The Wesleyan pitch to the agnostic youth

February 13, 2012

I want to state a case for the youth who come of age and dare agnosticism, i.e., dare to think for themselves (and throw off Kant’s “self imposed tutelage”) and it’s tough as I hardly need to say. What enables us to distinguish the Jesus story from the story of Santa Claus? and perhaps where we have forgotten that the latter was a tale for children and there is no one left to tell us that it was phony?

Is the Jesus story fraudulent? the youth should ask. Or is it a true story?

Here is the Wesleyan pitch, I think: Jesus promises us something which Santa Claus could never provide, namely that we will in fact become new creatures in him and will be able to validate the Jesus story by what is actually working within us and which we experience as growing in love and maturity. So take it from us, the Wesleyans will say, the story is a true story, and the evidence of which, which arises within ourselves, validates the Jesus story. This was Wesley’s opinion. So we become living scriptures.

I think that should has some appeal. It promises a brand new chance (“dying” to the world) and it guarantees a success (“resurrecting” to a new nature). This is replicated in the outlook of the Christian, i.e., all can be forgiven and you will find adequate assistance.

So the trick is this: you (the youth) can experience the new promised nature yourself, but only by trying (that’s the cost of knowing). The evidence is there (untapped), but it can only be spied (actualized) through eyes of faith.* Perhaps sort of like a face in the cloud. It’s there, but the only way to see it is to look in a certain way and from a certain perspective.

* This is confirmed, I think, in William James’ The Will To Believe Section IX where, for example, if we want people to be friendly with us, we can’t just wait for that to happen, but must step out and begin by being friendly with them.

I have been thinking about this idea of the youth having first to become agnostics in order ever to be (thinking) Christians (I obtained this notion from J. B. McNeil, a Methodist preacher). Perhaps that’s a mission of the church, to make sure the youth can tell the difference between a Santa Claus tale and the tales of Jesus.

I also think that the youth should be apprised of the impact of choosing atheism (as a mode of living and thinking), namely:

1. where there is no objective meaning to existence or morality, and
2. where happiness lost now is lost forever and
3. where there are only so many days left for possible happiness, i.e., it is a here and now thing only.

Do the youth want to be driven by that understanding of atheism? And to promote it as the makeup of a world they would want to live in and to raise their children in?

And so the Jesus story is not merely validated in the experiences of the Christians, but provides a basis (given the atheist alternative) for a compelling wish that the Jesus story were indeed true. So we would want it to be true, the youth might think, and then there is promised a certain evidence of its truth by giving it a try. And what it promises is something you (these youth) will also want, a world of brotherly love among all persons.

I guess the Wesleyan is saying this: there is compelling evidence of a something strange and marvelous in the New Birth but it’s like the rainbow, i.e., it is certainly there to see and experience, but you have to see it from a certain perspective, and that particular perspective is that of a follower of the Way in faith. It’s there but you have to live it.

It’s like the Wesleyans say: when you come to experience in your hearts and spirits that you are becoming better and more loving to all, you will then have evidence that there is a God and who loves you so much, and it is then that you can achieve to the level of experience where you see that you now believe in and even love God.* ** You can love him because he first loved you, by changing you into a new creature (but only with your permission). And perhaps God did this in order that we might come to love him as we do a loving parent, i.e., beyond ritual. He wants us to love him the same way that we can love our own parents. With that intensity or even more. And that is the promise of the gospel story about Jesus, that by opting for God you will come to know him and recognize him because you will come to love him as your ultimate parent.

* Les Mis puts it so: “And remember the truth that once was spoken, that to love another person is to see the face of God”.

** According to Wesley the experience of the transformation provides a validation of the existence of God and of the truth of the scriptures. But this experience is only possible by stepping out in faith à la William James (in a note above). As Wesley himself put it: what the Gospel promises has been accomplished in my soul.

Nutshell. The atheist “moral” state is abhorrent to the youth,* and this is a negative evidence for the existence of God (bringing us to hope and wish for God). And then there is a positive evidence which is in the experience of a follower of Jesus, the so-called transformation or new birth.**

* At least when thoroughly understood. See an imagined Lecture at an Atheist Youth Camp.

** See also: Discussions between Christians and atheists.

Concerning now creeds: I like the idea of reciting the creeds in solidarity of spirit and not for argumentation or binding the conscience. This ties in nicely with Kant’s notion of the atonement, where Jesus dies in solidarity with those he called to follow him (who must die to sin) and did so in the role of an elder brother who not only shows the way but even leads the way. Jesus led the way that all who want to experience the new birth must tread.*

* See Atonement from One Wesleyan’s Perspective.

One nice and interesting option for the youth who choose to accept the Jesus story is that there are two paths of the Way, the right and left footprint of Jesus. The right follows an externally imposed statute law of some sort, more or less, and is called a Law-abiding Christian. The left is free of all externally imposed law and and is subject to the internalized law of love alone, and hence is called the Free Christian. The Free Christian has absolutely no inhibition to undertake any act which he considers (according to his best understanding) to be the loving act for one and for all. The Free Christian plans to be judged by Jesus himself (Romans 14:4) and where the conscience is clear to both him (or her) and Jesus. His practical dedication is to live the law of love.*

* The two feet are a provocative consideration for understanding these two approaches to the Christian faith. It is quicker to grasp by using the example of hands. There is only a single concept of hand which indicates a palm with four fingers attached on one side and a thumb on an adjacent side and which all close toward the palm. And yet there are two different manifestations of this concept, each of which is a perfect example of the hand, namely the left hand and the right hand, for despite the fact they are each a perfect representation of this one concept (hand), they cannot wear the same glove, just as the two feet cannot wear the same shoe.  And so both paths of the Way are theoretically identical as Christian, but still different in practice.**

** This is similar to the concept of the trinity. See also God’s Left Hand Joke.

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