Thursday, March 03, 2011

Optimistic about Love (6) (W)

This attempt continues:

A Generous Tradition
Heart-Oriented Tradition
God is Love
Cross is Love
Human Freedom
Jesus set down two absolutes of the Christian life: love God and love neighbor (Matt. 22:36-40).  The two can never contradict each other when rightly understood.  In fact, love of neighbor is the primary way in which we demonstrate the love of God in our lives.  Love of neighbor includes love of all people.  Jesus in the Sermon and the Mount and his parables commanded not only love of our neighbor but love of our enemy.  He left no one that we are not obligated to love.

The Wesleyan tradition is not unique in coming to these conclusions.  They are the Christian understanding of ethics.  You cannot legitimately justify hatred toward people in any Christian tradition on any basis.  Justice is not unloving when it is dispensed to form or protect others, and there is a point beyond which a person's heart is so hardened that mercy does them no good and may in fact harm others.

Those who hide behind Christianity to justify hatred of others are thus at best fooling themselves. People who call themselves Christians--as those of other religions--have often pretended that Christianity justified their hatred of other races and people groups.  They have wanted to obliterate nations or destroy Muslims in God's name.  They have put others to death because they disagreed theologically.  They have lynched African-Americans and beaten homosexuals.  They have resisted giving women and African-Americans equal rights, they have justified hatred toward illegal immigrants in the name of punishing law-breakers.  It is not the Wesleyan tradition but Christ who indicts these attitudes pretending to be Christian.

So the Wesleyan tradition is not unique at all in its affirmation of love as the fulfillment of all God's ethical requirements of humanity.  Where the Wesleyan tradition has been unique is in its optimism about the extent to  which God wants to empower us to love.  Other traditions rightly affirm love as the fulfillment of God's law, but they are not optimistic about the possibility of achieving God's standard.  By contrast, John Wesley was bold enough to speak of "perfect love" as what God wants to equip us to do.

In the centuries since Wesley, some in the Wesleyan tradition have no doubt taken this fundamental insight not only to legalistic but probably bizarre extremes at times.  For example, in the twenty-first century, we can question how well the word "perfect" communicates Wesley's fundamental insight.  Not only those who followed Wesley, but Wesley himself often wasted needless time and energy in minute introspection.

The fundamental insight is this.  God does expect us to "be perfect" in love as God is perfect (Matt. 5:48).  The problem is that we have not read this verse well enough in context.  The context is not only loving our friends but our enemies as well.  God operates this way, Jesus says.  He gives much needed rain not only to the righteous but to the wicked as well.  He is "perfect"--or better yet, he is "complete."  He goes the whole way, not only loving his friends but his "enemies" as well.  So Jesus was not urging absolute perfection in the degree or purity of our love but completeness in the scope of who we love.

God has not set a standard for us that we cannot meet, or as 1 Corinthians 10:13 puts it, "No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it" (NRSV).  Failure in loving God and your neighbor should not and cannot be our default expectation.  God does not expect "perfection" in any absolute sense.  As we mentioned above, the standard for measuring sin in the New Testament is not absolute perfection.  The standard is our basic intent, amid all the conflicting impulses that are part and parcel of the human brain.

Here is a point of some distinctiveness among most Christian traditions.  Wesleyans do not believe that sin is the default state of the believer.  In theory, we believe that a person might, by God's power, go the whole rest of her life without ever intentionally doing wrong.  We are, again, not talking about the eddies and currents of human intent.  We are talking about a clear cut choice: I know God wants me to do A but I am tempted to do B.  The Wesleyan tradition is optimistic about the power of the Spirit to consistently empower you to choose A, even without fail for the rest of your life.  Indeed, we believe God can change you to where you do the loving thing with great delight.

It is a great time for the Wesleyan tradition in terms of biblical interpretation.  Most scholars now--even from traditions that believe differently--acknowledge that Paul was not talking about his current struggle with sin in Romans 7.  You would have to rip that chapter from its context to argue that Paul was saying he could not help but sin today.  The entire flow from Romans 6-8 is about how God's grace does not justify a life of sin, where love is the standard of sin (Rom. 13:10).  Most now have come to recognize that Paul is putting himself in the shoes of someone who wants to do good, but does not have the Spirit's power to do it.

Many other passages prove to be misread as well.  The rediscovery of Paul's Jewish context in these last few decades has drawn our attention not only to his optimism about keeping the Law before he believed on Christ (e.g., Phil. 3:6) but also on his optimism about being morally blameless after he believed (e.g., Phil. 1:10-11).  Romans 8 transcends the hopeless situation of Romans 7, so that "the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (8:4, NRSV).  "Walking" is about living, not some theoretical fulfillment in Christ that does not show up in our own lives.  As Paul puts it in Galatians 5:16, "walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh" (NASB).

This is perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the Wesleyan tradition, its optimism about the level of love that God wants to enable us to have in this life.  We have greeted with joy the rediscovery of the continuity between Paul and his Jewish context because it has demonstrated not only the importance of "works" in Paul's theology but also sin as a matter of basic intent rather than absolute perfection.  Cleared of these misreadings, we are free to see loving intent not only as God's standard of righteous, but as an attainable standard through the power of the Holy Spirit.


FrGregACCA said...

Okay, but y'all, if not Fr. Wesley himself, have failed to acknowledge what is necessary to attain to this perfection, and that is the ascetic (a word that most literally refers to athletic training) struggle.

This struggle takes place along three basic fronts: prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. Jesus gives guidelines for the Christian practice of these in the Sermon on the Mount, and these terms are understood very broadly. Prayer includes private and liturgical prayer; fasting refers to all exercises in self control regarding consumption. Alms-giving means any kind of service to others.

Further, St. Paul writes things like,

"Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified." (I Corinthians 9:24-27)

We do not struggle in this way to earn brownie points with God, to be "saved by works". This struggle is necessary so we might experience of fulness of salvation, the divine healing and transformation that are necessary so that we might fully realize what it means to be a "new creation" in Christ. This struggle is necessary because our problem, our sinfulness, our human nature corrupted by death, our spiritual ilnesses, are very real and existential, and even though we are reborn in an instance, we are not so perfected, nor are we perfected without our cooperation, any more than we grow and mature biologically, psychologically, and socially without time, guidance, food and drink, education, exercise, etc., etc. We live in time, and we must run the race and fight the fight. We must die with Christ, not only sacramentally, but also existentially. We must, again in the words of St. Paul, "put to death the deeds of the flesh".

Y'all may have heard this before, but one day E. Stanley Jones, a Methodist missionary to India way back in the day, and a Hindu Brahmin were walking along. The came upon a beggar, a member of the lowest segment of Indian society, an untouchable, and Jones gave the money some money. "You shouldn't do that," said the Brahmin, "You will interfere with his karma." "Oh," said Jones, "I didn't do it for him. I did it for ME."

Ken Schenck said...

You would love Wesley's sermon on the Means of Grace. ;-)

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Atheletes and the military train those that wnat to "be all they can be" This is to prepare these individuals for their own chosen vocation. But, there is a difference in Christian understanding...

The Christian believes that there is only one purpose of the Church, i.e. making disciples to be conformed to Jesus' image..notice the word CONFORM...means that there is only ONE standard or image....and this is useful for the Church to "transfrom" the world...this happens by the renewing of the mind...only on the "WORD of GOD"...and it is for the purpose of growing the Church....

This is a social group's mentality of survival. But, it gives the image of the Church as Leviathan, or Dante's Lucifer, eating humans for its own benefit! This is not love of each and every individual, only those that are to be ministered to.

FrGregACCA said...

Like I said, Ken, it seems that Fr. John did not neglect these things. However, his followers often have, even while, in many cases, becoming hideously legalistic about incidental matters, forgetting the ancient cycle of fasting and feasting, the latter in celebration of the great mysteries of the Christian Faith, the Resurrection of Christ being the first of these.

FrGregACCA said...

Angie, we have to die with Christ, but, instead of eating us, Christ feeds us with himself in His Body and Blood.

Beyond that, you are ignoring what the Word itself says about the need to struggle in order to cooperate with the actions of God to heal us (salvation is nothing other than healing).

Angie Van De Merwe said...

You are convinced that what you know to be true is true. I'm not about to convince you otherwise.

If you believe in resurrected life, then live so. And LOVE me! But, don't do so with patronizing "patting on the head" , that isn't love but,condescedion...Treat me with respect and dignity. Honor my choices/values, even when you disagree with me. But, I won't expect you to live within my frame of reference, and you shouldn't demand I live in yours. Don't expect "perfect love" from me if it is a positive demand of the Church. Demands are not loving, they are self-serving.

This is what I can live by because it breeds mutual respect. It is living by the Golden Rule which is none other than our Constitutional values of individual right to free speech of life and voice. Liberty is what I value, becasue without liberty, there is no love.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

And just to prove how illogically impossible to love perfectly....

yes, we must allow liberty becausewe value diversity, but we also must discriminate to judge where we determine values that are important to us. Discrimination is a way of determining our ultimate values. This is what makes for unity. Things that are non-negotiables. This is where people part ways, just as Paul and Barnabas did and just as many denominations do today. And just as nations that maintain distinctions must do to remain distinct.

Of course, when we make such judgments of value, we also must be self-interested, because this is what defines and makes for survival, as well as "self definition." This is why we cannot embrace criminals, or terrorists because it dissolves the lines we've drawn to prevent injustice towards others that have agreed to live under our particular values for mutural benefit. Therefore, we do not tolerate those that disregard our laws.

FrGregACCA said...

Actually, Angie, loving someone may in fact require that we hold them accountable for their actions.