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Wesley – Conclusions

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is cobbj@cgu.edu.. This is one of a series of five lectures delivered at Point Loma University, San Diego, February 2,000. Published by permission of the author.


What can Wesley do for us today? That has been the issue of all of these lectures. It has been my proposal that he can support Wesleyan evangelicals and free them from their tendency to knee-jerk conservatism, moralism, and negativism. He can support Wesleyan liberals and free them from their tendency to humanism, to relativism, and to half-heartedness. He can support Wesleyan liberationists and free them from their tendency to self-pity, divided loyalty, and fragmentation. He can support Wesleyan process theologians and free them from their tendency to intellectualism, distance from biblical roots, and divided loyalty. He can help all of us to understand better the relation of grace and responsibility and to work out its implications in personal and corporate life.

If each group sat at Wesley’s feet and corrected its weaknesses accordingly, they would still remain distinct. But their differences would no longer be seriously divisive. They would be more matters of emphasis than of rigidly defined positions. Each group could appreciate the emphases of the others and recognize the value of having some group maintain that as their primary focus. The groups would complement one another. The Wesleyan movement as a whole would be strengthened by the diversity.

Of course, the Wesleyan movement would continue to have disagreements within it. Of the many current issues that divide us I take abortion as an example. Not all Wesleyans would agree on whether abortion is ever the most moral choice, and if not whether it should be outlawed or left to the judgment of those most intimately involved.

It would be difficult to guess what position Wesley would take on these issues, and, in fact, it would not matter greatly. The key issues are not ones he addressed or on which central features of his teaching cast any direct light. When does distinctively human life begin? How is the value of the fetus is to be weighed against the needs and desires of the mother? If we come to agreement on these issues as Wesleyans, is it appropriate to attempt to impose our agreement on the wider society through political processes? Or should public policy be broadly permissive, leaving decisions in each case to those most immediately involved?

The divisions I have been discussing would not, in a healthy Wesleyan context, determine answer to the questions about abortion. That is, a Wesleyan evangelical would be open to arguments on both sides of these questions, as would a Wesleyan liberal or liberationist, or process theologian. The current tendency to line up on the issue in terms of the party from which one comes reflects non-Wesleyan aspects of each of the current groups.

Today evangelicals tend to support legislation restricting the freedom of pregnant women to have abortions. But this is more because evangelicals have adopted a conservative stance than because of their evangelical heritage from Wesley. Since the issue is not discussed in the Bible, the greater emphasis of evangelicals on staying close to biblical teachings is irrelevant. The tendency of contemporary evangelicals to appeal to tradition to support conservative positions would be checked by Wesley’s far more selective use of tradition, and much greater openness to current evidence. Wesleyan evangelicals would have to join liberals in a broader appeal to the Bible’s emphasis on God’s care for each individual person and try to work out the implications of that central conviction for these difficult questions.

Similarly, there is nothing about a Wesleyan liberalism that settles these questions. Liberals have often emphasized the sacred worth of each person. Approaching matters from this perspective heightens the importance of the question as to when the fetus becomes a person. Liberals could agree with Augustine that the human soul emerges at quickening and make a sharp distinction between abortions before or after this point. But they may make a different judgment on this point, identifying the beginning of authentically personal life with quickening, or with birth.

If their conclusions restrict the morality of abortion, they face a second decision. Should their conclusions only guide their own decisions, or should they try to pass laws that restrict the behavior of others. There is a tendency in liberal thought to leave as many decisions as possible to individuals rather than to introduce governmental restrictions. On the other hand, this does not apply in cases where a decision seriously injures others. We are thrown back on the question as to when the fertilized cell becomes an "other" to be protected by the state.

Liberationists, similarly, cannot decide these questions easily. They are particularly sensitive to oppression and seek in every way they can to liberate people from it. Feminists have emphasized the age-long oppression of women. They have pointed out that women have not been permitted control of their own bodies. Such control, they often emphasize, should include the freedom of a woman to decide what to do with a fetus that exists within her womb. For this reason there is a strong tendency for feminists to argue against any state-imposed restrictions.

Nevertheless, most feminists have deep feelings about the preciousness of the potential life that develops within women. They are convinced that even those who seek abortions share these feelings. They support the right to abortion because circumstances are too often such that other concerns rightfully override this one.

On the other hand, the concern for the weak and oppressed that is central to liberation theology can cut in a quite different direction. It is the fetus that is most powerless and voiceless. However powerless the woman may be in relation to other social forces in a patriarchal society, she is powerful in relation to the fetus. A liberationist may conclude that it is important to speak and act for the fetus.

Process thought deals more directly with some of the issues than do the fundamental principles of the other groups. On the question of when the fertilized egg develops into a human person, it answers unequivocally that this is a gradual process. There is no one point at which it occurs. But it does not draw the conclusion that before the fetus becomes a human person it has no intrinsic value. For process thought everything, and especially all living things, have intrinsic value. Their destruction is an evil that requires justification. On the other hand, life is not possible without the destruction of other life; so no

Among living things, those that have integrated subjective experience, or souls, have special value. If quickening corresponds to the emergence of a unified experience in the fetus, then it is an important stage in the movement toward human personhood. The abortion of a quickened fetus inflicts more pain and destroys more value than an earlier abortion. But it is not murder!

The greatest value of the fetus, however, is not its actual intrinsic value. The greatest value is its potential to become a human person. The ending of that possibility is more serious than the suffering and present loss involved in abortion. The latter is comparable to the killing of other animals or, more exactly, to their fetuses. The moral importance of abortion lies in cutting off as yet undeveloped possibilities.

No absolutist conclusions can be drawn from this. The failure to fertilize an ovum also cuts off undeveloped possibilities. But the fertilization of every ovum and bringing the resultant fetus to term would have consequences so appalling that noone could advocate an effort in this direction. We live in a world in which only a few of the potentials for life can or should be realized. We must make judgments about which ones, The greater the potential and the further its realization has been advanced, the more serious the loss. But this cannot place an absolute demand upon us.

Wesleyans must judge whether to appropriate the implications of process cosmology. They are, I believe, open to evangelicals, liberals, and liberationists. But persons from any of those camps can also reject them. They are not distinctively Christian, but they seem to me fully compatible with the faith, at least as a Wesleyan understands it.

If we recognize that in order to draw conclusions about matters of this sort, we must ask questions not answered by faith in any direct way, the tone of our debates can be improved. Christians should be able to debate philosophical questions without supposing that those who differ with them are less committed to Christ. Our unity in Christ allows for disagreement about many matters. These disagreements may be intense and prevent common action on important issues in our time. Recognition of the authenticity of one another’s faith does not mean indifference with respect to the philosophical issues on which we disagree or the diverse actions resulting from those disagreements. But the Wesleyan movement should be able to maintain its unity despite these debates. This is surely Wesley’s own view. It should be that of Wesleyans today.

In my first lecture I noted that the four categories of Wesleyans I identified are far from exhaustive. There are many other foci of attention among us. It is interesting, even remarkable, that so persons with such diverse emphases can all appeal, legitimately, to Wesley as a supporter. It is obviously not possible, in the concluding lecture, to discuss any of these other contemporary forms of Wesleyanism in any detail. But I would like to say enough to indicate that the movement from mutual conflict to complementarity and mutual appreciation is possible across a still broader spectrum than considered in the previous lectures. I will speak briefly about the seven additional emphases noted in the first lecture: orthodoxy, postliberalism, liturgical renewal, multiculturalism, institutionalism, spirituality, and healing.

Of these the first two present themselves as theological options for the church. Both are reactions against the liberalism treated in the second lecture, especially against what I recognized as its weaknesses. But both take positions that reject also much of what I believe Wesley would support in liberalism. In this way they enter into a relationship of conflict with liberalism rather than simply offering a different emphasis.

John Wesley was a great admirer of the Greek Fathers. He had much less appreciation of the Latin Fathers and very little for the medieval theology that grew out of their work. The tradition from which he developed his own thought skipped from the Greek Fathers to the tradition of the Church of England. In this evaluation of tradition, he was in agreement with many Anglicans.

One can argue that the Greek Fathers were in closer continuity with the gospel the New Testament writers. Their church was the one most directly continuous with the New Testament church. Hence, in order to understand the meaning of the gospel for a wider community than the first generation, these Fathers are our best source. Where we cannot answer our questions directly from scripture, we should have recourse to them.

Among evangelicals rather widely there has been a renewed interest in the Greek Fathers. Among some evangelicals, this has led also to an interest in the form of Christianity that is in greatest continuity with these Fathers, that is, Eastern Orthodoxy. A significant number of conservative evangelical Protestants have converted to Orthodoxy!

Obviously, a renewed interest in the Greek Fathers has Wesley’s blessing. It has also been attractive to a number of Wesleyan conservatives. It leads to the formulation of doctrine in ways that are clearly conservative but that differ from Roman Catholicism and well as Calvinism. It provides an authority over against current cultural developments, both liberal and liberationist.

The main problem from the point of view of Wesley’s heritage is the exclusivist tendency of orthodoxy. It tends to exclude all who find the history out of which they live to be one that has broken the relationship to this ancient past. A broken relationship does not exclude learning and appropriating much, and Wesleyans who retrieve the wisdom of the Greek Fathers can contribute much to this for all. But for many of us there have been developments in knowledge and understanding during the intervening centuries that make a simple retrieval of an eighteenth century figure like Wesley impossible. A repristination of second- and third-century writers poses even more severe difficulties. Their formulations of faith cannot be separated from their worldview, or from the culture of the Roman Empire of the time. That worldview and that culture are alien to us.

The post-liberal theology reacts to many of the same weakness of contemporary Wesleyan movement as does Orthodoxy. It wants to reestablish the radical difference between Christianity and the surrounding culture. It wants Christian meanings to shape the whole of life rather than compete with others arising from other sources. Many of its doctrinal and ethical conclusions would agree with those drawn from the Greek Fathers.

Nevertheless, in some respects the strategy is proposes is at an opposite pole from the orthodox one. It attacks liberalism for its commitment to universal and objective truth. It believes, no doubt with some justification, that the quest for such truth has undercut its commitment to the distinctive biblical and traditional forms of Christianity. However, in this attack it appeals to postmodern philosophy rather than to ancient wisdom. In its effort to achieve a universal vision, liberalism has continued the ancient tradition including that of the Greek Fathers, so that the attack on liberalism also condemns any return to earlier forms of theology including that of Wesley.

Post-liberalism believes that by giving up the attempt to formulate universal truths we become free to affirm our own distinctive Christian vision. This consists in an ordering of symbols and meanings that constitute the Christian faith. Our task is to immerse ourselves in this Christian way of thinking so that it shapes the whole of our vision. The community that lives in this way can be truly faithful to its heritage. If it is a Wesleyan community, then it will be faithful to this Wesleyan heritage.

There is a high price to be paid, however, for this move. Wesley’s evangelical zeal stemmed from his conviction that God is a reality for all people, that grace works in all, and that all are called to love God and neighbor and can be empowered to do so by grace. To think that this is one way of organizing thought, life, and feeling alongside other ways, that it is true for those who live by it but not for others, undercuts the zeal to explain to others the situation in which they objectively exist whether or not they have previously recognized it. The Wesleyan movement would never have come into existence if Wesley had thought in this way. It can be a form of renewal for those who half-heartedly commit themselves now to Wesleyan communities. It cannot motivate a new evangelism.

This does not mean that post-liberals have nothing to contribute to the Wesleyan movement today. There is no doubt that much of what constitutes us are particularities whose value does not depend on their universal truth or relevance. This does not reduce their usefulness as a way of forming us individually and collectively. We need to learn how to socialize our youth into our distinctive meanings and symbols to give them a special Christian identity. We cannot agree with post-liberals that all our beliefs are of this character. The God we worship is much more than a symbol. But, of course, the way we image God is an image that expresses our distinctive history and experience. Its value is for those who share that distinctive history and experience. Socialization into the community that lives from these meanings is an important contribution to the revitalization and renewal we so badly need. Post-liberals have shown us that we can emphasize our particularity without undertaking to impose it on others who have a different history and experience.

The other groups to which I have referred are more clearly matters of emphasis rather than efforts to shape the whole of the Wesleyan heritage. One such group has focused its attention on worship seeking the deepening of the church’s life through liturgical renewal. Certainly, they, too can appeal to Wesley. Usually they move in the direction of Episcopal liturgy with a strong emphasis on the Lord’s Supper. This was the form of worship in which Wesley himself participated.

The loss of this form of worship among resulted, not from a preference for something else on Wesley’s part, but from a peculiar history. He did not think of the movement he initiated as an alternate church. It was to supplement the established church and its worship. Nevertheless, when Methodists gathered they engaged in activities akin to worship. These had a highly informal and somewhat emotional character. For many Methodists they were more satisfying and meaningful than the formal services of the Church of England. When Methodism became a separate denomination, this history of evangelical worship carried over into its services. The Anglican liturgy, so precious to Wesley himself, largely disappeared.

The liturgical movement has developed across denominations. Wesleyan participation in it has been significant. There is no doubt that it has helped many Wesleyan communities to develop or recover forms of worship that mean much more to the participants.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, no one form of worship appeals to all. The tendencies in a high church direction can be felt by some as an abandonment of the deeply personal, truly heartfelt celebrations that have been so important to them. The music that appeals to more traditional worshippers may fail to touch generations of youth. To be faithful to Wesley is to be as concerned about practical consequences in these respects as about continuity with tradition. The Wesleyan revival involved radical innovations in church music in the eighteenth century. A new revival may require as much daring in our time.

For some Wesleyans today the greatest challenge confronting the church is to respond to the diversity of cultures and ethnicities that now characterize urban American society. This was not the problem Wesley faced. Looking back we can recognize that the societies he established were culturally and ethnically largely homogeneous. But to maintain an ethnically homogeneous church in a context in which there are Christians of many ethnicities impresses many as a failure to display the unity in Christ that was certainly a deep concern of Wesley.

The challenge is immense. The easiest response is to include within a denomination congregations of varying ethnic types. These can worship in their several languages and styles. They can be encouraged to have fellowship with one another and to unite at district and conference levels. This remains the majority pattern. But may find this profoundly inadequate. Cannot our unity in Christ be expressed in worshipping and working together as believers?

Of course, this is not difficult if it means only that a church made up primarily of one ethnic group, such as Euro-Americans, opens its doors to all. Most such congregations have some ethnic diversity. But this is still not real openness to the multi-cultural reality of our society. That requires that the many cultures have an equal share in shaping the shared life. Enormous efforts are expended to achieve this result. Thus far the results are modest in comparison with the extent of the work done. But for some Wesleyans attainment of a genuinely multi-cultural church is the greatest test of our seriousness in believing that Christ transcends all cultures.

I have labeled another segment of our church "institutionalist." This term is often pejorative, implying that some are devoted to institutional matters independently of any concern for the purposes of the church. But many of the people to whom I refer care deeply for the church and believe that it is very important to carrying out God’s purposes on Earth. They notice that many Wesleyans seem more intent on pushing their particular agenda and using the church to further these special ends than on enabling the church as a whole to survive and flourish. They focus their attention, therefore, on the institutional church and its health, even when this means discouraging some of the initiatives that come from one group or another within it.

They, too, can appeal to Wesley. Of course, for him, institution-building was for the sake of accomplishing the ends of the movement, and about these he was quite clear.

Some contemporary institutionalists have greater difficulty articulating more fundamental ends and purposes. But Wesley would have supported their conviction that without the institution, little happens on a long-term basis. It is because he gave so much attention to institutionalizing his movement, and did so so skillfully, that among the great revivalists only he left a lasting mark on society.

The danger among institutionalists is that they may suppose that the survival and health of the church can be assured by proper institutional arrangements. Wesley certainly knew this was not true. And, even if it were true, what would thereby survive might be of little service to God. Institutional structures must serve the church’s mission, and without renewal of commitment to that mission, no structure will do more than buy a little time.

This recognition of the emptiness of the church as institution has aroused in our culture broadly and within the Wesleyan movement a strong interest in spirituality. "Spirituality" means many things. It is sometimes contrasted with "religion," on the assumption that religion is tied to institutions and traditions whereas what people now need is free of these outer trappings and authorities. This no doubt expresses the fact that many people have not been liberated and empowered or deeply touched inwardly by their experience in churches. They are looking elsewhere for what the churches have failed to give them.

The preference for spirituality over religion can also be an expression of the consumer society and its individualism. People want recipes for inner serenity and confidence that do not involve interaction with others or taking responsibility for institutional life. The private practice of meditation can fulfill this need.

Wesley certainly understood the spiritual hunger that is so widely expressed today. He read widely in the mystics and appreciated much of what he found. But he was also critical. Mysticism as an effort at self-improvement was doomed to failure. Our growth is a matter of God’s grace working in us. Also, mysticism could be individualistic, whereas the Christian life is inherently social. The small group movement at the heart of Methodist organization expresses his own sense of how to advance the spiritual quest. It was social both in its involvement of social interaction within itself and in its concern for the relationship to others of all who are involved.

Wesleyans today who recognize the deep spiritual hunger of our time characteristically reaffirm the importance of small groups. These have never died out in our churches altogether, but they have lost much in intensity and have come to be regarded as optional rather than central to our participation in the movement. The Wesleyans who emphasize the renewal of spirituality through small groups would certainly have Wesley’s enthusiastic support.

Problems remain, however, with the term spirituality itself. Its origins in monastic devotions still tinge its current use. Our Wesleyan concern is for the deepening of love for God and neighbor, not for esoteric experiences. Love inherently expresses itself in action. We are not cultivating an inner state as an end in itself. The term "discipleship" captures more of this than does "spirituality."

Another special focus among Wesleyans is on the renewal of a healing ministry. They note that physical and psychological healing was as central to Jesus’ ministry as was the forgiving of sins. Often they went together. They note also that Wesley devoted time and attention to physical health, even if he separated this somewhat from his evangelism.

Wesley separated these in part because he was taught to do so by the science of the time. In that science, the physical world was understood to be passive matter. On matter God acted from without, since it had no within. More recent biology and physics have replaced this view with one that asserts that the physical world is composed of energy rather than passive matter. There is indication that energy events take account of one another, that they have an inside as well as an outside. If so, then Wesley could extend to bodies his understanding of how God works in the human psyche and in all living things – that is, inwardly and persuasively. One can also understand how intimately the psyche and the body are interrelated. This gives us the opportunity to see salvation also in a more holistic way.

The truth is that many people are more concerned about their physical and psychological illness than about their sin. It may be that the good news for our time needs to recover the full breadth of that proclaimed by Jesus. In response to John the Baptist’s question about his Messiahship, he replied: "the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news preached to them." In announcing his mission in Nazareth he read from Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor."

Can we proclaim such a gospel today that includes physical and psychological healing? Some think so and believe that those who do so will both be more faithful to the New Testament and more effective in reaching people in this new century. They voice a very important challenge to a church that has compartmentalized body, mind, and spirit.

In my judgment Wesley would have been happy to see these dimensions of human life more fully integrated. He would warn against promising what cannot be delivered or regarding ill health as necessarily a sign of lack of faith. To add guilt to sickness is not good news. But to affirm that God works through every cell in our body to bring healing and health and that our openness to grace can further that working is not alien to Wesley’s teaching.

It is time to pull all this together in its relevance to its challenge to contemporary Wesleyans. What are the implications of what I have been saying? They are that if we are all willing to evaluate our various concerns and emphases in new dialogue with Wesley, we may be able to pull together instead of using our energies in contesting with one another. We might be able to engage in a whole new era of evangelism.

This program would give central place, rather obviously, to evangelicals as those most explicitly committed to sharing the good news. But it would require that evangelicals abandon their tendencies to moralism, conservatism, and party spirit. Their effort would be devoted to understanding what the good news is for our time and to sharing it effectively.

I have suggested that the good news would be more like that proclaimed by Jesus. The narrowing of the good news to the forgiveness of sins would be reversed. Certainly that would continue along with Wesley’s emphasis on the presence of the Holy Spirit enabling us to grow in love of God neighbor. But it would be further enriched by the theology of liberation and by those who emphasize the holistic nature of human existence. We would proclaim the good news that God has purposes for the world and for each of us within it and that through grace God makes the realization of those purposes possible.

There would be no defensiveness in this new evangelism in relation to the best thinking of the time. That does not mean that we Christians would simply accept the conclusions that come from assumptions alien to our beliefs. But we would engage the discussion in a completely open spirit with no special pleading. In inviting people to open themselves to God and join with us in a movement to realize God’s purposes, we would present our gospel as at the cutting edge of critical thought, not as an intellectual backwater. We would bring the good news to the university as well as to the poor, and we would challenge the learned as well as the ignorant.

The full formulation of what God calls us toward would be continuously reviewed and revised. This would be both in light of what we can learn from all who work with us and in light of what we observe to be the effects of our proclamation. We would be pragmatists in the way Wesley was.

Like Wesley we would organize and institutionalize our work. Here, too, we would, like Wesley, improvise and learn from failures and successes. We would also appreciatively toward others who were working toward similar ends through other means and organizations. Some of these would be other Christian groups. Some would be related to other religious communities or consider themselves entirely secular. The realization of God’s purposes in the lives of individuals and in the world at large is so vast a goal that we would know that many approaches are required. But we would aim to make as great a contribution to the salvation of the world in this new century as Wesley made in England in the eighteenth century and Methodism made in the United States in the nineteenth century as it spread scriptural holiness across the land.

I realize, of course, that what I see as possible for a re-Wesleyanized church is far removed from present reality. Whereas Wesley sized up the problems of eighteenth century England and found a way of responding, we hardly attempt to analyze the deepest problems of our own time. We exhaust ourselves in quarrels about a few ecclesiastical and moral questions. Meanwhile our youth abandon us in droves because we are irrelevant and boring.

This is not the only possibility. The needs of the world, and even of our own nation are even more acute now than they were in Wesley’s day. As individuals people suffer from meaningless and seek meaning fruitlessly in the acquisition of wealth or in irresponsible sensuality. Failing in all this they turn to alcohol or become addicted to drugs. Frustrated, people turn to violence against one another and especially against those who are different. Their need to know the love of God and experience it in their lives is palpable.

Nationally, we are concentrating wealth in fewer and fewer hands. The rich grow richer while the poor grow poorer. We have become insensitive to the suffering of the poor and ignore the existence of the underclass created by our economic policies. Our prisons house one-fourth of all the prisoners in the world! The policies that determine who is imprisoned are heavily racist. As politics is governed more and more by the wealthy, masses of people have given up hope in democratic policies and do not even vote. In these ways much of the progress we thought we had made in this country is rapidly eroding.

One effect of empowering the rich is to reorder the whole world’s economy for the benefit of corporations. These, and not national governments, now rule the world. The growing separation between rich and poor in our country is vastly magnified when viewed on a global scale.

Meanwhile the economic growth that increases the wealth of billionaires is exhausting the planets resources. We are using them at an unsustainable rate, which means that we had are on a collision course with disaster. We are giving out of fresh water, of wood, or soil, of seafood, and of oil. The promise that technology will solve all these problems is grounded in a faith that is not directed to God. Instead of adapting to the need to be cautious and move toward sustainability, we are raising the temperature of the planet in ways will disrupt climates everywhere with unpredictable but disturbing consequences. From all these crises the poor suffer first and most.

Perhaps the reason that we Wesleyans do not now proclaim the good news is that we have no confidence any exists. But if we believe in God we cannot give up our hope. Nor need we do so. Much of course is already lost, but much can still be saved. And human beings can adjust to losses in ways that lead to more humane relationships among them instead of mutual destruction. God cannot give us now what would have been possible had we repented thirty years ago, but God can still give us much. That is good news worth proclaiming.


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