Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Transcending the United Methodist Vote to Retain Prohibitions on Gay Clergy and Weddings

Delegates meeting at a special session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted on February 26, 2019 to retain the denomination’s ban on gay clergy and same-sex weddings. The alternative plan would have permitted individual congregations to decide for themselves. Clearly, Methodism is not Congregationalism.  The debate was heated on both sides.[1] Transcending them, we may ask whether the heat was overblown. Pope Francis had urged his fellow Roman Catholic bishops and other clergy not to focus so much on that issue and abortion. That urging was itself controversial, which in itself can be read as confirmation that the two issues were getting too much attention and energy. Unlike the case of the Pope’s urging, the vote at the Methodists’ General Conference threatened to split that Church. Can this too be taken as an indication that the emphasis on the issue was disproportionate to its religious importance?
Just how important is homosexuality as a religious issue in Christianity? Jesus does not speak of it in the Gospels, so the issue must boil down to God’s referring to two men lying together as an abomination, which means “disliked by God.” Relatively small things are also disliked by God, including eating things that crawl on the bottom of the sea. So rather displeasing to God does not necessarily translate into a huge sin. How important is the displeasing itself, whether about something that we now take as arbitrary or important? In other words, is it really bad to do something that is displeasing to God. If a person does something that is displeasing to you, that is hardly worse than something that you hate or even detest. Even so, doing a displeasing thing is not a good thing, especially as concerns God, which is to be glorified rather than annoyed. This is perhaps what the issue hinges on in Judaism as well as Christianity, only the latter has the additional question of how much attention ought to be paid to the Old Testament prohibitions. That the issue of homosexuality, like that of abortion, easily gets heated makes it more difficult to get through these questions.
At root, the Methodist delegates disagreed on the importance of the abominations in Leviticus for Christians as well as the importance of “displeasing to God” in itself. Within the disagreement could also have included how much, if at all, to weigh the cultural imprint of the ancient Hebrews in the Biblical naming of specific dislikes of God. Perhaps these questions should have been debated first, so the delegates could have grasped how much basic disagreement existed. The question of whether differences on them are sufficiently important as to justify ecclesiastical separation could have debated too. To be sure, these questions are not easy, and it could be that the sheer distance between answers could justify separation. Religious interpretation by nature allows for a lot of daylight between individual or group interpretations, and people to whom religion is important are likely to find themselves investing a lot of emotional energy into that daylight.
Hence, in the history of a given religion, whether Buddhism, Judaism, or Christianity, splits and splits of the splits have been the norm. Perhaps this is natural, but it also possible that the religious person tends to go over-board in failing to restrict his or her emotions and accepting the fact that a religious institution is not going to perfectly align with any individual therein.  A loss of perspective, including emotional and cognitive, can easily go with homo religiosis—our species when it gets religious. In other words, the real problem may lie with homo sapiens (i.e., our species). The problem is that the loss of perspective flies in the face of the core religious nature of transcendence. As St. Denis of the sixth century wrote, transcendence involves going beyond the limits of human perception and cognition (and sensibility, or emotion). So if these are too intense, we can assume too little attention is being payed to valuing and experiencing transcendence, which if I am correct is the basis and distinguishing mark of religion as a unique phenomenon or domain. In theory at least, if religious transcendence is regarded as foremost, less emotional investment would go into even the basic questions discussed above. If Joseph Campbell was correct, even the masks of eternity must be transcended so as not to obstruct a person’s religious experience, whose referent-point lies inherently beyond perception, cognition, and sensibility.

For more on transcending the ethical in religion, see Spiritual Leadership in Business: Transcending the Ethical, available at Amazon.