The contempt for the heart in United Methodism

The contempt for the heart in United Methodism May 11, 2016
"Broken heart," bored-now, Flickr C.C.
“Broken heart,” bored-now, Flickr C.C.

It’s odd that a movement founded when John Wesley “felt [his] heart strangely warmed” has gained such a contempt for the heart. We talk about having a quadrilateral for our spiritual discernment: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, but some conservative United Methodists want to banish experience from this list because it draws upon bleeding heart, flighty feelings instead of logical, accurate, “agenda-less” Biblical interpretation. To argue against experience, one of my United Methodist colleagues loves to trot out Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Because the most spiritually dangerous thing that can happen is for your heart to be moved by someone else’s story.

This contempt for the heart has come up most recently in the debate over the infamous Rule 44 at our United Methodist General Conference. Rule 44 dares to suggest that we talk about sensitive issues like our sexuality debate in small group conversation circles instead of handling them through impersonal legislative processes. The voting process would not be different at all, but the discernment prior to the voting might involve the heart and not just the head. Is it contrived to try to have personal conversations in such a polarizing context? Perhaps. But the alternative is far worse.

Some have taken up the refrain that we shouldn’t try to have personal conversations at global church gatherings until we’ve learned how to do it on a local level. While I agree that it’s contrived and unhelpful to throw the label “holy conferencing” at personal conversation in a politically toxic environment, that’s not a reason to prefer the impersonal to the personal. When conservatives cast rule 44 as a sneaky strategy to “coerce” delegates into voting for LGBT inclusion, it makes me wonder if they think the heart itself is a liberal conspiracy. It’s very telling of where we are that there’s such fear of having your heart confronted with another person’s personal story. In such a context, it might be awkward to tell them that they or their children are an abomination, which constitutes “coercion.”

Plato was certainly suspicious of the heart. He said that a well-ordered soul is one in which reason rules over passion. But Jesus tells a different story. When he’s asked what one must do to follow the law, he tells the Good Samaritan parable, a story of a man who acted in love toward a suffering man because he was “moved with pity.” He didn’t do what he did out of dispassionate obedience to a set of rules. Somehow he had been shaped in such a way that he could not resist being compelled by another person’s suffering. We can know the Bible backwards and forwards; we can memorize all of Richard Heitzenrater’s books about John Wesley; but we will utterly lack the “vital piety” Wesley sought to cultivate if we have hardened our hearts against being moved.

The goal of all Christian doctrine and spiritual formation is to empty our hearts so that they are entirely available to God’s love. That’s what John Wesley’s concept of Christian perfection is: the absence of idolatry and the fullness of love for God and neighbor in your heart. The apostle Paul puts it this way: “The aim of [Christian] instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5). In other words, if you have all the right theological answers but you’re full of scorn, then you’re doing it completely wrong.

If you want to win me to your perspective, don’t point out all the ways that I’m completely illogical and stupid. Show me your heart. If I can see that you have a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith, then I’ll take you seriously and at least seek to sympathize with your convictions. Stop trying to protect your heart from being moved. You probably have a good heart. Let God move it, even though it’s the most spiritually dangerous thing you could possibly do.

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