By Gary E. Mueller
Bishop of the Arkansas Annual Conference
While I can’t know with certainty, I have a feeling the first two Christians probably had a theological discussion over their respective interpretations of the faith. Not surprisingly, similar discussions have continued ever since, because faith is ultimately something very personal.
These differences, however, have taken an ugly turn recently. A huge gulf has opened between those who are more conservative and those who are more liberal that mimics the polarization gripping our nation. The result is the church now seems to be in full-blown battle mode.
Why is this happening?
I think it is because we have ideologized the Christian faith. We no longer primarily understand our faith in terms of our relationship with Jesus, to other believers in the Body of Christ and to the world based on how he teaches us to treat others. Instead, we have reduced Christianity to own personal belief system defined by our theological understandings, political preferences, cultural perspectives and a good dose of arrogance, which leaves little room for anyone who does not think like us.
The particularly insidious part of this ideologization of the faith is how easily we convince ourselves that those who disagree with us have bad beliefs and, therefore, are bad people. Because they are bad people, we feel justified in stereotyping them. The more we focus on our crude characterizations of them, the more they become the enemy. Since we are in a battle of right versus wrong, we have to protect ourselves and be victorious. Because they are the adversary, we can do anything to them we wish without a shred of remorse. And on and on and on, until we are trapped in a cycle of polarization, disdain and fracture. If you have any doubt whether this is an accurate picture of reality, just take a look at the current state of the United Methodist Church.
My heart hurts – indeed, it breaks – that it has come to this. What is more, there are days I have little hope that things will improve. And, yet, I cannot give up because God is calling us to break this sinful cycle, Jesus is molding all Christians into his body, and the Holy Spirit is working to bring together what we have rent asunder.
So what can we do?
What if all progressives, traditionalists and those somewhere in-between were to meet at the manger this Christmas? To get back to the heart of our faith. To remember God loves us so much God sent the only begotten Son right into the mess of the world to save it. To look – truly look – at those gathering with us, and see them as the light of Christ child illumines their faces. To allow the Holy Spirit to bind us together through the Christ child. And to join hands to wonder, worship and share the Good News of a Great Joy in real ways with real people in real life.
I confess I’m not exactly sure what will happen if disciples who are estranged from each other actually decide this is an idea worth trying. But I know that it will make a much-needed difference. And maybe, just maybe, we can experience how the power of the poignant words we sing each Christmas Eve can do what we seem incapable of doing on our own,
Silent night, holy night!
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth