Infidelity, Schism, and the UMC

The most intriguing and challenging idea that I discerned through hearing about my wife’s education and training as a marriage and family therapist is this: “Everything in a marriage is 50/50.” I can’t say whether she would agree with my precise wording or explanation, but I’m more and more convinced that at least a healthy, Christian marriage is always 50/50. That goes for every joy, every problem, every accomplishment, every argument – everything is 50 percent the success/failure of one spouse and 50 percent the success/failure of the other spouse.

I imagine that statement is relatively obvious in at least some arenas. Money is shared. Jobs promotions, transfers, and firings deeply affect both spouses. Feelings are hurt in both directions. Communication has to be a two way street for anyone to know what’s going on. But at least one act is quite the challenge for deciding how far you can take the statement: infidelity.

Infidelity is 50 percent the fault of the cheater and 50 percent the fault of the cheated. Just making that claim sounds inherently flawed. Especially in a digital age, infidelity takes on more forms that just sex and even a sexual affair is quite often not actually about sex, but such deep betrayal of trust cuts to the core of almost any relationship. No matter what either person has done, infidelity is never an acceptable, reasonable, or appropriate response. But healthy, stable, emotionally fulfilled people in healthy, stable, emotionally safe marriages don’t cheat.

The reasons for infidelity are too myriad to list, but to create the space in which infidelity is an option requires contributions from both spouses. Loneliness, bitterness, anger, grief; feeling unheard, unappreciated, unloved, forgotten – none of these are possible without the participation of two parties. Until both sides recognize their contribution to the brokenness, healing is not possible. Unless both sides are willing to put in the work, healing won’t happen.

The present brokenness of the United Methodist Church is a lot like the brokenness of a couple that has to face the reality of infidelity. I’ll absolutely grant that there are far more than two sides to the present impasse and the complexity of relationships between factions within and across the main divide have roots much farther back than any human life. But at the core of the impasse over human sexuality are voices crying out like a marriage in which someone cheats.

The conservative side has done nothing concrete and overt enough to be charged with violating the covenant relationship established  in the Book of Discipline. It is like a spouse so caught up in the appearance of the way things are “supposed” to be that it cannot see, much less respond to the needs of the spouse that realizes no one fits neatly into the boxes made by “should.”

The liberal side has openly flaunted the fact that it has and will continue to violate parts of that covenant that it believes are harmful to children of God. It is like a spouse crying out to be heard and embraced, but left to feel like the pristine image of an imagined past is more important than the lived reality of present people.

The dynamic is playing out exactly like one would expect to see in the messy aftermath of infidelity. If the marriage is to be saved, our brokenness has to be recognized for what it is: a 50/50 conflict that requires a 50/50 resolution. Can this particular marriage be saved? I have no idea, but certainly not unless we figure out how to listen to one another and have the fight we intend to have.

It may surprise most people that the majority of couples choose to stay married after discovering a partner’s affair. And many of those marriages wind up stronger after the affair than before. The trauma of infidelity is never a pleasant or desired outcome per se, but it can create the space in which each spouse is finally forced to listen and hear what the other is saying. When we truly listen and hear each other, there is hope for a stronger marriage in which we don’t simply not break the rules of the covenant. In pursuing the dynamic, growing, passionate heart of God, we may actually find the unity in difference that defines the body of Christ.

Abundant Life is found in the coherence of the person you are, the community that formed you, and the world that challenges you to grow.

Present, past, future. Self, family, world. Me, insider, outsider.

This is the three strand cord that gives shape and meaning to life.

Analogizing Faith vs Science

Imagine yourself standing on a field in the midst of a game as you stare down at a solid white line in the grass. The ball is at your feet, your teammates and opponents several yards away, and the crowd is completely behind you, waiting with bated breath to see what you will do next. Will you be the hero and lead your team to victory? Time is running out, your opponents are moving fast, you only have seconds to make the right move or it might be too late. What do you do?

The answer, of course depends on what game you are playing and where you are standing on the field. If you’re standing at your opponent’s goal in soccer with the ball at your feet, the correct answer is to kick the ball over the line and score the game winning goal. If you’ve fumbled the football to the back of the opponent’s end zone, you better not kick it past the line or they’ll get the ball back and kneel out the clock; pick the ball up, score the touchdown, be the hero. If you’re a left fielder reaching to pick up a fair ball while your opponent sprints for home, you better pick up the ball and make the throw to the plate. Given long enough, I could probably name a thousand possibilities that fit this bare bones scenario, but just a few will suffice to make the point. You can never know what to do next without knowing the game you are playing.

The ability to know and study the physical world (science) is like the ability to say that there really is a ball and there really is a line on the ground. You could do complex studies and deep analysis of the composition and weight and movement of the ball, and doing so might very well help you understand the best way to do what comes next; but if you simply hold onto the baseball or pick up the soccer ball or kick the football, you still lose the game.

Having faith is like knowing the rules of the game. It’s the type of knowledge that allows us to see any particular thing or action in the context of the game called life that we think we are playing. You have to know the meaning of the line and ball if you are to have any realistic hope of doing the right thing when you see them. Conversely, knowing the finer points of the rules and strategy of the game doesn’t guarantee victory – sometimes overthinking strategy makes it harder to simply score the goal/get a touchdown/throw the out.

This analogy of the relationship between science and faith implies at least three things:

1) To think of science and faith as opposites is to misunderstand the nature and role of each. Neither the particular items involved in a game nor the game itself have any meaning or make any sense without each other. And the contingent nature of human knowledge combine with the limitations of human rationality to guarantee that we never know for sure where the line is between the what (the concrete objects or actions we experience) and the why (the game we think we’re playing) of the world. Put differently, we can’t step back far enough to guarantee knowledge of what the game is nor can we zoom in close enough to figure out the game from perfectly understanding the building blocks of nature. But we also can’t play the game without some willingness to explore and understand the field in which the game of life takes place.

2) Treating faith and doubt like the difference between knowledge and ignorance is a categorical mistake. A better analogy is to ask if you see the world like a baseball, football, or soccer player. You could of course be wrong, but your error is not in what you see and experience as much as it is in the point of what you’re doing on the field. And to have faith or not isn’t nearly a yes or no question – it can take a lifetime of training to be any good at it even if you do understand the rules. Conversely, there isn’t much point in drawing lines between those who know the game and don’t because we can’t know enough about the game to know where a meaningful line would be. The choice is not one of deciding who is playing the ‘right’ game or playing ‘well enough’ – our choice is deciding whether or not to teach and learn from others the game we all think we’re playing.

3) To assume that we could ever act or think about the what (science) in distinction from the why (faith) is to misunderstand the nature of human life. There is no way to say what the world is without implications for how we understand what life is and is for. But there is no way to make a claim about what life is and is for without implying something about how we ought to view and understand the lived realities of the world. Thus, so many of our conversations pitting science against faith devolve into incoherent drivel. What we need more than anything else in this arena is the epistemic humility to see that neither faith nor science could mean what they mean without the presence of the other.

 

Baptism is God’s immersion into our world. The Eucharist is our communion with God. What we do in the sacraments is our participation in the grace of God to transform the world; the sacraments are the gospel shape of what God has called us to.

Raft or island

Is Jesus the only way to heaven? Before attempting an answer, we must ask a prior question. Is the life of God that was poured out and perfected upon the cross strong enough and deep enough to effect the salvation of the whole world? The former question is problematic if we cannot answer the latter with a certain and emphatic ‘Yes!’

To answer ‘no’ is to imply that we see Jesus as a life raft tossed into the ocean, which must be found and utilized by a drowning person. If that were the case, then I would have trouble blaming anyone for a desire to multiply the rafts so that more and more persons might find rest in their quest to stay afloat – and that is often how the more liberal voices come across when justifying alternative religions as paths to salvation. On the other side, more conservative voices that require the unique particularity of Jesus come across as cruel in their comfort with the notion that many will drown even if they never had fair access to the limited number of rafts available.

Beginning with the latter question points to the possibility that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus reveals to the whole world that God has made an island in the midst of the ocean; an island big enough to give rest to all the world; an island with food and water to satisfy every need and shelter to protect from every storm. If that is the case, then arguing over what brand is printed on your life preserver necessarily points your answer in the wrong direction.

Perhaps some will refuse to leave the ocean, preferring the fight for survival to the fear of the unknown. But it remains much more faithful to the Christian story to understand that Jesus is not one small life raft in an ocean full of lost and drowning souls. We may think we are doing the world a service by trying to find more boats, whether inside traditional Christian understanding or not, but God in Christ by the power of the Spirit effects a wholly different plan to end our struggles in the ocean. As Jesus was raised upon the cross, so God has raised up the dry land to save us from our drowning and make possible a new life shared in harmony with all creation. Starting with that affirmation changes the meaning and possible outcomes of the former question entirely.