Protestants aren’t very good at dealing with difficult social/ethical issues. Roman Catholics, while they have their own problems, are much better at this. Why? They have an extensive body of theological and ethical teaching produced for the church and adopted by the church. In my own Methodist world, we have nothing really like this. We have some very fine theological writers, but with regard to deep-dive theological position papers written for and adopted by the church, we don’t do this much. This, I maintain, is part of what has led to our current division.
In the UMC, By Water and the Spirit and This Holy Mystery are models of how the church can produce useful, definitive theological teaching. Of course, it’s easier for us to make definitive statements about the sacraments than, say, sex, gender, abortion, war, guns, or race. Because we lack common assumptions that would make productive dialogue on these matters possible, discussions of them tend to devolve into shouting matches. As Alasdair MacIntyre has argued, individuals commonly base their ethical positions on emotivism, rather than any clear principles related to specific virtues. In other words, morality becomes a matter of personal taste and preference, rather than reasoned extrapolation from defined principles. If you would like specific examples of emotivism, you need only open Facebook or Twitter.
One might reply that the UMC has the Social Principles to guide our discussions. Yet the Social Principles are insufficient because these principles provide assertions without detailed discussion of their bases. We may say that X is right or wrong, but why? And the why matters. At least in the UMC, the reason why a given assertion makes it into the Social Principles is that the votes are there, and that is not a sufficient rationale for a statement on a complex and contested ethical matter.
Further, we Christians can’t count on the fact that people in the West have any Christian formation whatsoever. Increasingly, their intellectual and ethical formation may be explicitly anti-Christian. As we invite people to join our communities of faith and practice, then, we need to be able to make the case as compellingly as possible for the life we envision. We need clarity not only on what we believe, but why we believe it. This means we have to move beyond taste, preference, and emotion.
Protestant churches need bodies tasked specifically with providing the church with sound theological and ethical teaching. Again, there are some brilliant scholars in the Protestant world, but having these scholars in our colleges, universities, and seminaries, while important, is not enough. The churches themselves need to develop forums for deep theological discourse and provide informed, well-considered, and normative guidance for both clergy and laity.
4 thoughts on “Hard Questions and Protestant Churches: We Can Do Better”
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This seems to be an intentional walk to load the bases in hopes of getting the final out. Even if the magisterial materials are produced, will they be read, and will they be taught? Before she became bishop, Elaine Stanovsky and I attended the same scholarly retreat to hear Billy Abraham expound on our Methodist “doctrinal amnesia.” She asked questions. Did she take the lesson? Did it make a discernible difference in her eventual administration? You know the adage: “You can lead a horse to water . . . “
Much of the theological ground work has already been done by the Church catholic in the first millennium. Wesley knew this and early Methodism was, as Stanley Hauerwas said, a “ recovery of Catholic Christianity through disciplined congregational life.” I long for a next Methodism which draws deeply from these ancient sources.
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