The Reverend Jeremy Smith posted a link to this article on Twitter.  Just reading the title made me want to write a response.  Be forewarned, I am not an expert on the subject, but to be frank, I am not sure Abraham is either.  A strong case could be made that inclusivism was not the best word for what he is getting at.  Here are a few thoughts to some of professor Abraham’s points.

“Survival of the (Fittest) Faithful”

For someone who is contending to make a “theological audit” about inclusivism and starts by attacking post-modernism, I am surprised he would allude to Darwinism.  Where is faith ever compared to the fittest in the Bible?  Is that what Jesus really meant when he said blessed are the meek?  Yes, the Bible uses athletic imagery, but my reading of those passages are that its more about completion than say being the best.  Finish the race more than beat the competition by miles.  The paper starts with a theologically dubious premise.  It fits with his conclusion to let the marketplace of ideas judge and his modernist belief that truth will win out in the end, but what if truth is paradoxical?  What if Abraham is on one side of truth and an inclusivist (who ever that might be) is on the other?

“Necessarily, inclusivism requires the naming of victims and oppressors.”

Why does inclusivism have to start with naming of victims and oppressors?  Some constructs might, but does every construct on inclusivism start here?  Abraham talks generally and so its hard to pinpoint specifics.  I do not think someone arguing for inclusivism as an important value has to start here.

What if we started with the kingdom/reign of God/kindom of God?  What does God’s reign look like?  Who is God’s grace available to?  If God’s grace is open to everyone and our purpose as a church is based on the Great Commission to all nations, we might start with this end in mind.

What is the end to all that we do as a church?  Are we working for God’s reign to whittle away the hours?  Do we believe someday God’s reign will be realized?  What does that line in our Great Thanksgiving mean “By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory, and we feast at his heavenly banquet.”  What does that heavenly banquet look like and who is around the table?

I strongly believed that we are called to share the Good News to all nations.  I envision a heavenly banquet with peoples of all nations.  If this is our end, the question becomes how do we work towards that end now?  If we look around the churches in our denomination and we see that our communion tables look significantly more homogenous than the heavenly banquet, we might not have arrived at the Wesylean idea of Christian perfection.  We are not fully living out God’s reign.  We still have work to do.  Inclusivism might start with this end in mind (all nations around the heavenly banquet) and say how do we work towards that?  How do we ensure that we are living out the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations and not just people like us?

“The core of inclusivism is a normative thesis: the oppressed must be confronted and the captives must be set free.”

While this statement from my perspective sounds biblical and theologically sound, inclusivism does not inherently have to take this approach.  Inclusivism might look at the end of making disciples of all nations, embrace the idea that God’s grace is available to all, and then work towards that end.  While I would not personally argue for inclusivism to be an end in and of itself, it might be a framework to help us ensure we are living out our purpose as disciples and as a church.

“This theme, of course, is also the heartbeat of Liberation theology.”

So what?  We all have a heremuntical approach to theology and the Bible.  More over, why drag liberation theology into your audit?  I guess when you create a framework and construct to demonize inclusivism, using the tactic of guilt by association works towards your end, but the two are separate issues.  Of course if Abraham hadn’t started with the problematic assertion that there is only one way to understand the core of inclusivism, he might not have confused to two.

One though might argue that the similarities are another of his constructs.  When you define your opponents, it is amazing how coherent your thoughts seem.  Now if he let these so called inclusivists and liberation theologians to speak for themselves, there might not be one inherent core.  Liberation theologians might not agree with each other let alone these so called inclusivists.

“Only those who are self-deceived, or who are caught in the grip of morally corrupt forms of reasoning, would dare to oppose the call to inclusivism.”

You do not have to be self-deceived or caught in the grip of a morally corrupt form of reason to oppose inclusivism.  My problem with Abraham’s audit is not that he challenges inclusivism.  When inclusivism becomes an end in and of itself and not a means to an end then I would argue it is problematic.  If the intended end that uses inclusivism as a means hurts people a case could be made against it.  The problem with Abraham’s audit is the broad strokes he paints and the uncharitable nature of his reasoning.

“Consider the following observation. It is a marked feature of our life together that people watch very carefully what they say and how they say it.”

What is wrong with that?  Words have the power to heal and hurt.  Careless words have unintended consequences.  Jesus warned his followers about how they use their mouths and what words they said right?  I remember a time I made a joke about burning down the church facility to solve some structural issues next to a person who had survived a fire in her home.  My words were stupid on so many levels and hurtful in unintended ways.  Words are the way we communicate.  Unless our intention is to hurt people, we need to be careful what we say or we will not communicate what we want.

“It is clear that certain phrases and words are simply not usable: “Father”, “Son”, “Lord”, “King”, “Master”, “Kingdom”, “He”, “Old Testament”, and “Jesus” are shunned.”

I understand the concern about language.  I wrestle with it often.  Words have power.  Every time I say kingdom or use a masculine pronoun for God, I know I have friends who would be frowning if they heard me.  I think cases can be made for both sides.  Inclusive language is not inherently good or bad.  For me the real issue is why are we using it?  Being aware of the words we use, what they mean, and how they might impact others is a good thing if we want to be effective witnesses to God’s reign in the world.

“What began as an effort to include excluded minorities and women becomes over time an instrument of exclusion silencing those who want to raise fundamental questions about crucial moral, educational, and theological proposals in the church.”

Any philosophy, theology, or system of thought is problematic if it becomes a weapon.  It is possible that in some circumstances some people might use the language of inclusivism as a weapon against others in a power struggle.  People use all sorts of constructs to attack each other.  It is what people do.  Is there any evidence that people use the language of inclusivism more often as a weapon than the language of other philosophies, theologies, or systems of thought?  If I used the language of leadership to attack someone who wanted to critique leadership with the language of discipleship does that mean the construct of leadership is at fault?

“The march to progress becomes relentless, systematic, blind, pharisaical, self-righteous, and manipulative.”

Yes, it often does.  Its amazing how one’s opponents are usually so.  If only they saw the world the way we did, they could see the error of their ways, fall on their knees, grab the sack cloth and ashes, and repent.  The problem must obviously be with them.

“Inclusivism is indeed a matter of power.”

Most things in life are a matter of power.  We live in a complicated web of relationships.  There is usually power dynamics between parities in a relationship.  Any theology, philosophy, or system of thought could be used as part of the power dynamics in relationships.  Someone with a fundamentalist hermeneutic of the Bible could tell their child to obey the parent because of the Ten Commandments.  A person using the language of inclusivism might argue that an action of the church might disrupt the power dynamics between two parities.  A writer might make big generlizations and employ simplistic reasoning to change the reader’s perspective on an issue.  It is a matter of power.

“When we worship together now in mainline corporate settings, the first question before us is not whether God is present but whether the right range of diversity is present.”

I am not sure that is true.  I have never been to a mainline church were there was a quota system in place for worship.  No pastor or worship leader took a demographical census before the service and decided we did not have the appropriate diversity to worship God.  In fact, I think we should be concerned about who is in the service and who is not, but we should also be concerned about God’s presence.  The two are not mutually exclusive.

“What has happened overall is that a virulent form of moralism has poisoned the church.”

Moralism can take many forms.  Is inclusivism inherently moralistic?  Perhaps in Abraham’s construct, but I don’t think it has to be.  Anything that becomes an end in and of itself can be moralistic.  I am not convinced that inclusivism has to be an end.

“Nor will we be able to make appeal to the academy, say, in terms of objective scholarship, analysis, or evaluation, as a way forward. The whole idea of critical, objective, scholarship, of the fostering of intellectual virtue, of the elimination of intellectual vice, all these will be reconfigured as bids for dominion and power.”

The reason you cannot make an appeal to objectivity is because there is no such thing as a person being objective.  The apostle Paul says that we only see dimly now.  We never have a grasp on the whole truth.  Often truth is paradoxical and it is too easy for us to embrace one side of the truth without seeing the other side.  Objectivism is a relic of a different time and age.  Perhaps your ideas will not be popular, but that is always the risk you run when you stand up for your best understanding of the truth.

“I recommend this medicine realizing that proponents of unconstrained inclusivism will be deeply upset by my analysis.”

I am not a proponent of unconstrained inclusivism.  Abraham critiquing inclusivism is not the issue.  It is more his method that is problematic.  If Abraham was more specific and less general, he might have valid points.  Inclusivism is not always an end.  Sometimes it is one of several means to an appropriate theologically sound end.

“Until we agree that it is crucial to rid the church of racism and patriarchy.”

At least we agree on something.  Regardless of where one stands on inclusivism, racism and patriarchy are detrimental in the life of the church and we should all work towards removing them from the life of the church.

“Thus the ordinary believer should be patient, recognizing that righting past wrongs is painful and difficult. We simply have to bear the sins of the fathers as best we can; beyond that we must in mercy bind up the wounds of the fathers with sensitivity.”

As long as we recognize the problems are not simply in the past, this is not too unreasonable.

“Second, it will not help to invite those who have ‘benefited’ from inclusivism to move us beyond inclusivism.”

Who exactly has benefited?  Is Abraham referring to individuals or groups of people?  In what exact ways have they benefited?

“When arrogant elites impose their pyrrhic, political victories on others, those imposed upon vote with their money and their feet. When inclusivism elbows out the great mercy of God and usurps the place of the cross in the gospel, ordinary believers readily slip away and find food for their souls elsewhere.”

If inclusivism becomes an end in and of itself then it is problematic.  When anything takes the place of God and God’s work there is a problem.  If inclusivism is a means to an end that is God’s preferred will, it does not have to replace God and might even bear fruit for God.  Almost anything taken to an extreme is a problem.

“If contemporary inclusivists cannot speak robustly in terms of the gospel, there is no reason the rest of us should follow their lead.”

Who exactly are the inclusivists again?  The only lead we should be follow is Jesus’.  As disciples, Jesus is the one we are called to follow.  If anyone is calling us to worship inclusivism that call should be ignored.  I am not sure anyone is calling for that kind of worship.  If we could identify who an inclusivist is exactly, we might find they may have made mistakes.  We all do, it is part of the human condition.  At best, we see dimly now.

There is a certain level of irony at work here.  On the one hand Abraham agrees patriarchy and racism are bad.  They are systems of thought that make blanket judgements about groups of people.  Abraham then creates a group of people and makes blanket judgments.  This is not to say he might not have valid points if he were to talk about specific instances.  I wrestle with issues of inclusivity too.  Making blanket judgements and lumping peoples together to attack them though kind of shows why we need inclusivism as a means to the end of God’s reign.  Instead of trying to bring people together to work for God, he separates people from the faithful and condemns what they do as inherently wrong.

“In other arenas, say, in the election of bishops, we can argue that criteria of effectiveness and faithfulness are every bit as important as inclusivism; so success in elections cannot simply be reduced to skin color or to the presence or absence of certain biological organs.”

Is there an example of a bishop who was appointed simply because of the person’s skin color or biological organs?  I would love for Abraham to name one.  Which bishop candidate was not elected and God’s preferred will thus thwarted because the person was of the wrong race or gender?  When was an unfaithful ineffective person elected bishop merely because the person was needed to fill a quota?

“It is the gospel of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, which alone can save us from our corruption and idolatry.”

I agree.  Especially when we unpack what the gospel (Good News) means.  It is only by God’s grace that we are saved.  To be fair though, I have never heard anyone argue that if we had the right inclusive language that would save us.  I do not know of anyone who is putting their faith and hope in inclusivism instead of our triune God.  Inclusivism at its best is one of many means we have to work towards God’s reign and share the Good News of Jesus Christ.

As I was writing this I thought about so many instances in the history of United Methodism where not everyone was included.  Would we have had an AME splinter if we had valued everyone equally as sisters and brothers in Christ?  If the English methodists had embraced their German speaking friends, would we have needed  Evangelical or United Brethren churches.  Most of us still shudder at the thought of the Central Jurisdiction. As we wrestle with the reality of being a global church, questions about who gets to sit at the table matter.  If we want our church to be a reflection of God’s reign, we need to make sure we are actively working towards everyone being invited to the table.  The values of inclusivism can be a means to a beautiful end and help us live out our purpose as a church.

Embraced By Grace” ©2007 Copyright Lawrence OP. Licensed Under Creative Commons.


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2 thoughts on “Inclusivism”

  1. Thanks for provoking some thought this morning.

    First, I think you’ve got your authors mixed up – the article is written by William Abraham, not Albert Outler. Abraham is the “Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies” at SMU. Outler himself has been dead for a while now.

    Secondly, I think Abraham’s article is a bit more generous than you are giving it credit for. You both often seem to be saying the same thing – that inclusivism for inclusivism’s sake can become problematic if we lay issues of the gospel to the side. I read the article less as a polemic and more as a chance to question the assumptions of what it means to be connectional in how we do church.

    Thanks again for your good thoughts.

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