Thursday, January 11, 2018

Big Hairy Question: What does the Bible say about Science?

This month, we are working through big hairy questions.  One that came up a couple times in survey responses was, "What does the Bible say about science?"  There were questions about climate change, evolution, and what happened to the dinosaurs.

What does the Bible say about science?  I recognize that this may be unsatisfying, but the short answer is that the Bible says very little about questions that we view as part of the scientific inquiry.  One of my professors in seminary said it well when he said that science is the study of how the universe works; however, science is incapable of answering the question of why the universe works the way it does.  On the other hand, religion tells the story of why the universe is the way it is, but is not primarily concerned with the processes that govern how the universe works.

A prime example: in the first two chapters of Genesis, we get two different origin of the cosmos stories.  In the first story, the universe begins as a wet, chaotic, formless nothing, which God hovers over and by speaking, introduces order.  God separates light from dark, day from night, sky from surface, land from sea, plants from animals, birds from fish, mammals from reptiles, and as the final act, God separates, from the rest of creation, a human.  All of these acts are seen as good and all of them flow from evening into morning.

In the second account (beginning at Genesis 2:3), the earth is dry and dead, but God brings forth life, water flows from the surface of the dry, dead surface of the earth, and God takes dust from the dry, dead surface of the earth, forms that dust into a human form, and breathes life into Adam.  In the first narrative, everything is good, but in the second, Adam is working in the garden and God says, "it is not good for man to be alone, I will make a helper suitable for him."(v.18) God then brings forth even more life out of the dry, dead ground.  Animals of every shape and size, but no animal is found a suitable companion.  Until God finally puts Adam in a deep sleep, removes one of his ribs and from the rib creates a woman.

Now, science might ask the question, which of these creation possibilities is true?  Was the earth a wet, formless void that God separates to create order, saving humans for last?  Or was the earth a dry, dead planet that God brought life to, beginning with humans?

But religion asks the question what is true about these creation stories?  As Christians we don't say that one creation narrative is true and the other is false, we recognize that neither narrative is presented as a scientific or historical telling of the origin of the universe, rather these two creation stories are given to us to teach us from the very beginning of the Bible some fundamental truths about who God is.  And what are these truths?
  • When God speaks, things happen.
  • God is a creator of order, not of chaos.
  • Creation is good.
  • God is a giver of life.
  • God has created humans in the image of God.
And if we continue reading, the next set of stories teach fundamental truths about what it is to be human.

Additionally, we should point out that the vast majority of scientists throughout human history and according to a 2009 study, 60% of scientists working today believe in the divine and 40% have a religious practice.  Science and religion aren't the competing worldviews the media makes them out to be.  Science and religion continue to exist as partners in the pursuit of truth.  We need not be afraid of learning about how the world works from our brothers and sisters pursuing the scientific inquiry.  We shouldn't feel the need to defend the narratives of the Bible against scientific scrutiny.  The Bible is a religious text, whose primary purpose is to tell us about God.  It wasn't written as a scientific hypothesis, and it is unfair to treat it in that way.

Rather, we can affirm, like St. Augustine, that all truth is God's truth and sincerely do our best to understand how the world works, and praise God throughout the process for God's creativity and care to even the smallest details.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Central Untruth that Unravels Centrism

The Uniting Methodists met over the last two days in Georgia, and I didn't attend.  I like most of the people associated with the caucus group, and find their goal of discerning a solution that will save the United Methodist marriage to be noble.  However, it is pretty clear that their efforts are doomed; and they are doomed for one central reason.

Compatibilism is not a theological position.

According to the "centrists" there are essentially four theological positions in the UMC with regards to the question of affirming the practice of homosexuality.  Tom Berlin, says more here, but the gist of what he says is this:

  • Position 1 is progressive non-compatibility, meaning one believes that full affirmation of the practice of homosexuality is the correct course of action and the only solution is for every UM church and every UM pastor is fully affirming LGBT practice.

  • Position 2 is progressive compatibility, meaning that one believes that full affirmation of the practice of homosexuality is the correct course of action, but is willing to let individual churches and pastors make their own decision.

  • Position 3 is traditional compatability, meaning that one believes that full affirmation of the practice of homosexuality is not the correct course of action, but is willing to let individual churches and pastors make their own decision.

  • Position 4 is traditional non-compatibility, meaning that one believes that full affirmation of the practice of homosexuality is not the correct course of action, and that churches and clergy should be held accountable to the current standards of the denomination.

Here in lies the problem.  Compatibilism, by definition, is not a theological position.  Because there are only two possible theological claims with regard to the full expression and practice of homosexuality:

  • Claim A: God is glorified by the full expression and practice of homosexuality.

  • Claim B: God is not glorified by the full expression and practice of homosexuality.

Now, it is legitimate to be unsure which of these claims is true.  But it is wholly insincere to suggest that both claims can simultaneously be true.

Compatibilism is a strategy of progressives to keep the institution together, with the assumption that those who do not agree with them will one day "grow up"

And honestly, it is far and away the best strategy for UM progressives.  But it is a strategy, not a theology.

Because a sincere progressive is unwilling to let the official position be that churches within their denomination may exclude an expression of God's creativity and grace.

And a sincere traditionalist is unwilling to let the official position be that churches within their denomination celebrate sin.

A Caveat

I do believe that there is a significant number of people who find the evidence muddy and have chosen to withhold judgment, and for this group especially compatibilism is very attractive.  Why not let both my friends on the right and the left do what they feel is right? 

But even for the person who finds the evidence inconclusive, compatibilism should be a frightening proposition, because compatibilism institutionalizes relativism.  How can the official position of the church be that M Barclay and Rob Renfroe are both right? 

To be fair, I don't think the Uniting Methodists are actually saying that both M and Rob are right.  I think what they are actually saying is that M is right, but that we don't have the guts to tell Rob he is wrong.  Which gets back to the whole issue of truth telling...

Monday, July 24, 2017

#NextMethodism will have a Better Logo

The bureaucrats in the United Methodist Church love our logo.  See here, here, here, and here.

And if you follow these links, you will find really good theological foundations for a logo with a cross and a flame.  And there in lies the problem, we have really good theological reasons for a cross and flame branding; however, I will never forget bringing a friend of color to my home church and his first reaction being, "Caleb, why is there a burning cross on your church?"

Consistently in the methoblogosphere (I think that is a word) we find folks lamenting the lack of diversity within the UMC.  And while we might assume that the church is slowly getting more diverse, the data says otherwise.  In 1998, the UMC's North American membership was 87% white.  By 2008, it was 90% white.

Surely there is a plethora of reasons for our shameful history of connecting with minority populations; however, one might assume that having a logo that approximates a symbol of terror against black bodies in the United States has something to do with the pasty whiteness of the United Methodist Church.

Again, the theological underpinnings of our current logo are great, and I would suggest that we keep them in the design of a new logo.  Christocentric, excellent. High view of the Holy Spirit, fantastic.  But, isn't there another way to brand these virtues that doesn't look painfully similar to the klan's device of terror?

I think there is, and I think we will see it in #NextMethodism

Monday, July 10, 2017

#NextMethodism will be about both Self-discovery AND Self-denial.

I have been hesitant to say anything publicly about what is happening in the United Methodist Church, in large part because I realize that most of the people blogging, making videos, writing articles, giving speeches, and the like are far more intelligent than I am.  But, this afternoon Dr. Watson issued the invitation for the sharing of hopes and ideas about the future of methodism, and said nothing about staying silent if you are kinda dumb.  So, here are my kinda dumb ideas...

#NextMethodism will be about self-discovery AND self-denial.

I have lurked in the shadows reading the thought giants from across the spectrum in our church, and I have come to believe that ultimately we are not going to divorce over issues related to LGBT acceptance, rather, this split is the result of two very different perspectives on holiness.  And the difficulty is that they are both pretty good perspectives.  Both potentially lead to healthier, happier human beings.  But these visions of holiness are radically different and have ultimately led to a great deal of tension.

Our friends on the left have (generally) defined holiness as self-discovery leading to self-acceptance.  From the born this way movement to the #calledout rallying cry, the picture of holiness as defined by RMN, Love Prevails, and the MFSA is marked by learning how to love ourselves the way God created us and from a place of self-love being able to fight for a more equitable society which is how one pleases God .  This is a pretty good vision and it has Biblical roots.

Our friends on the right have (generally) defined holiness as self-denial leading to Divine conformity.  WCA, Good News before them, and the Confessing Movement before them have all put an emphasis on dying to self, with the understanding that a cruciform life is the kind of life that pleases God. This too is a pretty good vision and it has Biblical roots.

And before you break your keyboards telling me that the left has elements of self-denial and the right has elements of self-discovery--you are correct.  The folks who make up the whole of thinkers on both sides have a wide array of perspectives on holiness, however, I continue to argue that generally when we talk about the life that pleases God, the life of holiness, those on the right will focus on self-denial while those on the left will focus on self-discovery. (We also might say that the difference lies in the left seeing the salvific act of Christ as being primarily liberating and the right sees it as transforming)

But here in lies the problem with Biblically based self-denial removed from a process of self-discovery.  It is too easy to make a list of things one should deny themselves, without really having an understanding of how one's own selfishness has impacted the shaping of said list.  To be painfully blunt if a person is talking about the sinfulness of homosexuality but hasn't made tithing a priority, they would be wise to search their own heart and commitment to living in the light of God.

And the problem with self-discovery that doesn't get filtered through the Bible our practice of self-denial is that God really does want to transform us into the image of Jesus, and if our best hope for personal holiness is learning to love ourselves, we have missed the point. If one doesn't need Jesus for anything other than liberation from the oppression of white guys and their lists of self-denial, they are practicing the most meager form of Christianity.

But #NextMethodism will rediscover the Wesleyan vision for perfection, which Kevin Watson beautifully articulates saying, "[it is the practice of] giving all that I know of myself to all that I know of God."  This twin emphasis on knowing oneself and knowing God, so that we can both embrace the roll of God's grace in wiring us in unique and beautiful ways and identify the marks of the fall that keep us from living in the light of God.

Wesley famously wrote that we should be rigorous in judging ourselves and gracious in judging others.  If you feel that I have failed in describing the position of your tribe, I apologize, and invite your correction.  If your hopes for the future of Methodism are not in allignment with mine, I would like to hear why.  If  you read to the bottom, I appreciate you time.


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Open Letter to the Global Board of Higher Education and Ministry

Dear Ms. Cape, Ms. Conklin-Miller, and whom else it may concern:

I started seminary at 22.  A new college grad, I was fortunate enough to live in Ohio where no matter our zip code, we are never more than three hours away from a University Senate approved seminary. After my first semester, I became a student pastor serving a two-point charge and after the second semester I was licensed.  My wife and I lived in the parsonage where we served and I traveled to and from the seminary for classes.

My story was the typical story for licensed local pastors in 1975.  It was the typical story for seminary students in 1975.  But it is 2016.  The Lewis Center released some data not too long ago that showed that in the last 30 years, the number of churches being served by licensed local pastors has nearly doubled (3,804 to 7,464) and in that same time the number of licensed local pastors over 55 has almost tripled (1,462 to 4,284).

There are 4,284 licensed pastors that are over 55, and while they have the option of attending seminary, for the vast majority of them, seminary is not a worthwhile investment, which is why the Course of Study programs are so important for our denomination going forward and the Board's recent decision to cancel the program at United Theological Seminary is baffling.  In an era where the typical local pastor is 60 years old, limiting their ability to receive a quality theological education will have negative consequences for the local church.

United had a unique program that allowed licensed local pastors to study online with periodic face to face encounters that for the thousands of local pastors who are deeply committed to the churches they serve gave them an opportunity at a quality theological education that the remaining programs cannot achieve either by virtue of distance or program structure.

Time will show that this decision hurts the local church most.  As the UMC relies more and more on local licensed pastors, losing this option for quality training will further hurt small membership churches.

I respectfully ask that you reconsider the decision to terminate the Course of Study program at United.

Grace and Peace
Rev. Caleb Speicher

Y Campus Pastor, Sulphur Grove United Methodist Church

Monday, January 5, 2015

Christmas Reflection: Don't throw out the Baby with the Bathwater

Let's be honest... the church is a complex organism.

On one hand, Christians have been the leaders in the abolishing of slavery for centuries--but on the other hand, Christians fought to keep slavery legal and in some corners of the world still illegally own slaves.

On one hand, Christianity has produced the most important scientists and discoverers in human history (did you know Sir Isaac Newton wrote more on the topic of theology than he did on science?)--but on the other hand, we made Galileo recant, deny global warming, and fund Ken Ham's "museum."

On one hand, Christians led the way in women's suffrage--on the other, we still perpetuate patriarchy by talking about "Biblical manhood and womanhood" like there is only one right way to operate as either a man or woman in 2015.

On one hand, Christians are leaders in pacifism--but, we can't forget the crusades, the Holocaust, and the dozens of other times that Christians have played a major role in conflict.

In the past, I wanted to deny my connection to the historical evils perpetuated by the church, saying either, "well, they weren't really Christians" or "They didn't know any better, and we do better now" but in the same way that everyone has that family member that you wish wasn't, we have atrocities in our spiritual family tree.  We have incredible displays of love and care and discovery and achievement, but we also have incredible displays of selfishness and fear and failure.  The church is a complex organism.

And personally, some days I look at our world and the Christian influence on it and (like George Bailey) think maybe it would be better for everyone if the church hadn't been born.

But then I remember that the reason why the church exists is not to tip the scales of cultural value and that the sin of the church can't overwhelm the grace of her bridegroom.  So we live in this complex organism because the baby is more precious than the bathwater is putrid.  We live in this complex organism because Jesus liberates us from slavery to sin and death.  We live in this complex organism because God is our father and the church... is our mother.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Scattered Thoughts in the Midst of Our Chaos

Let me start by saying that I find conversations about the intersection of race and society fascinating, but rarely do I say anything in public because, well, I am the face of privilege.  I am a white, male, married, Christian, son of two educated people.  I may not have started the race in the front row, but I am not very far back.  And because of the situation I was born into, I have an incredibly difficult time imagining what life is like for someone like Michael Brown or Eric Garner.  I have never believed that the police would treat me unfairly, and even when I have broken the law, never once have I feared for my life.

But, if we are to believe the shared experiences of our brothers and sisters of color, that is the reality for nearly all of them living in this country.  In seminary I remember my friend Vincent telling me that if he dressed the way I did (hooded sweat shirt, blue jeans, and a Cincinnati Reds hat) and walked through a parking lot, he would hear car doors lock as he walked by, and the minute he entered the mall, security would be keeping an eye on him.  I told him that I didn't believe him and when he exagerates he loses his credibility.  But then Marty and John and Deion started telling their own stories of similar events where they were stopped by the police because they "looked suspicious" and followed around stores because they "looked like they were gonna steal something."  One of them told the story of spending the night in a holding cell after jay-walking.

I simply cannot understand the world that people of color occupy, because even though we may be neighbors, the way society interacts with us is fundamentally different.  I cannot understand how the events in Ferguson led to Michael Brown's death, because that would never happen in the world of privilege.  

One time, in college, when I was selling security systems door-to-door in a secluded, wealthy community, I was stopped by the police for "looking suspicious," and in fairness, I did look suspicious.  But the policeman never raised his voice, he never acted in a way that was threatening; he simply pulled beside me, rolled down his window and asked what I was doing.  He was satisfied with my answer and drove away.  When I think back on that interaction, I thank God that I am white.  
Had I been black, I very likely could have found myself cuffed and sitting in the grass (a recurring theme I hear in stories) while the officer ran my information through the computer, called my supervisor, and made sure I was doing what I said I was doing. 

The more stories I hear coming out of the black community, the more convinced I am that in these most recent non-indictments and in the many that preceded them. our system is failing at the most fundamental level to uphold due process.  

The most fundamental piece of due process is that those with power should not have the advantage over those without it.  For example, the Heisman trophy winning quarterback at your college shouldn't be protected when they violate the rights of an ordinary student.  Rather, in order for the justice system to work (at any level) we must error on the side of the powerless.  This doesn't mean that the powerful are always found to be in the wrong or that they are always convicted, however, it should mean that the victim who is harmed at the hands of the powerful is given every opportunity to seek and receive justice.

When a policeman kills a black child or when a politician is accused of abusing his intern or when a clergy-person is accused of embezzling money from the offering plate they must endure the greatest levels of scrutiny, or the process doesn't work.  If we don't indict the policeman or investigate the pastor, then we are allowing their privilege to short-circuit the system.  And as Christians, we must error on the side of the powerless.  

Now, I wasn't there when Wilson shot Brown.  I wasn't there when the Beavercreek PD shot Crawford.  I wasn't there when Damico choked out Garner.  And I wasn't there when the Cleveland cops shot Rice.  I don't know the totality of training, policy, and mindset that led to the actions taken by law enforcement officials which resulted in the death of four, unarmed black men.  I don't know what previous events led the officers to believe that they were doing the right thing.  And because the grand juries erred on the side of the powerful, none of us ever will.