September 21, 2004
Persona non grata, part 2

Back at that post at the Ivy Bush I linked to the other day, one of the people behind that Methodist petition against Bush clarified that she wasn't actually pushing for excommunication:

I would never keep anyone from communion. Jesus never reserved his table for the righteous.

I'm talking about membership in a Methodist church, which used to mean some level of commitment toward living a Christian life. I'd like to bring the Methodist church back to that understanding of membership.

Hm. What does denial of membership entail, then, if he can show up, worship, and take communion along with everybody else? They won't accept your offering money? Won't send you their newsletters? This keeps getting murkier.

Later in the thread, Heather makes this observation:

Both Hauerwas and Yoder note that excommunication is never intended to be permanent. Originally, in the first century, people were excommunicated with the desired end result to be reconciliation. It was to bring people to repentance and change.

This jibes with how I was reading Matthew 18. Thanks to events in the intervening centuries, words like "excommunication" and "heresy" tend to conjure images of burning people at the stake. But that seems not to have been the case in the apostolic era. Paul advises excommunications at various points in his letters, but he advocates no further punishments.

She also writes:

Taking this question further, can excommunication even be effective anymore? This is when there was one church--there were no denominations. So, to be cut off from the church was to be cut off from the Eucharist and the fellowship of believers. In today's society, they can just pick another denomination that is more accepting of their actions (SBC, anyone?). So, while I would like to see the church take a stand against their actions (and any and all who have supported the war in any way), I don't know how effective excommunication is, today, and if it even really sends a message.

It's a good question. In fact, it may be because of ecumenicism that people like Methodists are so reluctant to deny communion. It's one thing to say you aren't a Methodist, but another to say you aren't in the Body of Christ. To take that authority upon yourself is to effectively deny that any other denomination is part of the Body.

Nonetheless, there must be some reason why Bush is a Methodist, and not something else. So if the Methodists were to chuck him out (whatever that entails exactly), it would force him and probably a lot of other Methodists out there to think about that reason, and how important it is to them. The only modern excommunication story I've encountered was in a biography of Conrad Hilton, the hotel mogul. He was a devout Catholic all his life, but in a fit of temporary insanity he became one of the many husbands of Zsa Zsa Gabor. Since they'd both been married before, they couldn't take communion. They continued to go to church and participate in all the rituals, except that one. Hilton never exactly repented of marrying her, at least not in the book, but he did say that the excommunication along with Zsa Zsa's profligate self-indulgence made the marriage unbearable. They divorced, and he did not remarry until after his first wife's death.

It is, of course, different with Protestants than with Catholics. But especially in mainline denominations like Methodism the experience seems to be similar, in that people grow up in them and regard them as reliable institutions in life, like libraries and public schools. And I suspect that many people disobey their teachings not because of real theological differences but because they ignore them. What if one of those institutions started expressing opinions about your moral behavior? Would that make a difference to you? And what would it mean to the institution if it started defining itself publicly like that?

Finally, in a comment to my earlier post Lee remarked:

... we (meaning we Protestants) can't agree on what beliefs and/or practices are essential to the faith, and so have a hard time defining what puts someone outside of that consensus. And the temptation will always be to define our pet political views as "essential." My own personal inclination, I think, would be to regard historical essentials of the faith to be non-negotiable (divinity of Christ, the Trinity, etc.), but allow for greater latitude on moral questions, especially where that involves applying moral principles to concrete issues like a particular war.

I tend to agree. As I've written here before, the identity of God seems like the most basic starting point for a religion, because you can't really be part of the same family if you can't agree who your father is, if you know what I mean. Protestant churches tend to go in one of two rather frustrating directions: fundamentalist churches try to dogmatize everything, so no disagreement is allowed, while liberal churches seem to reverse Lee's priorities, and make moral questions non-negotiable while leaving issues of God more open-ended.

I must say that the latter always kind of baffled me. When I see things like Spong's twelve theses, or the eight points of progressive Christianity, or the Unitarian Universalists in general, I wonder how such a vague and pluralistic notion of God yields such implacable moral and political opinions. (Apparently the same thing happens with Quakers, according to Joe.) How is it that the Christian Unitarian and a Buddhist Unitarian and a pagan Unitarian all come together to agree that, say, abortion should be legal and discrimination against homosexuals is wrong?

I know what Telford would say: they actually do worship the same god, and that god is liberalism. I don't know, since apart from my brief sojourn to All Saints I haven't been to churches that were that far left, but I have to wonder. It does sound as though, on an unspoken and perhaps unconscious level, there is dogma under all that pluralism. And, perhaps, as much inclination to whup you if you misbehave.

Jake pointed out in a comment to the same post that no two people have exactly the same view of God, which is certainly true. But some people are definitely farther away from each other than others. And perhaps some people who use different names are speaking of much the same thing, whereas others who use the same name are speaking of different gods. There are no clear boundaries to this, and yet there is something that keeps so many people miles apart.

Posted by Camassia at September 21, 2004 06:26 PM | TrackBack

Some excellent points and questions. Yes, we (liberal) Quakers have tended to have these same issues. I had never thought of how it possible for a group of people with so many individual theologies can also have the same political/social justice views. Interesting conundrum!

In one way your friend Telford hits it on the head: the unifying element tends to be a kind of philosophy versus a set of religious/spiritual beliefs. In this case, that would be liberalism (in the sense of how we tend to define it here in the States) - a greater emphasis on an individual's determination to decide the specifics of theology. This point of view also values what they believe to be social structures and policies that reinforce the ability for the individual to determine such things (hence, less "authority" or "centralization" of authority).

Of course, as some on the right side of things have understandably criticized, this approach involves a kind of "political correctness" to conform to this style of individualism, too. So individuals that deviate too much find themselves silenced, rejected, avoided, and/or ignored. On the other hand, doesn't a community have the right and obligation to ensure that its values are upheld?


Posted by: Joe G. on September 21, 2004 08:04 PM

At All Saints, we seem to believe it is easier to know what God wants (we tend to be fond of Micah 6:8) than who God is (we tend to be fond of Job 38). We can be clear on the former and vague on the latter and still feel ourselves to be quite consistent.

Liberal churches are easy to caricature, but no, we aren't making this stuff up as we go along. And (with all due respect to Telford) I've BEEN to Christian Assembly Eagle Rock. (My ex-wife was, years ago, on something called their Access team.) I see a church community there just as captive to the culture as All Saints Pasadena, just captive to different elements and in different ways.

Posted by: Hugo on September 22, 2004 09:52 AM

You're right, that is what Telford means by liberalism. I guess it's ultimately a question of what leads to human fulfillment. Quakers and other liberal Christians (and secular liberals, for that matter) believe that it's arrived at largely by letting the individual go his own way, so they enforce the right of individuals to do so. They do, indeed, have a right to uphold those values.

I think the problem arises when they don't quite realize that this is a value with which people reasonably disagree, and not just "tolerance." After all, Catholics and Catholic-type Christians believe that human fulfillment comes from belonging to the Body of Christ and conforming to its teachings, and since man is fallen letting him go his own way leads to disaster. Even people who aren't quite that Augustinian about it may have a natural urge for communal religious experience instead of individual (like Martin Kelley in his comment to your post).

So the irony is that such groups end up enforcing upon individuals the group norm that individuals should not be subjected to group norms! This is why even though I believe in room for dissent, I don't think that individualism works as the overarching principle for a community.

Posted by: Camassia on September 22, 2004 09:53 AM

Sorry, that last comment was directed at Joe (Hugo posted while I was writing). Anyway, Hugo, I don't get what Telford sees in CA either -- after all, I left! I didn't mean to turn this into a debate on whether liberal or conservative Christians are more culturally influenced, because certainly you see lots on both sides.

Regarding the identity of God, I didn't mean a total demystification, which would be impossible in any case. It's more a question of what your source of authority is. How do you know what God wants if you don't agree on the authorities through which he is speaking? If you accept the Bible as authority, you're going to come to different conclusions than if you accept the Quran or the Bhagavad Gita as authority. If you accept all of them as authority, you are going to come to yet another set of conclusions. And if you take the individual as the only authority on himself or herself, as I just wrote, that will again change things.

So I guess it still looks more dogmatic to me than it does to you.

Posted by: Camassia on September 22, 2004 10:15 AM

I think it's helpful to remember that the Christian Gospel is first and foremeost a proclamation about God. The earliest creed was simply "Jesus is Lord" - very much a statement about who God is. This isn't to say that it doesn't have implications for how we live (e.g. Rom. 6), but the NT makes it clear, I think, that the Good News is what God has done, which makes our new life possible. Maybe that's just my Lutheranism coming out...

Posted by: Lee on September 22, 2004 11:44 AM

"I'm talking about membership in a Methodist church, which used to mean some level of commitment toward living a Christian life."

This is very true historically, beginning with the Methodist societies/clubs that Charles and John Wesley founded. But now I'd say that unfortunately "membership" means having your name on some sort of official church list, and as you and Heather wrote, so what? President Bush doesn't attend a United Methodist church anyway though he is still a "member!" So I'm not sure that if we kicked him out he would care very much.

At my mom's church in a small town, there was this older man who got a little too touchy-feely with the women while passing the peace, and the women spoke to him but he didn't stop. In fact, he was offended and said they'd misinterpreted him. Finally, the pastor got involved and met with him - so it kind of followed Matthew 18. But the man still did not repent; he only got angry. My mom was telling me about it and I just blurted out, "bar him from the eucharist." I don't know what happened (I'll have to remember to ask my mom but I'm sure her pastor didn't do that). In that situation, with an unrepentant sinner who is causing division in the church and harming his own soul by his perversion of the passing of the peace...indeed, what would it mean to treat him as a tax collector or Gentile? What would it mean to forgive him, if you literally can't pass the peace with him?

That's my modern (not-an-excommunication-but-perhaps-should've-been?) story.

Posted by: Jennifer on September 22, 2004 09:07 PM

I remembered another story, from Richard Lischer's memoir Open Secrets, which is about his first pastorate in a tiny church in Illinois in the 1970's. A young woman in his church is having an affair with a married man (not in his church.)

"Towards the end of our painful conversation Heather said, 'I don't care what you say, Pastor, I am keeping him,' as if he was a stray dog.

And entirely without meditation, I replied... 'Then you should not come to communion. This is between you and the church...'

Heather cries. In a few months she splits up with the man. Richard reflects on that conversation with her. "The moment had meaning for Heather only because she loved her church and was nourished by the sacrament. She knew she belonged to this community...She cried because she was ex-communitied. What happpens when you send a family member away from the table? If we were to insist on the purity of the church, where would it end?"

Posted by: Jennifer on September 23, 2004 07:20 AM

Lots of great discussion, I'm glad I found your blog. At its most pronounced, liberalism can be a kind of religion unto itself that attaches itself to other traditions.

I heard a rather noncommittal Quaker speak a few months ago. He told a story of being part of a panel on the US West Coast with a Muslim who afterwards said his Quaker speech sounded very Islamic. A week later the Quaker was in New York on a panel with a Jewish rabbi; afterwards the Friend went up to the rabbi to tell him that his speech had sounded Quaker. My speaker told this story to explain that deep down all religions are the same. But this was a theological statement in itself. I just had to laugh because what it proved was that a Liberal Quaker sounds like a Liberal Jew sounds like a Liberal Muslim. They all have much more agreement between them than they do with more traditional members of their own religious traditions. The rest of the speech that day wasn't very rooted in Quakerism and he left the distinct impression that his membership in the Society of Friends was almost accidental.

I'm not a theology expert by any means but there are basic tenets to modern religious Liberalism: the idea that we're all progressing forward; that old fashioned peculiarities should be toss aside; that science and rationality will teach us about God; that God is an impersonal process or mystical harmonic buzz, not an actual being that became flesh once. These assumptions tend to blur all the religious traditions into one big muddled lump. The differences are simply demographic, based mostly on lifestyle choices or political leanings.

I have to say I find it more annoying that anything else. It also feels so much like the rest of American globalist culture, which goes around enforcing a sameness into all our lives.

Posted by: Martin Kelley on September 24, 2004 08:58 AM
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