I remember the scene well. I was in the chapel of the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem. I was chatting with two concerned parishioners. They were concerned over conversations happening within the congregation related to important issues like human sexuality and denominational affiliation. Their concerns seem to waver between a concern that discussions of homosexual practice made too much of sexuality and, simultaneously, that they made too little of it. A better alternative was, in their thinking, a posture of “live and let live.”
I understood their concern. We are, after all, more than whom we love. At the same, it’s true that we’re not less than those things.
As a congregation, it turns out, that in talking about sexuality and denomination we were actually talking about something deeper and more substantial than either. We were talking about our theological vision, the significant and yet oft-ignored foundation out of which ministry flows.
As a member of the PC(USA) I had become very comfortable speaking in theological terms ( using catchphrases like “freedom of conscience,” “priesthood of all believers,” “mutual forbearance”). Originally those phrases had content. Over time, however, I began to feel that they had become signs or symbols that signified I was safe, respectable, and able to toe the company line.
It was understood that, for example, freedom of conscience was intended to extend, particularly and peculiarly, to those occupying theological ground to the left of the tradition rather than those to the right. It’s easier to deny the divinity of Christ in the PC(USA) than to deny that women should hold church office. To my mind, one of these beliefs is an order of magnitude more significant than the other.
Don’t get me wrong, virtually all traditions have this sort of insider language. It’s not different in the Covenant Order of Evangelicals where my ordination credentials belong today. What becomes problematic is when words and concepts are used in the absence of shared meaning. Traditions fall apart when that happens. It stands to reason.
And yet we’re significantly more inclined to discuss concrete issues than theological vision. This is a critical error that results, at best, in paralysis, and, at worst, in schism. It turns out that when we disagree about all sorts of important things like the nature of humanity, what constitutes the good life, the purpose of the church, the nature of grace, the nature of suffering, and others, we’re actually disagreeing about theology and our theological vision.
I pointed this out to my conversation partners. The reason, I said, that we have to come to some sort of consensus on these issues is that the views represented present mutually-exclusive visions of God, grace, and humanity. Our views differ in regard to critical questions like what does God require of humanity? who is God? what is grace?
The answer to these questions presents a theological vision. Vision drives ministry. We’re not always conscious of the vision that undergirds what we do. In fact, more often than not our theological vision is a nest of presuppositions submerged beneath and eclipsed by our Christian experience.