An Explainable Absence

My apologies for not finishing what I started last week. I was studying for my Clinical Social Work Exam. I took it today and I passed. I am now (or soon will be) a licensed therapist in the state of Virginia. Now the next step is to seek a transfer of the license to Colorado.

It is a great relief to have the studying and anxiety behind me. I can't put into words the panic I felt when I sent the test in for grading. Furthermore, I am having difficulty describing the relief I feel now that I know I have passed. There are a lot of people who helped me reach this point. They are friends, family and colleagues and I want to thank them for the roles they played in my formation and development.

I will be out of town for the next few days, and will try and finish this post on interpretation next week. Take care

grace and peace...

Interpretation, part I

A question was raised concerning the position I took in my last post on the PC (USA), the PUP report and postmodernism. The commenter basically asked how I would support the positions I took using Biblical texts as my basis for interpretation. I thought his question was valid; however, I thought it would be better answered in a post rather than a reply to his comment. What I see in his question is larger than Biblical support for a particular position. Instead I interpret his comment as a question regarding sources of insight when making theological claims. I want to broaden his question a bit for several reasons.

First, to choose particular passages to support a particular point of view is to walk a thin line between support and proof-texting (proof-texting is when you pick a verse out of the Bible to support a particular position or rationale; one example concerns what preachers did to support slavery before the civil war). Second, no one creates a theological position from Biblical objectivity. That is, no one goes into an examination of the Bible without prejudices, experiences, thoughts or feelings. Whenever we endeavor to interpret a text, we bring with us a slew of baggage that colors our perceptions. A modern point of view believes that we can divorce ourselves from this baggage and come to a meta-understanding (an interpretation that is good for everyone) of a particular text.

There are several fallacies with this point of view of Biblical interpretation. First, it assumes that there is only one interpretation to a particular passage. Second, it assumes that we can find that one interpretation. Third, it assumes that any bias we might have can be put aside in the interest of the greater good. Finally, it assumes that interpretations cannot change throughout the years.

What this leaves me with is an understanding that no matter how I interpret a passage, there will be as many objections as there are people reading my interpretation. Therefore, what I can do is be aware of my biases and make them a part of the interpretive process so that people can understand both how and why I interpret a particular passage in a particular way. The locating of myself in my social, cultural and historical positions doesn't make my interpretation correct, it just makes it more honest with regard to the experiences I have had in life.

Therefore, let me begin with acknowledging who and where I am to begin fleshing out how I come to my interpretive conclusions. I am a thirty-something white male who was raised in an upper middle class home and continues to live in an upper middle class setting. I have extensive education in clinical social work and am an ordained Presbyterian minister. I consider myself to be a left-leaning moderate who tries to balance social responsibility with personal responsibility. I have worked as a minister, youth director, Christian educator, and psychotherapist. Currently, I am a full-time doctoral student (as if that wasn't evident by all of the garbage in the previous paragraphs) who is studying the relationship between religion and psychology.

My interpretive schema is informed by several criteria. First and foremost, I believe that God is all-loving, but not all-powerful as it is currently defined. I believe that God's power lies in God's ability to fully and completely offer loving alternatives to the decisions human beings make; human beings have complete free-will and can choose not to follow God's alternatives thereby leading to disobedience and the promulgation of evil in this world. Second, I believe that the Bible has a meta-message of relationship, and is ultimately concerned with revealing the ways in which people have encountered God and attempted to reconcile events that have occurred in the world.

I do not believe in the truth of the words, but instead believe in the truth of the experiences and the truth of a God who acts in history in a variety of ways. I do not believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, but I believe in the movement of the Spirit during its writing and copying. I consider myself to adhere to a historical critical method of interpretation that seeks to remember the context but also acknowledge the similarities that surround our situations.

Finally, I believe in the immanence of God, that God is with us, around us, and active in the world. God does not stand outside of reality and is instead a part of the human struggle to find meaning and hope in a world that we have all too often chosen to destroy. God loves, God struggles, God hopes, God cares and God suffers with each of us as we attempt to discover and attend to God's pull in our lives.

My interpretations attempt to take into account ideas of tradition, experience, reason, culture, society and relationships. They are the interpretations of a pastoral theologian, care-giver and counselor who ultimately believes that Christianity, at its best, functions as a reconciling ethos of the individual to God, self and all neighbors.

Now that I have located myself, my next post will deal with particular passages that speak to my position regarding the PUP report.

(Looking back over this post, I must also say that I have truly adopted the doctoral lifestyle and way of thinking. I have heard it said that the true test of whether one is a doctoral student or not is the ability to, when encountering a piece of dog crap on the sidewalk, write ten pages about its relevance and necessity)

grace and peace...

Presbyterians, PUP, and postmodernism

Recently the General Assembly of the PC (USA) passed a resolution that agreed with a report made by the Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity (the PUP report). This report is intends to help the PC (USA) deal with the ordination of gays and lesbians. Unfortunately, the passage of this report has caused discontent for a number of people who disagree with a "local option" clause in the report. Most of the rants I have read about the passage of the PUP report amount to little more than modern interpretations of religious dogma rather than honest appraisals of the underlying philosophy of the report. Furthermore, these rants tend to come from a more conservative cohort, who incidentally, also desires to embrace the "emergent movement" with its postmodern underpinnings.

Rather than continue the current course of "saber-rattling" that is happening with a number of more theologically conservative Presbyterians, I want to look at the local option issue through the lens of the postmodern phenomena that I have been discussing lately. I will use three of the four phenomena to examine this report. These three phenomena include: the disavowing of meta-narratives, the dependency on rationalization as a means of interpretation, and the emergence of new social movements. My take on the passage of the PUP report is that it is the most philosophically postmodern decision the PC (USA) has made in recent years.

First, the PUP report acknowledges the deep differences that we hold as a diverse body of theological minds and hearts. The committee was painstakingly chosen for their diverse background and theological stances so that representation by a differing number of interest groups was evident. It is my understanding that this final report was unanimously agreed upon by the members of the group. The make-up of the committee helps us begin to understand the difficulty with establishing one Presbyterian meta-narrative. Each person entered the group with a distinct Presbyterian narrative that informed their positions, decisions and outlooks. These narratives were brought together in order to derive some form of consensus about the possibilities concerning the ordination of gays and lesbians in the PC (USA). The resulting report pays attention to the notion that we are a diverse body and that as a diverse body developing one opinion that will satisfy everyone fully is improbable.

Furthermore, to attempt to establish one meta-narrative to inform and guide all Presbyterians is create an authoritarian structure that leaves little room for the mystery of God to work in the midst of the church. The local option issue, decried by a number of postmodern wannabes, is the best course for a church that is informed by a multitude of possible narratives. Moreover, its passage by the General Assembly means that the church IS informed by postmodern sensibilities and in tune with the philosophical nature of the cultural ethos that surrounds us.

Second, the PUP report attempts to eschew the certainty of rational thought by realizing the difficult and heartfelt faith of a multitude of Presbyterians. I can only imagine the difficult (and yet somehow decent) conversations this committee endured through the last two or so years. To create a document that attempts to bridge the numerous rational gaps created in traditional arguments about the ordination of gays and lesbians is ambitious. However, the language and presentation of the document seems to incorporate more than mere rational thought; instead it attempts to relate the multiple hearts and faiths that created the PUP report. Furthermore, rationality is not eschewed entirely; instead it is given a place at the table, just not the head seat.

Numerous attempts have been made so far to rationally decide the "options" churches have as a result of the passage of the PUP report. The problem with most of these options is that they create rational categories for a multi-modal document. Providing rational solutions to a relational document is misguided at best and detrimental to the denomination at worst. Furthermore, it creates a dogmatic extremism that thrusts these churches into a modern philosophical "my way or the highway" point of view. Rational dogmatism is one of the reasons why the church is mocked by younger generations these days. Moreover, it is far from a postmodern position that generally emphasizes relational modes of being over religious modes of being.

Third, the PUP reports allows for the possibility of new social movements that have the local flavor of congregations. The local option gives credence to the multiplicity of narratives and forms of relationality that are prevalent in our churches. By having an option, churches and presbyteries can be guided by the movement of the Spirit in their midst, rather than being tediously tied to a meta-narrative that misinforms their faith. The local option implies that God is bigger than the narratives we wish to tie God to, and that their may be more than one way of interpreting God presence in our midst. Through the possibility of local arrangements, the church embraces its postmodern context and gives hope to those who have been disenfranchised for many years.

Finally, I want to pay some attention to the "emergent conversation" that has been informing the positions of many churches and ministers for a while. In the PC (USA) there are some people who have become enamored with this movement. Furthermore, some of these ministers are the first to provide a reactionary negative response to the passage of the PUP report.

First, my understanding of the "emergent conversation" is that it is an attempt to apply postmodern ways of being to a thoroughly modern church. Therefore, most "emergent" gatherings are based upon the view that relationship has primacy over religious dogma. The PUP report seems to give credence to relationship in the same manner. Furthermore, given the multi-modal form of worship and the gentility that most "emergent" orthodoxies possess (I say this knowing that some churches that claim to be emergent are merely re-packaged versions of vacuous and harmful theological conditions that seek popularity rather than change) a "local option" would suit them just fine, because it allows for the relationship to dictate the beliefs of the gathering, rather than the beliefs dictating the relationships we make. Finally, my sense of a true "emergent" church is that it is an attempt to continue conversation despite obvious differences in experience, theology, and modes of faith.

True emergent thought brings people together, rather than separates them from one another.

The promise of postmodernity is not that everyone will agree in the end. Instead the promise is that we will love one another despite the fact that or even because we disagree. Furthermore, that love does not seek to make your experience and faith the same as my experience and faith; instead it seeks to allow me the space to find the voice of God and voice of love in my life while maintaining the relationships we share.

grace and peace

Postmodernism 202

I will be continuing to study for my Social Work Licensure exam over the next few weeks. I will post when I need a break or if something strikes me as comment-worthy. The test is on the 26th and I am truly frightening by the amount and scope of the material I still have to learn...

This "final" essay will deal with the postmodern phenomenon concerning newly emergent social movements. I would propose that these new social movements can have a positive and negative impact on the way the world works. These social movements are, more often that not, local organizations that share particular narratives or concerns for particular narratives. This can have a great deal of impact on society. I think the bumper sticker that states "think globally, act locally" sums up this phenomena succinctly. We have more global information which makes the world a smaller place, but we have more regional specialization which makes the world more fragmented as well. It is the idea of specialization that I want to attend to first.

Several movements in the modern/postmodern church embody this phenomena. The most obvious is the contemporary/traditional worship split in most congregations. The division into preferential worship styles is a small example of how we are beginning to cater to the different narratives that people bring with them. There is nothing wrong with either of these worship styles (both can be equally meaningful or vacuous depending on how they are pulled off); however, what happens when the division of worship styles becomes a division in the congregation? What happens when the "traditional" folks don't know any of the "contemporary" people?

It seems to me that catering to individual needs in the context of the "body of Christ" will only serve to highlight differences rather than create the possibility of cohesion. This does not mean that individuality shouldn't be a part of the worship and life of the church, but the question is more about how individuality and community should mutually reinforce one another rather than detract from one another. The error I see is that we have created bodies of Christ within the context of what is supposed to be a body of Christ. That is, within one congregation new social organizations emerge that highlight the different needs of different congregation members and instead of dealing with them as a community of the whole, we might just let them go off and form their organization that functions within the walls of the whole, but is not really accepted as a part of the whole.

Sticking with our body metaphor, it is as though we are walking down the street and all of a sudden our right foot gets a hankering to take a different path than the rest of the body. So instead of working together to understand why the right foot might have a good idea or why some of its concerns might be valid we just hack off the foot and let it go its own way while we continue down our intended path. The right foot, regardless of its disembodied state, is still ours, it just no longer has a vital connection to the body as a whole and both move slower without each other. Thus, we have little in common save for a few strands of DNA and a corresponding wound.

Furthermore, as churches separate along these traditional/contemporary lines, what is to keep them from further separating? Why not a service for those members who prefer country music with ad hoc prayers and sermons under 12 minutes? This is the danger of increased specialization. Maybe not quite as absurd as my example, but we do end up catering to so many needs, wants or desires that we forget about the call to live in conversation with one another, not just with the ones who are like us or who we happen to like.

What is answer then? How are we to celebrate our togetherness and our separateness? How are we to understand the different needs and styles and narrative formulations that are present in the bodies of Christ that are called together? I am not altogether sure that we can answer this question in a manner that befits both the reality of our postmodern condition and the call to be the body of Christ. We are already a highly fractured religion even before we consider the internal fractured realities that individual congregations face.

I have to wonder if postmodernism might provide some of the answers we seek. If we head back to the phenomenon that originated this brief missive -- newly emerging social movements -- the word social stands out to me. If these new movements are indeed social in nature then a prerequisite is conversation, not agreement, but conversation. It means that regardless of how different the ideas are there is a commitment to the interpersonal. Moreover, to commit to the interpersonal is to commit to finding ways of remaining in conversation even when our views or our contexts may diverge completely.

We will always gather around people with whom we share a commonality. It is in our nature (or nurture) to want to be comfortable. However, the church has never been a place for comfort, and where it is change is necessary. The same goes for individuals and the movements they adhere to. Creating a new social movement that addresses the needs, desires and wants of a local context is wonderful. The "emerging church" can be an example of that. However, creating something separate in order just to be separate from "those people" or "their worship" or "that congregation" is not postmodern it is merely selfish. We cannot converse without a partner. Furthermore, there is nothing interpersonal when it just caters to the personal, nothing social when there is only one group doing the socializing.

The greatest opportunity that comes in the phenomenon of new social movements is the promise of new ways of talking about old problems. However, both the new social and old social must find a way to talk or a subject that both agree are important or both are just wasting air and contributing to global warming through the noxious gasses they emit when they sit and complain about one another.

There is one other hope that I will mention briefly. That hope is found in the idea that we are different and that we learn, worship and love differently. So much so that these new movements can awaken us to things that we have long denied or ignore in the interest of decorum or order. In conversation we may just find the new breath we seek when we enter the doors of a house of worship again or for the first time.

grace and peace...

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