Sign of spittle and grace

I had someone ask me recently how they should talk to an atheist who insists on saying things meant to provoke or insult.

My initial response was something like this: You are asking me what to say when that person says something insulting to faith or about your belief. How about, “I love you”?

I knew that was easier to offer as advice than to do, but I went on to say that I have always found it interesting how strongly some people feel compelled to react to the presence of faith around them. Based on my own pre-Christian experiences, I believe that in many cases the person is reacting defensively against the grace of God. Acting out in anger might just be the sign that God is getting a foothold and they are lashing out to try to drive grace away.

Paul writes in Romans 8 about the groaning of creation as it awaits the liberation from death and decay. Commenting on this passage, John Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament observe the following:

Upright heathens are by no means to be excluded from this earnest expectation: nay, perhaps something of it may at some times be found even in the vainest of men; who (although in the hurry of life they mistake vanity for liberty, and partly stifle, partly dissemble, their groans, yet) in their sober, quiet, sleepless, afflicted hours, pour forth many sighs in the ear of God.

Some of our sighs to God can look a lot spitting in God’s face.

It is not easy to be on the receiving end of these things, but I do think Christians should view vocal atheism as a sign of God’s grace at work stirring up souls.

Many atheists, of course, would reject what I just wrote. I understand that. I was once among their tribe. Part of being a Christian, though, is learning to tell the story of the world around us in terms of grace and God’s activity.

So maybe in addition to suggesting that my friend say “I love you” in the face of atheist insults, I should have added “God loves you, too.”

Pilmore or Asbury?

When Francis Asbury arrived in America, he was distressed by the state of Methodism in the northern colonies. Joseph Pilmore and Richard Boardman – who Wesley had sent before – had confined their ministries to the urban centers of Philadelphia and New York and let Methodist discipline slacken.

In his biography of Asbury, John Wigger describes Pilmore as worried by the spectre of sectarian religion and reluctant to close the door to anyone. Asbury, on the contrary, thought that Methodist discipline about class meetings and love feasts were crucial to the spiritual work of Methodism. Only a disciplined society could foster the spiritual atmosphere necessary to nurture growth. Only in a love feast where all had proven their desire for higher spiritual gifts could true sharing and unburdening of hearts take place. When everyone was let in, the function of the feast was destroyed.

Pilmore looked over a church whose pews had been emptied by Asbury’s insistence on discipline and lamented the loss. Asbury said he would rather have a small but truly Methodist gathering than a large but undisciplined one.

Are we more like Pilmore or Asbury today?

(This post was original published in 2009. Question still seems relevant to me.)


Do we need the Creed?

Andrew Thompson has provided a series of links to some recent and not-so-recent writings about the place of the Creed in Wesleyan and Methodist faith. The authors generally come out in defense of the Creed. This is not a controversial position for Christians to take, of course, but given the history of doctrinal neglect in United Methodism, it is not a foregone conclusion that any particular group of United Methodists will provide a robust defense of the creeds of the church.

So, these arguments are important.

But, at the risk of encouraging an “anything goes” attitude, I do want to ask whether the Creed is either sufficient or necessary for Christianity. Is affirming the Creed enough to make you a Christian (the demons believe and tremble)? Is affirming the Creed necessary for a person who claims to be a Christian?

Another way to ask this, I suppose, is whether Christianity could exist without the Creed. As a historical hypothetical, of course, it is an impossible question to answer. And yet, we do have an answer. The Creed was not handed to us by Jesus Christ. The Apostles did not recite the Apostles’ Creed. The church found the absence of a Creed problematic and the establishment of a Creed useful, but Peter and Paul and the subsequent generations were certainly good Christians despite their ignorance of the Creed.

So the question is not whether we need the Creed, but how best do we use it? What role should it play in the life of faith? How does knowing the Creed deepen our faith and practice? How does the Creed call us into holiness of heart and life?

‘Methodists are free church Catholics’

Methodism could make a real contribution to our common life as Protestant Christians if we took seriously the ecclesial implications of Wesley’s stress on sanctification. I think Maddox is quite right to say that Wesley understood that without God’s grace we cannot be saved; but without our (grace-empowered but uncoerced) participation, God’s grace will not save. Wesley, of course, was not unique in this emphasis — thus Augustine’s observation that the God who created us without us will not save us without us. Participation is, of course, signaled by baptism, by which we are made members of a community in which we are made accountable to one another. In short, Methodists are free church Catholics.

— Stanley Hauerwas, “The End of Protestantism,” in Approaching the End

Stanley Hauerwas follows the statement above with an admission that very few United Methodist Churches would offer much support for his claim that we are “free church Catholics.”

I take his point to be that our tradition holds to a view of sanctification that requires a community to nurture us and hold us accountable. To “participate” with God’s grace requires the presence of other people. As Wesley would say, there is no holiness without social holiness.

I hear Hauerwas asserting that because of this there is no salvation without the church, not because the church has grip on the magic beans that get us into heaven but because it is impossible to grow in grace without being part of a community around you.

I’m not convinced I understand Hauerwas properly. I’m never convinced of that. I wonder how his quote above strikes you.

What Wesley got wrong

John Wesley’s sermon “On Faith” — the first to two by that name — is an interesting look at Wesley’s reflection on his own preaching and on questions about how God will judge non-Christians.

Indeed, nearly fifty years ago, when the Preachers, commonly called Methodists, began to preach that grand scriptural doctrine, salvation by faith, they were not sufficiently apprized of the difference between a servant and a child of God. They did not clearly understand, that even one “who feareth God, and worketh righteousness, is accepted of him.” In consequence of this, they were apt to make sad the hearts of those whom God had not made sad. For they frequently asked those who feared God, “Do you know that your sins are forgiven?” And upon their answering, “No,” immediately replied, “Then you are a child of the devil.” No; this does not follow. It might have been said, (and it is all that can be said with propriety) “Hitherto you are only a servant, you are not a child of God. You have already great reason to praise God that he has called you to his honourable service. Fear not. Continue crying unto him, ‘and you shall see greater things than these.’ “

Both regarding Christians who have not yet seen the greater things of faith and non-Christians who still seek after God according to the light they have received, the older Wesley put much more emphasis on praising what work God had already done and urging or inviting people into deeper faith. The young Wesley was more inclined to scold. The older Wesley was more apt to encourage.

At its heart, Wesley’s Methodism is a call to higher and deeper spiritual life, but it is extremely generous with regard to those forms of faith and non-Christian religion that do not share Methodism’s vision of holiness of heart and life.

This spirit is difficult to maintain if our impulse is self-aggrandizing. If we seek the full Methodist vision of holiness because we want to feel spiritually superior to others, then not only have we missed the mark, but we are defiling the very name of Christ.

This is why John Wesley always emphasized humility as the very first and essential characteristic of the Christian life. Pride of any form is incompatible with Methodism.

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.