Review VI: Why I am a United Methodist – “Because Christians Are To Grow”

Okay, so I’ve determined that I can pretty much just stop reading this book right here. Why? Because apparently Bishop Willimon and I have somehow started operating on exactly the same 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’ has a dry academic, forbidding sound to the ears of many people. Theology sounds like some arcane, esoteric endeavor. Sometimes, that’s what we have reduced theology to–something for a Ph.D. dissertation but not anything related to real life. Theology in this sense is not a United Methodist interest. Theology is not only an endeavor to talk about God, but also an attempt to live with God. Theology is not simply an exercise in intellectual reflection upon the ideas of Jesus, but also our effort to put the way of Jesus into practice.” (Page 86)

See what I mean? United Methodists do not have the likes of a Karl Barth, a Saint Thomas Aquinas, or a Philokalia. Although I might argue that the works of John Wesley could (and should) have the same significance for Methodists that the Philokalia has for the Orthodox. This has often led to the criticism that we are “mushy,” lack distinct belief, or some other criticism of the like.

“Sometimes we United Methodists have been criticized as having no theology. I am tempted to get defensive and talk about what a marvelous and creative theologian Wesley was, or cite some of our great theological thinkers of the past or present. However, the person making such a charge may have, from our point of view, too limited a notion of theology.” (Page 86)

As I mentioned, I think the works of John Wesley should be like our Philokalia. At the very least, I think a great many of our pastors would benefit from a renewed immersion in Wesleyan thought. United Methodist theology is hopelessly practical (or should I say hopefully?) It is a theology dedicated to changed lives, renewed souls, sanctification, continuing nearness to God. That’s not to say that such a perspective doesn’t exist in a Barth or Aquinas, because it certainly does. Rather it is to say that the best Methodist theology does not need to have its practicality teased out of it by a translator or intermediary; Methodist theology does not treat practicality as a side event. Practicality is primary. Changed lives are the fundamental. (Again this is not to wholesale criticize Barth or Aquinas, there is much that is great in both of their works.)

“Wesley himself never tired of saying, Christianity is considerably more than ‘true opinions.’ It is a way of life; ‘holiness of heart and life’ said Wesley.” (Page 90)

As the Bible points out in the Epistle of James, even the demons have orthodox belief! Again, this is not to discount orthodox belief. Rather, it is the realization that orthodox belief must be tied with a changed life.

“Our theology does not exist just to assert abstractly what is true but to persuade, to change people and society. Wesley abhorred ‘dead orthodoxy…’ In other words, our theology seeks visible, experienced evangelistic results in response to the offer of the love of Christ.” (pages 91-92)

This it the foundational synergy of our theological thought. Orthodox belief coupled with changed lives. It is the synergy John Wesley formulated from his two entirely different experiences in 19th century Anglicanism and 19th century Pietism.

Bishop Willimon then explores the necessity of a changed life in Wesleyan theology. It’s probably safe to assert that the majority of people in our western culture do not immediately think that they need to experience a changed life. Such assumptions have even crept into the Church because we have too often failed to adequately teach as Paul Tillich mentioned (and I quoted) that sin is, at its most basic, a separation. Our life needs to change in light of this separation. Bishop Willimon confronts the idea that we are basically different and in no real, deep need of change head-on:

“Perhaps Methodism’s later unfounded, even un-Wesleyan optimism about the natural human condition is the result of our lack of commitment to and involvement in ministering to those victimized by the social evils of our day. If you view the world from the comfortable vantage point of affluence and power enjoyed by those at the top, the world looks like a rather rosy place and people appear to be basically good. However, if you dare to stand beside those who are on the bottom (the poor, the captives, and the oppressed to whom Wesley preached Good News) you see the sad human wreckage of a fallen and sinful world. Sometimes your theology is a function of where you are standing when you are thinking.” (Pages 93-94)

Bishop Willimon ends the chapter with an important reminder to the Church:

“Our goal is not institutional preservation, the care and feeding of clergy. Our point is not to keep our ecclesiastical machinery well oiled and maintained, as if the machinery itself were more important than its product. We exist for mission.” (Page 100)

He is not attempting to reduce the importance of the Church as a structure. Rather Bishop Willimon is reminding us that if we pay attention to mission, the Great Commission, then the rest will take care of itself. But, if we start to care more about committees and structures rather than changed lives, we are forgetting both Wesleyanism and the point of the Good News.

Changed lives. That is key.

The next and likely penultimate chapter: “Because Religion is not a Private Affair.” This will be the “penultimate” post because I will probably make one last post after that with some reflections about this book in general and where it has led my thinking.

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~ by crossingthebosporus on September 3, 2012.

3 Responses to “Review VI: Why I am a United Methodist – “Because Christians Are To Grow””

  1. This I love. Yes, yes, it is that changed life which reflects who we are in Him – or not, of course 🙂

    • Yes, it has made me recently wonder if my desire to convert is merely a false hope for some kind of “magic bullet” that will lead to a changed life. I can be a very impatient person. But there is no easy answer. God may lead me into another denomination at some point; I’m leaving that all up in the air for the time. The thing is that wherever we go, we take who we are on the inside with us. Joining a monastery and taking a vow of silence wouldn’t necessarily change who I am on the inside to be a better person.

      • That seems very wise my friend. Your own tradition seems to me to offer so much, and it can’t do any harm to explore it thoroughly. I feel, myself, that sometimes it is me wanting to change and yes, hoping that will be the ‘magic bullet’. But I’m coming to be with you, and knowing, or thinking I know, that that’s not really the case:)

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