At the Gate: Wholeness, Our Hope & Work

[Note: The length of this post indicates the degree of importance that I give to the topic of wholeness. The longer-than-usual footnote list is meant to take you much farther into the topic than a blog can do.]

Sitting at the gate, we see the wholeness of life—its interbeing, interdependency, integration, etc. Life is conjoined, not divided. With respect to Christianity, we see it in the oneness of theology and spirituality. In this time of awakening, wholeness is our hope and our work.

Wholeness was the general view of reality in Christian history until about 1000 CE. Evan Howard has noted this, “For early theologians, theology and spirituality were intimately connected.” [1] The creation of universities ignited the separation, with schools taking over the theological (academic) aspects and monasteries perpetuating the spiritual (experiential) dimensions. [2] The Enlightenment widened the divide, in some cases creating a competition between the mind and the heart, complete with caricatures and denigrations lobbed by each side at the other. The deformative divide is still seen today when some gravitate toward theology (e.g. Bible Study) and away from spirituality (e.g. daily devotions), and others do the opposite. Reason and experience variously hijack scripture and tradition.

Charles Wesley saw this division in his day, and along with John, he believed that one of the reasons God raised up Methodism was to “unite the pair so long disjoined–knowledge and vital piety.” [3] It was part of their sense that they had “a charge to keep.” [4] Those of us in the Wesleyan tradition are heirs of this uniting and called to keep it alive in our mission “to serve the present age.” [5] Fortunately, the time of new awakening in which we are living is conducive to doing this. It is a time when nonduality, oneness, and union are being recovered. Here are some ways that this is so.

First, in a revival of the Trinity. Far from being an abstract or irrelevant doctrine, it is increasingly seen as a lens through which to see life as God intends for us to live it, precisely because it is the life lived by the Godhead. [6] The creation lives in congruence with the Creator. Our faith arises from our natural theology, which itself emerges from God’s nature. Intertwined in this Trinitarian revival is a theology of love, which is at the heart of Wesleyan theology. [7]

Second, by a new emphasis upon sapiential theology. [8] It’s a big term that essentially means what the Wesleys called “living faith,” and what Paul Chilcote describes in his book, ‘Active Faith.’ [9] Indeed, it has become an identifiable discipline referred to as “lived theology.” [10] It is the idea of experience in the Wesleyan quadrilateral, and notably the linking of wholeness to the Wisdom genre in scripture and tradition. Cynthia Bourgeault’s book, ‘The Wisdom Way of Knowing’ (Josey-Bass, 2003) is a good place to explore the Wisdom tradition. Taken together this new emphasis views wholeness as the motivator that engages our will to bring it to pass on the earth, the vision which transforms.

Third, through a restoration of deep ecumenism. [11] This is a river into which humanity has dug many wells from which to drink the Water of Life. In the Christian tradition we see it through the idea of the universal Christ (Colossians 1:25-20; Colossians 3:11; Ephesians 1:9-10). This is not arrogance, superiority, or triumphalism because Christ is “another word for everything—in its fullness” [12], a fullness by which we receive grace upon grace (John 1:16). [13] Some have called this “the hidden Christ,” but the fact is, Christ is not hidden at all, rather as St. Francis put it, “God is doing cartwheels in creation.” Deep ecumenism enriches and enlarges our Christology, and in turn our view of life.

Fourth, via a conjoining of religion and science. [14] Whereas some Christians continue to perpetuate the theology/spirituality divide, the sciences are reuniting them. Here is where new discoveries are replacing old information. In short, we have new truth—for example, truth about what we know and how we know it, truth about the nonbinary nature of creation and its expression through innumerable “kinds,” and truth about what we must do to prevent the extinction of life on the earth. Amazingly, many scientists openly advocate the union of science and spirituality—sounding more like theologians than some theologians do—and using their sciences to increase wonder. [15]

Fifth, by means of a resurgence in contemplative Christianity. [16] It is in this final point that the other four converge. Paul’s admonition to “think on things” which are highest and best (Colossians 3:2)—is gaining traction in our day. Nondual thinking, intuitive knowing, “heart knowledge” is increasingly affirmed and practiced. When we give ourselves to this, we recognize that the root idea of salvation itself is wholeness—in time (abundant living) and for eternity (a new heaven and earth). This is the telos of the awakening we are in the midst of, and once we see it, we cannot unsee it. Obscurantism holds no appeal. Supremacies are immaturities….and harmful.

It has taken longer than usual to write about wholeness, and as the footnotes reveal, what you have read is only the tip of the iceberg. But even what I have written is enough to show that wholeness is our aim. It is the engine for our sustained effort to effect justice (fairness, inclusion, common good) through communities where inclusion and access bear witness to our oneness as a people and planet. Jeremiah said that when God is it work, it is so we can have “a future filled with hope (29:11). It is the hope of wholeness, for which we work. [17]

[1] Evan Howard, ‘The Brazos Introduction to Christian Spirituality’ (Brazos Press, 2008), 136.
[2] Richard Foster and Eugene Peterson engaged in a helpful conversation about this years ago—one recently shared on the Renovaré weekly e-letter (12/2/22). It’s entitled the “Re-emergence of Spiritual Theology.”
[3] Charles Wesley’s hymn, “A Prayer for Children” includes the phrase, along with other reunions he hoped for…
“Unite the pair so long disjoined,
Knowledge and vital piety:
Learning and holiness combined,
And truth and love, let all men see
In those whom up to thee we give,
Thine, wholly thine, to die and live.”
[4] Charles Wesley’ hymn of the same title describes elements of that charge.
[5] One of the dimensions of the charge God calls us to keep.
[6] Richard Rohr’s book, ‘The Divine Dance’ (SPCK, 2016) illustrates the Trinitarian revival, and is itself a writing that conjoins knowledge and vital piety.
[7] Thomas Oord writes extensively about love. His recent book, ‘Pluriform Love’ (Sacra Sage, 2022) sets forth his view. David N. Field adds to the picture in his book, ‘Our Purpose is Love’ (Abingdon, 2018). In his book, ‘The Quest for Divine Love’ (Cascade Books, 2022), Paul Chilcote shows how love is our primal hunger.
[8] Ellen Charry’s book, ‘By the Renewing of Our Mind’ (Oxford University Press, 1997) is often cited in relation to this theology.
[9] Paul Chilcote, ‘Active Faith’ (Abingdon, 2019).
[10] The Project on Lived Theology is a research initiative at The University of Virginia, aimed to study the social consequences of theological ideas.
[11] Matthew Fox’s book, ‘One River, Many Wells’ (Tarcher/Penguin, 2000) exemplifies and explores this idea.
[12] Richard Rohr, ‘The Universal Christ’ (Convergent, 2019), 5.
[13] My book, ‘The Way to Heaven’ (Zondervan, 2003) describes a Wesleyan theology of grace.
[14] Ilia Delio, ‘The Hours of the Universe: Reflections on God, Science, and the Human Journey (Orbis, 2021) not only explores the science/spirituality union, it is a product of the union.
[15] It’s been interesting how the launch of the James Webb telescope into deep space has been described by the scientists and engineers using language full of awe and wonder.
[16] Richard Foster, ‘Streams of Living Water’ (HarperOne, 1998), chapter one.
[17] Paul Chilcote and I have co-authored, ‘Living Hope’ (Cascade Books, 2020) which further explores wholeness as an “inclusive vision of the future.”

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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