'Queering John Wesley'

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Mark Tooley is the president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD).

On March 3-4 I attended the Wesleyan Theological Society's annual meeting, featuring scores of distinguished scholars, and gathered this year at Asbury Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. It was a wonderful experience that highlighted the ongoing vitality of orthodox Wesleyan thought.

Here is my generalizing observation. The more conservative and adamantly orthodox scholars tended to be United Methodists who have reacted against their denomination's historic liberalism by more strongly affirming classical Wesleyan distinctives. The more liberal scholars often tended to come from historically more conservative evangelical denominations against which they reacted by pressing theological boundaries, sometimes provocatively.

The most provocative example was a paper presented in a breakout session called "Queering Wesley, Queering the Church: Toward an Ecclesial Circumcision of the Heart." The author, Keegan Osinski, describes herself on Twitter as the "Church of the Nazarene's worst nightmare."

Her denomination is an historically conservative church from the Wesleyan holiness tradition, which in the late 19th century broke from mainstream Methodism's perceived worldliness to pursue a more stringent version of Christian life. Further self-identified as a "budding librarian and theologian," she is a graduate student at Vanderbilt University, which was originally Methodist but has no current church affiliation.

Osinski in her paper noted that "holiness churches ... often look to the margins, where Jesus would be most likely to dwell." She recalled that "John Wesley himself emphasized the importance of being in community and solidarity with the marginalized, not only to help them in their need, but also to engage with and learn from them as the locus of God's presence in the world."

So Osinski offered "a queer reading of John Wesley's 1733 sermon 'The Circumcision of the Heart' in an effort to show that the perspectives of LGBTQ+ people have vital contributions to make within the holiness church that so often marginalizes them." Instead of "restrictive legalism," she suggested "reading John Wesley queerly" offers "an expansive openness to the grace of God."

What exactly does Osinski mean by "queer?" She explained:

"As an adjective, 'queer' signifies that which is not normative, particularly as relating to sex, gender, and sexuality and the expressions thereof. To use 'queer' as a verb is to engage in the practice of problematizing normative narratives and assumptions — to f-ck with those givens that perpetuate power structures that baptize and uphold some norms while damning and marginalizing alternative ways of being. And finally, a 'queer reading' is an attempt to queer — that is, disrupt and interrogate the sex- gender- and sexuality-norms of — a text."

Osinski likened queerness to circumcision, which has often set the Jewish people apart "in the face of threat and ridicule," and which ultimately like circumcision requires a "radical allegiance" and is a "specific grace and gifting of God."

Spiritually circumcizing the heart, about which Wesley preached, is "similarly to be made queer in that it is a resistance to normative powers and expectations," Osinski said. Holiness is a matter of the heart, according to Wesley, and so too are "gender or sexuality," she insisted.

Responding to Wesley's call to humility, Osinski complained that "queer people" have been told they are "sinful" by the "normative hierarchy of cisheteropatriarchy — that is, the structure of society in which cisgendered, heterosexual men establish and maintain norms." The correction to this injustice may require the "embrace of a queer holiness" and the "humility of the heteronormative church." She also surmised that Wesley's call to "unselfish love and pleasure that points to God" is a "radical affirmation of all love and pleasure, perhaps even queer love and pleasure, inasmuch as it leads to God."

Osinski suggested Wesley's call for a circumcised church entails rejecting "heteronormative patriarchy" in favor of the "queer eyes that see as Christ sees. To look on others with the queer eyes of faith is to look toward mutual liberation. It is to disrupt the systems that exclude and reject and place themselves as the ultimate authority and rule rather than God."

The church, Osinski, said, in the spirit of Wesley's vision of hope, should reject the "impulse to require adherence to a strict code of conduct, but rather abiding in the queer hope that God works in hearts in an abundant diversity of ways, all leading toward Christian perfection, freedom, and holiness." Indeed, "all manner of pleasure might contribute to and bolster our holiness, inasmuch as it leads us to love the One who is the Creator of such love and pleasure."

Osinski concluded:

"The markers of the circumcision of the heart that Wesley recognizes — humility, faith, hope, and love — all might point together toward a rather queer existence, which is ultimately the marker of Christian life — a life that declares the inbreaking of the queer Kingdom of God in which the mighty are cast down, the rich are sent away and the exalted are humbled, in which, perhaps, the normative have received their reward, but the queer shall be abundantly blessed."

Wesley of course would be very surprised by Osinski's "queer" interpretation of his sermon about circumcizing the heart, which urges the follower of Christ to "take up his cross daily" and pursue a "constant and continued course of general self-denial."

He insisted:

"Love, cutting off both the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life, — engaging the whole man, body, soul, and spirit, in the ardent pursuit of that one object, — is so essential to a child of God, that, without it, whosoever liveth is counted dead before him."

It's not clear how Osinski fits her celebration of "all manner of pleasure" with the Wesleyan and orthodox Christian call to constant self-denial. As a self-identified post-modernist, cohesive consistency is likely not her goal.

After presenting her paper, Osinski tweeted: "Ok my paper was really well received and no torch and pitchfork mob came after me so I'll post a link."

Anyone active in official United Methodism over the last 40 years would not be shocked by her attempt to reinterpret Christian faith through sexual identity politics. It would provoke mostly yawns. Fortunately, globalizing United Methodism is leaving that phase of late 20th century USA liberal Protestantism for a return to orthodoxy.

But significant chunks of elite and academic opinion in once conservative evangelicalism, including traditionalist Wesleyan denominations, are now embracing the fads that captivated liberal Protestantism decades ago, apparently unaware of or indifferent to the tragic consequences. Is there anything new under the sun?

Even as United Methodism rediscovers Wesleyan distinctives & Christian orthodoxy, I hope we can warn and teach our friends in evangelical denominations to avoid the thorny paths that nearly, but for divine grace, led to our demise.

Originally posted at juicyecumenism.com.

Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and is a native of Arlington, Virginia. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988, when he wrote a study about denominational funding of pro-Marxist groups for his local congregation. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Virginia. Follow Mark on Twitter @markdtooley.