters is the clear intention to use what already exists rather than producing anew.  What matters is the clear intention to preserve and enhance our relationship with the environment that gives us life. 

Let's say that we have progressed in knowledge as well as technology since the ancients.  If that is the case, then obviously what might have been out of reach for ancient Egyptians, of actually harnessing real energy from the planet without damaging it at the same time, should now be within reach.  At the very least, we can promise future civilizations, after our planet has reset and we humans are hopefully still alive but in a reduced state and can discover our notes and traces, that indeed they can and will develop technology capable of producing energy without harming the environment.  Of course, past humans may have tried the same, if I'm right about things, and future humans may not care what we have to say to them.  I can imagine our future selves saying, "Well, no worries, we can use coal-powered factory plants because we'll do so in moderation and not destroy the planet," a hundred years before things get well out of hand.  Still, if our future selves are able to put human history in perspective by looking back at us, then waiting a couple of hundred years before using energy-producing technology or chemicals of any kind might not be that big of a deal.  They might be convinced to wait in order to ensure longevity rather than short-term gain.

No one can predict what someone else will do, obviously, especially given a different background, but leaving behind notes and traces of what we've done and what should be done to avoid our fate would at least give our future selves a chance.  If we are unable to protect ourselves, as looks more and more likely, by living in greater harmony with our planet and our spiritual nature, then we at least need to help future civilizations make that a fixture of society.  Civilization cannot long continue ignoring our human spirituality or our natural connection to our environment.

Where do Christians come back into the story?  Well, let's first acknowledge that faith in Christ may not survive the destruction of our planet because that destruction will be associated with Christianity.  Our way of doing theology has been so poor that it has led us to believing that God created the world for us that we might use it however we want no matter what.  We have long misinterpreted the "dominion" and "subdue" in our creation story.  Those words, as well as the general tone and meaning of Genesis 1-3, actually command that we care for the earth as it was created, that we take on the role of co-creators with God to maintain and sustain the beauty and abundance of our world rather than plunder it for our own gain.  Hence, while many complain that the Hollywood movie Noah, with Russell Crowe, is not biblically correct, it actually is in many ways that we have since forgotten (not to mention that it follows the Book of Enoch rather closely). 

Having acknowledged our theological and practical wrongdoing, Christians must begin doing theology a new way and be the voice of Creation reasoning.  Simultaneously we must incorporate the unknown and mysterious into how we reason, discern, decide and act, acknowledging that our God Three-in-one is a mystery and has always asked us to be okay with mystery (think of Job, especially, but also the creation story itself), as well as use that theological grounding to strongly teach, remind, and encourage our fellow journeyers that we humans and the world around us are capable of great things--and capable of great destruction. 

Christians are perhaps best poised to fill this role of modeling and encouraging harmonious environmental living that is spiritual and life-giving in every way.  When we don't misinterpret our creation story, we see that God's creation plays a central role in our relationship with God throughout the Bible.  Sinful acts have consequences for nature as well, often with the earth crying out; on the other hand, the earth participates in salvation as well.  We believe that what God created was created so that we might have a divine space in and on which we could walk with God.  Our faith is not the only one that calls for a bond between human and earth but it is the only one, as far as I know, that suggests the bond should be central to who we are and how we relate to the divine as well as encouraging a striving with the divine.  Whereas Buddhism, and other faiths, does teach living harmoniously with the environment, it does not also teach that our inclination to strive forward is good.  Buddhism instead teaches an emptying.  Christianity could learn a lot from Buddhism, and indeed the two faiths are more similar at their core than many adherents realize, but Christianity acknowledges that at the core of our soul is a desire to strive.  What our faith intends to do is channel that desire into holiness and away from mere ambition.  That channeling becomes critical in our relationship to energy and the planet: ambition focuses on extraction and production, while holy striving focuses on growing in tandem.

Unfortunately there is little hope for us in the next hundred or so years, but we hold out hope and faith that it is possible to grow in tandem with the world created for and around us and with one another.  Christians are well poised, if we change how we reason, discern, decide and act, to be the people that lead the way.  We can, in a far off future that we must start planning for, encourage technological progress but with greater reflection and a different focus.  And if we Christians are unable to be that people, then I hope and pray that the majority of people will remember, through collective memory and any notes and traces we leave behind, that future civilizations live and act more reflectively, spiritually, and with the unknown constantly in mind.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Why Have Kids?

Even before my second son, Soren, was born, I questioned whether I'd have the mental fortitude to survive another infancy.  Worrying about my wife undergoing labor again, and having to watch it, made her growing belly a nightmare.  Then, when Soren was born, I almost instantly experienced post-partum depression and didn't let go for about six months.  Yes, men can also experience post-partum depression.  The only escape for me came in the form of a question, "Why did I have this child?"  By asking the question I learned a lot.

I learned a lot about myself, of course, but I also learned that each and every prospective parent should ask themselves, "Why do I want to have kids?" before seriously considering having one.  On the flip side, every person who doesn't want kids should ask themselves the opposite question before making an almost equally irreversible decision.  Our answers to the questions will invariably vary but, I wager, each will point to our understanding of what life is about.

That is, as long as we don't answer, "I've always wanted kids," or, "I think I'll be a good parent."  While these may be serious and relevant answers they cannot be the entire story.  I think I'd make a good professional cyclist, but would I have been willing, and am I now willing, to put in the constant over-exerting work necessary to become an endurance athlete?  Doubtful.  As is true about being a professional cyclist, there is much more to being a parent than idealistic perspectives of ourselves.  Parenting is not about the parent but about the kid/s.  Our answer to the question, "Why do I want to have kids?" should be rooted in the yet conceived child's life.  If the answer is instead rooted in ourselves, then moments of difficulty parenting will also turn back on ourselves and our energy and patience will be sapped; if parenting is about ourselves, then we'll want to give up when it's no longer convenient, but if parenting is about the kid, then we'll be more likely to keep going when they're trouble. 

When we think about our kids in asking why we want to have kids, it's unlikely that the reason will be, "So I can love them," because, again, that has more to do with you.  Reasons like this tend to reveal your own issues rather than any meaningful foundation for parenting.  If you need someone to love, or someone to love you, then that should be worked out prior to conception.  Asking, expecting, hoping, or demanding a child to be an object or giver of love severely limits the life and purpose of the child.  Therefore, again, bringing a new life into this world should not focus on you or the lives that already exist.  Our reasons for giving life should focus on the new life and what may be in store for the child.

Unfortunately, too often it seems that many decide to have kids without reflecting on why or having a proper, child-centered reason.  I count myself in that category.  In that situation, the parent has no foundation on which to raise the child and endure the hardships other than pure determination.  "I am a good parent, I will do this," become the mantras but without any 'because' or 'for the sake of' to replenish the energy bucket.  For many, determination and willpower are enough.  For some, however, determination and willpower are not nearly enough, and what happens then?  For me and my youngest, I couldn't stand being around him for a long time, and yet I had to be the one to put him to sleep and I came to resent holding him for bedtime.  To some extent, I still do resent holding him, almost a year after I recovered from my depression.  If my spouse weren't as strong as she is and if I hadn't gone to therapy, I wonder what might have happened.  I wonder what would now happen.  I wonder if we might have ended up where some other families do, with parents' shutting down and losing interest or divorcing, or worse.

Now, there are a great many reasons why parents struggle and develop post-partum depression, including the simple but intense unavoidable chemical reason, that asking and reflecting on the question why we want to have kids won't fix.  The question and process of answering is not a cure-all.   But if we seriously ask and reflect on the question why we want to have kids, and root the answer in the prospective child's life, then the answer will almost certainly provide us a lasting foundation on which to return and replenish our reserves when parenting.  Our answer to the question will provide a dream, a meaning, toward which we can constantly strive on the child's behalf.  The answer will also help us relax in moments of crisis because we can put things in proper perspective.  Not only will our answer to why we want to have kids provide a foundation, a meaning, and means to peace, but it will almost certainly also reveal our understanding of what life is about.

For instance, my answer, six months after child two was born, came to be, "To share the good gift of life that God has given us to enjoy and share with God in His divine presence."  If you're not religious, this probably won't be your answer, but in my answer you can see that I understand the purpose of life to be enjoying the life God has given us.  In that sense, your answer probably won't be all that different.  You, too, will probably mention a desire for your kids to share in the joys of life or very similar reason.  Given such a foundation, when the child is a total wreck and all you want to do is run away from your kids, you can remember that the child isn't around for your benefit in the first place but because you wanted to share the goodness of life with another.  Then, you don't need to make the child's problems go away, you don't need to ratchet up your anxiety with every meltdown, but instead you can simply do your best to teach the child how to see what is good, how to laugh, how to play well, and et cetera.  If the child still chooses not to listen, you as parent can step back and differentiate some because your reason for having the child was to give the child a chance to enjoy life.  Ultimately that is the child's choice. 

While I have nothing against helicopter parents, I wonder if indeed part of the anxiety there is an inability to differentiate ourselves from our child.  The child's problems are ours.  The same goes for parents who live their dreams through their children.  Then, when all comes crashing down, we run to the opposite extreme of complete differentiation and indifference: "They let me down.  They're impossible.  They don't listen to me."  But there is a middle ground of teaching, modeling, living and laughing without becoming upset if the child doesn't want to play soccer, and instead chooses chess, or doesn't want to learn challenging things, and instead wants to have tea parties.  It seems to me that such a middle ground is only possible when we have grounded our reason for having and loving the child in the child's own opportunity to enjoy life and find his/her own meaning.  The parent must have a desire to lead the child to the river of goodness and not also force the child to chug the water.  The parent must have a clear understanding of what life is about so that they can hope and pray to share, teach, and model that life with others.

For a lot of people, they may have a clear understanding of what life is about but feel incapable of raising a child into that life.  If life is about some form of enjoyment, and you're certain that your family will suffer hardship after hardship to survive, then should you have kids?  Well, I can't say, "no," that's not my place.  Many families, especially those who provide their own food and supplies, are often better off having children. My only point is that we should ask ourselves the question as seriously and prayerfully as possible.

With that said, I recently had a conversation with a couple planning to move to better chase their dreams and what they find meaningful in life.  As they were talking, the wife said, "We'll probably never have kids.  I know that sounds strange."  I felt bad for her and other wives (husbands, too, but especially wives) not planning on having kids.  There is a constant need to explain away such a 'strange' comment, as my friend immediately set about doing.  But as I told her, the reason for having or not having kids should be well articulated and thought out and, if it is, then well and good.  Her reason was indeed good, that they have had to scrape and fight for all that they have and, with the work they hope to do, their schedules would make it impossible to give a life to their child that they would hope for any child.  Others may simply say that they prefer a life of luxury and travel and wouldn't want a child to interrupt their fun.  That's not quite as good a reason but it's still a reason.  If you'd only ever resent your child for derailing your life, then don't have a child.  We should be able to leave room for those who wisely acknowledge that the parent and/or the child would be miserable and not able to fully enjoy life.  Responding, "Oh, but you'd make such a good mother!" is, first of all, an often not reflected upon enough comment to realize its untruth, and, secondly, a ridiculous thing to say to someone who is essentially saying, "I'd be unable to provide for a child what I think should be provided."  Such a person deserves our support, not terrible cliches.  Or, more exactly, such a person deserves our respect for honestly and deeply thinking about the welfare of the child.  The only way we can more properly respect those deciding not to have kids and leave room for them to make such a decision, without their feeling the need to constantly explain themselves, is if all of us stop assuming that having kids is an automatic part of life.

If we want having kids to be an automatic part of life for everyone, and want to continue saying, "Oh, but you'd be a great parent, and I want grandkids!" then we should think about ways to improve our communities and world.  Again, the reason for having kids will undoubtedly be associated with what life is about but the promises of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," of equality and justice, of love and peace, of hope, well, those promises are inevitably out of reach for many in our world today.  In fact, it is probably not an overstatement to say that those promises have been out of reach for some at every stage of human history.  We've had 'civilization' for about four thousand years, the revelations of God (through the Hebrews and Jewish people) for almost as long if not longer, and still many millions cannot guarantee to their children anything other than a life of starvation, migration, homelessness, extreme poverty, and misery.  Why have kids in that case, when the goodness of life is nearly impossible to grasp?  To bring them into such a world?  Because a loving God said we should procreate as a command, as a reason for marriage?  We in the privileged West like to look to third-world communities and say, "Boy, I've never met anyone so happy," and think that all is fine after all, but I, for one, cannot imagine that a loving God could command ignorance or inactivity when the scales of hope and contentment are so twisted; nor can I imagine a loving God commanding procreation into misery and at all costs.  No, if we want life and more life, then we as a society need to work harder making the foundations for life and survival more easily accessible.

After all, life is not about amassing as much material good as possible.  The atrocious inequality of power and material goods should therefore have no place in the question of why one should have kids so that each and every prospective parent can simply focus on the emotional and spiritual answer.


Thursday, May 2, 2019

The Democratic Primary: Why Vote at All?

One of the most ridiculous parts of our so-called democracy today is that campaigns for elections begin nearly two years before the elections, so it feels like we are in full swing for the Democratic primary for the 2020 election even though it is still far off.  This is even more true with Joe Biden recently declaring himself a candidate.  Let's put that to the side for now, however, because I want to focus on a statement I've heard a lot from Democrats or anti-Trump folks: We need a viable candidate to beat Trump.  Since we do seem to be in full campaign mode already, now is as good a time as any to address that statement and sentiment.

To respond to the supposed need for a viable candidate to beat Trump, we should first ask why we Americans vote at all.  Many in my generation do not feel like voting is useful or meaningful.  There are good reasons for that, whatever older folk may say.  The democratic process has certainly been inundated with outside forces: Russia, oversized corporate influence, politicians' wanting money for re-election campaigns, and on and on.  All of these forces have weakened the ideal above other ideals that our country, and the very nature of democracy and republics, was founded on: the right to self-determine.  It is the right to self-determine that liberty and freedom describe.  Our country was founded on this right to self-determine.

Even Christians, who should have a far more complicated relationship with government and voting than we currently do, hold the right to self-determine as part of God's relationship with us and why God created us in the first place.  Adam and Eve were given the right to choose.  They chose poorly, of course, but were still given that right.  After the Flood God confirmed that self-determination is His intention for His created people.  Abraham and Moses argued with God and changed God's mind.  1 Samuel 8, which describes how the Israelites again chose poorly by desiring a king other than God (hence why we should have a far more complicated relationship with government and voting than we do), includes God's affirming that we have the right to self-determine.  God didn't want the Israelites to go down the path of forming a government but, in the end, God gave the Israelites what they wanted. 

Self-determination is not merely a right.  It is foundational to who we have been created to be.  Of course, the foundational characteristic of self-determination should mostly be concerned with our faith and relationship to God/Christ, but that faithful relationship should pervade all of our lives, including our involvement (or not) in government.  We vote, then, because we have this right, because we are meant to self-determine.  Our vote is one of the means by which we self-determine.

If self-determination is the purpose of our individual vote, then we can connect the problem with the sentiment of viability for a party candidate with the history of who we have given the vote to.  Most Americans don't give much thought any more to the fact that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but do not have electoral college votes nor representation in Congress.  Indeed, Puerto Ricans' representation in Congress is exactly the same as the colonists' representation in London's Parliament: someone is elected to be present with a voice but that person has no vote, no actual say, no ability to self-determine.  The same is true with our other territories.  It's even funny that we portrayed ourselves as a liberating force in World War II when we took over the Philippines from the Japanese when, in fact, we already controlled the Philippines beforehand.  Or look at how the media and the Commission on Presidential Debates handled third-party candidates in 2016.  The polling number needed to get on the televised debate stage was raised when it was clear that Johnson, of the Libertarian Party, was polling near the old, lower required numbers.  Or look at how the media and especially those with political power have handled and portrayed the March for Our Lives campaign.  Or look at the fact that Hillary Clinton was not far different from Trump leading up the primary until Bernie Sanders forced her to change her hand, which was all strange considering Bernie was pushed aside.  Bernie himself admitted that the reason he didn't run as an independent is because if he did he wouldn't have had as much media exposure or a chance to debate. 

The truth is that we don't want to share the right to vote, and therefore the right to self-determine, with anyone that we think might be outside an acceptable range.  Hispanics?  Asians?  So what if they are technically citizens, they can't have the same right to self-determine, even if we have to put them in the same position we Americans we were in when we declared, "No taxation without representation," and launched a revolution on the grounds of liberty and freedom.  Kids who want to take our guns away?  Radical independents?  Third-parties that don't fit into the Republican/Democrat range?  No, thank you.  Notice, too, that I'm only referring to our very recent history.  Despite our ideals and the reason for revolution, we began disenfranchising people from the right to self-determine from our beginning.  Apparently the right to self-determine only applies to those who look like us and think like us within an acceptable range.  (By the way, the same is true for citizens of other countries, too.  Cambodians, Vietnamese, El Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans, etc. shouldn't have the right to self-determine unless they are choosing what we, the powerful United States of America, want them to choose)

Obviously the problem with how we have treated the right to self-determine, and therefore the right to vote, and the entire related process, ignores the basic logic that the right to self-determine is the right to self-determine.  If there is going to be an accepted range within which we coerce people to choose, that range should only exclude what is outright evil, as in we should not be able to vote for the extermination of all brown-haired people.  Otherwise, by limiting the right to self-determine we thereby become shamefully elitist--only certain people have this right--and hypocritical while proving that we don't actually believe in our founding principles. 

More than that, we prove that we don't believe in redemption if we limit the right to self-determine.  Australia was peopled almost entirely by criminals (again of course ignoring the natives) and they seem to have turned out fine.  Yet many nowadays do not think that criminals should have the right to self-determine, to vote?  Yet many nowadays think that it is good and right for us to intervene in other countries' business, as if they'll fail without us?  If one group of people are capable of self-determining well, then all are. 

Put all of this together and we have reason not to care about the viability of candidates to win an election when we vote.  To even talk about viability is to again become shamefully elitist and hypocritical, especially because it is usually the powerful, including the media, who make such determinations of viability.  The media have portrayed Biden as the most likely to beat Trump even before Biden announced his campaign.  But what if he's not the best candidate?  What if Biden only gives us, in policy terms, nearly more of the same except without all of Trump's character flaws?  Would that still be good?  Both Bernie and Biden both mentioned as reasons for running the fact that, when they looked around the candidate pool, no one seemed as likely to beat Trump than themselves.  But such thinking is wrong.  If people have the right to self-determine, then they should be able to vote for the candidate that best represents their views and not be coerced into choosing someone merely for the sake of winning.

True, if we give people the right to self-determine, they may choose a candidate or policies that we dislike; they may choose a candidate or policies incapable of winning.  But if we return to the Bible and the fact of our foundational character of self-determination, we'll remind ourselves that often we have chosen poorly.  And that's okay.  Adam and Eve and on down the line faced heavy consequences for choosing poorly but God still did not remove the right to self-determine.  So, too, may we continue to face heavy consequences for choosing poorly, but we cannot remove the right to self-determine. 

What is strange in all of this is that most of the candidates in the Democratic primary who are most radically different, policy-wise, from Trump are the ones who are most blacked out in the media.  If beating Trump is the only goal--which is a faulty goal--then shouldn't a candidate be chosen who is unlike Trump?  I think of Tulsi Gabbard and Elizabeth Warren.  Regardless, the truth is that if Democrats, or anyone else, concern themselves with viability and winning elections, we are therefore refusing to self-determine or refusing others the right to self-determine.  We'd instead simply be narrowing the acceptable range of electability and action.  I fear for this country if that's what the Democrats decide to do.

All we should be doing in the political process, as in life generally, is asking ourselves, "What is it that I believe?  And what personal actions and who else will make those beliefs a tangible reality in the world around me?"  That's it.  Self-determine. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Real Damage of Pornography

Confession to and with another human being, or a few, is one of the healthiest habits a person can have.  I've made this confession in public before and do so again: I am a pornography addict.  Like a drug addict, though, I'm in recovery and could receive, if there were such a thing, a sobriety pin of a long while.  Still, it's a real and constant temptation.  I make this confession to you, my dear reader, because I want to talk about the real damage of pornography in a personal way.

As I talk about the real damage of pornography I want to make clear that I do not agree with the common attacks on pornography.  Often I hear that pornography is inherently evil and therefore should be banned or that pornography inherently degrades the personhood and worth of those involved, and other related arguments.  Personally I believe that the former is wrong, even ridiculous, and the latter, while partially true, misses the point.  Sex is a good gift from God--or evolution, depending on our perspective--and should be celebrated.  Therefore, pornography cannot be inherently bad because it can be a celebration of sex and the pleasure we receive.  God cannot possibly want us to go through life avoiding all possible pleasure and joy.  Pornography (let's remember that pornography can still come in forms other than videos) can or could be, when used properly, encourage a guilt and fear-free exploration of the good gift we have from God.  Likewise, then, pornography does not inherently degrade anyone. 

Pornography can, however, degrade persons.  It does so in two ways.  The first I've chronicled elsewhere, in my book particularly, and so will only briefly mention.  While most pornographic actors do choose their occupation and the scenes in which they perform, and most enjoy the work they do, scenes containing what we might call the "degrading acts" pay more.  If a pornographic actor absolutely depends on income from pornography scenes, then is it still a choice to perform in those degrading scenes?  As I've contemplated various options for myself as a pastor, I've had this question about being a congregational pastor: if I depend on the income the church pays me, and they can fire me at any time, do I really have a choice in whether I prophesy to them?  A choice between struggling financially or doing something you don't much like, well, I think we know what most of us would do, and it is therefore not much of a choice.

The other, worse form of degradation, though, comes in how we interact with one another having been exposed to pornography.  In other words, pornography itself is not wrong or degrading but our reaction to and formation as people from watching or reading is, or can be, degrading.  Without using names or, hopefully, any indicative information about others, let me tell three quick stories to illustrate.

A church girl I knew had a crush on me.  She came from a somewhat troubled background.  Up to that point in my life I was known to have a straight-edge approach to life, devoted to God alone.  This girl clearly wanted to date me and expressed that she'd do anything to make that happen because she looked up to me, my faith, and my life.  I then had the opportunity to help lift her out of the life she knew and was exposed to and show her what a good, faithful life looked like.  Instead, I saw the chance to take advantage of her and play out some things I had seen in pornographic videos.  Thankfully, I never acted on any of it, but the damage was done.  After her experience with me, she was taught that all men, even the ones that seem to be holy and faithful, want only one thing.  Indeed, one of her last communications to me was that I taught her a lot: that if she wants to please a man and find a good man to date and live with, she should be willing to stretch the boundaries of what she's comfortable with.

Another girl I knew was herself from a solid background and was a solid person, believing in God.  Unfortunately, her lifestyle often resulted in being an outsider of sorts, because rather than being "cool" or concentrating on partying, she tried to do good in the world and study well for a good future.  At the age we were at that time, she was therefore not popular.  I could relate.  I myself was an outsider and considered strange for my faith and uncompromising dedication to what is good rather than cool.  Somehow I was able to make my outsiderness popular, however, so I didn't have to deal with the daily frustrations she did.  Because of that, this girl saw in me a wonderful opportunity: a good man with his priorities straight.  So she excitedly started hanging out with me.  Unfortunately, I took that opportunity to almost force myself on her.  From then on I tried convincing her that we should "fool around."  Again, I had a wonderful opportunity.  Here I could have shown this girl who felt alone in her faith and her principles that she was not alone after all.  Instead I wanted to play out what I thought every girl really wanted deep down because of the videos I had seen, or at the least what I wanted to experience; thinking that, in my position of power over here, I could make it happen.

While in college, a friend of mine from New Jersey received a random text from a girl.  What we think happened was that she was sending texts to random NJ numbers hoping that someone, somewhere, would respond.  Clearly, as she later said, she was in need of a friend.  She was contemplating suicide for a variety of reasons but also because her boyfriend had just broken up with her.  My friend did not want to talk to a complete stranger so instead I did.  The more we talked, the more I realized I, again, had a position of power: she needed me.  Though I never intended to see her in real life I used that opportunity to provide her with comfort but only if she would talk through the various scenes I wanted to try out from having watched pornography.  By the time I came to my senses, she said she'd contemplate suicide again if I broke things off with her.  Instead of being the friend she really needed, I used her.

These stories are all, essentially, the same.  They are also not the only instances of my living out these story archetypes.  What these stories hopefully show is that the real danger and damage of pornography is in how we seek to incorporate what we see or hear into our lives.  Life imitates art, as Oscar Wilde says.  In a way, that is not inherently bad.  Again, sex is God's good gift.  If there are certain sexual acts that we think might be pleasurable we should not feel guilty or fearful in exploring those acts.  The problem comes in having consensual partners and, even when consensual, harming the souls of those we interact with.

First, my assuming that exploring certain sexual acts would of course, naturally, obviously, be welcomed by my female friends was ludicrous.  Perhaps part of the fear some feel in asking their partners if they'd be willing to explore certain sexual avenues is that we are taught, by 'good' people like me, that anything out of the ordinary in intimacy must lead to danger.  In the second story in particular my friend came to engage in a world that had been foreign to her before me.  She came to think that the world of danger must be engaged in order to find friends or intimacy rather than committing to her original, more wholesome way of life.

Also, whether intentional or not, there are now significant elements of power dynamics in pornography.  Yet again, there's nothing inherently wrong with that, but gradually, over time, we may learn that power is a necessary factor in sexual encounters.  That makes it very difficult to explore in a consensual manner even if and when 'consent' is given. 

Second, while the exploration was consensual in a few instances, I entirely ignored what would have been uplifting and meaningful to my partners.  Whether consensual or not, I re-enforced a negative way of life: that sex is the way to a man's heart and that sex is the main source of healing.  Both ideas are harmful.  Instead, we should be asking how we can truly upbuild one another into the whole persons we are meant to be.  What we see or read in pornography may be healthy but certainly not necessary.  I could have supported these women into the way of life they wanted but instead I thought it was my right to keep them where they were, because sex, it seemed after watching pornography, took priority.  Other means of peace, comfort, and joy should be prioritized.

So the real damage of pornography is how we treat and do harm to others after being exposed.  Is it possible to intake pornography without being so formed?  Yes.  Just as it is possible to hear a friend make an argument and then disagree with it afterward.  But the danger is real.  We do ourselves no favors approaching the real danger and damage by wrongly and ineffectively arguing that sex or pornography are inherently evil.  Rather, we should provide one another, especially our youth, with helpful tips so as to be exposed to pornography, as is almost inevitable, without losing their identity or falsely and extremely condemning sex altogether.

As of right now, then, I have two tips.  One, that we should ask ourselves, "Is this 'doing it' for me?"  Ask that question not only with sexual pleasure in mind but with our longing for true joy and contentment in mind.  Is this helping me understand myself, what I find pleasurable, and how I might live with peace now and in the future?  Second, as much as possible we should read or watch pornography collectively, preferably with an intimate partner.  In such a relationship we can communicate about what is healthy, what we'd be willing and comfortable to explore, etc., as we are being exposed.  That way, we can voice together with those that we trust, who know the people we want to be, how we want to be formed.  In no case, pornography included, particularly because it relates to the most intimate part of our living, should we allow something external to form us.

All in all, whatever our thoughts or experiences with pornography may be, we should acknowledge that there are plenty of opportunities and means to harm and hurt one another.  We needn't add another.  You and I, as individuals, have the choice.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Now What for Methodism?

Following the events and decisions at General Conference 2019, the question many are asking is, "Now what?"  Some are asking in a more depressed way.  As in, "Now how can I be Methodist if I no longer agree with the theology and practices of the United Methodist Church?" 

First of all, I point you to my previous essays (here on this blog, Writing to Live) to answer part of the latter question.  Methodism is not connected, or should not be connected, to a particular denomination and certainly not to any required universal agreement on theology or practices beyond Christ and grace.  If one feels strongly that they are called to be a Methodist--called by God to renew Christians everywhere in the full life and power of the Holy Spirit through God's grace, so that we are not dead Christians or trapped by the structures and powers that be, called Christendom--then one can continue to be a Methodist regardless of what the United Methodist Church has decided.

Of course, I want to point out that as of this writing there is some question still about what will happen to the United Methodist Church.  Yes, General Conference approved the traditional plan, strengthening and re-enforcing the belief that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching and disallowing LGBTQ+ persons to be married or ordained.  But many parts of that plan were deemed unconstitutional and not, as far as I can tell, corrected to be in line with our constitution.  A Methodist should not care about a constitution to begin with but that's another story.  The point is we aren't necessarily definitely sure.  With that said, the fact that the Conference approved the traditional plan regardless of constitutionality is a sign of how committed the delegates were to the traditional plan and, therefore, many will be planning on leaving the denomination.

Already I am hearing chatter of creating a new denomination.  I am not one to try and persuade anyone to stay in a community in which they no longer feel comfortable.  However, the idea of creating a new denomination at this point in time seems contrary to the passionate frustration and anger many United Methodists are feeling.  If we want Methodism to be true to itself, true to its movement, true to God's reason for raising us up, then we do not do so by building yet more man-made structures with yet more beliefs and practices that must be adhered to.

Instead I encourage Methodists everywhere to prayerfully consider letting Methodist denominations collapse and die.  I encourage Methodists everywhere to prayerfully consider being Methodist in whatever church and denomination they find themselves.  If that's the United Methodist Church or some new denomination calling itself Methodist, fine; if that's in the UCC or ELCA or whatever, fine.  The point is that Methodism is a movement of grace for all Christians, everywhere, who are stuck in thinking that mere belief or practice adherence makes one saved.  Methodism is a movement that asks dead Christians everywhere, "Are you an almost Christian?  Are you a Christian in name only?"  Methodism is a movement that says to dead Christians everywhere, "God's grace can empower you to love like Christ, to a full life in Christ, don't deny the very promises Christ himself made to us."  The message of Methodism should not be constrained to a single group.  It's meant for all Christians.  Though it will take time and much prayerful discernment, I myself am considering, and have been for some time before General Conference, laying down my 'credentials' as a pastor, soon to be provisional elder, buying a house with my family and settling down and joining the nearest church as a lay person--as a Methodist; or transferring my credentials to some other denomination and serving as pastor--as a Methodist. 

Go forth and evangelize wherever you find yourselves, in whatever denomination, so that the spirit and movement of Methodism can once again fulfill its mission: to enliven all Christians. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

What is the Church?

Only partially in response to the United Methodist Church's General Conference on homosexuality, I have been asking myself a lot recently what the definition of Church is.  What holds a group of people together in what we call a church?  What should hold a group of people together in what we call a church?  Most importantly, what is the purpose of what we call Church?

The way I read Christian history, we seem to have defined Church for the past thousand years or more as the arbiter of truth.  Personally I have a great respect for the Roman Catholic Church, its theology and practices, but it's hard not to see our thinking of Church as 'arbiter of truth' implied in Rome's responses to the Protestant movement over time.  Luther did not question whether the Church should be the arbiter of truth but rather whether Rome had veered away from truth.  Obviously, then, Rome did not respond well to Luther's attempts at reform, instead attacking him as a mere nobody: "How can you think you know truth more than our established institution?"  Skipping over a few hundred years, Rome then decided that the Pope is infallible.  Whatever the Pope decides is indeed the word of God made manifest in our world, is truth. 

Over and over again the Protestant response to Rome has accepted, it seems to me, the concept of Church as arbiter of truth.  I can think of only a few movements since 1700 in the Western world that have questioned that definition: Methodism and Pentecostalism.  But both those movements eventually transformed into truth movements.  I argue this mostly because what I hear from people who attend other Protestant denominations, as well as many Catholics, is that different churches aren't actually different.  "Essentially, the worship and sermons are the same," I hear from people, and worship and preaching appear to be the only elements of church life that define a church.

My question is, should the Church be an or the arbiter of truth?  By arbiter of truth I mean an organization that determines for its adherents what to believe, what is right, how to behave, and what practices to follow.  By arbiter of truth I include both orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice).  Typically those who emphasize orthopraxis think they are far and above those who emphasize orthodoxy, but essentially the two are the same.  Both claim to know how Christians are to be formed by the truth that is God. 

That, though, seems to be the important, often missed point, that God is truth.  God, then, is the arbiter of truth, for God is truth.  To say that the Church is the arbiter of truth in light of God is to say that the Church is truth.  There are those who may make such an argument, Stanley Hauerwas among them perhaps, but if the Church is truth in any form then we should all be Roman Catholic.  If the Church is truth then there can only be one church, one expression, and we should therefore work together as one body to find, as one body, what the truth is.  The history of Catholicism as well as Protestantism has proven how misguided such a notion is.  We are clearly clueless as to what or how truth should be expressed in a church.  How many Protestant denominations are there?  Look it up.  It's an insane number.  Catholics are clearly still figuring it out, too.  Methodists and other denominations struggling with major questions like homosexuality in the church are, then, also misguided when attempting to make decisions based on the true way of believing or the true way of practicing.  If God is truth, then the Church must be something else.

Without referencing every scripture passage in the New Testament regarding the church, ekklesia, I'll pick out a few that, in my reading of the Bible, are representative of what the Church is meant to be.  In no particular order, we should think of Jesus's encouraging the disciples and the early church in how to interact well with each other in Matthew 18, in which he says that he is present where two or more are gathered in his name; as well as Jesus's teaching his disciples that if people exorcising demons are not against them, then they're for them; and then Paul's admonitions to collect money for the poor and widows in Jerusalem as the body of Christ.  At the outset of what we call Christianity, the Church had nothing to do with order, belief, or practice.  Believers should be new creatures in Christ but, otherwise, were connected by a spirit of support and prayer.  In that spirit of support and prayer the believers, as the body, should keep their minds on the end goal of spreading the good news about the kingdom of God.  Nothing should separate us from that.

Certainly, we can point to a number of texts in which the Church is concerned with order and orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  Those texts, though, chronologically, occur much later.  As Yoder would wonder, not all tradition is necessarily equal.  The tradition of Jesus and his disciples, how they understood the life and message, matters most.  To them, it's clear that one's personal, subjective relation to the truth, the truth that is Christ, is our one and only arbiter of truth--new creatures in Christ.  Truth can only be known between the individual and the Truth.  Otherwise, truth cannot be known.  We know truth when we have been transformed, and that only. 

If an individual person is the arbiter of truth as evidenced in his or her transformation in and through Christ, then the Church's role is to provide prayer, support, and accountability for each individual to find truth and live in that truth, which is Jesus.  And, more, to uplift one another in such a way as to express truth in one's individual living so that others may come to appropriately use her or his own arbitration of truth.  The Church, then, should not be divided along orthodoxy or orthopraxy faults; or along faults of worship, either.  Rather, the Church should be united in concern for discipleship.  That doesn't necessarily mean that the Church should be one, but that we should not be worried about divisions if our divisions do not interfere with discipleship, with our living person by person in the truth, transformed by the truth that is Jesus. 

Thinking of the Church in this way could help us put away our petty issues and instead focus on Christ--Christ in our life, as the truth of our being, and Christ for others, as the only truth worth following, so that we can pray for and support one another.

This is, in a Methodist sense, what scriptural Christianity is (I refer you to Wesley's sermon, "Scriptural Christianity").  Scriptural Christianity and holiness are defined not by agreement with doctrinal standards supposedly derived from the Bible but by the love and grace infused into us by the Holy Spirit through faith.  Questions about "biblical truth" on issues non-essential to salvation, as in homosexuality, abortion, marijuana, democracy, etc. are misguided.  Rather, biblical truth can only refer to whether an individual is alive with the Spirit witnessed by the fruits of love and justice.  Scriptural Christianity and holiness ask, "Are you a disciple of Jesus Christ?  Search your heart, be convicted by Christ's life and model, and follow him alone."

As people of the Church, then, we should wonder together, "What does it matter if we have truth but do not have love?  What does it matter if my so-called denomination has stuck together in unity but does not have love?  What does it matter if Christianity has retained its traditions but does not have love?  Heretofore we have wrongly defined scriptural Christianity and holiness and, therefore, do not even know what Church is, let alone Methodism.

Our Church, and especially the spirit of Methodism intended to re-enliven Christians everywhere, should be a body of prayer and support to keep alive the flame of the Holy Spirit, of true scriptural Christianity and holiness: discipleship of Christ, and that alone.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Christendom and the Methodist Crisis on Homosexuality

Most members of the United Methodist Church know by now, if they haven't known for awhile, that the denomination is in a crisis.  That crisis centers around homosexuality and whether persons who are homosexual, particularly practicing homosexual behavior (it’s like saying that drunkenness is a sin but being an alcoholic is not), should be ordained or married in the church.  There is no doubt that homosexual persons are welcome in the church as we are supposed to love all people, but the question is whether we can ordain or marry people who are knowingly living in sin.  Obviously, then, the question revolves around whether or not homosexuality should be considered a sin or, if it is a sin, whether that matters.

Currently the United Methodist Church states that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with the teachings of Christianity and, therefore, we do not ordain or marry homosexual persons.  For years we as a denomination have wrestled with varying degrees of intensity over whether our stance should change.  In 2016, our General Conference (the quadrennial governing body for the denomination, consisting of lay and clergy in equal number) decided, amidst yet another heated argument making other church business impossible, to hold a Special Session of General Conference February 23-26 of 2019.  Hey, that's this month!  By the end of this month, then, we will more or less know whether or not the United Methodist Church as we know it will split based on the result of that Special Session.  Most prognosticators predict we will split.  Hence the crisis.  Hence why I, as an UM pastor concerned about the movement called Methodist, am writing a lengthy essay on the crisis.  To understand the essay in full, you should have a basic awareness of the main plans proposed for General Conference: the (Modified) Traditional Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan, the One Church Plan, and the Simple Plan.  Googling "UMC Traditional Plan," etc. will do the trick.

To be clear, I am not writing this essay with the intention of settling a theological score.  You'll find very little here about what the biblical understanding of homosexuality is or how to understand it contextualized in some theological system.  Rather, this essay is written from the perspective of Methodism.  How should Methodists approach the crisis and move forward after February?  To answer that question, I think it important to provide a bird's eye view of Methodism as a movement and, also, Christendom as a phenomenon.  Understanding the movement called Methodist and Christendom will shed light on the rest.

Since Methodism's roots tentacle their way deep into, or against, Christendom, it's fitting that we describe Christendom first.  At the outset it should be clear that I'm arguing that Methodism was a uniquely anti-Christendom or a-Christendom movement and that it has now become part of Christendom.  A long historical argument is, then, necessary. 

Typically Christendom can be traced back to the Roman Emperor Constantine who claimed that Jesus Christ was the force behind victory in a major battle, with a vision and all.  From Constantine forward Christianity went from being a persecuted religion to the religion of the empire.  Though a change in the religion was not immediate by any means, nor was the religion the exact same at the time of Constantine as it was in the time of Christ, we can certainly easily blame Constantine's conversion and promotion of the faith for the trend ongoing ever since.  The term 'Christendom' refers to this change: it was now the religion of the kingdom.

Don't be fooled, however, because Christendom is not merely the tying together of church and state.  Constantine's purposely merging the faith with his state, and the leaders of the faith acquiescing, is only one part of Christendom's definition.  Christendom, according to Soren Kierkegaard, is probably best defined as "official Christianity," a Christianity that compromises with culture to the point of being offended by the New Testament--a Christianity that is so far from being real Christianity that New Testament Christianity is offensive.  John Howard Yoder provides an historical analysis to explain Christendom through the lens of pacifism.  From the original disciples on through the first couple hundred of years of Christianity, Christians were adamantly pacifist.  Our first Christian manuals and teaching guides all are clear that a baptized Christian cannot become a soldier, and if one is already a soldier prior to baptism, then a baptized Christian must reject any order or engagement, or oath of loyalty, that might lead to violence of any kind.  Christians were so clear on the subject that they were known to be a hindrance to effective government (not only because their legions were now infected but because Christians were also clear that a Christian shouldn't be a civil magistrate or, if they were, to act in a manner totally opposed to normal operating procedures).  After all, it is hard to interpret the New Testament, the good news of Jesus particularly, to be anything but pacifist.  That Christians then slowly compromised their principles on this score to allow for soldiering and government participation is the definition of Christendom.  The surrounding culture informed Christian practice in the name of ease.  Though in our country church and state are legally separate, we can still see Christendom hard at work.  Christianity is a litmus test of sorts for politicians (yikes!) and Christians are no different than non-Christians in believing that serving one's country in the armed services is patriotic (yikes!).  Yikes, at least, would be the response of the early Christians before Christendom took hold.

Christianity, in its original definition and practice, not only wasn't concerned with the surrounding culture and state but in many ways was actively opposed to the surrounding culture and state.  Christendom turns the faith of Christ on its head, no longer being concerned only with discipling (following) Christ but concerned with fitting one's faith into normal, cultural living.  Essentially what happens, then, is that faith becomes less about present discipleship practice and instead only about future salvation; faith becomes less about the individual person in eternal and present relation to Christ and instead only about the propagation of the crowd of Christians.  Any number of Kierkegaard passages could be chosen to elucidate the point.  One of my favorites: "Christianity's idea was: to want to change everything.  The result, 'Christendom's' Christianity is: that everything, unconditionally everything, has remained as it was, only that everything has taken the name of 'Christian'--and so (strike up, musicians!) we are living paganism, so merrily, so merrily, around, around, around; or more accurately, we are living paganism refined by means of eternity and by means of having the whole thing be, after all, Christianity." (The Moment, 5)  Jacques Ellul, too, says the same.  "How has it come about that the development of Christianity and the church has given birth to a society, a civilization, a culture that are completely opposite to what we read in the Bible... There is not just contradiction on one point but on all points.  On the one hand, Christianity has been accused of a whole list of faults, crimes, and deceptions that are nowhere to be found in the original text and inspiration.  On the other hand, revelation has been progressively modeled and reinterpreted according to the practice of Christianity and the church."  (Subversion of Christianity) In other words, both the church and the culture are now arbiters of Christendom for the sake of their own propagation and security.  To Kierkegaard, for an individual to be a true Christian, one must renounce Christianity—what Christianity has become.

Discipleship of Christ, in its original, intended formulation according to Christ, was a personal choice with serious consequences, joyful and agonizing.  One must hate father and mother, sell off possessions, and be persecuted by the state and culture for giving up their ways.  Agonizing, more agonizing, and yet joy comes.  Christendom, however, removes the consequences of personal choice and transforms faith into a social choice with only reward--the joy of salvation and the joy of social acceptance.  Therefore, in Kierkegaard's formulation, if we are all Christians, then Christianity does not exist.

It is in the milieu of Christendom that the people and movement called Methodist arose.  John and Charles Wesley were ordained priests in the Church of England.  By virtue of the state church in England, many of the first Methodists were ipso facto Church of England.  By personal choice?  Perhaps not.  Regardless, the Wesley brothers understood that Christians needed to wake up, to revive, to feel and experience and live in God's grace, expressed in justifying and sanctifying terms, really and truly.  Because they operated within a state church, Christendom had a rather firm hold.  The faith of Christians at the time was dead.  One of the funniest things John Wesley ever wrote is found in his directions for singing, "Sing lustily and with a good courage.  Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep."  Indeed, deadness was the state of Christians at the time.  And, perhaps, of every time.  Being a Christian was grounded in the social reward, of not being persecuted by the state, of moving up in society, and of being like everyone else who also didn't care about living or practicing the faith.  As a movement of revival Methodism's aim was to wake up Christianity out of its Christendom slumber.

Methodism, as a movement, was therefore practice-oriented.  Theologically Methodists focused on God's grace, particularly on the fact that God's grace can do anything.  Rather than thinking that the end of God's intention in creating us and sending us Jesus Christ was to forgive us (justify us), Methodists believed that, actually, God wanted us to be like Adam and Eve, to have a relationship with us as He did with Adam and Eve, obviously before the fall.  So when Jesus himself says that we can be perfect like our Father in heaven is perfect, and other equal and similar invitations and commands, he was serious.  Jesus was both commanding and promising our likeness to him through God's grace.  Let us not, then, stop at believing.  Let that faith be active and alive in us.  In other words, we will no longer accept the complacent and compromising versions of social, Christendom Christianity.  Everything Methodists did was aimed at inviting God's grace more and more into our lives (through a method, hence our name) so that we could be like Christ in love and action.

Take Wesley's radical stances on money and poverty.  As an evangelical, Wesley took a number of radical and progressive stances for his time.  His stance on money, though, is perhaps the most radical, even for us.  Wesley claimed that the inefficacy of Christianity to change our culture (to change everything, as Kierkegaard said) lay in the fact that Methodists did not follow through with the third part of his famous guidance: Earn all you can.  Save all you can.  Give all you can.  Wesley took Jesus's call to sell all our possessions seriously, to give all we had to the poor seriously.  A Christian disciple living in God's grace should, like Christ, live simply and give whatever left over to those in need.  There is no reason, to Wesley, why anyone should live in poverty.  It's hard for Christians to hear this, then and now, because of Christendom.  The New Testament is offensive to us.

Whether Wesley or any Methodist at any time ever railed against Christendom using that precise word, I don't know.  I would bet not.  The fact is, though, that the movement called Methodist was, at its heart, aimed at waking people out of Christendom's seduction.  We should again be disciples, we should again live according to New Testament Christianity, according to the likeness of Christ, not the likeness of Christendom, not the likeness of easy and complacent Christianity.

Since the theology of the movement was fairly simply, the movement actively and purposely spread across denominations and theological divides.  Those divides, other than free grace over predestination, were unimportant to Methodists.  Wesley wrote a sermon entitled, "Catholic Spirit," in which he argues that as long as our hearts are right with one another, as long as we can join hands as disciples in living, action, love, ministry and mission, then we can and should put aside theological differences.  As long as we believe in the fundamentals of the faith, that Christ was and is the Son of God, that he died and rose again to save us and fill us with the Spirit, then why waste time arguing interesting but ultimately non-essential theological questions?  Let us focus on what is essential: Christ, our discipleship, and being filled with the Holy Spirit through grace.[i] 

The social structures, then, of society and denominations, and thus of Christendom, did not matter to Methodists.  Because Christendom malformed Christianity into a faith of belief only, rather than of discipleship and practice, matters of right belief for the sake of only future salvation became paramount to Christians entrapped by Christendom.  The difference between denominations then became crucial.  To Methodists, however, there's much more to faith than future salvation, and thus much more to faith than right belief.  Actively living in the grace that enables us to act, love, and live like Christ necessarily cuts across and against the structures of Christendom.  What mattered to Methodists was personal revival, the inward journey to fullness of Spirit.  There were certainly social aspects to Methodism, namely the class and band meetings, but these were intended to hone the inward journey, to hold individuals accountable to living according to Christ rather than Christendom.  Groups of Methodists were, essentially, critical to ensuring that individual disciples would continue to eschew the deadness of Christendom.

For those in the know about Methodism, you'll know that there are now significant structures in place in our denomination, particularly with the annual and general conferences.  What needs to be said here is that the Methodist conferences at the beginning were intended to be larger versions of the local class meetings.  The conferences were intended to focus on worship and revival.  To the extent that business was conducted, it was not the business of a church but the business of spirituality: who and where needs help, how do we support one another, what indeed is essential, and most importantly, how is the Spirit calling us.  Conferences were not intended to be another layer in the deepening of Christendom's structures.  In other words, how can we maintain the Spirit's moving apart from the compromising forces of Christendom?

Unfortunately, the story of Methodism is a tragic one.  What was once a fast-growing, Spirit-led movement of true disciples that cut across denominations, theology, and all of Christendom, became instead a slow, dead denomination.  Christendom proved too powerful.  Who knows what may have happened if the Revolutionary War did not occur when it did (effectively splitting American Methodists from British Methodists by virtue of patriotism, a purely Christendom word) because it effectively necessitated the birth of a denomination in the new States.  Soon after the growth trends of the movement slowed.  We were now our own denomination, so shouldn't we act like other denominations?  The structures grew and what defined us theologically grew more complicated.

The split referenced above between American and British Methodists was the first sign that something had gone terribly wrong.  Logically and historically we can make sense of why, during and after the Revolutionary War, Methodists on this side of the pond could no longer get along with Methodists on the other side.  Again, for the most part, Methodists were members of the Church of England because that was the state church.  Sometimes we forget that it was also the state church in the colonies.  When the fervor of patriotism--again, a word of Christendom--set the colonies against the crown, colonials now calling themselves American wanted to disconnect themselves from all things related to the oppressing power.  Americans could no longer justify being guided in their movement by a Brit supporting the king.  The split that led to the creation of the denomination makes sense.  Historically, anyway.  Spiritually, from the perspective of Methodists, the split makes no sense.  This was a movement guided by the Spirit in which people sought the Spirit's power in their lives to be like Christ, and therefore a movement that cared nothing at all for the powers that be.  The one loyalty of Methodists was to Christ and Christian living, like the original Christians.  Now, suddenly, with the war, Methodists, too, were infected with loyalties other than and above Christ and discipleship.  Christendom was creeping in.

What happened at the local level was equally harmful.  Local churches began to build massive church buildings.  Prior to that, the movement met in people's houses or rented space in other denominations’ buildings.  In building our own church buildings, however, Methodists decided that the movement was no longer counter and a-cultural.  Instead, we trended toward conformity, to a way of being church concerned with making its members comfortable.  Likewise, at the same time, members of churches no longer felt it important to be held accountable to living out their faith, to living in the grace of the Spirit, to living and acting and loving like Christ.  Perhaps it was too difficult.  Rather than meeting together in accountability groups, Methodists decided to have a pastor do the hard work for them.  Until then our pastors were circuit riders, seeing each church on their circuit once every month to three months (that is why we partake of Communion once a month or, in some places, once every three months).  Now churches wanted a pastor just for their single church.  That way the pastor can be the one to live in the Spirit and everyone else can focus on living their lives comfortably as if faith played no part except for future salvation.  The story is similar in nature to what began in 1 Samuel 8 with the Israelites' demanding a king.  Again, comfort and convenience became king over radical discipleship loyal only to Christ.  Still to this day we see these trends secure in our churches. 

The previous paragraph will feel harsh and upsetting, as if I am directly questioning your faith or the faith of your church.  I don’t mean to.  Just as, if you are a white person, the institution of slavery was not your fault but we may still be contributing to lasting racism resulting from slavery if we do not appropriately reflect, so, too, we and our churches are not responsible for what the local churches did 180ish years ago but we may still contribute to those trends in a major way if we do not stop and reflect.  Our reflection must conclude that clearly ours, the Methodists’, is a story of compromising again with Christendom. 

All of the above happened in rather short order.  So, too, did the life of an average Methodist change.  No longer was the average Methodist concerned with giving all they could.  Instead, the average Methodist was firmly middle-class.  Earning all they could, yes; saving all they could, yes; but giving all they could?  Indeed Wesley's fears about the inefficacy of Christianity to change the culture of Christendom became glaringly true.  With our big buildings, middle-class members, loss of class and accountability meetings, and likeness to the rest of Christianity in our denominationalism, we had lost the battle to reclaim New Testament Christianity in the likeness of Christ.  Once again Christ and New Testament Christianity became offensive to our sensibilities.

Perhaps the worst example of Christendom's influence on the Methodist movement is the gradual acceptance of slavery into Methodism in the early 1800's.  What happened as a result of changing beliefs and practices around slavery has had a lasting effect on Methodist-related denominations, particularly the United Methodist Church.  In the beginning, Wesley and the first Methodists were strictly evangelical.  That word 'evangelical' had an almost opposite meaning to what it does now if we're only using the conservative-progressive spectrum for our definition.  Evangelicals were those concerned with spreading the good news--as they are today--and believed that radically changing society for the better according to Christ's kingdom's likeness must play a role.  Though Wesley and the original Methodists may never have called themselves evangelical, they were, and we therefore cannot understand Wesley's fears over the inefficacy of Christianity otherwise.  Without a radically and progressively changed society, the good news will be ignored or disbelieved by the many whom society leaves behind.  Wesley and the first Methodists were thus adamantly opposed to slavery.  How can anyone believe that Christ is the great Liberator as in Luke 4 if Christians, Christ's disciples, don't liberate?  John Wesley died in 1791; in 1800 Richard Allen, an African-American, was ordained in the Methodist Episcopal Church; by 1808, the General Conference allowed each annual conference to make its own policies about slavery as an accommodation to southern states; then in 1816 the General Conference made owning a slave (for officeholders, like a bishop or pastor) against church rules only in the so-called 'free' states.  The 1816 decision is clearly the rule of Christendom: the church's stance will align perfectly with the legal climate for the sake of conformity and accommodation.  No surprise, then, that shortly after 1808 Allen formed what is still called the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and not long after a number of other splits occurred over slavery in which some few Methodists rallied around the original Methodist, evangelical zeal that cared nothing at all for Christendom and its laws.

There are two reasons why our history on slavery is the worst compromise with Christendom.  The first is practical.  At the start of the Civil War, the Methodist Episcopal Church officially split between north and south, in addition to other splits over slavery that had already occurred.  In 1939, the southern and northern churches merged together along with another major denomination descended from the pre-war days.  The African-American denominations, however, were not included in the merger.  Not only that, but the 1939 merger changed our connection slightly.[ii]  Assuming for a second that our bureaucratic structures had weathered the storm of Christendom and deadness (which they hadn't), those structures girded our connection: each church was connected to its annual conference and from the annual conference directly to the General Conference.  Unfortunately, in 1939, because the southern church still couldn't abide black people in the church on an equal footing, a non-geographical Central Conference was created.  All the predominantly black churches were a part of this Central Conference, keeping them separate from the white churches.  Since not all the annual conferences were purely based on geography any more, geographical jurisdictional conferences had to be erected, adding yet another layer between each local church and the General Conference and, indeed, separating annual conferences from General Conference in a rather significant way.  When there was yet another merger in 1968, the newly created United Methodist Church did away with the racist Central Conference[iii] but kept the new structure.  What began as a fight over slavery ended 150 years later destroying the connectionality of a connectional church.  Our connection that fueled the movement of Methodism barely exists.  Now you'd be hard-pressed to find a local United Methodist church in which every member knows why we are connected, how we are connected, or what the connection does.

The second reason we must focus on the slavery compromise is that, every step along the way of the compromise, racism reared its head.  Like slavery itself, racism is structural.  Sometimes we get racism confused with bias and we are wrong to be so confused.  Bias is when we sit across from a black person and feel dislike or discomfort simply because he or she is black.  Racism is when we look at two job resumes that are the exact same but affirm the applicant "James" over the applicant "Shaniqua" because we assume, given the structures of our society and social norms, that James would be a better fit.  From a structural viewpoint the employer may be right: racism as such has separated traditionally black neighborhoods and schools from traditionally white neighborhoods and schools, and so if having a 'white' experience and background matters, then Shaniqua would be a poor fit.  The Harvard application race case currently ongoing is another good example: Asians consistently receive a lower 'personality' score based not in bias but in the institutional standard of what 'good' personality is and the institutional stereotyping of Asian culture.  Racism is an institutional and structural phenomenon that constantly perpetuates itself, especially because 'good' people defend themselves by saying they are good and therefore not racist, which is irrelevant.  By definition, then, racism is Christendom because Christendom, too, situates itself in social systems and structures, in institutions, and makes decisions based upon those systems rather than based upon Jesus Christ.  What we then get are Christians like Jerry Falwell, Jr. advocating for politicians based on policies of institution rather than on character. 

The relationship of Methodists to slavery and racism makes clear that we are no longer a movement of the Spirit but the seduced mistress of Christendom and its institutional systems.  Inherited structures of Christendom, namely the institutions of the status quo, take precedence over the forces needed to fuel a movement of Christ.  Thus the very call for unity becomes less about Christ and more about the status quo of Christendom.  No longer are we concerned about being filled or led by the Holy Spirit in powerful, holy, and radically progressive ways.  Now we are concerned about structures and institutions.  A long time ago we lost what is Wesleyan and Methodist about Methodism.

Indeed, we in the United Methodist Church are no longer Methodist.  How many Wesleyans or Methodists are part of a class meeting or band meeting?  Or even know what those are?  How many know our distinctive emphasis on God's grace, particularly the grace that can sanctify us into perfect Christians, aka people who love like Christ and are what God made us to be?  How many strive to Christian perfection believing that it is possible, through God's grace, in their lifetime?  How many earn, save, and give all they can to the poor and least of these?  How many put Christ and being filled with God's Spirit above all other loyalties and commitments, including family, nation, and denomination?  How many seek to spread the good news of Christ's saving grace personally through changing the systems that be by joining hands with others with no concern about theological or denominational affiliation beyond the essentials to salvation? 

Yes, many Methodists have retained a drive to work toward social justice, but most of those who do have lost the corresponding power of grace, believing that Christian perfection is impossible.  While many of us work for social justice we make Christ a liar and become a regular old non-profit organization, albeit one that happens to claim Christ as savior.  Essentially Methodists have taken two separate paths that both guarantee Christendom's sway.  On the one hand we have modern evangelicals who seek to gain adherents to the faith but do so by the dictates of Christendom, refusing to challenge Christendom by living separate from it; on the other hand we have radical progressives who seek to challenge Christendom but have foregone the infinite power of God and therefore cannot challenge anything.

All Christians, then, find themselves in a crisis, but United Methodists in particular.  Following the Special Session of the General Conference on homosexuality at the end of this month, a split may occur no matter what path is chosen.  But even before we get to the question of homosexuality we are in crisis: we as a denomination are fighting over nothing.  We think that we are fighting for the heart of United Methodism when the heart of Methodism stopped beating long ago.  Seeing that fact clearly should mean that we let the denomination die.  Who cares if a dead thing of dead Christendom stops walking around? 

The death of a dead denomination might allow the Spirit to work again, to revive the heart of the movement called Methodist in persons and churches at a local level, cutting across and through denominations, theology, and all of Christendom, acknowledging that even the most theologically or organizationally perfect structure can make us Methodist or Spirit-filled.

The previous paragraph should have been the end of the essay.  It's hard to continue on after arguing that the denomination should die.  I need to, though, at some point, come back around to the question most on people's minds.  What, then, are we to do about homosexuality?  What is the path forward?                       

Given who we are as Methodists, our answer cannot lie in any structural concerns.  We cannot argue a path forward based on The Book of Discipline or whether bishops are violating their prerogative by supporting one plan or another.  We are not a church called to make decisions in that way.  Nor can we argue a path forward based on theological grounds.  Wesley and the original movement of Methodists made clear that the only theology that matters to the movement is what is essential to salvation--justification by faith, God's sanctifying grace, and our need for the Christ who came in the flesh.  All else may be interesting to debate but ultimately not essential to salvation and therefore not essential for any Methodist.  If Methodists made other theological tenets requirements, then we would never have had time for joining together seeking to be filled entirely by God's Spirit.

Now, before I state how we should argue a path forward, would be a good time to point out that many Methodists may disagree with me about what foundations to use in charting a course.  That is understandable and expected.  But the disagreement, I think, comes in whether or not we believe that God has called up the people called Methodist for a special, evangelical cause for all of Christianity against and apart from Christendom.  I do so believe and therefore reclaiming the original foundations of the movement, the foundations of the Spirit, is critical.  To those who do not believe that the Methodists are special in that way will not care about any of what I have written here and therefore disagree about how we should decide our future.  Those people will instead seek the right path forward for the denomination we now have rather than the movement we should have.

If we are going to even be nominally Methodists as we push forward, the path forward must be grounded in a revival of God's grace in people's hearts and lives.  As in Wesley's day, Christianity is nearly dead and is full of dead people.  It is time once again to put aside what is not essential to salvation so that we focus on preaching and spreading God's enlivening Spirit, the Spirit that can fill us with power so that Christ's commands to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect become also promises.  We must put aside all else that does not engender true holiness in Christ's disciples, the type of holiness that would put us on equal footing with Adam and Eve prior to the fall, that would make our participation in Christ's likeness and divinity a reality rather than a biblical typo--a typo repeated again and again. 

On homosexuality, the question becomes: is what we believe and practice concerning homosexuality, personally and collectively, essential to salvation?  Rooting the answer in God's intention for the movement called Methodist, I believe the answer must be, 'no.'  In addition to progressively and radically opposing slavery to the point of ordaining an African-American in 1800 (in the U.S., that's amazing), Wesley and the Methodists also originally sought nearly equal rights for women as leaders in the church.  At first, Wesley held the view of Christendom, that since men are the heads of families and industry, so, too, should only men be the heads of churches.  After his mother pleaded with Wesley to hear a woman exhorter, Wesley discerned that indeed the Holy Spirit can move in and through even women.  Again, the Methodist movement is not intended to be an added layer of Christendom's structures but a movement of the Holy Spirit.  How is the Spirit moving?  Could the Spirit be moving in persons who are homosexual just as it did, and does, in women and in African-Americans?  Should we then ordain those homosexuals in whom the Spirit moves?  If we do not, then we have bowed to Christendom rather than the Spirit. 

I say all of this while also believing homosexuality to be a sin.  By ‘sin’ I mean a separation from God and from God’s intentions for His children. Jesus the Christ, our Savior, and our New Testament claim that the only beliefs that are essential to salvation are those concerning Jesus’s person, his dying and rising in the flesh, because it is through Christ alone that we are saved.  All beliefs associated with Christ’s person, like the Trinity, are also essential to believe for our personal salvation because, again, we find salvation through Christ.  The rest, however, is about discipleship and practice.  Indeed, the rest, all other beliefs, become only essential to our own individual salvation: if I believe homosexuality or drinking alcohol are sins, then I cannot be saved if I am homosexuality or a drinker of alcohol; but if you hold different beliefs about the non-essentials, then you are not beholden by my personal, non-essential belief that applies only to my path to salvation with Christ.  Salvation thus becomes subjective to some extent.  Each person must work out their salvation in fear and trembling in relationship with Jesus Christ.  The objective nature of salvation is Christ—all salvation comes through Christ.  Christ closes the gap caused by sin’s separating us from God.  Yet Christ does this in each person, each individual who strives to him and with him, who believes in him. Who are we, then, to tell a person that, if they believe all the right things about Christ and the associated beliefs, all that is essential to salvation, and their subjective faith in Christ is enough, they are still separated from God?  Whatever the reason may be, whether they are inclined to lying or homosexuality, how can we know that someone is still separated from God even though they have the essential beliefs and relationship and, subjectively, are working out their salvation with our objective God in fear and trembling?  More than claiming that they cannot be saved and reunited with God, how can we say that they cannot serve God as a pastor or through marriage, because of a personal belief we hold about our own salvation that is not essential to said salvation? 
We may feel like we are doing people a disservice by letting them live in what we believe to be sin, and thereby not living the life of joy and service God intends for them, but the same holds true for any sinner (which is all of us): if the sin in question is not directly related to belief in Christ’s person, our role is to point them to discipleship and practice by asking, “Are you living the life God intends for you?”  Each person must answer that question on their own as they work out their salvation and perfection with God in fear and trembling.  Any person or entity that inserts into the salvation formula far more than is necessary, more than Christ, that person or entity is a stumbling block.  And as Christ said, it will be worse for the stumbling block in the last days.[iv]
We must reaffirm that God did not raise up the people called Methodists to reform theology or institute the most effective denominational structure.  Other denominations may find some strange hope in determining universal truth for all its members, even if they call it “plain truth” or some such illusion.  All that is plain is the revelation of Christ through the Holy Spirit.  Therefore, God raised up the Methodists in a particular way so that the Spirit could revive dead disciples everywhere in the way that we live, to be alive in the Holy Spirit—each one of us working out our own salvation and striving to perfection.  The Holy Spirit can and does speak prophetically to structures, certainly, but as defining forces in church life and personal holiness the Holy Spirit cares little for structures.  The Holy Spirit infuses us with the power of the life of Christ so that we can live as disciples, no matter what Christendom and its denominations and cultures may tell us.  The Methodist spirit thus takes priority over personal beliefs not essential to salvation or any search for universal truths to subject people under beyond what is essential.

Perhaps more importantly, the fact that I, or any one, feels the need to write or speak on the question of homosexuality, and the fact that we are having a Special Session of the General Conference on homosexuality, is part of the problem.  Wasting breath on matters not essential to salvation, like homosexuality, bar the movement of the Spirit in two ways.  First, those who are homosexual, and their friends and loved ones, hear and see our obsession with the question and ask, "Seriously?"  Despite our denomination's insistence that we should love all people, including homosexuals, it does not in any way preclude homosexuals and others wondering where our priorities lie.  Why declaim a homosexual as a sinner and not a divorcee or an unwed mother, both of which receive far more words of condemnation in the Bible and from Jesus himself?  For many, our obsession with homosexuality is not just theologically wrong but plain hypocritical.  Or, worse, an indication that we are more concerned interpreting the book of Christendom than the person of Christ.

Secondly, every breath spent debating the issue of homosexuality is a breath not spent reforming ourselves back into a movement of the Spirit.  All the oxygen that should be used to align ourselves again with Christ against and apart from Christendom is instead sucked up on non-essential matters.  We're thus unable to face the real crisis: our conferences, our churches, our pastors, and our members are far from living a Methodist life of Spirit renewal and exultation.  For the most part, those colleagues of mine ardently supporting the Traditional Plan, or something like it, also see no problem with single-church appointments for our pastors, even though a pastor serving a single church slows down revival and evangelization because the burden for spiritual work is clearly laid on the pastor rather than the lay people.  We pastors seem to want a denomination that will give us good-paying and stable jobs rather than spiritual renewal; we lay people seem to want a denomination that reinforces our laziness.  Whoever we are, we want a denomination.  And we want a denomination that allows us to call ourselves Christian without any resulting personal or social consequences to our nominal discipleship.  This is the true crisis and we have no time for it.

As a Methodist, then, a Methodist concerned with spiritual renewal by the power of the Spirit and God's grace, concerned with living the life of a disciple of Christ against and apart from Christendom as Christians and Methodists were meant to, the Simple Plan seems the best way forward if and only if we want to continue as a denomination.

The One Church Plan is a close, but unfortunate, second. The OCP seems to try to care little for matters not essential to salvation, which is good, but in fact what it does is similar to what the Methodist Episcopal Church did about slavery: inscribing two opposite positions into official denominational policy.  In practical terms, all the OCP does is take us one step closer to one day announcing an official, progressive theological stance or a traditional contemporary conservative stance.  Yet it would be an official stance not essential to salvation or our heritage as Methodists.

The Traditional Plan outright does what the OCP only hints at doing: taking an official theological stance on a matter not essential to salvation.  If we are seeking theological correctness on all matters, the TP might make the most sense.  But as Methodists, if we are concerned with our own heritage and purpose, then we should not be concerned with universal theological correctness across the denomination or Christianiaty on any matter not essential to salvation.  That means any plan enshrining theological dogma on any matter that is not the Trinity, God as Creator, Jesus as Son who came in the flesh to live, die, and rise again for us, Spirit as Redeemer and Empowering Force, and God's Love and Grace, are nearly irrelevant to the way forward.

As for the Connectional Conference Plan, well, I know hardly a one who supports the plan.  The CCP leaves us at square one in many ways but, rather than leaving things as they are, would cause a giant pragmatic headache. 

Simply put, if we want to move forward as Methodists, we must remove Christendom from the equation as much as possible, which means removing as much denominationalism as possible.  The Simple Plan does just that: removing all language about homosexuality[v] because it's not essential to salvation or our ministry as grace/Spirit-filled evangelicals.  Recently a church member asked me how, in the Simple Plan, the denomination could secure agreement on what to believe or practice concerning homosexuality.  Removing all language about homosexuality, as the Simple Plan proposes, would also leave room for theological vagueness and possible theological disunity.  "Exactly," was my answer.  By bothering to have theological clearness on the issue we not only discredit the spirit of Methodism but also waste time that could have been spent on radically living into and by God's grace and progressively spreading the good news. According to the Simple Plan, we will not bother with non-essential issues and can press on with the real crisis of spiritual deadness in the church.

At the end of the day, however, while I am sure that the Simple Plan is the most Methodist of the proposals before the General Conference, I am far less sure that a single proposal can be the solution.  The crisis will be in vain regardless of the approved plan if the character God raised up in the Methodists remains unknown and unwanted.  So whatever happens, our prayer, whether we are Methodists or not (since Methodism is supposed to revive all Christians), should be that the Spirit lights the church aflame.  Perhaps that flame needs to burn down the church.  If the church remains standing, though, the flame will hopefully renew us in the spirit of the movement called Methodist, the movement that God raised up, like a judge in the Bible, for a particular purpose: to call Christians out of Christendom into true, grace-filled discipleship as God in Christ intends, commands, and promises.

Whatever happens, may we be renewed in the spirit of Methodists, the Spirit of God.




Endnotes

[i] In the New Testament, when anyone tries answering the question what is essential to the faith, as in 1 John 4, the answer rests in Jesus’s life and death and rising in the flesh.  That’s about it.

[ii] We call ourselves a connectional church, meaning that each church is connected to every other through a tight relationship.  It's part of our strength and unity.  It's also nearly mandatory for a movement that cuts across theology and Christendom: if you leave town for some reason you need to know that there will be others committed in the same Spirit-led and Spirit-focused way in strange, foreign places.  A connection fuels a movement.). 

[iii] Sort of.  We still have Central Conferences.  They refer to non-U.S. based conferences, but most of the non-U.S. based conferences are in Africa, so...

[iv] If we were to talk about this in a more complex way, we should again turn to Kierkegaard.  I have heard a lot of people argue that the issue is that people in the church in favor of LGBTQ ‘rights’ are simply doing theology based on experience.  As in, “I’m a homosexual,” or, “I know a homosexual,” and “homosexuals are not bad, therefore let’s ordain them and marry them.”  By doing theology based on experience, these folks say, we are actively self-affirming rather than self-denying.  Besides the fact that Wesley and the Methodists have long advocated for experience to have a role in doing theology, as in the women story, many of these people have a point.  The gospel of Jesus Christ is not, at heart, self-affirming but self-denying.  As much as we might like him to, Jesus does not say, “Whatever you are doing and whoever you are, awesome!  Believe and you’ll be saved.”  Jesus does not offer a gospel of self-affirmation full of joy, salvation, and heaven.  Salvation, yes, but what comes before that salvation is self-denial, the cross.  Even before Jesus takes up his cross he tells us to take up ours.  To Kierkegaard, therein lies part of the offense of New Testament Christianity—we want to be affirmed and yet we are told to deny ourselves.  We are therefore theologically correct to say that Christians should deny themselves, including homosexuals and, also, including heterosexuals in the style of Jesus and Paul, though we conveniently skip the latter.  The strange part is that Kierkegaard also adeptly pivots and rails against theologians, assistant professors, and half-baked pastors (to him, all pastors) for creating a theological system, whether that system is one of self-denial or not.  What happens when we create a system, even of self-denial, is that we then transfer Christian discipleship out of the realm of the individual disciple and into a nebulous realm of nothingness.  We can point to the system as having the answer, thereby affirming ourselves by affirming the system, and instead of focusing on our own discipleship in Christ we focus on the system’s alignment with Christ.  Certainly, the traditional plan, the plan of denying self and experience rather than affirming, carries the greatest theological weight; at the same time, however, it points to a system.  Christ called you, individually, personally, to deny yourself and follow him.  If we sidestep the call in favor of a system of self-denial then we become nothing, we’re worse off than before.  When it comes to Christian discipleship, then, we must deny ourselves by denying our theological system.  It’s okay to have a system, perhaps, but not to make decisions based upon it.  Rather, we decide upon Christ, upon our discipleship.  You and I must do so.  Christ is not a system.  If we want to deny ourselves, we must deny our system in trying to make a decision for others and even ourselves.  The decision for or against Christ, cross and all, comes in the heart and mind of each person who would sell all they have to follow him. 
In sum, Christ does not want theological followers.  He wants “to pierce your heart also.”  How Christ acts and interacts with each true disciple, we cannot know—we must deny ourselves the possibility of knowing what Christian submission looks like in each person.


[v] And transgender issues, which are related.  Though the main topic is homosexuality, all along we’ve also essentially been talking about transgender issues as well.