Ted Grimsrud—February 26, 2019
As I have reflected on dynamics in my church denomination (Mennonite Church USA) and my own involvements in this community, I have a few further thoughts beyond what I wrote in my February 23, 2019 blog post, “Despairing for Mennonite Church USA.” My focus in that essay was on “conversation”—its difficulties and how it has been repressed.
Imagining a path not taken
I asked myself: What could I imagine might have been done (or would be done)? How might conversation work? And what would be the role of “theology” be in such a conversation? Another kind of question is whether you could easily get caught in a loop of endless conversation, where you are just talking things to death with no resolution.
One response to this last question is to suggest that we are simply too hasty in early 21stcentury North America. We are too outcome oriented, too focused on quick resolutions, on getting over our differences and getting things done. That is, we are too unwilling to invest time and energy at genuine mutual give and take that can be messy and inefficient, but it a necessary part of fruitful human relating.
However, one can’t impose one’s patience and curiosity onto people who don’t share those tendencies. If we all shared a deep-seated sense of patience and curiosity, we likely would not have many of the problems we have. But we don’t…. Still, the starting point of any kind of discernment for how best to work within our denomination, or our conferences, or our congregations, has to be some kind of interest in the wellbeing of that community. And with that comes some kind of willingness to try together to figure out how to move ahead.
There are two other possibilities, of course. One possibility is that people simply are not up for any conversation. Some of these may simply wantto split, and they cannot be stopped. Others may want to stay together and simply avoid the differences. A second possibility is that people would be invested with a strong desire to win an argument against their opponents. Many of us are tempted with this desire and it is impossible to imagine a serious conversation about these issues without that desire surfacing—these are important issues to people. However, such a desire needs to be repressed if there is to be sustained conversations and fruitful outcomes.
Two kinds of good conversation
So, let’s assume at least a degree of desire to make things work as a prerequisite for some kind of communal conversation process. What might that then look like? I imagine it is important to have some end point in mind even as we start—though ideally we would be willing as well to adapt as new things emerge in the process of conversing. [Let me note here, that everything that follows is simply a thought experiment as I try to imagine a useful approach.] I can think, broadly, of two different kinds of goals that would lead to two different kinds of conversation strategy.
(1) We could have a sense that it would be desirable that everyone in our group (again, be it denomination, conference, congregation, or other kind of faith community) share the same general conviction or convictions (in the context of this thought experiment, the general agreement would be about issues related to how the community approaches inclusion of gender and sexual minorities [GSM]). The idea would be that all of us would more or less be on the same page.
(2) We could have as our goal that we live together with our differences. Our priority would be on accepting diversity and hoping for as broad a range of views as is workable. We think it is important to voice and understand the diverse views that we have (again, in this thought experiment, about GSM inclusion). We don’t want to avoid the differences, but we want to work at living openly with them.
I am not suggesting here that either #1 or #2 are better or worse. Rather, I want to sketch two somewhat different kinds of approaches depending on which of these is our desired outcome. It’s important to know where we hope to go as that will shape how we converse. I believe that either one of these strategies could have been appropriate in MC USA contexts over the past 35 years—and would have been far preferable to what actually happened in most cases.
What if we place the priority on general agreement?
If we are searching for a sense of general agreement, the conversation will focus on identifying the differences among us. This would be a descriptive task where participants simply name what they think the differences among them might be. Part of the work at this stage is trying to get that naming to be accurate, where each person accepts that they are being characterized accurately. The point is never to debate the differences or refute the various views, simply accurately to get them on the table.
The next step then would be to work at discerning whether the differences might be reconciled. How important are they? Might the views be reframed to make them less different? If people are patient and truly trying to understand one another, some new insights might be possible that indicate that the differences are not as deep as they may initially have seemed. Sometimes, what seems like a difference proves not to be when greater understanding about the perspective is achieved. I have a close friend with whom I have spent many hours discussing big ideas. Often we have found that what starts as a difference ends up being an agreement—sometimes because one of us changes our mind but often simply because the more we talk the more we discover we actually do agree. We just needed to reframe things a bit.
It is, of course, possible that the conclusion of this kind of conversation would be a mutual awareness that the differences are real and significant. This could lead to a shared sense that continued coexistence in one faith community is not desirable. I would imagine this awareness becoming apparent fairly quickly in many cases; it would not require extensive parsing and struggling to find common ground. However, I also imagine that if the awareness is the result of careful and respectful naming of core convictions and descriptive analysis of the differences, the parting of ways could be mutually respectful. I have another close friend with whom I have had hours of conversation with the result of recognizing some fundamental differences that would make it difficult for us to be in the same congregation. But we are able to remain friends and because of the work we have done on our differences, we continue to have fruitful conversations.
What if we place the priority on staying together?
If we are searching for a way to remain together even with our differences, we may have a different kind of conversation. In this conversation, we would start by focusing on the convictions that we share. Even if we sense that we have a lot of big differences, when we start with the shared convictions we will be more likely to set a constructive tone. Our hope will be that these differences might prove to be deep and significant enough that we will see that continued fellowship is desirable, even with the differences.
We would want to follow the conversation about the similarities with one where we do identify the differences. As in all of these conversations, we will focus on description, trying to identify the differences and do it in a way so we all agree with how they are characterized. In my experience, such an approach helps the conversation to be less tense and more constructive.
Of course, at some point as the conversation continues we will need to weigh the importance of the differences in relation to the similarities. It is altogether possible that we will decide the differences are too weighty. However, it is possible to imagine that in the context of this kind of discussion that decision will be a shared decision by all parties, that it will result from an authentic understanding of the respective views, and will result in a separation that is amicable and leaves the door open for further conversations.
Is “theology” central?
What is the role of theology in this kind of process? Well, that depends, for one thing, on what we mean by “theology.” Often, in relation to discussion about sexuality-related topics we tend to think of “theology” as debate about Bible verses and other related themes. I suggest we might instead think about theology a bit differently. I’d say theology has to do with the hierarchy of convictions about what matters most in life that we all have (see my book, Theology as if Jesus Matters, for a detailed but popular-level discussion of this point).
If we understand theology in this way, then our conversations will involve each of us articulating what those convictions are for us. What matters the most in shaping our approach to an issue such as inclusion of GSM people? The point, again, is more descriptive than argumentative. However, I believe it is crucial that we do not imagine that we would set “theology” aside when we take these issues up because it is too contentious—or, in practical reality, we think it is not helpful.
The point in talking about theology in descriptive ways is not that we are taking a relativistic approach to theological truth. It is rather that our goal in our conversation is not to win a debate but to process our differences in ways that the community might move forward. Whatever stance any of us in our faith communities take should be articulatable in terms of the convictions and values that matter most for us—even if we don’t think of those in overt or traditional theological ways. What doesmatter the most in our discernment? That’s what we should be able to talk about.
[Thanks to Brian Gumm and Rick Yoder for responses shared on Facebook that helped stimulate my thoughts here.]