I can’t tell you how relieved I was to discover some 27 years ago, at the beginning of my journey to ordained ministry, that the United Methodist Church does not claim to be “the one true church.” That sort of certainty makes me suspicious. The more a religious body claims it’s the way, the truth and the life, the less room it leaves for being human. There’s simply limited space for curiosity, growth and discovery. Not to mention spiritual experiences that point in a new, uncharted, direction.
Don’t get me wrong. Personally, I love being right. I enjoy beating my husband at Jeopardy or surging ahead of a friend in Words with Friends. The only trouble is, if I’m always right, always winning, that means they’re always wrong, always losing. As one super-competitive friend laughingly shared with me, Words with Friends becomes simply Words.
Bottom line: Being right is great for the people who believe that they are. But it’s hell on everyone else.
In matters of theology and human sexuality, conservatives and liberals alike have insisted for decades that we are right. We have each claimed God is on our side. We have each pointed to scriptures, experience, tradition and reason to back us up. We have each found the evidence we are looking for—no matter our stance. We have demonized the other side, however politely.
I see a similar process happening with our politics. A recent New York Times analysis suggests that rabid resistance to Trump is backfiring; the more vocal the resistance, the more it energizes his supporters. Even if they don’t approve of him 100%. We saw a reverse but similar dynamic under Obama.
It reminds me of the truth, “What we resist persists.” Could it be, in our insistence on being right, that we are exacerbating our own polarization? I’m talking to everyone here, no matter what “side” you are on.
What would it look like to give up being right, anyway? I’m not exactly sure. But here’s what I’m not suggesting. I’m not suggesting that a person have no opinion, no ethics, no morals, no theology, no worldview. That would be impossible anyway. I’m also not suggesting being uninformed or passive.
What I am suggesting is taking a more biblical approach to our differences. That is, letting differing opinions sit side by side. It’s interesting to me that the New Testament contains 4 gospels. While many attempts are made to harmonize them, their differences remain. Not least of which is the list of disciples. Add to that the birth stories, and events surrounding Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The 4 Gospels allow for significant differences of interpretation about Jesus and his followers. Yet somehow the codifiers of the Bible saw fit to keep all of them.
It’s a very Jewish way of approaching things. Appropriate, given Jesus’ own Jewishness. Check it out. The Hebrew Bible contains 2 creation stories, 2 flood stories and several competing strands in the Exodus account. Don’t even try to count how many times Moses went up and down Mt. Sinai to meet with God. They don’t add up!
Which account is right; which one is wrong?
In this case, that’s the wrong question. It’s not about who is right and who is wrong. It’s about how can we, like the Bible stories, co-exist with integrity, side by side?
One of the beauties of Jewish textual interpretation is its comfort with diversity and multiplicity. The Talmud, a record of conversations about the Mishnah, is full of varying voices. In the Talmud, it’s the conversation itself that’s interesting and insightful. Not who’s right and who’s wrong.
What if we were to approach our own potentially divisive conversations that way?
I write this in light of the recent news that two very large United Methodist Churches are leaving the denomination. “Both pastors cited their congregations’ frustration with the denomination’s long and acrimonious debate over the church’s sexual ethics and teachings on marriage,” writes author Walter Fenton. “Going forward, they said their congregations want to focus on kingdom matters so they are removing themselves from unproductive battles that distract them from their larger missions.”
I don’t know if that’s a cover for “being right” in a denomination they think has gone wrong. It may be. But even so, it points to a larger truth. Having to be right can kill the spirit. So can always being made wrong.
Church, I think it’s time to give up these false dichotomies. In our theology, organizational structures, and church meetings. While it would mean giving up the self-satisfaction of coming out on top, it would also mean giving up resignation, demonizing, and back biting. Most importantly, it would mean giving up being stuck. In its place, there might just be room for the Holy Spirit to move us in new, unexpected, directions.