Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Getting Sh*t Done

Some church traditions have a higher value for social efficiency than others.

One of my friends here at Princeton is a proud Methodist... a very proud Methodist. We often get into discussions about Methodism and what it's all about and today I made the mistake of asking the question: "who do Methodists read instead of Barth?" (an appropriate question only because of the thick Presbyterian-ness of our context) and without hesitation, with the tone of having been violated, my friend responded, "WESLEY!" ...as in John Wesley.  

"Of course... well, I asked because I was wondering if there was someone a little more contemporary... after all, Wesley didn't even have a systematic theology." 

And with pure eloquence she gave her take on Methodism in a nutshell: "we're not systematic theologians, but we get sh*t done!"

Now, having something of a Wesleyan background from my time at Azusa Pacific University (and also having a natural affinity for the Wesleys because my name is Wesley), I could appreciate the sentiment. I can appreciate the value of actually moving forward even in the midst of some theological ambiguity instead of trying to get all the answers sorted out before making a move. I think that in some ways this is an accurate description of my own tradition... the United Church of Christ formed as a denomination, blending two other denominations (and four theological traditions) together as one before even constructing a constitution. There certainly wasn't much of a system of theology, but there certainly was a value for being about what the church should be about and a desire to walk forward together in faith, even in the midst of discussion and even disagreement. In the 1960's, the UCC set theology in the back seat and shaped its identity around social action; responding to the war in Vietnam, getting involved in the Civil Rights Movement and women's issues. Social efficiency in social justice was the name of the game and theology only popped up when it was needed. 

You don't have to have a systematic theology, you don't have to have clear theological reasons for every little thing in order to get things done. This is true... but what is the role of theology in getting sh*t done? 

If you ask me... while the UCC, to continue with the example, has some incredible strengths and much in their heritage that's worth celebrating, their weaknesses emerge from the same substance. The same stuff that allows the UCC to exist without a clear systematic theology has, in my opinion, created some problems and potential problems. When your ministry identity is shaped around social efficiency, how you live and what you work toward, it becomes less clear how theology can provide the rationale for ministry... and when theology doesn't provide the rationale for ministry it's difficult to see how we can call it ministry at all. Ministry, after all, is participation in what God is up to. Ministry is God's, we just get to join in. If we are not, in fact, discerning theologically what God is up to, what God is about, what constitutes God's being, and then continuing our process from that foundation, whatever we produce will only either be accidental ministry or something else altogether. If we begin with action and efficiency before we start to discern what it is that God is up to in a specific context (and it needs to be said that taking action is part of the theological learning process), then we will at best only be performing theological proof-texting: doing our thing and throwing in a theological justification wherever it fits. 

Systematic theology is extremely and fundamentally practical. It provides the very rationale for the church, its ministry, and its role in its specific social context. Getting sh*t done should be important to the church... if all we do is sit around arguing about theology then we're neither doing good ministry nor good theology. But if all we do is get sh*t done and ignore the theological questions and the rationale for ministry which they provide, then again, we're neither doing good ministry nor good theology. If we care about ministry, then we cannot help but care about theology. Indeed, we have to take up systematic theology as part of our task (that's why every good Methodist theologian still eventually has to deal with Barth). But theology HAS to get sh*t done! If theology does not move past itself, if all we do with it is talk about it, then it's not theology at all. The object and subject of systematic theology, as well as the work of ministry itself, is a God who is up to stuff... a God who is getting sh*t done. We have to do theology on the move, but we cannot neglect theology. 

With God as our object we have to be systematic theologians and we have to get sh*t done... we shouldn't have to choose one or the other. We need to be theologians on the move. 

4 comments:

Danny Kam said...

I'm not sure what you mean by efficiency here. I don't think Wesleyans or your own denomination would talk in terms of "efficiency." Efficiency, to me, seems more like an industrial term. Gould, Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Ford were all famous for breaking things down into "doable" tasks and then making them more efficient through machinery. Throwing "social" in front of the word efficiency seems to be even more a confusion in terms. I think you might better use pragmatism or realpolitick if you want to talk in term of social practice, as this is what it seems that Wesleyans and the UCC people do.

Wesley Ellis said...

Realpolitick, huh? Yeah, that's less confusing.

Danny Kam said...

It's not a matter of confusion, I was talking about a matter of clarity. What you seem to be talking about is pragmatism, which those like Kissinger designated realpolitick. Namely, dealing with the world we're in and making the best of the situation. This seems to be what UCC and similar liberal denominations have set out to do. I just don't think the term "efficiency" is particularly clear or a fair representation of what those denominations do.

Also, I am not as much an expert on theology, so maybe there is some theologians you have read that have talked about this social efficiency and maybe I'm just ignorant as to their existence.

Wesley Ellis said...

Yeah... you're probably right...

I could have explained what I meant more clearly... perhaps with some Niebuhrian reference...

But hopefully my point came through, that theology (even systematic theology!) cannot be avoided or skipped on the way to actually getting stuff done.