a few Wesleyan hurdles: inner/outer, 'heart'

Writing about Wesley is hard. He uses a lot of expressions that I find archaic, and the ways he deals with some concepts rubs me the wrong way. Two related examples. First, his usage of 'heart' is difficult for me because I'm worried about how it might be participating in the popular dichotomy between "head" and "heart" - between emotion and cognition - that I find troubling because of the ways that it ignores desire's essential involvement in how and why and what we think (and all of that's involvement in how and why and what we do).

Second, Wesley employs concepts of "outward religion" and "inward religion", a dichotomy that is easy enough to understand but arguably more troublesome than the aforementioned. My fear here is that the inward will become the realm of Christianity and the outward, 'more serious' stuff will become the responsibility of some other more 'practical' power, be it politics, pocketbook, personal preference, etc. We can tuck God safely away in a little 'inward' box and justify some pretty un-Christlike things. See pretty much anything written by JH Yoder or Michael Gorman if you're not sure what I mean. The gospel isn't 'fire insurance' it's a whole new life - a new creation - here and now. And that's radical, disruptive stuff.

But my concerns are pretty contemporary, and Wesley is not a 21st century man, he is a 18th century man. And so I think he largely predates these misconceptions, at least in their modern form. In fact, I think these misconceptions actually came out of the mixture of Wesley's language, along with parallel language coming from other quarters, and later (and a few concurrent) philosophical developments and fashions.

This claim is bolstered by the fact that much of his energies are spent holding inward and outward religion together, employing the distinction to undercut the distance between the two. For Wesley, inward religion necessarily breeds outward religions, and outward religion fosters and deepens inward religion. The two are of a piece, and can't be separated without doing violence to both.

Furthermore, for Wesley the 'heart' isn't too separate a thing either. The Oxford Fellow just means to point out that our human desires are exactly where God wants to go to work on us. God wants to transform and reform us where we love. Moreover, Wesley is also no adherent of Deb from Napoleon Dynamite's "follow your heart" philosophy (yeah, I just went there).

I noticed these 'hurdles' (and other similar concerns) over the summer as well, but the more I read Wesley the more I am convinced that Wesley is merely a victim of a changing conversation, and that he is not guilty of these modern philosophical and theological crimes.

von Balthasar's Engagement with God

Hans Urs von Balthasar opens his Engagement with God with the observation that, "The world of today, when faced with the Christian Church, is filled with a sense of profound mistrust" (pp. 1). He goes on to claim that the probable reason for this is that people are more likely to "put their faith in the kind of activity that effectively changes the world, whatever the ideological background to this may be," and the church is no longer on the cutting edge of such innovation. So then, considering the wealth of options for political movements across a wide spectrum, if the church understands such action in the world, such 'good works,' as only being possible as works of the church, then "she would be likely to speak of a hidden presence of 'grace', to be discerned wherever men acted in this way, and to describe a man engaged in such activities as an 'anonymous Christian'." (At this point, the sudden and apparently underhanded reference to Karl Rahner made me laugh out loud.)

While von Balthasar appreciates the universal thrust of this line of thinking - for, after all, Christ's salvific ambition has greatly exceeded the boundaries of the visible church - he also wishes to proceed with caution. The gift of this interpretation is that it reminds us that "the Church at heart stands open to the world. But it creates the impression, particularly for those outside the Church, that the visible Church is nothing more than an institution, burdened with a quantity of rules, laws, and precepts as to what is to be believed and how life is to be conducted, whereas the very essence of the life of this institution can equally well be found outside its walls, scattered all over the world" (pp. 2). In other words, once the theory of "anonymous Christians" is widely accepted it becomes apparent that the political fruits of her purported purpose are pursued plentifully outside her walls, leading to the reduction of the church's role to the purely formal, and therefore robbing her of her credibility.

The thrust of his argument, however, is not to leave behind Rahner's concern for the universal, opting instead for the inwardness of the church so as to preserve credibility. Rather, he's going to pursue the "anonymous light" of Christianity exactly in its universal particularity. For von Balthasar, it seems as though this light is none other than the resurrected Christ, one who cannot be re-crucified - but whose disciples can. Thus the theme of Engagement with God "is to ask ourselves the question, what is this power or this brilliant light, from where does it derive, and what is the connection between the source of power that nourishes the Christian and his involvement with mankind?" (pp. 5).

For von Balthasar this quest will involve the fact that freedom, that ever present goal of modern humanity's thought and politics, is to be truly found not in any of its modern manifestations, but in the true Christian. What the modern world seeks so interminably - even restlessly - the church already has in Christ. It is the church and not Marxism, free enterprise, or Enlightenment reason; Christianity and not Freud's or Nietzsche's or deconstructionism's attempts to liberate us that "provides the one glimmer of the light of freedom in a world of murder and senselessness" (pp. 7).

The world's mistrust, as we said at the outset, is a problem, but not one whose answers can be found in the world itself (a move that dooms us to a further loss of credibility). The answers are already with us, in the legitimate freedom found in the person of the resurrected Christ.

I find von Balthasar's notion of 'credibility' intriguing. (I'm wondering if I should have picked up his Love Alone is Credible before this one.) It reminds me of Hauerwas' use of 'intelligibility', though it seems to go a step further. Hauerwas' concern in that one particular word 'intelligible' I think is more basic - he wants to make sure that we are saying something coherent, that the things the church says and does have at least the possibility of being understood by the world, and for that matter, by the church itself. 'Credibility' seems just a touch stronger, requiring intelligibility but then demanding that that which is intelligible be also believable. Hauerwas has a similar concern as well, and I think this is always what he wants to get at eventually when he uses 'intelligible'. He wants Christian witness to be understandable by both the Church and the world so that all might believe. I wonder to what degree von Balthasar's development of 'credibility' will end up differing with Hauerwas here. The emphasis on freedom is so far an attractive addition,

Stay tuned as I try to figure out not only 'credibility', but also how von Balthasar will deal with the universality of extra-church political action qua good works, connecting that to the particularity of the truly free life of discipleship to the resurrected Christ.

Yoder on Christians and Democracy

I just read an outstanding lecture John Howard Yoder gave entitled "Bohold My Servant Shall Prosper." He takes his cue from Karl Barth (CD IV/2, p. 676ff), who describes the 'Order of the Community' in terms of service. From there, Yoder proceeds to apply the idea of the church as a servant community to the church's engagement in a democratic society. These were some of my favorite excerpts:

“Not only is it assumed to be the case, but it is assumed to be proper, that the position from which Christians think about systemic alternatives is one of having a weighty voice, if not a determining one, in the choices actually made. […] The patterns are so deeply established that despite themselves even many of those who in the name of liberation set out to ‘do theology from below’ tend still to make, at more points than they recognize, the assumption that the meaning of liberation would be simply for the formerly excluded to have a turn on the throne.” (154)

“Thus while holding to a pattern of rhetoric that says that the issue is whether God cares about the political realm and that the answer is yes, what actually takes place is one more form of minority witness from a position of only very modest clout. So instead of projecting the affirmation of power as good and asking who rejects it, let us begin with the affirmation of servanthood.” (155)

“Neither the position of conscientious objection nor that of conscientious involvement can be adequate if taken as a sweeping recipe. Only the insistence that both are open options, needing to be chosen situationally, can permit either to have integrity. Otherwise, the refusal becomes irresponsible or the responsibility becomes unfaithful.” (159)

“…the first question is whether we are willing to be voted down and ruled over by someone else whose understanding of divine righteousness is less clear than our own. If we are, then our democratic confession is authentic. Then our call to the democratically-elected, majority-supported people ruling over us to be more like servants and less like kings is an authentic extension of our life as church and of our Christology.” (160)

**quotes taken from John Howard Yoder, “Behold My Servant Shall Prosper”, in Karl Barth and the Problem of War and Other Essays on Barth, ed. Mark Thiessen Nation (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2003).

Yoder's words here are, I think, a helpful corrective to the political theology of Jim Wallis, Jerry Falwell, and Jurgen Moltmann (juxtaposition intentional). All of these people want to argue that the church must be engaged in politics - Christianity hopes for more than the transformation of individual lives, Christianity hopes for the transformation of the cosmos. And Yoder would agree (indeed, this is what The Politics of Jesus is about).

But Yoder also refuses to concede the proper modes of engagement in politics to those modes that have been defined as normative in our society. For instance, what you do with your vote is important, but that is a small part of politics. The conversation about where we should engage politically within the established political systems of our society is just as important as the conversation about where we should engage politically apart from the established political systems - as in the third quote above, both options need to be on the table in order to maintain a political existence that is both faithful and responsible. Repeated and unqualified affirmations of the need for Christians to be engaged politically can risk the appearance that Christians ought to pick a party (the primary accepted means of political engagement in the USA), which I think is a horrible idea. But I digress.

Above all, living as we do in a democracy where, at least at some level, we get a say in how we are governed, the church's political involvment should be shaped by this wisdom that exceeds even than JH Yoder:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45 TNIV)

Yoder on the church as a public offer to society

"...the order of the faith community constitutes a public offer to the entire society... It is not that first we set about being a proper church and then in a later move go about deciding to care prophetically for the rest of the world. To participate in the transforming process of becoming the faith community is itself to speak the prophetic word, is itself the beginning of the transformation of the cosmos." (John Howard Yoder, For the Nations, 27-28)