Review I: Why I am a United Methodist – “Because Religion is of the Heart”

The title for chapter one is: “Because Religion is of the Heart.” And, with a title like that, it’s no surprise that Bishop Willimon focuses on John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience and the necessity of God’s work within our daily lives. This is, of course, not a unique perspective to Methodism, although perhaps John Wesley is one of the best examples of this theology at work within western Christendom.

Bishop Willimon claims that John Wesley stands out for his inclusion of “experience” as a means of determining Christian belief:

” As an Anglican, Wesley already knew and used three means of determining Christian belief: scripture, tradition, and reason. Because of the influence of his own faith journey at Aldersgate, and of the Moravians, Wesley added a fourth test–experience… For us as heirs of Wesley and Aldersgate, internal appropriation of faith–heartfelt, personal assurance of God’s love in my life, my heart–is the first essential.”
(Pages 18-19)

I would say that historically, John Wesley is not unique for his inclusion of experience as a means of determining belief. One needs to only examine the mystics, monastics, and the early Church to see that. However, I will admit that it is likely that during Wesley’s era, experience as a means of determining belief had perhaps fallen by the wayside in England, Anglicanism, and perhaps even the majority of western Europe. I think it is certainly the case that John Wesley was one of the most prominent voices in the western church advocating for the re-inclusion of experience.

Of course Bishop Willimon does note that there can be problems with too great of an emphasis on experience, especially when it comes to the traditional Methodist focus on grace:

“Admittedly, our Wesleyan emphasis on love and grace can be perverted into a kind of mushy, all-affirming inclusiveness, open to everything and rejecting nothing.”
(Page 23)

This is indeed a continuing problem for the Methodist church. We have (sometimes falsely) been accused of de-emphasizing doctrine in order to emphasize the vast and unending reality of God’s love and grace. Thus, it is important to keep the means of experience balanced (or possibly even subordinate) to the other three means of forming doctrine: Tradition, scripture, and reason.

I think Bishop Willimon is absolutely right in his caution that emphasizing love and grace can be perverted. In fact, heresy by definition is simply taking one doctrine and perverting it in some way over the rest. I think this “mushy, all-affirming inclusiveness” can be a real problem for our denomination. Especially when it leads to such a mixed experience for those who attend Methodist churches. One church will have the ability to hold the doctrines in balance and the next church may more closely resemble an inspirational retreat full of, what some have termed, “therapeutic, moralistic deism.”

In such an instance I think Methodists would do well to look to John Wesley and re-engage in our own tradition:

“Wesley never forsook the great doctrines and creeds of the church, vigorously defending every point of Anglican doctrine against any attack by those who would water down the creeds or the Anglican articles of faith.”
(Page 18)

I think one of the reasons why Wesley is so often sold short as a theologian is because, aside from his doctrines on “perfection,” he is not necessarily an “original” theologian. He held firm to the Anglican faith that had been passed down to him. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Our culture tends to place a premium on whatever is new, young, and untried. But, paradoxically, there is also a longing for something ancient and traditional. A story that we can work our lives into. Newness does not equal Truth, or even quality. Antiquity does not equal outdated or false. Thus, John Wesley had no need to be original.

“The themes Wesley emphasized came from his conviction that God’s gracious love is the dominant reality in human life… Wesleyanism can be thought of as a concrete, institutional, and personal embodiment of the power of God’s love.”
(Pages 22-23)

The early reformers of Protestantism never even thought they were doing anything new. They attempted (regardless of their faults) to return to what they perceived as the ancient faith. John Wesley is no different. He never set out to form a new denomination or to split from the Anglican church. He was a lifelong member and priest in the Anglican church. John Wesley merely set out to help others believe and experience the power of God’s love. While Wesley may not be an “original” theologian, he is by all standards an orthodox Anglican theologian. The question for me at this point becomes: If the founder of Methodism was an orthodox Anglican, then do our current teachings and practices reflect that? Even taking into account changes in culture, language, etc. that do not affect the content of the church’s theology?

So while Bishop Willimon’s explication of Wesleyan theology in the first chapter is a great beginner’s guide, it so far comes across as if the bishop is assuming the reader is approaching Methodism from a Protestant (minus Anglicanism) perspective. This may be remedied later in the book because after all, this is only the first chapter. However, Bishop Willimon did make an interesting point about how he views being raised by his parents in the Methodist church:

“It may sound strange for me to admit that I didn’t choose to be a United Methodist… My involuntary placement among the United Methodists doesn’t bother me a bit. We Americans often exalt freedom of choice. We like to think of ourselves as independently derived, self-made men and women who are who we are because we decided and chose to be that way. Religion isn’t really yours unless you found it all by yourself, on your own, choosing it as individually right for you. Our glorification of our power of choice overlooks the fact that so many of the really important things in our lives–our looks, our name, our family, our tradition–have come to us not through our choosing but rather through the choices of others. So many of the really important things about us have come to us as gifts. Another word for gift is ‘grace.’ We are who we are by grace rather than through our individualistic achievement or choice.”
(Pages 10-11)

This is a very interesting point. Especially in that many of us (not just Americans) seem to make an assumption that we can make absolutely free choices without any kind of outside influence. We assume we can step back from the issue at hand and study it objectively, as if it were an insect under a microscope. But we don’t necessarily have that level of autonomy. We are directly and indirectly influenced by numerous factors and people.

However, I would perhaps challenge Bishop Willimon by pointing out that these assumptions cut both ways. Bishop Willimon is correct that there is always a community at work and perhaps our decisions are not as objective as we would like them to be. But that applies to Bishop Willimon just as much as to anyone else. Still, it is an important factor to keep in mind when we enter upon any kind of self-examination. We should realize the limits of our autonomy and the ability of our communities in influencing us. My delving into Tradition is also not an entirely individualistic choice, but a result of many factors outside my control (where my family lived, my pastor when I was growing up, etc.)

Next up, part II: “Because the Bible is our Book.”



~ by crossingthebosporus on August 28, 2012.

5 Responses to “Review I: Why I am a United Methodist – “Because Religion is of the Heart””

  1. So, this is an Anglican blog eh? Have you done an article about anglican priests going over to the catholic outfit? Id like to hear your take on that.

    • Actually this is sort of a mixed blog. I’m Methodist, but Anglicanism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy all make appearances here as I delve deeper into studying Church Tradition and history. And I haven’t really done anything about Anglicans becoming Catholics, sorry.

  2. Thank you for this very helpful introduction – promises to be a really interesting series.

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