by Bob Phillips
In 2004 David Brooks, a well-known New York Times columnist, published a piece with the title, “Who is John Stott?” Concerning a recent interview on “Meet the Press,” this Jewish commentator wrote:
“Tim Russert is a great journalist, but he made a mistake last weekend. He included Jerry Falwell and Al Sharpton in a discussion on religion and public life. Inviting these two bozos onto “Meet the Press” to discuss that issue is like inviting Britney Spears and Larry Flynt to discuss D.H. Lawrence. Naturally, they got into a demeaning food fight that would have lowered the intellectual discourse of your average nursery school. This is why so many people are so misinformed about evangelical Christians. There is a world of difference between real-life people of faith and the made-for-TV, Elmer Gantry-style blowhards who are selected to represent them. Falwell and Pat Robertson are held up as spokesmen for evangelicals, which is ridiculous. Meanwhile people like John Stott, who are actually important, get ignored.”
This is not a piece about Brooks or about Stott. It is one example, among many, of the compelling need for evangelical Wesleyan Christianity to reclaim the teaching and example of the Lord of the church and the founder of the Methodist movement to love God with all one’s mind, just like the book tells us to do (Matthew 22:37).
By the way, for those unaware of the late John R. Stott, he was a graduate of Cambridge University, an Anglican priest who ministered for years at All Soul’s parish in London, routinely drawing 2,500 or more to weekend services in a national culture where church attendance hovers around 2% of Church of England membership. He authored roughly 50 books, translated into 70+ languages, maintained lifelong celibacy, lived modestly, shunned celebrity status and annually gave away nearly all his income. He also upheld a clear embrace of historic evangelical Anglican Christianity while living out a clear Christian social conscience and maintaining genuine friendships with persons across the theological and religious spectrum. In 2005, Time magazine named him of the 100 most influential people on planet Earth.
Pew and Gallup surveys indicate one of the reasons younger adults are viewing organized religion with a jaded eye is the perception that deeply committed Christians are hostile to science, to critical thinking, and to intellectual life in general. Perhaps some of them saw the poster I saw in several Marine Corps offices during my time with the Few and the Proud: John Wayne decked out in Marine Corps gear from the movie, Sands of Iwo Jima, with the caption reading, “Life is tough but it’s tougher if you’re stupid.”
This article is not an advocacy piece that, “Unless one is born again…as an egghead…he or she cannot see the Kingdom of God.” It is not a sly suggestion that “By a college degree are ye saved, through grades.” It is not a subtle plea to ignore Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians about the misplaced arrogance of human wisdom or excusing the unspiritual mind that cannot see nor understand spiritual gifts and truth. It is more along the line of Dawson Trotman’s comment, where the founder of the Navigators parachurch group said that ‘God gave us a lot of leading when he gave us a brain.’
As the new global Methodist Church (by whatever name) is birthed in 2021, it is vital for the vision of love of God with all one’s mind to be fully embraced. Certainly many among the leadership of the movement represent admirable models for vibrant evangelical Wesleyan thinking, insofar as serious education and academic achievements are concerned. Certainly nothing in the new movement seeks to denigrate the role of theological education in the training of pastors and spiritual leadership at all levels of the new expression. Even so, the larger movement would do well to be “wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove” in reflecting the role of loving God with all one’s mind for all involved in the new church.
Clobbers from the Right
Face it. Modern culture seeks to slug the church with an uppercut from the progressive left and a roundhouse clobber from the fundamentalist right. Consider the threat from the right. A lot of popular religious culture treats Christian intellect as an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Paul warned that “knowledge puffs up but love builds up,” but this warning from 1 Corinthians 8:1 was not his effort to dismiss a thinking faith. Surveys indicate a majority of self-avowed practicing evangelicals cannot name the four gospels and/or the Ten Commandments. The spiritual mind-squish known as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism increasingly replaces core Christian convictions, including impact in evangelical churches and youth groups.
Contempt for the role of doctrine and thinking about the faith is growing. This is a double irony since historically the Nazi party launched a mocking assault on churches for clinging to doctrine, yelling that doctrines divide but love (in their case, love of the Fatherland) unites. In the 1970’s Debbie Boone (a strong Christian in her personal life) sang the hit song, “You Light Up My Life,” which included the zinger statement, “It can’t be wrong if it feels so right.” Lots of Christians who should know better are operating on that unthinking level of moral and ethical discernment. Having what Paul called, “the mind of Christ,” has given way to thinking about ethical behavior with all the crisp insights of a bowl of soggy corn flakes. That “the world” does this is no surprise. That evangelical Protestants are sliding into the goo of intellectual laziness is another matter.
Over 20 years ago Mark Noll, then a professor at Wheaton College and now recently retired from the faculty at Notre Dame, wrote a book entitled, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. His reluctant conclusion was the scandal was that there wasn’t much of an evangelical mind. Curiosity, room for doubts, serious scholarship in virtually any field where secular universities would affirm its quality were rare. This Present Darkness and the Left Behind series sold books but are woeful as literature. Although the overwhelming number of Wesleyan evangelicals are not hostile to science and see no issue with the Big Bang of 13.8 billion years ago, such issues can become a spiritual distraction to adults and to their children. Are dinosaurs really a Satanic fiction?
Loving God with the mind can help a normal believer resist the temptation to wall off one’s faith from realities of daily living, political and economic values, or just plain common sense as an active citizen. For centuries men and women of deep faith led the way in Western civilization with major contributions to art, science, literature and other aspects of the life of the mind. It is no mistake that Methodism has produced Nobel laureates in fields ranging from peace to physics. In far greater numbers, Wesleyans practiced their discipleship for Jesus in a lived religion that out-loved, outworked and out-thought the devil. Evangelical Methodists are called to recover the power of “knowledge and vital piety” joined at the hip for Jesus’ sake. Offering a positive alternative to defensiveness and suspicion by some sincere Christians on the right is and will remain part of a constructive Wesleyan evangelical witness.
Attacks from the Left
There is another and painful reason to love God with all our mind. This is the attack from the left. Versions of “Christianity” are in vogue that dismiss core Christian teaching and gospel convictions as unsuitable to the modern mind. It is no longer Anselm’s question, Cur Deus Homo? (Why did God become man?) for now one can embrace the metaphor of the incarnation without believing God actually incarnated in the person of Jesus as expressed in the miracle of the virgin birth. One can interpret the death of Jesus as an ode to a sacrificial martyr’s love without believing anything literal underlies the words, “For Christ also died for sin, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God…” (1 Peter 3:18). Sorry, folks, the atonement is just intellectually uncouth. One can affirm the symbolic and existential message of the myth of the resurrection without actually believing in a bodily resurrection. No sophisticated modern person possibly can believe that, or so goes the arguments from some seats of United Methodist learning and some official leaders of the church. Come to think of it, the Athenians had the same response to Paul in Acts 17. In contrast, Paul spoke so much about the resurrection that some in the crowd thought he was speaking about two gods, a god named Jesus and a god named Anastasis, or “Resurrection.”
Nearly 50 years ago I heard the bodily resurrection of Christ denied in a large Philosophy of Religion class, in front of 120 intellectually sharp students, by the leader of the United Methodist presence on campus at my Big Ten university. The guest speaker reassured the skeptics and cynics that literalism was not a requirement of contemporary sophisticated Christianity. While “the body of Jesus has long since decayed” (a quote from memory from that memorable lecture), his soul has gone marching on. Even then I thought the United Methodist reverend was confusing Jesus with the ditty from the 19th century song, “John Brown’s Body.”
That denial did nothing to make Christianity attractive to that seriously diverse and informed group. That denial did powerfully contrast with a class visit for dialogue a short time later by a social activist Catholic priest from the Newman center. When asked the same “gotcha” trick question about whether Christian faith requires a person to believe any of this stuff really happened, Father Barry stunned the crowd by responding, “I do believe it. I cannot explain it, certainly not to the satisfaction of some, but I do believe it.” The irony was that respect in the class soared for the intellectual integrity of the Catholic chaplain. His reputation for advocacy for racial justice and years spent among the poor in South America prior to assignment to campus ministry further enhanced his credibility and witness as a serious Christian. And I quit attending the Wesley Foundation and began attending midnight mass at St. John’s church on campus. I did not leave Methodism, for I knew true Wesleyan core gospel teaching was solid.
Four milestones can mark the path toward affirming and nurturing the life of the mind as a core metric of discipleship in the Wesleyan way within the new expression. First is an accountable commitment to life-long learning by all in positions of leadership. Word on the street is that the new-birthed Wesleyan movement will continue to affirm and value clergy education, but not such that anyone without a Master of Divinity degree becomes a second-class citizen. After all, one can complete the formal educational requirements and read virtually nothing for the next 30 years. The current clergy requirement to have a certain amount of continuing education every four years is not tied to any coherent vision for personal or spiritual or mental growth and includes no accountability. Far too many laity whose names are on a membership role literally have no class…are not in any meaningful or ongoing ministry to grow their mind in Christ through study and connection. Professed Christians who are like the River Platte, “A mile wide an inch deep,” are the result. The new expression will call those who join the movement to lives of gracious mutual accountability in growth and thought. Hence, the vision of the return of a modern expression of the class meeting is a key understanding of the new expression.
Second is a reset and refresh of the nature and role of theological education to prepare those called to full-time ministry to be prepared for effective and faithful service. Empowering and affirming those without several years of graduate theological education is a key piece. Education that emphasizes practical equipping to do the work of ministry will become ever more central to requirements and resources. My late uncle, Rev. Garrett Phillips, told me that “Reading dull books does not make you a good preacher, but neither does not reading.” And John Wesley had a quick, classic retort when some complained about his requirements that his circuit riders engage in regular reading. When told by some that they had no taste for reading, Wesley replied, “Acquire a taste or return to your trade.”
Having spent nine years around Naval aviation during my 33 years of Naval service I knew that the purpose of the flight school in Pensacola was to teach newcomers how to fly. Graduating with a ’wings of gold’ pin told the world the graduates were pilots who knew how to fly, though there always was more to learn. They could be trusted to launch, do the mission, and land. For many reasons, too many graduates of numerous seminaries and other educational efforts fail to launch, or skid off the runway, or get lost on their way to the mission, or collapse their landing gear with a hard landing on return. The problem is the process, not the people. It is time for a reboot. Aligning theological education to requirements that are crucial for effective ministry and measuring that effectiveness through practical benchmarks are crucial to excellence at all levels of church leadership. Such a vision will enhance the relevance, quality and integrity of Wesleyan Christian thought and buffer against a false intellectualism that serves no Kingdom purpose. Asbury’s rebuke to one unduly proud of his intellect bears repeating, when he told Reverend Pompous, “You read books. I read men.” Healthy Wesleyan Christianity reads both.
Third is to reclaim the broad spirit of Wesley’s vision, expressed in his words, “At all opinions that do not strike at the root of Christianity we think and let think.” A cold orthodoxy intent on setting limits, drawing lines, and building boundaries, defining faith in terms of what a real Christian does not believe or do is not the stuff of Wesleyan Christianity. That is very different from replacing the creeds in worship with a lively version of the old Broadway hit, “Anything Goes.” Chesterton said that morality is like art in that one begins with the drawing of lines. Restating and reclaiming the vibrancy of biblical Christianity (Yes, sister, Jesus really did get up on Easter) is a liberating vote of confidence that the faith that “once and for all” has been delivered to the saints still has the power to save (Jude 3). One can be a reasonable, intelligent, well-adjusted person and affirm both the transcendent dimensions and facts of the old, old story.
It is not inclusion and open-mindedness to “interpret” the person and work of Christ in ways that reduce him to just one of the guys, albeit with a brighter bulb than most others in the drawer. There’s a reason Harvard Medical School doesn’t have professional witch doctors on their teaching faculty and why Medicare rejects bills submitted by witch doctors for their healing ‘services.’ The reason is not that Harvard or Medicare are exclusionary or bigoted. The new church will be gracious but clear; those who interpret Jesus in ways that interpret Jesus away as the Savior and Lord of historic Christianity are welcomed to align with any church that will have them but will be viewed as witch doctors should they seek to preach or teach or teach preachers in the new expression. The global Methodist church is looking for those who think and believe faith essentials that are shared historically by all Christians, who “hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience” and without crossing their fingers while affirming the Apostles’ Creed (1 Ti 3:9).
Fourth is actively to encourage and enable laity in their discipleship to include “mindful Christianity” in the vision of what it means to follow Jesus in “going onto perfection.” At last count 99% of the church are not preachers or clergy or professors or the honorable workers at general church boards and agencies. They are the normal folks, the men and women cheerfully known as the “laity,” and they have laid down long enough while others (often unintentionally) have done their thinking for them. A thoughtful, reflective, informed faith is the need of the hour in a complex and contradictory culture. A faith with a high view of Christ, a high view of the inspiration and authority of scripture, and a commitment to passionate and critical thinking about the gospel are part of a vital church future. This attitude will bear witness to a jaded world that believers think, and act on their thoughts through a faith empowered by the Spirit, informed by scripture and expanded through nurturing the life of the mind.
Again, this is not a call to get degrees or spend time in school as a mark of sanctity. Others have noted that too many folks already “are educated beyond their intelligence.” One of the wisest men I ever knew never finished high school and several of the most powerful witnesses to Christ in my life barely finished high school. It is to remember, in the words of John Calvin, that “all our study is an act of devotion to God.” It is to lay fresh claim on Wesley’s motto of “Knowledge and vital piety,” joined at the hip and joined in the heart. If we love God with all we are, then heart and soul and strength…and mind will combine to seal the deal. Those who do not know nor follow Jesus will be intrigued and attracted when they see the breadth and depth of such love acted out in the lives of his disciples. That is witness and evangelism at work. That is the real deal. Please remember, of all the sins listed in the Bible, ‘thinking’ is not on that list.
Chair WCA, Illinois Great Rivers Conference
Degrees from University of Illinois, Asbury and Princeton Seminaries, University of St. Andrews
Graduate of Senior Executive Seminar on Morality, Ethics and Public Policy, Brookings Institution
Captain, Chaplain Corps, US Navy (ret)