The Impact of the Gaze

After the summer of 2011 I began using a phrase to describe the way I understand the church. In the midst of our extended denominational conversation about sexuality we intentionally gathered the responses from the local hearings that were taking place. Far from statistically sound, the information gathered did provide an interesting picture of the denomination as it thought about the question. The committee that reported back noted that about 2/3rds of the church existed right about in the middle while 1/3 was divided between either end of the spectrum. Students of any trend would say that such a range of opinions would match what is known as the bell curve- the center populated by two thirds of the population and the ends tailing off in either direction. Leading up to the report, some said that there was no bell curve among the Brethren, and that two thirds in some way opposed opening the question regarding sexuality. To be sure, this is true. When the curve is assessed from the perspective of opening the question, there is a more than 50% + 1 who would oppose the question. But that does not mean that all are in agreement with the reasoning why. When I walked away from the report in 2011, I quickly latched onto another reality. There is a church in the middle of the poles. There is a church in the middle who has yet to be convinced by the heightened rhetoric of the extremes.

Of course there were some who quickly replied that I was trying to take a middle road on an issue that there could be no middle road- that justice or purity would tolerate no middle ground. But that was to prove the case even more- the ends of the spectrum have too handily defined the conversation.

The Middle Church, or the 2/3rds who chose church unity, have yet to be convinced by the extremes. And we, as the leaders of the church have yet to ask the question that gets at the heart of the middle ground.

Take for instance what happens when you cut an apple. Any kid is fascinated when an apple is cut and the star of seeds appears in the center. But if the adult is cutting on the easier angle- with the natural feet of the apple steadying the fruit for a bisecting cut from the stem- the magic star vanishes. In other words, how you cut defines the picture that emerges. In the scientific lingo of the Heisenberg principle, our very gaze impacts the outcome.

In the case of our heated debates about sexuality, gender, and politics we are cutting on the angle that may be the easiest but reveals an unconvincing image. What if another approach or angle is available, but we lack the imagination to turn it over? What if the ends of the spectrum have so captured our thoughts that we can’t see the forest for the trees?

Recently, it was said that the political climate of the US isn’t dividing the church, and that even without the binary rhetoric of the Democrats and Republicans the church would divide based on competing theologies. That maybe so, but I am not convinced that the middle church isn’t asking a completely different question than the so-called poles, even within the realms proper to the church.

And that is just it. For all the talk of the polarization of our culture, both in and out of the church, there are usually only two options. In the jargon of post-structuralism that is called a binary- an either/or. Better stated, we are constantly presented with a false dichotomy.

In the past six weeks I have been apart of four different arguments that were stuck in the world of binaries. The problems, as those in the argument saw it, were that either one is Catholic or Anabaptist, Academic or Lay, Voting or Not-Voting, Naive or Just. Thankfully, in just about each of these, it became clear that the binary was bull.

Whether or not one is schooled in the esoteric world of post-structuralism, it doesn’t take long before something smells afoul when the rhetoric employs the words “either” and “or”. The more I encounter the either/or arguments the more I realize there is a whole group of people in the middle longing for a different question all together. Two things have made that clear to me in the same six weeks.

As the editor of this blog, I took some heat for publishing a post asking if voting was the virtuous act that so many claim it to be. Some clearly were angry that the question was even asked, while others pressed for a more balanced, if not binary series- a pro and con kind of conversation. I was amazed at the post I received the day of the election. While the two postings argued for different actions, the intent and nuance in the middle was strikingly similar. The concerns that emerged from this intersection of the two posts sounded very similar and yet, the call to action was different. In the end, the question about voting didn’t seem all that heated since the two sets of writers clearly were talking the same language.

The second event is still in process. As a group of us Brethren theologians have gathered privately, it has become clear that a new mode of conversation is needed. Shaped by a new medium of discourse, we are asking theological and practical question, in a clearly conversational way. In other words, social media is redefining the very modes of theological discourse. As one of these NuDunkers put it, we are looking for ways to be practical and theoretical, concerned about people and passionate about ideas, pastoral and academic. The trick is clear, those binary thinkers around us want us to be either/or. Are you NuDunkers gonna offer anything of substance? Subtext: Are you going to gather the liberals or conservatives.

Short answer: No, we are cutting the apple another way. We are looking for the star and not the poles.


Filed under Ecclesiology

3 responses to “The Impact of the Gaze

  1. Scott Holland

    Josh, I read your piece on the gaze three times. The theoretical goals of the NuDunkers articulated in the final paragraph are attractive and inviting. However, is not clear to me how this NuDunker method of discourse can actually address the very pressing practical, pastoral and polity questions before us in real churches in the denomination.

    The implication of your logic seems to be that if the policy and pastoral questions don’t fall within the limits of the interests and agendas of the middle-church they are to be dismissed as polarizing or locked into the unnecessary binaries the NuDunkers find unattractive.

    For example, an openly gay couple comes to First Dunker Church and they have a question which is both practical and pastoral. Are they welcome at this church? May they take communion? May they become members in good standing and remain in a same-sex domestic union? May they minister and serve as deacons in the church if they feel so called? Perhaps a rhetorical or discursive example of how the philosophy of language and thus practical and pastoral theology of the NuDunkers would improve on the conservative or liberal responses now in place might help other readers of your blog also. Because honestly, and I’m not trying to be argumentative, you appear to be implying that the middle or the center or the majority is the standard for discourse and that those questions or concerns beyond the center may be dismissed as extreme.

    With the Jesus story in mind, we must ask, does God always come to us in the center of the Temple or also in the Outer Court, in the very center of history or on its margins?

    • Joshua Brockway

      Thanks Scott, and I don’t take it as argumentative.

      So first let me say what I’m not arguing. First. I’m not arguing a kind of populism wherein the majority takes the day. Nor am I arguing a kind of Via Media that tries to mash together two seemingly contradictory poles.

      What I am saying is that the traditional poles within churchy discourse aren’t answering the very question you attempt to frame. The uncritical acceptance and unreflective piousness just don’t get the pastoral question right.

      What ends up happening is that we elect a group of people to do Solomon’s task… To which mother dies the baby belong? The only option is to split the difference.

      My thought is that once we start to gain a different perspective beyond the binaries, the flat picture of two thirds choosing church unity will be thicker.

      As you have said, we need new thinking on anthropology and even the nature of desire in covenant. I think those types of conversation will get us looking at the apple laterally and seeing new pastoral possibilities.

      • Scott Holland

        Thanks, Josh, for this reply. I do find that the the left, the right and the center in the broad Dunker or Brethren movement cannot discuss anthropology, cosmology or even psychology as these quests for human understanding relate to theology and church polity. We are, however, as tribalists, rather good at sociology because in this model of discourse questions about an interior life can be bracketed.

        On the other hand, I do wonder if we ask “the church” to carry too much freight in a postmodern or late modern world of plurality and ambiguity? The church is a voluntary association and as such each denomination or movement accents the themes and theologies most important to those who freely choose to affiliate with that particular religious movement.

        A case study. Last summer a very diverse group of Brethren thinkers gathered to celebrate Alexander Mack Jr.’s 300th birthday at Etown’s Young Center. There were representatives of the CoB, Ashland, Grace and Old Order Brethren movements or denominations present. Many different perspectives were offered about what it might mean to be Brethren and Christian with Mack’s life and thought in view. The diverse exchanges among participants were critical and constructive yet very civil and congenial. Several noted around the lunch and dinner tables that this was likely because we were not trying to unite around polity or doctrinal issues. At the end of the weekend each could return to his or her voluntary association enriched by the many challenging conversations. These conversations could easily follow the public and civil rules of democratic discourse because we were not working on denominational polity, which denominations must do to remain denominations.

        To do otherwise would have led to miserable and unnecessary tensions and quarrels at Etown. The American church evolved into a “Free Church” rather than a State Church model early in the history of the Republic. It’s a free country ecclesially. Yet I think in trying to hold together radical differences in the name of unity in the CoB, we really unconsciously follow a Medieval Constantinian Church paradigm.

        We live in Lincoln’s America not merely in Mack’s church. Thus, I can greet a BRF member at the Green Grocer’s on Saturday morning, ask warmly about his family, his church, his business, and we can quickly agree that the cabbages are very nice. We know will not see one another on Sunday morning.

        I don’t worry that he and his will persecute LGBTQ persons because my work with the Human Rights Campaign has helped assure that such discrimination in a great society is against the law. But neither does he worry that I will show up at his church, his voluntary association, and quarrel hotly about queer sex. Good bless America!

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