Sources of Christian Pessimism and How Wesley Saw It

In the last post I wrote about the optimism the Gospel brings to my life.  In fact, as I read back some of these blogs, I don’t like that my sense of irony, playful sarcasm and critique sound pessimistic. I think people who follow Jesus and work for His Kingdom have every reason to be the most upbeat, optimistic, hope-filled people on the planet. I want to caveat about contexts where great persecution or starvation persist, although, incredibly, folks there seem to have a much better handle on joy than we in the comfortable West do!

I do, however, run in many western Christians who are very gloom and doom, even in their theology! For sure, childhood experiences, temperament, or wounds in life cause pessimism. However, I suspect there are also a couple of theology reasons: first, some versions of Reformed theology have a pretty gloomy view of this life on earth, and we just need to hold on until we get to heaven. For the record, I’m not laying that at Calvin’s door.

Secondly, the predominant American view of St. John’s Apocalypse/ the Book of Revelation is so awful, nearsightedly tied to newspaper headlines (even though that approach has utterly failed for twenty centuries!), and pessimistic, that it’s no surprise people assume things will get worse and worse and then the end ( a comment Jesus makes about Jerusalem and the Jewish-Roman War, but taken by Americans and those they influence to mean something at the end of time, which of course must be our time, since it’s all about us!).

Fortunately, a look at history refreshingly shows that the world is not getting worse and worse. The leaven of the Kingdom of God has indeed been working its way through the batch of dough. The influence of the Way of Jesus has had marvelous results in the last 2,000 years.  Our mis-use of the Apocalypse brings pessimistic, and often very fear-driven, worldviews that shadow peoples’ lives and folks miss out on a lot of joy. The Gospel gives us every reason to be optimistic, upbeat, and hope-filled.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodists understood this. In his sermon The General Spread of the Gospel, after leaving no stone unturned describing the ills of the world and fallen-short Christianity, Wesley then goes on to argue, using profuse Scripture, that God is wonderfully at work in the world and that surely the power of the Gospel is such that we can have great hope that the whole world will come to faith in Christ:

in general, it seems, the kingdom of God will not “come with observation;” but will silently increase, wherever it is set up, and spread from heart to heart, from house to house, from town to town, from one kingdom to another. 

…. And in every nation under heaven, we may reasonably believe, God will observe the same order which he hath done from the beginning of Christianity. “They shall all know me, saith the Lord;” not from the greatest to the least (this is that wisdom of the world which is foolishness with God;) but “from the least to the greatest;” that the praise may not be of men, but of God. Before the end, even the rich shall enter into the kingdom of God. Together with them will enter in the great, the noble, the honourable; yea, the rulers, the princes, the kings of the earth. Last of all, the wise and learned, the men of genius, the philosophers, will be convinced that they are fools; will be “converted, and become as little children,” and “enter into the kingdom of God.

…. All unprejudiced persons may see with their eyes, that He is already renewing the face of the earth: And we have strong reason to hope that the work he hath begun, he will carry on unto the day of the Lord Jesus; that he will never intermit this blessed work of his Spirit, until he has fulfilled all his promises, until he hath put a period to sin, and misery, and infirmity, and death; and re-established universal holiness and happiness, and caused all the inhabitants of the earth to sing together, “Hallelujah, the Lord God omnipotent reigneth!” “Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever!”

In this sermon, he even goes as far as to attempt to predict the order, the geographical sequence of nations in which the Gospel would succeed, first to last! Humorous as that seems, one thing for sure, the power and grace of the Gospel made Wesley an optimist.

John Wesley: the world will not be destroyed

The Left Behind version of Christianity claims God will destroy the world. (As if John 3: 16 read “For God so hated the world he sent his only Son into it to snatch a relatively few people out of it and then burn it to a cinder… not to save it through him!”). Here are John Wesley’s comments on Romans 8, and the whole Creation longing with eager expectation to be set free, liberated, when the sons of God come into their own, from the bondage to death and decay. As in our day, many people in Wesley’s time thought the world itself will end. In contrast to that, Wesley understood the great biblical expectation of God mending Creation, what Jesus and his generation called ‘the renewal of all things’ (Mt. 19:28) in the age to come. Wesley argues that a woman in labor doesn’t long to be destroyed, she longs to give birth to new life! And whatever is destroyed isn’t delivered at all – so it’s not the Creation itself that will be destroyed, but rather delivered from sin, death and decay.

“For the earnest expectation – The word denotes a lively hope of something drawing near, and a vehement longing after it. Of the creation – Of all visible creatures… each kind, according as it is capable. All these have been sufferers through sin; and to all these (the finally impenitent excepted) shall refreshment redound from the glory of the children of God. Upright heathens are by no means to be excluded from this earnest expectation: nay, perhaps something of it may at some times be found even in the vainest of men….

The creation itself shall be delivered – Destruction is not deliverance: therefore whatsoever is destroyed, or ceases to be, is not delivered at all. Will, then, any part of the creation be destroyed?     Into the glorious liberty – The excellent state wherein they were created.

22. For the whole creation groaneth together – With joint groans, as it were with one voice. And travaileth – Literally, is in the pains of childbirth, to be delivered of the burden of the curse. Until now – To this very hour; and so on till the time of deliverance.”

–       Founder of the Methodists, John Wesley (1703-1791) Commentary on Romans 8

 

Christian Mysticism? Calvin, Wesley and Spurgeon say ‘Yes’

A couple days ago I stumbled onto YET ANOTHER blog warning of the terrible dangers of mysticism.  Typically these sites warn of the mysticism in Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and the new emergent churches. The world is a fascinating place, and I find it ironic in the extreme that Fundamentalism, in order to protect Christianity from the modern scientific worldview, adopted the modern scientific worldview toward the Bible and the faith! Somehow these good folks are convinced that the Christian religion is a head-oriented, logical, rational set of beliefs devoid of mysticism.

No mysticism in Christianity? How about the Holy Spirit being present INSIDE believers? How about prayer? How about  communion and baptism? How about the Spirit testifying to our spirit that we are children of God? How about dreams and visions? How about the Creation itself yearning for the sons of God to be revealed? How about the Inspiration of Scripture? How about “You will know that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you”? Can you call all that something other than mysticism?

No, no – they say –  mysticism is part of Eastern religions.

Ummm…  Judaism and Christianity were born in the Near EAST. They ARE  Eastern religions! They aren’t French or German. Christianity actually predates Calvin and Luther.

The blog I stumbled onto traced the etymology of mysticism to ‘mystery’ – aha! The mystery cults! Uh, box canyon. Blind alley. Circular go-cart track. Etymologies don’t really prove a point in this context.

Words, you may have noticed, are like bright-eyed toddlers who refuse to sit still where you tell them to. They run all over the house – and the pandemonium gets even livelier when they collide with their Latin cousins.[1] The word ‘mystical’ has been used by Christians to describe the mystical, spiritual experiences  of Christians throughout our history. Even many of the fundamentalists’ favorites!

John Calvin speaks of “the residence of Christ in our hearts, in fine, the mystical union…”; refers to Jesus’ words at The Last Supper as “a mystical benediction” and calls our incorporation into Christ’s church “a mystical marriage” throughout his sermons and Institutes.

Charles Spurgeon uses the word these same ways, and calls both the prophet Daniel’s visions and dreams “mystic,” as well as the Apostle Paul’s experiences.

John Wesley called Psalms which pointed forward to Christ  ‘mystical references to Christ’;  any reference in Scripture to Jerusalem that he took to indicate the church he said mystically refers to the church; throughout his sermons and commentary he refers to the church as Christ’s ‘mystical’ body and believers as “members of Christ’s mystical body”;  he refers to the Mystics of his day and the Middle Ages “those pious men who are usually styled Mystics” and calls the prophetic allusions in the Old Testament “mystical promises of abundant grace poured forth in gospel-days.”

The long and short of it is this. Somehow our fundamentalist brothers and sisters have gotten the idea that mysticism is something foreign to biblical faith and Christian experience. Whatever twists and turns of history resulted in them earnestly believing this, the fact is that mysticism – mystical experiences – have always been a part of both Jewish and Christian faith, starting in the Bible.


[1] Thank you Tom Wright for this delightful illustration.