Friday, June 1, 2012

The Limits of Doctrine

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Matthew 11:28-30

William Willimon, the most widely published United Methodist Bishop, is retiring from his episcopal responsibilities and returning to teaching at Duke Divinity School. In an interview published in The Christian Century, he commented on a broad range of issues relating to the work of a bishop and the ministry of the United Methodist Church.

He was asked whether in his role as Bishop he would have removed a pastor who had “recanted doctrinal vows he or she had solemnly pledged to honor.” “Absolutely,” said Willimon, “tell me you have misgivings about the Trinity or trouble believing in the bodily resurrection and I’ll help you find less intellectually challenging work—like being a Republican candidate for president.”

Throughout his career, Willimon has been known more for his wit than his wisdom, and if one assumes that he was trying to be funny about the Republican candidates, then maybe he was just kidding in his doctrinal illustration.

If he wasn’t kidding, then it’s troubling to think that having “misgivings about the Trinity or trouble believing in the bodily resurrection” would be grounds for dismissing a pastor.

In the first place, Methodists have never been greatly concerned about doctrine. We are united in a general affirmation that Jesus is the Christ, but widely divided about precisely what that means.

In the second place, if “misgivings” can be grounds for dismissal, then it will be difficult to have really honest conversation with one’s bishop, who is supposed to be a “pastor to the pastors.”

But there’s more.

This coming Sunday is Trinity Sunday. I’m guessing that the average United Methodist lay person doesn’t know that and doesn’t care. The Trinity has a strong tradition as church doctrine, but it is connected to the biblical witness of the early church by the thinnest threads of biblical evidence.

The Trinity does represent an important truth: we experience God in different ways. The traditional formulation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, reminds us that we experience God as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. But to the average person, the doctrine of the Trinity often sounds like a belief in three gods, rather than three experiences of the One.

Willimon’s second example of denying a doctrine is described as “having trouble believing in the bodily resurrection.” Nothing is more central to Christian faith than the resurrection of Jesus. The Gospels are written by people who are convinced that they have met the risen Christ. That encounter vindicates everything that Jesus taught. They are clear that they are not just talking about a memory, and they have not encountered a ghost. His presence is real.

Expressing that reality in a way that it can be understood is not easy. Clearly, we are not talking about a resuscitated corpse. The Gospel descriptions never confront the issue head on. We see an empty tomb and we hear a voice. He approaches two of them on the road to Emmaus, and they talk for hours before they recognize him in the breaking of bread. When Paul describes his encounter on the road to Damascus, he claims that the appearance to him is just the same as previous appearances to other disciples. There are no words to describe the experience which has turned their world upside down.

More than half a century ago, the great theologian Paul Tillich argued that Jesus had come to free us from what he called, “The Yoke of Religion.” He described the predicament of modern “man” this way:

“The religious law demands that he accept ideas and dogmas, that he believe in doctrines and traditions, the acceptance of which is the condition of his salvation from anxiety, despair and death. So he tries to accept them, although they may have become strange or doubtful to him. He labors and toils under the religious demand to believe things he cannot believe.”

In Tillich’s time, there were many church goers who labored and toiled under the religious demand to believe things they could not believe. In our time some of those people are searching desperately for a way to reconcile their faith with ancient doctrines, while many others simply leave the church. For such people, a pastor with “misgivings” about those doctrines may be exactly what they need.

When Jesus called his disciples, he did not demand that they believe something, only that they follow him. That is still our invitation.

1 comment:

  1. But --- it's so much more comfortable to sit some place prattling on about doctrines - and enjoying declaring other people to be wrong and therefore worthy of being cast out - than it is to follow Jesus and have to love and suffer. In Willimon's word, we often accept "intellectual challenges" because they help us avoid spititual challenges - and most of us want that very deeply. Maybe that's why Willimon got to be a Bishop. He's been a good company man, and upheld the main goal if the institution: preserving itself and its doctrines.