Can We Embrace Creative Improvistion?
Stick with this essay if you are not part of the Church of the Nazarene; I promise it has wider application. I can’t decide if it is because of the polarization of our world (specifically the U.S.) or if humanity is always unable to cooperatively work through theology in creative and imaginative ways with one another. We are creative beings because we carry the image of a relational God who creates. Yet we are afraid of using that creative aspect of our nature when we talk about God in theology. I like to imagine what it may look like if we were to embrace the creative and have conversations with one another, both within and without our particularities. But I also look around me and see the very real consequences of daring to be human and talk with one another instead of talking at one another. Sure, no one is being burned at the stake for having conversations, but people have lost clerical credentials and jobs.
Now, I hear the protest already; “we must be true to who we are.” I agree, but in an atmosphere of inquisition, the line between who is a target and who is not becomes razor thin. Inquisitors become more confident in pursuing individuals who are outside their boundaries but still within doctrinal centers when they make any gains. Our particularities become a small set of propositional claims that mat or may not actually reflect our Wesleyan-Holiness theology or doctrines. As you push back, an infamous blog post this summer laid out the charges against a member of clergy. Those charges included ones that were determined to be without merit and well within the theological tent of the Church of the Nazarene. That is one danger of inquisitions; they end up expanding until they consume all that disagree with them.
Therefore I believe it is crucial to foster and engage in theological imagination with one another. This is where most of our current strife and trouble is happening within the COTN. We find our center in distinctive doctrines and theology, but too often we rigidly enforce those doctrines as boundaries. I like to explain how Christianity functions with a semi-hierarchy of thought. At the most broad point is faith, then we get into theological frameworks like Wesleyan-Holiness, etc. After that we get doctrines as distinctive within theology (The COTN Articles of Faith) and more narrowly dogmas, which are emphatic claims held tightly. The final category I recently decided belonged is shenanigans, which is where rigid enforcement and refusal to dialogue comes in. (see my blog post Prime Directive for more on centering)
My dream is of a people able to have dialogue within the faithfulness of our distinctives while embracing charitable dialogue with those outside of that distinctive doctrine and theology. Is this easy? I don’t think so, but it is oh so worth it. Do we see disagreement and growth as threats or as opportunities? Maybe we can recover John Wesley’s curiosity and concern for humanity’s flourishing. But to get there, we need to step back from the brink of self-destruction across Christianity so that we can work in creative cooperation rather than destructive attacks.
Now let’s work out some of the depth of my layers of religious thought. This may help in continuing conversations. I will add contextual understanding to my claims.
Faith is a tricky word. It gets used and defined several ways. For the Christian, it is not a simple assent to facts or ideas. It is also not a blind leap, at least not fully. I like Aaron Simmons’ definition of faith as “risk with direction.” (Camping) Risk with direction requires some knowledge and trust. Marriage is risk with direction. Even though we know the person we marry, there is always risk that changes, struggles, or even plain old life may affect that relationship. But yet we take that risk toward a direction as partners. This is the center of religious thought. We start with faith in God (or the divine) such that we take on some risk, but we follow that risk. There are no dogmatic requirements for faith as it is something that anyone may experience. Christians regard faith as acquired, grasped, and many other ideas. Yet, in the end, faith is something we each find trust within.
Theological frameworks are much easier to explain than faith. But they are also tricky. These are broad claims about God and God’s relationship to humanity and creation. Theology attempts to explain abstract concepts in metaphor, analogy, and language. Theologies may contradict one another, but most fall within a broad understanding of orthodoxy. Even at this broad level, people get emotional and defensive of their theology. Rightly so, because extremely poor theology can lead to harm.
Doctrines take us to a more narrow level of thought. These are particular worked out explanations of more broad theological concepts. An example is the doctrine of scripture within the Church of the Nazarene. Our understanding of authority is centered on the person of Jesus Christ as the perfect image of God. In that context, we also see the authority of scripture as present in the power of the Holy Spirit to invite humanity into the story of God. Because of this emphasis, we differ with our fundamentalist siblings in understanding the nature of scripture. For us, it is a relational nature, while to fundamentalists it is a propositional nature. Both exist within orthodoxy, but we make choices within our particular doctrines. While this level is important at the denominational and even local church level, it never defines orthodoxy.
I recently heard a podcast in which Tripp Fuller mentioned that doctrine is better seen as a horizon than a boundary. This is a broader concept of the centering one, but it also has merit. We see the possibility of doctrine as a place to be, but we may often move toward or away based upon timing, circumstance, and our own faith. But we keep looking toward that horizon.
Dogmas get us into trouble as they are even more narrow than doctrines but also have the aspect of deeply emotional connections. Dogmas are held so tightly that any perceived threat to the dogma is seen as a threat to faith itself. This is typically where inquisitions get started. Because of a perceived threat to faith, the dogmatic understanding of a doctrine (whether official or not) becomes the measure of in or out. Dogmas require a boundary because dogmas insist that there are those who are in or out. We will all find dogmas within our beliefs. The key is recognizing them and working through our own emotional attachment that causes us to shut down conversations that threaten our dogmas.
Shenanigans are simply those dogmas that become so ingrained in a sect or faction within a larger group like a denomination that they are seen as foundational. Shenanigans coalesce dogmas into a form of orthodoxy that then allows those holding shenanigans to use any means necessary to eradicate threats to said shenanigans. Shenanigans have gotten worse in the last few years as the need to win arguments rather than have conversations has shaped our wider culture. Shenanigans are, ironically, a threat to the groups in which they crop up.
One reason I am attracted to Open and Relational Theology (ORT), within my Wesleyan-Holiness framework, is the idea of God as continually creating. Because we carry the image of God, we are creatures who have imagination and creative expressions. This is a normal thing for human beings and is one of our best traits. We can be great when we work together and share our creative imagination. We believe that the Holy Spirit motivates us to collaborate with God in creation within the Wesleyan-Holiness framework. It is this idea in which I hope we can move together as human beings, expressing our faithfulness in a risk with direction toward a more just and peaceful world. Hopefully, we can do this in our own groups so that we can then have wide conversations in a world that seems ready to break.
My prayer is always that we can engage with one another in kind and graceful conversations that work to deepen and even expand who we are. I want us to catch Wesley’s curiosity and drive to understand how humanity and God interact in cooperative (responsible) ways. Let’s be a jazz combo instead of a repetitive orchestra, embracing different voices while staying true to our shared beliefs.
J. Aaron Simmons. Camping with Kierkegaard: Faithfulness as a Way of Life. Wisdom/Work, 2023.