Assumptions matter. They matter a great deal.
There was a story I heard years ago about a physicist, a chemist, and an economist who were stranded on a desert island with no tools and a can of food. The physicist and the chemist each devised an ingenious mechanism for getting the can open; the economist merely said, "Assume a can opener"!
David Watson in a recent blog comes to this idea by a different route. He notes when he was obtaining his PhD part of what he learned in intellectual argumentation included the art of deconstruction: “The most common and effective route [to deconstruct an argument] is to attack the assumptions upon which an argument rests. Once you destabilize its foundational assumptions, the argument itself tends to fall apart.”
For years, I was taught the way to examine any critical issue was to be sure you knew what the issue was (a clear definition of the problem), what do we know with certainty (the facts) and what do we have to factor into the calculus for which we are less certain (the assumptions). Almost every broken mathematical model I was exposed to broke down because of the assumptions. They were generally flawed.
Here is an assumption – my first - I make about #nextmethodism: it will have elements of the past joined in the present in anticipation of what God is going to do in the future.
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. We call it “the mystery of faith” for a reason. But it is our faithful assumption. And as we faithfully operate, those assumptions bear up under a rigorous deconstruction, as they have for two thousand years.
The late Robert Webber addresses this in terms of worship – worship is bringing together into the now, a remembrance of what God has already done in the past, with an anticipation of what God will do in the future. Scholarly articles may talk about this in terms of anamnesis (remembrance) and prolepsis (anticipation). We ritually reenact this through Holy Communion – God has acted in the past, remember it, and God isn’t finished, be in a state of anticipation. We then take the “mystery” and we use past tense, present tense, and future tense verbs to help us see the past and the future in terms of our now. And Christ IS risen, is the central thematic statement upon which all of the variations in the symphony that is the church are developed.
Doing so faithfully, then calls us to a place where we examine ourselves against the plumb line that is God’s ancient word and are we then being faithful to God’s call, rather than culture’s call.
Allow me to offer a second assumption that I think need to be clearly stated: we are supposed to be surrounded, and we are surrounded not by an enemy but rather by opportunity.
C. S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity: “Enemy-occupied territory---that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.” Major Dick Winters in the HBO Mini-Series Band of Brothers understood this clearly when told that he and his unit are about to be surrounded at Bastogne in December, 1944. “We’re paratroopers lieutenant, we’re supposed to be surrounded.”
My proposed assumption is that we recognize that we are supposed to be surrounded and we are supposed to be offering a counter cultural message. Yes, both the Lewis and Winters illustration might lead one to believe I see those as outside of the church as “the enemy”. I do not. I frankly see them as an opportunity.
But here is the key: Kent Ingram of Colorado Springs First writes of us often waxing nostalgically for the time church was culturally normative. What if that maybe that time of heightened numbers and cultural acceptance was really and truthfully Egypt or Babylon. How is this for a news flash: Nostalgia is a Golden Calf. So much of what we have attempted to do over the last decade (at least) has been driven by a flawed assumption that what once was, can be again. I hear it as we need to get back to Egypt as fast as we can, life is hard out here in this wilderness. Making bricks without straw wasn’t really that bad, was it? I say yes, it really was, and if we decide to worship that Golden Calf, we will continue to decline.
If we can agree on that 'surrounded by opportunity' assumption, and it was an operative assumption for 18th Century English Wesleyans, then we can effectively cast aside what the world, however that is defined, thinks of us as a cultural value.
Watson offers another very valid assumption: “People are spiritually hungry, too. The problem is that they just don’t know it ….What they’re hungry for is Jesus.” At some point, stuff doesn’t fill that ‘hole in our souls.’ It has been my experience in my seventeen years in ministry that Watson is right – people are spiritually hungry. Wesley understood that. Jesus understood that. I pray we understand it in our communitarian futures.
Our past has given us keys for our future – scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. And let us be crystal clear, scripture is framed in part by tradition or we would be reading The Gospel of Thomas in our lectionary readings.
I love serving this United Methodist Church. I do so in tension over the fact what is United may become Untied. That tension is driven by an assumed can opener. There seems to be an unstated assumed can opener that many operate from as it relates to looking at #nextmethodism and that is that we can continue to do the things in the world that we are doing. I hope that assumption is accurate.
Several years ago, I got used to watching news broadcasts from Liberia where the Ebola crisis was in full ravage mode. Rarely, if ever, did the announcer make the point that the interview was being conducted outside of a hospital with a large cross and flame on it. I watched with pride: I knew. We didn’t put those hospitals there to brag about it, we rather put those hospitals there because that was where the greatest need and our Grace filled hearts had a collision. We answered that call. Some assume a #nextmethodism can still do that. I hope they are right. Just as I am not sure the economist can opener can open any cans, I am not so sure that once untied, we can continue to provide hospitals in Africa beyond where the road runs out. Among other things, that isn't my only assumed can opener.
I heard a quote in the last few years that keeps resonating with me: “Too often we listen in order to respond rather than to truly understand.” I want to assume that in #nextmethodism, we will endeavor to truly understand.