This column was written by Jim Tonkowich.
For those who are shocked by the crack-up of the Episcopal Church, let me explain: The answer was on a T-shirt I saw last month while traveling to the Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly in Birmingham and the Episcopal Church General Convention in Columbus. It read, "I'm Making It Up As I Go." Exactly.
Both denominational meetings were characterized by division, polarization and discord as conservatives and liberals attempted to discern and approve God's will on issues ranging from divestment from companies doing business with Israel to gay clergy to the doctrine of the Trinity ("Mother, Child, and Womb"?). As left and right argued their cases, the real issue emerged. It is not the opposing opinions on assorted overtures and resolutions that divide left and right; it is the underlying understanding of truth, and how we know it.
The left — also known as progressives, liberals, revisionists, and (in some circles) heretics — base their convictions on individualism, subjectivity, and majority vote with passing references to Scripture and creeds. The right — also known as traditionalists, conservatives, evangelicals, and orthodox (not necessarily said as a compliment) — insist on submission to the authority of the Bible and of historic confessions, regardless of contemporary preferences. It is this division that makes the conflict between the two sides so rancorous. Compromise on issues is possible. Compromise on the fundamental questions of truth and authority is not.
In a debate about whether the Presbyterian Church should divest from companies doing business with Israel, former Moderator Rick Ufford-Chase noted that the Israelis had their passion and the Palestinians had their passion. The solution, he said, is to affirm and embrace both. The fact that Hamas controls the Palestinian government and that Hamas' passion is to kill Jews and wipe Israel off the map never entered the conversation. Passions are the touchstone, not reason and analysis. His suggestion, thankfully, was rejected.
In the same session, several speakers — mostly pastors — argued in favor of divestment, explaining that they had visited the Palestinians, "engaged in dialogue," and were "deeply concerned." No one informed these undoubtedly well-meaning people that the plural of "anecdote" is not "data." After all, with all that sincerity, who would want to call their judgment into question? In the end, the PCUSA did the right thing and voted to end divestment, but not without a very unusual debate.
As for gay clergy, the denomination elected to leave the rules against ordaining practicing homosexuals on their books while permitting a local option of ignoring the rules. This, of course, permits local churches to ordain polygamists or polyamorists — or just about anyone else — as well.
In Columbus, when Katharine Jefferts Schori preached her first sermon to the Episcopal Church General Convention as presiding bishop-elect, she announced, "Our mother Jesus gives birth to a new creation and we are his children." No doubt many in attendance thought this was wonderfully profound — as undoubtedly Bishop Schori and her handlers did. The conservatives, however, heard this gibberish as, well . . . gibberish and heretical gibberish at that.
In contrast to Christians through the ages, the denominational left has substituted sentiments for facts, passions for authority, and subjectivity for reason. Their belief seems to be that if they "create space for dialogue" it will allow them to emote and vote with the result that a simple majority determines the new revised standard version of God's truth and will.
Having so emoted and voted, the PCUSA has begun experimenting with reformulations of the doctrine of the Trinity. "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" will be substituted with "Mother, Child and Womb," "Rock, Redeemer, Friend," "Rainbow, Ark, and Dove," and other assorted triads. Again, the left is satisfied that dialogue and a vote have revealed God's truth. God names Himself anything a majority of delegates — presumably lead by the Holy Spirit — say He names Himself.
No wonder the left and right can't get along. They live in parallel universes and can barely communicate with each other.
This same confusion over truth is rapidly infecting the evangelical world as churches drink the "emerging church" Kool-Aid. Emerging or post-modern church leaders insist that truth is relational and must be experienced. I agree, but to leave it there is to fall into the same subjectivist error in which the mainline/old-line denominations are mired. The traditional Christian understanding is that truth is true even if it is not experienced. It is true objectively and absolutely. This is an assertion for which modern people have little patience.
In a speech given in 1898, Dutch theologian, pastor, politician, and professor Abraham Kuyper diagnosed modern problems with understanding the nature of truth: "Everyone who thinks he can abandon the Christian truths, and do away with the Catechism of Reformation, lends ear unawares to the hypotheses of the modern world-view and, without knowing how far he has drifted already, swears by the Catechism of Rousseau and Darwin."
Having abandoned a Christian epistemology and, thus, Christian truths, the mainline/old-line denominations will continue their inexorable drift to the sideline. The current breakdown in the Episcopal Church is the natural result of this crisis in authority and truth. The results will be a liberal vestige with lovely buildings and lots of endowment money, but few people.
Left and right represent radically different understanding of faith and truth. It's the difference between "Making It Up As I Go" and "Thus saith the Lord."
Jim Tonkowich is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.
By Jim Tonkowich