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Looking beyond the culture war

Looking beyond the culture war

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Looking beyond the culture war

Feb. 11, 2005    News media contact:  Michael Wacht*    
407-897-1140     Orlando  {0246}

NOTE:  A headshot of Whitaker is available at

An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**

The people of The United States of America are engaged in what is called a "cultural war," or what the Germans call "Kulturkampf." In the somewhat silly way of the media, Americans are divided into two camps, Red and Blue.

Likewise, the same conflict is occurring within the Christian churches. Ours is a "Kirchenkampf."  The issues that divide people in the culture also divide people in the churches — sexuality, the beginning and ending of life, education, politics and law. In the churches, the issues are defined in theological terms.

For more than a hundred years the theological divide in America has been between the modernists (nowadays called "liberals" or "progressives") and the fundamentalists (nowadays called "conservatives" or "the religious right").

Throughout my life I have never found either party in this conflict convincing. The fundamentalists tend toward intellectual obscurantism, biblical literalism and moralism. The modernists tend toward intellectual naiveté, rationalism and antinomianism. When I was young, I thought their debate was irrelevant and anachronistic. I was wrong. The debate has been dressed up with more sophisticated thinking, but it is still going on.

Where is the way through this dichotomy between the two camps? It is not in the "middle?" There isn't much help to be found in the advice to choose a middle course between two extremes.

The way forward is to locate our theological and ethical reflection in Scripture as the witness of the prophets and apostles, the Christian tradition as the interpretation of the Scripture by the churches over a long time and in many places, and prayer for the illumination of the Spirit of God in our contemporary situation. Another way of saying this is that we can transcend the narrowness of both fundamentalism and modernism by embracing the living tradition of apostolic and catholic faith.

There is nothing narrow about the apostolic and catholic faith. The preeminent expert on the Christian tradition, Jaroslav Pelikan, calls it "a generous orthodoxy." Yet, there are also clear boundaries in the apostolic and catholic faith for both belief and practice. For instance, there are many ways to try to comprehend the meaning of Christ's death on the cross, but it is not permissible to jettison this central mystery of God's revelation and salvation in favor of a theory of Jesus' identity and significance apart from his death on the cross for us.

Fundamentalists make the mistake of squeezing the many images of the cross in the apostolic writings and in the Christian tradition into one concept of substitutionary atonement, while a few progressives will rant senselessly about wanting to get rid of talk about "bloody sacrifices." The apostolic and catholic faith includes a variety of ways of articulating the meaning of Christ's death on the cross for us, encourages us to see the truth in all of them, and acknowledges that no human thoughts can comprehend the height, depth, breadth and length of what God has done for us there.

When one seeks to locate theological and ethical reflection in the apostolic and catholic faith, probably one will discover how facile are the labels of "liberal" and "conservative." By thinking theologically, i.e. in accordance with Scripture and the living Christian tradition, rather than ideologically, one will arrive at positions that are "liberal," "conservative" or neither. That's why counseling people to seek the "middle" is misleading: the truth of God may not be in the middle, but in the different extremes. More accurately, the truth may be similar to the extremes, but it will also be different from them because it is framed according to the categories of language in Scripture and tradition rather than according to ideological slogans.

The great 20th century theologian Karl Barth described himself as an "ecumenical, evangelical, conservative, radical Christian." This expansive, seemingly contradictory, self-description makes all the sense in the world when we realize that our loyalty belongs to no ideology or party, but to the living God known by faith in God's revelation in Scripture as received in the mind of the transcultural church over 2,000 years who calls us to obedience to the divine truth today.


This article relates to Christian Tradition.

*Wacht is director of Florida United Methodist Communications and managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.