Maybe it was Peter Boehler.
The sails ripped in half and ocean water roared on to the main deck. A terrifying storm grew as John Wesley voyaged from London to bring the Gospel to colonists and natives in America. While Wesley panicked that he wasn’t ready to die in the midst of chaos, he noticed a group of German pietists who were calmly singing Psalms. And in that moment he realized that he lacked faith—sure and abiding trust in God: “I was strongly convinced that the cause of that uneasiness was unbelief, and that the gaining a true, living faith was the one thing needful for me.” Thus began Wesley’s quasi-Puritan spirituality, as he lived in a constant state of anxiety, compulsively searching for assurance of salvation and his name in the book of life.
A couple years later, Wesley arrived back in London where he befriended a group of German Moravians who would counsel him through his existential crisis. The Lutheran pietists taught him faith was black or white—you have it or you don’t. And true Christian faith is always accompanied by a sense of peace and well-being. Peter Boehler was one of the Moravians, who counseled Wesley, and he spoke little English, but Wesley and Boehler discovered that they could talk freely in Latin.
Wesley asked him, “How can you preach to others, who have not faith yourself?"
Boehler, who equated faith with certainty, responded,
“Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”
It’s pithy—fake it till you make it—keep drinking it until you develop the taste. It worked for Wesley; he preached faith until he had a ‘heartwarming experience.’ And now, it’s a very Methodist thing to say, like ‘do all the good you can’ or ‘spread Scriptural holiness.’ If there’s a caricature of Methodism, it’s that we love to try harder; we flirt with Pelagius, who we’ve been forbidden to see, but still secretly love to sneak into our upstairs window.
Until the certainty doesn’t arrive immediately and you wonder whether you put in enough effort, left no better off than the poor soul whose child wasn’t saved because she didn’t give ten percent of her monthly income. Even Wesley succumbed to self-deprecating thoughts and great anxiety as he wondered why God’s Spirit hadn’t given him a ‘certainty of being in a state of salvation.’ Was there something more he needed to do? I wonder if this kind of damaging ‘all or nothing’ shame should be categorized as a disorder and treated by a psychologist.
It strikes me as spiritually and psychologically dangerous to step into a pulpit to preach the the contents of what you can't trust yourself. Sure, there are mornings that a pastor doesn’t want to step behind a pulpit because the incarnation seems about as rational as a god who throws thunderbolts from the sky. I’m just not sure it’s sustainable over the long haul, week after week. Imagine a scenario where a counselor tells a spouse with trust issues to keep trying. One day it will click.
“Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith” is a recipe for isolation, as if there’s not enough isolation and loneliness embedded in the work of ministry, or possibly detachment and cynicism. It could also give way to a culture of fundamentalism: let’s not risk being honest with one another. It’s easier to play the game of show and not tell— smile on the outside and cry on the inside. Everyone believes. No one questions. Because if you do voice your feelings, then the whole house of cards might come crashing down. It works until the water gets too hot and everything boils over. And thousands of clergy put on their robes and open up Scriptures and believe in no God whosoever.
In my case, faith was strengthened because I took a year off from preaching. Though I never left a faith community or the disciplines of discipleship, I took time apart to receive the gift of time spent in deeper probing and intentional thinking. Still, it wasn’t a period of quietism, or ceasing all good works and waiting on the Lord to deliver assurance of salvation or Christian sanctification. That’s not quite right, either. We'll never have it all together. Part of the Christian vocation is to act in ways that are beyond your own inclinations and belief structures. "Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not," says Flannery O'Connor. Don't give up on faith; it's a noun and a verb, a gift and a practice.
But there’s a difference between practicing the Christian disciplines and standing behind a pulpit trying to summon water from a dried up well each week.
Doubt and distrust aren’t healed with repression, locked away in the basement of a heart, but by opening up windows and airing out thoughts with a community you can trust—the saints of the present and past. It’s the kind of example pastors should set for the laity. In a recent Bible study, we sat down to talk about the Apostle’s Creed and one parishioner asked, “Am I supposed to believe that?” Even better, someone might say—'am I supposed to trust that God?' Maybe. Maybe not. Let’s open up the Scriptures and brew up something more faithful . There are degrees of faith, Wesley later believed, and maybe there are different shades, too.
“When I was young I was sure of everything; in a few years, having been mistaken a thousand times, I was not half so sure of most things as I was before; at present, I am hardly sure of anything but what God has revealed to me."
God longs for us to feel the spirit bear witness to our souls that we are children of God (Rom. 8:16). So what if instead of telling folks to try harder, pastors admit the brokenness and create a space for doubts to float to the surface? We stop telling ourselves, “Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith” and give thanks for the degree of faith that we have, whatever it is, as we press on to greater sanctification by taking time apart when we need it: advocating for more sabbaticals, honoring sabbath rest, creating honest friendships, embarking on a personal leave. The difficulty is that clergy can be punished by their denominations for this kind of transparency, though maybe not explicitly. It’s worth it, even if you don’t climb a rung on the ecclesial ladder, you’ll save your soul.
Or better yet, we can throw away every Christian cliche.
I took Paxton to his first specialty, curated, beer store. If Asheville had a different motto than ‘cesspool of sin,’ it might be ‘beers and babies.’ This was one of those father-son bonding moments I’ve dreamt about, like eating hotdogs at a baseball game or monthly dates to the barber shop. Let’s fire up the grill and talk about last night’s Cavs win. But he’s only four months old and we have twenty and a half years before we can sit on the deck and share one. I'm optimistic. After all, he was relatively interested—his big, curious eyes scanned the colors on the shelves and then looked over at me paralyzed by the selection. It’s a big world, son.
The United States has largely operated under the assumption that beer is beer. It’s a lager, brewed with pilsner malts, with a pale straw hue that resembles, well, it resembles urine and sometimes tastes like it. Craft beer has opened us up new horizons: ales and pale ales and India pale ales; stouts and porters; dubbels, trippels, and quads. One drink is bitter—piney, resiny. Another is heavy, chocolatey, sweet. Beer is no longer a commodity, but a means to express creativity and aesthetic—an experience that engages all five senses. Drink it long enough and you might start to grow a beard, wear flannel, and talk about subtle notes of citrus, mango, and white bread crust.
This infinite diversity is derived from basically four simple ingredients: water, grain (malts), yeast, and hops. In 1516, the German Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria decreed that beer should contain those four ingredients and nothing more. There’s leeway for exploration and experimentation in the way they’re combined, but also strict boundaries—partitions where a drink ceases to be a beer and might better be classified as something else altogether. Our modern craft scene doesn’t abide by the purity laws, though the four staples are ubiquitous. We might call it traditioned innovation, a term about leadership coined by Gregory Jones.
One of my favorite podcasts, Homebrewed Christianity, has the motif ‘brew your own faith and theology.’ The host once said that your faith doesn’t have to taste like a watered down Natty Light. Hallelujah. How do we brew something tastier? The Wesleyan tradition has said that there are four ingredients to brew good theology: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. There’s a great complexity and diversity in the stream of the Christian theology, but we all pull from the same four ingredients--though, in differing combinations and weight.
Methodist pastors are trained to use these four ingredients as a tool to deliberate and defend theological questions and quandaries—to demonstrate faithful and unfaithful theological positions. It’s a tool, an imperfect one, to get the conversation started. In our ordination papers for the United Methodist Church we had to pick an issue or question and put it through the gauntlet. Here’s how it works:
Scripture: Does Scripture address this concern? Water is the life force of beer and Scripture is that for theology. Without it, you might end up with something interesting, but it won’t be God.
Tradition: Has this ever been addressed in the history of the church? What is older is not always better, but you’re less likely to stumble upon something that’s never been discovered before. There’s a whole host of streams—ask them for recipes, drink from them, share the brew. Tradition will help you taste different notes that you couldn’t quite pick up on your own.
Reason: Does this make sense in light of Scripture? You might ask if the taste is balanced. John Wesley championed pragmatism; there’s no use in pursuing something if it’s contrary to common sense.
Experience: Have I heard God speak to this issue in my life? God’s not trapped in the Bible or the fourth century, but God still speaks to us through the Holy Spirit. Theology should be experienced, tasted. What’s the point of doing theology if it’s going to sit on a shelf?
"the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason."
If your theology is watered down look at the ingredients and see if something is missing. Am I immersed in Scripture? And not just for sermon preparation, but for my own personal formation? Reason is about worshiping God with my mind, loving God with my intellect. Do I have tin-man theology—all brains with no heart or experience? Attend to the spoken Word, Sacraments, song, and liturgy and let the Holy Spirit wash over you. How about the great tradition: am I conversing with communion of saints? Maintaining, revising, and re-appropriating the spirit of the work that has done centuries ago? You can accept what you’ve been taught in Sunday School, or you can brew something tastier.
“Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep; whoever sleeps long, does not sin; whoever does not sin, enters Heaven! Thus, let us drink beer!”
The quadrilateral has been been depicted as a square, each corner represents one of the four ingredients. Or, it’s drawn as a stool with four legs, one leg for each element of the quadrilateral. Take a seat. It will hold you up. But the ingredients are not entirely distinct from one another like the image portrays. They interpenetrate one another, whether we are conscious of it or not. Reason, for instance, is socially constructed, not a separate authority that operates distinct from the other three ingredients. Nor, should they be entirely equal in weight—Scripture is primary in that it gives shape to the rest.
Here’s another helpful image, though imperfect:
Theology is work for a chef. The entire process is inherently creative and permeated with joy, amazement, and wonder. It’s about savoring the process, even the mistakes and endless questions, and becoming attune to the way your spirit connects with something you will never be able to control or completely understand. This is not about perfection. You’ll never get there. But you might learn to love mystery more deeply, to taste and see that the Lord is good. Then, taste again.
If you’ve been trained in the ingredients then you don’t need a recipe—there’s traditioned innovation. You’re able to improvise and create something delicious. Each brewer will throw in different amounts of the ingredients at different times, but the water is always primary. Steep it in Scripture and new flavors will blossom, sometimes sweet and sometimes bitter. Tinkering takes place—you’ll learn what fits where, when something is off, or when you need a little more of this and that. Let the work ferment for hours and years until you have something worth drinking. An experience of God will pervade the entire enterprise.
Which brings me to the fifth element, call it a bonus, and that’s community. Beer tastes better when it’s shared. The same goes for faith and theology. It’s about sharing a table with a world that’s really thirsty. Join together with a community, especially one that’s diverse, and taste what others are brewing. You’ll start to think differently about what you’ve made for yourself. Refine. Brew again. Enjoy.
Metho-nerds might find this exploration of John Wesley's theology of sanctification/works of mercy. Hey, Ben Witherington cited it in a book!