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WESLEYAN WISDOM: Lessons for the UMC from a Quaker theologian Donald W. Haynes, Apr 11, 2012
By Donald W. Haynes UMR Columnist
As a labor of love, my wife decided this winter to catalog all my books and place a Dewey Decimal System label on each spine. It saves both time in looking for a book and the expense of ordering a duplicate if I can’t find what I remember having read!
Neither of us had any idea that we would catalog, label and re-shelve over 3,000 books, My time as her helper was compromised by my repeated discovery of “an old friend” that I had read years ago and whose underlined and highlighted thoughts were like recovering “acres of diamonds,” as Russell Conwell put it.
One of the many old wells I have re-dug has been the writings of Elton Trueblood, perhaps the greatest Quaker of the 20th century. While teaching at Stanford, this brilliant man was tapped as a consultant to the writing of the United Nations charter, and he often spent overnight sojourns in San Francisco as World War II was coming to an end and dreams were being shaped for world peace.
In browsing through my underlined sentences in Dr. Trueblood’s autobiography, I found this profound insight: “As I sat in one of the San Francisco meetings concerning the formation of the United Nations, it occurred to me that world reconstruction, about which we were conferring, is impossible apart from a moral basis, and that in this regard the Decalogue is as pertinent as ever. With speed came the conviction that all of the commandments could be restated in positive form.”
The series of sermons in Stanford’s Memorial Chapel that came from that brainstorm were converted to a book-length manuscript on such insights as adultery is wrong precisely because fidelity is right. Today we see, more than in 1945 at the close of that horrific war, that without a moral basis, no free society can abide with any modicum of peace and tranquility, debate and compromise, or liberty of conscience.
In Trueblood’s 1968 volume enunciating his theology, he taps the rich reservoir of what he calls “witnesses to truth,” and writes profoundly, “What we desperately need is the literature of witness in which men who have reached a firm place to stand are able to tell us the road by which they have come and why it was taken.” As a title for his book on theology, Trueblood chose the phrase, A Place to Stand.
One of Trueblood’s “witnesses” is Will Herberg of Methodism’s Drew University. Herberg wrote, “The moral crisis of our time . . . consists not so much in the violation of standards generally accepted as in the attrition, to the point of irrelevance, of these very standards themselves.” Trueblood concludes from Herberg’s insight, “We have something on our hands much more serious than we have ordinarily supposed. Failure to honor particular moral standards is one thing; rejection of the very idea of an objective moral standard is another.”
The wise Quaker had never heard of “postmodernism,” but he had a prescience for predicting its “end of the world as we know it” philosophy. He wrote in 1968, “Millions now assume, without argument, that the Biblical view of life is obsolete, but it is conceivable that they are wrong. The greatest single benefit to our contemporary civilization may come, not from some new invention, but from the reinvigoration of [our] roots. . . . Though these roots have been shamefully neglected, they are not dead, and with sufficient thought they may be made productive again. . . . We are driven to the effort by the revelation of the unsatisfactory character of all known alternatives.”
Then he hits the nail on the head: “Part of the weakness of the Christian movement in our generation has been the relative lack of emphasis on belief. . . . Millions, including large sections of the nominal membership of the churches, are without any firm conviction on which to base or rebuild their lives. . . . The consequence is spiritual emptiness, a most dangerous situation. . . . It is impossible to sustain certain elements of human dignity, once these have been severed from their cultural roots. The sorrowful fact is that, while the cut flowers seem to go on living and may even exhibit some brightness for a while, they cannot do so permanently, for they will eventually wither and be discarded.”
In another place, he writes, “Many terms can be applied to our age, but one of the most accurate affirmations is that ours has become an age of confusion, in which people simply do not know what to think. Part of this is the result of bitter disappointment. Technology has not brought Utopia; the Great Society has not emerged; peace is as elusive as ever; poverty still exists. The machines are bright, but the faces of the people are not as bright as the machines they prize and struggle to purchase.” That is a strong statement for a Quaker who loved Emerson. The marvel is that he wrote it decades before the advent of smart phones, iPads and Facebook!
To quote Trueblood again, “There is really no hope for the Christian apart from tough-mindedness in matters of belief. Christian books dealing with prayer and worship have been plentiful; books urging men and women to tasks of mercy have been abundant; but good books helping people to arrive at sound convictions have been scarce. . . . Popular preachers stay very close to social issues and avoid involvement in the problems of ultimate faith. If there is no objective right, then there is not even the possibility of error, and intellectual and moral confusion are bound to ensue.”
Note that these are words from the mind and pen of a man who helped to shape the founding documents of the United Nations!
Trueblood’s A Place to Stand is such a trove that we must continue unearthing his wisdom from a half-century ago: “The two great words of Christian history are evangelical and catholic. Both are so precious that it is a serious mistake to use them merely to refer to parties or denominations. . . . The reason why every genuine Christian is catholic is that Christ’s call is universal. We are called to be salt, not merely of a little group, but of the whole earth. In the same way every genuine Christian is evangelical, because a Christian is one who answers affirmatively the call, ‘Come to me’ (Matthew 11:28).”
Now the challenge is to bring the gospel to a postmodern culture without seeming to play an old record which people will dismiss.
Trueblood’s little volume is written from the premise, “The key to the logic of belief lies in finding a firm place from which to operate.” Religion has an important emotional dimension but the cornerstone of real religious faith is not emotion but the basic acts of God. Trueblood says that “the primary proposition for the Christian, [one’s] ultimate act of faith, is the trustworthiness of Jesus Christ. It is here that the Christian finds a place to stand.” Jesus is the Archimedian fulcrum.
As we come to a General Conference that could be a tipping point in the history of all previous denominations that now constitute United Methodism, we need to heed Trueblood’s words of both warning and hope. Whatever structure the thousand delegates determine for millions of us to live by, and whatever social justice decisions are made, the elephant in the room will still be what William Abraham calls our “doctrinal amnesia.”
Descartes once wrote, “I shall be entitled to entertain the highest expectations, if I am fortunate enough to discover only one thing that is certain and indubitable.” God is not finished with United Methodism unless we become embroiled in the “minors” and leave the “majors” untapped. Did not Jesus say to the Pharisees about rules and regulations: “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others”? Structure and social justice are important tools in the carpenter’s apron, but they are not the essence of the “faith once delivered to the saints.”
As Tony Campolo loves to say, “Friday’s here, but Sunday’s coming.” The Easter story is that crucifixion was followed and pre-empted by resurrection. Broken people became strong, confident and bold as lions. They sang, they rejoiced, they taught and were triumphant even in their suffering. Again Professor Trueblood says, “This they did, not only for a few days of passing enthusiasm, but for all the remainder of their lives.”
Wesley’s questions are still pertinent: “Have ye faith?” and “Have ye fruits?” May God bless the United Methodist Church. Let us find, as in the days of yore, our “place to stand.” God’s will is that we again be shakers and movers rather than hand-wringers looking at decline in members, attendance and offerings, and accepting this as simply a “new normal.”
Dr. Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference. He’s the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.