A Methodist Clergy Wrestling with Richard Rohr's Methods

The year 2012 brought with it new challenges and learning opportunities for me.  So I’ve not been particularly surprised as 2013 seems to be opening up with a continuation of those same things.  The idea of a new year really being a separation from the old year is a bit puzzling to me, always has been.  Nature itself, as I have been reminded recently is a book which is always open to give lessons.  Even as new growth is taking place under our very feet, the old roots grow stronger and plants which have bloomed in years past, will likely present us with blooms again.

The Church (I mean that universally), is much the same.  New growth takes shape, often out of the way, and many times, unseen.  Like gardeners, we must maintain and watch what sprouts.  Now I’m not much of a gardener but I have successfully learned to care for lawns.  Sometimes plants grow in the wrong spot.  Any plant which does this can be termed a “weed.”  Transplanted to another location and it is no longer a weed.

While an imperfect word-picture, our denominations in the Church often represent different gardens, full of wonderful plants but at times, ones we may not find fitting in our own garden.  Spiritual formation is one those plants growing we are not sure at times whether we have a welcome plant or another weed.  It maybe you are greatly concerned about it or you have given it no thought in the slightest. 

For Methodist Christians, spiritual formation IS something to be concerned about and in fact, it is at the heart of much of what we do.  It is often unseen.  Dr. Bob Mulholland gives a simple definition which is worth keeping in mind, one the General Board of Discipleship has posted:

Spiritual formation is the process of being conformed to the image of Christ by the gracious working of God's spirit, for the transformation of the world. 1

I think we take it far too much for granted spiritual formation is taking place.  While faith might more often be “caught than taught,” I have yet to discover a faith tradition of influence which has simply given a pass to spiritual formation, whether they accept the term or not.

Within the Methodist tradition, we have long had “methods” for the process.  Unfortunately, we have often dismissed John Wesley’s role in directing this.  It occurred to me while dialoguing on John Meunier’s recent discussion on Nouwen and Wesley, we have in many ways dismissed Rev. Wesley’s more intimate works of spiritual direction.  Dr. Steve Harper, in his article, “John Wesley: Spiritual Guide,” points this out and with an excellent comparison:

… I have come to believe that it is [his} letters where we see the spiritual guidance of Wesley most personally demonstrated. There can be no doubt that Wesley knew that letters were a time-honored medium of spiritual direction. One cannot read his letters without thinking of those of Francois Fenelon—one of Wesley's own spiritual formation resources. 2

I think this is of vital importance in a day when there are many spiritual directors writing and many who we are reading.  The writing style of the 18th century is not the same as the 20th and 21st and many older writings than Wesley’s have gotten fresh translations.  There is a clarity to these which is surely attractive. 

However, when the clarity is as transparent as Richard Rohr’s recent e-mail/devotion on December 31: Seven Underlying Themes of Richard Rohr's Teachings, then it is worth considering, especially as he addresses our Wesleyan Heritage and approach.  Rohr’s work has been monumental and influential on many, now far beyond Roman Catholicism and many of us as Methodists are attracted to his work for good reason -  it is often profound.  I like a lot of what Fr. Rohr writes but not all.

I thank Fr. Rohr for his nod to the Methodist tradition as he gives his theme and notes the “quadrilateral.” 

First Theme: Scripture as validated by experience, and experience as validated by Tradition, are good scales for one’s spiritual worldview (METHODOLOGY).

(I am aware of John Wesley’s later-named “quadrilateral method” which also included reason as a fourth principle. I see the use of reason as precisely our ability to use Scripture, Tradition, and experience in a consistent, balanced, and “reasonable” way. But I do not want to give reason the importance of a fourth principle, because it now tends to trump the other three.) 3

As I understand Fr. Rohr’s “Methodology,” God experience is intended to balance out Scripture and Tradition which has often been used at odds with each other.  This is valid and clearly a valid point and quite Methodist.  That reason may or may not trump the other three is certainly a matter of debate – HOW we reason – this, I think, is why it is defined in the Book of Discipline in Our Theological Task.

As Methodists, we have clearly given one of these a place of primacy, something Rohr does not do.  Scripture we have said in Paragraph 104, “…occupies a place of primary authority among these theological sources.”   So even though we have four elements, the term “quadrilateral” is clearly not accurate as the four elements addressed are NOT equal (the Book of Discipline does not use this term either that I can find).  Clearly Fr. Rohr's task is not in keeping with our Methodist-way.

We do clearly define in that same paragraph 104 how reason is a vital element of our theological task.  To assume we are using rightly in our “method” is important.  We need to do more than recognize Wesley’s care for individuals in his care, we ought to consider taking the time to read what he wrote to the people who sought his spiritual direction. 

We have already allowed faulty reasoning to lead us down of road of dismissing Wesley as a spiritual director.  To follow Fr. Rohr’s methods would be good but not the Methodist way.  It seems clear, as Methodists we’ve not lived in our Methodist way for some time.  Do we really considered it an option?

I think it is clearly a deeper, compassionate work Rev. Wesley did for those who sought him out than we give Wesley credit.  We neither do right nor do well to walk from it, not when we’ve neglected to even live it.  It is my hope in this new year, to continue in our “methods,” ones which have deep roots ready to bloom again and again.

1) Mulholland, Robert.  Definition of Spirtual Formation 1/2/2013. (http://www.gbod.org)

2) Harper, J Steven. 1985. "John Wesley: spiritual guide."  Wesleyan Theological Journal 20, no. 2:91-96 ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed January 2, 2013).
3) Rohr, Richard.  E-mail devotional.  12/31/2012.


Anonymous said...

Scripture is mentioned first for a reason. (ha!) In our post modern culture, the pursuit of reason and experience outweigh the Scripture and tradition, when I think that when rooted in Scripture and the foundations of tradition, the experiences we have become more meaningful and our worldview and how we reason is more God centered. To me that is where we step into the abundant life. If it is reversed and we see Scripture and tradition through the eyes of reason and our own experience then our faith is shallow and we never experience the true and transformational power of God.

Ken L. Hagler said...

Nice pun Anonymous and I agree that reason and experience most often outweigh Scripture and tradition. This is why both in Wesley and the United Methodist Church's Discipline we see Scripture as primary. The others speak to, inform but they remain subject to Scripture. This is the fallacy of continuing to refer to this as "a quadrilateral." The sides are not equal.

I would suggest that if we turn it around at all, and experience and reason become the primary, we return to writing our own mythology. The idea of revelation is lost. Whatever is left maybe a religion but it certainly is not Christianity. Thanks for your comments.

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