John Wesley, a servant of the Lord, to J. W.Worthy
Grace in Our Precious Lord!
As pleasing as it was to discover the missive to you from my esteemed colleague, the Pastor at the Stadtkirche, and as much as I agree with his general view of history, all the more am I alarmed by his persuasive intellect and facile delivery, to think of the innocent sheep led astray by his historical principles, not only my own Methodists, but also lambs from the flocks of other pastors, including the Reverend Herder himself. To use an example from his letter, arguing that the Parthenon and Notre Dame must be judged each in the context of its own time and place, and by the adequacy of their expression in their respective cultures, I would have no objection to that, on grounds of historiography alone.
But, as his brief exchange with you has already made clear, my dear Professor Worthy, art is more than art. Art is entertainment, art is education, art sets fashion, tone, and, ultimately, becomes the standard by which we judge and conduct affairs here below. That which we greatly admire, we try to emulate. Let us not forget the touchingly brief life of that young man who first argues the greatness of Greek art, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, cut off in his prime by the knife of a stranger whom he takes to his room in Venice, for love after the abominable Greek fashion. Take it from one who has studied this problem, especially among those patronized by the Roman Popery, that the connection between Winckelmann's studies and his death is no coincidence. But you do not have to believe me, and the particular instance is unimportant in any case. My point is that among our congregation some may think, if all is relative in art, then all is relative in other human propensities as well, as in this case, even in the sacred coming together of man and woman.
And of course all is relative: all is contingent upon our own individual interpretations, changing from moment to moment. That is why civilized man adopts moral standards, moral absolutes. We can be sure that all men will judge art and life in accordance with their own self-interest. Thus it were folly to aver there is no absolute standard. Self-interest always offers itself as that absolute criterion. As Father Luther says: "When faith in Jesus Christ is collapsed, we will fall down and worship anything, even the god Priapus."
If we be not guided by the arduously won Christian ideals of Western Civilization, then we shall surely harken to whatever piper pipes to our urges of the moment, pruribus in auribus, as Augustine says, "itchy in our ears." None knows this better than America's own founding fathers, none is more convinced of it than Washington, none can express it more eloquently than James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, who formulate your ingenious Constitution to balance and offset the factional interests which must interpret the law. But such governmental "checks and balances" avail us nothing in our individual behavior, where we must live together by abjuring self-interest. Herder knows this well enough, and relies, as do your founding fathers, on religion to provide the absolutely essential moral standards for his congregation.
But what if there should come a time when they take their religion less seriously than their art? Is it not Herder's own "protege" who snarls,
He who has the arts and sciences, has religion as well;
As for him who has neither art nor science, let him have religion.
Permit me again to recall advice given by Dr. Luther. He received a letter from the Prince of Pommerania proposing to simplify church service in accordance with the new reforms, and asking whether certain ceremonies should be retained or abolished. Luther first tells what pleasure he himself takes in the traditional displays. He assures the prince that these beautiful ceremonies are quite harmless. He then goes on to observe how the time will surely come when the people grow "coldhearted" and forgetful of the true faith. When that happens, they will certainly elevate mere ceremony to a requirement and a rule. Observing these silly laws is what will then guide their conscience. And so Dr. Luther concludes that it is probably best just to go ahead and abolish all ceremony forthwith.
And so I say also, for that time which will surely come, when religion is no longer our guide. How then shall we fare with history writing like Herder's, which accords to each culture its own peculiar "values," hence retains no final value at all?
P. S. Having been to America myself, and ministered to your poor exiles there in Georgia, I flatter myself that I know something of your land. And naturally I follow all my people in spirit. So how is it that I have never heard of that which you call your Dust Bowl? Can it be that no immortal souls dwell there?
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