I see a broken world

This week, I listened to a presentation that included as one of its main points the argument that the Western tradition has gone terribly wrong because it is too focused on fixing problems. The concern is that this puts an emphasis on seeing people as broken or fallen in need of saving rather than as whole and healthy in need of — well, not much really except encouragement.

As  I listened, I recalled the opening pages of GK Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.

The strongest saints and the strongest skeptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.

In my presentation and in much of contemporary theology — so far as I can tell — the fact that human beings are radically out of alignment with God simply does not register. Awareness of this fact — which Chesterton memorably calls the only part of Christian theology that can be empirically proven — is described as a kind of morbid negativity about humanity.

I have a hard time reflecting over the arc of Scripture — Torah, the prophets, the writings, the gospels, the epistles, and revelation — and finding much foothold for the notion that we — when left to ourselves — are well-grounded and responsive to God’s will for our lives.

I have a hard time looking at the world — especially beyond the little bubble of security that we all try to hard to wrap around ourselves — and seeing that people are generally happy, joyful, peaceful, just, merciful, and righteous.

I have a hard time looking in my own heart and seeing the image of Christ stamped there without any blemish or blot.

I’ve been accused of being a gloomy Gus many times in my life, so I’m aware that there may be people with a much more positive theology running around. But I don’t see the world looking much like the Garden of Eden or the New Jerusalem.

The world looks like a place that needs God to me, not just for some encouragement on the way but for rescue, healing, and salvation. God, of course, is at work already. All good comes from God. But the work is not done. The world is broken in need of healing. It is fallen in need of lifting up. It is captive in need of liberation.

This is how it looks to me. If I am wrong, God help me to see rightly.

People who do not fit

David Watson raises a point that gets right to the heart of one of my big questions. The paragraph below comes from his response to a panel on disability and theology including Stanley Hauerwas and Hans Reinders.

Hauerwas and Reinders in particular have raised important questions about the ways in which we view human beings in a liberal society. By “liberal,” I’m not referring to a political position. I mean a society that presupposes autonomy, individuality, and agency on the part of its members. In this sense, both Democrats and Republicans are liberal, as are most forms of Protestantism. If our society places a high premium on autonomy, individuality, and agency, then people who are impaired with regard to their decision-making capacity occupy a very strange space, They are ostensibly people, though without full command of the capacities that define personhood and serve as ports of entry into the social world. They are outliers, and that is a dangerous way to live.

Watson nails a sticking point for me. Traditional Protestant soteriology — including Wesleyan — is mute in the face of persons who do not have the kind autonomy, agency, and cognitive competencies that Humanism and the Enlightenment take as their starting point. Our story about salvation is nonsense in the context of less mild forms of autism, Down syndrome, and other disabilities.

Stanley and John

Here is how Stanley Hauerwas describes salvation in the opening chapter of his book After Christendom. The chapter is called “Why There Is No Salvation Outside the Church.”

If we say, outside the church there is not salvation, we make a claim about the very nature of salvation — namely that salvation is God’s work to restore all creation to the Lordship of Christ. Such a salvation is about the defeat of powers that presume to rule outside God’s providential care. Such salvation is not meant to confirm what we already know and/or experience. It is meant to make us part of a story that could not be known apart from exemplification in the lives of people in a concrete community.

For Hauerwas salvation is the church. God saves the world by creating the church. Our salvation is being incorporated into the church and being formed by the community centered on the Lordship of Christ.

As I indicated in my last post, my experience as a United Methodist has been that the movement’s founder, John Wesley, and its most famous contemporary theologian, Hauerwas, are at fundamental odds with each other on some rather basic questions about Christianity. Wesley was a Tory and was heavily influenced by Pietism. Hauerwas’ entire project calls into question these aspects of Wesley’s politics and theology. Hauerwas’ famous penchant for cursing is a rejection of Wesley’s understanding of holiness, which extends to the words we use when we speak. Wesley wanted to know the way to heaven. Hauerwas — so far as I can tell — finds that concern as completely missing the point.

I remain drawn to and intrigued by Hauerwas because he speaks to some questions that challenge me in Wesley’s theology. The most pressing issue for me has to do with the meaning of salvation for those with cognitive or emotional challenges. Hauerwas has engaged in constructive ways with these kinds of questions. Wesley — so far as I can tell — does not even conceive of this as a question worth asking or wrestling with.

I’m curious how other Wesleyans who have read Hauerwas encounter to these two men.

The famous theologians would scoff

“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15, NIV)

John Wesley interpreted the phrase “kingdom of God” by citing Romans 14:17.

For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,

For Wesley this use of scripture to interpret scripture allowed him to focus on the kingdom as holiness of heart and life. The kingdom is not a political arrangement but something that emerges within us. The kingdom that came near, Wesley would argue, is the emergence of righteousness, peace, and joy in the life of those who believe in Christ.

This is the worst kind of Pietism, of course, to those theologians who find Pietism contemptible. (I’m thinking first and foremost of Stanley Hauerwas here.) Read the Wikipedia page for a fuller account of Pietism, but some of its key elements as far as I understand the movement are a concern with practical Christianity over and above doctrinal formulations, concern with a living faith springing up from the inner soul of the Christian, and cultivation of devotional practices. It is Christianity that is most concerned with a change of heart as the center of Christian life.

United Methodists read Wesley’s sermons as doctrinal standards. At the very least, we are committed to giving a generous hearing to the preacher who declares that the reality of kingdom of God is found in the hearts of believers. That does not preclude us listening to other preachers, of course, but scoffing at Pietism seems quite out of character with our history and heritage. We are Pietists, or at least our ancestors were.

When we talk about the kingdom of God, if we still regard Wesley as a teacher or example, we need to keep at least one ear open to hear the way he would describe it:

This holiness and happiness, joined in one, are sometimes styled, in the inspired writings, “the kingdom of God,” (as by our Lord in the text,) and sometimes, “the kingdom of heaven.” It is termed “the kingdom of God,” because it is the immediate fruit of God’s reigning in the soul. So soon as ever he takes unto himself his mighty power, and sets up his throne in our hearts, they are instantly filled with this “righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.” It is called “the kingdom of heaven” because it is (in a degree) heaven opened in the soul.

Perhaps this is why Stanley Hauerwas decided, at last, that he could no longer be one of us. Whatever the case with Hauerwas, I’m fairly certain Wesley would have done poorly in my New Testament exegesis class.