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Secular Envy Among the Leadership: Why Every Methodist Needs to Worry

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Take action now: Contact United Methodist officials and urge them to overturn their ban on Discovery Institute.

Anyone who follows the sociopolitical issues impacting the United Methodist Church (UMC) these days knows that secularism is on the march and finding a congenial home in my church. A perusal of its most recent resolutions shows (among other things) a concern with being up-to-date on "the latest science." defined, at least in part, as Darwinian evolution. You might call it secular envy.

See, for example, the church's commitment to the Clergy Letter Project, which I noted here yesterday. The Clergy Letter, endorsed by the National Center for Science Education, a major Darwin lobby group, is the Darwinists' Trojan Horse for theism. Bishop Ernest Lyght, inviting Methodist clergy to sign the Letter, announced, "The General Conference has challenged the churches to engage in education and dialogue about the subject of science and religion."

But apparently the "dialogue" has limits. When Discovery Institute simply asked for a place in the exhibit hall in Portland, Oregon, for the church's upcoming General Conference, UMC officials denied the request. So much for "the challenge."

For all its happy talk of networking, connection, and outreach, the UMC is in trouble. A recent article in USA Today reported that "nearly one in five Americans (19 percent)" identify as having "no" religious affiliation, the highest level ever documented. The UMC and other major denominations "all show membership flat or inching downward." In recent years the UMC's decline has been particularly acute, falling from 5.1 percent of all adults to 3.6 percent, a decline of 1.5 percent according to the Pew Research Center.

This has been a long-term trend. In 1967 there were more than 11 million members. By 2009 that number had declined to about 7.7 million members (ARDA stats). One report announced that, according to Mark Tooley, President of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, a Methodist, "Methodism in the U.S. has lost membership every year since 1964. It has lost over 4.5 million members. There is nothing in its U.S. policies that can or will reverse the decline in the near future."

And for good reason. Methodism, like many of the mainstream denominations, has been caught up in secular envy of one sort or another. This being the case, the slow shrinkage of membership within the UMC is by no means surprising or unique.

I would argue, as a practicing Methodist, that the leadership has led us astray. The main problem? Idolatry. The fixation on Darwinism by some UMC leaders is a case in point. To understand how Darwinism is a form of idolatry that has led us into the deep waters of confusion and denominational floundering, we need to call upon Owen Barfield (1898-1997). Barfield is the Inkling whom C.S. Lewis once called "the wisest and best of my unofficial teachers."

In Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (1957), Barfield detailed the concept of what he called "alpha thinking." The site OwenBarfield.org explains:

A key Barfield concept, introduced in Saving the Appearances, alpha-thinking designates thinking about our representations in such a way as to remain "unconscious of the intimate relations which they in fact have, as representations, with our organism and minds" (Saving the Appearances 20). Alpha-thinking is thus "a system of thought which only interests itself in phenomena to the extent that they can be grasped as independent of consciousness" (Saving the Appearances 42).

Such thinking, he explained, can have benefits in its own right. But he said that in the history of Western thought, it has a tendency to separate the investigator from the investigated, and

set up the appearances of the world...as things wholly independent of man. It had clothed them with the independence and extrinsicality of the unrepresented self. But a representation, which is collectively mistaken for an ultimate -- ought not to be called a representation. It is an idol.

This alpha-type thinking has dominated modern science. In order for these sorts of investigations of the natural world to make sense, hypotheses or arrangements as devices for "saving the appearance" of objects and phenomena had to be made. But did these alpha-borne idols ultimately fall upon the sword of hypothesis? Barfield explains:

There is no more striking example than the Darwinian theory of that borrowing from the experimental by the non-experimental sciences...It was found that the appearances on earth so much lack the regularity of the appearances of the sky that no systematic hypothesis will fit them. But astronomy and physics had taught men that the business of science is to find hypotheses to save the appearances [of these objects and phenomena]. By a hypothesis, then, these earthly appearances must be saved; and saved they were by the hypothesis of -- chance variation. Now the concept of chance is precisely what a hypothesis is devised to save us from. Chance, in fact, = no hypothesis. Yet so hypnotic, at this moment in history, was [and is!] the influence of the idols and of the special mode of thought which had begotten them, that only a few -- and their voices soon died away -- were troubled by the fact that the imperative vocabulary of technological innovation was actually being used to denote its breakdown; as though, because it is something we can do with ourselves in the water, drowning should be included as one of the different ways of swimming.

This, by all indications, seems to be the science to which some of the UMC's leaders have committed themselves. If people are leaving this church, perhaps its embrace of chance leaves them with the sense that there really are no meaningful hypotheses -- maybe no need for the UMC in the first place.

Idols are, in the end, not very nurturing or sustaining anyway. UMC leaders may cling to their idols at their own peril. As the church drowns in secularism, the people are beginning to gasp for air -- I know I am!

Image credit: Dr. Gregory S. Neal [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons.