Monday, January 31, 2022

Sung Il Lee: Wesley’s Attitude towards Other Religions

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Sung Il Lee. Rev. Dr. Lee is a missionary of Global Ministries and Missionary Practitioner in Residence at Candler School of Theology.

In Wesley’s sermons, I found that his concept of “religion” was very different from the term we use today in missiological and theological circles. Philip R. Meadows confirmed that: “The idea of ‘true religion’ has specific content, informed by the Christian scriptures … So. Wesley asserts that as there is one God, so there is one religion and one happiness for all men. God never intended there should be any more; and it is not possible there should.”[1] Thompson correctly says that Wesley “combined the Catholic accent of ‘work’ and the Reformation emphasis of ‘faith alone’ into ‘faith working in love.’ Thus, Wesley transformed Christianity from the personal and philosophical exercise of a few into a practical and public witness of many for Jesus Christ.”[2] Wesley concluded “that true religion, in the very sense of it, is nothing short of holy tempers. Consequently, all other religion, whatever name it bears, whether pagan, Mahometan, Jewish, or Christian; and whether popish or Protestant, Lutheran, or Reformed, without these is lighter and vanity itself” (#91. On Charity. III. §12).

According to Randy Maddox, Wesley was not only acquainted with the comparative studies of the four major religions—Christianity, Judaism, Mohametanism, and paganism, but also tended to organize religions in these categories.[3] Wesley sorted faith into several categories: materialist faith, deist faith, the faith of a Jew, and that of a heathen or Mahometan. In relation to the faith of Jew and that of a heathen, he viewed them as the “faith of servant.” “There is no reason why you should be satisfied with the faith of a materialist, a heathen, or a deist; nor indeed with that of a servant” (#106 On Faith. I. §13). However, he said that “we cannot doubt that many of them, … still retain (notwithstanding many mistakes) that faith that worked by love” (#106 On Faith. II. §6).

Wesley had two different attitudes toward other religions: First, he judged religions in terms of morality. In relation to this, all religions, including Christianity, have inward experience and outward practice. Outward practices are supported by inward experiences of religions. “True Christianity cannot exist without both inward experience and outward practice of justice, mercy, and truth; and this alone is given in morality” (#125 On Living Without God. §14).

Thompson mentions that Wesley placed unchanged Christians and heathens on the same level. In other words, he gave equal level of standing between those who experience the holy regardless of their religion.[4] Wesley affirmed that this mystery of iniquity made these Christians little better than heathen nations, asking “have they more justice, mercy, or truth, than the inhabitants of China or Indostan?” (#61. §29) and that it was one of the “causes of the inefficacy of Christianity” (#116. Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity). In terms of morality, he judged with careful observations that there is no superiority of Christianity over other religions, for he saw how Western Christianity was far from true Scriptural Christianity, in that “true Christianity cannot exist without both the inward experience and outward practice of justice, mercy, and truth; and this alone is given in morality” (#125. On Living Without God. §14).

Many of us do not want to compare in this way, but Wesley rooted out the sprout of pride from unchanged Christians. During Wesley's experience as a missionary in Georgia, he observed deeply how formal and nominal Christians’ low morality and atrocities toward Indians and black slaves were hindering the progress of the gospel. Wesley deplored the lower morality of many so-called Christians more so than that of people of other religions. Here we see how Wesley thinks importantly of Christian sanctification.

Second, Wesley viewed religions in terms of revelation. In the sermon entitled The Case of Reason Impartiality Considered, he argued that “the foundation of true religion stands upon the oracles of God. It built upon the prophets and apostles, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner-stone” (#70 The Case of Reason Impartially Considered, I. §6). According to Wesley, other religion also has truth, and God works in other religion,[5] though Wesley could be critical of other religion’s understanding of truth as well. In Sermon #63 The General Spread of the Gospel, Wesley viewed Islam as “miserable delusion,” “a disgrace to human nature,” and “a plague to all that are under their iron yoke” (#63. §3). He also placed “the faith of a Jew above that of a heathen or Mohometan” (#63. §5), but he judged that “the veil is still upon their hearts when Moses and the Prophets are read” (#63. §6).

Still, Wesley does not argue for an absolute discontinuity between Christianity and other religions. Instead, he emphasizes the “imperfection of human knowledge” (#69. The Imperfection of Human Knowledge). “Although we are well apprised of this general truth that all things are governed by the providence of God, … how little do we comprehend of God’s providential dealings with them?” (#69. II. §3). In addition, the mystery of iniquity “still hardens their heart, and still blinds their eyes, lest at any time the light of the glorious gospel should break in upon them.” (#106. On Faith. I. §6). The gods of this world “make the heart of this people waxed gross, their ears dull of hearing and their eyes closed” (#106. I. §6). For this reason, creation, including religions, is groaning to perfection. Both the imperfection of human knowledge and the works of the gods of this world keep them under the veil upon their hearts in order not to know the mystery of Christ, even though prevenient grace is available to all equally through God’s creation.

Here I want to search an answer from Wesley for a question: “What do other religions make to stand upon the oracles of God, that is, the foundation of true religion?” He surely did not draw a clear demarcation between Christian and other religions but made it clear that “true religion is heart religion, a religion of love, which Wesley describes as scriptural Christianity or possessing a faith that worketh by love.”[6] Most importantly, he emphasizes the religion of the heart as the essentials of true religion. In “On Charity,” Wesley concludes “that true religion, in the very essence of it, is nothing short of holy tempers. Consequently, all other religion, whatever name it bears, whether Pagan, Mahometan, Jewish, or Christian; and whether Popish or Protestant, Lutheran or Reformed; without these, is lighter than vanity itself (#91. III. §12). In terms of emphasizing the religion of the heart, the religion of holiness, Wesley is open to interreligious dialogue.

Wesley puts no emphasis on institutional religion, but rather on the inner religion or the religion of the heart. In general, looking at Wesley's understanding of religion in its own way, perhaps Wesley viewed from the point of view of revelation that true religion is a religion that not only knows the miserable reality of humanity and provides a solution, but also helps to restore the image of God. Wesley seems to understand that a religion that does not know the reality of humanity and cannot offer a solution is a false religion “which does not imply the giving of the heart to God (#114. The Unity of the Divine Being. §15), and a religion that knows the reality of humanity but cannot provide an exact solution is called a pseudo-religion. “If it does not lead to the recovery of the soul, even if it is called Christianity, it is just a false religion and pseudo-religion.”[7]

In my next post, I will describe what Wesley’s understanding of religion means for our practice of mission and evangelism.

[1] Philip R. Meadows, “Candidates for Heaven: Wesleyan Resources for a Theology of Religions,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 35:1 (2000): 110.

[2] Nehemiah Thompson, “The Search for a Methodist Theology of Religious Pluralism.” In Ground for Understanding: Ecumenical Resources for Responses to Religious Pluralism, 93-106. Edited by S. Mark Heim (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 95.

[3] Randy L. Maddox, “Wesley as Theological Mentor: The Question of Truth or Salvation through Other Religions” Wesleyan Theological Journal 27 (1992): 7–29.

[4] Thompson, 99.

[5] Thompson, 106.

[6] Meadows, 110.

[7] Dong-whan Kim, “Original Sin,” 8/1/2017.

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