Friday, September 25, 2009

on John Wesley

“Then he (Abraham) believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Genesis 15:6

One sees in Outler’s laying out of Wesley’s life the quest not for experience of God, which Wesley seems to imagine as something general enough to be available to heathens, but on the experience of faith in God which in the Pauline, Protestant tradition had become understood as the condition for justification, for righteousness before God.

Today one wonders both at the urgency of this search as much as its occurrence. Justification seems a bygone topic. It is not a burning theological theme. Everyone is justified; we live in a perhaps illusory Eden where justification presses, I would say, on very few minds, perhaps because sin is also absent or at least relegated to sins-against-men. We apologize, we are all apologists, but one does not sense we are particularly haunted.

Wesley was haunted, saving others’ souls but not saving his own, and not finding rest even after finding God. His heart, I think, is to be commended. I would wish to have heart like it. But his reliance on his heart as a mechanism for discerning his stand before God seems somewhat more problematic. “By the most infallible of proofs, inward feeling, I am convinced: of unbelief” begins an early journal entry.

But he never says why this must be correct, why his internal intimation of unbelief must necessarily correlate to an absence of belief in total, why Wesley should be a better judge of his justification that God, not in the sense of superseding God, but in his steadfast refusal to do what he could, stop worrying about the state of his soul, and leave the rest to God. One wishes there had not been such a constant plague upon that earnest heart. Even after Aldersgate, which seems much more the typical conversion moment than anything else, he asks God why God would send the dead to raise the dead.

The problem for Wesley is not that he hadn’t had an experience of faith – which he did, several times over – but that he didn’t have the experience of faith, inclining with the Moravians that faith is the assurance of salvation and often interpreting that teaching quite absolutely. One wonders why Wesley remained convinced for so long that some experience of faith was not enough, and why he believed that he not only should but could do better, when doubt remained so firm and steadfast a force in his internal life.

This is not to psychologize John Wesley, but it is to ask how one could believe the heart, anymore than the mind, to be such a whole and perfectible thing. And it is to ask what the Moravians on the deck might have thought of him – did he appear riddled with doubt? Or might they have seen faith in him, too? And if so, what would that mean? The problem with Wesley’s interiorization of faith is not that it does not manifest itself in love – clearly it can and should and does – but that it assumes the dichotomy of inner faith and external works to start with.

In trying to balance the tables, trying to move toward a purity of heart that extends to a purity of life, one would become necessarily entangled in a self-preoccupation neither biblical nor ultimately helpful. After all, Abraham himself receives the covenant in Genesis 15 right after doubting God’s previous promise of numberless heirs and right before asking for an extra sign that the covenant would be fulfilled. And while Abraham’s faith in that time was indeed reckoned to him as righteousness, God never tells him so, and Abraham never asks. Considering this, how much assurance can anyone expect to have? Or need?

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