Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Prescriptive Faith

Using faith in this context is probably narrowing the discussion too much. I hope there aren't readers out there who just generally skip over my religious or theological stuff and miss this one. Perhaps the title would be better as "Prescriptive Life," but what I'm trying to get at is the idea we often have that "this worked for me, it should work for anyone." Maybe in our enlightened state we make it "...work for anyone in the same situation."

Because of our inherent tendency to generalize, we look to categorize everything into an already accepted paradigm. We find a box we know (ie redheaded people or solutions to an unhappy marriage) and put whatever is in front of us into the most appropriate box. It's how life works if we let it.

I've often argued that we need to take things individually, never assuming one person, group, or situation is like any other. That's not to say we can't learn from other people or the experience of others (or, similarly, that we have nothing to provide someone in what appears to be a familiar situation), but we must work hard to make sure that similarity serve the larger purpose rather than becomes the larger purpose. We get great security knowing that out decisions hold up outside the context in which we made them. I'm no psychologist, so I can't begin to explain it, but I've often found great comfort in confirmation - if it works for someone else, maybe I did handle things the right way.

I was thinking about that today in regards to John Wesley. Wesley was an 18th century English Anglican priest and the founder of the Methodist movement - its largely from his teaching and writing that the theology of the Church of the Nazarene emerged. I've been reading this book - Renovating Holiness - that came out a few years back (and to which I was privileged to contribute). It contains a hundred or so essays about this thing we call "holiness," but provides about as broad a continuum of understanding as one could imagine.

I've been reading a lot of these articles, and it seems really easy for us to slip into a prescriptive kind of faith. That is a "do ________ and __________ will happen" sort of thing. Certainly much of the early leaders who became Nazarene operated in that mode; there was very much an orderly solution to all life's problems, which was pretty consistent with the scientific and mechanical revolution happening all around them. I was interested to see often John Wesley is included in this very prescriptive kind of idea. Certainly much of his methodist practice was prescriptive. He instituted several layers of participation and accountability for his followers, with strict requirements in each level and swift consequences for falling out of line. Sometimes there's a fine line between prescription and discipline.

Modern faith practice seems to operate on a continuum from prescription to description - with one extreme mandating a specific course of action universally, while the other is open to total uniqueness and individuality. I'm thinking of this in the context of faith, but it certainly applies anywhere - from the way in which a person of particular racial, cultural, religious, or sexual orientation should approach the world to what it means to build a business or educate a child. We're all in some sense prescriptive and descriptive - attempting to balance two things that don't tend to get along very well.

Particularly, in the case of Wesley, it seems he evolved greatly over time. Much of that comes from personal experience. He grew up doing faith in the prescribed way - he achieved what he was supposed to achieve, but it left him empty. He found a new and different way of doing things, one that fulfilled him, so he set about instructing other people in that way. Over time he came to realize that the process was less important than the end goal and became far more open to descriptive theology and practice. He still had rules and regulations - "advices" in the vernacular of the time - and Wesley was certainly not shy about giving his opinion on what you should do and how you should do it, but there was also a recognition the prescription was not a solution.

In a sense, this was his second conversion. The first, for Wesley, famously happened in an instant - with his heart "strangely warmed." The second, I'd argue, happened gradually, as he was faced with the diversity of people and experiences that exist in the world. People often ask me where to find a "definitive work of Wesleyan theology," a big, thick book that explains our family of religious thought in a clear, straightforward way. As often as smart, well-meaning people try to write it, Wesleyan theology doesn't work that way, because Wesley didn't. He changed and grew over time - and that willingness to critically engage and reshape theology and practice is really, itself, the hallmark of Wesleyan theology.

That's difficult for a prescriptive person. People who are comfortable with orderly, routine definitions don't tend to enjoy something, especially something as formative as one's perspective on practical truth, that can't be entirely nailed down. At the same time, it's not the realm of individualism either. Being alive necessarily involves relationship - with people, institutions, the world at large. We can't be isolated wherein our decisions affect only ourselves. The whole, "whatever works for you" idea is not exactly the same thing. Absolute relativism only works on paper - or maybe in your head - it can't play out in the real world.

We've got to find some balance in between. We need to be able to see the individual circumstances that make each person and situation unique, respect them, and be willing to give leeway for people to live, believe, and understand in ways that ring true to them. At the same time, we have to hold each other accountable (to themselves if no one else) for ideas, actions, and understanding that actually provides some semblance of good life. In other words, there's just as much danger we'll delude ourselves with idealism as there is in us imprisoning someone else with the same thing.

It's not so much being satisfied with "I'm ok; you're ok," as it is not being satisfied until we are indeed both "ok." That's the balance between prescription and description. What it means to live well in the world can't be static or defined; it's not a puzzle to be solved, but an adventure to be lived - lived together, yes, but with and understanding that life's adventure for each of us is interconnected, but not interchangeable.

1 comment:

Thomas Jay Oord said...

Great post, Ryan. I think you're right that robust faith must have both prescriptive and descriptive elements. As I ready your piece, my mind went to the approach to metaphysics I find most helpful. One begins in life experiences, then moves to speculation about how to make sense of life, then returns to life to check how well that speculation fits the evidence. We then move again to speculation. And on it goes. The life of faith errs if it spends all its time in either prescription or description.