Sunday, October 9, 2011

United Methodist Theology

I would draw your attention to an extremely well-written and thorough critique of the presence of Beth Moore studies in United Methodist churches. Jeremy Smith seems to have hit a nerve, judging by the reaction to his post. I know I resonated with much of what he has written on the subject.

I am less concerned about the substance of his critique of Beth Moore's theology (though it is well-taken) than I am about what I consider to be the underlying problem: there is just not much accessible theology coming from United Methodist theologians.

Think about it, those of you well-versed in this stuff. How much curriculum is out there by actual United Methodists? Who is putting this stuff out? If I told you not to include authors named "Adam," how long would your list be?

I was asked, during my Board of Ordained Ministry interview for provisional status, which theologians occupied the honored space on my bookshelf. I had no trouble with this question; I have many such spiritual guides. Then, I got this question: which United Methodist theologians were important to me?

I had to think on this one. I do have United Methodist theologians who are in my spiritual corner. I've read Willimon, of course, and Randy Maddox, and Scott Jones, and Ted Runyon. I have a great respect for Tex Sample. And I've read the standard United Methodist seminary curriculum. Thomas Frank. Russ Richey. Albert Outler. Ted Campbell. Lovell Weems. But what strikes me as holding this list together is that rather than being United Methodist theologians, most of these men (and they are all men) are actually experts in United Methodism. They are experts in some subfield of United Methodism. Tom Frank is, if you can call him this, a polity-ician.

Where is the general theology? Who are the great United Methodist theologians, leading us into the 21st century?

Perhaps the problem is not so much that there are no capable United Methodists interested in doing theology. I know plenty of intelligent United Methodist folks who are doing theology in the pulpit and in the pew. They just are leaving the theology in the sanctuary, which is a great place for theology but which can also be a prison if that theology is not allowed outside the stained glass windows.

"But people don't care about theology," you might say. I've heard this argument again and again. People just want the pastor to show up when they are in the hospital, or to call when an aunt dies, or to know the names of their children. People don't care about theology.

While I am sympathetic to this argument, you need only walk into a Christian bookstore to see this argument decimated.

You will not walk in a Christian bookstore and find it full of nerdy intellectuals. Walk into a Christian bookstore, and you will find it full of hungry people.

So the problem is less about not having enough capable United Methodists, nor about the death of intellectualism. The problem is that we are not feeding people, and that problem is WAY bigger than the others.

I suppose this shift in focus mirrors the general public in some ways. There seems to be, these days, a disdain of anything one might call "intellectual." And the very notions of questioning God, of testing hypotheses and using imagination to help expand our understanding: these notions are frequently described as "unorthodox," "pagan," and "divorced from Biblical truth." It is as if the Bible gives a very clear, direct, systematic, soup-to-nuts description of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and anything humans might do to better understand this Holy Being is against the very notion of what it means to be faithful.

In some ways, of course, all theology is folly. But this does not mean that it is not important work! The Bible, while sufficient, is not a simple primer on God. It is a collection of narratives in which God is made known, and we are called to play a part in that narrative! We do not simply understand God and move on with our lives. We take what we have received in the Bible and become a part of God's story. We have a role to play.

We can choose to stubbornly refuse to engage God in this way. We can choose to view God as something to be understood rather than Someone to be engaged. But when we--and I'm talking to the church leaders here--when we model such a simplistic understanding of the scripture, and when we choose a path that sounds nice but does not go about the fundamental work of feeding people from the fallow fields of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, then we ought not be surprised when people devour the tepid "theology" of the grocery store check out lanes--and of a growing part of our Christian bookstores (even Cokesbury is now selling Beth Moore). And, since we have helped them find nothing else to eat, once they have devoured these books, so processed, so full of empty calories, we ought not be surprised when the church lacks the energy to get up and do much of anything.

The Church--UMC and otherwise--is at a critical point. This is where we are. We can offer food, or we can let "Christian" businesses profit off of our laziness. In some ways, whatever happens, we will get what we deserve.


  1. Thank you for this valuable critique. I know as a young (still one) United Methodist I was disappointed to find so little of substance as I began serious Christian discipleship.

    I actually started listening to Will Willimon because he was the only United Methodist in the top 100 downloads among religious podcasts on iTunes. I've heard everything he's posted for the last four years and benefited, but as far as I know he is still the only one with nearly that size platform.

    I'm part of a project that I would encourage you to check out called The Seedbed. If you click through and share your email address you'll get a couple things soon and be notified when we launch.

    A majority of those launching it are United Methodists and much of our content will be produced by or feature some of our most vibrant churches and dynamic pastors. I really hope we'll do a big part in addressing this need.

  2. I guess it is telling about United Methodism that we've not supported Dr. Thomas Oden. He is not on your list, yet he is the one United Methodist to write a three volume systematic theology as well as organize John Wesley's works into a systematic theology.

  3. I just came across this post, although I know it is a couple of years old. You are making an important point, although the situation might not be as dire as you are suggesting. A person like Randy Maddox is focusing within the Wesleyan tradition, but I would suggest that his remarkable strides in helping us to understand the parameters of Wesley's own thought has relevance beyond the parochial confines of the UMC.
    Beyond that, there are a number of Methodist theologians who are doing very influential work that arises out of Wesleyan commitments (either explicit or implicit). Stanley Hauerwas is one--it is true that he is seen as being as much Anglican as Methodist these days, but in my reading of him a great deal of Wesleyan background has always seemed present. Another is William Abraham, whose work on religious epistemology, divine revelation, evangelism, and 'canonical theism' all bears the marks of his Wesleyan formation and commitments. These are just two examples and we could look at others, but I think they're both significant in that they are involved in conversations more broadly than just an in-house UMC one.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post. As someone doing work in the academy myself, I find your suggestions and challenges to be important ones that we should be focusing upon.