It has been long known that words and concepts typically develop naturally and organically out in the wilds of human life. It is not until someone wishes to make a special use out of them that they become domesticated by the dictionary. In the wild days, most words and concepts lack any essential common definition. Their meanings are bound by what Ludwig Wittgenstein called “family resemblances” which refer to a network of overlapping ideas. He uses “games” as an example because while there are a great variety of activities we are prepared to call games, there is no one common essential definition that all games share. I think this is important to remember as Methodism prepares for schism.
Years ago, Stephen Prothero wrote a book, God is Not One and in it he distinguished two types of religions. One type grows through evangelism and proselytizing. The other grows through birth and marriage. In the first group, he includes evangelical Christianity and in the second group he includes Hinduism. The point he makes is that those religions that grow through proselytization develop an essential set of definitions that enable them to use a sales pitch. This leads to greater theological conformity and higher levels of accountability within their ranks. He says that the second group of religions lack that highly toned sales pitch and this leads to increased variety of expressions and practices. These groups have lower levels of accountability because they don’t agree on the basic prescriptions to which their adherents should be held accountable. It is possible to say that the first type of religious community is more intentional and the second type is more accidental.
Since becoming a United Methodist in 1994 I have experienced us as behaving like the second type of accidental religious community but talking like the first type of intentional religious community. We behave like the second group when we grow primarily through births and marriages (a problem since we are aging out of those activities) and when we value theological diversity and de-emphasize doctrinal loyalty. We talk like the first type of intentional religious communities when we talk about visions and strategies. We have been a little schizophrenic and that has manifested itself in the split we are now facing. While the presenting issue is over an important issue like the full inclusion of LGBTQ folk, the underlying problem is that we cannot decide what kind of religious community we want to be. To complicate matters even more, progressives tend toward intentionality in ethics and unintentionality in theology while conservatives do the reverse.
Another way of describing Prothero’s categorization would be to say that some religions take a prescriptive approach and others take a descriptive approach. Prescriptive religions have a set of prescriptions that are used as criteria for inclusion in the community. Descriptive religions try to match the cultures they inhabit. They are more like family resemblance communities. The closest these descriptive communities comes to prescription is when they prescribe inclusivity for all the diverse groups that comprise their habitats. This is kind of a second level prescription and lacks the punch (pun intended) of intentional religious communities’ prescriptions.
I have not done the research but I am curious as to which type of religious community is stronger or perseveres over time. It may be like the Pepsi challenge where tasters preferred the sweetness of Pepsi when given one sip of each but preferred the taste of Coke when drinking the whole can. In these apocalyptic seeming times, maybe we should be Pepsi because we don’t have time to drink the whole thing. In that case, progressives need to join in the fight and propose an intentional prescriptive religious community that uses criteria for inclusion as an alternative to the intentional community that conservatives offer. I could be wrong. We may have time to finish the can. Of course, that last sip is backwash anyway.
John Tucker is the author of Zero Theology: Escaping Belief through Catch-22s. Available at https://www.amazon.com/Zero-Theology-Escaping-through-Catch-22s/dp/1532675186/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=