June 28th, 2003, is the tercentenary of the birth of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church. In eighteenth century England he was a man with a mission, and that mission was ‘to spread scriptural holiness through the land.’ In this tercentenary year, the European Methodist Theological Commission offers this update on Wesley’s central theme to the Methodist Churches of Europe and to all seekers after spiritual life.
We have chosen the title Finding a New Life for two reasons. Firstly, because that was what Wesley’s own spiritual search was about, and we believe that many people are also engaged in a similar search for full and authentic life today. Secondly, because we believe that new life is what the God who makes himself known to us in Jesus Christ wants for and offers to all people. For Wesley and for us, however, this title should not be interpreted in a narrowly individualistic or simply personal way. Wesley’s project was to renew society and the Church, as well as individuals, and his vision of transformation went beyond that of a transformed personal life.
For Wesley Scriptural Holiness was a search, a process or to use a common word in contemporary spirituality, a journey. For the individual it was a journey from new birth to spiritual maturity, from sinfulness to ‘perfection’, from ‘original sin’ through ‘justification by faith’ to ‘entire sanctification’, to use his traditional phraseology. The personal goal of ‘holiness of heart and life’ was an integrated life filled with awareness of the love of God, marked by freedom from the guilt and power of sin, and lived in love towards others – a mature, responsible, fulfilled life. It was, for him and for most people, a journey begun and continued, rather than a destination reached or goal achieved. And it was a journey undertaken in company with others, in ‘fellowship’, not one walked alone. The implications of such transformation, he also insisted, were practical and tangible, extending to a renewed Church in England and to a reformed society.
But we are living in the twenty-first century, not the eighteenth, and much has changed in our understanding of ourselves, our world and God since then. It could therefore be argued that nothing that Wesley had to say in his day is relevant to ours. Indeed there are many who go further and say that the same applies to Jesus Christ and all the voices of Europe’s Christian past. As Methodist Christians we believe such a dismissal of history to be mistaken. What follows is, therefore, written out of the conviction that the Christian Faith remains a meaningful option for twenty-first century human beings, and that what Wesley had glimpsed about the journey of faith is relevant to our spirituality today. We believe that Christianity offers a spirituality for contemporary humanity and a meaningful world-view for the third millennium, and that the need for and way of transformation through God’s grace is as pertinent for us as it was for Wesley. In what follows we hope to outline what that is.
Neither of the words ‘world-view’ or ‘spirituality’ featured in John Wesley’s vocabulary, and both of them are sometimes quite vague in ours: but they are two important words in our contemporary human search for meaning. We believe that everyone, whether they recognise it or not, has a world-view, a map on which they live and by which they orient their values, lifestyle, attitude and daily living. We believe too that spirituality is a fundamental component of being human, that our desires for meaning, purpose and connection with others and with something larger than oneself go deep. It is also our conviction that we live in an age of competing world-views and of a wide-ranging search for a fulfilling spirituality into which the churches should not be afraid to offer their testimony.
To explore all this further and to suggest what a ‘new life’ with a Christian world-view and spirituality for the twenty-first century might look like, we propose to begin by looking at the world we live in and to do so by briefly answering four questions: Who are we? Where are we? What is wrong? What is the solution?
2 The world we live in
2.1 Who are we?
We can give a number of answers to this question depending on the level at which it is asked. At one level, the personal, ‘we’ are individual human beings, single examples of the unimaginatively diverse multitude of individuals who people planet Earth, each pursuing their own interests, seeking their own pleasures, suffering their own misfortunes, living out their own lives according to their own agendas, needs and circumstances here, there and everywhere. We are individuals. Each one of us is located in a particular place and time, with a unique genetic code, history, experience and potential.
At a second level, the communal, ‘we’ are members of communities, with a corporate and shared identity given by the communities in which we belong with others by instinct, choice or necessity. These are the communities of family, clan or tribe; of ethnic group; of nationality; of place or history; of religion; of interest or occupation; of age and of gender. Human beings are inevitably members of communities and builders of communities. ‘It is not good to be alone’ seems to be not only a Biblical saying but a common feature of human experience, so living in relationships, in community, is another feature of our shared humanity and of our individual human being.
At the widest, global, level, ‘we’ are human beings, members of a single race who share a common humanity. Our common humanity includes a shared history of life on our small planet and a set of common experiences: we are born, we flourish, we grow old, we die; if we are cut we bleed; we laugh, we cry; we love, we hate; we build, we pull down; we bond in marriage and raise children; we build communities; we paint, sing and write; we farm, trade and make; we think, learn and reflect; we worship and pray; we plan the future and rehearse the past; we experience a common set of joys and we carry a common set of burdens. No two combinations of these things are the same for any two individuals, and different cultures evaluate and process these common experiences in different ways, but being human is a universal, shared, common factor which unites the world’s teeming millions of human individuals.
2.2 Where are we?
At the global level, ‘we’ are in one very particular and special place. We inhabit a tiny, beautiful, blue planet in the corner of a small galaxy in an unimaginably vast universe. At the individual level ‘we’ are everywhere, or almost everywhere, on the land mass of that planet, thriving or sometimes barely surviving in hugely diverse environments.
As this paper comes from the European Methodist Theological Commission, perhaps the answer to where we are at the communal level has to be that ‘we’ are in Europe, with all that that implies. Whether or not any of the writers or readers of this paper are prepared to think of themselves primarily as ‘Europeans’ is a moot point, which could itself form the basis of an interesting discussion. The region itself, to use a deliberately neutral term, shares a particular history and enjoys politically, culturally and economically both a growing unity and a continuing diversity, which it would take a considerably larger paper than this one to describe with any degree of adequacy. All that needs to be affirmed here is the importance of both the unity and the diversity, for either one without the other leads inevitably to instability and to a greying poverty of experience.
But beyond that another pressing issue emerges, that of globalisation, which affects our identity at every level. This creation and incarnation of the global corporate system is a comprehensive plan to subordinate domestic economies, and inevitably local cultures too, to transnational banking and corporate rule. The effect of this is the increasing sameness of our world, especially culturally and economically, as the culture emerging from the United States and the militant consumerism of its economics and politics displace the local and the different at the cost both of the local culture and the global environment. On almost every indicator of social and ecological life from health protection and literacy development to the maintenance of bio-diversity and the planet’s security of air, water, soil and climate, the propaganda of permanent growth and rising living standards for all has been shown to be false as the result of the restructuring of societies for corporate globalisation has proved to be increasingly destructive. Helped along by the amazing technological developments of the past few decades, not least the micro-electronics revolution, distances have shrunk and the availability of information mushroomed via the internet and the world wide web. At the same time these processes have helped to spread a heterogeneous and largely commercial culture in which the gaps between rich and poor are widening, decision-making power is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, local cultures are being wiped out and bio-diversity destroyed. This is the sad reality of globalisation. A unique opportunity for human progress has been thwarted, and instead we have a global economic system which feeds on itself while marginalising the fundamental human needs of people and communities, politically, economically and culturally.
Another contemporary buzzword is post-modernity, a slippery word used to describe where we are now in time. The modern age has ended, and we now live in post-modernity, so we are told, and perhaps that is a useful way of describing post-modernity and its effects. The modern age was the age of science with its universal and clear definition of truth – the only truths were those you could obtain by seeing, handling, weighing and measuring; with its promised infallible ability in time to solve every problem and answer every question and its deep scorn of feelings, faith and all values not its own. But science was not able to deliver on its promises, and its reign has been replaced by a fairground celebration that there is no one, single, all-embracing way of looking at life and no single set of values which offer a universal answer to our questions. So definitions are now out, and feelings, openness, poetry and a supermarket of choices are in. Each of us lives our own life, picking and mixing our lifestyles, values, interests, faiths and philosophies as we will, open to whatever truths we choose to find or create for ourselves.
For some Christians post-modernity represents a great if not a greater threat than modernity. At least in modernity you could counter the authority of science with the authority of Bible, Church or Creed; and even if this was at times the desperation of a besieged minority, the Church could at least take comfort that it was being counter-cultural. But in post-modernity appeal to any kind of external authority at all is deeply suspect, and where are we, they fear, when all religions and ideologies are considered to be equally valid? Others see post-modernity as an opportunity. It may be an opportunity to share experiences and to give testimony, for post-moderns are very interested in experience and want to know ‘what it’s like for you’ and ‘what works for you’, as long as you will listen to their testimony and experience with the same openness. It is certainly an opportunity to talk about spiritual things, about the transcendent and the beyond, for if secularity and modernity went hand in hand in the previous age, spirituality and post-modernity seem to do so in this. Whether post-modernity is a threat or an opportunity for Christianity is an open question: but what is not in doubt is that post-modernity with its many identities and ever-changing shapes has arrived.
2.3 What is wrong?
2.3.1 It could be argued that this is not the right question to be asking at all, because it simply reflects traditional Christian pessimism which instinctively sees humanity as itself a problem or at the very least as beset by problems. On the other hand, it is a question to which it is possible to give an answer, ‘Nothing’, though few world-views actually give that answer. As it is this question invites discussion: how is humanity to be evaluated - positively, neutrally or negatively? So we can ask ourselves: What is wrong with us – individually, communally, globally?
2.3.2 At the individual level there is the positive and the negative, but also the ambivalent. It is easy to overlook the positive, for as we know from the media, good news is not news at all. Millions of ordinary lives are lived quietly and inconspicuously, coping with life’s inevitable ups and downs and achieving an unspectacular but real enough satisfaction as life goes on. That kind of success in the search for happiness, meaning and fulfilment is not to be despised. Then there are those who do all the good they can, in all the ways they can, to all the people they can, for as long as they can and so brighten the lives of others in many different ways. Finally, there are the spectacular achievements of individuals in art, science, music, technology and literature which enrich our daily living immeasurably. There is much to rejoice over and to celebrate in the kaleidoscopic variety of human being in which we find ourselves. But there is a downside. There are many of us on the planet and we compete against each other for security, status and affection; we measure our success in terms of superiority over and defeat of the ‘other’. Or life becomes a privatised search for personal fulfilment, with ‘me’ at the centre. At its worst there is ‘oppression, lust and crime’ and a million different indignities and hurts inflicted by one upon another. Our media are full of examples of that side of our personal behaviour. Then there is the ambivalent: the good deed done from the wrong motive, the wrong thing done as the lesser of two evils, the conflict of equal values in the ethical dilemma exposing the vulnerable and agonising nature of our morality and our decision-making. It is not all bad, just as it is not all good, most of it is simply ordinary, making the most of who and what we are, coping as best we can with life as it comes at us: but here too is ambivalence – the quiet ordinary life which does no one else any harm may not do them much good either and is probably only able to be enjoyed at all because of the security created by global structures of oppression and injustice.
2.3.3 At the communal level too we can observe the good, the bad and the ambivalent. There are communities which support and enable those inside them and which care for those outside them, which encourage vision and generate altruism; communities which stretch their members, widen their horizons, maximise their potentials and increase the sum total of human happiness, goodness, virtue and love. There are, also, communities which in their own interests promote faction, or which demonise other communities on the basis of ethnicity, politics, religion or other pretext. In such communities we love our friends, those like us, and hate our enemies, those unlike us. The end of the Soviet Empire and, symbolically, the destruction of the Berlin Wall, have not, for example, resulted in a new era of peace. Whilst there have been new freedoms and new prosperity for some former communist states, there has also been increased tension between newly emerging nation states and open aggression within others between different ethnic groups. ‘Community’ is a two-edged sword.
2.3.4 What of the ‘global’, common humanity, level? The Bible begins with the powerful picture of God creating humanity in his own image, blessing it and giving it a share in his ongoing responsibility of creating and blessing the world. Humanity thus receives a great ‘Yes’ from God, which affirms the joyful blessedness of life and the tremendous potential of humanity. Against that, however, must be put the second creation picture at the beginning of the Bible, in which the first man and woman spoil the life God has given them, and relationships with God, with each other and with the created order are blighted. Humanity thus creates a huge ‘No’ for itself, which echoes through centuries and across cultures in human inhumanities, alienation and pain. And that ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ to and in our common humanity continues to this day.
2.3.5 There is much to celebrate at every level of our patchwork identities, individual, communal and global. There is also much to deplore. And those two facts are recognised in most religions and world-views. There is, we therefore suggest, a common universal experience of dissonance, that is, awareness of the gap between the ideal and the real, between our potential and our performance, between what is and what could or should be, at each of the three levels we have been noting, the individual, the communal and the global.
2.4 What is the solution?
There are individual Christians and some Christian groups which would simply want to write two words in answer to this question, and those two words would be ‘Jesus Christ’. Other Christians are aware of the complexities of the issues affecting human beings at every level of their lives, of the chequered history of the Christian Church over the last two millennia and of their own and other Christians’ inevitable shortcomings in living out the life and love of Christ. They would see such a bald assertion as both foolish and presumptuous. We, however, would disagree with such a dismissal as well as with the other simplistic view. We would want to testify, and will do so later in this paper, that the spirit of God, as seen in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ and explored and expounded in the New Testament, can be transformative of the lives of individuals, the Church and the world, and that this power is a sure ground for hope in a world which is seriously short of much real hope at all.
In the rest of this paper we hope to illustrate some of the dimensions of the new life which is offered us in Jesus Christ. We will do so under a number of headings and from a variety of perspectives, beginning with a look at two rather different evaluations of what it means to be human. We will continue by looking at ‘living in freedom’, ‘living with limitations’, living in relationships’, ‘living with integrity’ and ‘living with power’. Under these headings we will explore the solution to what is wrong at the different levels of the personal, the social and the global. We will end with a number of stories of people, places, situations and churches where transformation has been experienced, and where there has been that growth into fulness of life which we believe to be God’s purpose for all and which is available to all in Jesus Christ.
3 Two Christian perspectives on being human
Our brief discussion of humanity’s context and condition in the previous section was deliberately offered in a quite general way with minimal reference to theology and without recourse to Christian language. Christian theology, of course, would wish to set that whole discussion within a theological framework, insisting that our humanity is best understood within a theological context, that ‘we’ are created, empowered and enlivened (literally) by God and finally that we are accountable to God. In this section we will revisit some of the areas covered in a specifically theological way. First of all we will look at the two Bible passages which, more than any other, have influenced Christian understandings of what it means to be human.
3.1.1 In Genesis 1:1-2:4a the Bible opens with a well-known picture of God creating the heavens and the earth by commanding the world into existence, bringing order out of chaos and adding day by day to the growing splendour of a creation which God concludes is ‘very good’. God’s last creative act is to create human beings ‘in his own image’ and ‘after his likeness,’ give them responsibility for propagating the species and exercising ‘dominion’ over the rest of creation and then bless them. Finally, on the seventh day God rests, giving the new creation the crowning gift of Sabbath.
3.1.2 For our purposes the key passage here is Gen 1:26-31, the second of the divine activities on the sixth day of creation in which God creates humankind, blesses them and gives them their place in the scheme of things. From a theological perspective humanity is to be seen to be a part of creation, standing alongside creation rather than superior to it. Humanity is also, however, entrusted with the stewardship of creation, and the responsibility of continuing the creative activity of God in guiding, shaping and encouraging the future of the whole of creation, as well as in terms of human sexuality. There is no sense here of exploitation or harmful domination. God's attitude to the world and to humanity is wholly positive.
3.1.3 The interpretation of the synonyms ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ in these verses is important. What does it mean to say that humanity is made "in the image of God", for this phrase (especially in its Latin imago dei) has been much used in theology? It has been said to denote our immortal soul, reasoning capacity, spirituality, rationality, free will, moral sense, self-consciousness or even our physical attribute of standing upright. Closer attention to the text itself, however, suggests that being made in God's image actually says something not about human nature itself but about the purpose or function of humankind within God's purposes.
3.1.4 In this chapter we see that first of all God states his intention to created human beings (verse 26). He intends to create them in his ‘image and likeness’ and to give them ‘dominion’ over creation. He then carries through his intention (verse 27) and creates human beings ‘in his own image’ and makes them male and female. He then surveys the result (verse 28). In so doing he ‘blesses’ humanity and commands them to be fruitful, multiply, fill and subdue the earth and have dominion over it. Each of these verses is in two parts set in parallel to each other – a well-known technique of ancient Hebrew – which make the parallels within each verse and between the verses informative. They show that to be made in the image of God is parallel to ‘having dominion’ over creatioon and to humanity being made both male and female. Whether this exhausts the meaning of humanity being made in the image of God is doubtful, and maybe part of the value of the phrase lies in its deliberate vagueness, but there is no doubt that it is saying something about what we are, and are in relation to God as well as about what we do, and do in relation to God. The idea is that in some way we ‘correspond’ to God, that we are God's counterparts, or co-creators, entrusted by God with the awesome responsibility of continuing his creative work and shaping the future of creation. If this understanding is correct, then the implications for ethics are considerable.
3.1.5 The Judaio-Christian tradition has, however, been blamed for the wholesale rape of the environment and the brutal exploitation of the natural world on the basis of this text. And there is no denying that this text can be read in a harsh way, for exercising ‘dominion’ is what the harsh overseers of the Temple construction do in 1 Kings 9:23 and ‘subdue’ is used of Israel treading down its enemies in Zechariah 9:15. However, such an interpretation is immediately ruled out by the reference in verse 29 of Genesis 1 that this human taking of authority does not include killing animals for food. Also we should note that all of this is obviously ‘royal’ language about humanity's kingly role in the world (which we also see in Psalm 8 especially verses 5-8) which needs to be read in the light of the royal ideology of the Old Testament which stresses the responsibility of the king towards the poor and needy (eg Psalm 72).