This week I continue some reflections on United Methodist believing as part of our Conference-wide celebration of United Methodist theology that is being led by our lay leaders. This is an excerpt from my book United Methodist Beliefs (available from Cokesbury).
We think theologically in order that we might live theologically, putting into practice our claims about the world now that the Word has become flesh and moved in with us. Therefore, Our theological task includes the testing, renewal, elaboration, and application of our doctrinal perspective in carrying out our calling ‘to spread scriptural holiness over these lands.’ That’s a quote from Wesley for whom this was a thumbnail definition of Methodist purpose: ‘to spread scriptural holiness over these lands.’ We think theologically in order to have something faithful to say about Jesus and in order to have a faithful way of living for Jesus that is clear, convincing, and effective . I expect that some other church families would be more concerned that their theology was orthodox, or historically valid. Typical of us pragmatic Wesleyans, we want ours to be “effective.”
To be honest, sometimes our United Methodist pragmatic, practical Christianity slips into mere cultural accommodation, American pragmatism that values what the world thinks now more than what the church has historically taught. In disputes over doctrine or ethics, rather than ask, “Is this faithful to our United Methodist way of thinking?” we settle for, “How will this play in Peoria?”
There once was a time when Methodists had strict stands against divorce, the use and abuse of alcohol, and other issues that we considered to be violations of our call to be a holy people. Did we adjust our thought on these matters because we received new and different revelation or because we decided that our thought was more than the market could bear? Pragmatism, that peculiarly American philosophy, for any of its virtues, tends to begin with the status quo, the world as it is and we as we are, and move from there to make statements about us and the world. Not much transformation and conversionist thinking in that. When “practical” becomes “pragmatic” the faith once delivered to the saints too easily degenerates into “this is about as much of Christian believing as we can take at the moment.”
I don’t know whether or not the next statement in the Discipline is meant as a slam against academic, speculative theologians of the sort who burrow in a college Department of Religion, but the Discipline says, Our theological task is essentially practical. It informs the individual’s daily decisions and serves the Church’s life and work. While highly theoretical constructions of Christian thought make important contributions to theological understanding, we finally measure the truth of such statements in relation to their practical significance. Our interest is to incorporate the promises and demands of the gospel into our daily lives.
So strong a defense of practicality has sometimes made Methodists seem anti-intellectual. How can a church that was born on the Oxford University campus, a people whose father is no less an intellectual than John Wesley, a church so committed to higher education be called anti-intellectual? Sometimes, we haven’t been faithful to our scholarly roots, to be sure. But sometimes the problem is in the world’s limited definition of “intellectual,” or “theological.” We United Methodists like to think that we are committed to a wider, more responsible rationality that sees our theological ideas as practical commitments whose truth is tied to their embodiment.
Wesley took the idea of small accountability groups from the European Pietists and developed them into the engine that drove the Methodist revival in England. He was no revivalist, blowing through town, blowing off, and then blowing out. He said that he was resolved “not to strike the hammer down in any one place where I could not follow up on the blow.” He formed “societies” large groups of smaller groups (“classes,” from 10 to 20 people) and “bands,” small intimate groups (4-6 people) where there was intense accountability and encouragement for these ordinary everyday Eighteenth Century English people to become nothing less than saints. There are some who believe that Wesley’s greatest theological contribution was not his written theology but rather his institutionalized, organizational embodiment of his ideas in these “classes” where people live d the theology that Wesley proclaimed. Today, in your congregation, that legacy continues as we continue to put our theology into practice.
William H. Willimon