Last night, I had the privilege of speaking on a panel of distinguished scholars and bishops who are all, I can assure you, much more distinguished than me. The Living Church hosted a discussion, “Defining Marriage,” and other than me we had:
- John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee
- Ruth Meyers, Church Divinity School of the Pacific professor and liturgical guru extraordinaire
- Cameron Partridge, Episcopal chaplain at Boston University
- Thomas Breidenthal, Bishop of Southern Ohio
- The Rt. Rev. Dorsey McConnell, Bishop of Pittsburgh
If I do say so myself, it was a great success. Perhaps the best thing someone said to me afterwards was, “I wish we had been doing this kind of thing for the past 30 years. I think it would have really been good for the church.”
Why would it have been a good thing? I haven’t been around for the past 30 years, but I can say this: It was refreshing to talk to people in a room where Robert’s Rules of Order did not apply, and where no laws or decisions hung in the balance. I also came away feeling like there was a spirit of charitable, mutual truth-seeking in the room (e.g., this is really a hard thing to think about, and I don’t know if I have it all figured out, but here are my best thoughts so far, and what do you think about them?).
It can help, I find, when such conversations are theocentric. That is, when people are trying their darndest to wrap their minds around the heights and depths of the Lord of heaven and earth, it becomes easier to be undefended. If it’s not “your position” that you’re defending, but God’s truth that you’re all seeking, you’re usefully decentered from the self so that you can be recentered in God.
So too, it can help when the conversation is theological. By which I mean, not logical or rational as opposed to from the heart or personal (there isn’t really a disconnect between those at bottom), but open to the exchange of reasons in search of greater understanding of God, open to the possibility of saying, “Huh! That’s a good point. Well, what about if…?” There is, I’ve found, something incredibly empowering and equalizing about theological reasoning. Reason is no respecter of persons. No matter who you are, you can make a good point. No matter how powerful or rich you are, you can say something stupid. Authoritarian power does not like to respond to reasons. It would rather not take the risk.
Not that any of this is a guarantee of charitable, mutual truth-seeking. See, for instance, one of my personal favorite theological time-wasting devices, the Martin Luther Insult Generator, featuring lines from such all-time theological classics as Against Hanswurst and Against the Roman Papacy, the Institution of the Devil.
One thing I would have liked to hear more about: Thomas Breidenthal and John Bauerschmidt are both Oxford DPhil’s with dissertations written under the eminence grise floating in our panel’s room, Oliver O’Donovan. But they seem now to relate covenant and creation, or Resurrection and Moral Order, in different ways. Since I still have my theological training wheels on, I spent a fair time quoting other people, and Bishop Breidenthal’s excellent book Christian Households in particular. I suspect that the two scholar-bishops could have had an interesting conversation about precisely why and how they now differ.
Anyhow, no one threw tomatoes and I at least came away with a lot to ponder. It led to a good and honest conversation with an old friend afterwards. And I’m thankful for that.
Gentle reader, I have more thoughts on marriage and the church, but they shall have to wait until the morrow. As a highly placed source in the church told me a few days back, General Convention is a soul-crushing, death-dealing march of doom. A guy’s gotta sleep sometime.
The featured image was uploaded to Flickr by firemedic58. It is licensed under Creative Commons.
This piece brings to mind something that I have been musing over recently: the ambiguity of so-called theological reasoning. I can’t help but think that this lovely-sounding but vague phrase is to the church what the phrase “critical thinking” is to the academy (and I write as one who is professionally part of the latter). Every instructor wants to help his or her students develop something called “critical thinking” – but what does this really mean? I suspect that it means helping one’s students to develop a set of skills that, at the very least, reflect the influence of the… Read more »