Momany: It’s time for a new personalism


A few years ago, our college held a symposium on the Underground Railroad tradition. We are located in southeastern Michigan, with a history of pre-Civil War antislavery activism. Near the end of the symposium, participants considered the meaning this legacy holds for today. One person observed that her local congregation needed improvement regarding issues of diversity. Almost every member of her church came from the same racial background, and she went on record as grieving this fact. There were nods around the room. Then a colleague of mine mused out loud: “I hear your conviction about the church, but it sounds like this concern for me comes as a way to create your vision of diversity. Aren’t I welcome simply because I count, because I have value as a child of God?” My colleague is African-American, and her inquiry brought the conversation to a long pause

There can be a difference between desiring an end that seems loving and affirming the God-given value of each and every person.

In other words, it may be moderately admirable to aim for a diverse whole. It takes real insight and courage to value each and every human being. Here is a suggestion: I believe that it is time for a new movement of Christian “personalism.”

The term “personalism” has been applied to many expressions of the faith. Years ago it was a school of thought at Boston University. Personalism animated the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. This sensitivity was given unique embodiment through the witness of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. Some might suggest that Pope Francis exudes a kind of personalism. I would argue that several mothers and fathers of the Wesleyan lineage lived holiness in a manner that might be considered “personalism.”

So what is personalism? One definition states that it is “a philosophy which regards the freedom and dignity of each person as the basis, focus, and goal of all metaphysics and morals.” Put in specifically theological terms, it is an understanding that God in Christ entered this world to love not some – not even the aggregate – but each and every human being.

I have made the point before and ask for patience as I advance this notion again. Our theology of the Atonement is at the heart of my plea, and I cannot say it any better than holiness activist Asa Mahan. Following in the footsteps of John Wesley, Mahan went beyond the common distinction between Calvinist and some Arminian theologies. He suggested a third perspective that seldom receives the attention it deserves. Brother Asa identified three approaches to the Atonement offered by Christ. First, one might take the Calvinist view that only a part of the human race, the elect, are brought to saving relationship with God. Second, one might take an imprecise Arminian view that Christ died for no one in particular “but for all in general.” Yet Mahan knew a savior who lived, died, and rose for every one in particular. This last claim is saying so much more than the platitudinous assertion that Jesus lived, died, and rose for all. The language of “each and every” is both intensely specific and uncompromisingly comprehensive.

To some this may sound like a theoretical distinction without a difference. I think it is critical. A regard for “all” sounds good, but it can be manipulated by utilitarian rationalizations. The “greatest good” for all may be little more than a construct created by those with power. Yet a valuing of each and every person pushes back against inequality. This more personal regard is no individualism, either. Each and every means just that. I cannot ignore those sacrificed on the altar of predatory systems.

A holiness personalism might also help us move beyond the fractious language of “liberal” and “conservative” – at least in spirit. For one, this view takes our theology seriously. God’s gift of the self through Jesus Christ establishes value and gives new life. I appreciate those who yearn for intimacy with a God who held nothing back. That is my experience, too. However this faith can never be my private possession. The same love has been offered each and every human being. I better keep that in mind when I interact with others. Who knows? We might find ourselves listening to and with one another. Wouldn’t that be powerful testimony?

Yet this way of living and loving is about more than healing a divide within the Wesleyan community. That’s right. Not everything is about us. This way of living promises a profound joy that the whole world may find compelling – a world full of billions – each and every one loved by God with intensity beyond our imagination. Now that is a story to share!

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist

Chris Momany

Chris Momany has been chaplain and director of church relations at Adrian College since 1996 and has taught in the Department of Philosophy/Religion since 1998. He is an ordained United Methodist minister, and a graduate of Adrian College, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Drew University. His academic interests focus on Christian ethics and philosophy. He has been published in the Christian Century, the Wesleyan Theological Journal, The Asbury Theological Journal, the Circuit Rider magazine, the United Methodist Reporter, and other venues. Chris also writes for the Daily Bible Study curriculum of the United Methodist Publishing House and for MinistryMatters, an online ministry resource. His book on the Wesleyan ethic of love and justice bears the title, Doing Good: A Grace-Filled Approach to Holiness. Chris has led many conferences, workshops, and continuing education events. For several years he has combined his research and teaching with a focus on human trafficking. Today it is estimated that 27 million people are held as slaves throughout the world. Chris has been a national leader among college and church professionals in confronting this issue.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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Richard F Hicks
Richard F Hicks

We need LESS “personalism!” We’re eaten up with it. “I made a personal commitment to God/Jesus/Christ.” Which means “I made a buy decision just like I would at a store.” Please re-read the Gospels again, fresh, for the first time. We never see Jesus trying to make a sale. Generally we find Jesus issuing orders which demand action. The kind of action which is to become the disciple’s life-long work. Jesus was an “all” kind of guy. Today the Christ stills asks each person “What is it that you don’t understand about ‘all’ ?” Read the orders already issued by… Read more »


Earlier today I read 2 more comments in regard to “Momany.” One was Mr. Momany’s response to Mr. Hick’s first comment. The second was Mr. Hick’s response back to Mr. Momany. Good and honest debate and comment from the Reporter’s readers makes website most interesting. Why do you refuse comment from some folks? Must all agree with the liberal/progressive intent of the periodical?

Charles Harrison

James, we simply don’t “refuse comment from some folks” at all. We moderate comments. In this particular case, Chris asked us to delete his comment and therefore it deleted the reply as well. Clearly, it was the author’s request. We publish articles and commentary from all viewpoints with no “intent” towards any particular viewpoint whether we personally agree with the viewpoints or not. The same holds for comments. We do however moderate comments if the comments cross the line of good behavior towards others. I hope this clears things up. Thank you.

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