Postmodern and Wesleyan 2
The following is the second half of a lecture on postmodernism and the Wesleyan theological tradition I gave about a year ago. In a previous blog, I proposed five ways in which revisionary postmodernism coheres with Wesleyan theological concerns. In this blog, I propose the final five.
In my previous blog, I qualified how I use the word “postmodern” and why I refer to the Wesleyan tradition among Christian theological traditions. I encourage readers to review that essay briefly before reading this one.
6. An ethics of love
People give various reasons for why humans ought to act morally. Some affirm an ethics of duty: do _x_ because it’s the right thing to do. Modernist Immanuel Kant offers a sophisticated version of this approach. Duty-based ethics runs into significant problems, however, when people have largely different notions of what the right thing to do really involves. And this approach to ethics tends toward legalism.
Others affirm what they typically call “utilitarian ethics:” do _x_ because it provides the greatest good for the greatest number. John Stuart Mill is often identified with this approach. The problem with this approach is that it requires sophisticated rational calculation. And it has a difficult time accounting for what many believe are inalienable rights.
Still others say we ought to do what God commands. In its premodern form, this approach to ethics relied primarily upon the Church. If the Church says it, God commands it. Modernity saw moral authority shift to an individual’s interpretation of the Bible. If an individual’s reading of the Bible suggests God commands a particular ethics, it must be so. In the case of either the Church or the individual, God commands morality.
Various postmodern traditions offer new approaches to ethical justification or return to old ones. Narrative postmodernism criticizes the view that the individual decides right and wrong. It calls for a return to the community/church to be ultimate arbiter.
Liberationist postmodernism privileges the work of emancipation as the ultimate ethical goal. Breaking the chains of oppression – personal, communal, or global – is the right thing to do. Less often does this postmodern tradition provide a constructive answer to the question, “Freed to do what?”
Deconstructive postmodernism typically criticize all attempts to universalize or prescribe right and wrong. Having shown the weaknesses in other alternatives, however, it typically offers no constructive alternative.
All of the ethical theories mentioned have advantages that postmodern ethics should incorporate into a robust view of morality. Revisionary postmodernism does this, but it also shares with the Wesleyan theological tradition a fundamental commitment to love as the core of ethics. This commitment doesn’t mean that all other ethical approaches are unhelpful or invalid. But it does argue we should be primarily concerned with expressing love in each moment and becoming loving people – in community.
Many people today – even those who do not believe in God – intuitively know love should be their ultimate concern. In this way, revisionary postmodernism expresses well a central cry of our time.
Douglas Coupland, the one who coined the label “Generation X,” illustrates this cry in his book, Life after God
“Here is my secret: I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God – that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.”
Revisionary postmodernists can agree with John Wesley when he argued that love is the foundation for theology and ethics. Wesley said:
“There is nothing higher in religion [than love]. And when you are asking others, ‘Have your received this or that blessing?’ if you mean anything more than love, you mean wrong. ….You are to aim at nothing more, but more of that love described in the thirteenth of the Corinthians.”
7. Progress is possible
One hallmark of at least some modern philosophy was the idea progress is inevitable. Philosopher Bertrand Russell serves as a good example of this view, but he essentially tied progress to science. Science tells us truths about the world, said Russell, and in doing so forces out the false myths of religion.
Some modern theologians agreed with the idea of inevitable progress. Chicago theologian, Shailer Matthews, linked his belief in an almighty, benevolent God to the march of science and progress of evolution. For Matthews, there were good theological and scientific reasons to know better days were inevitable.
Not all modernists thought progress inevitable, however. In fact, some denied genuine progress was even possible. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, for instance, scoffed at the idea things were getting genuinely better. For Niebuhr, creation required God to rescue creation sometime in the future.
Postmodernists do not agree among themselves whether to affirm or deny progress. Revisionary postmodernism, however, argues that progress is possible but not inevitable.
With its fundamental commitment to genuine freedom, revisionary postmodernism says creatures can choose good or ill. Their choices have genuine consequences. These consequences can make the world better or worse. Progress is possible, but creatures much choose well.
John Wesley shares this optimism about the possibility of progress. Wesley allegedly said, “The best is yet to be.” This pithy saying coheres with his basic conviction that genuine spiritual growth is possible in sanctification. Wesley believed the new creation began in this life.
Wesley used the word “perfection” to talk about the progress possible in the Christian life. What he meant by perfection, however, differs from what we typically mean today. I prefer the word “transformation” instead of perfection to speak of progress in Christian holiness.
Because Wesley also affirmed genuine creaturely freedom and the sin that comes from using freedom wrongly, his view fits well with the revisionary postmodern belief progress is possible but not inevitable. Sin has negative consequences. It can thwart the growth in grace God desires. But our cooperation as God’s “fellow workers” can further establish the kingdom of God here and now.
8. Relational plausibility
The question of truth has perplexed humans from earliest recorded history. Premodern and modern people attempted to grasp absolute truths absolutely.
Some modern Christians attempt to establish absolute truth by claiming the Bible is absolute truth. This typically means claiming the Bible has absolutely no errors whatsoever. The Bible is inerrant, they say.
The modern project of establishing the absolute truth of the Bible by affirming its inerrancy, however, collapses upon itself. The Bible itself cannot support the project, because it has multiple errors of various types. Fortunately, the vast majority of errors are of minimal consequence.
As a response, some modernists claiming the original biblical manuscripts were error-free. But his response offers no help for establishing that the Bibles we actually have now are absolutely true.
Deconstructive postmodernism reacts to the modern search for absolute certainty by pretending that seeking truth is unnecessary. In its crassest form, this version of postmodernism suggests truth is whatever the individual decides truth to be. The consequences: radical relativism. Such relativism undermines the attempt to make sense of reality.
Narrative postmodernism asks us to seek truth in the stories of the communities. While denying that reason is universal, narrative overcomes individual relativism by seeking truth in the form of life a people share.
Critics of narrative postmodernism charge, however, its approach to truth only moves relativism from the individual to the corporate level. When communities affirm contradictory truths, no grounds remain to resolve this difference. This would mean, for instance, narrative postmodernism implies it to true for Christians that Jesus is the way to salvation and while equally true for atheists that Jesus is not the way.
Rather than seeking the self-assuredness of absolute certainty, revisionary postmodernists seek a humble confidence that some statements or views of reality are truer than others are. In this, they follow the ancient path to seek universal truth, while also acknowledging that some truths are local or based on individual experience.
Revisionary postmodernists are open to and sometimes recast, generalize, and adapt what they believe to be true in light of new experiences and information. For this tradition, experiences of all types – personal, communal, religious, and even the experiences recorded in the Bible or enjoyed Scripture – can lead to ultimate truth. But we should speak about ultimate truth believing we know in part not the whole.
While not specifically constructed with revisionary postmodernism in mind, I believe the Wesleyan quadrilateral fits with the sensibilities of revisionary postmodernism. The quadrilateral claims Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience all contribute to finding truth. These resources cannot provide absolute certainty. But they can provide grounds to claim greater plausibility for some views rather than others.
The pluralism of the quadrilateral – four sources – and the multi-faceted nature of revisionary postmodernism’s knowledge sources fit comfortably together. Truth can be pluriform and yet unified.
9. Cooperation with God
The two final ways revisionary postmodernism coheres with Wesleyan theology are specifically theological.
Over the centuries, those who believe in God have talked about divine activity in many ways. But one dominant way – represented well by some of what John Calvin says – is that God is in complete control. Nothing happens except that either God causes it or allows it to happen.
Modernists of various stripes rebelled against this view of an all-determining God. For some, it is better to claim creatures are autonomous, independent, and entirely free vis-à-vis God. God created the world, but humans are now able to act freely.
Revisionary postmodernism affirms with Wesleyan theology a middle way between the God who controls everything and the view that creatures are entirely independent agents.
Wesleyans and revisionary postmodernists typically affirm what John Wesley called “preventing grace” and what today we know as “prevenient grace.” All creatures rely upon God’s empowering and inspiring activity in each moment of existence. But God acts so that creatures may freely respond. God does not control all things; but creature are not entirely independent of God.
Prevenient grace goes by other names, including “cooperative grace,” “responsible grace,” and “enabling grace.” Most versions of this theory argue that part of what it means to be God is lovingly to provide freedom/agency to others. Divinely initiated synergy is possible.
I want to choose an uncommon (and perhaps unique) illustration to show how we might understand a central Christian practice in premodern, modern, and revisionary postmodern terms. The practice I have in mind is the celebration of the Eucharist.
Some Christians believe that in receiving the Eucharist, God uses the elements to determine one’s salvation entirely. In this case, the Eucharist becomes a kind of “power pill,” unilaterally effective no matter what the receiver does.
Some modernist Christians, however, think of the Eucharist as something we partake to remember the death of Christ. Christians who view the Eucharist as memorial typically consider God’s action something done in the distant past for us to recall in the present.
When celebrating the Eucharist, revisionary postmodernists and Wesleyans can affirm God is truly present and active in that celebration. But the effectiveness of the meal is partly dependent upon how the receiver responds to God in and through the wine and bread. God is truly present; the past is truly remembered. But the celebration involves divine call and human response today when celebrating God’s love and our love for God, others, and ourselves.
10. Relational God
Just as believers throughout history have understood God’s activity in various ways, so too have Christians thought differently of God’s capacity to relate to others.
A strong tradition in premodern times said the Father is unaffected by creation. This view denied “patripassionism,” because it said that while Jesus suffered on the Cross, the perfect Father remained unaffected. With Aristotle, these believers believed that God (at least the Father) was the unmoved mover.
Two prominent modern theologians largely continued the tradition of denying patripassionism. Paul Tillich, for instance, described God as “Being Itself.” Tillich could not understand God well as a Person(s) with give-and-receive relations with creatures.
Karl Barth worried philosophers considered God so similar to creatures that they stripped God of divinity. In response, Barth claimed God was “Wholly Other.” If we take this label seriously and literally, God cannot be understood or talked about in any constructive way. Barth appealed to the revelation of Jesus Christ as a way to overcome this problem. But this appeal was only partly helpful, because it wrongly assumed our statements about Jesus were free from philosophical categories.
Revisionary postmodern and Wesleyan theology envision God as relational. This view fits well with the biblical witness. God enjoys genuine give-and-receive, mutually influential relationships with creatures. God is the most moved mover.
The importance of a relational vision of God is hard to overemphasize. It is crucial for understanding God’s love, as I have argued in many publications. It makes constructive language about God plausible. And it seems central to making sense of the heart of the gospel message.
One important but sometimes overlooked implication of the view God is relational is its impact on how we understand religious experience. If God is relational — both in Trinity and toward creation — we can discover powerful clues about how we might imitate God. God can be our example for what it means to establish and maintain loving relationships with others. Personal and communal Christian formation involves reciprocity, friendship, and sacrifice for the good of others.
There is much, much more I could say about each of these subjects. Blogs reward brevity, however, and I’m already worried that my reward has diminished! For now, I hope this post and the previous provide an outline of ten significant ways revisionary postmodern coheres with the Wesleyan tradition.
It bears repeating that Christians in other theological traditions may affirm most if not all the ten items I list. Wesleyans surely don’t have the corner on revisionary postmodernism!
But I do think the Wesleyan tradition naturally coheres with this postmodern tradition. And this natural coherence bodes well for both Wesleyans and this postmodern perspective.