Sunday, May 27, 2012

[A glimmer of] Understanding the PCUSA

Updated 2013-04-07 because's domain registration expired; links have been adjusted to point to
I'm a member of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, which is currently affiliated with the PCUSA, a denomination in some turmoil. Here is an issue that I found vexing; thanks to my friend Simon, to an article by R.R. Reno reminding me about Jonathan Haidt's work on liberals and conservatives, and to a book by Jack Rogers, I now have a glimmer of understanding.

What issue, you ask? Sorry, I got ahead of myself. The issue was ordination of women in the church. To you this issue may be a slam-dunk, but I had to spend some hours studying the Scriptures and considering my own motives and prejudices. Part of my study involved reading a lecture attributed to Tim Keller [online here or here] where I read this rather surprising extract:

Some 15 years ago, we would have entered the Presbyterian Church USA to minister, but we were told that our view of women-in-ministry precluded us from serving there. Though we would have worked beside people with different views, those on the other side of the fence would not work with us.
Women and Ministry [link]
Redeemer Presbyterian Church
By Tim and Kathy Keller 11/89
Jack Rogers reports this has been the case for some time:
In its 1974 decision, the Permanent Judicial Commission in the Kenyon case cited the Confession of 1967. The PJC decision stated that the equality of women and men is an essential of Presbyterian theological beliefs…

I found it vexing and incomprehensible that on one hand the PCUSA would consider Tim Keller unfit for ministry, and on the other hand has no problem with someone like John Shuck who believes

that "God" functions as a symbol. The concept of "God" is a product of myth-making and "God" is no longer credible as a personal, supernatural being. For me, "God" functions as a shorthand for the Universe and sometimes for qualities and aspirations I wish to pursue or to emulate.
Unlike the Apostles Peter and Paul, unlike the author of Hebrews, Shuck doesn't believe Christ died for our sins:
The passion accounts in the gospels that we hear in church and that we watch on film and that preachers relish in recounting from the pulpits are fictions. Stories. These events didn’t happen. The theological explanation is based upon pure imagination.
He notes in this posting that he has been elected by Holston Presbytery to serve as a voting commissioner to the PCUSA’s 2012 General Assembly.

How can Tim Keller be unfit for ministry, and John Shuck be elected by his presbytery as a commissioner for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) general assembly? That was something I found incomprehensible and vexing. But after some helpful input, I now find it only vexing.

A few weeks ago, my friend Simon and his wife joined me for dinner. It was a time of sweet fellowship, getting to know each other a little more and discussing some of these questions. I'll say here that Simon and I don't necessarily fully agree on all issues. Anyway I asked him if he had any insight into the above question: how can the question of "who can be nominated as an Elder?" be essential in a Christian denomination, whereas belief that Jesus Christ died for our sins isn't essential? Simon proposed the following possible position of the denomination:

There's a place for every family member at the table. If you don't believe exactly as we do on some issue (even some very important ones), you can still have a place at the table. But one thing you mustn't do here is oppress your sister.
Side note: What's there not to fully agree with here? Only this: Membership in God's family isn't inherited, or automatic for everyone who, say, goes to a certain church or a certain seminary; to be in God's family someone must welcome Jesus into their life, and believe in him (John 1:12) in order to become a child of God. Put differently, we need to be adopted (Romans 8, Ephesians 1) into the family, or as Jesus said, "born again" (John 3). He also said, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 7:21). These are not proof-texts; Jesus also says that the path leading to life is narrow, and few find it; he talks a lot about those who are on the inside vs on the outside; if a brother refuses to repent even when confronted by the congregation, we should treat him as an unbeliever; he warns us to be aware of wolves in sheep's clothing. Not everyone who claims to be a brother or sister truly is one; I don't see how we can escape our responsibility to at least try to discern whether someone has been adopted and truly is a family member, vs being a wolf in sheep's clothing.
I may not have the exact wording, but need I say I was impressed with this answer? This is at least a coherent position. I don't fully agree with it (more at right), but it is at least comprehensible to me.

Another piece of the puzzle may have to do with being more "contractural" or liberal vs being more "beehive"-oriented or conservative (the quoted terms are from Haidt's 2007 article on misunderstanding religion. Haidt has done some interesting research on ethical perceptions:

In my dissertation and my other early studies, I told people short stories in which a person does something disgusting or disrespectful that was perfectly harmless (for example, a family cooks and eats its dog, after the dog was killed by a car). I was trying to pit the emotion of disgust against reasoning about harm and individual rights.

I found that disgust won in nearly all groups I studied (in Brazil, India, and the United States), except for groups of politically liberal college students, particularly Americans, who overrode their disgust and said that people have a right to do whatever they want, as long as they don't hurt anyone else.

Haidt, 2007 [link]
A little later in the article, Haidt lists four principles summarizing a new synthesis in moral psychology. I'm particularly interested in this one:
4) Morality is about more than harm and fairness. In moral psychology and moral philosophy, morality is almost always about how people treat each other. …

OK, so there are two psychological systems, one about fairness/justice, and one about care and protection of the vulnerable. …

But if you try to apply this two-foundation morality to the rest of the world, you either fail or you become Procrustes. Most traditional societies care about a lot more than harm/care and fairness/justice. Why do so many societies care deeply and morally about menstruation, food taboos, sexuality, and respect for elders and the Gods? … If you want to describe human morality, rather than the morality of educated Western academics, you've got to include the [Emile] Durkheimian view that morality is in large part about binding people together.

From a review of the anthropological and evolutionary literatures, Craig Joseph (at Northwestern University) and I concluded that there were three best candidates for being additional psychological foundations of morality, beyond harm/care and fairness/justice. These three we label as ingroup/loyalty (which may have evolved from the long history of cross-group or sub-group competition, related to what Joe Henrich calls "coalitional psychology"); authority/respect (which may have evolved from the long history of primate hierarchy, modified by cultural limitations on power and bullying, as documented by Christopher Boehm), and purity/sanctity, which may be a much more recent system, growing out of the uniquely human emotion of disgust, which seems to give people feelings that some ways of living and acting are higher, more noble, and less carnal than others.

Haidt, op. cit. (emphasis added)
Haidt has written another book, The Righteous Mind, which R.R. Reno read and discussed in the aforementioned article from First Things; apparently Haidt's list now consists of care, freedom, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity; liberals care about the first three only and may actively reject the others. Reno quotes Haidt on this: When I speak to liberal audiences about the three 'binding foundations'—Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity—I find that many in the audience don't just fail to resonate; they actively reject these concerns as immoral.

So here's my current whack at what's going on, why Shuck is accepted by the PCUSA but Keller is rejected. First, there has been a shift in the denomination away from an admittedly flawed understanding of how to interpret the Bible. I'm assuming that Rogers has not caricatured some past mental models, but certainly trying to read Genesis 1 as a chronology, or saying creation happened in 4010 BC, or that women mustn't wear braids in church (and how about that gold jewelry?) is a problem. Perhaps the baby has been thrown out with the bath-water, but it's easy to see how this can happen. This may explain why the PCUSA has no theological essentials. (Seriously. There is not a single tenet you must believe—I mean about God or Jesus Christ—in order to be ordained in the PCUSA. I'll happily be proven wrong on this, but I don't think that's happening.)

Second, contracturalists (or "liberals") have risen to power in the denomination. (Note that this is separate and distinct from being theologically liberal.) This is how care, freedom and fairness have become the essentials.

Do I care about care, freedom, and fairness? Yes I do, but who gets to define all these terms? For example, is it fair that someone who believes in Jesus is part of God's family, whereas a much nicer person isn't—even if that person is more polite and patient, gives more to charity—because they don't believe in Jesus?

Would I refuse to attend or support Redeemer Presbyterian Church because they don't ordain women as elders? I would say it's an issue for me but I don't know if it would be a controlling issue. (I disagree with Dr. Keller's views on women in the church, but it's not essential for salvation or fellowship that we agree on that issue.) I think I'd be more concerned if the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ were not preached -- based on my understanding of the Bible, I think this is essential for salvation.

At this point I still disagree with the PCUSA, and I disagree less with them since reading (most of) Rogers's book. But at least the position is comprehensible.

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