My 2019 Opening Convocation Address (Part IV): Deeper Ecumenism in Our Public Witness

In the first of this four-part blog series, I identified one of the central problems we face today in our society; namely, the inability to frame a proper moral argument. Our challenge is far beyond simply knowing what is right or wrong. We have slipped even further to the point where we are not even sure if moral categories exist independently of our own personal perspectives. Part one of this series explored this problem in some detail. The next two blog entries focus on the first two of three “solutions” or “ways forward” in addressing this problem. The first was to better understand the power of embodying the “means of grace” as a part of our public witness to the world. The second addressed the need to emphasize the formation of our minds, not just our hearts. We have a lot of sloppy thinking in our Wesleyan movement and it is time we recognize this and work to address it. Today we examine a third solution as we move forward.

The third shift which this generation calls for is the need to embrace a deeper ecumenism in our public witness. We must transcend the divides which have long characterized our understanding of our place in the Christian world. We know of the classic divides between Roman Catholic and Protestant; between Protestant mainline liberals and Protestant mainline conservatives, between evangelicals and fundamentalists, between charismatic and non-charismatics, between Reformed and Arminian, and between liturgical and non-liturgical, to name a few. These are the categories which have largely defined how we position ourselves within the body of Christ. So you come to Christ and slowly your identity becomes formed to mainline, or evangelical, or fundamentalist, or Pentecostal, or charismatic, or Arminian, etc. Brothers and sisters, without diminishing the importance of these distinctions, we must recognize how they are influenced, sometimes heightened, sometimes diminished, as we collectively find our new place in an increasingly post-Christian setting.

When I first went to North India there was at that time only one church for every 3,000 villages. So, naturally, we were quite generous with whatever Christians we found. Now, North America and Western Europe are the fastest growing mission fields in the world. This calls for fresh alignments and a deeper shared commitment, even while we hold to our cherished distinctives. This is not a call to some kind of generic Christianity, but a deep commitment to historic faith which recognizes that some of the boundaries which have divided Christians play out differently when the church finds itself in a culture increasingly hostile to malformed perceptions of what it even means to be a Christian at all.

Many churches across the whole spectrum of Christian identity have become co-opted in different ways by the surrounding culture. Our observations are too shallow if we think that only the “other Christians” have been co-opted, but not our group. In this re-assessment we as Wesleyans may have an advantage because we occupy as part of our DNA a conciliar tradition which has never been easily pigeon-holed into evangelical or mainline, or charismatic or non-charismatic, liturgical or non-liturgical, etc. Our distinctive Wesleyan identity will of course remain vital, but that very identity allows us fresh opportunities for new forms of engagement. But surely we must understand that an increasingly post-Christian culture no longer has a clue what it means to be a Baptist, or a Charismatic, or a Roman Catholic. In Kentucky, a drive from Wilmore to Lexington will bring you past dozens of churches, which says a lot of things to you, but seems confusing to the world. More importantly, the world finds it difficult to discern the basic Christian message is.

Historically, 17th century pietism, although it was birthed within Lutheranism, eventually had a profound impact on so much of what Protestantism as a whole now embraces. It created some very powerful alignments across the church. The holiness movement of the 19th century did give birth to several new denominations, but the deeper story of the holiness movement is far broader, as it ushered in a deeper appreciation for the consecrated life, sanctification, and holy living across much of the Protestant landscape. The 20th century neo-evangelical movement was neither birthed in, nor housed in any single denomination, but was a movement of theological cohesion which brought fresh alignments across 40 different denominations ranging from Assemblies of God to Christian and Missionary Alliance to the Evangelical Presbyterians to the Free Methodists, to the Wesleyans to the Presbyterian Church in America to the Salvation Army, all members of the National Association of Evangelicals. In short, the evangelical movement had a profound uniting influence across the whole Christian landscape.

Today, we need to find new forms of alignment with all those committed to historic Christian faith, the defining creeds of the faith, and the ecumenical consensus of the patristic fathers. Christians committed to historic Christianity who find themselves on the periphery of a mainline church, or within the Roman Catholic communion, and so forth, must find one another and strengthen one another. There are tens of millions of Christians around the world who are prepared to stand together for the historic faith, the authority of Scripture, the centrality of Christ, and our shared mission to serve the world and proclaim the gospel. We should not see ourselves as some fragile group on the fringes. Rather, we should see ourselves as part and parcel of the grand body of Christ which reaches around the world and across all time. We do not yet know what this will look like, but the categories which have long defined us are no longer fully suitable for the cultural and ecclesiastical terrain which we now face. The field of play has changed and we need to better understand the cultural space we newly occupy.

This past summer, for the first time in history, the New York Yankees played the Boston Red Sox in London. They realized too late in the process that a soccer field was not suitable to play baseball. But, they were already committed to the series. For example, British soil is too slick when wet to play baseball. Furthermore, the lights for a soccer field were too low to survive baseballs flying through the air. To rectify these conditions, 345 tons of dirt and clay had to be brought across the Atlantic by a company called DuraEdge from Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania. The lights had to be wrapped in chicken wire so they would not be destroyed. These are just a few examples of the changes which had to happen to make a soccer field suitable for baseball.

Today, we can no longer ignore that we are trying to play Christianity on a cultural field which is alien to the Christian faith. We must, symbolically speaking, bring in 345 tons of catechesis and protect things once thought assumed, if we are to flourish. We have a steep, uphill climb if we are to establish vibrant Christian communities who embody the means of grace, who have learned to think Christianly, and who better understand the role of the wider church as we face this challenge together. Christians have faced similar challenges in our long and checkered history, and, in the long run, the church of Jesus Christ will flourish once again, because Christ himself promised us that He will build His church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Thanks be to God for that.

My 2019 Opening Convocation Address (Part III): The Mind as a Neglected Sphere of Spiritual Formation

This is the third part in this series taken from my Fall convocation message to the Asbury Theological Seminary community. In the first part I explored the problem we face with the loss of the ability to frame a moral argument in our culture, and sadly, within the church itself. I then went on to propose three “shifts” in our actions to address this problem. Today’s article highlights the second shift.

The next major shift which we need to be attentive to is the neglected sphere of the mind as one of the focal points of holistic spiritual formation. In a post-Christendom, increasingly post-Christian world, faith exists only in a diminished, domesticated, privatized form with its locus in the heart. Even we, at times, get lulled into the notion that spiritual formation is only a matter of the heart. When we look back over church history and think about explosive, divisive moments in our story one quickly thinks about the Great Schism of 1054 which marks the separation of the Roman Catholic Church from the Eastern Orthodox Church. One might think about the year 1517 which marks the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Certainly these are momentous events in the history of the church. But, perhaps we have failed to recall the importance of the split or separation between theology and spirituality that occurred at the end of the 13th century. Before 1300 all of the great theologians of the church, whether Chrysostom, or Gregory of Nyssa, or Augustine, or Bernard of Clairvaux, were formed by spiritual disciplines and, yet, were at their core theologians. Clairvaux, for example, was the chief writer in drawing up the synodal statues at the Council of Troyes. He was famous for his theological debates with Peter Abelard, and yet he was also founding monasteries and giving us lectio divina. After 1300 none of the great masters of spirituality, Meister Eckhart (died 1328), Teresa of Avila (died 1582), Blaise Pascal (died 1662), or Thomas Merton, were academic theologians.

The division of theology and spirituality as two separate disciplines has ended up harming both. One of the restorations embodied by the Wesleyan vision is that great nuptial embrace which forms the head and the heart. Charles Wesley captured it in his hymn, the fifth verse which declares, “unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety: learning and holiness combined, and truth and love, let all men see . . . ” It is a singular tribute to the holistic Wesleyan vision that the late Thomas Oden, one of the premier theologians of our movement, also produced books such as Kerygma and Counseling and Contemporary Theology and Psychotherapy. John Wesley is sometimes wrongly accused of not being a “real” theologian because he was also interested in the disciplines which give rise to authentic spirituality. Yet, beloved, this was not a weakness of Wesley, but his very genius; he reunited what had been divided for over 300 years.

As the world is drawn to our wholeness and they ask us for the reason, we need to be able to give a well-reasoned defense for the hope that is within us. We cannot currently do this because we ourselves have gradually become tentative about the Christian proclamation. Divine revelation and self-disclosure has been, in our day, downgraded to nothing more than “our personal perspective,” or “what works for us.”

Christian ministers must embody afresh the deep commitment that central to formation is the formation of the mind; learning to think well about things and having the courage to articulate it. We must engage with the world’s ways of thinking about things, and respond with a thoughtful Christian alternative. We must recognize the powerful catechesis which unintentionally takes place in the wider culture which affirms a whole array of non-Christian assumptions. Therefore, we must counter that catechesis with a deep commitment to Christian discipleship which reclaims our distinctive voice in a myriad of competing voices and the loss of a moral center. We must reclaim the hard work of discipleship and forming the heart and the mind to occupy the newly emerging cultural landscape. We must reclaim the patristic tradition of the Apologists who engaged with rigorous fervor the intellectual climate of their day. Our struggles over same sex marriage and gender re-assignment are just two vivid examples of how much homework we have to do. We are experiencing the rise of a new Gnosticism. This challenge will force us to go back and do the difficult work articulating a Christian theology of the body and deeply understanding how these challenges relate to the grand theological life of the church. Many books have been released by people claiming to be Wesleyan leaders. However, their encouragement to abandon long-standing Christian views of the body, and of marriage, and the centrality and uniqueness of Jesus Christ are largely theologically empty and tepid. The church should roll up its sleeves and determine to do better, if for no other reason than to rescue our movement from perpetual public embarrassment.

Indeed, there is a whole spectrum of work to be done along many lines, and a myriad of other challenges, and it cannot be done until we fully give ourselves to the formation of the mind. Without this, we will end up like the schoolboy who refused to do his homework and then wonders why he failed the exam. The culture is testing us and we must do our homework in order to have coherent answers for the moral quagmires of our time. We must also recognize the many distractions which keep us from articulating the gospel in compelling and confident ways. The once congenial world of Christendom and broad shared cultural assumptions is now clearly in the rear view mirror and we must rise to the new realities we are facing.

Our next article will focus on the third solution to this quagmire we are in.

My 2019 Opening Convocation Address (Part II): Embodying the Means of Grace

I began this series by posing the central problem we face in our cultural moment, namely, the inability to frame a moral argument. Today, in Part II, I propose the first of three solutions to this problem.

John Wesley understood that there are times when you cannot “make an argument” to the surrounding culture. But, precisely when a culture cannot hear an argument, it cannot easily dismiss someone who quietly embodies it. The embodiment of truth, wholeness, and human flourishing is one of the most powerful testimonies to God’s existence in the world.

As Christians, we begin by remembering that moral values are intrinsic to persons, not to things. So when we talk about kindness, faithfulness, generosity, fairness, justice, etc. those are not simply values which are hanging out there in disembodied space, but are embodied in God himself and then in us as persons, created as those created in the image of God. Ethics, therefore, is personal, flowing from the very nature of God who created us in his image and made us image bearers in the world. Even Aristotle knew that there must be some external fixed point, the so-called “Unmoved Mover” or “First cause,” which later Aquinas identified as God in Aristotelian ethics. In classical Scholastic theology the Latin phrase described God as the norma normans sed non normata–the norm of norms which cannot be normed, i.e. an objective being who is objectively outside the material universe, but has personally entered it in the person of Jesus Christ as the full embodiment of truth and righteousness.

Even Aristotle understood that when we do not embody the virtues, there will be a gap between our lives and genuine human flourishing. In that gap is where we find depression, anxiety, fear, rage, and so forth. In the recent tragic shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California on July 28th someone, in the midst of the shooting, screamed the question to the active shooter: “Why are you doing this?” to which he reportedly replied, “Because I am very angry.” Active shooters leading to tragic deaths, as we have seen recently in Dayton and in El Paso, are just one of many signs that we are not flourishing as a culture. Therefore, as Christians, when we embody the virtues and the means of grace, we will flourish as a community. This is why Paul says in Philippians 2 that we are to be “blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life . . . ” (Phil. 2:15, 16a). What does it avail us if we win a nasty political fight over the definition of marriage if our own actual marriages are falling apart?

Wesley taught that God has provided many ways, or “means” of grace, which enable us to grow and to incorporate the life of Christ within us on a daily basis. Wesley defined means of grace as “outward signs, words or actions, employed by God, and appointed to this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey . . . prevenient, justifying or sanctifying grace” (John Wesley, Sermon no. 16). Wesley suggests, for example, that the public reading of Scripture, receiving the Eucharist, prayer, obedience to God’s Word, denying oneself, and works of piety are all given to us by God as ways of promoting sanctification in our lives.

But, for our purposes here, I want us to see the means of grace not only in personal terms, i.e. helping us to mature spiritually and grow in personal holiness, but also we must see the larger missional power, the public witness, of the embodied means of grace when embodied by the church. If the world meets someone who is prayerful, who does works of piety—selflessly serving the poor, or on Sunday doesn’t just sleep in, but puts themselves and their families in the midst of the baptized community of those who follow Jesus, it has a powerful effect. It is missional. G. K. Chesterton famously said that even “those who reject the doctrine of the incarnation are different for having heard of it.” The very idea that God became one of us has a powerful force upon the human psyche. It challenges our imaginations and forces someone to reassess God’s whole relationship with the world. In the same way, a church which embodies the means of grace invades the imagination and forces the society to consider that there just might be a loving God who rules and reigns the universe, and has a true transformational influence on those who belong to him. If we are not ourselves transformed by the gospel, then the world has every right to simply see us as merely using religion as demagogues or charlatans serving a political agenda. We lose our witness when we embody so much of the brokenness which the world is experiencing.

Brothers and sisters, authentic embodiment is the necessary foundation for public proclamation. Our culture is very uneasy with strong moral statements. In today’s climate, ethical statements come across as inherently judgmental. To love someone today means, in the wider culture, to affirm whatever it is someone happens to say or believe. Likewise, to disagree with someone in today’s emotive climate is almost defacto to say that we do not love that person. This climate is actually yet another sign of our inability to frame a moral argument, because we now live in a culture of self-invention (i.e. nothing extrinsic to yourself can be used as a standard for evaluation of a right or wrong course of action). Richard Dawkins, the zoologist who has gained fame as an outspoken atheist, voices, without realizing it, the culture of self-invention when he refers to our existence as a “blind, unconscious process which Darwin discovered . . . and which has no purpose.” This new view seeks to separate the created order from any moral framework. Camille Paglia, the popular author and activist, wrote, “Fate, not God, has given us this flesh. We have absolute claim to our bodies and may do with them as we see fit.” Thus, we now live in a cultural climate where all meaning is subjective and is an arbitrary extension of human autonomy.

This culture of self-invention is unleashing objective, observable chaos, and the decline of human flourishing. The polls cited earlier prove that the wider culture is aware of it, but they have no idea why it has happened or what can be done to address it. This presents a huge opportunity for the church to embody the means of grace and thereby to truly embody human flourishing in such a profound way that the world will take notice. We were not designed for immorality. Brokenness is always, even unknowingly, attracted to wholeness. There is an inherent attraction to embodied holiness, order, light, and human flourishing. Therefore, we must understand that embodying the means of grace is not just about our personal spiritual growth, but is actually missional and a powerful embodiment of our public witness to the world. Indeed, it is the absolute prerequisite for gaining a cultural permission slip to, once again, engage in a moral argument.

This is why every reader of this article should consider becoming part of a Wesleyan band of discipleship (see http://discipleshipbands.com) so as micro-communities, we can more effectively learn how to embody the very presence of Christ in our midst.

My 2019 Opening Convocation Address (Part I): A Way Forward for Our Time

Every year, as President of Asbury Theological Seminary, I have the privilege of delivering a major address to the entire community which formally marks the kick off of a new academic year. I am going to be sharing this message (with some adaptations) with you in four parts. The first part is a diagnosis of one of the deepest problems we face in society, and the remaining days I will propose three solutions, or ways forward.

Since 2002, The Gallup polling group has been issuing an annual report regarding American perceptions of the moral climate in the country. Gallup tracks attitudes about 19 moral issues, ranging from abortion, to doctor-assisted suicide, to extra-marital affairs, as well as general perceptions about the overall moral climate.1 This year American overall perceptions about the moral climate of our country have slipped to its lowest point. In the Gallop Poll, more than 4 in 5 people (81%) now rate the state of moral values in the United States as only fair or poor.

A recent PEW study also asked Americans about their perceptions regarding the moral climate of the country. An astonishing 77% of Americans believe that the moral climate in the country is not only in decline, but they are either “very worried” or “fairly worried” about what this means for the future of our country.2 Studies have been conducted in other countries around the world with similar findings.

The decline in the moral fabric of our country is a serious concern for us all. However, it may not be the biggest challenge we face. Could it be that our dilemma as a nation is actually deeper than even our friends at Gallop or PEW fully recognize? Our problem, more fundamentally, has been the loss of moral categories and, therefore, the loss of a proper moral argument.

One of the more insightful philosophers who has thought about our situation is the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in his classic work, After Virtue. He argues that while there is plenty of evidence of declining morals in Western society, the more profound challenge is the inability to even frame a moral argument.3 We no longer have sufficient shared assumptions as a culture to reach any kind of consensus on moral questions, whether based on a broad Judeo-Christian ethic found in Holy Scripture, or even Aristotle’s account of virtues and human flourishing, in his Nicomachean Ethics. Therefore, with the loss of any foundation for moral argument, the only path for contemporary society is to find new ways to accommodate endless human preferences within an increasingly fractured society.

This loss of a moral framework means that, despite the ongoing use of moral language in various cultural arguments, there can be no final resolution, or what MacIntyre calls a “terminus” point.4 He cites various common moral debates within society, demonstrating that because there is no shared moral framework in these national conversations, they end up not being “conversations” at all, with pros and cons evaluated based on a shared moral framework. Rather, they end up as staged shouting matches where we just yell at one another. MacIntrye calls this descent of ethics into shouting in the 21st century Western world “emotivism.” He describes emotivism as the point you reach when “all morals are nothing but expressions of [personal] preference” or “expressions of attitudes or feelings.”5 Chastity, for example, was long held to be a shared virtue in our society. However, MacIntyre argues that chastity “in a world uninformed by either Aristotelian or biblical values will make very little sense to the adherents of the dominant culture.”6

Consider the sheer force of moral questions which are posed to our society today: Is it morally permissible for the state to execute someone for a crime? Are State Lotteries morally acceptable? What is the definition of marriage? Do we have a moral obligation to protect someone who flees a murderous regime and arrives at our border seeking asylum? Is profiling a legally-permissible method of law enforcement? Is it permissible to utilize the services of a doctor to end your own life? Should race be a determinative factor in college admissions? Should insurance companies pay for gender re-assignment surgery? Are reparations for past sins a form of just resolution? This list goes on and on. These are just a few of the questions which have presented themselves to our culture in recent years, and we know how these questions play out.

Quite tragically, our deepest moral questions today are “resolved” not through moral argumentation on either side at all, but through the exertion of my will over your will by means of power. This is probably best exemplified in our culture by the now all-too-familiar 5-4 vote on the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the church has not been immune to this loss of moral argumentation. Similar will-to-power votes have happened in churches under conflict. A recent, well publicized example of this can be seen in the 438 to 384 vote on human sexuality at the General Conference of the United Methodist denomination this past February. While I was pleased that the church stood for historic orthodoxy, I was disappointed that despite over two years of special study on the topic the church never engaged in anything remotely close to a proper moral argument where a case was laid out biblically, historically, exegetically and pastorally, etc. Instead, we only got what all moral argument has become in our day, namely, what MacIntyre calls the “clash of antagonistic wills.”7 This is the deeper malaise which I am highlighting; not merely the decline of morals, but the collapse of the very categories which might make any kind of moral argument possible. We are actually not simply in a crisis of moral epistemology, i.e. how do we know whether something is right or wrong, or the meaning of moral sentences and how they interact one with another which is the hard work of ethicists (that has always been with us). Rather, more profoundly, we are in a crisis of moral ontology. Moral ontology asks whether or not morals objectively exist independently of us. Or, as some might claim, are morals merely mental and societal constructs with no objective foundation? It seems, as a society, the retreat of the Christian worldview has left us in a deep mire, with no objective foundation for the very concept and framework of morality.

Certainly, part of the mission of Asbury Theological Seminary is to recognize the inherent problems with emotivism as a moral solution in our culture, but also to resist the temptation to simply accept this collapsed moral state and engage in some form of power politics, some Christianized version of Nietzsche’s “will to power.”8

Beloved, this is not some esoteric article which has nothing to do with your ministry. This challenge lies at the heart of what you are facing in your lives and ministries, because what goes on in the halls of congress, or the floor of your denominational national meetings, is also going on in Sunday School rooms and homes and schools and in the workplace across America and, in various degrees, around the world.

In future installments, I will explore solutions for addressing this dilemma.

1. Jeffrey M. Jones “Americans Hold Record Liberal Views on Most Moral Issues,” (Poll conducted, May 3-7, 2017 with 1,011 randomly selected adults 18 or older. www.news.gallup.com (May 11, 2017).
2. Kim Parker, Rich Morin and Juliana Menasce Horowitz, “Looking to the Future, Public Sees an America in Decline on Many Fronts” www.Pewsocialtrends.org (March 21 2019).
3. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd edition, (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame Press, 2007).
4. MacIntyre, 6.
5. MacIntyre, 12. The early chapters of MacIntyre’s book is dedicated to demonstrating the flaws in emotivism as a philosophical theory to provide moral guidance in a society. For example, in the early 20th century many people felt that racism was morally justified and it required a proper moral argument to convince the wider society that it was “right” to at least begin to dismantle the moral scourge of racism. The resurgence of racism in our own time reveals the deeper tragedy that the moral argument upon which the fight against racism was waged has become eroded and there is no longer a sufficient moral framework for addressing an issue as important as racism.
6. MacIntyre, 232.
7. MacIntyre, 9. McIntyre demonstrates the vast difference between the statements, “this is good” or “this is right” from statements like “I approve of this” or “I think this is best.”
8. Nietzsche’s so-called “genealogy of morals”, as it turns out, is not traced back far enough. The source of all morals is God’s own being, grounded in his existence as pure love and holiness.