Wesley with Nancy

[This is the concluding section of my forthcoming WTS paper. It follows directly on the section I excerpted in the post “Exposition of Nancy.” The beginning of the paper is a schematic presentation of the differences between liberalism and sectarianism, in which I conclude that in both cases, the atomistic individual is inextricably tied to a “Borg collective” model of community. (I do not literally use the term “Borg collective,” though it’s not too late to change it.) The two form a polarity rather than an opposition, and I argue that certain Wesleyan sects illustrate this polarity particularly well.]

…One could say, then, that for Nancy we are where sense happens—but that sense isn’t something separate from “us.” Rather, it is precisely sense as the concrete and always singular relationships that constitute our being-with that makes us us rather than simply “a cloud of juxtaposed beings” (Being Singular Plural, 39).

This idea of the “cloud of juxtaposed beings” can be understood in terms of the relationship between liberalism and sectarianism as discussed in the beginning. Liberalism would tend to emphasize the “juxtaposed beings,” the atomistic individuals. Sectarianism would emphasize the unity of the “cloud,” though they would likely prefer something more substantial for their end of the metaphor. Nancy’s thinking of the being-with seems to me to offer a genuine alternative—not simply as the “middle ground” between two “extremes,” but as a way of getting around the polarity altogether. Having traced out this alternative, the task that remains is to investigate whether Wesley offers a similar alternative. It seems to me that there are elements in Wesley’s thought—as indeed in the New Testament and the Christian tradition more generally—that would be compatible with Nancy’s very expansive use of “we” to designate humans, animals, rocks, etc. For the sake of this discussion, however, we will provisionally limit the investigation to inter-human relations. A good place to start this investigation—and within the time remaining, this can only be a start—is Wesley’s sermon “Catholic Spirit” (references are to section numbers in this linked text). This sermon suggests itself not only because it is one of his best-known, but also because he so often seems to veer toward a kind of generic liberal tolerance (one version of the “cloud of juxtaposed beings”) while at the same time insisting that “indifference to all opinions” is “the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven” (III.1) This very proximity will help us to measure more accurately the distinctiveness of Wesley’s approach.

The text for this sermon is 2 Kings 10:15—“And when [Jehu] was departed thence, he lighted on Jehonadab the son of Rechab coming to meet him, and he saluted him, and said to him, Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? And Jehonadab answered: It is. If it be, give me thine hand.” When I was considering the specific sermon of Wesley’s that I could use in this presentation, this one came to mind in connection with the title of Derrida’s book on Nancy, On Touching, because of the phrase, “give me thine hand.” On the face of it, this is a fairly superficial connection, but that short phrase introduces a bodily element into the usually bloodless and abstract discussion of how to deal with differing opinions. Wesley follows up on this with persistent imagery that blends together the bodily and the emotional. Most of the time, this is a matter of the “heart,” but there are also occasional references to a depth of feeling that penetrates even to the “bowels” (I.17, III.6). The purpose of this recourse to the bodily and emotional is not to sidestep religious opinion, but rather to situate it in the context of the whole person—and of the porous boundaries between persons.

Wesley makes two basic moves in this respect. First, he argues that a particular person’s body of beliefs, taken simply on the intellectual level, must necessarily be lacking and inconsistent: one “knows in general that he himself is mistaken; although in what particulars he mistakes he does not, perhaps cannot, know” (I.4; emphasis added). This lack of self-consistency and self-transparency in belief undermines the possibility of treating opinions as an autonomous or self-enclosed matter. Second, Wesley argues that one’s beliefs are not entirely under one’s control: “It does not depend on my choice. I can no more think than I can see or hear as I will” (II.1). This is because “invincible ignorance” is always coupled with “invincible prejudice… which is often so fixed in tender minds, that it is afterwards impossible to tear up what has taken so deep a root” (I.5). False beliefs that are the product of “invincible prejudice” may not be culpable, because “all guilt must suppose some concurrence of the will”—that is, all “my” beliefs are not necessarily “mine” in the same sense, and in the end, only God can finally sort them out (Ibid.).

To be indifferent to someone’s opinions would be to fail to love them as they really are, because one’s opinions are always formed through the same passionately charged relatedness that produces the person—as singular, to use Nancy’s terminology. But this very acknowledgement of the singularity of each person means that “love” cannot mean the same thing between every person. Wesley specifically asks that he be loved in a particular and intense way (namely, “as a friend that is closer than a brother”) by the fellow-worker who will take his hand, a way that is different from the love extended to humankind in general, to strangers, to enemies (II.3). This intense love is not, however, limited to members of a particular defined group aside from Christianity at large—which in Wesley’s context would’ve been practically everyone. If Wesley is here positing an ecclesiology or a vision of Christian community, it is one that, like Nancy’s vision of being-with or “being singular plural,” is open-ended and irreducibly multiple. It is a vision of an intense relatedness that is not necessarily always harmonious—certainly because of inevitable contingent conflicts, but also because of a purposeful form of conflict whereby each member would ask the others to “smite me friendly, and reprove me” (II.6). Wesley no doubt would have approved of Nancy’s formulation: “Compassion is not altruism, nor is it identification; it is the disturbance of violent relatedness” (BSP, xiii).

In the long run, this vision was not sustained, and was perhaps unsustainable: Methodism made the transition from an emergency measure to an institution and thereby became one denomination among others. If it is the case that the mutual coimplication of “individualism” and “communitarianism” is particularly evident in certain Wesleyan denominations, it is a testimony to how powerful and at the same time how fragile such a vision is—and to the dangers posed by its breakdown.

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.”)