New voice for UM scholars

By Stephen Rankin –

“With all the renewal and caucus groups in United Methodism already, why the need for one more, especially one called United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy (UMSCO)? Who are you people and what is your deal?” We can imagine someone asking these questions and we take them seriously as we start this new venture.

As a group of scholars, we have no intentions of becoming another UM caucus group. Whereas we may have concerns similar to other such groups on certain topics, our main purpose is not to exert pressure on General Conference votes or to engage in legislative advocacy. Our concerns are broader and deeper.

For the past several years, colleagues who attend the same scholarly annual meetings have been getting together for an evening to share concerns, yes, even our heartache over the massive confusions, conflicts and decline of The United Methodist Church. After a number of such encounters, we became convinced that God was calling us to try to do something — as academics — to help.

A few months ago, 15 of us met in Chicago to form our new group. We believe scholars have an important role to play in the church. It is our job to help teach the church and provide academic leadership to help other leaders lead and teach the church. Furthermore, we believe strongly that the most important of our difficulties in United Methodism relate directly to doctrine and discipline.

Regarding doctrine, we are convinced that ignorance of our doctrine is endemic among United Methodists, not only about what United Methodists believe, but also how our doctrines fit within the so-called Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy dating back to the earliest church. Methodists have been generous to a fault, wishing to draw the circle as wide as possible to include all people (or as many as possible). But this generosity has bred confusion and bondage, not clarity and freedom. We cannot be held together by denominational structures alone and we cannot talk about “shared mission” if we don’t have shared vision. That vision starts with some core theological commitments and some theological boundaries.

The mission of UMSCO, therefore, is to take the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Chalcedonian statement regarding Christology as our givens, our starting points. They provide our dogmatic boundaries. Any theological construction that does not fit within the broad tradition governed by these assumptions is not worthy to be called United Methodist theology. We start with a means by which to assess our United Methodist doctrinal convictions.

From within these boundaries, we can then explore philosophical, theological, and ethical questions. We can engage all the questions and challenges facing the twenty first century world. With this theological framework we are not interested in questions that can be labeled only “academic.” We are fully interested and invested in taking on the world’s great challenges as theologically orthodox United Methodists. Sound doctrine supports and vivifies all life, not just our ideas.

Our Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith are sound expressions of our doctrinal beliefs. Unfortunately, we read them so broadly that they wind up having little to no governing control over our theological deliberations. Lack of doctrinal clarity, made worse by lack of willingness to discipline ourselves according to our doctrines, is a big reason United Methodism is foundering.

Our group is planning to address three important areas.

1. We need to examine our metaphysics related to specific topics. Is the world a system closed to divine action and divine speaking or do we really think that God is actively involved in our world? If so, how do we recognize divine action? Is God available to us in the natural world, or should we be wholehearted deists?

2. We must have a large and ongoing conversation about our methods. By what authorities (sources) and by what steps of thinking (logic, reason) do we arrive at our theological and ethical conclusions? In other words, when we have our arguments we need to get better at giving reasons for drawing the conclusions we draw. Simply telling our stories or sharing our experiences—as helpful as they are for understanding one another—is not sufficient ground to identify our fundamental unity or to build a church. We must do the hard work of showing how we arrive at our various points of view and then we must do the even harder work of evaluating those accounts. And, yes, we need to ask how our theological explorations square with the faith once delivered.

It is ironic that we have grown squeamish about engaging in serious analysis of ideas. Maybe we’ve lost the ability to do so. In the current environment of white-hot polemics, we see far too much impugning of people’s motives and reading into comments, rather than exercising charity and asking for clarity before drawing conclusions. We have to re-develop the patience for serious and systematic thought.

3. Why do we believe that Christian Orthodoxy, within which we believe our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith fit with ease, provides the church the appropriate and final reference points for being the church and doing the work the church is called to do? Because sound doctrine evokes and promotes life, the very kind of life to which Christ calls us and through grace we are privileged to live.

By addressing these three issues as a society of scholars, we hope to foster and catalyze a new environment in United Methodism.

Stephen Rankin is Chaplain at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. For more information on the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy, check out their website at http://umorthodoxy.org.

 

Comments

  1. Will these scholars ever identify themselves, or explain how they came to be included in the caucus? Is there something that distinguishes a bona fide “scholar” from other ordained ministers who have earned MTh degrees? Will other ordained clergy be targeted as the “leaders” to whom UMSCO’s “academic leadership” will be administered?

    Will the examinations of “our Metaphysics” cross idealogical lines and welcome progressive theological perspectives? Will the “large and ongoing conversation” about UMC methods be a closed conversation among traditionalists, or will it be a dialogue among the full range of UMC perspectives? Will there be an attempt to discipline or penalize UMC laity and clergy who may question whether the reference points determined by this caucus are “appropriate and final”?

    I would love to see more scholarship brought into the dialogue, with diverse points of view represented . Will that happen, or is the deck already being stacked to consider only orthodox scholarship in this exploration and conversation?

  2. Well, since the group of people pretty clearly state their dedication to orthodoxy, I presume they would welcome any theological input that works within the broad tradition of the creeds (you may have missed that paragraph, above, when you read the article before replying). As you know, the author then goes on to explain that our Articles and Confession ought not be read so broadly as to preclude definition at all.

    I don’t have a member list for RMN. It’s never crossed my mind to spend four seconds worrying about that.

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