God alone is Lord of the conscience,
and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men
which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship.
(Book of Confessions, 6.109, The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity, F-3.0101a)
Our beloved Presbyterian Church is on the verge of something remarkable and holy. Starting with the amazing General Assembly in June and continuing in this period of presbytery discernment concerning their recommendations for action, we are beginning to see the outline of God’s will for us together as church in the 21st century.
For me, a new understanding of this holy ground came during a recent conversation with Marc Benton. He and I are both Presbyterian pastors but, until recently, had been on opposite sides on the place of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in God’s heart and in the church. This past summer he publicly asked forgiveness from those he had harmed for his actions in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) against marriage for lesbian and gay couples. As I am one of those people, I went to see him.
I was saying something, I think, when he literally lifted out of his couch and exclaimed something like, “What you are talking about is ‘fusion of horizons.’ I learned about it from a Palestinian professor who was virulently against the Jews but came to see how the very words each group used for the same event were different. Their horizons were different, limited by their experience of the same happening. Grasping that the moment, itself, is larger than each of our experiences—a fusion of horizons–can hold us together.”
I tell you the room sparkled with excitement at this recognition. I might not have used his words but I cherish exactly what he was describing and yearn desperately for it in the church. We were suddenly on holy ground. Our conversation had become sacred. Wow. We had gotten to wonder.
I learned when I got home that the German philosopher of hermeneutics, Hans-Georg Gadamer, developed this concept, “fusion of horizons.” The way I would describe it is this: The fusion of horizons comes from both the strength of our own vision and the humility that comes from knowing God’s whole is larger than anything we can see. Then we are blessed to know that our view is a valued part of the whole and to receive the gift of a wider perspective that brings us into communion with others within the even larger, mysterious wideness of God.
How can we do other than sit there in wonder together?
For me, this shed new light on freedom of conscience and how it holds us together. We are free to have our own horizons—our conscience before God—and do best when we also accept that our horizon is not all there is. When we do that—hold our view sincerely and humbly acknowledge it is limited—then we can be together with others in a gracious and exciting space created by our fused horizons. Marc can be evangelical; I can be liberal; we can be together in God’s larger space that includes and extends beyond our own perspectives.
I like to think that fusion of horizons was what our ancestors were getting at in their own way in the Westminster Confession of Faith section on freedom of conscience. We cannot know for sure. Still, I find it exciting to consider that God alone being Lord of the conscience led them to this same place of wonder.
And, it strikes me that this is one way to explain how Marc and I came to the same conclusion about marriage for same-gender couples. We both came to know LGBT people with horizons different from our own and shared gracious space with them. I happened to do that when I was a child with my Uncles George and Johnny while Marc did it in the past few years with students at the college where he teaches. This is strong testimony to me for how crucial the gracious sharing by LGBT people and our allies of our experience—our horizons—continues to be. When we get to wonder by sharing our horizons in sacred conversation, things sparkle.
This energy of wonder gives me hope in the PCUSA. This is the joy we can have when we create gracious space among us by honoring our freedom of conscience; seeking out sacred conversations and watching God fuse our horizons.
I can’t wait to get to this place of wonder with others—will you join me in this quest?