A Modest Proposal

I have to write this paper in the next week or so.

Proposal for the 2007 Wesleyan Theological Society – Philosophical Theology Section

Title: “Singular Plural Catholic Spirit: John Wesley with Jean-Luc Nancy”


This paper will bring French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy into dialogue with John Wesley. The purpose of this perhaps improbable juxtaposition will be to ascertain whether certain concepts developed by Nancy can assist us in coherently bringing together Wesley’s ideas of Christian perfection and Catholic spirit.

In Being Singular Plural (1996), Nancy critiques Heidegger for giving insufficient attention to the category of being-with, leading him to fall into what Nancy sees as the common trap of thinking only in terms of individuals—whether individual persons or monolithic collectivities. It is my contention that Wesleyan perfection, at least when taken in isolation from other characteristic Wesleyan themes, falls into this trap as well: on the one hand, it is normally thought in very individualistic terms, while on the other hand, the attempt to organize a community around that principle led in practice to a large number of regulations tending toward uniformity.

Nancy’s development of the category of “being-with” results in an open-ended multiplicity of singular beings, breaking decisively with the familiar zero-sum dichotomy between the individual and the collectivity. I will argue that Welsey’s sermon on “Catholic Spirit” moves in the same direction as Nancy’s critique of Heidegger, particularly in the image of a “joining hands” that does not demand uniformity. By reading the “love” that Wesley demands in that sermon in terms of Nancy’s “being-with,” I will attempt to rethink Christian perfection or perfect love as enabled by Christian community, but—precisely thereby—manifesting itself in a way particular to each person.

This is a further move in the direction of founding an academic discipline called “Wesley Juxtaposition Studies.” If I produce enough of these improbable papers bringing together Wesley and a random French person, I can put together an attractive volume, which Craig Keen has suggested I entitle John Wesley and Some French Guys: I Know….

(I’m already hard at work on next year’s proposal: “Susanna, Ma Mère: Reading Wesley Alongside Bataille.”)

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