How do we dig the wells again?

As Methodist preachers were facing opposition and struggling to bear fruit in Calvinistic Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1771, John Wesley wrote the following in a letter to one of the movement’s supporters:

If any one could show you, by plain Scriptures and reason, a  more excellent way than that you have received [from Methodists], you certainly would do well to receive it; and, I trust, I should do the same. But I think it will not be easy for any one to show us, either that Christ did not die for all, or that he is not willing as well as able to cleanse from all sin, even in the present world.

As I read this, I found myself wondering what my fellow clergy in the United Methodist Church would say about such a passage.

I do not think many would quibble with the notion that Jesus Christ died for all.

The second point would meet more resistance, as it did among Methodists even in Wesley’s day. Wesley believed that Christ has both the power and the intention of healing us from all sin. In theology class, we call this sanctification. In practical terms, it means that the power of Christ not only pardons us from the guilt of sin but also cures us of the very inclination and desire to sin in any way. In more positive terms, we love both God and our neighbors perfectly.

Wesley believed and taught that Christian could receive this total sanctification and should, in fact, seek after it. He did not argue this because he thought humans were capable of it, but because he believed that Scripture testified that Jesus Christ both wants that for us and is capable of doing what he desires.

This doctrine of Christian Perfection is part of the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church, even if it is not frequently preached and often ignored in practice.

But the controversial nature of Christian Perfection is not the place where I suspect a congress of United Methodist clergy would find the most ground to argue over Wesley’s advice in his letter. I suspect where we would most disagree is over his standard for doctrine itself. Wesley urges the woman to whom he writes to appeal to “plain Scriptures and reason” as the foundation for what she should believe.

I suspect a gathering of United Methodists would quarrel quite a bit if this were proposed as the basis of our doctrine.

Where are tradition and experience from our later 20th century invention the Wesleyan Quadrilateral?

Where are all the critical tools that make the notion of “plain Scripture” anything but plain?

Wesley read Scripture from the privileged position of a white man in a patriarchal society, of course, so what of readings from the margin? Are they still plain?

What about impartations of the Holy Spirit that give us new words?

And so on.

For my part, I find as a pastor in a church that I am not really interested in exploring our doctrinal divisions. They have been well mapped and discussed and remain unchanged. I need to understand them just as I need to understand various reasons people resist the gospel or struggle to grown in their faith. They are the landscape in which I do my pastoral work. But I do not feel my work advances a great deal by trudging again over this well trodden turf.

What I long for is some conversation among those of us who seek to preserve the Wesleyan deposit in our doctrinal standards. I find in the realities of pastoral work among a settled congregation that it is quite challenging to nurture and develop a Wesleyan Christianity. The flock has so long been fed from whatever sources it could find and many different streams, that the particular theological and doctrinal commitments that mark a church as a Methodist church have all but vanished.

How do we dig again these wells of spiritual nourishment?

 

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Are we playing at religion?

I’ve started reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity again. It is a dated book, but only in ways that are not terribly important. I find it a wonderful book. To the extent I can, I am going to share some reflections from reading through it, perhaps as a way to restore life to this moribund blog.

To begin, a quotation from the first section of the book:

God is the only comfort. He is also the supreme terror: the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from. … Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again. They are still only playing at religion.

One thing that strikes me about so much religiosity I encounter is how little it regards the “terror” side of the above equation. In the church, we seem unaware of the the fact that if God is ultimate goodness, and expects us to be good, we are in a bad way.

In his book, Lewis begins with two foundational claims. First, that we as human beings believe that there is such as thing as right and wrong. We have the sense that there is a way that other people ought to behave toward us — not out of mere social convention but because it is “the right thing to do” — and we are upset when people do what is wrong. Lewis’ second point is that we ourselves often fail to act toward others in the very ways we believe they ought to act toward us. In other words, we believe in right and wrong, and we often do what is wrong.

Of course, we often justify our wrong acts. We come up with lots of reasons why it is okay to cheat a particular person or institution, why it is okay to lie, even why it is okay to commit violence against someone else, but we do not rest easy in our justifications. Indeed, the fact that we feel the need to justify such actions is often all the proof we need that we know we have done wrong. You do not need to offer excuses for why you do the right thing, after all.

Lewis argues that the source of this sense of right and wrong  is God and this sense is itself evidence of God. (You can read the book to get the full argument. I am not doing it justice in this short summary.) At this point in the book, Lewis is not arguing for a Christian conception of God. He is merely arguing that we bear within us testimony to existence of a right and wrong that is beyond human creation and above our control. The vast majority of human beings throughout time have shared the conviction that there is a moral order, that a god or gods expect humans to live in accord with it, and that there are consequences for failing to do so. We long for those consequences for other people. We often reject the notion that they should apply to us. We imagine standing before God and inexplicably are not the least bit weak in the knees.

All of this leads me to ask, “How many of us in the church today are still merely playing at religion?”

How many of us have ever seriously contemplated the fact that if God stands resolutely against the wicked, he stands resolutely against us?

Sure, we have all our excuses. My wickedness, my selfishness, my sinfulness is not as bad as someone else. It’s not like I am Adolph Hitler. Or the wrongs I do are justified by some harm I have suffered or some defect that I cannot control. In the end, we tell ourselves, if God is good then that means he will ignore my sins even as he punishes the sins of others, the ones who really deserve it.

We wrap ourselves up in the comfort of God and refuse to the possibility that there might be some terror involved in coming face-to-face with a holy and good God.

We who remember what it felt like to dread having to confess to our parents some petty childhood wrong we had done think we will stand at ease in the light of God’s goodness without the least bit of worry or fear.

As Lewis says, we are playing at religion.

It is for good reason that the Bible tells us that the beginning of all wisdom is the fear of God. We should be afraid. We know our own hearts. Only if we have known the grace of holy fear of God can we truly know the grace of the relief and comfort from those fears. Yes, I am paraphrasing John Newton. I hope next time I sing his hymn, I do not gloss too lightly over that line: “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fear relieved.”

The folly of Christianity

If we have lost our concepts we have done so because we are living lives that make sense even if Jesus was not raised from the dead. But he was raised. (Stanley Hauerwas, The Work of Theology)

Like so many things Stanley Hauerwas has written, the quote above strikes me as true and leaves me puzzled about how to apply what he has written to Christian ministry in actual churches with the people we find there. What does it mean, after all, to live a life that makes sense only if Jesus Christ was raised from the dead? Hauerwas seems to think the answer to questions like that are so obvious that they do not need to be explained.

My hunch is this. I suspect that what he is advocating is a life that could only be called a “good” life if Jesus Christ is Lord and the promises of Christianity are true. In other words, it cannot be a life that you would call good by the standards of contemporary American culture or ancient Roman pagan culture or any other culture that does not take as its center point Jesus Christ.

What Hauerwas is calling for, I think, and what gets so many people uncomfortable with him, is a life fundamentally at odds with what most Americans would describe as living the good life. The dream of many Americans is to live a life centered on what gives them pleasure, including the pleasure of feeling like they are being a good person when they share some of their time and their money helping those who are “less fortunate.”

Hauerwas argues that such hedonism — even if it is a soft hedonism that we feel slightly awkward about at times — is at odds with Christianity on a fundamental level. Christian life is about serving a Lord who said, “Deny yourself and follow me” and “turn the other cheek” and “do not lay up treasures on earth.” Those commands make no sense to us and they are foolish to follow unless, it turns out, that the one who said them really is Lord of Lord and King of Kings.