Review IIIa: Why I am a United Methodist – “Because Religion is Practical”

It’s interesting how two people can often find themselves thinking about the same issue, and so I find that my blogfriend Jess has posted something reflecting on how religion needs to be practical. It’s pretty great that my own thinking, the current chapter in Bishop Willimon’s book, and Jess have all arrived concurrently at the same place. Because the practicality of religion is really an important factor. We can debate over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but unless such a debate brings about a changed life then what good is it? Bishop Willimon has actually been making this point throughout his book; we do all this stuff, but without the inward change of our hearts we are, from a Wesleyan perspective, merely “almost Christians.” That was how John Wesley viewed himself before his Aldersgate experience.

This was a major concern for many Reformation thinkers. Lutherans, Calvinists, Pietists, Anabaptists, Methodists. They criticized both Catholics and other Protestant groups for focusing too much on doctrines that held no practical importance in the daily life of the believer. Now, whether the Reformation thinkers were correct in their assertion is something else entirely. Someone in the pew may understandably ask: “What difference does it make to me whether the bread and wine become the literal body and blood of Jesus, or not? The point is that we become one around the Eucharist .” Or something of the like. And perhaps, at first, such an objection is valid. But I think a large part of the problem has to do with “professional” theologians failing to properly communicate the practicality of what they are saying. A theologian who is drafting a theology of the Eucharist could (and I think should) then make the point about the practical implication of such a doctrine and how it has to do with our interaction with the physical “stuff” of our lives. A theology of the Eucharist deals with how we view others, especially the poor and the outcast. And so on.

It may be, as I mentioned on Jess’s blogpost, a problem with the fact that theologians have largely become “professional” and “academic” rather than being immersed in the daily, complicated, dirty life of the Church. I’m thinking of some of the most popular theologians who are still read today. Thomas Merton, a monk; Henri Nouwen, a priest; CS Lewis, a layperson; Saint Augustine, a priest and bishop; Fulton J. Sheen, a priest and bishop and cardinal… Just some off the top of my head. Now of course this is not an entirely a hard and fast distinction. There are of course academic theologians who are still popular and widely read. And different people may even have a different idea of what is practical. Some people may be very good at seeing the unspoken and unwritten practical applications of an “academic” theology. So I don’t want to set up a dichotomy here, merely illuminate that this is an issue which has driven the Church… Well, really I suppose I would say since the very beginning.

And that brings me back to Bishop Willimon and Methodism. John Wesley was nothing if not extremely practical. I mean, look at our name! It was originally a term of derision because we did everything so methodically. John Wesley tried different forms of organization and administration, and dropped whatever didn’t work while adopting what did. He was an intensely practical man and that is something that we have inherited from him.

“One of the main things that interest Wesley about theology was not only what theology says to people but what it does to people… Theology is our way of creating a people of God.” (Page 46)

Wesleyan theology is a practical theology. And the best Wesleyan theology is theology that remembers this point. That’s not to say that we just do whatever works regardless of what form it may take. At least we shouldn’t. Bishop Willimon warns that our practicality is not about having

“… a Karate for Jesus exhibition at their 11:00 A.M. worship service and offer a free pair of panty hose to whoever brings a visitor to Sunday school…” (Page 46)

What Methodist practicality is, is a way of putting our faith into practice. We are a practical people because we practice our faith and we practice our faith because we are a practical people. It’s not about bowdlerizing the Gospel or the practices of the Church, it’s about achieving Christian maturity. It’s about Wesleyan perfection (theosis.)

It seems that Wesley’s practicality coupled with his high-church Anglicanism also makes him something of a bridge between the Magisterial Reformation and the Radical Reformation. I posted a while back about how I thought Wesley could be a bridge between East and West, and now I see this new area of bridging too. Schisms solved everyone! Become Methodist 😉 Seriously though, it is a fascinating place for Wesley to be. And it might just be one answer to my previous question about this book of: “Okay, but still, why Methodism?” Perhaps I should have given Bishop Willimon the benefit of the doubt because guess how he starts out this very chapter?

“So the Bible is our primary source for doing theology. But what difference does it make to United Methodists that scripture is primary for us? There are other churches and theological traditions which would agree that scripture is primary.” (Page 45)

And this chapter seems to be the answer unfolding. A practicality that bridges Magisterial and Radical.

“Wesley pulled off a rather amazing theological feat. He managed to repudiate both the righteousness of arrogant works, and human self-assertion and, at the same time, advocate prolonged practical means for achieving Christian maturity. He affirmed God’s amazing grace in saving us sinners without encouraging a lapse into ethical passivity.” ((Page 47)

Now, before this post gets longer than it already is, you may have noticed I titled it “IIIa.” I figured this part would run a bit long. The chapter is not finished. My next post will finish this chapter. Stay tuned!


~ by crossingthebosporus on August 30, 2012.

15 Responses to “Review IIIa: Why I am a United Methodist – “Because Religion is Practical””

  1. I am beginning to see, thanks to you, that Wesley is an important part of our conversation. A High Anglican who was sympathetic to Orthodoxy can’t be accused of not taking theology seriously, but a Pastor who rode about the country bringing people to the Lord can’t be accused of not practising what he preached either. Thank you for this inspiring series.

    • You know I can’t believe I hadn’t noticed the bridge Wesley provides between the Radical and the Magisterial Reformation before. It’s purely due to my own ignorance and oversight because it’s a very well-known fact that Wesley was highly influenced by the Moravian Pietists. If I had stopped to think about this before, it would have clicked into place. Well, better late than never.

  2. And I think that bridging concept is valid. All my life, if I couldn’t find my own church, I knew that I would find people that didn’t intimidate, overawe or denigrate me if I found a Methodist church. Where Catholic (and to a point, Angican, and Misssouri Synod Lutheran) churches had a reputation, deserved or not, of standoffishness, the Methodists were always welcoming.

    • I’ve found that, with very few exceptions, to be true. Although in all fairness I have to admit that I’ve had uniformly good experiences with Episcopalians too.

      • So have I, That has more to do where I grew up, I can’t remember an Episcopalian church anywhere, out here, I have found them very welcoming, In fact, as I said at Jess’s, the supply pastor who supervised my joining the Lutheran church was Episcopalian.

  3. Well you probably know where I’d come in on this, being a Catholic convert and all. I bounced in and out of probably every major Protestant denomination known to man when I was younger and am always glad to see those people who show a great love of God and are intent on placing Christ at the center of their lives. But practically, since we are talking practicality, how can any Church that does not have written Biblical Authority as given to Peter and to a lesser extent to the Apostles settle a dispute as to what the harder doctrines in the Bible mean? They have no where to go at all. It is why split after split has occurred in every denomination since the reformation. To be sure Catholicism has had a few themselves but we can count on 1 or 2 hands those who have come out from us and survived. Those that survived from the Reformation now number close to 35,000 churches and it seems that if the point is to live a faith that is faithful to the teachings of Christ and the Apostles, one might want an authority to go to that will settle those disputes.

    Just asking? How do you settle disagreements within your own flock?

    • Indeed, the structure of the papacy does have particular practical uses. I certainly won’t deny that, as you know I am a big fan of Catholicism. Of course Methodists wouldn’t be alone in pointing out the practical benefits of a church structure that is based on general councils.

      If it comes down to making a case for which one is better in practice, well, that would perhaps get us sucked into the 1.000 year-old argument about papal authority. I’m not really qualified to weigh in on one side or another in that argument.

      • I know that you admire the Catholic faith and I must admit that I too found the Methodist church one of the more welcoming of the Protestant denominations. And indeed there are some very long going arguments on papal authority that can get rather tedious if you let it.

        Authority, though, was something that started bothering me as I grew up. No one could substantiate a text in the Bible or in history proving that any denomination had secured a recognized authenticity of faith and doctrine except the Church first established by Christ. I found that troubling to say the least. I admire, as I say, the faithful people who were simply looking to praise and worship God and live according to Biblical principles. But which one has it right? I guess it always got back to that question.

        I guess the Bible opened many of the questions for me: the Church is the bulwark and foundation of the truth; I will not leave you orphaned; Pentecost’s giving of the Holy Spirit to the Church; Christ giving authority to Peter and then the Apostles; Christ telling Peter that when he turns to confirm his brethren; during Christ’s 3 fold apology elicited from Peter he says feed my sheep, and my lambs (which I think meant more than simply preaching the Gospel since they already had received the great commission – Eucharist is probable); Christ’s prayer for unity, etc. It seemed to tell me that I had been listening to people who said that were believers in the Bible but dismissed anything in the Bible that might indicate that their exit from the Catholic Church was perhaps a mistake.

        So here I am. A most unlikely place since I never even imagined Catholicism in my future when I was Protestant.

        Now I’m like Peter saying to the Catholic Church: “To Whom should I go, I have come to believe that you have the words of Everlasting Life.”

      • Yes, authority is an issue that keeps coming back to my mind. The plethora of arguments from all the sides can get overwhelming though. So when my head gets wrapped around into too many circles I find it best to just set the issue aside for the moment and focus being the best disciple I can be with the grace that I have.

        But it is a topic that I come back to, although I’ve recently been realizing that I have far too much of a tendency to move too fast. I want to just get things done and then on to the next thing. But I don’t think that’s the healthiest way to do things. It keeps me always looking away and never paying attention to where I am (hence this series on Methodism.) So maybe the issue of authority being knotty and complicated is actually God’s way of slowing me down. I don’t have to solve the issue by the weekend, the more important task is to repent of my sins today and to love my neighbor tomorrow. But I certainly keep my horizons open to wherever God may be leading me. Perhaps if I’m faithful in the smaller things that get neglected by my speed, then issues such as this will come in time.

      • Amen to that. God loves a seeker of Truth. After all, He is all Truth Himself.

        Have you an interest in the Jewish roots of the Christian faith at all? I know you are busy with your reading presently but I would love to get your take on the content of an interesting book. Anyway if you find time it’s a quick read with lots of interesting details. Its called, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist by Brant Pitre. I’m sure it is available from Amazon if you have the time to read it. It makes Christianity look and feel like an organic growth from the Old Testament faith which most of us seem to forget was the faith that Christ was born into and practiced. 🙂

      • That looks like a really interesting read, I’ve added it to my Amazon wishlist. Hopefully I can purchase it soon, although my book budget is, by necessity, limited. Otherwise I’d bankrupt us. So in an effort to avoid financial ruin I’m currently picking through the interesting-looking parts of a pastoral library we have “inherited” from a retired pastor. Paul Tillich is up right now and I have mixed feelings about him. On the one hand he can be very academic and impractical theology, but then sometimes he drops a brilliant bit of practical wisdom.

        Still, I’d love to read Pitre’s book when I have a chance. Thanks for the recommendation.

  4. […] you may remember my recent post looking at the issue of “academic” versus “practical” theology. It was part […]

  5. […] blogfriend, ‘crossingthebosphorus’ is running a fascinating series about his own religious tradition […]

  6. […] wavelength. How do I know this? Compare how Bishop Willimon opens up this particular chapter with some of my recent comments about “academic” versus “practical” theology: “The word ‘theology’ […]

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