- by Mary Ann Kaiser -
I was recently sitting in on a fascinating discussion among progressive Catholics about the current stances of the religious hierarchy on various social issues. As these people of faith wrestled with their identity as Catholics and their disagreements with aspects of Catholicism, they were asked, “do you think it’s time the church modernize its theology? Is it time it becomes relevant to our current culture again?” As you might expect, the answer was a resounding “yes.” Many progressive Catholics of faith want their leaders to “catch up” to the 21st century so that it stops the harm it’s doing particularly in conversations around gender and sexuality.
As United Methodists who stand in opposition to our current policies on LGBTQ persons, we are longing for the same thing. If asked the same question, I imagine our answers would be in complete solidarity with the Catholic voices I heard. There is a trans-denominational cry by progressive Christians to see the church’s social policies change so that it appropriately reflects our understandings of love and justice. We imagine that if the church “modernizes its theology”, young people will be more inclined to stay in the church and those we have wounded might be able to join us once again. As a progressive UMC lesbian, of course I echo a longing to see our denominational policies reflect what I believe is the gospel – inclusion, justice, and love. I think it’s time our policies change, but I do not think our theology needs to be “modernized.”
Our biggest problem is not that the church’s theology is irrelevant but that we have forgotten how to use theology appropriately.
This is not to say there aren’t problematic theologies. There are always aspects of anyone’s theology, even our own John Wesley’s, that need to be harshly critiqued because inevitably their context and their prejudice get in the way of the gospel. We have also long left out theological voices which uplift the experiences of those who are not white, or male, or straight or middle/upper class. Where prejudice or a lack of expansive thought are concerned, we of course need to fix this problem by giving equal value to black theology and womanist/mujerista/feminist theology or queer theology, but that is a matter of critique and expansion. The words written about God by theologians of old and theologians of all demographics currently in our academies, seminaries, and local parishes, are not what’s making the church irrelevant. These theologians are all dealing with questions of God’s interactions with the world, of human suffering, of the intersections of faith and society. I imagine most would agree, these are appropriately “modern” concerns.
Young people are not going to stay in or return to the church just because we are talking about pop culture or whatever new technology is deemed relevant (though avoiding these conversations doesn’t help either). Those we have wounded are not going to return even if/when we become fully inclusive and more racially diverse (though we must!). Though these changes will help and they will rightly reflect more relevant policies, this sort of shift will not be enough. Young people are only going to come back to church when we start using theology appropriately again and by appropriately I mean with the relevancy it has always had. This is a relevancy built upon questions of life and death and in-between. No matter the year, the culture, or the demographics of a community the questions of being a human who believes in some sort of Divinity that makes this whole world as lovely as it is, are always begging for engagement. These are conversations that matter.
The UMC is indeed becoming irrelevant to the concerns of society in its policies toward transgender, bisexual, lesbian, gay, and queer individuals. It is irrelevant when it chooses to remain silent about ongoing issues of racism, sexism, and classism both in the church and society. It is irrelevant when it takes good theological thought which invites us to ponder life and its mysteries and how we might use values to transform society into a more just community and then uses them as a tool of destruction by attaching contextual theological claims to permanent moral agendas.
The church’s problem is not a lack of relevant theology but it is a fear of questions and letting theologies be what they are. These fears results in the misuse of our faith claims. We are not a people of hard rules that ignore context. We are not a people of absolute uncertainty about all the details of life and love. We are not a people so confident in our own perspectives that we do not leave room for the Spirit to change our hearts and minds. We, the people of the United Methodist Church, are followers of Christ – the one who challenged all the absolutes, the one who is incarnated over and over in diverse forms and shapes every day, and the one who draws us into the questions that will always be relevant.
The problem of the church is not with our theology – there is plenty good theology plastering the walls of libraries and new theologies are being written every day. Our problem is with the church’s unwillingness to use this theology as a guide rather than a rulebook. We are all on different journeys, whether in the U.S. or Africa, whether we are trans or cis, whether we are 12 or 80 years old. Our contexts our different and require different applications of various theologies but our questions are the same. Who are we? What does it mean to be human? And who is this Mysterious One that draws us all together?
. . .Mary Ann Kaiser received her B.A. in Organizational Communication with a minor in Social Welfare from the University of West Florida. After college she spent one year living in Nigeria where she was shaped greatly by the cross-cultural experience and relationships formed. She has worked for a Wesley Foundation, as a hospital chaplain and completed an internship at WATER (Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual) in Silver Spring, MD. She attended Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary where she earned her M.Div. and developed a passion for exploring the intersections of church and soceity. She is an out lesbian who now works at a UMC church in Texas as Youth Director and Justice Associate. She is challenged daily to grow in openness, resolution, and kindness.