Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Friday, June 17, 2011

What Presbyterians Believe (except me) Part 2

I am uncomfortable with this question:
What do Presbyterians believe?
My answer tends to be,
"Well some Presbyterians believe some things some of the time. Others believe other things some of the time. Just ask a Presbyterian."
I am not particularly happy when I read magazines with the title:
What Presbyterians Believe
I strongly resist those blanket statements. It doesn't relate so much to the content of what the authors or editors might believe, it is the assumption that everyone believes or should believe these things. I raise my hand and say,
"I'm a Presbyterian and I don't necessarily believe that."
That is the spirit in which I made my last post on this topic What Presbyterians Believe (except me). I don't write to be obstinate or to say that I have the absolute truth or that my views are more important than the views of another or to call attention to myself. I am simply an individual expressing my autonomy and my views at this point in my life. That is why I use "I" statements.
"I believe."
Nor do my statements constitute my last or only word on the topic. Many of my views seem to contradict each other. They probably do contradict each other. I say "yes" to my ordination vows even as I struggle with their content. I say "yes" to my (most recent and official) faith statement even as I find myself changing.

I don't find this work easy or finished.
I likely always will be seeking and my theological views likely always will be changing. I hope that I will seek and change until I die. As a minister, yes a Presbyterian minister, I respect and encourage that same freedom and autonomy in others. You have the right to speak and own your truth. You also have the right to change. As I often tell couples who come for counseling,

"You will change. When you do, don't forget to tell your partner."



In t
he 2011 Special Issue of Presbyterians Today, the editors reprinted a 2001 article by Cynthia L. Rigby, Jesus is the Way: Presbyterian theology affirms the uniqueness of Christ.




Dr. Rigby is an excellent professor. I was in her precept at Princeton when taking a course from Dr. Migliore on Karl Barth. She was getting her Ph. D. at the time and was the teaching assistant.


I respect her views even as I don't share all of them. It really isn't her views with which I quibble. It is the blanket statement about what Presbyterians believe. To illustrate, she writes:

Presbyterians believe that Jesus Christ is "fully human and fully divine, one person in two natures, without confusion and without change, without separation and without division." This statement dates all the way back to the fifth century (451 to be exact) and is known as the Chalcedonian Definition.
That statement from 451 doesn't even make logical sense. It is a contradiction. Not that there is anything wrong with contradictions, I make them myself. This statement from 451 was a political compromise. It isn't a statement of absolute truth or Divine proclamation.

Human beings decided this.
Whether the means of decision were violent, manipulative, or a democratic vote, human beings made it up. I doubt they were even as democratic as the Jesus Seminar when it votes. I certainly don't think they were any more or less divinely inspired than the Jesus Seminar (or than you and me).

Human beings made decisions in 451. They didn't all agree. There were losers. There were people who didn't win "the vote" that day. Were they wrong just because their view didn't win the day? As Dr. Rigby writes:

The people who wrote the Chalcedonian statement were, like us, trying to figure out what it means to confess that Jesus Christ is divine as well as human.
What does "divine" even mean in 451 let alone today? I think we need to know how our ancestors wrestled with decisions. We can respect their efforts. We can criticize their efforts. We can learn from their process and their decisions. We can honor our tradition but we are not beholden to their provisional conclusions. Not all Presbyterians believe these statements, nor in my view, should we be required to do so.

The statement,
"Presbyterians believe ______________" is not a statement of truth or even agreement. It is a statement of power. This is not the power that enables truth seeking but the power that restricts and coerces.

One may argue that Presbyterians have the right to do that. They have the right to make their own rules regarding belief and to include and exclude through their own means of power management. That is true.

My question to the denomination is whether or not we wish to be that. Is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

  1. going to sequester itself in a self-imposed grotto of ancient theology and impose it on all of its leaders and thinkers or
  2. is it going to be open to the challenges of our time and encourage change and truth seeking?
My suggestion as to a way forward is not particularly dramatic. It follows a trend that many within our denomination have already been taking. That has to do with how we approach creeds and confessions. Are they
  1. statements of belief to which we must adhere or
  2. are they streams of tradition from which we are free to learn?
Are they
  1. tests of faith or
  2. testimonies to faith?
In our vows, candidates for ordination are asked if they will be "guided" by our confessions. That sounds like option two (if "guide" allows the freedom to choose differently). But when I read articles that state what Presbyterians believe, that sounds too much like option one for my conscience.
How will we approach our tradition?

As I see it, this is the struggle the PC(USA) is facing at this time.
I recommend option two.
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