Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Nazarene Catechism, Part 2

This will be Part the Second of three outlining my response to the Nazarene catechism document that's been floating around the last week or so. Part 1 can be viewed here. In that post, I talked about how the format itself and much of the perspective of the writing were really not appropriate for theology in present and future days. While I applaud the effort, the result seems a bit short-sighted and short-lived.

This post is more a reflection on the influence of what seems to be a concerted effort from our Board of General Superintendents to push 'unity' throughout the denomination. Not that I believe unity is bad - quite the contrary - it's just that this push for unity seems more an effort to silence discussion on things in which people are very much in disagreement about. Rather than stress those things which arise from and promote actual unity, we tend to provide a party line and then act as if everyone is on board. That's troubling, if not unexpected.

The catechism document, "One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism" has this notion infused throughout. One of the most innocuous examples is the continued references to "unfermented grape juice" when discussing communion. I know 99% of Nazarene congregations use unfermented grape juice, but the Manual says "unfermented wine," which is actually different. They've basically just interpreted the Manual to say what they think it means - not a problem on the grape juice front, but more troublesome when issues are of greater import.

The best example of this is the answer to Question 123, dealing with our core theological distinctive: sanctification or holiness. The answer here is simple and defensible, but it seems to work against the traditional Nazarene position that something happens in sanctification that is different from salvation. This answer talks about a journey that starts on the cross and culminates at the resurrection, which doesn't sound much different from those other non-holiness explanations of sanctification.

I think this presentation is better than what we've done before, which leads to a sort of nebulous sinlessness, no matter how much we renounce the word. At the same time, I wouldn't want to stop wrestling with the difficulty of communicating a second work of grace, which is a real danger in this presentation. I appreciate that this answer provides cover for the proposed Article X changes at the upcoming General Assembly (although I wish we could avoid wording that basically marginalizes crisis entirely), having this answer in this place feels like putting the cart before the horse. Just because this answer maybe seems more appropriate and responsible than what we've said in the past, doesn't mean it isn't glossing over real differences among our membership - about our most central theological doctrine!

I'll include a few more examples of these at the end of this post, but the unity problems in this catechism run a bit deeper than just internal disagreements about interpretation or practice. There's a stronger undercurrent of forced unity and overgeneralization that's real problematic for scriptural and theological discussion.

Page 15 of the document gives an almost full page quote from one of the answers on scripture: "The Holy Scripture offers us a unified understanding of God's self-revelation to humanity." I guess I get what that is supposed to mean, but, in reality, the lack of unity is one of the important hallmarks of scripture. Our tradition has given us diverging voices specifically so that we remain in dialogue with each other, build a relational theology and don't get too comfortable (or propositional) and assume we've mastered Truth.

The very fact that different denominations exist is pretty strong evidence scripture isn't "unified" in its understanding. Even at its very basic levels, there's going to be disagreements on interpretations and, more importantly, implications for life. This statement, and its prominence, is just not a great start.

Continuing, I don't know how many theologians would agree with the answer to Question 25 that "'I believe in God' is the source of all other truth about humankind and the world." I'm almost positive Truth has to begin with Jesus - and probably more about his life and example than his identity. Again, Christian faith is a lived faith, not a propositional one. It's only from God's self-revelation and interaction with humanity that we could understand anything about God.

However, it also feels like theological overreach dressed up in grandiosity to make such a statement. I'd be down with saying that any truth people discover about humankind or the world is because of God - but that doesn't require belief. God's existence is often one of the last things people are willing to accept on a journey to faith. This answer is very confusing; It's almost as if the true complexity of reality leads us to put on a show - Wizard of Oz style. "Big words and firm declarations! - pay no attention to the complexity behind the curtain."

I think the answer to Question 26 is great, but it doesn't really make sense in the context of this piece. We're using God's own words to define God, which is a logical fallacy. Plus, while I love, will defend, and joyfully affirm Tertullian's statement that "If God is not One, He [sic] is not God," that statement itself is based on the assumption that unity is a universal good, which is not an opinion all people share and really an opinion one can only come to through experience.

Maybe what bothers me is that this answer treats Christianity as a particular truth, rather than a universal one. True Christianity explains a reality above, outside, and beyond itself, inviting all people to rid themselves of religion and embrace the Kingdom of God. Institutional Christianity tries to create a specific, self-sustaining reality and invite the whole world into it. Stealing from Bonhoeffer's idea of religionless Christianity, I'd argue that just as the Council of Jerusalem held that you don't have to be Jewish to be Christian, the message of the gospel for today's world is similarly that you don't have to be Christian to be Christian - there's a divinely revealed universal truth beneath the dogma that doesn't invalidate the dogma, but should call us to hold it in a specific way that invites both unity and diversity. This answer is good, but it's closed off, rather than open and inviting.

It's as if the creators of this catechism were looking to reign in discussion, setting artificial (but comfortable) boundaries around which we can talk. It feels like a fear reaction that unnecessarily chokes off real discussion and doesn't trust the Holy Spirit to guide our conversations. I'd like to see us welcome perspectives even far outside our comfort zone, but we don't seem to be able to abide even differences that have long been part of who we are as the Church of the Nazarene.

Baptism is a great example. The catechism refers to both infant and "believer's" baptism. The name of the piece itself includes the words "One baptism," yet we maintain this long-held dichotomy that contributes greatly to our inability to articulate a real, consistent, scriptural theology of baptism. On top of this, there's a strong statement, in this catechism, that people should not (and theologically cannot) be re-baptized.

I believe baptism is a symbol of God's saving grace - it applies to all and is NOT contingent upon our acceptance; we should celebrate our acts of commitment to God, but baptism is not the way to do that. But this is far from a universal perspective within the denomination and the discussion can't simply be glossed over because the powers that be finally found it appropriate to agree with me.

In reality, if we're supposed to be learning about the basics and essentially of Nazarene theology here, there are just way too many questions. Or at least way too many answers. We could simply say "The Church of the Nazarene includes members who believe a variety of things on this issue, here are some of the ways our people answer this." I know it might get repetitive, but I think this comfort with diversity would really help our unity.

Here are a few head-scratching examples:

The answer to Question 97 unnecessarily provides day-of-the-week details on the Last Supper and crucifixion even though the historicity of those details don't matter theologically and the gospels don't even all agree. It seems like a strange choice to be included and completely unnecessary.

In answer to Question 79 on who has authority to forgive sins, there is no mention of John 20, where Jesus gives such authority to the disciples. This is a difficult passage to understand or explain in light of traditional protestant theology - probably a reason to address it, not ignore it.

The answer to Question 125 references the rich young ruler, but conveniently neglects Christ's command to sell all his possessions. It's very disingenuous to use this reference without including all of it. Maybe there is a better way to answer this question? It seems "What must we do to gain eternal life?" is a pretty important question to answer thoroughly and well.

I know I'm getting real nitpick-y here, but there's a couple pet peeves that just seem unnecessary for a document meant to teach:

Different sects hold different divisions of commandments in the Decalogue (I did a lot of research on this when writing a book about it) - why would we bother choosing one definition over another, AND, if we do choose, why not provide rationale for the choice?

Sunday is not the Sabbath; Jesus didn't change the Sabbath day. We traditionally gather for corporate worship on Sunday to remember the resurrection of Christ; it has nothing to do with "keeping the sabbath" as much as we like to appropriate it that way.

What all of this says to me, beyond just the desire for people to be unified when they're not, is that this whole catechism was put together more because someone felt like it should be done than because there was a real desire to provide guidance in growth. It just doesn't seem super helpful and perhaps its more likely to work against its stated purpose than for it, because it embraces an artificial unity.

1 comment:

Todd Erickson said...

The CotN, the Methodists, probably others... Everybody seems to have this sort of "Christianity +1" attutude where their added traditions and spin (holiness) make this version of the church more real and valid, and all others are reinterpreted (unity) in that light.

Which is part of why, even though my family is coming back to the local cotn, i will probably never join a church again... Affirming the +1 with my membership seems to deny the point.