Theological Pluralism at the End of the Mainline

Eighteen years ago William J. Abraham published a dire warning about the future of the United Methodist Church in First Things: “United Methodists at the End of the Mainline.” The article has been shared recently in light of the current social media firestorm surrounding the 2016 United Methodist Church General Conference (#UMCGC). Abraham in 1998 saw his denomination facing a “breakdown of a working consensus.”

The problem, he argues, is that the United Methodist Church is composed of three groups—the liberals, radicals, and conservatives—with the liberals in leadership. The liberals have a policy of inclusion and pluralism, but they have excluded those who do not share their pluralistic vision and principles. The result is the old cliché: liberals are tolerant of everyone except the intolerant. Abraham sees the liberal position as inherently unstable and incoherent. The conservatives and radicals, by contrast, are defined by being explicitly exclusionary: the conservatives exclude those who are confessionally out-of-bounds, while the radicals exclude those who are politically out-of-bounds. Abraham is clearly sympathetic to the conservative camp and defends their position in the rest of the article. He clearly appreciates the liberals for being able to hold the three groups together for so long, and he seems to blame the radicals for undermining this “working consensus” by forcing the liberals to take a hard stand against certain conservative factions.

What interests me here is his case against theological pluralism. Here is the heart of his argument:
It has long been agreed that United Methodism is a coalition of diverse conviction and opinion, having been formed under the banner of theological pluralism. Church leaders took the view in the 1970s that the core identity of United Methodism, if there was one at all, was located in commitment to the Methodist Quadrilateral (Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience), and that this not only permitted but in fact sanctioned and fostered doctrinal pluralism. 
Doctrinal pluralism, despite its intellectual incoherence, will work so long as something akin to Liberal Protestantism is held by the leadership of the church and so long as those who are not Liberal Protestants acquiesce. In fact pluralism is part of the intellectual structure of Liberal Protestantism. If you believe that Christian doctrine is essentially an attempt to capture dimensions of human experience that defy precise expression in language because of personal and cultural limitations, then the truth about God, the human condition, salvation, and the like can never be adequately posited once and for all; on the contrary, the church must express ever and anew its experience of the divine as mediated through Jesus Christ. The church becomes a kind of eternal seminar whose standard texts keep changing and whose conversation never ends. In these circumstances pluralism is an inescapable feature of the church’s life. Pluralism effectively prevents the emergence of Christian doctrinal confession, that is, agreed Christian conviction and truth; and it creates the psychological and social conditions for constant self-criticism and review. 
The incoherence of this position is not difficult to discern, despite its initial plausibility. On its own terms it cannot tolerate, for example, those who believe that there really is a definitive revelation of the divine, that the church really can discern and express the truth about God through the working of reason and the Holy Spirit, and that such truth is necessary for effective mission and service. Hence pluralism is by nature exclusionary. Thus it is no surprise that pluralists readily desert their pluralism in their vehement opposition to certain kinds of classical and conservative theology. 
Pluralism is at once absolutist and relativist. It is absolutely committed to the negative doctrine that there is no divine revelation that delivers genuine knowledge of God; it is absolutely committed to a radically apophatic conception of Christian theology, so that no human language or concept, no product of reason at all, can adequately express the mystery of the divine; and it is absolutely committed to using theology to articulate Christian doctrine given the needs and idiom of the day. But it is relativist in its vision of what constitutes the material content of Christian doctrine at any point in history. Doctrine for the pluralists is the expression of Christian teaching as worked out by some appropriate theology and expressed in terms adequate to the culture of the day. To them, Christian tradition constitutes a series of landmark expressions of the faith which are worth exploring, but which must change to incorporate new insights and new truth. On this analysis tradition is seen to be a relatively benign, if not strictly binding, phenomenon.
I am not interested in the internecine squabbles within the UMC, so I will mostly ignore the rest of his article. What concerns me is the characterization of pluralism in this piece. Abraham thinks that the pluralist position is rooted in apophaticism, that is to say, the notion that we cannot have definitive knowledge of God. Because our language does not actually refer to God, our God-talk is merely about human experience. And since human experience is pluriform and constantly changing, our theology must necessarily be pluralistic and provisional.

The liberal position as Abraham describes it makes a crucial—and, to my mind, erroneous—presupposition. It assumes that one cannot confess a definitive revelation of God and hold to a pluralistic and provisional understanding of God-talk. If we have knowledge of God, then doctrinal pluralism is impossible. Whether this is Abraham’s own position or simply the position of the UMC liberals he describes is beside the point. What matters here is that this is not the only option available to us.

Theological pluralism is the necessary consequence of faith’s knowledge of God’s revelation. That is because pluralism is grounded not in a pragmatic attempt to address human diversity but in a theological conviction about the very being and action of God. Pluralism is valid because God embraces sociocultural multiplicity within God’s own being. Revelation is not objectifiable in a text or historical occurrence but is and remains a divine event that confronts us in history. This event of divine self-revelation—insofar as it is concretely defined by the Christ who transgresses cultural boundaries and the Spirit who brings cultural strangers into emancipatory coexistence—is inherently translatable, and thus God is perpetually in the act of translating Godself into a multiplicity of contexts.

The result is that we can affirm each of the three factions that Abraham describes:

  • In agreement with the liberals, revelation “def[ies] precise expression in language because of personal and cultural limitations,” doctrine “can never be adequately posited once and for all,” “the church must express ever and anew its experience of the divine,” and the church must engage in “constant self-criticism.”
  • In agreement with the radicals, this revelation is an emancipatory event that stands on the side of the marginalized and disenfranchised, those who have been oppressed by the unjust distribution of power and the enslaving system of neoliberal capitalism.
  • In agreement with the conservatives, this revelation is grounded in a definitive revelation of God in Jesus Christ and is thus the norm and criterion for genuinely confessional claims about God, the world, and the church.

By grounding the liberal project in the being-in-act of God, one can thus move beyond Abraham’s charge of incoherence. The liberal project is, properly understood, not inclusion and pluralism for the mere sake of pluralism and inclusion. Instead, inclusion is grounded in and follows from a particular understanding of God, and since this God has a very particular character the inclusion that follows from revelation has certain limitations. It is not pluralism for pluralism’s sake. It is pluralism as the expression of God’s constant going-beyond-Godself in the action of Christ and the Spirit in the world. Certain positions are necessarily excluded as being unfaithful to this God.

In other words, conservative positions that attempt to stabilize doctrine as timeless and universally valid are in fact denying the truth of the gospel. Positions that attempt to establish certain gender and sexual norms as permanently valid on the basis of creation are in fact opposed to God’s revelation. Positions that do not take matters of oppression and liberation into account fail to follow the way of God in the world.

The charge of incoherence is only plausible where one does not probe the underlying basis for theological pluralism. Once we do, we begin to see that it is possible—nay, necessary—to develop what we might call a radical liberal evangelicalism. Such a position insists on a genuine knowledge of God that makes possible meaningful God-talk. But such a position equally insists that the God we come to know is a God who does not stand still, who is perpetually in movement, who does not put up with being made a stable object for our observation and inquiry. Moreover, this God is in movement on the underside of history, breaking in among those who have been systemically silenced and subjugated. The most genuinely conservative theology is thus the most genuinely radical: a theology that hears and speaks of God in revolutionary action.

My forthcoming book, The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cascade, 2016), is an initial attempt to outline what a theology of this nature looks like. In that work I propose what I call an orthoheterodoxy: theology must always speak differently, but in the right way, namely, in accordance with the norm of God’s translatable event of revelation. You can see the table of contents here. Stay tuned for more details.


Erin said…
So this is a really provocative and helpful statement to chew on;
"This event of divine self-revelation—insofar as it is concretely defined by the Christ who transgresses cultural boundaries and the Spirit who brings cultural strangers into emancipatory coexistence—is inherently translatable, and thus God is perpetually in the act of translating Godself into a multiplicity of contexts.

Where I get tripped up though is that the question of what is revealed by a culturally transgressive Christ is still up for grabs, no? There are various culturally bound perceptions of what is concretely defined by Christ. If this statement is grounding the Christ event primarily in change (of a perpetually transgressive love) is it also a nascent argument for open theism? If not, then the question of what Christ reveals is still up for grabs, whether liberal or conservative isn’t it? Side note: must it be a radical liberal evangelicalism, as opposed to say, radical liberal orthodoxy? too many questions, sorry - I look forward to the book :)
Hi Erin,

Thanks for the comment. I am intentionally being quite vague here with respect to what the content of revelation is, and that's because I do not want prematurely to shut down the manifold possibilities that this event opens up. At the same time, if you are asking about what I personally think revelation entails, I would say that revelation does not reveal a "what" at all but rather a "how," a mode of being in the world. The doctrinal content of revelation is what has to be figured out anew in each situation. But what holds the various formations of this content together is a particular existential encounter and experience, what I call "emancipatory coexistence." One could also call it revolutionary action or, as you put it, "perpetually transgressive love." I like that phrase a lot.

But I do not think this necessarily entails open theism. I am not an open theist myself, though I have friends who are. Personally I think open theism (and its process counterpart) is still too metaphysical and theistic, too rooted in certain mythological conceptions of the divine that trade on literalistic readings of the biblical text. But I recognize that these readings are important to certain people and I am happy to join hands with open/process theists in our respective endeavors to promote love and justice in the world.

I do not think it's all "up for grabs," though. I do think revelation functions as a norm for theology, one that opens up certain possibilities while shutting down others. For instance, I do not think there is any account of revelation in Christ that can be made compatible with patriarchy, neoliberal capitalism, colonialism, or a libertarian anthropology and political philosophy, to name just a few examples. These are inauthentic modes of being in the world. They marginalize and oppress the cultural stranger rather than pursue emancipatory forms of life together.

Finally, I much prefer the term "evangelicalism" to the word "orthodoxy." Despite the massive and perhaps irreparable image problem associated with evangelicalism in North America, we should not forget that historically speaking evangelicalism was a liberative reform movement that challenged the ecclesiastical and political power structures. Key leaders like Charles Finney and Jonathan Blanchard were the political radicals of their time. Evangelicalism fostered or birthed many ostensibly heterodox ideas, including a form of Christian universalism. This is a tradition worth retaining and rehabilitating. The concept of "orthodoxy," by contrast, is focused far too narrowly on "right doctrine" and too often assumes that what is "right" is defined by the tradition as determined by those in ecclesiastical power.