I got this question in response to my last blog post on Inspire2017. It is an excellent question. The answer reveals many of the layers which are in fact shaping the experience and practices we are having as a community.
1. I don’t know that she herself was looking for an answer (she might have, I don’t know) but I suspect instead she wants to see the denom adopt the conclusion she has already come to. Now there is nothing wrong with that, but in our current context a person, especially a non-POC (Person of Color) can’t say that without sounding like an oppressor. This is part of the reason why everything needs to be “a conversation” now, and we don’t nakedly say “I think the CRC should >>>>>>” We’re couching everything. On one hand this is good manners, on the other there is a hint of duplicity to this habit.
2. Jonathan Haidt in his work on the new moral regime notes the perpetual habit to use power structures to enforce morality or justice. Again, this isn’t simply a bad thing, but in his work he noted that a lot of this has its roots in the 80s in parenting advice given. If there is a bully on the playground don’t just hit the kid in the nose (advice given in the 70s), go get the teacher and get the teacher to fix it. Again, this isn’t all bad, but there is also something good to say about keeping it on the playground and just hitting the bully in the nose. This is analogous to keeping the conversation at the breakfast table.
3. It also highlight the totalizing dynamic of “justice” conversations. This is partly why both the WICO and the LGBTQ “conversations” take on the camel’s nose dynamic. First justice demands that we stop blocking women from serving in office so after years of battle permission is given and Synod opens the door to a rather political mechanism by which popular ascent (majority vote in Classis, majority of classes seat women then Synod seats them) determines the outcome. Fair enough. But because “justice” is so totalizing the logic of the construct keeps demanding more. Now justice demands that churches that don’t have women elders must have them, and classes that don’t women must seat them, and after that (as in the RCA) the “two voices” compromise is cast to the side (in the RCA removal of the “conscience clause”) and now any church or person who doesn’t affirm WICO is now anti-justice. What began as “we agree that the Bible speaks with two voices” becomes “justice demands that you affirm”. If you haven’t been watching the same dynamic in the secular sphere with respect to LGBTQ you haven’t been paying attention and if you imagine this won’t simply play out in the church in the same way you’re naive.
4. So that brings us to the question “how do we know what’s right and what’s wrong?” Well at this level things, especially in church, really start to get hot.
a. The irony of the WICO struggle was that “letting the Spirit speak” became fundamentally a democratic majority rule process. We’re letting our cultures show in this one. This is how we in our political structures decide practice don’t we. It’s a very pragmatic solution because you can tend to keep the peace socially which is of course of high value, but any reader of the Bible should have some sense that, whether you’re looking at OT prophets (the ironic choice of so much justice talk) or Jesus “the crowd” ought often to be judged with suspicion. Also ironically in our current context of the new ascending morality “the crowd” is often a convenient stand in for majoritarian oppression, at least until it “gets the answer right” and then it’s the sweeping hand of progress, or in spiritual terms “the Holy Spirit”. We might want to take step back from ourselves on this one and “check our privilege”.
b. A better answer is probably found in Christian Smith’s work on religion in American where he found that American youth (who have mostly grown up now since he did the study in the 90s) believe that right and wrong is essentially self-evident, and by that we mean “well I just know what’s right and wrong, it’s just obvious”. This is of course a key component to Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism.
I want to note here that part of the “self-evident” experience of being oppressed or marginalized is of course a very real experience for women or sexual minorities. I’m not denying. We should also, however, admit that all such experiences are, if we’re to be sufficiently post-modern also constructed. We’re living in an age where we’ve sort of divinized experience as some expression of a mystical “true self”. David Brooks explores this thoroughly in his book The Road to Character. If you wish to say “my experience of oppression has no frame” then you are basically making a religious argument and your religion is your experience. That’s, at the heart really of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. I’m not saying that the oppression or marginalization isn’t real. It probably is in most cases, but the question is “how do I know what’s real”. Every time we creep towards simply baptizing any assertion of marginalization (like white male Republicans claiming their victim-hood) many on the left pull back in horror. So if you really want to play this game you’d better allow anyone with a mouth to claim an experience of oppression the same respect you afford any favored group.
c. So we’re back to an epistemological question which in our context will lead us right into our CRC factional geology. Confessionalists will look to the Bible and the confessions, Evangelicals will look to the Bible and how our hearts feel, Catholic-Reformists (I’m still working on that label, it is Sacramentalists but that’s complicated) will look at church history. Progressives will look at a mixture of Church tradition, the Bible (through their filters, each other group does that too of course) and a popular sense of progress. I don’t mean to say that the other factions aren’t equally constructed as the Progressives, it’s just that they are currently changing so fast (because the culture is changing so fast) that their constructs are easiest to see right now.