A Response to Recent Misunderstandings (2007)
by Leonard Sweet
Being a follower of Jesus requires two things of me: 1) a desire to love Jesus with all my being 2) a devoted humility to please God–no if, ands, buts, or a comma between the “please” and “God.” My dream is to render both faithfully every day.
But Jesus-following and God-pleasing–not people-pleasing–can sometimes lead me up a hill, often carrying a cross. It can mean being silent when accused, even refusing to defend myself or push back when my faith or character is unjustly attacked by brothers and sisters in the faith. Nothing hurts more than being shot by friendly fire. Yet, I recognize that God can use my critics to humble me, teach me, and transform me and in so doing revitalize and empower my ministry even more so than before.
So despite the confusion and harm such onslaughts can seem to be either to me or to others around me, I welcome them from the sovereign hand of God and am thankful that they exist, especially in that they can help me to clarify the tenets of my faith and to reiterate my mission and ministry to others. I take my commitment to those whom I may influence by my ministry very seriously. And it is for this reason that I pause now to address some issues of faith that are dear to my heart and important to the many followers of Jesus who look to me for guidance, hope and inspiration as we journey together in the path of Christ.
First, I thank the many of you, who have been kind enough to approach me with questions and queries on the misinterpretations of my theology by various ODM groups. I also know that many of you have read many of my almost 40 books, hundreds of articles, and thousands of sermons and have therefore been confused by some of the comments made regarding my faith and ministry. I thank you for your faithfulness and integrity. This short treatise, therefore, is for you, in order hopefully to put to rest any your concerns, your confusion, or your sadness at the “false teacher” accusations leveled my way.
Second, let me now take the opportunity to address some of these accusations—-to correct where misunderstandings have occurred, to concur if called for, and to adamantly restate when gross inaccuracies have altered the meaning of my writings and evangelism.
Let me say first of all that for me, New Age rhymes with sewage. I have such a low threshold for Gaia worship that in the middle of the movie “Avatar” I had to take a break, so severe was my attack of Gaiarrhea. In fact, I have challenged “new age sensibilities” (which now are known as “integral spirituality” or “Enlightenment,” not “New Age”) for the way in which they goddify the self and expect others to orbit in a Youniverse that revolves around them as if they were a god. “The Secret” of the universe is not that you can have life your way. “The Secret” is that Jesus is The Way (Colossians 3). Jesus did not come to make us divine. Jesus came to show us how to be authentically what God made us to be–human. Because of the culture in which we live, I have encouraged the daily ritual of starting the day by standing in front of a mirror and saying: “God is God and I am not.”
I wrote a book 20 years ago called Quantum Spirituality, and a few years ago made it available as a free download on my website. Back when “New Age” was a movement, I was inspired by the brilliance of the Apostle Paul in evangelizing pagans, to show how even New Agers, like atheists or other non-Christian groups, could be evangelized for orthodox Christianity if only we learn how to speak to them.
For example, the recovery movement language of “higher power” or “higher consciousness” can be turned into “Christ consciousness.” Instead of “New Age,” we might adopt and adapt the “New Light” language of Charles G. Finney, the founder of modern urban revivalism and the leader of the Second Great Awakening, who called his followers “New Light” evangelists because they used new methods like altar calls and hymns to bring early 19th century Americans to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
Would I write the same book today? No. Would I say some things differently? Yes. I started working on the book in my late 20s. I hope I’m older and wiser now. But this was the first book to examine the challenges confronting Christianity as it entered into the uncharted waters of a new postGutenberg, postChristian, postmodern culture, and I quoted and referenced New Age thinkers who seemed to “get” this cultural transition better than the church did while I outlined avenues of approach to their minds and hearts.
By quoting and referencing people outside the faith, I am doing nothing more than Peter, Paul and Jesus himself did. Paul circumcised Timothy and made a vow in the temple. Some Christians could have easily interpreted these actions as proof that Paul was a legalist. But he was simply being “a Jew to the Jew,” speaking their language to get their hearing, yet not compromising the gospel at the same time.
Because I quote someone does not mean I agree with everything that person ever wrote. Paul quoted pagan philosophers in the Book of Acts. Quantum Spirituality was the first book that broke up the text on a page and inserted side-bars and images and quotes, a feature which is now the norm for most books.
Some of the quotes I chose were meant to provide contrasting positions to my argument, some to buttress my argument, some even to mock my argument. The key consideration to whether I quoted someone was not “Do I agree with them?” but “Does this quote energize the conversation?” “Guilt by association” is intellectually disreputable and injurious to the whole body of Christ.
It is doubly ironic that I am under attack for being Emergent or a leader in the “emerging church” movement when I am known in emerging church circles as one of its severest critics. In fact, four years ago Relevant Magazine hosted and published a conversation between Brian McLaren, Tony Jones and myself where my “Include Me Out” critiques of the “emerging church” were aired and discussed, RELEVANT Issue #21 (July/August 2006) In panel discussions I have looked Brian McLaren in the eyes and lamented “The Unbearable Wrongness of Brian.”
The gospel is not simply about “principles of justice” but the person of Jesus, the very Son of God, born of the virgin Mary, who came to die for our sins, descended into hell, rose again on the third day, and is now seated with the Father while he lives his resurrection life in and through us by the power of the Spirit. I elaborate this more in the book I co-wrote with Frank Viola, Jesus Manifesto (2010).
If wanting to be a “Jesus manifest” is what it means to be “mystical,” then I plead guilty. For I do believe in the present tense of Jesus: I do believe that “Christ is Alive!” I do believe that “We Serve a Risen Savior.” I do believe that “He’s in the world today.”
I can still call Brian McLaren (and others) my friends while critiquing their theology. The “emerging church” is a young movement grown old very quickly because . ..
* It is prone to cause political ruckus when it should be rocking the world for Christ;
* It is missing a hunger and longing for the salvation of others, a passion for others to fall in love with Jesus and the sense that there are things at stake here that have both earthly and eternal consequences . . .
* It appears more and more to be a new evangelical form of the old 70s liberation theology
* It makes the mistake of separating the Person of Jesus from His teachings
* It deconstructs everything, including the historic creeds of the church and the divine inspiration of the entire biblical canon
* It revels in spreading doubt more than faith
The founder of my tribe, John Wesley, found himself under attack by “discerning” ministers and ministries for being a Moravian “sympathizer,” an “enthusiast,” and for having a flaky theology of the “spirit.” Even though Wesley critiqued many aspects of Moravian theology, these “discerning” ministries felt Wesley had not condemned them vigorously enough and that he was thus a deceiver and a danger to orthodox faith.
In response, Wesley issued a public letter in which he professed to live peaceably with “all men” and was not prone to stir up controversy or defend himself. He especially did not want to engage those with a hair-trigger for heresy, which was unbecoming of someone who followed Jesus. If Wesley ever felt moved to enter into a dispute, he stated, it would only be with “men of understanding” who actually read his writings and were capable of honest theological dispute.
Because he sensed his “discerning” opponent was a person of goodwill whose attacks were not slanderous and splintering but temperate and genuinely concerned with strengthening the body of Christ, he a issued lengthy reply. There was (and is) enough of an unChristian culture in the church. Wesley did not want to add to it with his response; his only desire was to make the church more Christian.
It is in this spirit that I also write this response to all of the lovers of God and loyal followers of Jesus that I have come to know through my mission and ministry and hold in the highest regard.
I hope therefore I have done nothing with this treatise to divide the body in any way, but only to continue to nourish it as is always my aim and task as a Jesus followers. If I have, please, forgive me.
I also ask for correction from anyone who finds something I have written that misrepresents the texts and traditions of our faith. For I am passionate about the historic creeds of the faith (apostolic, nicene, chalcedon, etc.) and the authority and inspiration of Scripture. While my roots are Wesleyan, I affirm what the Reformers taught about the centrality of Christ, the glory of God, and the truth of Scripture. As Augustine put it first, but Wesley made it famous: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, but in all things love.”
I collect Black Forest carvings and stories. Above the door to my study is a carved sign that reads, in German, “Peace and Joy to all who enter.” But I almost carved another sign in its place. It was reputedly carved above the front door of an old German schoolmaster: “Dante, Luther, Goethe, Barth, Heidegger live here.” None of them live there, of course. But this old schoolmaster had so lived in communion with their ideas and ideals that it seemed as if they all shared his humble home.
I only want to write one thing over the doorpost to my heart and life: “Jesus Christ lives here.”