Last week I had lunch with a Catholic missionary and an Episcopal Friar. They were talking about church polity and doctrine. Kind of comparing notes I guess. It was interesting because they’re both quite convicted/convinced re the rightness and importance of doing things in the right way based on the correct interpretation of doctrine, scripture, and tradition.
There is something quite attractive about conviction in an age primarily characterized, as it is, by doubt. Many post-liberal-post-modern-post-post-irony so-called “Progressive” Protestant Christians (like me) want to chalk up this general inability to come down strongly on any particular claim about truth as something to do with divine mystery. But really we have to say that doubt about what’s true—doubt that something can be true—dominates the culture from top to bottom. So when someone appears to be confidently convicted about something it’s a bit of a surprise.
This is different than stridency, which is so widespread, especially in our politics, and which is a reaction against the age of doubt we’re living through. Stridency screeches because it’s filled with doubt while conviction quietly stands on ground it is confident will not shift under its feet.
So, I’m like this vaguely Wesleyan lapsed Methodist guy. My view is chronically infected with doubt and I often feel myself resisting the rising spring of stridency struggling to fill the void. Now, obviously there are Methodists out there who can go toe to toe with anyone on polity and doctrine and all that but I found that I was sitting there thinking, all I really care about is mercy. If anything gets in the way of that I’m just really ready to toss it in the bin.
Perhaps that is my conviction: that anything getting in the way of communicating grace to the person in front of me ought to be left in the dust, including—paradoxically—my own conviction that mercy is all that matters. I’m happy to affirm someone’s deeply held conviction that communion ought to be carried out in just a certain way if that conviction is what they need to experience grace, even though I think the whole song and dance gets a little bit too heavy for the ritualization of a simple meal to bear.
When I explained all this to a friend he replied that utility is a deeply held Wesleyan value, so it may be that this is no surprise. Do my doubts loom larger than they actually are? Are my theological convictions more solidly supported by tradition than I know? These things are really only borne out in practice, which is one reason why I continue to show up in spaces where marginalized people gather—to see what it really takes to communicate grace to people who need it most, and to see what it means to accept grace from them in turn.