Dr. Watson’s Wednesdays@Whenever
August 12, 2020
- Philip Wogaman is the former Senior Pastor at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. (1992-2002), and former Professor of Christian Ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in D.C. (1966-1992) and the University of the Pacific (1961-1966).
Outside of theological circles, Wogaman is perhaps best known as one of the religious leaders who counseled President Bill Clinton, especially during the sex scandal and impeachment trial. The Clinton’s attended Foundry United Methodist Church during Bill’s two terms as president. After retirement from Foundry Church in 2002, Wogaman served as Interim President of Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado (2004–06) and as interim Senior Pastor of St. Luke United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska (2008–09).
As an Ethics grad student back in the early to mid-90s, Wogaman was very much on my radar screen. I read much of his books either while in school or after I graduated. I chose to include him in my Wednesdays@Whenever about Whatever series because he really is one of the leading voices in the progressive Christian community. This morning I want to offer to you just a tiny snippet of Wogaman’s thinking.
His theology and ethics begin with the word presumption. Making presumptions about philosophical or theological things is really all we can do with a straight face. Nothing can be proven with absolute certainty.
However, as I wrote about yesterday for my monthly Ferguson Times article, presumptions are based on at least some evidence. We make presumptions based on probabilities. For example, if I called you and you saw my name on your phone, you might say, “Dr. Watson, I presume.” Why? Because there is a high probability that I am calling rather than someone who has borrowed my phone.
Assumptions, on the other hand, are made with no evidence at all. If I claim, for example, that the world will end tomorrow with no evidence to support that claim, I am assuming it will end. If, however, I claim that the world will end tomorrow because the world’s superpowers are seriously threatening one another with a nuclear holocaust, then I am presuming the world will end (because the probability is there).
Again, Wogaman’s ethical and theological system begins with several presumptions. They are presumptions (rather than assumptions) because his research and analysis has led him to conclude that there is a high probability that what he is saying is true. After all, this is the best a philosopher can do.
So, what are his presumptions? He begins with six “positive Christian value presumptions.” You will understand, as I go through this list, why I refer to his theology and ethics as cutting edge or progressive. These six things are, in my mind, the bedrock for a progressive approach to Christian thinking and action.
- He begins with a presumption of grace.
Grace is the unmerited and unlimited love and mercy of God. Most church traditions give a nod toward grace, but few take it seriously in their teachings. I have often referred to grace as the least understood and least utilized doctrine in all of Christianity. If grace is true, says another great Christian writer, Philip Gulley (whom I will discuss next week), then, for example, God will save every person. If that’s not cutting edge, I don’t know what is.
- Wogaman’s second presumption is for the value of each human life.
Again, a lot of traditions might affirm that in rhetoric, but not so much in deeds. We do not have to read many history books to understand that not every human life is valued the same. This, by the way, is the presumption behind the slogan, “black lives matter.” When we use that phrase, we are not saying that other lives are not valued; instead, we are saying that black lives specifically have not been valued, so now we need to give special attention to black and brown lives.
- Wogaman’s third presumption is for the unity of humankind.
Remember, he is presuming that this is true, even if we are not there yet. We can’t even get united in the United States of America or in my denomination, the United Church of Christ. Nevertheless, this is a presumption we should make, a goal we should pursue, or there will never be a lasting peace.
- Wogaman’s fourth presumption is for
Again, we aren’t there yet, but equality between sexes and genders, between races and cultures, between people who are at opposite ends of the spectrum in every demographic category there is, is the presumptive ideal for humanity. By the way, “separate but equal” is not really a thing.
- Wogaman’s fifth presumption is for preferential claims for the poor and marginalized.
Here, Wogaman seems to shift gears. His first four presumptions put everyone in the same boat, on the same level, so to speak: God’s grace applies to all of us, each human life is valued, humankind is united, and we are all equal.
But sometimes, as we know, we need to give special treatment to people who have not enjoyed or experienced grace, value, unity, and equality. Sometimes, those who have not been “left behind” need to turn around and offer a hand to those who have been left behind.
I’ve already mentioned the “Black Lives Matter” movement as a way to value people who have not historically been valued. In this fifth presumption, Wogaman shows his affinity for what we call “Liberation Theology.” Liberation theology’s central claim is that God gives preferential treatment to the poor and oppressed, to people of color, to women, and to sexual minorities. Affirmative action in college enrollment and in hiring is also an example of Wogaman’s fifth assumption.
- Wogaman’s sixth and final positive presumption is for the goodness of creation.
Here, Wogaman digs down even deeper. Why stop at applying these positive presumptions to humanity, he suggests, especially as we continue to struggle with environmental degradation and species extermination. So, no he applies his presumptive ideals of God’s grace, value of life, unity of life, equality of life, and preferential treatment of the left behind to all of creation.
There is much more to talk about in terms of Wogaman’s writings. If you are interested in learning more about him, please take the time to read about him on the internet. If you would like to borrow one of his books (and you live in the St. Louis area), please let me know.