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Is Theological Pluralism Dead in the UMC?

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is cobbj@cgu.edu.. This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 6, 1988, p. 343. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


"Liberalism" has many meanings in contemporary theological usage. Chiefly it has come to name something the speaker dislikes. But the liberal spirit has continued in an affirmation of theological pluralism -- an appreciation and attentive acceptance of a variety of theological programs. Sometimes this has meant that various historic Christian traditions have affirmed the legitimacy of each other’s differences in articulating the faith. Sometimes it has meant that such diversity could be affirmed even within a single denomination. The United Methodist Church has accepted theological pluralism in both of these ways. However, the second is now under attack.

In late April the denomination’s General Conference will convene for its quadrennial session. Decisions made at General Conference determine the denomination’s practice so far as that can be settled by legislation at least until the conference meets again. Among the crucial issues to be decided this year is the denomination’s openness to continuing its tradition of theological pluralism.

The UMC’s authoritative document is called The Book of Discipline. In the present Discipline the church affirms its openness to divergent theological traditions and projects, declaring that the UMC’s "theological spectrum. . . ranges over all the current mainstream options and a variety of special interest theologies as well." It asserts that the denomination’s doctrinal guidelines allow for, indeed they positively encourage, "variety in United Methodist theologizing." The breadth of this openness is made explicit by reference to neofundamentalism, new pentecostalism, new forms of Christian naturalism and secularity. as well as black theology, female liberation theology. political and ethnic theologies, third world theologies, and theologies of human rights."

This commitment to openness has not been without cost. For example. it too easily passes over into theological indifferentism. When theological faculties try to help students work out their own convictions in encounter with a variety of voices, many students find their freedom burdensome. Some prefer to be told what to believe. Even when students do successfully begin the task of articulating their own theological convictions, Boards of Ordained Ministry are often dissatisfied with the results. Thus candidates increasingly feel the need to know what answers will satisfy the boards.

A still more serious problem is that the denomination’s erstwhile unifying vision of its mission has faded. Methodism came into being to meet individual and societal needs that were not being dealt with by other church institutions, first in England and then elsewhere, especially on this continent. In the late 19th century the parent bodies now joined together in the United Methodist Church threw their energies into extending Christ’s reign around the world. Since World War II, however, only limited parts of the church are aroused to sacrificial giving and service by these visions, and no new vision has emerged to give focus and direction to the denomination. Inevitably, the UMC turns in on itself to find its reason for existence and a basis for action. When it does so, many understandably seek unity of belief to replace the disappearing unity of purpose. Some of these individuals are disturbed to find the denomination’s official statement so accepting of diversity.

The concern to resolve problems surrounding theological pluralism was a main factor leading the 1984 General Conference to seek the Council of Bishops’ appointment of a "Committee on our theological task." That committee is to report to the upcoming 1988 General Conference.

The committee accepted the implicit mandate to reject theological pluralism: even the factual existence of pluralism is barely acknowledged in its report. "United Methodists as a diverse people continue to strive for consensus in understanding the gospel. . . . In the name of Jesus Christ we are called to work within our diversity while exercising patience and forbearance with one another." In this passage diversity appears as an impediment to unity. and it is not clear, even here, that the reference is to diversity of theologies. Nowhere is it suggested that the life of the denomination may be enriched by a variety of theological approaches.

Once the denomination commits itself to homogeneity of theological approach, the question of the one acceptable approach becomes critical. The present Discipline limits diversity only by insisting that theology must justify itself in relation to four sources and guidelines. Scripture is the primary source and guideline "as the constitutive witness to biblical wellsprings of our faith," but tradition, experience and reason also function as sources and guidelines, and in practice "theological reflection may find its point of departure" in any of them.

The statement proposed to replace this one formulates the relationships quite differently. Scripture is no longer merely first among equals; it is treated in a separate section, with the other three grouped together as resources to be used in interpreting it. The passage on "Tradition, Experience, and Reason" begins by asserting that "while the community of faith acknowledges the primacy of Scripture as a norm in theological reflection, it is nevertheless the case that tradition, experience and reason are invariably at work in our attempts to grasp its meaning." The passage’s concluding paragraph asserts that "in theological reflection, the resources of tradition, experience, and reason are integral to our study of Scripture without displacing its primacy for faith and practice." The structure of the report, combined with these explicit statements, indicates clearly that what is called for is biblical hermeneutics.

However, the call is not for the mainstream of biblical hermeneutics in scholarly circles. There the multiplicity of diverse strands making up the Scriptures is emphasized. The report’s insistence is on the harmonious unity of all these strands. All texts are to be interpreted "in light of their place in the Bible as a whole." Wesley’s practice is held as normative. "At all times he sought to portray the unity of the biblical witness."

The document recognizes a certain problem in that "Scripture comprises a variety of diverse traditions, some of which reflect tensions in interpretation within the early Judeo-Christian heritage." But it points toward their harmonization. "However, these traditions are woven together in the Bible in a manner that expresses the fundamental unity of God’s revelation as received and experienced by the people in their own lives. The report calls on reason to "organize the understandings that compose our witness and render them internally coherent." In short, the approved form of theology is what was known during the ‘50s and ‘60s as "biblical theology."

There is no question but that the report’s authors are sensitive to the concerns of oppressed people, and committed to hearing their views:

We are now challenged by traditions from around the world which accent dimensions of Christian understanding that grow out of the sufferings and victories of the downtrodden. Some of these traditions help us to rediscover the Biblical regard for the poor, the disabled, the imprisoned, the oppressed, the outcast. They underscore the equality of all persons in Jesus Christ. They display the capacity of the gospel to free us to embrace the diversity of human cultures and appreciate their values. They reenforce our traditional understanding of the inseparability of personal salvation and social justice. They deepen our commitment to global peace. A critical appreciation of these traditions can compel us to think about God in new ways, enlarge our vision of shalom, and enhance our confidence in God’s provident love.

We may assume that at least some forms of black theology and Minjung theology are thus affirmed, for they both interpret Scripture in just such ways as these. But what about black theology that draws on pre-Christian African traditions as a source, or Minjung theology that draws on the historic experience of the Korean people as well as on Christian Scriptures and tradition? Can these be affirmed? In the draft version of the document the answer seemed to be No. But two insertions in the final report may alter this situation. First, in the paragraph just quoted there is reference to appreciating the values of diverse cultures. Second, in the discussion of experience there is now an important new clause:

"Our theological task is informed by the experience of the Church and by the common experiences of all humanity." Third, in discussing interreligious relations, the final report states that "recognizing that the Spirit of God is at work everywhere, we listen thoughtfully to the wisdom and insights that others share with us." None of these phrases offers as clear a basis for black or Minjung theology as does the current Discipline, though they do offer it a foothold in the denomination.

Latin American liberation theology also functions emphatically as a biblical hermeneutic and in this respect is encouraged. But in most such theology social analysis plays a strong, constitutive role. Two sentences in the discussion of reason in the earlier version of the report could be taken to support the use of such analysis: "By reason we relate our witness to the full range of human knowledge and experience," and "By our quest for reasoned understandings of Christian faith we seek to grasp and express the gospel in a way that will commend itself to thoughtful persons who are seeking to know and follow God’s ways." In the final version a further statement is added: "By reason we ask questions of faith." This addition helps to counter the impression left by the earlier draft that reason is used only triumphalistically to display biblical truth and not penitently to criticize Christian beliefs and practices. Critical social analysis may thus be allowed entree into theology.

The report affirms feminist theology insofar as it is an aid to biblical interpretations that can be a part of a harmonized whole and insofar as it constitutes a call for equal treatment of women in church and in society. But many feminists want more than that. Engaging in a critique of the one-sided, masculine perspective that dominates our whole Western tradition, including the Scriptures, they take women’s experience seriously as a source for transforming Christian theology. The only principle the report offers for inclusion of such a view has already been quoted: "Our theological task is informed . . . by the common experiences of all humanity." Whether this general statement allows for women’s distinctive experience to be a source for transforming traditional Christian teaching may some day be an issue for the Judicial Council to decide.

One could interpret the several passages on reason quoted above as providing a basis for the practice of philosophical theology. And there is another already present in the first published draft. Near the beginning of the section "Our Theological Task," the report states that "our theological task is critical in that we test various expressions of faith by asking, Are they true?" It could be argued that this question opens the way for testing those expressions against the findings of natural and historical sciences and of philosophy. The text continues: "Our theological task is constructive in that every generation must appropriate creatively the wisdom of the past." This notion could be interpreted to include the scientific and philosophical wisdom which would then be integrated with biblical wisdom in an inclusive theology, although this interpretation is in tension with the flat assertion that reason is "not itself a source of theology."

If the report is adopted by General Conference, these footholds for a variety of theological programs may become extremely important for individual United Methodist theologians. But even if they allow some continued diversity in theological programs within the denomination, the theological climate will change. Theological options that have heretofore been fully accepted as part of the conversation will be forced to defend their right to continue as such. Those who want to rid the denomination of its theological confusion by suppressing diversity will be strengthened. Presumably this was intended by many of those opposing theological pluralism along with the full recognition of tradition, experience and reason as sources and guidelines for theology.

Whether the committee statement, if adopted, will ever be used as a basis for such serious procedures as heresy trials cannot now be predicted, but that it will be used by Boards of Ordained Ministry in screening candidates can be confidently stated. Seminaries will be under pressure to prepare students for doctrinal examinations judged by these boards. In that role the statement is likely to be read more in terms of its main drift toward biblical theology than in terms of the slight affirmation it accords other theological programs. In all of these developments, recent trends will be strengthened. The era of real theological pluralism in United Methodism will draw to an end.


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