Questions from above and below

Henri Nouwen writes about his friend Adam, who had profound physical and mental disabilities:

Could Adam pray? Did he know who God is and what the Name of Jesus means? Did he understand the mystery of God among us? For a long time I thought about these questions. For a long time I was curious about how much of what I knew, Adam could know, and how much of what I understood, Adam could understand. But now I see that these were for me questions from “below,” questions that reflected more my anxiety and uncertainty than God’s love. God’s questions, the questions from “above” were, “Can you let Adam lead you into prayer? Can you believe that I am in deep communion with Adam and that his life is a prayer? Can you let Adam be a living prayer at your table? Can you see my face in the face of Adam?”

Questions from above and below

I once was blind but now I see

The old Methodists had a question; Do you know the one in whom you believe?

For them this was a distinction that made all the difference. It was one thing to know about God. It was one thing to have learned the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. It was one thing to see in the wonders of nature signs of a creating God. It was quite another to know God.

John Wesley taught that we by nature are unable to see or know the invisible God. We can formulate doctrines about God, but we cannot see God any more than we can see the moons of Saturn with our unaided eyes. And if we cannot see (or hear or feel) God, then we cannot really love God. We can make some motions, but we cannot force our hearts to love what remains hidden to us.

It is only by an act of God’s grace that we come to “see” God by the witness of our spiritual senses. We gain eyes to see because God gives them to us. And seeing God, coming to know God, we will not help but love God, who is good and just and loving and beautiful beyond all our words to explain it.

The big problem Wesley saw in the church was that there were lots of people running around who were the blind leading the blind. They did not know God, but they talked a lot about the things of God. They substituted doctrines and liturgy for an experience of God’s grace. And so, they were Christians in name, but were in fact no different in heart from the men and women who remained outside the church. Indeed, Wesley would often write, the heathens outside the church often lived outwardly more like real Christians than most who bear the name.

This doctrine of assurance, then, was far more than just a warm feeling that we are saved. It was really the entire foundation of what Wesley called real Christianity. God reveals Godself to sinners, which allows them to actually perceive the God they had heard about but never known. This is the gift of faith, the evidence of things not seen. In the moment of this faith, we come to see not only the majesty of God, but also the love of God in Jesus Christ who died for us. Our heart is filled by the love of God. We have the witness of the Spirit to our spirit that we are beloved and forgiven.

This is assurance. This is heart religion.

It was uncommon in Wesley’s day. Methodists were always a tiny minority of the Church of England. It is even more uncommon today. But Wesley believed it was the foundation of actual Christianity.

Do we understand it? Do we teach it? Do we believe it? Have we experienced it?

Do you know the God in whom you believe?

I once was blind but now I see

Cherishing the not-so-plain meanings of Scripture

Over the summer I read Augustine’s Confessions. One of my many discoveries in its pages was Augustine’s allegorical reading of Scripture. Indeed, he writes at one point that it was an allegorical reading of the Old Testament that freed him from his prejudices against the barbaric and bloody stories in that collection of sacred texts.

We Protestants tend to be wary of allegory. We like our reading plain and our meanings simple. Unless, of course, we were foolish enough to major in English in college. Then we might fall prey to the argument of writers such as Frances Young, who makes the case for figurative readings of Scripture. In her book Brokenness & Blessing, she argues that the early church read the Bible not in the modernist way of fundamentalists and historical-critical scholars but as a source of spiritual types that inform our journey with God.

Young opens the first chapter of the book with a classic 18th century hymn that plays on the images from the Exodus story, which she uses to explain how figurative or typological reading of the Bible works.

In this well-known eighteenth-century hymn, we easily recognize allusions to incidents in the exodus narrative: the manna, the water from the rock, the pillar of fire by night, and the pillar of cloud by day. Here these motifs become metaphors illuminating each person’s life pilgrimage. Thus the hymn provides a telling example of the classic reading of Scripture by which it provides “types” of the life that each one of us has to live. The way that people understood their own lives was once shaped by patterns and models found in Scripture, and, conversely, people read their own lives into Scripture.

Young’s book is interesting to me for a few reasons, but her effort to reclaim an ancient way of reading Scripture is certainly intriguing to me.



Cherishing the not-so-plain meanings of Scripture

Oden on spirituality

Thomas C. Oden on the meaning of “spirituality” in his book Requiem

I intend by spirituality to point to personal life lived in union with Christ — a relationship with the incarnate and risen Lord through the power of the Holy Spirit, where his death is my death, his resurrection, my resurrection. This life expresses itself in praise of God through loving service to the neighbor. Spirituality in the New Testament sense is not a moral program, not a set of rules, not a level of ethical achievement, not a philosophy, not a rhetoric, not an idea, not a strategy, not a theory of meditation, but simply life lived in Christ.


Oden on spirituality

God the therapist

A non-believing anthropologist sees evangelical prayer practice as therapy and explains why mainliners and Roman Catholics don’t get the same benefit from it.

I saw the same thing at another church, where a young couple lost a child in a late miscarriage. Some months later I spent several hours with them. Clearly numbed, they told me they did not understand why God had allowed the child to die. But they never gave a theological explanation for what happened. They blamed neither their own wickedness nor demons. Instead, they talked about how important it was to know that God had stood by their side. The husband quoted from memory a passage in the Gospel of John, where many followers abandon Jesus because his teachings don’t make sense to them. Jesus says sadly to his disciples, “You do not want to leave, too, do you?” and Peter responds, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”

This approach to the age-old problem of theodicy is not really available to mainstream Protestants and Catholics, who do not imagine a God so intimate, so loving, so much like a person. That may help to explain why it is evangelical Christianity that has grown so much in the last 40 years.

It can seem puzzling that evangelical Christians sidestep the apparent contradiction of why bad things happen to good people. But for them, God is a relationship, not an explanation.

God the therapist

The spark at Methodism’s heart

John Wesley wrote two fascinating letters to William Law days before and days after his Aldersgate experience. They reveal some of the spiritual transformation that he went through in the that momentous month of May in 1738.

William Law was a spiritual mentor of Wesley’s. He wrote books of practical theology that Wesley read and recommended to others, although Law’s turn to more mystical themes alienated him from Wesley, which we can see in the two letters.

On May 14, Wesley wrote Law an accusatory letter full of pain. Wesley had been following Law’s advice in his preaching — and own life — for two years. He preached the law of God in great depth and detail. When people found they could not follow the law, he exhorted them and stirred himself up to pray for the grace of God and use the means of grace. But, still, the law was too high for him.

Under this heavy yoke, I might have groaned until death, had not a holy man, to whom God lately directed me, upon my complaining thereof, answered at once, “Believe, and thou shalt be saved. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ with all they heart, and nothing shall be impossible for thee. This faith, indeed, as well as the salvation it brings, is the free gift of God. But seek, and thou shalt find.

Wesley turns from sharing his great discovery to a  pointed question to Law: Why had Law never told him this piece of advice while the young Wesley was groaning in misery?

If Law thought Wesley already had faith or was being prepared for it, Wesley wrote that he was mistaken.

If you say you advised them because you knew that I had faith already, verily you knew nothing of me; you discerned not my spirit at all. I know that I had not faith, unless the faith of a devil, the faith of Judas, that speculative, notional, airy shadow, which lives in the head, not the heart. But what is this to the living, justifying faith in the blood of Jesus? the faith that cleanseth from sin; that gives us to have free access to the Father; to “rejoice in hope of the glory of God;” to have “the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost” which dwelleth in us; and “the Spirit itself bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of God?”

In this letter and the follow up answering some of Law’s defense of his conduct, I hear the eruption of a spiritual experience that would shape the entire Methodist movement for the next 50 years.

Wesley the serious priest intent on holiness and mindful of hell was groaning under the pains of his own attempts to achieve his salvation by his own work and effort. He strove with sincerity and earnestness that few Christians ever attempt much less attain. And it was all vanity. He groaned still.

It was the doctrine of salvation by grace that unlocked the torture chamber of his soul. It opened his heart and gave him exceeding joy. It burst the bonds of the law with grace.

The Methodist move in those early decades was built, I am hypothesizing, to nurture that same spiritual experience in others. It was an apparatus for helping others find what John and his brother Charles had experienced.

Over time, we have lost that focus. The apparatus broke down or got used for different purposes. More and more of us carried the name of Methodist but without an knowledge of the experience or inkling that it might be the animating purpose of the movement that became a denomination.

And so, now here we sit.

Gustavo Gutierrez in his book We Drink from Our Own Wells argues that every spirituality within the Church remains a resource for Christians today. Of course, he is Roman Catholic. Identity issues are not quite so fraught for him as they are for ever-fracturing Protestants.

But I wonder how we United Methodists cohere and persevere as a church that no longer is defined by its founding spiritual experience and impetus. So many of our pastors and laity have no identification with the groans that tormented Wesley or the joy that met him in the word of grace.

Can we recenter on that spiritual experience? Should we? If we don’t, how do we remain custodians of it in ways that enrich who we are?

The spark at Methodism’s heart