Why the Duke Divinity School Controversy Matters

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photo by Lumvox via unsplash.com

Isn’t this just another academic squabble full of sound and fury but signifying not very much?  The recent controversy at Duke Divinity School regarding a faculty training, (the details of which were helpfully outlined by Colleen Flaherty in Inside Higher Ed), could be seen as just one more piece of evidence that the Great Divide is roiling even progressive-friendly environments like mainline seminaries.  But this matters because one of the things worth defending about the journey that theology went through in the late 20th century is the hard-won acknowledgment that context matters.

What happened at Duke?  One way to look at it is that a well-meaning effort to increase awareness of historical and institutional racism through a two-day faculty conference was seen by a disgruntled conservative professor, Paul Griffiths, as one more liberal harangue that distracted from the real work of teaching theology.  “I exhort you not to attend this training,” Griffiths said in a ‘reply all’ e-mail to the faculty. “Don’t lay waste your time by doing so. It’ll be, I predict with confidence, intellectually flaccid: there’ll be bromides, clichés and amen-corner rah-rahs in plenty.”

Griffiths, who had been having other issues with the administration, especially the new dean, Elaine Heath, went on to say, “Events of this sort are definitively anti-intellectual. … Our mission is to think, read, write and teach about the triune Lord of Christian confession. This is a hard thing. Each of us should be tense with the effort of it, thrumming like a tautly triple-woven steel thread with the work of it, consumed by the fire of it, ever eager for more of it. We have neither time nor resources to waste.”

This matters because one of the things worth defending about the journey that theology went through in the late 20th century is the hard-won acknowledgment that context matters.

There are any number of things that could be said about this incident.  I’ll stipulate the following: I have been to far too many bromide-laden conferences and heavy-handed training sessions that result, despite intentions, in hardened barriers and confirmed prejudices.  We are heavily defended against things that challenge our worldview, and this is true across the spectrum.

I have also been in magnificent sessions, in seminary and mandatory trainings after that, in which my understanding has grown, my behavior has changed, and the course of my ministry has been altered.  Some of that was through my openness to the material, but I credit more the education and skill of the presenters and facilitators.

So, looking at this, admittedly from the outside and with no warrant besides what I read in the papers (intertubes, whatever), Prof. Griffiths’ dismissal of an optional training seems too easy.

Having said that, I also feel that Dean Heath’s reply went a little beyond the pale, implying that Prof. Griffith’s email violated an understanding that to “express racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry is offensive and unacceptable, especially in a Christian institution.”  Is that what he did?

Again, I am operating on the basis of emails we probably shouldn’t be privy to and without the whole story.  But I note that exchanges between people with lots of words at their disposal can get extravagant very quickly.

Exchanges between people with lots of words at their disposal can get extravagant very quickly.

But this is not about an email spat.  It’s about reducing theology to “reading, writing, and teaching about the triune Lord” as if that is an exercise that takes place in a vacuum.   We are always in a conversation with our tradition.  Scripture and the witness of the saints questions us and puts us to the test.  And the lived experience of the pilgrim people of God brings its own questions to scripture.

To pretend that we are not incarnated persons in service of a God who was incarnate in Jesus Christ is like putting on blinders.  We need eyes to see and our eyes are compromised by the sin of racism and by the other distortions that come from being human beings in unjust human societies.

To pretend that we are not incarnated persons in service of a God who was incarnate in Jesus Christ is like putting on blinders.

Twentieth century theology produced two great movements that reoriented us to this reality.  Karl Barth and some of his disciples reclaimed a Christ-centered theology and the language of the church, which had become distorted by two centuries worth of efforts to make it reconcile with the Enlightenment.  And liberation theologies reclaimed the beating heart of a passionate God who takes human existence, context, and the suffering of the cosmos seriously.

Twentieth-first century theology doesn’t belong to either of those movements.  They have their own limitations and blinders.  But we need both impulses to move forward – a commitment to living in the language of the faith and in the incarnate body of Christ in the world.

I have high hopes for Duke and our other theological institutions.  They matter.  For theology and for the church.

The Last Thing I Want to Talk About – Bishop Oliveto and the UMC

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photo by Anna vander Stel – via Unsplash

The last thing I want to talk about is the United Methodist Church’s legal wrangling around the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto, who came to her office last year as a lesbian pastor in a same-sex marriage. Last week the Judicial Council of the denomination ruled that her consecration as bishop was carried out in violation of The Book of Discipline and now the Western Jurisdiction, where she serves, will be asked to review her standing through the complaint process.  We know this terrain all too well and it is news to no one that questions of human sexuality still divide United Methodism.

The Judicial Council provided some clarity about what the official stance of the church is with regard to non-heterosexual clergy and I expect the Western Jurisdiction to provide more clarity about how deep the divide still is over that stance.  I continue to pray daily for the Commission on A Way Forward, which is tasked with conferencing around the Great Divide, and for an institutional consensus that will allow this church that I love to move forward together.  I also pray for Bishop Oliveto, who seems to be a fine and faithful leader.  But my heart aches to talk about something else.

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Bishop Oliveto shaking hands with Dixie Brewster at the Judicial Council hearings last week – photo by UMC.org

To those who are carrying out ministry with an explicit or implicit threat that if things don’t go the way they desire in this debate they will leave I say, “Enough!”  You are wounding the body of Christ.  And we need a community of creative, covenanted, committed Christians to navigate this age.

There are biblical metaphors about such things.  No one can serve two masters.  When you set your hands to the plow don’t look back.

I know the rejoinder—“We can’t go forward until we have clarity about this one thing.”  We can.  We have.  It took over four centuries to get our Christology right and look what the Church did during that era!  We are a people who muddle through gloriously. We do cathedrals AND storefronts.  We do full immersion AND sprinkling. We sing Gregorian chants AND “Pharaoh, Pharaoh.” Methodists, in particular, are the people of AND.  We adapt our structure, our means, and our location for the sake of our mission.  As Paul puts it, “I have become all things to all people, so I could save some by all possible means” [1 Co. 9:22, CEB].

We are a people who muddle through gloriously. We do cathedrals AND storefronts.  We do full immersion AND sprinkling. We sing Gregorian chants AND “Pharaoh, Pharaoh.”

Clarity comes down to knowing what and who holds us together.  Our fidelity is to the one who has changed our lives and who calls us to an untamed holiness that is constantly stretching us to “adopt the mind that was in Christ Jesus” [Phil. 2:5].  That’s the reason for my heartache.

I believe it is God’s desire to have a Church that is not constrained by its bureaucratic apparatus.  And I worry that we are not creating spaces for new things to grow.

41ibb2XofKL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In their book Longing for Spring: A New Vision for Wesleyan Community, Elaine Heath and Scott Kisker talk about the opportunity this age presents for reclaiming the heart of the Wesleyan and Christian message.  “We are in a full-blown institutional crisis. Is this a bad thing? [We] don’t think so,” they say.  “Self-serving institutionalism is dead. The notion that the church is a bureaucracy that should look and act like the federal government of the United States is dead. That which John Wesley greatly feared has come upon us” (9).  And yet…”Today there are plenty of seekers looking for a model for creating down-to-earth yet spiritual expressions of community. What is needed are multiple examples of how to do it” (20).

This is what I want to talk about – the development of new communities, both within and in addition to existing churches, that allow clergy and laity to live out their first love and authentic calling.  These will be small — like yeast and mustard seeds, two other biblical metaphors for the kingdom — but they will be places that are receptive to God’s new thing as it is revealed in local community.  And they will muddle through, gloriously!, until the fruit is ripe.  These are the conversations I want to have.

This is what I want to talk about – the development of new communities, both within and in addition to existing churches, that allow clergy and laity to live out their first love and authentic calling.

Full inclusion and diversity of biblical interpretation, the issues that swirl around the UMC’s current impasse, are important.  But I wonder if we are able, in our current state, to talk about them if we don’t first have spirits formed by Christian community and the disciplines of that community.  Without that soil to grow in, our debates will look suspiciously like those that dominate our divided nation.  And we have better things to talk about.