“Discernment” has been a much-used word and concept in interpreting the Bible over the past number of years. Mainly we have defined it as a working tool to determine what God in the person of Jesus would have us do about difficult issues facing us in the 21st century.
There is no doubt that we, as Anabaptist followers of Jesus, desire first and foremost to be faithful. So the intent is honourable. What we often struggle with is a framework within the congregation, area church or denomination that can give us both some systematic processes and parameters to carry out our best intentions.
I have recently come across the writings of Richard Robert Osmer of the Presbyterian faith that give some practical handles to work at discernment, reflections that I found helpful in forming such a framework. I am indebted to his thoughts as I pass them on. These are by no means exhaustive, but rather a smattering of ideas that could help us.
First, Osmer draws on the work of James Fowler, who has developed a model for discernment. First is the need for dialogue—a conversation that is capable of holding in tension multiple truths that cannot be easily integrated into a logical coherent system of thought.
Writes Fowler: “It is precisely this style of faith that is necessary for genuine participation by a congregation and its members in the teaching process. They must open themselves to the insights of multiple authorities at various levels of the church’s life and be willing to live with the tensions generated by the interaction of differing perspectives—perspectives that cannot be easily reduced to a single ideology or theology.”
Second, a faith development perspective is needed, one that allows us to see that transitional periods are a necessary part of growth in faith. Fowler writes: “It allows us to accept and affirm persons in such times, communicating to them that doubt and struggle can be a legitimate part of faith, and not necessarily its antithesis. It provides congregational teachers and leaders with insight into the sorts of issues that persons in transition from one stage to another typically face.”
Another important dynamic Fowler names is: pay attention to what he calls a “mythic literal faith,” especially as it manifests itself in the lives of a congregation’s children. “At the heart of a congregation’s culture is a myth in the sense of a common story shaping the identities of its members and teaching them to view the world in relation to God. One of the most important tasks during this stage is providing opportunities for children to hear and see this story rehearsed with such power that they begin to identify with it and the community that lives by its meaning.”
The next phase of a person’s development is what Fowler calls a “synthetic conventional faith,” a stage in which a congregation pays close attention to its young people as a relational form of ministry and the projection of a “clear set of theological and moral norms.”
Those who work with young people, he writes, “have long known the importance of educational opportunities that can stretch them: regional youth retreats, multi-church service projects that take young people into a different community, summer leadership seminars and cross-cultural exchanges—all teaching opportunities to initiate youth into the broader conversations by which the church struggles together to determine what it believes about God and how it can best serve God in the contemporary world.”
Central to all of this is to establish and foster a friendly environment in which all congregants can feel comfortable asking questions about their faith in an increasingly post-Christendom world.
That, it seems to me, is the practical side of discernment—a friendly and open environment in which persons are not held in judgment by their peers or elders in expressing and living out their faith—at whatever stage.
It is only in this setting, however ideal, it seems to me, that faith can be developed into a hermeneutic that serves us during these uncertain times.
Our churches are at a crossroads, concludes Osmer in an epilogue. The path we choose to travel today will be of great consequence well into this century. Its continued diminishment cannot help but diminish the whole of our life together and our witness to society.