Monday, December 20, 2010

Wesleyan Vision

So where are we to go from here? Hopefully these last few pages have presented a fairly accurate sense of what the Wesleyan tradition is and has been in its some two hundred years. But as we have also argued, no tradition is perfect. Presumably there are denominations that have nothing distinctive to contribute who should merge with other groups with whom they have no significant differences. Perhaps their vision and contribution can become the unity of the church. We believe there are many small denominations in the Wesleyan tradition that have no real reason to exist independently of one another, perhaps aside from the complications of merging.

Nevertheless, we also believe that the Wesleyan tradition as a whole has much to contribute to the body of Christ at large and thus a reason for it to retain its fundamental identity amid the diversity of Christendom. Ironically, one of its contributions is its generous spirit toward other traditions. The problem with pluralism--an acceptance of all groups as equally valid in their thinking and practice--is that no group retains any real identity at all. A much more tenable position is identity within diversity. We humbly recognize that our understanding and approach to things will likely turn out to be wrong at points and we are open-hearted toward other traditions and their critique. But this attitude does not negate our sense that our theology and values are at the very least right for us and perhaps may be right at many points overall.

Nevertheless, a generous and humble sense of our place in the kingdom of God urges us to make alliances with other traditions. As we said at the very beginning, we have much more in common with the rest of Christendom than we differ. Certainly we would share with a vast host of Christianity a sense of mission to the world that goes beyond eternal destiny to salvation in the sense of Luke-Acts, the restoration of humanity on every level. Many Christian groups have lost their way on this fundamental Christian value and pose a false dichotomy between serving the needy and saving their souls. We can participate in the mission of God to rescue all of humanity in every area of life alongside all those who have the heart of Christ.

Although we differ on the theory behind the practice, Wesleyans share with Calvinists and many others the sense that God's mission is to everyone and that faithfulness to God is an essential part of our task. A Calvinist might say we must participate in a mission toward everyone because we do not know who God has chosen. An Arminian might say we must participate in the mission because anyone can be chosen. In either case, the mission invites everyone. A Calvinist might say you know a person is elect because they have remained faithful. An Arminian might say they remain among the elect because they remain faithful. Both traditions believe that we must remain faithful.

We remain faithful by making God the absolute authority of our life, which shows itself in our consistent love of our neighbor. Nothing is an exception to these two rules, a belief that Wesleyans surely hold in common with most others who call themselves Christians. No supposed interpretation of the Bible can legitimately support hateful actions toward our neighbors. One of the ways in which we are distinctive is in our belief that there are no glib excuses for failure in these areas. God expects us to succeed in loving our neighbor, and he empowers us to do it.

The Wesleyan tradition also has an activism that sees the potential for us to love our neighbors beyond the level of the individual. Christianity can be a force in the reformation of societal structures that perpetuate hatred of our neighbor. Unfortunately, those who call themselves Christians have often participated in the oppression of the minority. We have gone on Crusades to kill the Muslim. We have argued for slavery and against giving women the right to vote. We have supported Hitler against the Jews. We have lynched African-Americans in the KKK and grumbled against those who sought the right to go to the same schools and drink the same water as the majority. We have ignored the economically enslaved, the powerless immigrant, and rallied around the bombing of the unnamed other in a foreign country.

Suffice it to say, the best element of the Wesleyan tradition has always stood with the minority. They were abolitionists and supporters of women's rights. They were in favor of women in all roles of leadership. They were arrested along with other non-violent protesters in the Civil Rights movement. They take into mind the people who are crushed by legislation aimed at the self-sufficient, legal, and comfortable majority. Even when they have disagreed with the lifestyle of those whose sexual desires are toward the same sex, they have taken into mind the fact that God loves them every bit as much as the comfortable majority, that they are people we must treat with the love of Christ. This is the spirit of the Wesleyan tradition.

The Wesleyan tradition also moves forward into the twenty-first century with an ease that some other traditions do not. The postmodern challenge has exposed the frailty of human systems of thinking and of the degree to which our understanding of the Bible is and has been a function of us as readers more than of what these texts actually meant. The best philosophical answers to these challenges have been a "critical realist" or even "pragmatic realist" point of view. These perspectives focus on the heuristic value of our systems of thinking rather than on them as absolute systems that are the same as what God thinks. Our ideas stick closely to the evidence at hand and to what it is we are trying to do with our ideas. Again, this sense of thought in the service of our values and actions fits well with the Wesleyan spirit.

Similarly, once we realize that the Bible itself is an object of our knowing, the way it functions in Christian life must change. Regardless of the perfection of the Bible's message, we are stuck as its interpreters. The perfection of the Bible in practice therefore cannot rise in practice beyond the perfection of our understanding. These recognitions, along with a better understanding of the particularity of the Bible's original meaning, forces us to acknowledge the powerful, Spirit-led role that common Christian tradition has played in the appropriation of Scripture throughout the ages. We can no longer separate Scripture from tradition in the manner of the Reformation.

Again, the Wesleyan tradition slides easily into this mode, not only because Wesley was an Anglican rather than a Lutheran or a Calvinist, but because the Wesleyan tradition has a strong revivalist stream within it. This openness to the Spirit makes us comfortable with the notion of direct revelation from God in the words of Scripture and it makes us comfortable with the non-literal unity of Scripture that formative Christianity heard in its words. We can thus look forward to the challenges of the twenty-first century with Scripture as our starting point, with common Christian tradition setting the boundaries of our application, and with the Spirit to move us further along on the trajectory of the kingdom.

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