A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Power, Privilege, Heresy, and Playing Poker: Some Thoughts Post #UMCGC

We United Methodists of late don't appear to be united on many things, but for the most part we are opposed to gambling. Our Social Principles state,
Gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, and destructive of good government. As an act of faith and concern, Christians should abstain from gambling and should strive to minister to those victimized by the practice. Where gambling has become addictive, the church will encourage such individuals to receive therapeutic assistance so that the individual's energies may be redirected into positive and constructive ends. The church should promote standards and personal lifestyles that would make unnecessary and undesirable the resort to commercial gambling-including public lotteries-as a recreation, as an escape, or as a means of producing public revenue or funds for support of charities or government (¶ 163G).
I'm very much in agreement with our position on gambling, but I must confess when it comes to the discussions we UMs often have on issues that deeply divide us, all too often I am reminded of the chorus from Kenny Roger's song, "The Gambler:"

You've got to know when to hold 'em
Know when to fold 'em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
You never count your money
When you're sittin' at the table
There'll be time enough for countin'
When the dealin's done

The conversation on the issues that deeply divide us all too often resort to the continual holding and playing of two cards from the progressives-- the cards of power and privilege-- and one card from the traditionalists-- the heresy card. The continual and haphazard use of these three cards either stifles fruitful discussion or it leads us to talking past each other.

Before I get into the subject proper of my post, let me be clear-- power and privilege and heresy all exist and it is willful ignorance to deny that they do. When the black lives matter movement tells us white folk that we are privileged, they indeed speak the truth. I will be the first to admit that I live a very privileged life, not only as a white American, but as an American period. I need to understand that such privilege leads to assumptions and positions on certain issues that I hold only because of such privilege. The same holds true, not only when it comes to race, but also gender, and matters of theology and ecclesiology. So, before I get into the subject proper of my post, let me acknowledge my power and privilege.

But we also need to acknowledge the existence of heresy. Boundaries matter and life is filled with lines we should not cross. When two people get married and pledge their faithfulness to each other boundaries are set. One cannot have faithfulness without boundaries. Without boundaries the covenant of marriage is unintelligible. So, too boundaries are necessary for all kinds of covenant faithfulness including the covenant Christians enjoy as members of the church of Jesus Christ. To affirm that orthodoxy exists is to recognize that there are central doctrines that make Christianity intelligible and heresy threatens that intelligibility.

It is important to note of first importance that all religions have orthodoxy and heresy as operating categories. Every worldview, religious and secular, holds to both concepts, thought they may not use the exact verbiage. In biology, for example, Darwinianism is orthodox. A rejection of such Darwinian evolution is heretical; for it tears at the very fabric of the modern scientific endeavor and how we have come to understand the world rendering its inter-related investigations unintelligible. In the same way, political parties too have their "orthodoxies" and "heresies," which may indeed shift from time to time, but they are there nonetheless. Current Republican orthodoxy centers around low taxes, while increased government spending on social programs is an orthodox doctrine among Democrats. Again, orthodoxy and heresy are about drawing boundaries; for without them groups have no identity nor do they have guidance on how to proceed in their endeavors, whether they are religious, political, or scientific. So, before I get into the subject proper of my post, let me acknowledge that heresy exists.

But here is the problem as I see it when it comes to utilizing power, privilege, and heresy in the debates that divide us. In order I will deal with the first two, and then I will highlight the problem with the last one.

While power and privilege exist and have great influence on how things happen and why stuff takes place, power and privilege do not comprise the whole story. Life and dialogue and assumptions and positions are about much more than two things. And all too often we in the United Methodist Church have been unable to have such fruitful dialogue over the issues that divide us because more than a few play the power and privilege cards without encountering the substance of the argument being made. Indeed, why deal with the substance of a position when all one has to do is say something like "Well, you believe that because you simply want to hang on to your power and your privilege." Indeed, perhaps that is true, at least in part, but what if it's more? And if it is more, to simply dismiss the view of another by playing the power and privilege cards is that not too an effort to have power and privilege over those who are attempting to make their case on other grounds. Indeed, to use a progressive mantra of late, employing the power and privilege themes at times could constitute a micro-aggression. In a must-read blog post, Steve Rankin writes, "
In the heat of General Conference debates, tweets and social media spats (going on long before General Conference), please notice the asymmetry to the arguments. We (orthodox) are very happy to talk about ideas and the practices that go with, come from, and embody those beliefs.  We want to talk about our opponents’ ideas, too.  We want to understand our opponents’ claims, but we also want to explain why we think the orthodox faith is intellectually and morally bracing and critical to living the Gospel.  Some of what gets called Gospel doesn't look like Gospel to us.  We think getting this clear matters. A lot.
But what do we do when, every time we orthodox talk about beliefs, our opponents change the subject and charge us with the abuse of power? Yes, I get how language gets used to exercise power. I agree completely.  Everybody exercises power when they use terms to define, characterize, explain and evaluate.  Everybody.
In other words to interject power and privilege into a discussion is sometimes an abuse of power all its own. I have no objection to reminding people of how the language we use and the positions we take may reveal power and privilege; what I object to is the intellectual laziness that employs such language so as not to have to deal with the substance of the matter at hand.

When I was in college I had a Muslim friend from Nigeria studying at the small college I attended. We had wonderful discussions about life and faith and religion. Since we practiced two different faiths we often did not agree, but we had some of the most intellectually stimulating discussions I have had since. Is it possible to imagine how little fruit our discussions would have borne if I constantly said to him, "Well, you believe that only because you are a Muslim," and if he constantly responded to me, "Well, you believe that only because you are a Christian." I dare say such dismissive words would not have led to the hours of great conversation we did indeed have.

I think the Nicene Creed matters and I wish the General Conference would have added it to our doctrinal standards; but the discussion of that possibility will go nowhere in the future if those who are opposed dismiss the possibility by saying that those who desire it only want to retain their power and privilege. And yes, it is true that there are those on the other side of this debate who dismissed those who rejected idea by calling them heretics. And that now leads me to the third card that gets overplayed.

As I said, heresy exists just as power and privilege. It is important to define heresy. One of the best definitions of heresy I have ever read is put forward by Alister McGrath who suggests that heresy is an attempt at orthodoxy that has failed:
A heresy is a doctrine that ultimately destroys, destabilizes, or distorts a mystery rather than preserving it. Sometimes a doctrine that was once thought to defend a mystery actually turns out to subvert it. A heresy is a failed attempt at orthodoxy, whose fault lies not in its willingness to explore possibilities or press conceptual boundaries, but in its unwillingness to accept that it has in fact failed.
The problem is when the heresy card is overplayed in the same kind of dismissive fashion as the power and privilege cards. I do not object to raising concerns about heresy. What I do object to is the intellectual laziness that employs such language so as not to have to deal with the substance of the matter at hand. Scot McKnight states it well.
First, there is the slipshod use: a "heretic" is used here for anyone who doesn't believe something we might think important. As when someone uses this term for someone who is amillennial or a preterist or a partial inerrantist or paedobaptistic or trans-substantialist … or a host of other things. 
Those who use the term for such things ought to stop. It is unfair, it is volatile, and it really does damage to what is central to the faith and what is not. When I hear someone call another a "heretic" for something that is not central to our faith, I wonder more about the name-caller than the one being name-called. It tells us something about a person to hear them pronounce such denunciation and damnation on someone who genuinely is a believer. 
Second, there is the extended use: a "heretic" is used here for anyone whom someone else thinks is skirting with danger on a central theological concept. I hear this at times about those who affirm the New Perspective with respect to Justification by Faith. There are a variety of topics here-- including one's theory of the atonement, one's view of Jesus' self-consciousness, one's view of Scripture … or one's view of Hell and final judgment. 
The term "extended" refers to someone’s theological claims to suggest that, if they were to follow through in their logic (which as often as not they don't), they will end up with some belief that is inherently no longer orthodox. Sometimes this is true. Example: some of those who deny final judgment end up denying a host of things-- like God's holiness or the ultimacy of Christ and the like-- but some don't, and we need to let each person speak for him- or herself.
Let me say two additional things about the nature of heresy. First, Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware reminds us that the label 'heretic" cannot be conferred upon someone until that person has been apprised by an ecclesiastical authority that they are teaching such heresy and then continue to do so after they have been so informed. What that means for United Methodism is very unclear, but it does remind us that heresy is an ecclesiastical matter not an individual one, so individuals playing the heresy card need to be mindful of that.

Second, as Wesleyans the importance of orthodoxy and heresy has always been centered in the mission and witness of the church. Bishop Ken Carder writes,
United Methodist doctrine and beliefs are means of holy living, not guidelines for identifying heretics. The primary purpose of beliefs is evangelization and the formation of Christian disciples, not determining who is inside the acceptable parameters of orthodoxy. The authenticity of beliefs lies in their ability to shape persons and communities into the image of Christ and promote holiness and happiness. Do they promote love for God and neighbor? This is an important Wesleyan test for doctrines and beliefs.
I fundamentally agree with the bishop. I would also affirm unequivocally that the primary purpose of doctrine is not to identify heretics, and historically when the church has gone in that direction, the results have not been good. At the same time doctrine does provide boundary markers for what beliefs and practices characterize one as orthodox. Years ago George Lindbeck and Nicholas Lash argued that doctrine provides grammatical constraints (parameters) for how we may speak of God. In the analogy of a baseball game-- one can hit the ball and play it anywhere between the foul lines in the field of play. It is a large field so there is plenty of room for playing the ball in many different places. The defense and the offense may also play the ball in many different ways depending on the circumstances of the game. But a baseball hit on the wrong side of the foul line is out of play, no exceptions. In the same way, orthodoxy provides a large playing field for theological discourse in all its variety, but at some point it is possible to speak about God in ways that no longer reflect the Christian doctrine of God (such as the denial of the Trinity). So, while we ought not to be seeking out heretics, it is possible to move into the realm of heresy which undermines and even denies the character of Christian doctrine and practice. Just as Christians can involve themselves in practices that stand outside Christian orthopraxy (e.g. slavery), so Christians can embrace doctrines that stand outside Christian orthodoxy (Wesley's definition). Neither are acceptable and neither should be exclusively separated in order to justify one or the other and neither should Christians be forced to choose between one or the other.

I think the Nicene Creed matters and I wish the General Conference would have added it to our doctrinal standards; but the discussion of that possibility in the future will go nowhere if those who supported its adoption simply dismiss the other side with the term "heretic." There were those that opposed adding the Creed to our doctrinal standards on grounds other than doctrine.

So, what this all means is that we must not ignore the important roles power, privilege, and heresy play in the midst of our doctrinal and moral debates. To recognize such can and should enhance the discussion between those who disagree. They also allow for all of us in the discussion to engage in critical self-reflection and to question our own standing from which we argue. But we must also be careful in employing these three terms in a haphazard way that does not move our discussion forward, but undermines it and dismisses those who have serious concerns. Such substantive engagement is intellectually challenging, but it is necessary if in our diversity we are still to be one church of Jesus Christ.

It takes wisdom to know when to hold 'em.


Randel Myers said...

Agreed! When all three of those are misused in dialogue, they betray Ideology at work which is strikingly close to the term idolatry.

Allan Bevere said...


A good point. We tend to think that only the other side is ideologically motivated.

Pastor Jon said...

Alan, Very well done. I assume your use of a graphic of the classic "dead man's hand" from Wild Bill Hickok lore was not by accident?

Allan Bevere said...


Your observation is correct. I wondered if anyone would notice.

Oloryn said...

'Indeed, why deal with the substance of a position when all one has to do is say something like "Well, you believe that because you simply want to hang on to your power and your privilege."'

This is exactly the technique that C. S. Lewis labelled 'Bulverism' - don't deal with the substance of an opponent's argument, just assert that their position comes from some 'taint', some motivation for thinking that way. It's essentially a motivational ad hominem. (Wikipedia has a decent description of Bulverism.) It's extremely common in all kinds of public discourse.

And it sounds like the UMC is busy proving Lewis's statment that "Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs. Each side snatches it early as a weapon against the other; but between the two reason itself is discredited."

Allan Bevere said...


Indeed. Thanks for your comments.