In theory the worship experience in the United Methodist Church should present us with a constant exposure to both dialectical as well as sacramental imaginations. We are not Reformed nor are we Roman Catholic. Our heritage is found in the Anglican tradition which prides itself to be theologically “via media”. We are a church of the “middle way”. Like our Reformed brothers and sisters we believe in salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, and in Christ alone. Like our Reformed friends we consider ourselves to be part of the catholic (little c) church. Like our Reformed friends we believe that Christ is the living WORD of God and that we experience Christ through the preaching of bible, which for some of us becomes the word of God in the moment of faith, and for others the bible IS the word of God. I fall into the first category in the sense that I deem the bible to be God’s story, but I do not believe that the stories found within the BIG story are always reflective of THE story.
Like our Roman Catholic friends (as well as the Anglicans, the Lutherans, and many Reformed) we are sacramental. We believe that baptism and holy communion are means of grace, whereby we experience the living Christ by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit as we participate in the signs and symbols of God’s grace. Unlike our Roman Catholic friends we do not (officially) believe in seven sacraments nor do we believe that baptism is regenerational, nor do we believe in transubstantiation. Yet we believe that God is experienced in a REAl way in baptism as well as holy communion. In many ways this is mysterious, spiritual, and beyond the realm of provability. I cannot prove that God is present in the sacraments nor can I prove that God acts in the preaching of the word. In this sense our faith lends itself very well to a non-propositional view of theology. Our faith should be (and for me it is) very comfortable with Post-Modernism. Our experiential faith cannot nor should it be confined too rigidly by doctrinal rigidity. We should be free (in Christ) to experience the pneuma. The Spirit goes where the Spirit wills. Yet the normative experience for the Christian community of faith is that it is connected to the holy history of scripture, understood and informed by tradition (yet not blind to reality), reasonable- in that God and the experience of God is never destructive and harmful, and it is also a faith that is experienced subjectively.
This should protect us from the dual errors of emphatic certainty and propositionalism that are found in both fundamentalism as well as liberal theology. Our Christian experience as Christians should defy the linear thinking of a “left- right” pradigm. We have learned through invention, scientific discovery, and the incomprehensibilty of the universe that God is not neatly defined as in rigid dogmatism. Nor is God proven non-existent through scientific inquiry. Science has enabled us to understand much about the “workability” of the universe. In many ways it explains the “hows” that a literal interpretation of the bible cannot. Yet science and the propositional thinking of the modern world doesn’t (nor can it) explain “whys”. There is a divine humming, an immanence, a sense of something beyond us that is real and scientifically undefinable. We who are Christians believe that this “divine presence” was made known in Jesus Christ. The incarnation itself was in many ways the first sacramental act of Christianity.
A good preacher must use both dialectial and sacramental imagination as well. Yet he/she must guard against veering too far one way or the other. Karl Barth was a needed voice that reminded the church that “we are in fact sinful” and we stand in need of God’s grace. That is the experience of the living Word of God that transforms us into the people of God and not just learning about and mimicking the morality of the teachings of Jesus. We must experience God in Christ. Yet Barth was wrong (as was Luther and the other Reformers) who taught that our salvation and relationship with God was “monergistic”. Yes God initiates salvation, yes Christ secures salvation, yes the Spirit enables us to respond, but we are free to either respond or reject the experience of faith. The gospel is relational it is not forced, nor is it irresistable. So as much as I love “Barthian theology” and the Christo-centered focus of Neo-Orthodoxy, we must resist the temptation to fall into the thinking that humanity is so sinful that it is incapable of responding to God in the moment of faith. Does the Holy Spirit awaken us at the preaching of the WORD? Yes indeed, the Spirit does but the Spirit enables us to say a Yes or a No and that is an important truth to remember in our task of preaching. The Neo-Calvinists emphasize the sovereignty of God so strongly that human response becomes minimalized so much so that the experiential aspect of Christianity seems to be forced, robotic, and moved along solely by the unseen hand.
Because we believe that Christianity is dynamic and synergistic (as opposed to monergistic) we must strike a balance between the dialectical and sacramental aspects of the faith. We must resist the practice that is found among some of our evangelical friends to adopt a memorialist approach to the sacraments. The memorialist approach really doesn’t lend itself to any sacramental thinking. In this theology it is we who are acting and doing and not God. We must also steer clear of “hokus pokus” theology that exalts the sacraments of table and font so much so that we imagine that the elements themselves are metamorphosized .
I have experienced a mostly dialectical approach in my Christian journey, primarily because most of my early and formative years were spent in a Pentecostal setting. There was little room for sacramental theology and I am of the opinion that this creates a dualism that separates the spiritual from the physical. But orthodox Christianity is both spiritual as well as physical. There needn’t be a false dichotomy between dialectic and sacrament. There shouldn’t be such a separation that we must chose the one over the other. We need both and probably equally so. These two are dance partners in our Christian journey and if taken together as a whole we may experience a more balanced Christian experience, one that is concerned with both heaven and earth, one that prays for their union, one that defies the categories of propostionalism and one causes us to live our lives holistically. If we embrace this view then the gospel will affect all of life.