|Bishop C. Joseph Sprague addressing the Caretakers of God's Creation Conference|
"Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
Jesus’ admonition to “judge not” and the companion illustration of the speck and the log first caught my youthful attention when I was an early teenager.
I thought it was brilliant. And I thought that it perfectly explained the wrongness of my parents’ propensity to point out my faults, while ignoring their own. How could they be so blind, I wondered, to the logs that so obviously obscured their vision of me?
It took at least a decade before I understood the irony of my judgment.
In a recent blogpost on “Methodist Bishops and False Doctrine,” Mark Tooley, President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, and ardent critic of most of what I love about the United Methodist Church, took aim at retired Bishop Joseph Sprague for preaching what Tooley calls “False Doctrine.”
Tooley plays a theological game of “gotcha” that is no more helpful in the church than it is in secular politics. In both cases it distracts from deeper issues and questions that might move us farther along toward new understandings.
Of course, in Jesus' terms, I am judging Tooley for judging Sprague.
It is no excuse, but I just can’t help myself.
According to Tooley, Sprague has denied the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, the atoning death of Christ, as well as Christ’s eternal existence. And in a recent sermon at the United Methodist Women’s environmental conference he told a story about giving what Tooley sees as a very vague and doctrinally suspect answer to a question about his “ultimate hope.”
Historically, one of the great strengths of our Wesleyan tradition in United Methodism is that we are not a doctrinal church. We do not insist that everyone should believe the same thing. We do not have anything like a doctrinal catechism. Part of our heritage has been a valuing of the individual faith journey, and the recognition that our journeys are not all the same. We have a lot in common, but we also have a great diversity.
If we take more than a glance at these “false doctrines” we can see that the label is highly problematic.
The thoroughly orthodox biblical scholar William Barclay, writing in the middle of the last century, observed in his commentary on the birth narrative in Luke’s Gospel that the church has never insisted that everyone should believe in the virgin birth. He gives some biblical reasons in favor of believing it and other biblical reasons against it. And then he suggests that the wording in Luke and Matthew may reflect the common Jewish understanding of the time that every child had three parents, a father, a mother, and the Spirit of God.
When it comes to bodily resurrection, atonement, and the eternal nature of Christ, those are not simple concepts. People believe them very differently.
The resurrection narratives speak of a “bodily” resurrection because they want to insist that something really happened. They are not talking about a ghost or a spirit. This is not an illusion or a memory. But it is also not a story about a resuscitated corpse or a flying body. One of the consistent details in the resurrection stories is that the disciples do not recognize him. If he had appeared post Easter in his earthly body they would surely have known who he was. And Paul would not have claimed that the appearance to him was the same as the appearance to the original disciples. It is after all a mystery.
We will fast-forward to the issue at the heart of Tooley’s critique: a supposedly vague and non-traditional answer that Sprague remembers giving to a woman in prison. According to Tooley, the woman had asked the bishop for “his ultimate hope.”
But that was not the question at all.
This is the story as Bishop Sprague actually told it in his sermon:
“On Fat Tuesday, I met with 80 participants in the multi-faith Horizon Prison Initiative at the Ohio Reformatory for Women. . . .
“As the participants delved into their personal religious traditions, experiences and values, while learning to better understand and respect the differences among them, they expressed growing interest in learning more about the intersection of faith and practice in the public arena. Truth be told, they wanted chapter and verse regarding the social justice involvements of the president of Horizon.
“To honor their invitation, I presented a litany of a lifetime of social justice involvements in church, nation and world. At the conclusion of this narrative, an insightful young participant responded, “You’re an old man, who has done a bunch of things. When you look around at today’s mess, was it worth it?”
“With this, the blunt young woman opened the trapdoor to the dark night of my soul. And, I suspect to that of many activists in today’s church. Was it worth it? Has my life counted for much of lasting value, given the increasingly reactionary state of the church and the tragic folly of a Trump-led nation? I am not sure. I admitted to the young woman and her other Horizon participants that sometimes despair and situational depression creep up the back stairway of my soul.”
And then later, as Sprague worked his way toward the conclusion of his sermon, he said:
Let us return to that brutally candid, young Appalachian inmate at the Ohio Reformatory for Women, “OK,” she said in response to my confession, “but when you are down, and believe me, we here in prison know down, what do you do?”
Pensively, I responded, “I try to immerse myself in beloved community; to push my too proud self back into the care and company of intimate friends and fellow travelers that I/we might be helped to remember potent empowering stories and ponder anew the Eternal Yes in the heart of the Great Mystery made normatively visible in Jesus.”
The question was not about “ultimate hope,” it was about the hope that gets you through the day and the week. It was about the hope that keeps you going. And Sprague answered with deep faith.
Then he went on to give several illustrations of what he say as the “Eternal Yes in the heart of the Great Mystery made normatively visible in Jesus.” It was, in spite of Tooley’s attempt to belittle it, a great sermon. It was challenging and inspiring and uplifting.
He closed with some familiar lines from Emily Dickinson.
Hope is the thing with feathers,
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all . . .
Tooley makes a rather revealing observation when he writes that, “Sprague’s open defiance of core Methodist and Christian doctrine nearly twenty years ago illustrates that Methodism’s divisions and theological confusion are not new. . . . Liberal theology governed Methodism for most of the 20th century.”
So his point is that Methodism has ignored its own core doctrines for something like 40% of its denominational life in the United States. Of course, I would give a much earlier start time to progressive theology in Methodism, dating back at least to the beginnings of the Social Gospel, when progressives and evangelicals were the same people. A strong argument can be made for going back to the Civil War, or maybe to the 1844 split over slavery. I’m sure I have many colleagues who would argue that it goes all the way back to old John Wesley himself. And still others would insist, not without reason, that it started with Jesus.
But even if we take Tooley’s assessment as correct, it is hard to see something that has been around that long as a passing phase.
Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.