Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Holiness: How the corporate actions of the Body of Christ can transform the world... And why the goal for Wesleyans can't be social justice.

My friend at Theologygirl recently called me out in a post entitled,
The post in which she actually mentions theology (but imagines she'll live to regret it)." Adrienne raises an important set of issues about what it means to be a Wesleyan Christian, and while she never uses the term, spends a great deal of time talking about the implications of holy-living in the contemporary world. While the source of her angst is a bit foreign to me, the content should be familiar to all of us who take seriously the call to live Christian lives in this fallen order. Better yet, we have a rare instance of Adrienne admitting that she is actually Wesleyan -- welcome to the fold, sister!

See now, as much as I try to tell Kate and David I'm not Wesleyan (mostly because I think it is fun to annoy Kate), here is where my boy John Wesley had it right. He was all about moving on to perfection in this life, all about social justice in this life. Oh sure, there was talk of hell and such. But was that really the point? No. No it wasn't.

How do I say this... for the most part I agree with you. Wesleyan Christianity is very much now-focused (just for the record, I think most critiques of pie-in-the-sky Christianity are attacks on straw-men, but I digress). However, regardless of how now-focused Wesleyan Christians might be, focusing on going on to perfection in this life, and personal and social holiness in this life, Wesley spent significant time talking about justice anjudgmentnt -- and usually used them as calls for people to "flee from the wrath to come."

Don't get me wrong, much of the work done in the name of social justice is both good and right -- but it's mislocated. For Wesleyan Christians, and Christians in general, trying to make the world just is the ultimate act of hubris: Justice, judgment, and the New Creation are God's business. However, much of what we call social justice might be slightly refocused and fit into the category of social holiness -- living lives according to God's ways and God's will, as Christians are both called and empowered to do. As one of my former professors often said -- it's ALL about Grace.

When we try to make the world just, we might depend on God's Grace to help us, but it's about systems and structures, and about judgment (justice, after all, is about how well things fit right and wrong ideals), not primarily about grace and mercy. Holiness, however, is a way of life, dependent on God's Grace and mercy, to allow broken sinners (who are every bit as much responsible for the sin in the world as everyone else) to live as God calls us to live. It's not about making the world right, but about being God's holy, set apart, priestly people in the midst of the old creation while awaiting the consummation of the New Creation. Practically speaking, the issues are similar, whether we use the term holiness or justice, but I'm convinced holiness is far more appropriate (especially for Wesleyan Christians).

Adrienne raised some important practical considerations as well:
However, all affirmations of my Methodism aside (I can't believe I'm doing that. Clearly I got too much sun over the weekend), this leaves me with a few practical ethical dilemmas. Unless I decide to buy land, build an environmentally-friendly bio-dome, raise non-oppressed animals, produce non-oppressing food, weave non-oppressing clothing, consume only what I can live on, recycle everything and somehow produce an income to support others less fortunate than myself, then I am very much a part of the web of sin that keeps everyone captive. ...Oh sure, there are little changes I can make, better habits to hold. I could probably buy only second hand clothing, which several people in my "Theology of John Wesley" assured me was socially just. I could buy organic food (which is unfortunately expensive). These ways of living would cease to be even inconveniences after a while, I imagine.

But, would that really do any good? I mean, really. The whole thing seems too big. So should I buy the books that kill the trees, even if I keep them for the rest of my life? Do I just go on happily consuming oil based energy with wild abandon?

If anyone has any good ideas how to, say, exist and not hurt at least half the world's population, I'd be open to hearing your suggestions.
That's the part of Wesley we rarely discuss, largely, I think, because it's overwhelming. He would say you should live as simply as possible in the world (so the biosphere's out), trying to do what you can to make the lives of those around you better. Regardless, you ARE captive to the web of sin that holds us all captive, we all are... and we all will be until the eschatological consummation of All Things and the completion of the New Creation -- at least that's the classic Christian response. Focusing on what we can't do to fix the created order turns us inward and away from God -- focusing on God's Grace at work within us and through us in the world allows us to do what we can, without being oppressed by the guilt of our inadequacies. My father likes to remind me that none of us can minister to everyone in all situations -- the only One who can do that is in heaven. While the Church might be the Body of Christ at work in the world, we need to remember we are NOT messiahs, but only called to live within the community of faith dependent for our existence and power to live holy lives upon the messiah's power.

What I learned from my time among the Nazarenes was that holiness isn't about following all the rules -- though rules can sometimes be helpful -- but about becoming dependent on God's transforming Grace to live differently than we can without it. If we all follow God's calling to be the best we can in the circumstances where we live, and if we are willing to be trasformed continually into Christ's image and likeness, then we are going on to perfection. If you have options, don't shop at Walmart, buy organic food (or better yet, anything grown within your community), live simply, and give abundantly -- but if you have no other choices, live in God's Grace, and know that that Grace is sufficient to make up for our deficiencieses. In a consumer culture like ours, we should all be more conscientious about reading labels, and making the best choices we can afford -- but we need to remember that if we live in Grace, and we are willing to live for Christ, and not for ourselves, then almost anything is possible, and our small, local decisions can cause tremendous collective effects.


Adrienne said...

I can't believe you put the part where I admitted to being Wesleyan. That's just mean.

And oh yes, JW does talk a spell about hell. And let us not forget that in his concept of, uh, salvation (at least, as I learned it from Dr. Stone), one could potentially screw up and lose their place in heaven. Isn't that fun?

Grace. Right. But do you think people could use this as an excuse? Granted, if they are then it isn't really living in Gods grace maybe, but at least for myself, I think I could convince myself I'm shooting for grace and yet still coveting the Nike hats.

And why in the world am I actually talking about theology. It's summer . . .

Anonymous said...

Because it's what you and David do! (Hi, I'm Chris, David's friend. I don't think I've met Adrienne, but I think I should sometime.)

My response to the idea of grace being used as an excuse is simple and maybe simplisitic: If Jesus was willing to take that risk on us, I think we need to be willing to do so as well. Which danger do you prefer: Grace being turned into license to do whatever you feel like, or works being turned into unbending legalism? The potential for extremes are on either end, but Jesus (at least as far as I can tell) really took more of his shots at the legalists.

Maybe that makes me a bad Nazarene...nah. Can't be--and I'm at least as good a Nazarene as David, right?

David said...

Yes, Chris, you are, but I'm not a Nazarene...

Anonymous said...

We had some conversation in this matter, remember?