“Finally have put a finger on an issue I have with the priesthood of this church. A lot of you want us to embrace, uphold, accept and defend the practicing homosexual. Why is it that because I do not agree with you that you try to paint me as hateful to everyone else?”
Thus began a discussion earlier this week on the Community of Christ open group facebook page, that quickly became heated and expanded beyond issues related to homosexuality to explore the deep differences between progressives and traditionalists in that denomination. (Expansion of sacramental rites to gays — including marriage, the right to peform gay marriages, and the right to be ordained while in a monogamous same sex partnership — is to be considered at national conferences within the USA, Canada, and Australia either in 2012 or 2013.)
At the same time, Andrew S. was leading a discussion on this blog on how and why various progressives in the LDS church joined together or fractured in their attempts to make the church more inclusive of progressive positions. I was amazed by how the positions in each communal reference frame had counterparts in post discussions — almost to the point that I could have, with little editing, superimposed one discussion within the other. For example, would you have thought I was talking about the LDS instead of the CofChrist if I had edited the first paragraph of this post to read, “A lot of you refuse to embrace, uphold, accept and defend the practicing homosexual”?
As someone (I believe it was John Hamer), explained, a key difference between the progressive-traditionalist discussions in the two denominations at present is that in the Community of Christ, the progressives “won”. That church proclaims itself as more inclusive, and less likely to defend core beliefs from the Restoration tradition as once understood — such as unique priesthood authority or prophetic utterances of Joseph Smith — than does the LDS. The CofChrist may or may not change policies toward gender in the United States church by 2013; it is implausible to the extreme that it would support an anti-gay-marriage legislative package in any US state publicly or privately.
The Community of Christ, then, has clearly moved leftward over the last generation — perhaps even to the point where it may be considered more Protestant than Restorationist. Yet, this did not lead to any resolution of the divide between progressives and traditionalists. The progressives won; they did not achieve inclusiveness with traditionalists. As I tried to illustrate in the graphic above, the Community of Christ has not succeeded in enlarging the boundaries of the church, or of making them obviously more centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ in which there is “no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” (Galatians 3:27-29). The boundaries of the church have simply been moved; there is, apparently, still “progressive and traditionalist” in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Now the progressives in the LDS and the traditionalists in the CofChrist are, oddly, almost in mirror positions of each other — finding themselves on the outside wondering whether the boundary can be stretched to include them without giving up core elements of their own identity. And within each denomination, there are many on the inside of those boundaries who feel that if the boundaries are pulled further in one direction, their core identities, and even their salvation and that of their families may be at stake.
There is one important asymmetry here, however: the LDS holds to the notion that it is the “one and only true church”, but the CofChrist no longer does. Indeed, that is a core element of faith claims that anchor traditionalists in the LDS church in the way that other core elements of faith anchor traditionalist Evangelicals or Catholics. To redefine such core elements is not as simple as “just follow Jesus”, because such core beliefs have been internalized as what it means to follow Jesus.
To the contrary, the experience of the CofChrist suggests that multiculturalism, in practice, is merely itself the cultural value of a particular human culture. In fact, even the discussion of gender issues has been isolated by CofChrist leadership because of its possible impact on persecution of leaders and members in congregations in many emerging nations. It is seen as possible, and necessary to discuss gender now in certain Western nations to avoid schism, but too hot to discuss in other nations lest it actually provoke schism. Paradoxically, the question of inclusiveness transforms into a tension to produce multiple exclusive communities.
In the CofChrist, leadership is attempting to respond to this dynamic by forming national churches (or gerrymandered Apostolic fields of culturally-similar countries — the organizational guidance that triumphs is not yet clear) with greater theological autonomy. In the LDS, where uniformity is more enforced down to the ward level, alternative structures such as the internet communities form. But I think both forms are responses to that same tension to produce multiple exclusive communities.
Now, the immediate reaction is that having multiple exclusive communities is a bad thing. It fits neither the mental image of a one true church or of a multicultural ideal. But for me, it would seem necessary for Christian institutions to reexamine their motivations for building community and their expectations about what such communities ought to accomplish.
It is critical in this regard to note a key point about what triggers formation of community in the natural world. Communities form when, and only when, they provide something of value to the elements that compose them. It is only when the proto-community becomes very good at providing that value that an identity as a community emerges. And it is only then that the elements begin to adapt themselves to fit into and promote the continued expansion and well-being of the community.
We see this in evolution (and I use this example knowing full well the delicious irony that some use acceptance of evolution itself as a faithfulness-defining boundary), for example. Molecules come together in a series of cyclic reactions that sustain the existence of the molecules against thermodynamic disruption – a simplistic community. They separate and differentiate into individual types of cycles by substituting reactions and/or catalysts that increase their yield and/or sustainability. The most successful individuals become more complex over time, incorporating additional steps that gain a measure of influence over the surrounding environment. Eventually that controlled environment becomes a cell, with the capability to replicate and to mutate, so that the replicating core of the cell becomes a community of information-processing genes and regulatory chemicals. Other once-independent cellular communities (like the mitochondria) are incorporated to carry out specific functions that benefit the survival of each component community. The cells develop permanent linkage to other cells, forming multi-cellular communities. Eventually, the cells begin to differentiate from each other and adopt individual functions, and organisms form. The organisms reproduce, separate, and begin to develop their own individual natures. Eventually the separate types of organisms unite to form an ecosystem, a still more complex level of community. Ecosystems individualize, and so on, seemingly ad infinitum.
A balance between community building and community differentiation is central to driving this process forward, and selecting community building as more fundamental than community separation seems as arbitrary as saying that the chicken is more important than the egg.
Perhaps we need a better way of viewing our “boundary problem” than either enlarging our boxes, defending them where they stand, or moving them to encompass different sets of people. Perhaps we need to consider obliterating the boundaries instead. There is no way I know to do that, of course, but I do have an approximation in mind.
Perhaps we need to define our position in respect to the gospel’s boundaries more like the way electrons define their positions in respect to the boundaries of atoms: very fuzzily and transiently. Perhaps it is becoming reconciled to the notion of being uncertain about where we are without becoming fearful about where we are that permits us ultimately to become reconciled to each other and to God. Perhaps detaching uncertainty from fear is what living by faith is all about.