Comparative Divinity

by Andrew Stobart.

In his sermon ‘On Zeal’, John Wesley notes that very few people know anything at all about ‘comparative divinity’.[i] What Wesley means by that rather obscure expression becomes clear in the subsequent paragraphs, where he sets out ‘a sketch’ of how the ‘parts’ of our discipleship ‘rise one above the other’. Comparative divinity, for Wesley, is best described as nuanced differentiation in practising the Christian life; it sets out for comparison various aspects of ‘religion’ (not a negative word, for Wesley, as it is so often for us) and encourages us to pursue the best rather than just the good; comparative divinity is a topographical map of grace, on which there is a clearly marked centre of divine activity, and a set of contours that rise towards it; in short, comparative divinity is a systematic expression of Wesley’s practical spiritual advice: ‘focus your attention here’, ‘do this’, ‘don’t spend all your energy here’, ‘keep going on to perfection’.

Unconvinced that we in our churches know anything more about ‘comparative divinity’ all these many years later – either theoretically or practically – I suggest that reading Wesley again on this matter is a dose of wisdom. Our egalitarian sensibilities tend to flatten the landscape of ‘religion’, so that all things are seen with equal value. But in practice, such spiritual egalitarianism produces bland Christianity, bored and boring disciples, and heart-less faith. While aware of the lurking dangers of fanatical excess, Wesley wanted to use ‘comparative divinity’ to engender true zeal and fervent love in himself and the early Methodists. Here is an invitation to press on from the lower to the higher slopes; to earnestly focus on what is really pleasing and excellent in God’s sight (Phil 4:8). Here is a way to avoid spiritual stagnation and social apathy and, as Wesley puts it, ‘make…considerable progress in religion’ and ‘do…considerably service to our neighbour’.

And so to Wesley’s ‘sketch’ of concentric circles of increasing value:

  • The outermost circle is the church. Wesley speaks of the necessary zeal a Christian should have for the church in general and their own society in particular. Our prayer should be that this circle is ever growing, enlarging its border to embrace more and more of God’s world.
  • But while the church is good, the ‘ordinances of Christ’, in the next circle, are better. These are what Wesley refers to elsewhere as ‘works of piety’, instituted means of grace such as the Lord’s Supper, prayer, fasting and searching the Scriptures.
  • Works of piety are good, but ‘works of mercy’ are better. These are, says Wesley, ‘real means of grace’. Works of mercy are not just kind charitable acts that express our faith, but are rather means through which we – and others – encounter God.
  • The next concentric circle (moving inwards and upwards) is what Wesley calls ‘holy tempers: long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, goodness, fidelity, temperance’. Whatever is part of the ‘mind that was in Christ Jesus’, that we should love and earnestly desire to imitate, praying constantly for ‘these proofs and fruits of living faith’.
  • And finally, at the heart of all, is love: ‘love of God and man, which fills the whole heart, and reigns without a rival.’

A couple of observations about Wesley’s comparative divinity. First, these concentric circles do not, for Wesley, describe a retreat from the physical world to a mountain-top spiritual experience. The love which is at the centre of Wesley’s map is not a disembodied, mystical experience: it is love of God and humanity, God and neighbour. We cannot, therefore, draw the conclusion that Wesley wanted his followers to become more and more ‘spiritual’, if by spiritual we mean less ‘earthy’; rather, he wanted them to become more and more loving, full of love and ruled by love.

That helps to explain, secondly, the fascinating placement of ‘works of mercy’ nearer the centre of the circle than ‘works of piety’. Of course, there is Scriptural warrant for this: for instance Hosea 6:6, where God desires mercy not sacrifice. Even the methodical practising of prayer, Scripture reading and church attendance, so important to Wesley’s movement, ‘are to be omitted, or to be postponed…when we are called to relieve the distress of our neighbour, whether in body or soul.’

Furthermore, thirdly, the placement of church at the outer edge of Wesley’s comparative divinity is instructive. On the one hand, in Wesley’s scheme the church is furthest away from the centre of love. In challenging times for the institution of the church, we can be tempted to think that if only we could ‘get church right’ or ‘make it better’ then all would be well. But the gathering of the church is only, for Wesley, the outer edge of love. We would do better to bemoan the loss of love (for God and neighbour) in our world, than the weakness of the church. Having said that, the church is the outer edge of comparative divinity, the circumference of which should be continually expanding, in order to bring more and more to journey inwards through piety and mercy and holy tempers to perfect love. The church is neither to be obsessed over nor to be dismissed; rather, it is simply a porous boundary of grace, which is never more itself than when it is embracing the unembraced and calling to be God’s people those who thought they were not.

‘Proportion your zeal to the value of its object’, instructs Wesley. Please God, give us this differentiated discipleship, this practical wisdom, this comparative divinity – that we might love what is good, and love better what is best, and in so loving, be renewed at our centre and broadened at our circumference, and so find ourselves full of love for God and all. Amen.

 

[i] Quotations are from Sermon 92: ‘On Zeal’, pp308-321 in The Works of John Wesley Volume 3, edited by Albert Outler (Abingdon Press, 1986)

10 thoughts on “Comparative Divinity”

  1. Your description of the ‘topographical map of grace’ brings to mind pictures like Silbury Hill (a mysterious construction no-one has yet fathomed) or Roseberry Topping (a prominent landmark to steer by) or perhaps a whipped cream walnut (a sort of ziggurat or pyramid of delightful texture and flavour).
    Isn’t theology FUN?

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  2. Thank you, Andrew. This should generate a really useful discussion. Two initial thoughts:
    It reminds me a bit of the concept of ‘hierarchy of truths’ in the Catholic Church since Vatican II. But it integrates doctrine, spirituality and action. That must be a plus.
    I take the point about the position of the Church in this scheme but surely there has to be an ecclesial dimension to the central vision of love – it can’t be individual .

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    1. Thanks Richard. Yes, I agree with your point about a ‘more than individual’ centre – I think it is implied in how Wesley fleshes out ‘love for God and all’ elsewhere (e.g. no holiness but social holiness). Thanks for the hint to look at ‘hierarchy of truths’.

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  3. With all due respect (and please correct me if I’m wrong as I’m not sure I’ve understood this properly) but wasn’t Wesley preaching that the only access to perfect love (the one true God) is via the Christian faith? I can see how this was acceptable in Wesley’s day, when the UK was predominantly Christian, but does anyone really still believe that in the diverse and pluralistic society of the 21st century?
    I think my concentric circles would be pure love (the one true God) innermost and topmost but unattainable, individual spirituality (expressing our reverence and longing for that which is unattainable) second, human love (in all its imperfect forms) third, religious beliefs (including all faiths, denominations and personal beliefs) fourth. Those without any religious beliefs whatsoever are already included in the third circle but it matters not, as for them the circles don’t exist anyway. No-one is excluded from my circles.

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    1. Thanks for your comment Yvonne. Wesley wasn’t doing ‘comparative religion’ in this section of the sermon, but ‘comparative divinity’ – encouraging his readers/hearers to progress into deeper experience. There is no doubt for Wesley that the perfect love at the centre of his schema is shaped by Christ and empowered by the Spirit, and so is to be described via the Christian faith. These concentric circles are therefore about deepening understanding and experience of God’s love and love for all, framed, as elsewhere for Wesley, by the means of grace which speak of both the identity and the presence of God (hence, the vital references to both Jesus and the Spirit). What I speak of as the ‘porous boundary of grace’ is one way of naming the inclusiveness of God’s love; but in the article I wanted to encourage us not to neglect this sketch of (demanding) discipleship offered by Wesley, in which there is a focused vision of love at the centre. For Wesley, I agree, this focused vision is unashamedly trinitarian.

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  4. Thank you for your response; it will take me some time to digest it but can I just say that any individual’s relationship with God is by nature Trinitarian (although not strictly in the Christian sense.) For instance, I have always felt closest to God in silence and in solitude, no matter how many times I am told ‘You can’t have God without church.’
    God and myself and the Spirit of love which connects us feels like a three-dimensional dynamic to me.

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  5. I can see how John Wesley’s concentric circles of divinity would draw people deeper into the Christian faith but, post-Christendom, and in the multi-cultural society we now live in, I think it is more relevant to draw people into a relationship with God rather than try to convert them to a particular religion. In this context, I prefer my own mental circles of divinity, where the first circle we enter is whatever faith we were indoctrinated with as a child, or chose to adopt in our search for God. Richard Rohr calls these our ‘containers’ where we establish our identity and learn the basic principles of our religion.
    From there we are called forward to share God’s love with all people (for Christians, this is Jesus saying ‘Follow me’ and leading us into the next circle to be salt and light in the world.) This is faith in action, and when we combine worship and service in this way we naturally find ourselves growing closer to God.
    If we set aside time every day for our own personal devotions, our relationship with God becomes deeper and richer, drawing us further inwards and upwards towards that pinnacle of love, goodness and beauty which our hearts yearn for. Richard Rohr calls this ‘Falling Upwards’ into the next circle. This is where Jesus led his closest disciples to witness his transfiguration on the mountain top. They couldn’t stay up there forever. Jesus sent them back down the mountain to live out their lives of faith in the human realm. But the desire to be up there with God is what sustains us when life gets tough, and when our work seems pointless and futile in an increasingly secular world.

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    1. Hi Yvonne, this article has clearly got you thinking – great! I think on your last point about the desire to be ‘up there with God’ I’d just want to point out that this is not what Wesley had in mind by the centre of his concentric circles. The innermost experience of his ‘comparative divinity’ is experience of love of God and love of all, together. In this, Wesley was rejecting forms of spirituality which he saw as seeking mystical experience at the expense of practical embodiment – many of which are still around today. I think that Christian trinitarian theology is in fact the necessary grounding of such integrated spirituality – it is because God is identified by Jesus in his life, death and resurrection that we know creation is affirmed, and our day to day life is in fact the amphitheatre of our truest encounter with God. I realise from what you’ve written that we disagree on this (regarding how necessary the encounter with God in Christ is); however, the more I read Wesley the more impressed I am by his insistence that ‘religion’ is not intended to take us out of day to day life, but rather deeper into sustained and transformative engagement with it, by being shaped by Christ and empowered by the Spirit. The trinity, for Wesley, is not a metaphor for a deeper non-trinitarian experience, but rather a set of relationships into which we are graciously brought. I think that is still crucially relevant today.

      Thanks for your engagement over this week, helping to sharpen our thinking on these important matters. Grace and peace!

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      1. Thank you; yes we’ll have to agree to disagree. This is the reason why I have been feeling a bit perplexed, as I am training to be a preacher in the Methodist Church (at the outer edge of my circles!) but I actually prefer to worship in the Catholic tradition, because it draws me ‘inwards and upwards’ which for me feels closer to God. Have I taken a wrong turning? Time will tell. Namaste.

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