In Greek theater, both tragedy and comedy, “indecision” or “quandary” was personified by dubitatio. In tragedy, dubitatio faced life or death decisions, crippled into a vacillating loop of second guessing about which option to choose. In comedy, dubitatio parodied the simple ordinary choices (which clothes to wear, which salad dressing to choose) blown up to epic life/death proportions. Directly or indirectly, dubitatio birthed such clichés over time such as “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” “between a rock and a hard place,” “the lesser of evils,” and “the path of least resistance.” Any time indecision prevails, dubitatio rears his (generally personified as male) ugly head.

The Apostle Paul assumed the role of dubitatio from time to time. Romans 7:14-20 (“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” v. 19) and Philippians 1:20-26 (” For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.” vv. 21-24) are fine examples.

Perhaps “Dubitatio” should replace “United” in United Methodist Church. Dubitatio Methodist Church would serve multiple purposes.

First, it would clarify our identity and purpose more accurately. We are anything but united, and leadership at all levels seems crippled by indecision and the inability to handle conflict. People have become dubious about our integrity and values. Dubitatio Methodist Church (DMC) admits that we simply don’t know what we are doing or who we are; a much more honest witness to our world.

Second, the DMC also clarifies our management style – abdicate all responsibility to make hard choices. The longer we can walk in ambiguity and cluelessness, the longer we can put off any sense of accountability or credibility. We can hide behind the fact that we haven’t decided anything and we are prayerfully hoping the problem will resolve itself and go away.

Third, Dubitatio Methodists wait for other people to make decisions so that they won’t have to. “Wait and see,” is the rallying cry of the DMC. The primary marketing campaign could be “Obfuscated Hearts, Obfuscated Minds, Obfuscated Doors,” or “Don’t-Think Church.” Being faced with parody/paradoxical quandaries gives us the excuse to forget theology, doctrine, polity, history, and core value guiding principles, and engage in sniping, finger-pointing, blaming behaviors; the reason we can’t make decisions is because those people won’t let us.

Paul and the partner eponymous Pauline writers provide an elegant and sophisticated argument against dubitatio by using dubitatio in a very clever way: faced with two options, choose the third. Dubitatio is an outward and visible sign of spiritual immaturity. This isn’t a judgment or an indictment; it is a simple fact of the human condition. The only real solution to the crippling indecision caused by hard choices is – are your ready for it? – Christ Jesus! Division, confusion, conflict, discrimination, dissension, aggression, violence, complacency, abdication – these are telling pieces of evidence that we are not fully in Christ. When we set aside those differences that mire us in indecision and quandary we are set free to allow God’s Holy Spirit to enter in and transform. The unity of spirit, essence, intent, and engagement Jesus and Paul call us to is impossible apart from life lived fully in the Spirit of God.

Dubitatio denies who we are, whose we are, and why we are called together to be the body of Christ for the world. Human indecision is the ever-present fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil; our sin, our straying from God, is the hubristic notion that somehow we know better than God what is right for God’s church and God’s people. Decisions are hard, even in the institution we call the church. For this very reason, we need God’s input, God’s vision, the capacity to discern God’s will – together

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3 replies

  1. As I ponder this message today, it lays out how the UMC is struggling. I am perplexed on why it was easier to ignore me then to understand but you are right in what you have written here. The covid pandemic brought opportunities for me to do Bible Studies and Preach virtually for UCC and Episcopal church here in Wisconsin and Florida. These denominations do not seem to have even half the problems the UMC have. I think we can look back at history and see that they never dealt with problems. It was easier to just split and go their own ways. Thank you for your posts.

    • Ann, I wonder if you got ignored by the system because the system is so focused on its own survival and who stays in power? Without overemphasizing the brokenness of a system designed by straight, white, older, educated males to benefit themselves, too often the problems of any and all who are not straight, white, older, educated whites guys are treated as irrelevant, or at least less important. Our current way of addressing our most complex and systemic problems by looking for simplistic and superficial answers (taking our ball and going home whenever everyone else refuses to agree with us) is our most serious threat. Atheism, agnosticism, and the growing “non” populations are not our problem; we are our own problem. If fewer and fewer people are believing in the God of U.S. Christianity, we need to look in the mirror. And our lack of humility, compassion, and kindness to one another is our current witness to the world. We should be SO proud.

  2. Once again, Dan, you have found a brilliant way to express the observations and experiences that have frustrated this now retired pastor. Thank you! Holding up the mirror to the DMC is one thing. Now, how do we go about overcoming the obviously entrenched?

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