From A Lamp Post Reminding Us Of God’s Faithfulness: Theological Experience
In an attempt to make this as clear as possible I want to suggest six affirmations which I think reflect a Wesleyan orientation on Christian experience:1. A real change occurs in the life of anyone who commits himself or herself to Jesus Christ.One’s intention to be“altogether” a Christian may be tested in the following ways:
- A. There is a certain correspondence of life with testimony. This means that a Christian exhibits (1) a sincere desire to renounce evil, (2) a zeal for doing good, and(3) the development of a social conscience coupled with good works.
- B. Personal experience is subject to the prayerful scrutiny of those who themselves are aspiring for God. This means the Christian’s spiritual formation is in some sense guided and validated by (1) a group (society, band, etc.), (2) and individual (spiritual director), or (3) both of these.
- C. There may be the grace of the confirming Spirit. This is (1) God’s own witness to the Christian’s heart and (2) the responding inner witness exhibited by (a) the desire to love God (examination of conscience) and (b) a love of the means of grace.2. Our aspirations for God are encouraged by a sense of acceptance and perhaps by the inner confirmation of the Spirit. Our aspirations are discouraged by our awareness of certain tensions, maladjustive behavior and/or urgings to evil. Taking a cue from Bonhoeffer, I refer to authentic faith as “simple, unreflecting obedience to the will of Christ.’s working idea of sainthood as identification with God so as not to deliberate over moral choices provides a contemporary way to approach this dynamic. Freedom here refers to freedom from sin, so as to be free in immediate response to Jesus Christ as the Son of God.3. Our aspiration for God as the Holy One is enhanced when evil, which hinders our freedom to be in reality what we profess to be in faith, is cleansed by the dominating nature of God’s love. The interplay between repressed spiritual discord and the teaching function of the Holy Spirit may require a lifetime to work out, if we are to arrive at sainthood; that is, conformity of the human will to the Divine will. It is not beyond the range of Divine working, however, for that conformity to be accomplished in a short time. The important point here is that spiritual freedom can be actualized in the present moment.4. Normally meaningful spiritual experiences are most easily realized within the context of mutual love and support as found in that part of the Christian community dedicated to “aspiration for the Holy.” The temple -synagogue model may shed some light on this idea. Christians gather in mass in the “temple” (the church building) to worship God. They gather in the “synagogue” (the small group) to grow in the Spirit, particularly in terms of sharing love, spiritual guidance and the raising of social conscience.5. The love of God, which makes us free to seek Him, operates not only in the realm of individual experience, but also in the structures of society. Wesley’s optimism regarding the possibilities of social change as one way to make the Kingdom of God visible is akin to that of Rauschenbusch. Indeed, it is impossible to apply brakes anywhere when one assumes thatif God’s love is not stopped, it will dominate everything. Love for Christ’s sake, coupled with strict self-denial, provides the impetus for genuine love of one’s neighbor.6. Finally, eschatological hope produces a high quality happiness which makes it possible for human beings to rejoice in tribulation as well as in blessing. Indeed, when one sees God’s love as not just being “out there,” but as coming to meet us, the future shapes our present faith. Thus, God is the One who moves toward us, making up for our deficiencies; that is, aslong as our intentions are honorable. This underscores the insight that the salvation process is always gifted by God and is never, in any sense, the result of works righteousness. – Jerry L. Mercer, “Toward A Weslyan Understanding Of Christian Experience”, Wesleyan Theological Journal, Vol. 20, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp.79-93—–
If some of you Dear Readers weren’t aware, my family lives just north of the area hit hardest by the tornadoes in last night’s massive storm system. The city of Rockford, IL wasn’t hit by any tornadoes, but several communities to our south, including those in which some friends live, were either partially damaged or completely destroyed. This morning, as we usually do, my wife and I were walking our dog when we say this tree downed by last night’s winds. I was drawn to it because it just seemed impossible this massive half-trunk of a tree had fallen in just the right way, at just the right angle to surround but not touch the lamp so many properties in our subdivision have.
My wife, however, looked at it and, when she realized what she was seeing, said, “The light shone in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
I understood immediately that we were both correct. We were seeing the same image, understanding the same event, through very distinct sets of interpretive lenses. Neither has precedence. Both reference the event itself, the experience, as reflecting a particular instance of a general idea. In my case, I was understanding it both in its statistical unlikelihood while simultaneously its statistical probability, given the amount of weather-related events in our area last night. Lisa, however, was seeing this particular tableau as a moment of Divine Revelation, an instance in which the Trinity is making real an aspect of Christian truth that can be understood more clearly, perhaps differently, yet most clearly in a new way for a particular moment, now that the event is before us.
Which is not to say that all people looking at this particular moment would understand it the way Lisa did. It wasn’t the first thing to pop in to my head, to be sure. The key, however, is the ability to allow the movement of the Holy Spirit, through Scripture, to see something as mundane as a fallen tree as a source of theological insight, as well as allowing that insight to deepen one’s own understanding of Scripture, of God, and how that new and deeper theological moment can be a source of new life, new hope, new love, and new faith.
One objection that could – and probably should – be made about this particular attempt at theologizing out of experience is that it seems to wish away the violence, destruction, and death last night’s storms brought to those who live so close by. That a street lamp wasn’t knocked down, when compared to the leveling of an entire town, hardly seems to say much about the goodness of God. How would it be possible to take this particular insight and use it when, perhaps, comforting the loved ones of the one person who was killed last night?
This particular objection, it seems to me, rests on a couple false assumptions. The first, of course, is that God was somehow absent as the tornado roared through Fairland and Rochelle; it would further seem to be a statement only made from a perspective of privilege, the particular privilege being one of those not impacted directly by the tornado. To this I can only say that God was most definitely absent; natural events, being natural, are just that. God was there, even as that twister destroyed parts of Rochelle and all of Fairdale, loving all those in fear for their property, their livelihoods, and their lives. Neither Lisa nor myself would ever suggest that we escaped serious damage because God had blessed us in such way. Rather, God was in the midst of that whirlwind, loving and holding near and dear all those hiding, or trying to hide. God’s love does not mean an end to death, or some reprieve from the vagaries of nature. Jesus even remarked that God allows rain on the just and unjust alike. Such an objection seems to miss several points.
We were lucky last night. The folks hit hard, well, the tornado was traveling where the winds and land led it, and their homes and businesses and towns and families just happened to be along that path. All the same, that lamp, around which that tree fell without destroying it, can let us know that even in the midst of horrible disasters, God is present, the Light and Life of the world is still lifted up, and even for those dealing with so much loss, so much grief, the shock of an entire town being wiped away, all hope seeming to be lost – God has not, never did, and never will abandon you. That light that is not overcome by darkness, represented for us in the midst of our storms and fears by this lone lamp post untouched even as an enormous tree could all too easily have destroyed it. That light is the light of all persons, it is the light of the Way, the Truth, and the Life that will never die again.
That is experience as a source for theological understanding. It is most definitely not something to be discarded because some few do not understand it, or misunderstand it. It is revelation, grasped in moments, moving us all toward perfection in love in this life. The aim, as Wesley said, is true happiness – the intuitive grasping both of the reality of God and God’s moving in and through our world to make that happiness possible. Who are we to deny that?