Hearing, Welcoming, Celebrating Quiet Voices

This summer I have been practicing the recorder daily for the first time since elementary school. The recorder is different in almost every respect from the instrument on which I was professionally trained, the pipe organ. While the pipe organ, in some versions, is loud enough to be heard in concert with a full symphony orchestra, the recorder is quiet enough for me to practice in a hotel room without (hopefully!) bothering my neighbors. The recorder is by no means the quietest instrument I have ever played (that distinction belongs to the nose flute—yes, really) or heard live (I once heard a clavichord, a kind of predecessor to the piano, in a recital at a university chapel, and it was almost inaudible), but in the Middle Ages and Renaissance it belonged to a class of musical instruments called instruments bas (low, as in soft, instruments), as opposed to the instruments hauts (high, as in loud, instruments). Although louder and softer instruments still exist, that distinction matters much less than it did five hundred years ago, since even the quietest instruments can become loud through amplification or electrification. In a sense, every musical instrument today is, or can be, an instrument haut. We like loud things.

As it is in our music, so it is, I often think, in our churches. Also in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the Christian calendar used to be filled with days for lesser feasts, the instruments bas of their devotional life, but Protestants did away with those, generally leaving us with only the “louder” feasts of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. Loud instruments, and loud feasts, are fun and exciting. They get our attention easily, maybe too easily. The instruments bas, on the other hand, require us to quiet ourselves, and our lives, in order even to know they are there in the first place. This does not mean that the “quiet” feasts are inherently more meaningful or deeper than the “loud” feasts, but, ironically, it does mean that it’s much easier for the louder feasts to be fitted into our ordinary lives without too much disruption. I suppose that’s why there’s always an endless supply of Christmas and Easter cards, but there’s never a Feast of the Holy Cross card around when you need one.

Something similar happens in theological studies. Theological education ensures that students have heard the “louder” voices of the Christian tradition, the Cappadocians and the Augustines and Aquinases and Calvins and Barths, but there are many voices that curricula ignore or that students only encounter indirectly through the theological instruments hauts. Sometimes this is for good reason; the rackett (two “t”s), which makes a bassoon-like sound but is about the size of a recorder, had some popularity in the late Renaissance and early Baroque eras, but it was replaced by later developments (so, too, for that matter, was the recorder replaced by the transverse flute) and is now only played by specialists in the music of those eras. Likewise, not every theologian from the past needs a full modern recovery, no matter how many dissertations must be written. The unfortunate thing, however, is that often the instruments hauts simply overwhelm the instruments bas of the Christian tradition.

The truth is, most followers of Jesus are instruments bas, quietly and faithfully going about the life of Christian discipleship in prayer, devotion, service, and worship, without drawing much attention to themselves. Luke tells us Jesus sent seventy of his followers ahead of him, but we only know a few of their names. Acts describes mass baptisms, and we know even fewer of those who were baptized by name. And so on down the ages. Sometimes they are forgotten because, like the rackett, they had their day, and that was sufficient, to the glory of God. We hear them in chorus when we celebrate All Saints. Other times, however, these quieter saints made a real, lasting impact for the sake of the gospel, yet, like the lesser feasts that might have commemorated them, we have tuned them out for the sake of “louder,” more famous examples.

This past Easter season, Thy Kingdom Come, a global effort started by the Church of England to unite churches in prayer every day from Ascension to Pentecost, made the theme of its penultimate day “Silence.” Silence, or quiet, can be helpful for us to hear even the “loud” feasts like Pentecost. But quiet is unconditionally necessary for us to listen to the instruments bas of our faith, and it is also the necessary condition for those quieter voices to have the freedom to speak and be heard. Providentially, attentiveness to the instruments bas is itself a habit that can build up the virtue of quiet and silence in our communities of faith.

Allowing Scripture to Get into Us

It’s become a regular practice of mine to open class with my students each week by exploring Scripture through guided meditations based on ancient practices of the church. Feedback from my students indicates the opportunity to engage Scripture through lectio divina, Ignatian contemplation, and breath prayers is generally a positive experience. I can regularly rely on several enthusiastic responses indicating the selected passage examined was something they needed to hear, or that they were personally ministered to in significant ways by Scripture. I am grateful for these testimonies. They affirm my hunch that sometimes the best words needed before launching into course content aren’t necessarily words from me. Just as I can rely on positive responses to the devotional exercise, there are students who share a sense of unease with or even suspicion of the practice engaged. And I am grateful for their testimonies. They are equally affirming that engaging Scripture as a means of spiritual formation is what students need before launching into course content.

Often, less-than-enthusiastic reactions are because students are new to or unfamiliar with the practice. Mostly, they express surprise or dismay because they’ve never read Scripture as a means of encountering God. New as it might be to them, many students are glad for the opportunity. Still others express feelings of inadequacy because they wonder if they are doing it correctly. Some question the validity of studying Scripture in these more devotional ways without prior, deeper knowledge of the passage we are reading. A few will say they hesitate to fully engage the practice because they worry about doing it wrong now and would need to be corrected when they get to a real Bible class that does some proper exegesis!

I appreciate their honesty because they remind me of the inherent scholastic tendency to approach Scripture for the information we can get out of it rather than for the formation it offers. It is to be expected after all. We are products of socio-historical critical schools of biblical interpretation. Many seminary students enter formal theological education to learn interpretive tools, to be equipped that they might exegete Scripture and unpack it for sermons and pastoral work. Paul’s words are a resounding admonition: it is imperative to understand the inspired words of God in order to use them for “teaching, reproof, correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16–17). “Certainly,” I can hear my students thinking, “there is a right way to study Scripture. And, if there is a right way, for which I have come to seminary to learn, other methods must be wrong. How can this method of praying my way through Scripture be legitimate? Is this what I came to seminary for?”

I have empathy for my students. I reassure them that their Bible professors will help them learn how to use all sorts of interpretive tools. But the Bible doesn’t just sit around waiting for persons armed with concordances, commentaries, and knowledge of ancient languages, waiting to be exegeted. The Bible, as popularly paraphrased by Eugene Peterson, is meant to be eaten (Jer 15:16; Eat This Book: A Conversation on the Art of Spiritual Reading [Eerdmans, 2009). When we engage these ancient methods of reading the Bible, we ask the Holy Spirit to dine with us. The biblical text can and should be savored like a gourmet meal. The opportunity to meditate on Scripture is like chewing and swallowing food, prompting digestion. Just as food morsels release nutrients into our bodies, forming and strengthening us, the living Word, when consumed, seeks to form and strengthen us that we might grow in Christlike character. What better way can we be taught, reproved, corrected, or trained in righteousness than by feasting on God’s word in company with the Holy Spirit?

Certainly, meditating on Scripture, even under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, does not guarantee correct knowledge regarding context and meaning. Academic study may prove previous understandings needs revision. If we wait until we have all the right answers, we miss the opportunity of letting Scripture form us. Both approaches are valid and are not in opposition to each other. Being trained in biblical languages and interpretive methods provides tools and skills that will inform sermon prep and provide insights needed for pastoral leadership. To diminish or ignore the ways countless saints down through the ages have sought the Holy Spirit that they might be formed as they read and prayed their way through the Psalms, Gospels, and the rest of Scripture impoverishes our faithful discipleship — even as scholar-pastors. We need not simply study the Bible for what we can get out of it, but also allow Scripture to get inside us, that through our devotional meditation on it, the living Word might get something out of us.

The Biblical Basis for the Ordination of Women in the Wesleyan Tradition

In the past month or so, those of us in the Wesleyan theological tradition have been privileged to witness the ordination of numerous women and men for the ministry of Jesus Christ. While many denominations of the church perform the rite of ordination for ministry, the majority of Christians in the world limit their ordinations to male candidates. What is the biblical basis for the Wesleyan tradition’s unwavering commitment to the ordination of women?

To answer this question, it will be helpful to begin with the definition of ordination. While each denomination has tailor-made its own specific definition, it is broadly defined by the Encyclopedia Britannica as “a rite for the dedication and commissioning of ministers. The essential ceremony consists of the laying of hands of the ordaining minister upon the head of the one being ordained, with prayer for the gifts of the Holy Spirit and of grace required for the carrying out of the ministry.” This general definition, rather than one belonging to a particular denomination, provides a useful starting point for understanding the biblical basis for ordaining women (and men) who are called by God to ministries of word, sacrament, order, service, etc.

The Wesleyan tradition draws on numerous New Testament precedents for women alongside men in the ministry of Jesus Christ. Of particular note is the fact that, despite New Testament era social contexts that often denigrated and disrespected women, Jesus himself consistently treated women with dignity and respect and commended women for their faith, service, and evangelical witness. He included women as disciples and coworkers in ministry, as well as recipients of his grace, healing, and teaching.

While there is no evidence that Jesus himself formally “ordained” persons for ministry in the same manner as many churches today, he did authorize, direct, and send disciples, including women, to proclaim the good news of his resurrection and salvation. Most well-known among Jesus’s disciples were the twelve who are widely recognized in the New Testament and in church history as “apostles.” It was to these men that Jesus sent faithful female disciples, who were his first witnesses at the vacated tomb, to announce the good news of his resurrection. Of those identified in the New Testament, Jesus’s female disciples included Mary (his own mother), Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, Salome, the Samaritan woman at the well, Mary and Martha, Joanna and Susanna, and “other” (noted but unnamed in Scripture) women who were authorized by Jesus to follow, serve, and witness to his identity and mission as the Son of God. (For analyses of women’s roles in the New Testament, see, e.g., Dorothy A. Lee, The Ministry of Women in the New Testament: Reclaiming the Biblical Vision for Church Leadership [Baker Academic, 2021]; Elizabeth Gillan Muir, A Women’s History of the Christian Church [University of Toronto Press, 2019]; Janice Nunnally-Cox, Fore-Mothers: Women of the Bible [Seabury Press, 1981].)

Women in ministry mentioned in the New Testament book of Acts and epistles also serve as models and precedents. These include Tabitha, Mary, Lydia, Priscilla, the daughters of Philip, Phoebe, Junia, Euodia, Syntyche, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, Nympha, and others. Junia is identified by the apostle Paul as a fellow apostle along with her husband, Andronicus. The New Testament and other documents from the early church reference specific orders of ministry to which women were consecrated and/or ordained, including deacons and deaconesses, virgins and widows. In short, the New Testament provides a wealth of examples of women who were set apart, including some who were ordained, for the ministry of Jesus Christ in a nonsectarian sense of the term.

Historians have established that the practice of setting women and men apart in formal orders of ministry continued through the early church and early medieval periods of Christianity, although with variations across geographic and cultural contexts. This history is the secondary basis, after scriptural precedents, for the Wesleyan practice of ordaining women. We will explore this history briefly in a future blog.

Meanwhile, when we are privileged to witness the ordination of a woman by the church, we should remember that we are standing in a heritage that reaches back in history to the New Testament and Jesus’s own ministry on this earth. This woman stands in unison with many others who have ministered before us, including the women at Jesus’s vacated tomb, in amazement at being called and commanded to go and announce the good news of his resurrection. The faithful are blessed to see her kneel to receive the laying on of the bishop’s hands and to hear the prayers of the bishop and church for grace for the ministry to which she has been called. We should view her as standing in continuity with the martyrs and saints before her who have answered God’s call to give their lives for the greatest purpose on earth: the salvation of humankind in the name and Spirit of the risen Christ.

The New Creation and Judgment

The New Creation begins with a climactic event (not cosmic evolution or human progress), the eschatological judgment of all creation. God is directing his actions toward an all-encompassing goal, which is the transformation of the entire cosmos into the glorious eternal community of the New Creation. Creation becomes New Creation only as it is transformed at a day of reckoning or judgment. God calls all people, nations, and creatures to account, even cosmic powers and gods of the nations (Exod 12:12; Num 33:4; Jer 10:14–15), demons and angels (2 Pet 2:4; Jude 6; Matt 25:41; 1 Cor 6:3), and the devil himself (Rev 20:10).

What Scripture tells us about the judgment of humankind is limited. Some components of future judgment, however, are noted. First, the purpose of judgment in the New Creation is twofold: (1) judgment liberates creation from its present situation (Rom 8:20–23) and (2) judgment is God’s means of preparing the physical realm for the fellowship God intends to share with all creation (Rev 21:1–3). Second, divine judgment is both a present reality and a future reality. Paul tells us that the wrath of God is presently being revealed not in dramatic displays of retribution but in the quiet act of “giving people over” to the sinful desires of their hearts (Rom 1:24, 26, 28). The wrath or judgment of God is built within the world and human system. Final judgment, of course, is reserved for the consummation of the ages after the second coming of Jesus Christ, which is unknown even by Jesus himself (see Matt 24; Mark 13; Luke 21; Rev 19).

The basis and criteria for judgment in the New Creation are clearly articulated and somewhat surprising. While all people are called to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, all the passages that talk about the basis and criteria for judgment reveal that we will be assessed according to our actions, behaviors, and works. It is noteworthy that no theological or doctrinal test is mentioned, nor do find the standard question, “Did you receive Jesus as your personal savior?” Jeremiah says, “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward everyone according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve” (17:10) and, “Your eyes are open to the ways of all; you reward everyone according to their conduct and as their deeds deserve” (32:19). Jesus says, “For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward everyone according to what they have done” (Matt 16:27). Paul says, quoting Ps 62:12 and Prov 24:12, “God will repay everyone according to what they have done” (Rom 2:6). With regard to personal behavior, Paul warns: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that everyone may receive what is due them for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor 5:10). Even our ministry will be tested according to “the quality of each person’s work” (1 Cor 3:13). In the last chapter of the Bible, Jesus alerts, “Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what they have done” (Rev 22:12).

Perhaps the clearest passage regarding the specific standards and criteria for final judgment are found in Matt 25:31-46. This is the Parable of the Sheep and Goats. As a professor, I like to tell my students what’s on the exam so they can best prepare. Jesus, in Matt 25, reveals what’s on the final exam: (1) feeding the hungry, (2) giving water to those who thirst (wells in Africa?), (3) welcoming the stranger (immigration?), (4) clothing those in need of clothes, (5) visiting the sick (health care?), and (6) visiting those in prison (prison reform?). How many Christians and churches build their ministry around such concerns? Since Jesus highlighted the exact criteria for our future judgment, shouldn’t we personally and as churches focus on treating people as if they were Jesus more than on our theology, doctrine, or experience?

On a final note, shouldn’t we find it a bit unsettling that according to Jesus’s criteria in the parable those who thought they were “in” were “out” and those who thought that they were “out” were actually “in”? Earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus taught: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophecy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles? Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (7:21–23). Sobering thoughts, indeed!

Living in the In-Between

Our twenty-year-old son, Joshua recently secured his first apartment. He had been living in the university dormitories, but he was now excited to have a place of his own. My wife and I packed up his things with him and drove them six hours to his new place. When we (and all of his worldly possessions) got there, we hit a snag. Due to the ripple effects of the pandemic, we found out that his new place would not be ready for a few weeks. He had his lease agreement settled, his utilities secured, and his deposits paid. However, the place that was to be his new home was still out of his reach. Through the kindness of some of his friends, our son was able to stay in one place, while we unloaded his worldly possessions into a friend’s spare room. Everything he owned was in one place, while he lived out of a suitcase in another. Though his past was behind him, he could not reach all that was yet to be. Joshua was a young man stuck in the “in-between.”

While this was a minor, short-term inconvenience for our son, the story illustrates a much bigger point. Perhaps you are living in an unsettled place due to a change in a job, a relationship, or a life situation. Many of us feel like we are living in an “in-between” time due to a worldwide feeling of uncertainty. The impacts of the pandemic are raging in some parts of the world. In other parts, people are feeling hopeful as vaccinations increase and life returns to something that looks like “normal” again. However, we are not quite there yet. Precautions are still required, people are still at risk, and health experts warn us to not let down our guard. Many people continue to work from home, some schools are still meeting from a distance, and many of the activities we long for are still out of reach. We are all, to some degree, stuck in the “in-between.”

Sociologists remind us that the “in-between” is not always a bad place to be. Rather, during our times in this unsettled space, we have the greatest potential for growth. Though the “in-between” feels chaotic and we have trouble finding our equilibrium, it is here that we find new meanings and understandings as we regain our stability. This process brings about transformation that would not be possible without moving through that middle ground.

We can see evidence of this throughout Scripture. The most obvious example is in the story of the exodus when the Israelites wandered through the desert for forty years while God taught them how to be the people he wanted them to be. When Jesus calls for his disciples to “follow me,” he is asking them to leave behind all that is familiar and move into a space that is yet unknown to them (see Luke 9:57–62). Remember that Saul entered an “in-between” space after encountering the risen Jesus on the Road to Damascus. After an intense period of instruction, God used Ananias to move Saul into the greater call on his life.

In fact, all of the Christian life is, to some degree, living in the “in-between.” Christianity requires one to move from the old self to something new. From the view of the Israelites as pilgrims to Jesus’s instructions to leave all and “Follow me” (e.g., Luke 18:21) to the command “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19) to later New Testament references to Christians as “aliens and exiles” (1 Pet 2:11), Christianity is a faith directly connected with living “in-between” what was and what will be.

In the case of our son, we knew where he was going, could drive the streets of his new community, visit the apartment complex, and even see the exact place where he was going to live. But it was not yet his to occupy. So, it is in Christian discipleship. Jesus’s followers do not wander aimlessly as a people without hope or direction. Rather, his disciples know that he prepares a place for them, one that is secured by his death and resurrection (John 14). The Holy Spirit reminds us of this until we occupy it one day. Therefore, while many people may feel anxious and off-balance in the “in-between,” Christians can feel a sense of comfort knowing that we do not walk alone, and we do not go without direction. This is an excellent time and place to share that hope with others who are looking for a sense of peace in their own lives. A faithful Christian witness in the “in-between” embraces not merely the transition, but also that God does great things in us as he guides us through the middle ground.

Rising for Your Life

There are some rote answers students like to give when I ask questions in my various theology classes. Even when their answer has nothing to do with the question I’ve asked. It’s as though they think I’m looking for the same answer they were catechized with in Sunday School, that because it’s the “right” answer they’ve always known, it will be the right answer now, too. Two of these answers have given me something of a mission with my students to break open their understandings of reality.

The first answer that students like to fall back on has been consistent at the Catholic, Wesleyan, and now Reformed schools at which I’ve taught. Regardless of the strand of Christianity or even a different faith or sometimes no faith at all that students come from, I so often hear something along the lines of “I’m/We’re saved because Jesus died for our sins.” It’s not usually even in the realm of what I’m asking for or what’s being discussed, but this answer runs very deep among students who have grown up in the church, any church. They seem to think it answers any theology question, sometimes saying things like, “Jesus died for our sins so we’re saved, and that’s why we’re forgiven and we go to heaven,” when I’ve asked, “How does Ambrose think Christ makes us more virtuous?” My stock answer when students tell me this—that Jesus died for their sins—is “Yes! And he rose for your life!” I want them to know how much bigger salvation is than their “I’m forgiven and therefore I’m okay.”

The other thing I’m hearing from more students now that I’m teaching at a Reformed school is that “Humans are sinful. It’s our nature.” I don’t disagree, but these students seem to forget that, again, there is more going on. These students are somehow stuck on the worthlessness of humanity and think it is not possible for us to be good. My Wesleyan catechesis screams, “Yes, we are sinful, and the Holy Spirit is also sanctifying us so that we don’t have to stay that way forever!” We were created good, and by the grace of the Spirit, we can do good things and become more like Christ.

On the one hand, I am glad that these students have an awareness of sin. We need an understanding of sin. Most of my students need a greater awareness of sin. We especially need to remember that sin is absurd. We are so shocked by the depravity around us, by every new instance of murder and racism and molestation. When we don’t acknowledge the presence of sin, the warping of our nature, we are shocked by these things and can forget to have compassion for others. We can forget that we ourselves are just as warped and require just as much compassion. We are also unable to work to heal the sins until we see the wounds.

On the other hand, we also need to remember that our nature is wounded, not evil from its creation. We also have to remember and affirm the created goodness of human nature. Even more importantly, we have to remember that we are being sanctified. That human nature is being restored. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation is my go-to description of salvation, and Athanasius explains that salvation is cosmic in scope, not merely a “Jesus forgave my sins by dying on the cross” moment. Athanasius says that salvation is about God becoming flesh in order to renew human nature and the cosmos. The union of humanity and divinity in the person of Jesus Christ makes our own union with God possible. Jesus’s death was the extremity of human sinfulness, and his death fulfilled a necessary consequence for sin. And then Jesus’s resurrection undid everything. The resurrection means that we live anew.

To acknowledge our sinfulness is important. To say that Jesus forgave my sin on the cross is important. But to stay there is to say nothing about what happens after that forgiveness. It is to say nothing of the possibility to become better. It is to say nothing about rising with Jesus and being transformed into his likeness. That we are sinful means we will often get things wrong and need grace. And the graces God has given us mean that we will not always get things wrong. God’s grace is also about the work of transforming us so that, by the grace of God (and only by the grace of God), we can sometimes do things right.

May we spread this good news to our churches, to our catechumens, to our children in Sunday School. Perhaps the answers I hear will begin to change.

Discipleship after COVID: Testimony

Over the past fourteen months, as we’ve all tried to do the best we can during this pandemic season, I’ve missed many things about the way my Christian community used to be. I miss going to worship on Sunday mornings and I miss our weekly small group gathering. Both have been replaced for the short term, more or less adequately, by Zoom. But as we all know, Zoom can only replicate so much. I also really miss my Christian community gathering for the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the wine, and for this sacred act, Zoom simply is no substitute. But of all the aspects of Christian community that I miss, the one that stands out is hearing other people, face to face, share their experiences of faith during these strange days. Using classical Christian language, I miss Christian testimony.

It isn’t like my church had lots of testimonies before COVID-19. In fact, my church is like most churches today in that we hear every week from the band and pastor, but rarely do we hear from the people. In truth, the only people from my church who I’ve really heard discuss their spiritual lives in any depth since March 2020 are the people in my small group. I really have no idea how the rest of the people are doing, their struggles or their joys. It is this mutual sharing of life with the gathered Christian community that I miss the most.

I thought of this as I reflected on a wonderful group of people that I’ve gotten to know in Collierville, TN. Though I’m employed on the other side of the country in Los Angeles, I’ve been working closely with a wonderful group of United Methodists in Tennessee over the past few months. They have been working through a curriculum on evangelism that I’m developing called Reveal. Reveal is designed to help people to embody a practice that Peter says is essential to Christian discipleship, namely, to be able to share the hope they have in Christ (see 1 Pet 3:15). Perhaps it should not have surprised me, but when this group went to their pastor and asked if the church might start incorporating regular times of lay testimony in worship, I realized the importance this group now placed on testimony. It turns out that they also miss what I miss, and they yearn for the opportunity to hear from their sisters and brothers about their ongoing journeys with Christ.

This yearning is rooted deep in our Wesleyan DNA. It used to be, while the Wesley brothers were still alive, and through the first few decades of the nineteenth century in the US, that every time Methodists gathered one or more regular people (i.e., non-preachers) would share their testimony. This might include part of their faith story, or their most recent experience of God, or even their most recent trial. There was no specific format. The point was for the people of God to hear from a rotating group of lay people about their experiences of God and how they were being molded as the new creation the Spirit promises.

I’m still not sure why, but United Methodism has almost totally lost this imperative to give testimony. Perhaps it relates to the “settling” of clergy and their need to center the act of worship on their own words instead of the laity’s. Or perhaps the loss relates to the mainstreaming of white Methodism in middle and upper-class American culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and concerns that testimony was too charismatic and not “proper” enough. I’m not sure. What I do sense, is that one of the opportunities coming out of the pandemic is the opportunity to reclaim this critical Wesleyan practice.

As churches begin to gather, there seems to be a desire to hear from each other in ways that we have not done so in the recent past. We want to know how people have grown as disciples, how they have been challenged. We want to hear people’s joys and their concerns. There has never been a better time to make Christian testimony, once again, a central act of the Methodist community.

On Learning and Teaching the Faith

“Now, do it again. This time, choose a cheerful color.” Her voice was gentle but firm. Mrs. Reeves had particular standards to be met. I clearly had not met hers. Still, even as my five-year-old self obediently hunted through the communal box of crayons for a brighter color, another part of me rankled with indignation and embarrassment. Not only had my choice of color been invalidated, but starting over again meant I would finish the task after the rest of the class and be late for the next activity. If what I learned in my kindergarten Sunday School class was all I needed to know about the teaching ministry of the church, I would never be writing this essay today.

Today, the memory persists, but not because of Mrs. Reeves nor any lingering, associated childhood trauma. I now know just how faithful she was to the schooling-instructional practices and philosophy prevalent on the landscape of twentieth-century Protestant Christian religious education. One reason the memory persists is that I think it is emblematic of the continuing struggle of practical theologians to articulate who we are and how we name our investment in the transmission and nurture of Christian faith in the lives of individuals and their communities. Choose any one of the terms often used to describe this ministry: discipleship, Christian education, spiritual formation, catechesis, small groups, Bible study, faith formation. Regardless of the word chosen, the picture is incomplete. Each only offers a glimpse of what it means to help folks grow in faith and how to pass it from one generation to the next.

A Google search for images of the terms used by faith communities illustrates the struggle. “Discipleship” populates professional stock photos of green seedlings sprouting in rich, fertile soil, or several people gathered together in congenial community. “Christian education” produces a collection of items, Bibles, crosses, apples, books, etc.—all drawn in bright primary colors appropriate for elementary-aged school children. “Catechesis” yields either artwork of Jesus with the disciples (icons, tapestries, frescos, and mid-twentieth-century artwork included) or unscripted photos of kids intently engaged in activity with nearby adult supervision. You get the picture. Even a composite of all these images doesn’t truly depict the multivalent ways in which we learn about growing in Christian faith.

A difficulty is that much of what must be learned about participating in the Christian life is not content explicitly taught through formal catechism (or curriculum). A great deal of what we learn is transmitted and reinforced through everyday, ordinary encounters that are not necessarily associated with schooling. Educators refer to this as the implicit curriculum. Implicit curriculum might be intentional, but it is learned as a result of observation, reinforcement, and participation with others in the life of a faithful community. A familiar, oft-repeated refrain among those who are committed to the teaching ministry of the church is that what is learned about faith is not overtly taught as much as it is caught. Through demonstrative ways explicit and implicit—and even in those ways we do not demonstrate (the null curriculum)—we learn from one another in the presence of the Holy Spirit what it means to be a faithful Christian disciple.

In her classic text Fashion Me a People (Westminster John Knox, 1989), religious educator and prolific author Maria Harris asserts there are five ministries of the church that have classically and, throughout the centuries, consistently formed folks into people who belong to the family of God. She names them as koinonia, the ministry of community; leiturgia, the ministry of prayer and worship; Didache, the ministry of teaching; kerygma, the ministry of proclamation and preaching; and diakonia, the ministry of service. As one well versed with the advances and developments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to make education a discipline and profession of its own, Harris’s choice to lead with Greek terms is significant. In using New Testament terminology, she signals that teaching the Christian faith requires knowledge and understanding that is both ancient and new. Learning what it means to be Christian is not only about acquiring information, but participating in the multivalent ministries, cooperating with the Holy Spirit in the transformation of lives. That education and formation in faith can’t be reduced to just one ministry but is a shared responsibility across five areas should remind us all of the complexity of the teaching task.

I’ve no idea what Mrs. Reeves would think to know that the little girl once admonished for incorrect color choice would one day earn a terminal degree in theological studies. Doubtless, it would make her smile. Her investment in children didn’t end at the door of her classroom. Like so many other tireless saints, she prayed after her charges through each week and over the years. She sought to steward the faith that gave her hope, entrusting that we would in turn, find it of value and seek to share it with others.

On Learning and Teaching the Faith

“Now, do it again. This time, choose a cheerful color.” Her voice was gentle but firm. Mrs. Reeves had particular standards to be met. I clearly had not met hers. Still, even as my five-year-old self obediently hunted through the communal box of crayons for a brighter color, another part of me rankled with indignation and embarrassment. Not only had my choice of color been invalidated, but starting over again meant I would finish the task after the rest of the class and be late for the next activity. If what I learned in my kindergarten Sunday School class was all I needed to know about the teaching ministry of the church, I would never be writing this essay today.

Today, the memory persists, but not because of Mrs. Reeves nor any lingering, associated childhood trauma. I now know just how faithful she was to the schooling-instructional practices and philosophy prevalent on the landscape of twentieth-century Protestant Christian religious education. One reason the memory persists is that I think it is emblematic of the continuing struggle of practical theologians to articulate who we are and how we name our investment in the transmission and nurture of Christian faith in the lives of individuals and their communities. Choose any one of the terms often used to describe this ministry: discipleship, Christian education, spiritual formation, catechesis, small groups, Bible study, faith formation. Regardless of the word chosen, the picture is incomplete. Each only offers a glimpse of what it means to help folks grow in faith and how to pass it from one generation to the next.

A Google search for images of the terms used by faith communities illustrates the struggle. “Discipleship” populates professional stock photos of green seedlings sprouting in rich, fertile soil, or several people gathered together in congenial community. “Christian education” produces a collection of items, Bibles, crosses, apples, books, etc.—all drawn in bright primary colors appropriate for elementary-aged school children. “Catechesis” yields either artwork of Jesus with the disciples (icons, tapestries, frescos, and mid-twentieth-century artwork included) or unscripted photos of kids intently engaged in activity with nearby adult supervision. You get the picture. Even a composite of all these images doesn’t truly depict the multivalent ways in which we learn about growing in Christian faith.

A difficulty is that much of what must be learned about participating in the Christian life is not content explicitly taught through formal catechism (or curriculum). A great deal of what we learn is transmitted and reinforced through everyday, ordinary encounters that are not necessarily associated with schooling. Educators refer to this as the implicit curriculum. Implicit curriculum might be intentional, but it is learned as a result of observation, reinforcement, and participation with others in the life of a faithful community. A familiar, oft-repeated refrain among those who are committed to the teaching ministry of the church is that what is learned about faith is not overtly taught as much as it is caught. Through demonstrative ways explicit and implicit—and even in those ways we do not demonstrate (the null curriculum)—we learn from one another in the presence of the Holy Spirit what it means to be a faithful Christian disciple.

In her classic text Fashion Me a People (Westminster John Knox, 1989), religious educator and prolific author Maria Harris asserts there are five ministries of the church that have classically and, throughout the centuries, consistently formed folks into people who belong to the family of God. She names them as koinonia, the ministry of community; leiturgia, the ministry of prayer and worship; Didache, the ministry of teaching; kerygma, the ministry of proclamation and preaching; and diakonia, the ministry of service. As one well versed with the advances and developments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to make education a discipline and profession of its own, Harris’s choice to lead with Greek terms is significant. In using New Testament terminology, she signals that teaching the Christian faith requires knowledge and understanding that is both ancient and new. Learning what it means to be Christian is not only about acquiring information, but participating in the multivalent ministries, cooperating with the Holy Spirit in the transformation of lives. That education and formation in faith can’t be reduced to just one ministry but is a shared responsibility across five areas should remind us all of the complexity of the teaching task.

I’ve no idea what Mrs. Reeves would think to know that the little girl once admonished for incorrect color choice would one day earn a terminal degree in theological studies. Doubtless, it would make her smile. Her investment in children didn’t end at the door of her classroom. Like so many other tireless saints, she prayed after her charges through each week and over the years. She sought to steward the faith that gave her hope, entrusting that we would in turn, find it of value and seek to share it with others.

Gospel of Peace: Why John Wesley Should Have Been a Pacifist, and We Should, Too

Toward the end of a long-winded vice list, John Wesley, writing on The Doctrine of Original Sin, says the following:

But there is a still greater and more undeniable proof that the very foundations of all things, civil and religious, are utterly out of course in the Christian as well as the heathen war. There is a still more horrid reproach to the Christian name, yea to the name of man, to all reason and humanity. There is war in the world! … Now who can reconcile war (I will not say to religion, but) to any degree of reason or common sense? … So long as this monster stalks uncontrolled, where is reason, virtue, humanity? They are utterly excluded. They have no place. They are a name and nothing more. (Works 12:192–95)

Now, Wesley was not by any account a pacifist (though Theodore R. Weber’s repeated insistence that Wesley never labels war “sin” [Politics in the Order of Salvation: Transforming Wesleyan Politic Ethics (Kingswood, 2001), ch. 11] is at odds with the preceding quotation’s presence in a treatise on original sin). But the opposition he raises against war in The Doctrine of Original Sin suggests that Wesley should have been a pacificist—because in this passage Wesley intones the very heart of Christian pacificism.

The problem with war is not that causes for war may be unjust or that actions in war may be immoral. Those are the concerns of “just war” theorists. Pacificism, in contrast, rejects the whole enterprise, much as Wesley has done in his treatise. Christian pacificists appeal to Christ’s blessing of the peacemakers, to his judgment that those who live by the sword will die by the sword, to his own refusal to defend himself against the Roman executioners, to the gospel of reconciliation preached by Paul and the apostles, to the nature of Christian community itself in the church, and to the eschatological judgment that it is God, not us, who ultimately makes things right. In other words, it is the entire gospel that offers the way of peace against which all war offends. As Stanley Hauerwas has written, Christians “must be peaceful not because such peace holds out the hope of a world free from war but because as followers of Jesus we cannot be anything other than peaceful in a world inextricably at war” (“On Being a Church Capable of Addressing a World at War: A Pacifist Response to the United Methodist Bishops’ Pastoral In Defense of Creation,” in The Hauerwas Reader, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright [Duke University Press, 2001], 431).

If war is a “horrid reproach to the Christian name,” then it follows that supporting war means siding with the “horrid reproach” over “the Christian name.” And for Wesley, “Christian” was never merely about naming; it concerned the whole of life, lived before God, in community with others equally committed to the gospel. Indeed, the early Methodist small group accountability structure provided exactly the kind of communal life Hauerwas argues is necessary for a viable Christian peace witness of any kind, for “any serious Christian pacifist must recognize that such a way of life is possible only by the reorientation of the self through the repentance made possible by Jesus Christ” (“On Being a Church,” 443). John Wesley not only identified the (inherently sinful) nature of war; he spent a lifetime building communities whose practices laid the foundation for a genuine Christian peacemaking response. John Wesley should have been a pacifist.

That Wesley was not a pacificist is an opportunity for contemporary Wesleyans and Methodists, especially for those who have worked to recover many of the earliest Methodist practices and doctrinal emphases. It is a chance for us to “complete what is lacking,” as the apostle Paul might say, in Wesley’s own life. For Wesley, sin was serious business, and sin was never an ally to the Christian. If war is sinful, if it is inherently a sign of human depravity, then Christian freedom from sin must include freedom from war. And if we are gathering in classes and bands to confess our sins and build one another up in love, we are enacting the basics of communal life that make for genuine peacemaking. We need only make explicit, by what we say and by what we do, what remains largely implicit for John Wesley.

For help with this work, we may turn to the EUB Confession of Faith, in which United Methodists confess, “We believe war and bloodshed are contrary to the gospel and spirit of Christ” (Article XVI). Here is the logic of a Wesleyan pacifism: that war is inherently sinful, that the gospel is biased against “war and bloodshed,” full stop. As D. Stephen Long argued years ago (see his Living the Discipline: United Methodist Theological Reflections on War, Civilization, and Holiness [Eerdmans, 1992]), United Methodists should be pacificists. The Confession of Faith fulfills the antiwar position of Wesley’s The Doctrine of Original Sin. Both documents offer gospel freedom for Methodists from the corner war paints our world into, in which the violence that consumes us also blinds us to the nonviolent way of Jesus Christ.

Extended Christian Life and the Church

 

Question: “What does a prosthetic limb, a continuous glucose monitor, and a cell phone all have in common?”

Answer: “They all extend human capacities beyond their normal limitations.”

An artificial limb enhances an amputee’s motility. A continuous glucose monitor monitors glucose levels in real time, allowing the wearer to make real-time, insulin-adjusting decisions acting like an external pancreas. And a smartphone provides access to information one could never know, remember, or consolidate with a few touches of the screen (or if you prefer, voice-to-text technology), as well as near-continuous access to a wide array of social interactions at a distance.

With the proliferation of wearable medical devices (think pacemakers, etc.) and the growing dependence of humans on various forms of technology, cognitive psychologists and philosophers of mind are asking: As the interfaces between technology and the human body become more fluid and transparent, where does a person’s body end and technology (non-body) really begin? Should we begin to consider our biology, motor actions, and thinking—perhaps even our personhood—as something that extends beyond our physical bodies?”

These amazing changes are leading some in the faith community to ask: What if any of this has to do with Christian life and religious community? This is the central question we take up in Enhancing Christian Life: How Extended Cognition Augments Religious Community (InterVarsity Press, 2020). It is our attempt to engage in integrative, interdisciplinary consideration of the problem of technology, personhood, and Christian life within theology, ecclesiology, and spiritual formation, influenced heavily by our primary disciplines of clinical, cognitive, and neuropsychology, as well as philosophy of mind. While some authors, both in and outside of Christendom, fear advances in humanity-extending technology and what it means for our religious lives, we see exciting possibilities for understanding how to better enhance one’s Christian life, literally supersizing it.

Embodied and Extended Cognition

All these changes and their mind-boggling possibilities come together in two central themes of recent development in cognitive psychology: embodied and extended cognition. Embodied cognition is an alternative to a perspective held for a long time in understanding the mind, namely, that humans think like computers. The computer model of cognition has suggested that the body is simply an input mechanism, whereas the real “thinking” goes on abstractly inside the “mind” like computer information processing. After the mind processes ideas, concepts, and experiences, it pumps that information back out through the body like a computer might send information to a screen or printer. But philosophy of mind and a growing experimental literature are demonstrating that humans think as bodies, not separate from them. The reality of our bodies impacts the way we process information and “think” our way through the world. Different bodies, and the experiences we have in those bodies, create persons in unique and distinctive ways. What is more, even when we are for the moment not doing anything, our thoughts are formed by simulations of bodily actions.

The second area of development is extended cognition. Not only do we think as bodies, but this thinking can also be extended beyond our bodies to include tools, artifacts, and even other humans. For example, consider problem-solving and memory. The brain is not very good at holding in mind and managing large amounts of data. Computers are very good at this. So, we humans extend our normal human limitations by interacting with computers. There are a multitude of tasks we simply cannot do without them. We’ve become so linked to our computers for all sorts of processes that cognitive philosopher Andy Clark suggests that when our computer crashes it is like having a small stroke. We lose not only our access to important information, but considerably diminish our productivity. Clark argues that the capacity to extend cognitive processes beyond the body is characteristic of humankind. He goes so far as to call humans “Natural-Born Cyborgs.”

There are myriad ways in which humans have become deeply coupled with artifacts that extend our thinking. But it is not just artifacts that are the object of cognitive extensions. The networks of our thinking can also incorporate other persons, interacting with them in a manner that forms a joint cognitive processing system. This is particularly important in child development. Human babies are born with much brain development occurring after birth. This means that the other persons and the artifacts that children interface with have a major impact on brain organization and become part of what allows the child to become a person. We don’t just think with our own bodies, even as coupled to artifacts; we also think with other bodies in interpersonal versions of extended cognition.

Group brainstorming and problem-solving is an example of how we think with others in ways that enhance our limited individual capacities. The solution is seldom what any one individual would have been able to come up with alone. Furthermore, some of human thought and problem-solving throughout the centuries gets compiled in what has become called “mental institutions”—that is, the collected wisdom of a community as it relates to a particular area of life, such as the law or cuisine or construction or even theology. No lawyer can know all there is to know of the law, but over time it has become collected in case studies, reports, and precedents, most of which lawyers can readily find, extending their legal capacities by the mental institutions that have become part of the field.

Supersizing Christian Life

Perhaps you can sense where we are headed with all this. Our concern is that especially in Western evangelicalism, Christianity has become an individualistic, private, and inward issue of the heart, disassociated from our bodily actions and from communities of believers. Many western evangelicals conceptualize spiritual practices as something private that one does alone in order to feel more religious or spiritual (e.g., close to God). But if embodied and extended cognitions are true, it implies that these solo forms of Christian spiritual life are shallow, puny, not all they could be. We argue that we will grow beyond our normal human limitations even religiously by more purposefully recognizing our embodiment (the outward action-implications of our religiousness) and engaging in the extension of Christian life into the lives of other Christians in the body of Christ.

Embodiment suggests that how we worship and practice our faith matters. If we think as bodies then our worship, rituals, and practices should be purposefully and consciously embodied. Instead of thinking we can feel our way toward closeness with God or holiness in some private, inner arena, we should practice our way toward it. We can behave ourselves toward new ways of thinking and feeling. By engaging in practices that cultivate the fruits of the Spirit we may become persons of character and virtue in deeper and more profound ways. Just as a pianist doesn’t become a virtuoso by sitting around thinking about playing, we as followers of Christ can’t just fill our heads with abstract ideas of God and the Christian life, but we must get out and practice our Christian “music.”

But bodies are always in relationship with other bodies, so our spiritual life can be augmented and enhanced as we choose to extend our lives into the lives of other Christians. This is our central argument for the value of, and need for, Christian community. Individual spirituality is puny and limited, but when we extend our lives into others, we literally supersize our Christian lives. By engaging with others in the faith, our religious life is expanded and enriched, becoming deeper and more robust. Just like group problem-solving or apprenticeship, by being cognitively coupled into the minds and hearts of other believers, and as we unconsciously imitate one another, we each exceed our spiritual capacities as individuals to become Christ-like. The whole of us together becomes greater than the sum of our individualist parts.

Furthermore, the life of a church allows us to extend our selves in the mental institutions of the church universal. Just like the law, the church contains narrative scripts that include theology, rituals, practices, and oral traditions of how Christians are to live. To try to orchestrate one’s Christian life in solo ways would be akin to trying to sail around the world alone and without the benefit of centuries of map development—perhaps someone has done it, but most likely it would end in disaster. Rather, when we extend ourselves into the institutions of the church, what we think of as Christian “mental wikis,” we become more like a ship that depends on centuries of knowledge of navigation, and maps drawn by countless others, as well as the contributions of numerous sailors operating navigational equipment, to sail a correct path.

Extension and the Reign of God

It is important to remember that, although humans are wired to extend and the outcome of the extension is in some way enhancing, the outcome may not be the enhancement of a good end. There may be ways in which extending ourselves into certain forms of technology that result in negative outcomes (think of the incivility we see in social media, even among believers), or consider being socially extended into a crime family. While we are always embodied and always extended, we have the capacity to decide where we will choose to extend our lives. We urge believers to consciously extend themselves into a Christian community that embodies the narrative of the kingdom of God. While this narrative is complex and multilayered, it certainly includes bodies caring for other bodies, especially the poor and oppressed. Sadly, not all Christian communities embody this narrative. Today, too many evangelicals have embodied and extended into “mental wikis” of Christian nationalism or capitalism, or implicit white supremacy. But when we do become coupled with, that is extended into, a community that expresses the kingdom narrative, we begin to deepen and enrich our collective Christian life—that is, we supersize it—for the sake of the world.

catalyst
news & events
catalyst
July 12, 2021

This summer I have been practicing the recorder daily for the first time since elementary school. The recorder is different in almost every respect from the instrument on which I was …

July 5, 2021

It’s become a regular practice of mine to open class with my students each week by exploring Scripture through guided meditations based on ancient practices of the church. Feedback from my …

news & events
April 14, 2021

A Foundation for Theological Education (AFTE) John Wesley Fellowships have been awarded to three doctoral students.

The John Wesley Fellows …

April 13, 2021

“To everything, there is a season and a time for every purpose under the heaven.” – Ecclesiastes 3:1

The World …