June 14th, 2016 | Tags:

In Biblical Studies, the predominant goals are to understand the ideas and thoughts of the Biblical authors and how the text as we have came into being. At the risk of oversimplifying, history and thoughts are the two main foci. So far as the Church employs the work of Biblical Studies, we see this pattern in preaching, where preaching focuses on the presentation of information on what the Biblical authors thought and, occasionally, supplementing that with historical information to make it seem more understandable.

This isn’t entirely bad, but there is something frequently lost. It is the intuition of the modern world that Christianity was a set of ideas about Jesus that one has to give their mental assent to. What gets lost is that the early Church would not have just gathered to tell people some stuff about Jesus. They would have had a set of practices, both communally and personally, that would define how they exercised their faith about God in Christ. It has also occurred with views on ancient philosophy, where we think the primary goal of the ancient Greco-Roman schools of philosophy were to convey ideas. There seems to be a modern bias of the Western world to look back at our intellectual heritage of religion and philosophy as being informative and cognitive. However, as Pierre Hadot writes in Philosophy as a Way of Life:

Spiritual exercises can be best observed in the context of Hellenistic and Roman schools of philosophy. The Stoics, for instance, declared explicitly that philosophy, for them, was an “exercise.” In their view, philosophy did not consist in teaching an abstract theory – much less in the exegesis of texts – but rather the art of living. It is a concrete attitude and determinate lifestyle, which engages the whole of existence…

In the view of all philosophical schools, mankind’s principal cause of suffering, disorder, and unconsciousness were the passions: that is, unregulated desires and exaggerated fears. People were prevented from truly living, it was taught, because they are dominated by worries. Philosophy thus appears, in the first place, as a therapeutic of the passions (in the words of Freidmann: “Try to get rid of your own passions”). Each school had its own therapeutic method, but all of them linked their therapeutics to a profound transformation of the individual’s mode of seeing and being. The object of spiritual exercises is precisely to bring about this transformation.”1

What if the early church had many spiritual exercises connected to the telling of the Gospel narrative? What is the same bias in misunderstanding the ancient philosophies as idea-centered also impacted how we understand the earliest Christians? In part this bias may derive from the faith-centered nature of Christian teaching, suggesting that works were superfluous at best, self-righteous as worst. However, the fact that our main source of our understanding of the ancient world is through texts that transmit ideas, perhaps the type of evidence we have has biased our perception of the ancient Greco-Roman philosophy and the early followers of Jesus as being about simply communicating a set of ideas.

However, when you look at Paul’s letter to the Philippians, you can see what may be echoes of his own spiritual exercises that he encourages others to practice. In Philippians 4:8-9, Paul encourages the Christians to think about the good things they can find. This follows instructions for prayer regarding anxieties2, suggesting that Paul is outlining a set of practices for the recipient to practice in.

It is tempting to think this practice of contemplation is just a nice idea and some sort of optional add-on to Christian faith, but I would suggest it is more central for Paul. In Philippians 2:5-10, he specifically calls for people to engage their minds in such as a way to have the mind of Christ. Then, he quotes from an ancient Christian hymn about the descent of Jesus and the following exaltation. Paul encourages as certain mindset through offering a familiar hymn for reflection. Philippians 2:5-10 is an example of the contemplation he encourages in 4:8-9.

What if Paul’s spiritual practices included a very deliberate, habitual form of contemplation? We see echoes of it in Romans 8:5-8, where Paul outlines the thinking of the flesh and Spirit. Furthermore, could a more contemplative mindset that focused less on textual interpretation and more on conceptual imaginative explain the difference between Paul’s earlier letter to the Galatians, where he engages in a form of textual exegesis such as in Galatians 3:16, and his later letter to the Romans where he contrasts the letter with the Spirit? Perhaps, if Paul developed a deeper pattern of contemplation in his later ministry, it might explain style of expression and thought of Ephesians and Colossians, often times considered to be written by others. I have also personally considering Ephesians 1:3-14 as having been a reflection of the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus of John 17.3 In addition, this contemplative nature could explain the different style of Ephesians in general, where multiple times Paul interweaves theological reflection and Old Testament references without his normal style of reference. Furthermore, Colossians theological style in places such as Colossians 2:9-15 exhibits a pattern of deep contemplation on conceptual ideas; latter in 3:2 Paul encourages the practice of such contemplation on heavenly things.

While it is only a preliminary hypothesis, what if Paul was involved in deep practices of contemplation? Could much of the Pauline corpus be impacted by this practice and therefore explain an evolution in Paul’s theology and ethics? Additionally, how would the idea of Paul’s practice influence how we read Paul’s ideas? How does a Pauline praxis impact the sense of orthodoxy the early Church was forming? While Paul’s letters are not deeply autobiographical and so we can not easily reconstruct Paul’s pattern of life, perhaps greater sensitivity to the practices Paul does mention and finding resemblances of those practices may bear greater fruit in working through the Pauline corpus. It may also even be beneficial for understanding the New Testament as a whole, recognizing praxis might impact the theology. This is becoming rather speculative here, but what if the memory of Jesus was impacted by practices that were done in conscious imitation of Jesus?

While the body of evidence we have before us can not give clear answers, perhaps with keen and subtle insight, we can tease out the spiritual practice of the apostolic churches to inform our study into the text and ideas of the Bible.

  1. Philosophy as a Way of Life, p. 83 []
  2. the one spiritual practice Paul commends that everyone is familiar with today []
  3. Obviously, Paul would have heard it from an earlier tradition and not the Gospel of John as we have it []
June 12th, 2016 | Tags:

I had written this up last night to consider posting today. I have considered not posting this considering the mass shooting in Orlando today. I don’t really want to make things about myself on this day, but I am not sure if I don’t post this today if I will tomorrow. In the end, sharing this doesn’t take away from anything else though.

My first confession is that this title is a little click-baity, perhaps. There will be no confession of any salacious stuff. This is not the place for someone to bring forth any deep, dark secrets that will shock the world or anything like that. There is nothing controversial or horrifying in this. Matter of fact, you might find it a bit weird I would even confess what I am about to. But if as a person who teaches God’s Word I feel the people of God’s Church are to help bear each other’s burdens, I need to be honest about my burden in the best way I can.

Rather, this is more of something personal I need to share because I need help. Not in any dramatic, come save the day sort of help. There is no pressing need that has to happen today. But I do need help with something that I do not know how to address without the assistance of others. But, as you will understand in a moment, the only way I know how to is to make a weakness of mine public and open without addressing any person in particular to do it. And perhaps, as I share, if some random person who struggles with this same odd and peculiar trait but do not really understand it and how it impacts their life reads this they can begin to understand it themselves. For me, I came to the realization that for the past decade I have been impacted by this pattern I didn’t really think much about. But enough of the clarifying and framing.

So confession: I don’t feel like I have permission to share my life with you. I do not feel as if it is appropriate for me to make anything about my life known to you unless there is some “rational” or pragmatic purpose behind it. For me, I feel it is not okay to bring my life into your world, unless I have feel like I have received some statement or question from you that it is okay.

Let me clarify that by what I do not mean. I am capable of asking for help when something incredibly important is happening. And I can ask for help if I don’t know how to do something. If I think you are doing something hurtful to others, I am able to call you to account if necessary (I may be a bit too blunt at times). Additionally, if I have a role I have the authority for, I feel okay exercising it and calling on people. Or, if you ask me about something, I feel permission to share about something if I want to.

But most of life is not lived by explicit declarations of permissions. Friendships and dating relationships are formed by unspoken affirmations towards each other, with gentle or, if necessary, forceful no’s being spoken to establish the boundaries. While there is always variance from this pattern, in general the yes’s of life are silently spoken and the no’s are said loud and clear. But for me, if I don’t feel like I have some rational justification, some pragmatic purpose, or some clearly defined permission, I hear “no” in my mind.

As a result, I don’t really share my life with people. I will admit that while there are plenty of people who like and even care about me, I don’t feel like I have a single person I can call a close friend. I may care about them and would do anything for them, but I don’t feel like I have permission to bring my world into theirs; they can bring theirs into mine, but I can not into theirs. I don’t call people because I want to joke around or talk because I don’t feel like that is sufficient reason. I must have a purpose.

As a single 32-year old male, I can occasionally draw glances of women of some women, but I am single in large part because I don’t feel like I have permission to show interest and pursue someone; there are times I even feel to be interested in a woman is wrong unless I know they are okay with that (as in online dating where people are intentionally open about it). And if I can finally can convince myself that it is okay to show interest or to ask someone out, I am tempted to endlessly add clarifications that it is okay if for some reason you as a female do not (after all, females have had to deal with numerous males who wouldn’t leave them alone). If my delaying hasn’t ended the interest at that point, I am sure the endless contextualizing and conditionalizing isn’t going to sweep someone off their feet.

In the end, I have grown to feel like it is a noble goal to have a good reason for what you do; we don’t always live that way, but it is good to be thoughtful in life. And so I aspire to be as rational and logical as I can. But there is one reason that I do not consider important enough reason for something: myself. In a culture filled with narcissism, I have striven to be the opposite. I do not feel my own feelings or desires in and of themselves are good enough reason to do anything that could potentially infringe or impede on anyone. For the most part, this is a lesson everyone needs to learn because we should not let our own feelings close us off from paying attention to how what we want might impact others. But I have found it went too far, in that the sense of rejection of self goes to the point of anything that might infringe or impede in the slightest way that I can imagine, regardless if I have any reason to believe I might be infringing or impeding.

It isn’t because I don’t want to share my life with others. I do. But I don’t feel I have permission to. Instead, if I am to share anything personal, I have to endlessly sift through my emotions and thoughts to determine if there is some rational purpose for doing so; then I have to figure out how I will filter what I think so as to best fulfill that purpose. As a result, I have the reputation of being a “rational” person, even though the reality is that I have some strong emotions. (I remember a time during seminary where I was told that I always seemed rational but after sharing a bit about my life for a class project, she informed me that I seemed to be personal then) But I try not to show them so as to not burden another unless there is a good reason for it. But I don’t feel like I can place my hopes, my desires, my pain, and my burdens on you in any way shape or form, unless I know for sure there is clear and resounding “yes.”

So, often times, I may come across as secretive about my life. I remember a different time at seminary someone told me “I was a mystery” and that no one knew anything about me. In part, there was probably some stuff going on that shouldn’t have behind the scenes, but in part, I didn’t feel okay to put myself onto others. At the time I remember sitting there and thinking “It is because no one asks me anything or shows an interest in getting to know me.”

It hasn’t always been this way. I had some rough stuff during my childhood with being picked on a lot as a child and the suicide of my brother. I often threw out emotional burdens onto other people and one’s that they should not have to bear. There came a point in my life where I determined to never be a burden on anyone ever again. For a while, I could still whine a bit to others, but I was getting better. But then came the point where I learned not to anymore, and then eventually there would come those points where my emotions would get the better of me after either being sick, stressed, etc. and my emotions would ‘snap.’ Then I would feel bad, felt I have been irrational and wrong, and go back to trying to keep my life to myself.

I began to come to this realization, of all place, at the Mississippi Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Firstly, I had noticed glances from a woman there and had returned them. I had considered trying to introduce myself, only to later on tell myself “this is not an appropriate place” and “she probably isn’t interested… you are just reading into it” Then, as many of people I have spent my time together in Residence in Ministry (a time where people who are on track to be ordained spend time together) were being ordained, I realized I had told people I had personal reasons for not pursuing ordination but I had not shared the reasons why (to be fair, the personal reasons are very personal). Then, as I came back home on Saturday evening, I was reading “The Road Less Traveled” by M. Scott Peck and I happened upon a vignette of a man named Theo who I resonated with. We both don’t have close friends and barely date; we come from a wealthy family (both of my parents are physicians); we are considered “intellectually brilliant” (I am aware of the reputation I have and have been told it many times, for better or worse); we both dealt with a difficult childhood (although his parents were a contributor to the problems, whereas my parents were not); neither of us can/could not figure out what topic he wants to focus on (I have endless ideas array of possibilities that I would do a PhD on if accepted, but I can never confidently pick one); at the end of the story, he went into training to be a minister. But what Dr. Peck noticed about Theo is that he was secretive. While I don’t remember why Theo was secretive, after those events of this week I realized, “Thats me!” Having been told I am mysterious in the past, it all came to me: I don’t feel permission to share my life with you.

For the past four years, I have been trying to come back to the point where I would connect to people again. During seminary there was an episode where I struggled with the idea of dating (because I didn’t know if I had permission to as I have shared, in addition to having some stuff happening to me prior) that turned into one of the most painful episodes of my life, where I lost my cool, but then was blamed and accused beyond what I did, while people ignored me if I tried to say something; I ended up being scared and harassed as my attempts for help seemingly fell on deaf ears. After all of it, I felt betrayed by some people who I considered friends and became even more terrified at the prospect of dating. I really didn’t like people or want them around anymore unless there was something I could help them with. But yet I knew that wasn’t a healthy attitude to have and it’s not exactly a good attitude for a pastor. As I have walked the road of healing from those days thanks to my parents, the help of my pastors and other clergy who saw there was a problem, and a therapist who helped guide me, I have been yearning to reconnect with people again, but only to find myself unable to because, in the end, I struggle with feeling permission to share my life for simply the reason of personally wanting to. So I need to openly share this, both for the sake of just being able to connect to people on a personal level again and to finally move past the past.

And the irony of this post is not lost on me. The only way I can share this fact with anyone is to say it in such a way that no one is burdened by it without permission (if you read this, you chose to do so). I loathe throwing my emotions onto someone else. But as a request, remember that I am a person of boundaries that I have to cautiously loosen. And if you are a friend and see this, please don’t feel you have to save me. Help me to relearn it is okay to share my life again; help me to be able to rebuild friendships again; help me to figure out how to date again; help me to connect again. But don’t feel like you have to rush in to save me. Using the ideass of the Apostle Paul in Galatians 6:2,5: I need help carrying a burden, but I can carry my own load.

June 2nd, 2016 | Tags:

If I were to attempt to summarize the whole Bible, one1 would be the following: Despite our sins and injustice, God so exceptionally loves us that he forgives us of our sins so that He can empower us to be exceptional people. Embedded in the Bible, both Old Testament and New Testament, is the idea that God’s love for us leads us to resemble God attested to mutiple times: To be holy as God is holy.2 To be perfect as our heavenly Father is complete.3; Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.4, etc. Even though our theology of universal sin says we are all sinners, the Gospel calls us to be exceptional people in light of and imitation of the love of God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Yet, this belief that we are called to be exceptional people creates a set of different problems. While religion calls us to a life lived rightly and justly before God, through making us mindful of our morality, it invokes us to be more conscientious about who we are and what we do. This is good and well when our self-consciousness is paired with a humble heart that is concerned about dealing with sin and injustice with oneself first. However, this self-consciousness can move from attempts to be obedient in our hearts, to being conscious of how we are perceived by others. Very easily, the self-consciousness about being good can morph into a concern about the appearance of being good. There, if we are not careful, the elements of pride and narcissism can take such image consciousness and distort our ethics and faith into a display for others to see. Jesus himself talked about it when criticizing the Pharisees in the synagogues, whose piety was more external and to be seen rather than internal and truly obedient.5 The call to exceptionalism in Scripture can easily be twisted into manifesting the appearance of exceptionalism in the eyes of others. Put another way, religious faith can function either to humble ourselves before God or to conceal ourselves from others.

This becomes even truer when our reflection about our forgiveness and God’s love and empowerment of us sets us with the belief that or WE are on a mission. We can be inclined to see how important it is that we look good and well, so that we can win the world to Christ. We need to be relevant and we need to show ourselves how exceptional we are, and then we can have a voice in impacting others for Jesus Christ. But in the pursuit of OUR mission, religious faith can function as a way of masking ourselves. If our faith focuses on the mission WE have, then if we have some flaw or failure, we are readily tempted to cover it up. Our language of grace and forgiveness can be used to keep our sins and failures in the dark, rather than openly confessed and acknowledged. The reality of it is, religious faith can offer us a huge temptation to narcissism and concealment, all in the name of influence and power.

Let’s look at Baylor University. While I don’t know the specifics of why or how Art Briles and Baylor football attempted to cover up rape, it seems there is a combination of two factors. The all too often desire to win at all costs, but perhaps a related desire on behalf of Baylor football, as contained in their vision statement: “Our vision is that the Baylor University School of Education will be nationally and internationally recognized for excellence and Christian influence…”6 While the ways listed to accomplish that are all noble and related to academia and calling, the pressure and desire to have influence often times entails other actions. The nature of Baylor’s mission in hiring Briles, who was an exceptional coach at Houston prior to coming to Baylor, is evidenced in the press conference when the hired Art Briles, with quotes such as “Ian (McCaw) has done an outstanding job and brings forward in Art Briles a person who can begin a new era for Baylor University football” and “He is a godly man who believes in the Christian mission of the institution.”7 The mission and vision of Christian influence certainly played a part in Baylor football.

Now, the desire to have influence for Christ isn’t a bad thing. The Scriptures speak of this hope for God’s People many times. However, if we are not careful, it can create pressures to minimize failures and to hide sins to keep our relevance and influence. How great would it be if a Christian university can have a premier football program?

Nor do I mean to say that Christian institutions are more dangerous than secular ones. Compare the speed with which Baylor University has acted compared with the University of Tennessee and similar allegations of covering up rape allegations. Even though there are greater temptations to cover up sins in Christian contexts, there is also the positive side of Christian faith, a greater desire to live and pursue justice that can counter those temptations. I have no doubt it is the Christian conviction of Baylor that lead them to address their sins and great injustice more quickly than the University of Tennessee.

However, my point is that desire for Christian exceptionalism and influence, as it is contained in Scripture, also provides a temptation that can lead us to cover up our sins. The problem comes in when the desire for influence and relevance runs should run through ME or US, making us more conscious of our image to others and creating greater pressures to cover up when we fail. God’s mission to win the world runs through CHRIST in me, in us, and in others. We are called to be exceptional people, but in order to reflect an exceptional God. But we have to truly own and acknowledge where we aren’t a reflection of God and we have to be content to let God create opportunities for relevance, rather than manufacture them for ourselves. Otherwise, when our sins are found out and not through our own voluntary, uncoerced confession, we will lose our positive image and influence AND will cause others to push away the God who is reaching out for them. This is the arrogance that Paul speaks out against himself.8 The more we think our actions stand at the center of the success of the Gospel, the more we move further away from genuinely reflecting the One whom the Gospel talks about.

  1. of many different attempts []
  2. Leviticus 11:44, amongst other places []
  3. Matthew 5:48 []
  4. Philippians 2:5 []
  5. Matthew 6:1-8; 23:1-36 []
  6. http://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/93034.pdf []
  7. http://www.baylor.edu/lariatarchives/news.php?action=story&story=48378 []
  8. Romans 2:17-24 []
June 2nd, 2016 | Tags:

Johann Gottlieb Fichte, a German philosopher of the late 18th and early 19th century, proposed the thesis/antithesis/synthesis framework as a dialectical method1. Although this has often been wrongly attributed to G.W.F Hegel2, there is some value to this triad in understanding history and sociology. Most particularly, it can shed light on how two groups who advocate very different ideas may come to create a new synthesis, a third way if you will. Alternatively, the thesis-antithesis-synthesis schema can be seen as the mechanics of compromise. In light of this, it might be tempting to analyze the theological and ethical divided in the United Methodist church as simply being a continuing historical process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Perhaps a new synthesis, third way, compromise can be reached in which the theology and ethics of two larger groups can be blended together.

There are multiple reasons, however, that the triad doesn’t hold true in all situations. I will mention two. First, synthesis in thought would only occur where there are incentives to do so. A strong desire for unity may be such an incentive; however, when other concerns become seen as more important than unity, such as progressive and traditional United Methodist’s definition of faithfulness, then synthesis becomes increasingly unfeasible. Secondly, the thought processes undergirding the two sides are not always very clear and thus not being worked on. While the surface issue of same-sex marriage and ordination of lesbian and gay persons seems the source of division within United Methodism, effective compromise does not occur when you simply try to work on a surface issue. There are typically deeper ideas that undergird our beliefs. When attempts at synthesis violates these deeply held norms, you have less incentive to work towards a third way and greater incentives to entrench oneself in one’s own beliefs. Put another way, we don’t always express or focus on what is most deeply important to us, so attempting to find a compromise on surface issues can fail because there are deeper feelings involved. As the anthropologist Morris Opler puts it, “behavior remains remarkably close to rules or precepts which are considered of moment by the group.”3

In bringing together the study of behavior and beliefs together, Opler advocated for the concept of themes.4 Themes are “A postulate or position, declared or implied, and usually controlling behavior or stimulating activity, which is tacitly approved or openly promoted in a society.”5 Themes are what are what are use to determine what we shall do. However, single themes do not operate in a vacuum by themselves, but they often come into tension with counter-themes that limit how far we apply an idea.6 Theme and counter-theme may often function in a thesis/antithesis relationship. For instance, for those of us who live the United States, we value freedom. Nevertheless, there are times where we do see the need for authority. The very existence of government suggests there are times where we need some sort of authority. The dominant theme in the US is freedom and the counter-theme is authority. It is frequently the case that the counter theme is seen as wrong or evil; any political effort against the actions by government leaders can be framed as “authoritarian” or “autocratic.” Nevertheless, Americans generally employ the counter-theme of authority in various ways. The synthesis between the theme of freedom and the counter-theme of authority is the idea of “limited government,” albeit what is considered limited varies.

For the United Methodist Church, and more broadly Christianity in the Western, I would suggest there are two theme/counter-theme sets that ultimately define the divide between the people, most visibly as it pertains to sexuality: tradition/change and equality/meritocracy. There is also a third theme/counter-theme set that comes to the forefront due to the sharp divide: unity/separation. These three themes may seem obvious on the surface, but such obviousness may lead us to make some false assumptions and stereotypes about people. Most everyone in the United Methodist church endorses to some degree each of these 6 themes. Those who are considered traditional have ‘tradition’ as a dominant theme, but also allow the need for some change under certain conditions. Many traditional United Methodists feel the need to change the laws as it pertains to the sex-slave trade.  Likewise, those considered progressive value equality highly, but there are times where their practices are meritocratic themselves; for instance, certainly most progressive Methodists believe one must believe in God to be a pastor.

What leads to the sharp divides is what we a) treat as the theme and b) which of the themes is dominant. Many evangelical Methodists consider the theme of unity as important, but they value the theme of tradition via Scripture7 as more important. Or moderate Methodists may think equality and change are themes, but the theme of unity is more important for them. For individuals and for groups in general, certain themes that impact our behaviors become more important for them. Or, put differently, different emphases in our theology and ethics impacts our praxis more than others. For instance, in the world of theology in general, liberation theology highly emphasizes liberty from unjust social structures, whereas evangelical theology tends to emphasize the individual conversion. Evangelical theologians may on occasions talk about the importance of societal liberation, while liberation theologians do see a role for conversion by faith. But the dominant themes can lead to a) very different theologies and ethics that b) lead to very different proposed ways to act.

Also, the dominant theme impacts our identity for ourselves and the groups we belong to. Traditional, evangelicals will see themselves as valuing tradition, and more particularly Scripture, above everything else. Progressives, even though their name indicates change is a prevailing theme, place greater value on equality. Moderates typically identify unity as most important, hence they tend to be “in the middle” and do not take strong stances that would exclude. As a result of this identity, anytime we feel threatened by someone, we tend to define them in a way that conflicts with our identity. Progressives under emotional duress can think traditional evangelicals who do not wish to normalize same-sex intercourse and marriage as ‘homophobic,” treating fear as the reason they will not give what progressives defined as equality. Likewise, traditionalists can think progressives are revisionists that do not value tradition and Scripture8. Under the stress of conflict and tension, those with moderate sensibilities will tend to label those who value tradition or equality more than even unity as schismatics. Whether these characterizations are true or not, the end result is that we define people in a way that they do not define themselves. This can lead to both hurtful accusations and wrong expectations. Many progressives still value Scripture, albeit differently. Many evangelicals still value LGBT persons and want to give them dignity, albeit differently. Most of those who aren’t moderates are just schismatics wanting to destroy the United Methodist church, but they value unity, albeit differently.

Put another way, United Methodists are divided because we value different themes as most important and we inaccurately define others by our how people threaten us and threaten our sense of the way we think things should be.  Accordingly, the divide is too complex to be able to fashion a synthesis/third way/compromise as it pertains to sexuality if you want to retain the majority of people in each segment of progressive, evangelical, and moderate. There is little common ground on what is most important in the United Methodist church. While we might use terms of phrases such as “making disciples” and “transformation of the world, such phrases are ambiguous by themselves.  What we think is most important defines how we interpret those phrases. Even talking about God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are vague because we often believe very different things about the character and nature of the three persons of the one Holy Trinity. Furthermore, since John Wesley himself wasn’t a systematic thinker like many other theologians, his writings were generally not intended to be strict theological statements. There is a lot of wiggle room in how one interprets the whole of Wesley’s life and teachings and which of them we consider important. As is well known not just in Methodism but the whole of Christianity, there are many various interpretations of Scripture. The themes we treat as most important impact how we employ Scripture, what we consider most important, what we think about God, and how we view the founder of Methodism.

Knowing how these themes play out is important for determining where we are as a denomination and where we can and should go moving forward. As I have said previously, I think we need a new middle ground in Methodism. However, this Methodist middle should not let unity be defined as the immediate goal. The Apostle Paul didn’t see unity as the starting point of the church, but it was the end result of God’s Work in the church as a result of gifts He gave to the church, as in Ephesians 4:11-13. Instead, the new Methodist middle should be focused more so on how we can regain the freedom to employ people for what they are gifted for. Openness to God’s power should be the theme of the new Methodist middle; we need to consider how the conflict over sexuality as it has been for over 40 years continues to get in the way of ourselves being open to God, as our anger and hostility distract our hearts from the leading of God’s Holy Spirit9. Lets let God bring about unity, and let us focus on how we can move on without having to constantly fight anymore, so we can get out of the way of what of what God can do. In the face of a unrelenting tension, lets let God be the one who brings about whatever synthesis we need, not ourselves.

  1. A dialectic is a way of systematically investigating truth []
  2. http://www.hegel.net/en/faq.htm#6.4 []
  3. Morris Opler, Concepts Relating to Culture, Southwestern Journal on Anthropology, 1948, Vol 4, No. 2, pp. 116 []
  4. Concepts Relating to Culture, p. 120 []
  5. Morris Opler, Themes as Dynamic Forces in Culture, 1945, Vol. 51, No. 3, p. 198 []
  6. Themes as Dynamic Forces in Culture, pp. 202-203 []
  7. I mean tradition broadly, and not as separate from Scripture as it is treated in the Wesleyan quadrilateral []
  8. Hence, the term progressive can be seen as a pejorative amongst those who value tradition []
  9. also those emotions may lead us to an overconfidence that we falsely attribute as the Holy Spirit []
May 28th, 2016 | Tags:

Scot McKnight over at Jesus Creed recently posted  that the number of people in claiming no religion has exceeds the number of Christians in Great Britain. This is certainly no surprise, as such the downward trends in religiosity in general and Christian faith more specifically have been continuing in Western Europe and America, including a Pew poll from last year on religion in the United States. While the United States is more religious than our political father, the trends are very clear. As a result, the more devout Christians are longing for some sort of religious revival. Scot ended with a more dismal than hopeful expectation of a revival:

We cannot discount the possibility of a Christian revival; the Christian faith specialises in defying the odds. But it seems more likely that Britain will continue to muddle along as a post-Christian country with quaint customs that derive from its history as a deeply religious country. Some will find this sad, others as a sign of progress, but the greater majority will view it with indifference.

I am not optimistic on a revival in the short-run myself. At the heart of revival in a general sense is a strong, group/society-wide reaffirmation of previously held values, often times of traditional belief. In order for that occur, broad groups of people need to a) feel the need for something more, b) find dissatisfaction in what is newly available, c) find a clear source of teaching of distinctive and traditional beliefs that d) doesn’t experience much competition, and e) encourages high levels of commitment to the values. But in the Western world, there are a few reason in the short-run that we probably are not ripe for revival.

  1. Economic prosperity continues to keep people relatively satisfied – While depression and suicide rates are of deep concern in the Western world, as a whole, economic growth helps to maintain relative satisfaction. The main source of dissatisfaction in our society comes from those who are a) poorer and less educated or b) younger and more idealistic. Nevertheless, the majority of people in the US (and I would guess Europe) still live comfortable enough lives, with a few concerns about the future.
  2. The current options for the dissatisfied compete with an appeal to traditional religious beliefs – Where we find people are deeply disatisfied (such as the economic poor and under educated in the US who support Trump), there isn’t a real revival to old traditional religious beliefs (though they may occasionally be appealed to as a source of justification). Instead, there is a greater appeal to more instinctual protectiveness of one’s self and one’s group. On the other hand, the younger, educated youth find hope in something they find to be new, such as Democratic Socialism as heralded by Bernie Sanders in the Democratic nomination in the US. Both our protective and our idealistic instincts keep constructing seemingly new options that compete with traditional religious values for those who are dissatisfied.
  3. The presence of mainline, moderate Christianity makes the idea of Christian faith as a whole rather ambiguous – Revivals such as the Methodist revivals weere groups of people who were known for how distinct they were; the Methodists got their name from being so distinct. This clear distinctiveness aided them in forming revival, as their message was not as readily confused with other associated religious institutions, such as the Anglican church.1. However, in the present day social circumstances, there has been the tendency to lump Christianity altogether, as witnessed by the ecumenical movements, and not really focus on the differences, which lead to multiple denominational splits. As a result, there is little distinction between various brands of Christian faith; even though there are significant differences between the most conservative evangelicals and progressives mainline Christians, the distinctions are not very salient to the surrounding culture. The existence of the mainline denominations2 continue to muddy the waters, so to speak, as they try to bring vast array of perspectives under one umbrella, and as a result prevent a more distinctive Christian message from being visible that is both a) in line with tradition but also b) a genuine renewal. The mainline often serves to blur the distinction between society and the Church.

I hypothesize that Christian revival will be more ripe in the Western world when 1) economic growth comes to a near halt, 2) other alternatives fail and lose credibility, and 3) mainline denominations begin to recede. Until that point, the main outlet for evangelistic growth will be through individual relationships; there will be little by way of a mass movement back to Chrisitan faith, unless God does something big. Nevertheless, I am hopeful in the long run over the course of the next century.

  1. although, technically, Methodism was part of Anglicanism early on, it was still distinct []
  2. I am a member of a mainline denomination in the United Methodist church []