It's turtles all the way down

Unfold Chapter 5: Free but Costly

“It’s turtles all the way down…”

by Rev. Phil Dieke

On the first page of Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time, he tells a story of a well-known scientist lecturing on astronomy. In the lecture, he described how the earth orbits the sun, and the sun orbits around a vast collection of stars in our galaxy. Following the speech, a little old lady, possibly influenced by the mythology of Hinduism, approached him, and the following exchange occurred:

“What you have told us is rubbish. The world is a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.”
The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?”
“You’re very clever, young man, very clever, said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

It’s turtles all the way down. Simple as that.

This cosmological explanation is about epistemology. What is our nature? Why do we believe what we believe?

This specific statement has been used to express the problem of infinite regress, or a continual series of entities dependent upon its predecessor. In philosophical thought, one belief is justified because another justifies it… that is warranted. Thus, you have a continuous cycle, an infinite regress; you have turtles all the way down.

What does this story do with us kicking off Chapter 5 of Unfold?

Well, this chapter is all about grace, and in the United Methodist Church and Wesleyan theology as a whole, it’s grace all the way down, for John Wesley's grace was the beginning, the middle, and the end of his theology. Don’t get me wrong; grace is not unique to Wesleyan theology. Some theologies emphasize God’s sovereignty, others emphasize freedom, and each theology has its infinite regress, its own “turtle,” for Wesley was indeed grace. However, Wesley’s emphasis on grace is particular.

So it is grace all the way down, but what exactly is grace? Wesley defined grace as God's "bounty, or favour: his free, undeserved favour, … man having no claim to the least of his mercies. It was free grace that ‘formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into him a living soul,' and stamped on that soul the image of God, and ‘put all things under his feet.' ... For there is nothing we are, have, or do, which can deserve the least thing at God's hand."

Wesley’s definition led to the United Methodist definition found in our Book of Discipline, which explains grace as “the undeserved, unmerited, and loving action of God in human existence through the ever-present Holy Spirit.” And if that feels too hard to memorize, I have often simplified the definition of grace as “the loving act of God in creation.”

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be discussing The Wesleyan Way of Salvation or how John Weseley came to understand that God’s grace shows up in our lives in various ways. Through prevenient grace, God constantly draws us into relationships, persistently pursuing us. At some point in life, and often throughout our lives, we experience God’s justifying grace, which encourages and empowers us to respond to the love of God. We are brought into alignment with God’s desires for us through justifying grace. Justification is not a one-and-done experience in the United Methodist Church. Wesley believed that we are constantly ebbing and flowing throughout this process of salvation. We grow in our discipleship, in our relationship with God, and at times we fade from it. For Wesley, you were either growing or dying in your faith (he often used the word “backsliding”).

Through this ongoing process of salvation, Wesley believed we experience sanctifying grace. The love of God continues to refine us, sanctify us, and shape us into the person God created us to be. Wesley believed so much in the power of grace he also professed that as Christians faithful to this process of salvation, empowered by God’s grace, we have the opportunity to reach Christian perfection. In short, because God’s grace is so good and powerful, when we put our complete trust (faith) in that grace and allow ourselves to be transformed by that grace, we can be exactly who God created us to be.

The early Church Father, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, famously said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” A more modern translation of this statement is, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.” Wesley’s idea of Christian perfection aligns with this belief. When we are living into the fullness of our humanity, the fullness of the human experience shaped, molded, and empowered by the grace of God; then we are truly glorifying God.

As we turn now to Chapter 5, our hope and our prayer is no matter where you find yourself, no matter what beliefs you hold or reject about God, no matter the grief or pain, the joy or celebration… wherever you find yourself today, you know there is indeed grace for that. In fact, it is grace all the way down!

May you come to know the grace of God right here and right now. And may that grace continue to transform you so you can be fully alive!

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