July 30, 2014

On Priorities, Positions, and the #UMC Via Media (@eJoelWatts)

I raised a few questions last week about the current call among United Methodists for a via media (or a middle way) that might preserve our unity through our current and very deep division. My questions were focused around this central point: 
If two people with irreconcilable views can both be said to occupy the middle, it's not clear to me that language of "a middle way" really gets us very far. It may help us have a conversation without it devolving into fisticuffs, and for that it is commendable, but it's not clear to me that this is sufficient to bring about a unified United Methodist Church, which seems to be a goal of those who see themselves in the middle.
The post provoked a variety of responses. Some agreed with the call for a middle way; others were suspicious of it. One post that aimed to answer some of my questions came from Joel Watts. He suggests that the via media is more about priorities than it is a position on any particular issue. Joel puts it this way:
I would say it is not a way of thinking about an issue but about priorities. I have argued consistently for a return to a theological grounding. I believe if we focus on affirming the proper role of Scripture, on what it means to be human, and how to stand as a Protestant in the Great Tradition, we can slowly began to answer the questions posed by all of the fields related to the issue of inclusion.
For me, via media is not the middle between left/progressive and right/conservative — because those two sides are usually defined, or start with, the issue of LGBT. Rather, the via media is about placing orthodoxy before other issues. Thus, we argue for orthodoxy and attempt to build up from there.
I'm grateful to Joel for taking my questions seriously. I've been tossing his response around for the last few days and now want to offer a couple of thoughts in reply. First, it seems to me a false step to set our theological priorities against the positions we hold. Is it not the case that our priorities influence, perhaps even determine, the positions we hold? For example, Joel prioritizes order and episcopal oversight. This leads him to take a position that opposes the various current acts of ecclesial disobedience happening in the UMC. He argues for LGBTQ inclusion, but not at the expense of order and discipline. This ranking of priorities results in particular positions on specific issues. Sometimes priorities are positions.

Second, Joel suggests that human sexuality is not a doctrinal matter on the level of the Trinity, Christology, or baptism, to mention a few. But this claim raises at least one question. How does the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity relate to marriage and sexual ethics? In Genesis 1, the relationship of heterosexual covenant monogamy is intimately interwoven with the bestowal of the image of God on the man and the woman. At the very least, this raises the possibility that our doctrine of God and our sexual ethics have much to do with one another and cannot be so easily separated into distinct levels of priority. This may give us some insight as to why matters of sexuality are such lightning rod issues. Perhaps different attitudes towards human sexuality emerge from fundamentally different visions of God and what it means to bear the image of God. So, I'm not quite satisfied with the claim that we can find a way forward by prioritizing orthodoxy over sexual ethics. 

Again, I'm grateful to Joel for the seriousness with which he took my questions, and I'm grateful to him for taking the time to offer some thoughts in reply. Likewise, I've aimed to take his suggestions seriously (even if I'm not finally satisfied by them) by reflecting carefully on them before posting my reservations. As many of us have said before, we need respectful dialogue on matters over which we disagree, and I'm always grateful for the opportunity to be involved in that sort of conversation. In the end, though, I find unhelpful the suggestion that the middle way is about priorities and not positions. Our priorities and our positions are bound tightly together and likely determine one another. It is essential that we recognize this if we are to understand ourselves and each other. 


Matt O'Reilly said...

Joel has responded here: http://unsettledchristianity.com/2014/07/doctrine-prioritizes-the-christ-and-the-church-before-ourselves/

I left this comment in reply:

Hi Joel, thanks for interacting with me on these questions related to the via media. Let me start by saying I've never been accused of giving too little attention to doctrine. Quite the contrary, to be sure.

Two things:
1. We must take on board the reality that the relationship between faith and practice (or doctrine and ethics) is more complex than we often portray it. The way we articulate our beliefs (doctrine) certainly shapes our practice, but it is also the case that our practices inform our beliefs. I don't want to say that holiness is more important than doctrine any more than I want to say doctrine is more important that holiness. It's a two way street. They are woven together, which makes it difficult in my estimation to easily categorize or prioritize them.

2. Respectfully, it seems to me that your strategy of deprioritizing sexuality issues actually functions to advance your progressive view of human sexuality. So, in the end it doesn't appear that you actually lower the priority of progressive sexual ethics. You seem to have made a rhetorical move that bumps it down in the argument; nevertheless, in using doctrinal priority to argue for a revisionist attitude toward sexuality, you elevate the priority of your conclusions on sexuality.

Again, thanks for the interaction.

mrawle2000 said...


I love the language you use to describe covenantal monogamy as intimately connected with the Trinitarian image of God. The union between man and woman is a beautiful picture of the fidelity within the heart of God. With that said, I push back a bit on Gen. 1 being the heart of the church's understanding of marriage in terms of expressing what lies in the heart of the Trinity.

I love your writing, so this is said in love. Some questions come to mind. How does celibacy work within the model of heterosexual monogamy as the full picture of the image of God. You seem so suggest that celibacy is at best incomplete and at worst a perversion of "be fruitful and multiply."

There is also the language of "Be fruitful and multiply." The language is that of permission, not command. The LORD doesn't say, "You shall be," rather it is permission for the man and woman to produce fruit.

Even though heterosexual copulation can certainly be a beautiful picture of the vulnerable love within the heart of God, I find it difficult to maintain that this to be the standard picture of Trinitarian theology.

Matt O'Reilly said...

Hi Matt,

Thanks for your comment and your tone. Let me clarify that I don't actually say or suggest anything about celibacy. I only mention as a side point that the doctrine of God is connected to the covenantal union between a man and a woman in Genesis 1. I point to this text as a way of saying doctrine and sexual ethics might be tied more closely together than Joel's priorities allow. I'm not here offering a full dress treatment of that text; only using it to illustrate my point about doctrine and ethics. So, I would encourage readers not to read between the lines. I affirm whole heartedly that single persons are made in the image of God, and I think we need to do a better job of affirming those who choose celibacy in singleness.

I hope you'll understand my hesitation to delve too deeply into those issues in this thread. I've got some work on Genesis 1 and other relevant passages that I've presented and hope one day to work into a publishable form. But it takes a lot of critical context and argumentation to do it clearly and carefully. So I encourage readers to stay tuned for when that comes along. I do have a couple of presentations to prepare for this fall; so that project is down the list a bit.

Thanks for reading and for your questions.

Rev. Daniel McLain Hixon said...

As I understand it (and I'm no Hebrew scholar) the word that is used in Genesis 2:24 of the union of the Man and the Woman - when the two become "one flesh" - is "ehud" (roughly; it is Strong's #259) and means "one" in the sense of a unity. A unity of persons out of which new life can and does flow, by the nature of the unity. This is, interestingly, the same word used in Hebrew in the great "Shema" of Deut. 6:4, "Hear O Israel the Lord is your God, the Lord is One."

From the Christian point of view, I see this as a subtle hint and affirmation of the Trinitarian nature of the Godhead. The Father united to the Son and the Spirit being the love that, by the nature of their union, 'proceeds' from and between them. By this reading the union of husband and wife is intended by God to be an "Icon" of the Holy Trinity (we might even press the image a bit to discuss the procession of the Spirit within the Godhead as analogous to the bringing forth of new life out of the marital union in Holy Matrimony - which could have a bearing on discussions of the Filioque clause).

If I am right in this way of thinking, then to "redefine" marriage is to deface an Icon of the Triune Life that God himself has created. It would indeed mean (as Matt has said) that our theology of marriage and our understanding of the nature of God and of the Trinity are linked from the very beginning.

mrawle2000 said...

Beautiful reflection, Daniel. I wish I had your brain! Same goes to you, O'Reilly.

There is no question that the union between man and woman has a spiritual significance and beautifully represents how two wills can be united as one. My point in the whole thing is that at some point the union of the Trinity, albeit beautifully expressed within the iconic context of marriage, has to go over and above biology, otherwise, the union of Father and Son has incestuous implications.

I don’t really mean that, but there is a hermeneutic leap involved with equating the Trinity and Heterosexual marriage. At worst taking the connection too far means that you would need to tweak the Father—Son—Spirit imagery.

To be fair, Matt's piece doesn't offer time for an exegesis of Trinitarian theology of Creation, and again, I don't question the beauty of what Matt or Daniel is saying. I push back on heterosexual marriage being the only icon expressing the union of will.

With all of this . . . marriage is a blessing. Marriage is life-giving. At the end of the day I am thankful that Christ can be found within my marriage with Christie. BUT marriage is temporal. In the kingdom we belong to God, at least Jesus suggests this in his answer to the Sadducess in Matthew 22 (ish). Gay marriage doesn't grieve me. Our culture's inability for fidelity does. Isn't the point the spiritual discipline of giving yourself over to another in mutual and shared adoration? Just because I am a male attracted to a female means that I should hold the monopoly on that discipline.

Guys, I very much value your leadership and scholarship. Your writing is always fruitful to me. Keep being a blessing!