‘I neither know nor desire to know’

If John Wesley were among us today, I think he would be scoffed at for being anti-intellectual. No one would say he was not intelligent, I think. But reading his letters, journals, and sermons, I see time and again that he was not much interested in theological controversies and placed little trust in reason as a path to truth about divine things.

Here is just one instance of what I mean. In a letter he wrote in 1753 to a Dr. Robertson about a treatise Robertson had sent him, Wesley shows his reliance on revelation and distrust of the conclusions of natural reason. The treatise uses reason to show the true principles of religion without any dependence on divine revelation. Wesley’s letter is an extended rejection of the arguments of the treatise. As Wesley puts it:

The treatise itself gave me a stronger conviction than ever I had before, both of the fallaciousness and unsatisfactoriness of the mathematical method of reasoning on religious subjects. Extremely fallacious it is; for if we slip but in one line, a whole train of errors may follow: And utterly unsatisfactory, at least to me, because I can be sufficiently assured that this is not the case.

In some of his particular objections, Wesley shows his willingness to stand in ignorance about questions to which others feel compelled to devise answers. He admits that he cannot explain how God’s complete foreknowledge of our actions is consistent with the idea that we are free, and yet he finds both God’s absolute knowledge and our freedom in Scripture. For him, that is enough to hold to both.

When the treatise refutes commonly held theological notions about the way original sin is transmitted from generation to generation, Wesley waves his hand at the whole discussion. He writes that he would not care if every reasonable explanation for the way original sin is transmitted were shot down.

I care not if there were none. The fact I know, both by Scripture and by experience. I know it is transmitted; but how it is transmitted, I neither know nor desire to know.

If Wesley were among us today and responded to questions about tricky theological points in such a manner, I suspect many of us would not approve. The question then remains, whether God would approve now or did approve then of his ministry.

How do you get heard?

The dominant non-religious attitude in America toward sex is something like the attitude Americans have toward commercial transactions. So long as both parties are fully informed about what they are doing and agree of their free will, whatever they want to do is fine with most people.

The standard is the same whether you are standing in a pawn shop or cruising Tinder looking for a hook up.

Because this is the American attitude toward sex, it makes much of what the church says seem silly or reactionary or bigoted. What does God care if two people — or more — enter into a sexual encounter with open eyes?

That is the question.

And the problem is that it is impossible to answer without back-tracking pretty seriously.

You see, Christians historically have not accepted the idea that we own our bodies. We are created by God and redeemed by Christ. Our body — like everything else — is placed at our disposal for a span of time, but belongs to God. So, the notion that we can do whatever we feel like with it is a bit like the teenager who trashes his parent’s house when they leave town over the weekend. He was left in charge of the house, but he was not given license to do whatever he wanted.

Paul gets at this to a degree in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20:

Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

This idea that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit gets into another issue.

Some people will ask why anyone should care about what another person does so long as “no one gets hurt.” The problem for Christians is that sin hurts someone. It hurts the sinner. It profanes the temple of the Holy Spirit.

By the time we go back this far, of course, we’ve totally lost non-Christian conversation partners. It is nonsense and foolishness to them. In truth, it is nonsense and foolishness to a lot of Christians because we have largely adopted the secular attitude about our own bodies.

I’m not sure how to combat this within the church. How do you get to the point where those of us who follow Jesus and read the Bible can see the way a biblical view of who we are is at odds with the commercial view? The commercial view gets so much more time to make its case, and has spent a lot more time crafting its message and delivery. I’m not sure how we get heard, even inside our own sanctuaries.

What we do that no one else does

On Sunday, I preached at a Sunday night Lenten service about the need for spiritual accountability. The point was that, left to ourselves, we talk ourselves into – or let the devil talk us into – all kinds of bad ideas. The pastor at the host church reached out to me afterward and said he wants to talk about ways we might build on that message. I had a couple of lay members also express some interest in the kind of Wesleyan spiritual accountability groups that I mentioned in the preaching. So, that was a good evening, but one that I need to build upon if it is to bear any fruit. I’m great at beginnings; I’m not so strong on follow through.

The sermon idea arose out of a conviction I’ve been feeling recently that my ministry has provided a fair amount of care to others but not much in the way of growth. I think part of this conviction arises after three funerals in the last month at the two churches I serve. When you put a person in the ground, it gives you pause to reflect on whether you’ve done what you should have done as their pastor, which, of course, gets to issues of pastoral identity.

I’ve been on such a long journey when it comes to pastoral identity, not long in time, perhaps — I’ve been preaching close to 8 years now – but long in theological distance. If you had told me in 2007 that the role of the pastor is to get people ready to meet their maker, I would have wondered where the tent meeting revival was that you’d wandered away from. I am a spiritual child of American university towns and mainline Protestantism. In my world, churches existed to comfort and soothe and perhaps provide an organizing point for good works. The primary message was that God loves you because you are loveable and God loves everyone else even if they are not loveable. I’d never heard in a church I attended any preacher suggest that his or her job was – as John Wesley would put it – to save souls.

And yet, I am persuaded more and more that saving souls is precisely the only thing that the church does – or facilitates – that no other institution can do or cares to do. We have lots of community building groups and political action groups and counseling groups. Many of them do what the church tries to do in these areas much more effectively than the church does. What we do that we alone do is teach, lead, and encourage people on to salvation.

So, on Sunday, I tried to preach a message that would both convict and encourage the Christians who are serious enough about their faith to come out on Sunday night for a second worship service. It was a small fraction of the membership of the six congregations that are hosting these Lenten services. But like the handful of those who expressed interest in accountability groups, I find myself drawn to the thought that these are the ones who most need my attention because they are the ones most earnestly seeking something deeper and more than what passes for Christianity in our culture today.

When I get back from Spring Break, I’m going to follow up with that pastor and with the few individuals who responded to the sermon. Or, at least, that is my goal.

Methodism as a spiritual order?

A Christian is defined as a follower of Jesus, and reflection upon the experience of following constitutes the central theme of any solid theology.

This is how Gustavo Gutierrez’s We Drink From Our Own Wells begins. I am still trying to figure out whether I agree with him.

Is theology what emerges when we reflect on the experience of following Jesus?

In Gutierrez’s book, he describes the various schools of the Spirit within the Roman Catholic Church — Dominicans, Franciscans, Ignatians, and so on — as arising out of particular experiences that become theologized. The experience comes before the theology.

Gutierrez argues that liberation theology is the theology that emerges when people seek both to be followers of Jesus and committed workers for liberation from material and political oppression. Liberation theology is what you get when you have the experience of following Jesus in the midst of the struggle.

If I am understanding his argument, then we might conceive of Methodism as the theology and practice that emerged as followers of Jesus sought after an experience of total sanctification — perfection in love — in the context of early industrial Britain. Although John Wesley would argue that Methodism represented true Christianity, Gutierrez would argue that it represents a way of being Christian.

Here is what I find appealing in this — assuming I am understanding Gutierrez at all.

First, it helps me think through the continuing ecclesiastical and vocational problems presented to United Methodist clergy by the fact that our church emerged as a holiness movement within the Church of England.

I can envision in this a bifurcated role in which the pastor is both leader of a church body committed to the broadly ecumenical and orthodox — the small ‘c’ church catholic if you will — expression of the faith and shepherd of distinct groups within the larger body of those who wish to delve into Methodist spirituality. (I see here something of the two kinds of Christian Wesley describes in “The More Excellent Way.”)

The United Methodist pastor would not have to be so troubled or defeated by the fact that so many in our congregations do not opt to pursue Methodist spirituality, so long as they do attend to the orthodox faith, but we would continue to provide and even view our role as being guardians of a Methodist spirituality that aims at a perfection in love, a holiness of heart and life, as the Holy Spirit’s promise to all who seek it.

Second, Gutierrez’s approach puts life in front of books. Theology is usually taught and presented as a collection of ideas and concepts knit together into elegant systems by brilliant thinkers. As a rather bookish guy myself, I don’t begrudge theologians any of this, but I do find that it can lead to theology that has no connection to life as lived and experienced by people.

I also find in my own life that theology only gets developed when it becomes the focal point of some lived problem or joy. The areas where I have thought through and wrestled theology to the ground the hardest are those places where experience makes those theological questions pressing.

Now, for all that, I am wary of making experience the touch stone of theology. I’ve seen first hand how we can use experience to justify anything we want to gut the witness of Scripture and the wisdom of tradition. And so, I’m wary of the prominence Gutierrez gives to experience as the crucible of theology. Perhaps this is why it is important that all these various spiritualities and ways of being Christian remain linked under the broader umbrella of the body of Christ.

Cautions noted, I do find myself coming back to this book again and again. I keep wondering if these words are not the best way to understand the nature of Methodism within the wider church:

Every great spirituality begins with the attainment of a certain level of experience. Then follows reflection on this experience, thus making it possible to propose it to the Christian community as a way of following Christ.

Rules for a class meeting

I’m working on inviting people into discipleship groups based on the Methodist class meeting, although I’m looking for a name other than “class meeting.”

Here’s a reading of the “rules” of the meeting that would be included in every meeting — after prayer and a scripture reading.

The only condition of entry into these meetings is a desire to become a true follower of Jesus Christ.

We come together to watch over one another in love and to encourage each other in spiritual growth.

We are not here to judge each other, but should come ready to open our hearts.

We are not here to make small talk or gossip or do any business other than tending to the growth of our souls.

We are relying on and expecting the Holy Spirit to touch our hearts and strengthen us.

We are joined in this moment in a sacred trust. All that is said and shared here is to remain here and with God. We will not talk about what we hear in this place with anyone else.

As this fellowship depends upon the participation of each member, we come ready to answer the question: “How is your life with God?”

The devil’s scorecard

Have you cast out any devils recently?

This is a very Wesleyan question.

John Wesley, in his oft-cited sermon “A Caution Against Bigotry,” suggests our standard for judging the ministry of another be that question. Does the preaching of the person destroy the work of the devil?

In his sermon, Wesley points out that all the sins and evils of this world are the sign of the devil’s dominion.

Is it a small proof of his power, that common swearers, drunkards, whoremongers, adulterers, thieves, robbers, sodomites, murderers, are still found in every part of our land? How triumphant does the prince of this world reign in all these children of disobedience?

To this list, Wesley adds liars, slanderers, oppressors, extortioners, perjurers, and traitors. He even mentions the genocidal actions of his own colonizing countrymen. But the important point here is that all these manifestations of sin are signs of people under the power of Satan. A sinner is a captive. To bring a sinner to repentance is to drive the devil out. Conversion itself is a miracle of God. As Wesley writes elsewhere, it is no less a miracle to bring back to life a soul dead in sin than it is to bring back to a life a body dead in the ground.

We are locked in a spiritual war, Wesley writes in the sermon. We need all the allies we can get.

He that gathereth not men into the kingdom of God, assuredly scatters them from it. For there can be no neuter in this war. Every one is either on God’s side, or on Satan’s. Are you on God’s side? Then you will not only not forbid any man that casts out devils, but you will labour, to the uttermost of you power, to forward him in the work.

Wesley suggests a three-part test to see if a person has driven out devils.

  1. Find a person who once was an open sinner.
  2. Notice that this person is no longer such and instead is living a Christian life.
  3. Fix the impetus for this change in attending the preaching of this or that person.

If you can do all three, than you can assume that God has driven out the devil through the work of that preacher.

This is more important than any disagreements over doctrine or practice. Wesley — in the part of the sermon that tends to get quoted most often — goes on to say that even if the person doing the preaching is an Arian or a Muslim or a Jew or Deist, if the fruit of the preaching is the driving out of Satan, then we should applaud and support that preacher’s work.

Wesley does not explain exactly how a Muslim imam might lead someone to live “a Christian life,” but his point remains. Perhaps in our internal denominational conversations and our interfaith dialogue we would be served well if we asked Wesley’s question rather than got bogged down on other matters.

Have you driven out devils? Yes? Then let us praise God together for that.