Holiness Of Heart And Life
The church’s theological task, though related to its doctrinal expressions, serves a different function. Our doctrinal affirmations assist us in the discernment of Christian truth in ever-changing contexts. Our theological task includes the testing, renewal, elaboration, and the application of our doctrinal perspective in carrying out our calling “to spread Scriptural holiness over these lands.”
While the Church considers its doctrinal affirmations a central feature of its identity and restricts official changes to a constitutional process, the Church encourages serious reflection across the theological spectrum.
As United Methodists we are called to identify the needs both of individuals and society and to address these needs out of the resources of the Christian faith that is clear, convincing, and effective. Theology serves the Church by interpreting the world’s needs and challenges to the Church and by interpreting the Gospel to the world. – Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2012 , para. 105, “Our Theological Task”, pp. 78-79
Professor Mark Teasdale wishes to discuss holiness. I think that’s more than appropriate. In fact, the unique Wesleyan approach to holiness is one of the things about our United Methodist heritage that I love. With Wesley’s emphasis that a doctrine that is not lived is not believed, I find appeals to doctrine or tradition, absent the critical task of theological reflection rooted in Wesley’s understanding of holiness to be hollow exercises in authoritarianism. If we are not continually examining and questioning how we are to live faithfully, then we are not being faithful. If our lives do not reflect the presence of the Spirit that saves us, where is the evidence that the grace of God is moving in us and with us? Holiness of heart and life, including critical reflection on our current context, is a necessary sign that Spirit is moving within us, shaping us to be perfect, even as our Father in Heaven is perfect.
The links between personal and social holiness, between how we conduct our personal life not only of prayer and devotion but also our interpersonal relationships and how we act to transform the world in the name of Jesus Christ – “spreading Scriptural holiness over these lands” – are deep and profound. This found expression in our predecessor denominations’s work against alcohol. The Anti-Saloon League, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and other organizations that sought through persuasion, and sometimes direct action, to ban the use and sale of alcohol. The personal costs to families due to alcohol consumption is enormous. The social cost, however, is also enormous. While many people continue to insist that Prohibition was “a failed experiment”, in fact alcohol consumption per capita dropped precipitously. A July, 1991 report from the National Bureau of Economic Research found the decrease as large as 30%. While incarcerations increased beginning in 1921, this was due not only to violations of the Volstead Act (the enabling legislation for Prohibition), but newly outlawed opiates and cocaine as well. While there were certainly questionable reasons for pushing for outlawing alcohol – particularly hostility to newly arrived immigrants, as well as general anti-Roman Catholic bigotry among Protestants – there is little doubt it was also rooted in an understanding of the personal and social costs associated with alcohol consumption, things with which we continue to be familiar.
As with alcohol, so with dancing and attendance at the theater. It was Dorothy Parker who said, “Dancing is the vertical expression of a horizontal desire.” This has understood to be so for a very long time. Insisting on sexual chastity includes not participating in activities that might lead a person to become, well, unchaste. Hostility to the theater was due in part to its falsity; there were also associations with public bawdiness in many theatrical productions, as well as, again, the consumption of alcohol. While it might sound odd to our contemporary ears (and certainly mine; my father was a theater actor most of his life, and I spent much time at theaters), these prohibitions on personal activities were understood as part both of personal and social holiness. We are not just “Christians”, some people who can celebrate our salvation from “the wrath to come”. Wesley understood that being a Christian meant following Christ, i.e., being a disciple. This is a life of self-denial, of disciplined practice so that our actions flow from the Love of God that is the Holy Spirit. These actions are all rooted in the desire to spread Scriptural holiness, i.e., as we say today, for the transformation of the world. No one said it was easy, or popular. On the contrary, as I’ve said many times, God loves us, but both the admonitions of Jesus in the Gospels and the testimony of history show that this love calls us to lives of persecution. We aren’t supposed to be popular. We are supposed to be holy, and work to make the world holy as God intended with Creation.
Times change, and contexts change. While working to outlaw alcohol, understood as having “failed”, is certainly no longer tenable, the United Methodist Church continues its work against gambling, including legal, state-sponsored lotteries. One could say this, too, is a losing battle. Our family does not and will not participate even in raffles, however, precisely because, no matter how “good” the cause, that is no excuse to gamble. Again, it is both an understanding and familiarity with the damage gambling does to individuals, families, and communities that drives this opposition.
At the same time, some things that were once prohibited are no longer understood to be, to use an unWesleyan phrase, occasions for sin. There is no opposition to the theater, for example. I can’t remember seeing a prohibition on dancing, in particular with the rise of liturgical dance as a practice in some congregations. Indeed, dancing in praise of God is described often, especially in the Old Testament (particularly the Psalms; David danced in the front of the procession bringing the Ark of the Covenant to the new capital of Jerusalem).
With changing times and changing contexts comes changing understandings of what it means to be human, not just in a secular, scientific sense but also in a theological sense. If we are not willing to use this understanding to inform our critical theological reflection, then we risk being no better than the Roman Cardinals who condemned Galileo. This includes a more nuanced and complex understanding of human sexuality, as part and parcel of what it means to be a human being as created by God. Holiness of heart and life does not mean setting to one side the demand that, as sexual beings, we live out that part of our lives with the Spirit’s guidance. On the contrary, it means being attuned to the movement of the Spirit, critically examining how we understand what it means to be redeemed humanity in light of our new understandings of humanity. Rather than limit our talk about sexuality solely to the realm of sin, a thing to be gotten on with if for no other reason than to have children, we should reflect critically upon what it means that God made us as beings who find sexual love enjoyable with those to whom we feel deep affection and with whom we have made commitments. Rather than dismiss such observations as unBiblical, we might do well to strip The Song of Songs of its overlong metaphorical understanding as a description of the Divine pursuit and love for humanity, and read it for what it is, an earthy, erotic, explicit description of the celebration of sexual love.
Holiness of heart and life, our duty to spread Scriptural holiness, and the demand that our theological reflections always be a living thing, taking our doctrinal positions and trying to interpret them for an ever-changing world all demand new ways of thinking. They do not, however, lessen the demand that we always do so together, as one Body, perhaps not always united in thought, but united in that love of and for Christ that drives our personal and social discipleship. This discipleship should always be rooted in a deep love for humanity – for all Creation – to transform this world, to make disciples who understand the call is neither easy nor without tricks and traps. It is, however, how we are to live, what one author on Wesley’s approach to the theological task called Practical Divinity.
This is yet another thing about the United Methodist Church that I love. We are a people dedicated to the proposition that we are not just “Christians”. We are called to be disciples. This calling is neither easy, nor the same in all times and all places, which is precisely why our theological task is so important precisely as it is a critical task. May God continue to bless us on our journey, filling us with the Spirit as we work to become perfected in love, working to transform this world in the name of Jesus Christ who died and rose to save it.