The Instruments of Perfection

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In my previous post I ended a detailed critique with a note of optimism.  While many in our denomination do not believe that further division would indeed be tragic in the full sense, Uniting Methodists and others have an opportunity to offer a vision which shows us real tragedy in the embrace of schism.  This vision would show how further division does not need to happen and ought not happen.  The first element of what I take to be Uniting Methodists’ vision is spirituality and the second, a way of reading scripture.  In this post I will address the movement’s statements on spirituality.

This emphasis on spirituality is most plainly evident in the vision statement’s repeated invocation of holiness.  Contrary to the protestations of some, this emphasis on holiness is a new element in appeals for unity.  Previous centrist rhetoric has focused on the desire to be unified in mission and purpose so that our churches could continue to do good in the world and win adherents to the Christian faith (the transformation and disciples of our mission statement).  The people of the Uniting Methodists movement are to be applauded for moving beyond these appeals.  In joining others in our denomination who have long demanded a real theological and ethical weight in the governing statements and conversations of United Methodism the Uniting Methodists movement has done us all a service.

In analyzing the Uniting Methodists’ statements on spirituality I will draw on a framework used by the ancient spiritual master John Cassian.  In the first dialogue of his Conferences, Cassian distinguishes between perfection or holiness and the “instruments of perfection” through which we strive after that goal.  Perfection, for Cassian, is to attain a heart of peace and tranquility.  However, we can only attain this goal through certain practices.  These are the “instruments of perfection”, such as the mortification of the flesh, fasting, self-denial, and all the other labors of the spiritual disciplines.  Through our obedience to the commandments in these works the grace of God works within us also so that we may receive from God the peace which passes all understanding.

The Uniting Methodists’ statement offers suggestions as to their view of both the nature of perfection or holiness and the “instruments of perfection” whereby we might attain it.   The most important of these “instruments of perfection” appears to be maintaining a covenant of unity with our diverse brothers and sisters in Christ, although other aspects such as following where God leads and returning to the commandments and traditions are also mentioned.  Through these practices the grace of God brings us to holiness, which is defined as the love of God and neighbor.  The question we must ask here is whether this is a sufficient account of the spiritual life.  We will begin with the account of holiness or perfection and then move to the account of the “instruments of perfection.”

Holiness

The chief problem with Uniting Methodists’ account of holiness is that it is difficult to discern what exactly it is.  In settling on love of God and neighbor I have followed this passage from the “Mission Statement”:

“We urge holiness as the rule for our relationships. We affirm the Wesleyan commitment to personal and social holiness. We recognize that we sometimes disagree on how best to pursue holiness, and those differences can lead to conflict. Though we may differ in understanding, we are committed to loving God and neighbor alike.”

This statement, part of which was discussed in my previous post, suggests that the meaning of holiness lies in “loving God and neighbor alike,” even as it also acknowledges, without offering further clarification, that there is disagreement on what exactly this means.

I will obviously not say that Uniting Methodists are wrong in making “love of God and neighbor” the meaning of holiness.  There could be no better definition of holiness than the summary of the whole Law.  But here once again Uniting Methodists offer no account of what they take the phrase to mean.  In this, I find the document’s description of holiness insufficient.  It does not offer a vision, but an empty vessel:  many different drinks can be poured into it but it can pour nothing into us.

On the one hand, it has no mystical side.  It says nothing of our union with God.  It says nothing of receiving the Holy Spirit.  It says nothing of the reign of Christ in our hearts.  On the other, it has no practical side:  it says nothing of praying for enemies or loving them or forgiveness or bearing one another’s burdens or anything else that shows what it means to love our neighbor.  In leaving these aspects of our sanctification unmentioned it risks making the goal of all our striving a mere change in our disposition, an all-too insubstantial shifting of attitudes.

This lack of depth and clarity can also lead to statements which are not just insufficient, but simply theologically incorrect.  Take for example the third conviction of Uniting Methodists that “centering on Jesus Christ is God’s way of reconciling division.”  Is it a reorientation of our mental attention which reconciles division or something more divine?  Whether that division is within ourselves, between the flesh and the spirit or between competing desires; whether that division is within our churches between brother and brother, sister and sister; whether that division is within a nation between parties, ideologies, races, classes, creeds; whether that division is within the human race between male and female; whether that division is between heaven and earth, between God and his creation; whatever the division is, God’s way of reconciling that division is not “centering on Jesus Christ” but rather Jesus Christ himself.  In his flesh he has broken down the dividing wall (Ephesians 2:14), it is in him that there is “no longer Jew nor Greek, , slave nor free, male nor female” (Galatians 3:28).

This is no mere theological quibble.  Statements like this throughout the document represent a confusion of the instruments of perfection for perfection itself.  They confuse our works with God’s work.  There are works which we must accomplish in order to be healed and attain to wholeness, peace, and love, but it is God’s work alone which actually heals us and actually brings about that peace and that love.  There is no fault in emphasizing the instruments, in insisting on what we must do.  Such exhortation is necessary to the Church’s proclamation and reminds us that we must work out our own salvation in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).  But there is fault when these instruments are confused with perfection itself.  Then we begin to think that we, through sheer force of will and determination, can accomplish the transformation of our souls and our communities.  When we do this we forget that it is God who is at work within us (Philippians 2:13).  We forget that we must be clothed with power from in high.  We forget that without Christ we can do nothing.  We forget that the goal of our lives is not the accomplishing of deeds or the change of dispositions but union with the living God.

The Instruments of Perfection

How then does Uniting Methodists portray these “instruments of perfection?”  Here the document is somewhat clearer.  We are to “keep our hearts and minds centered on Jesus, so we are open to wherever the catholic spirit of God’s love might lead us.”  We are to practice “humble conversation.”  The Holy Spirit “uses diversity to advance God’s mission.” “Returning to God and keeping God’s instructions” is important.  From these and other statements it is fair to characterize the heart of Uniting Methodists’ definition of the instruments of perfection as remaining in fellowship with the diversity of God’s people.

Now, all traditions of Christian spirituality would agree that we must work out our salvation in community and that we learn to love God through loving our brothers and sisters.  Nevertheless here too there is a certain insufficiency in the Uniting Methodists’ statement and an unhelpful vagueness.  If the Uniting Methodists would provide a vision, it must show us something.  What are the ways that we grow in love and grace through the difficult work of remaining in unity with our brothers and sisters?  What concretely must be done?  That is what the “instruments” of Christian life are all about.

Chief among these deeds to be done must surely be the work of forgiveness.  Forgiving and being forgiven, being reconciled to one another, is one of the most fundamental ways we grow in love and grace by living in fellowship with others.  The word forgiveness does not appear in the Uniting Methodists’ statement and yet what is more needed in our present schism as forgiveness?  Wounds cry out unreconciled from all sides.  The lesbian seminarian cries out:  she knew she could not be ordained in the home conference which nurtured her and so she had to seek out a new home and a new region of the church.  And so too the evangelical pastor cries out from a career of belittlement and contempt at the hands of the very clergy colleagues who ought to have been his support and stay.  Most of all our queer brothers and sisters cry out and show their scars from every time Christian teaching was applied without charity or understanding, patience or love, to the wounding of their souls.  These things cannot go unnamed by any group that urges us to unity.  Repentance must be sought and, when offered, accepted.  Mercy must reach out from the wounded and earnest contrition from those who did the wrong so that both may meet in the embrace of reconciliation.  Humility must reign over all, so that all might lower themselves for one another.  And yet how many sacrifices are being offered at our altars when we know that a brother has something against us?

These are no easy acts; hiding them under the pleasant vagueness of “staying together leads us to love” makes them harder still.  It is because they are difficult that they are essential.  We would not be so deep in schism as we are and moving still further and further apart if the work required for reconciliation were easy.  Without these difficult acts of forgiveness there can be no peace in the church.  Any vision for a way forward must recognize that and yet few do.  The promise of some voices on the conservative end, that a wondrous unanimity will be appear once the troublesome parties are ejected from the church or the true faithful depart themselves, does not recognize this.  The strident provocations and inflexible demands of the progressive wing likewise do not acknowledge it.  And despite its hopes, neither does this Uniting Methodists statement.   A path forward undertaken in the diversity they envision can only be traveled by these acts of difficult, almost impossible (but with God all things are possible!) forgiveness.  We cannot pretend it is simple.  We cannot afford to shy away from the frightening, sublime clarity of what it would mean.  If we are to go to war against the sin and hatred which divides us, we must be unafraid of counting the cost (Luke 14:31-32).

 

In this and other posts I have offered a strong criticism of the Uniting Methodists’ statement and I will continue to do so in posts to come.  This is not out of any malicious desire to tear apart a document that has so clearly been the product of assiduous labor and the best intentions for the Church.  On the contrary, I offer these criticisms for the same reason that I was excited for the appearance of the Uniting Methodists’ statement in the first place:  if there is a way forward for the United Methodist Church it must be informed by deeper and clearer theological reflection than has hitherto been the case.  As in our relations with one another we must strive after the genuine love which is the bond of the Spirit, so also in our proclamation and admonitions to one another we must press unhesitatingly forward toward the truth in whose light we shall see light.  If we are willing to settle for less than love we shall not have the perseverance to attain the truth.  If we settle for a murky sort of truth we shall never see the way to love.  Let us rest in neither of these but rather continue doggedly in the works which are ours, so that from the abundance of the grace of God we might share in the love and the truth which are his.

 

Charles “Austin” Rivera is an elder in the Great Plains conference and a Ph.D. student in Ancient Christianity at Yale University.  You can email him at charles.rivera@yale.edu or tweet @MarEphremsVoice.

Image:  Icon of John Cassian.