Episode 70: Robert Hunt on the United Methodist Decision

Robert Hunt, a United Methodist professor at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, explains the cultural implications of the United Methodist decision to adhere to traditionalist views of marriage practices. Dr. Hunt says that by excluding missiologists, people that are experts in global culture and the church, from the decision making process, the United Methodist church failed to understand the impact of inclusion or exclusion of the LGBTQ community.

Listen here, read the transcript below, or click here for the full video version.

George Mason: 00:00 What role does culture play in religion and how do we understand some of the divisions that happen within the church including in the United Methodist Church and recent decisions? Robert Hunt will be our guest and he'll be talking about just those things. Stay tuned.

George Mason: 00:25 Welcome to Good God, conversations that matter about faith and public life. I'm your host, George Mason, and I'm pleased to welcome to the program today, Robert Hunt. Dr. Hunt, we're glad to have you. He is the director of global theological education and the director of the Center for Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology here at SMU. And a great friend in the community also to people of all faiths as you interact with people here in town. And we end up together in these multi-faith and interfaith kind of conversations. And it's a beautiful thing to hear the things you have to offer. And so thank you for all you do. So among the things I really want for us to talk about are your reflections following the Methodist decision.

George Mason: 01:25 About how they are going to handle the Book of Discipline and the role of churches and clergy with regard to LGBTQ folk. This decision that came out of the meeting in St Louis and has been reaffirmed now legislatively within the Methodist church, so called the traditional plan is creating a deep cleft between really essentially two visions of the Church and of the Gospel. And you've written extensively since that time about it. And among the things that you've talked about are that we really have to take a moment to step back and ask not just what happened, but why it happened the way it did. And one of the issues was related to this idea of the United Methodist being a global church. So talk a little more about that and the seriousness of the tension between if you're going to be a global church, people are going to have different cultural ways of instantiating the Gospel.

George Mason: 02:34 And so that's exactly right. The idea of a global church is going to be really definitionally a multicultural church. The Church of many different cultures, and inevitably that means that there are cultural differences underlying almost all theological differences and that is something that I think when United Methodism began to see itself as a global church was not written into our discipline in a meaningful way, or I'll put it in another way. It was written into our discipline in a way that made American culture normative. Or maybe better yet made the idea that there was a single American cultural normative. Which was actually a false assumption to begin with. So our current discipline, which was formed at the union in 1968 of the churches of the Methodist predecessor churches, assumes that the book of discipline will apply in its entirety to all of the United Methodists in the United States. All other United Methodists will be in what are called central conferences that are roughly culturally homogenous. And those central conferences can make amendments and changes to the discipline to suit their cultural setting. So you see that the American churches cannot.

George Mason: 04:10 So the American United Methodists are divided into regional conferences called jurisdictions, but those jurisdictions cannot make changes. So you, you have a sort of the idea that you have a double standard and you have the idea of an homogenous American culture while we recognize cultural difference outside. And one of the critiques of the traditional plan is that the votes for the traditional plan, which came out of Africa primarily, were made by people who can actually not follow it. That is to say, the delegations in Africa and the Philippines that voted on this matter of the traditional plan are not actually obliged to follow its provisions,

George Mason: 04:58 Because they could amend them.

George Mason: 04:59 Because they can amend these things. But the American church doesn't. Yeah. There are limits to that freedom to be sure. But they are, they're definitely there. But I think the deeper point that one could point at that as a justice issue, I don't think that, um, I don't think that the African delegations had any ill intent in this way. They intend to live by the provisions they pass. The real, the real issue here is the underlying culture. And I think this did not surface that I saw in any of the debates. I will mention that when the commission of a way forward was being formed, the United Methodist professors of mission sent a letter to those involved in forming it. And one of the things we said was there are missiological and cultural concerns because we have multiple cultures at play here, you should invite at least one professional missiologist, one person who knows culture.

George Mason: 06:01 And they didn't. So, um, so they did not take into account cultural difference in any of this.

George Mason: 06:10 When many people hear culture, in Christian circles, in the American setting, they think of culture as being by definition, a kind of threat to Christian orthodoxy. So you will hear often from Christian pulpits that we should not be cultural Christians or that we should not allow culture to dictate to the church our moral values. Or that we are being too influenced by culture and not enough by the spirit. These are very common kinds of challenges that the American church, especially the Evangelical Church in America is wrestling with, and yet it does seem to me, Robert, that the church itself is a culture, right? So, uh, I mean we are culture making as well. And so it's not just a threat from the outside. It's a threat that we fail to do a kind of analysis of our own culture within, but how do you respond to those who see culture only in a kind of negative sense?

George Mason: 07:26 Well, I, I think first of all, um, this idea that a Christian culture, there's a, some sort of indigenous Christian culture and then it's threatened from the outside. Um, I'm going to be honest. It's nonsensical. It's nonsensical. Um, Christianity has never existed apart from the culture in which it finds itself. Yes. It has never been different from that culture and that's because we are a religion of faith based on the belief that God came incarnate in the human being. And that human being, Jesus Christ, belonged to a culture. The specific culture of the Jewish people in the region of Galilee, Judea, Sumeria, where he lived, the language he spoke was the language of that culture.

George Mason: 08:18 The laws of which he spoke, the people to whom he spoke, everything was of that culture. The clothes that he wore, the way he was tried before Pilate, the very way that he was crucified was a cultural matter. So we are inescapably caught up in culture at the very basic, some of this, by the way, is obvious. Look at the way you and I are dressed. Look at what you were on a Sunday. Look at what a pastor wears on Sunday from a Methodist church. This all part of culture. Let's go deeper than that. The language that we speak. Yes, we're speaking English because we are speaking English. Everything that relates to the development of Anglo Saxon culture through European culture, Christendom up till today, including its pagan roots is part of the way in which we are speaking.

George Mason: 09:21 When we use the word God, it comes from the German Gott. It does not come from the Latin deus or the Greek theos. And the meaning of the word God when we speak it in English is not identical to the Latin deus. It is not identical to the Greek Theos, even though we don't know it. Right. It isn't. We, you know, there's this old hymn, "If it was good for Paul and Silas, it's good enough for me," well, we can't actually get back to Paul and Silas, right? We can't think in Paul's mind, we cannot. We can think about it. We can be in dialogue with Paul, we can listen to what Paul has to say, but we are in a sense trapped by our culture. We're less trapped by it when we recognize that and we become conscious of it, and in the church when we can become conscious of the fact that we have this whole culture working through us, yes, then we can actually begin to critique it from within. We can critically, but we are not going to be able to somehow replace it with a pure Christian worldview or a pure Christian culture.

George Mason: 10:44 Right. And so I think that's actually one of the blessings for a missionary faith, is that we don't actually have to be an imperialist about a culture to carry it with us to other cultures. Because, and that was a great disaster. historically, when we did. But given that we don't have to carry the Hebrew language with us or the Greek language with us or the English language with us, in effect, all of this can be transposed because of this incarnational understanding of Jesus.

George Mason: 11:24 Exactly. Well, one of the, the great missiologists, recently deceased, Lamin Sanneh, wrote his brilliant work on the translation of the Gospel and the important thing being the translatability of the Gospel. Unlike certain religions in which revelation only exists in the language of the population, our revelation consists in a human being, Jesus Christ, whose spirit is alive in the church. And therefore it is always translatable and therefore it moves into and inhabits different cultures. So for example, when I was in Malaysia for seven years teaching, it was very clear to me that the world, that my students and my fellow Christians inhabited was different than my world. For one thing, it was absolutely alive with spiritual forces and beings. That are scarcely a part of the American Christian's thinking, or life.

George Mason: 12:25 Um, there's no way from within my cultural framework, I could judge whether that was right or wrong or true or false and vice versa. It was simply the way that they inhabited the world and the way in which they brought the good news of Jesus Christ to bear on their own lives and what it meant to be active in that. And, and the same thing to get to the central issue from the United Methodist perspective, the same thing is true when we as American Methodists are in conversation with our dialogue with African Methodists. And a couple of points to be made there. First, there's no one Africa. You know, the United States would fit easily within Africa. In fact, more than half the United States would fit within the Congo. The idea that there's an African culture is rubbish.

George Mason: 13:22 Absolute rubbish. And we need to start with that. Liberians are not South Africans. They're not Congolese. There's a Swahili speaking eastern Africa, there's Francophone western Africa. There are thousands, literally thousands of different tribal groups in their own ethnic cultures and ideas. So there's multiple cultures in Africa, to relate to. If they have certain things in common, those are the kinds of things that mark a larger cultural realm. But to speak of African cultures itself is a nonsensical thing.

George Mason: 13:54 I think the second thing is, and this gets us to the core of the Methodist problem, is we need to realize... we talked a lot in the Methodist circles about a biblical view of marriage, a biblical view of sex and sexuality. Um, I think, I think it's very disputable whether there is such a biblical view. That would be a matter for some exegesis and study.

George Mason: 14:22 But the most important thing is that the very concept of sexuality of everything beyond biological sexual difference is cultural. Gender is cultural. 100% cultural. So having a discussion about sexuality from the perspective of American culture, where it's one thing, where we have LGBTQIA, whatever, all of those distinctions arise from within American culture. They don't arise from biological differences. They don't arise from some kind of global culture that's found everywhere in the world. They arise from within an American cultural context. They have resonances with our close cultural neighbors in northern Europe. They don't resonate so well in eastern Europe. They make even less sense in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

George Mason: 15:31 And native Americans. Well, because the Native Americans would want to add twin-spirited, which is celebrated within their tradition.

George Mason: 15:40 Just within Malaysia, where I worked for so long, the concepts of sexuality and gender are quite different.

George Mason: 15:57 We're going to take a break and come back, but this is fascinating. We need to continue to develop it. Let's, let's take a break for a moment.

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George Mason: 16:52 We're back with Robert Hunt and Robert, you were just talking about this notion of how gender even and sexuality are very deeply culturally oriented. And you had an anecdote you wanted to share.

George Mason: 17:07 Yeah, a couple really. In Chinese society, traditional Chinese society, as it was in Europe for a very long time in dramatic action, men played all the roles, men and women. It was considered unseemly for a woman to be on stage. So boys, or men who could sing in a high voice in Chinese opera played all of the women's roles. Well, Malaysia is considered a very conservative country. Uh, the cultures, they're typically patriarchal. And therefore really not a place in which anything that appeared transgendered would be acceptable. Nonetheless they had a very long running television show in which men played all the women's roles. A situation comedy essentially, in the indigenous dialect, by the way, of the Bobbon Malayse, which is a mixture of Malay and Hokien, or Molay spoken with Holkien grammar.

George Mason: 18:08 It's very strange. Similarly, there was a large fundraiser for a Methodist church in Malaysia when I was there. The kind of thing where a family pays for a thousand people to have a stage show and stuff. And the stage show was a transvestite review. Now nobody who put this on imagined there was anything wrong with this. Because within that cultural realm, that's acceptable. That's the way gender plays out in its own peculiar way. Americans would find that utterly shocking. Utterly shocking. Unacceptable. Too New Orleans, you know, but there it is, because culture didn't, in that culture, ideas about gender, gender roles, sexuality just play out differently. And I think this is true of every culture. Things that Americans regard as effeminate, in Malaysian culture, including Malay culture, were regarded as simply a man who had actual refinement and manners.

George Mason: 19:16 But certainly, we use the word effeminate, but those characteristics that we would identify as a feminine were perfectly masculine in that culture.

George Mason: 19:27 And this is typical of all over Asia?

George Mason: 19:32 Yes. Um, if I held hands with my wife at a party, that was inappropriate sexual behavior. But for two men to hold hands on the street or anywhere or for two women to hold hands perfectly appropriate. Had nothing to do with sexuality.

George Mason: 19:58 Interesting. Friendship.

George Mason: 19:59 Friendship, of course.

George Mason: 20:02 And people did not then go immediately in their mind to, I wonder if they are gay.

George Mason: 20:08 Not the least of it. Of course they wouldn't.

George Mason: 20:10 Where we would do that. So culturally, those are our assumptions. Right. And culturally those are theirs.

George Mason: 20:18 That's exactly. And this, and this is what makes it, when we have an inner church discussion, a global church discussion, there may be some agreement about a rule. No same sex marriage. But the cultural basis on which that is being taken, that decision is being taken is going to be very different. And the same thing is true. The cultural basis on which the Bible is now being interpreted is going to be very different. Yes. So that we may find that there are areas of agreement on a particular kind of behavior, in this case, the traditionalist degree, no gay marriage, or no same sex marriage. African traditionalists can get on with American traditionalists on this. But I think we will discover that in other areas of sexuality and understandings of sexuality that we actually still have profound differences that are quite unresolved.

George Mason: 21:19 For example, well, for example, and I'll go back to Asia, then I'll go go to Africa and Malaysia. Up until this day, a clergy person who is divorced cannot remain clergy if they remarry. The Asian guys,

George Mason: 21:37 By the way, can be said to be biblical.

George Mason: 21:39 Could be said to be biblical and was true within American culture until the 1950s.

George Mason: 21:45 And in Baptist culture until about the 1970s.

George Mason: 21:49 Um, well this is based on ideas about marriage. There are also ideas in Asia about dominance in marriage. Who makes decisions? Everything. My wife is a Chinese Malaysian. We've been married nearly 40 years. We will be married 40 years in about three weeks.

George Mason: 22:09 So will we!

George Mason: 22:09 Really?

George Mason: 22:09 Yes, my wife and I.

George Mason: 22:11 We wake up every morning and discover something new about our cultural differences, about what it means to be married and raise children. I think we've figured out most of them now in 40 years, but they're still usually something on the edge. Now, if we go to Africa, for example, the United Methodist discipline does clearly allow for divorce and remarriage. Of clergy.

George Mason: 22:35 I seriously doubt that the majority of African bishops will find that acceptable. And they don't have to, by the way, they don't have to. They, again, we have to abide by it here, but they don't have to abide by it. And that's perfectly okay. As far as I'm concerned. The whole business of marriage, I think in the larger Christian context, the whole idea of a marriage, divorce and remarriage, was framed in biblical terms. It should have been in terms of what is the appropriate witness to the Gospel in this cultural context. And those are decisions that have to do with the cultural context.

George Mason: 23:18 And so one could argue that if the American cultural context is now allowing for and seeing as a matter of justice, that same gender marriage should be permissible and acceptable within our culture, what you're saying is that if the nature of Christianity always has been to ask the question of not what is right or wrong about marriage, so much, as what is the best witness to the good news, in relationship to the reigning cultural paradigms, then this should not be troublesome to the church to allow for churches to make that decision to model a kind of healthy sexual practice within the culture about that. Is that a fair statement?

George Mason: 24:19 Um, I would say it should be troublesome, but in a positive way. We are we troubled to think about it. So I would, I would make two points. One, Colin Woodard in, um, a recent book called America's Nations, has made, it has pointed out I think very, very clearly, that we are not a single culture. That we have very distinctive cultures within the United States. So first as a church which embraces the entire United States, just as we are global, we need to make room for cultural difference within the United States. And that does mean that for we Methodist congregations and annual conferences need some freedom to work within the culture in order to decide what is the best witness in their particular cultural.

George Mason: 25:06 The second thing is, the church always teeters between being a counterculture that must call into question the aspects of the culture that are unfair, racism, bigotry, etc. And a witness to the culture in terms of the culture can understand we have to speak a language that's comprehensible to the culture and then finally a recognition that we do not possess the whole of the truth. The typical doctrine I believe, is that what we know through God's revelation, Jesus Christ, is sufficient but not complete. And therefore we always stand in the place of learners.

George Mason: 25:55 And so over the last 200 years or 250 years, science has taught us a lot and I think gradually recognized that, that learning, that knowledge that we come from science is valuable and corrective. So all three of these things, the variety of cultures that we have, the fact that we must speak an intelligible witness into the culture that we have, and then the fact that we must learn from elements in the culture, in this case, scientific knowledge, all come into play in our decision making. Our problem is that none of those three came into play in the,

George Mason: 26:32 United Methodist decision. Okay.

George Mason: 26:35 We were perfectly willing to ignore the science in favor of dogma. We didn't recognize our own internal cultural differences. And we have chosen now to speak instead of into the culture and what it can understand our own internal language and simply say, well, if you come inside, maybe you'll get what we're saying.

George Mason: 26:55 Yes. Okay. And so when we go back to your point that they never included a missiologist in this conversation. A lot of the tension though that represents, Robert, it seems to me is something we're hearing in the broader culture right now. And that is a kind of educated versus less educated caste system where there's a sort of resentment against intellectual elites who want to tell ordinary people what they're missing and that you should be thinking about it this way. And so what we find is politically, we have an awful lot of that happening, right? And so in the church I've experienced this where, we can have a conversation like this and try to explain why we might address the matter of whether it be permissible for same gendered persons to marry, to be ordained, right.

George Mason: 28:04 To be fully enfranchised in the life of the church and leadership and the like with the same parameters of responsibilities as everyone else. But if someone doesn't have the education or the wealth of reasoning that goes into being able to interpret scripture and to make decisions that way. There's a sense of, wait, I thought I could read the Bible just as you can. And when I read the Bible, you're telling me I don't understand what I'm talking about and I need to just defer to the expert. So how do we deal with this question that we have an American culture. Baptists, very much so, where we say every person is responsible for himself or herself before God and can read the Bible and all those sorts of things. And yet we also know that there's a reason people like you go to school, you know, and that there's a history of learning that we want to share with the church. How do we do that in a way that is not offensive? And that brings us together. Do you see what I'm saying?

George Mason: 29:16 Yeah. Well, I think in a sense, I'll mention two things really. One to this point directly. Um, we need to have an effective magistarium to use a catholic term. Whether or not we have one officially. A teaching office, right? Because really for us to think Christianally, as individuals.

George Mason: 29:42 We read the Bible, we read it for ourselves, we must draw our own conclusions out of good conscience. Okay. Whatever our level of education and that is our personal responsibility, but inevitably we need to read it with the church. The reformers who spoke of Sola scripture and empowered the individual, never had in mind that individuals would each form their own private sect. What rises, what keeps a a body of Christians from being merely a sect and rises into being a church is that they think and read with the church.

George Mason: 30:17 This is Nubegin's concept of the church is the Interpretive Community of the Gospel.

George Mason: 30:22 That's exactly right. Right. This is what Nubegin is striving at and that does require people for whom that's a full time job.

George Mason: 30:29 Okay. Glad I'm still in business. Right?

George Mason: 30:31 Yes. Uh, that said, there are two possible failures. One is when those people for whom it's a full time job decide to divide into camps, yes. And therefore quit speaking to each other. And then, and I've certainly seen this myself, uh, the second thing, and that's by the way, those conversations are difficult. They need to happen. What often spoils them is the second thing. That when our church, the United Methodist Church, chose to sit down and have a serious discussion about a way forward, the people we chose were power brokers, not bridge builders. And certainly not theologians. I'm not saying they weren't theologically educated to a person, but they were people who had long since made their expertise in brokering power within the church. Rather than in carrying on theological conversations that are quite difficult. And I think that was one of the problems. In their own way, that group would come to know each other better, to respect each other, to love each other.

George Mason: 31:42 But I really don't believe that they, they walked into that conversation with the tools that would lead to a good outcome. Now there's another problem too though for us that are theologians, which is that we have our conversation, but we have it within ourselves. That's right. We don't talk to anybody else or we insist on speaking a language that absolutely nobody speaks. You know, and that we feel content with that because we understand it. Well, for a global church, the big problem is we speak a particularly American or euro American, language within ourselves. And we're not particularly listening to voices, theological voices that come from outside of our cultural experience in realm. And that's really hard because the people we want to invite are one, the people who speak our own language. So we, American United Methodist are going to largely speak English.

George Mason: 32:40 We will make a nod in official church things to having a translator for people who are Francophone or Spanish speaking or Lusophone. But that language barrier is the starting point. The second point is that virtually everybody that we invite to have a conversation with us was educated in an American seminary.

George Mason: 33:12 We have, we have so much more to talk about it. We are going to have another episode, so let's pick this up again in our next conversation because it's just too fascinating. So thank you for being with us in this episode of Good God, Robert.

Jim White: 33:25 Good God was created by Dr. George Mason, produced and directed by Jim White, guest coordination and social media by Upward Strategy Group. Good God, conversations with George Mason, is the podcast devoted to bringing you ideas about God and faith and the common good. All material copyright 2019 by Faith Commons.


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