John Wesley’s Experimental Religion and Evangelism in a Postmodern Age

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That postmodernity is a hazy concept, ill-defined and worse-employed, is by now a sad truism, only worsened by its many variants and broad influence over multiple areas of contemporary life and thought.  It must be acknowledged, though, with however much reserve, that there is such a thing as postmodernity which is not only pervasive within the philosophy, ethics, and aesthetics of our day, but which also has deep roots at the popular, cultural level.  And though the Church need never capitulate to predominant cultural models, she must ever ask: how will we preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to this generation?  When this question is asked with reference to this present generation, the phenomena of cultural postmodernity—however it is to be more precisely defined—cannot be ignored.

Jean-François Lyotard famously offered the definition of postmodernity as, “incredulity toward metanarratives.”  If this incredulity toward metanarratives is still characteristic of the outlook of much of Western culture—and it seems that it is—this raises certain questions as to how we can most effectively preach Jesus Christ to our generation.  A number of times, when attempting to speak to non-believers about the Gospel, I have run up against a wall that many would say is quintessentially representative of the postmodern situation, encountering responses like, “Perhaps that is your truth, but it is not mine.”  What I want to assert, of course, is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has to it a veracity independent of human evaluations of it; that its truth transcends human belief or disbelief.  But, for many, this assertion smacks of the worst kind of authoritarianism; it seems representative of the kind of metanarrative which postmodernity has conditioned them to resist.  Whether or not Christianity in fact constitutes a metanarrative is not quite what is at issue here; neither is the issue which I am raising that of whether or to what extent Christianity should embrace postmodernity.  Rather, the question is, quite simply, in a world in which many are deeply skeptical of metanarrative and indeed any claims to certainty and objectivity, how can we as believers help those outside of the Church to saving faith in Jesus Christ?  It is a formidable question, the answering of which may help to define the Church in our time.

Salvation as a Human Impossibility—Then and Now

The many issues which postmodernity raises for the Church as she tries to faithfully witness to Jesus Christ in the world could perhaps drive us to despair.  When Jesus spoke of the difficulty of the rich being saved, the disciples were astonished, and asked with a despair of their own: “Who then can be saved?” to which Jesus responded with a profound simplicity, “With man, this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Mt. 9.25-26 NIV).  The great irony, of course, is that simply with man it is impossible not only for the rich to be saved, but for anyone to be saved; humanity’s total dependence upon God for salvation is only more outwardly evident in the case of the rich man.  So, too, with the case of our postmodern times.  When asking the question of how postmodern peoples, resistant to metanarrative and distrustful of anything that sounds remotely authoritarian, can be saved, we would do well to answer with Jesus’ words: it is impossible for postmodern human beings to be saved by our eloquent words, by our carefully constructed metanarratives, or by anything of the sort; indeed, postmodernity has only made more evident what has always been true: it has never been possible for any to be saved by such things.  With man, it is impossible that anyone be saved; but there is a Living Savior, who is risen from the dead, and who is able to save.  Perhaps the fact the postmodernity seems, to many, to pose such a problem for Christian evangelism, both practically and in theory, is an indication that we have placed our trust in the wrong sorts of things.

Wesley’s Experimental Religion and the Action of God as the Only Hope for Salvation

I am convinced that the theology of John Wesley, and especially his emphasis upon experimental religion—that encounter with the truths of the Gospel that is real, experiential, impacting not only the mind but also the heart, and which, in the case of the salvation of human beings is “the work of God alone”—provides to the Church an invaluable resource for articulating the above-mentioned truth—that of our total dependence on God for salvation both then and now, as we look out upon a world so desperately in need of Jesus Christ and His saving work.  Well before the advent of postmodernity Wesley knew, important and helpful as theological systems and metaphysical articulations of the faith were, they were impotent, in themselves, to save even one.  In his sermon, “The Marks of the New Birth,” Wesley defines the faith which is truly a mark of the new birth negatively: “But it is not a barely notional or speculative faith that is here spoken of by the apostles.  It is not a bare assent to this proposition, Jesus is the Christ; nor indeed to all the propositions contained in our creed…” And then positively: “The true, living, Christian faith which whosever hath is born of God…[is] a disposition, which God hath wrought in his heart…”  Wesley’s articulation of saving faith, and indeed of all of experimental religion, makes it explicit—it does not depend upon man but upon the action of God.  And if upon the action of God then we are utterly dependent upon God as we witness to Jesus Christ.

It is true that, for many today, the truth of Jesus Christ is not “their truth,” meaning that they have not appropriated it for themselves by faith, and that they feel no pressing need to do so.  Postmodernity may, in their minds, have deconstructed the “metanarrative of Christianity,” such that even our sincerest efforts to witness to the grace of God seem to be ineffectual in their case.  Really, though, all that the postmodern condition should remind us in evangelism is that which has always been true: no one can be saved apart from “experimental religion,” from the action of God which works upon the hearts of human beings, bringing about faith and the New Birth; perhaps postmodernity might even be the instrument by which God tears down our idols.

Postmodernity’s Gift—A Reminder of our Dependence

All of this does not render theological discourse or theological systems or an articulation of the Christian (meta-)narrative unimportant; on the contrary these are all the more important; they are those things through which God acts.  We should be grateful to Derrida, Lyotard and the rest, because once again they have reminded the Church, in her witness to the world, that she must be humble, that her cries of prayer for God’s action are more effective than many words, and that in evangelism, as in all things, she is utterly dependent upon the action of God, because only His action can bring about true, experimental religion.  The postmodern condition should remind us quite forcefully now, as Wesley did and continues to do for so many, that no matter how well-intentioned and zealous our evangelistic efforts, only the attending action of God can effectuate conversion.  How should the Church, then, preach Christ to a postmodern world?  At the risk of over-simplifying: in utter dependence upon the same Lord whom she preaches, and Him alone.

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William Brennan graduated from Asbury Theological Seminary with a Master of Arts in Theological Studies. He is currenlty pursuing Ph.D. studies at University of Aberdeen.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Dear Mr. Brennan,

    I hope this finds you well and advancing towards completion of your Ph.D.

    A colleague has alerted me to the use of the concept of “experimental religion” by John Wesley, and a Google search led me to your essay above. Exp. Rel. is a term I came up with independently a couple years ago in relation to my study of Buddhist temples in Japan (now a book titled Experimental Buddhism). I’m interested to learn from you if your use of it above is your own spin on the idea of using religious resources to meet contemporary needs, or if JW actually coined the expression.
    I’d be grateful to hear from you at your convenience.

    Sincerely,

    John Nelson
    University of San Francisco

  2. Dear Professor Nelson,

    Thank you very much for your message; all is well here, and
    the PhD is moving along (slowly but surely!) I hope that this finds you well,
    too.

    Your question is a very interesting one; thank you for it. The
    expression ‘experimental religion’ is not my own; I first encountered it in my
    reading of Wesley, who wrote, for example, describing the content of some of
    his sermons: ‘I have endeavoured to describe the true, the scriptural, experimental
    religion, so as to omit nothing which is
    real part thereof and to add nothing thereto which is not.’ (Preface to Sermons
    on Several Occasions, in John Wesley, ed. Albert Outler, 90).

    In using this expression, Wesley meant to differentiate the
    type of ‘religion’ which he sought to commend to his hearers from a nominal, or
    purely speculative Christianity. Experimental religion (Christianity, in Wesley’s
    case) seems to have been roughly synonymous with ‘experiential religion’; i.e.,
    it is that religion which is defined by personal encounter with Jesus Christ
    and his Spirit, in which one appropriates the benefits of Christ for one’s
    self.

    While this term, ‘experimental religion,’ seems to have been
    particularly suited to Wesley’s own thinking, concerned as he always was to
    combat nominal or purely formal, external Christianity, it was not Wesley’s
    creation, either. Rather, it seems that this was part of the common parlance of
    his day (during which time it would have been particularly connected to the
    kind of faith and piety which was springing up due in part to the First Great
    Awakening); it continued to be a fairly common phrase, from what I understand,
    in Christian groups who were influenced by Pietism, placed a heavy emphasis on personal
    conversion, etc., for a good while after Wesley’s life. The term also has a
    history in similar circles before Wesley’s time. Jeremy Taylor (1613-1677),
    with whom Wesley was familiar, used the term, and the English non-conformist John
    Bunyan (1628-1688) also used it (or terms similar to it, like experimental
    divinity). There may be a longer history to this phrase within English-speaking
    Protestantism, but I’m not sure beyond roughly the mid-17th C.
    Already though, it can be seen that this expression was used within English-speaking
    Protestant thought from very early on. Of course, it’s not used much within Protestantism
    anymore, except by those who are writing about people like Wesley, et al., who
    did use it.

    I’d be interested to know how your use of the term, applied
    to Buddhism, compares to the way in which it was used by Wesley and other evangelical/pietistic
    Protestant thinkers.

    Thanks again for you comment,

    William Brennan

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