The traditional understanding of the Anglican three-legged stool comprises: Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. Some may re-order the list – Anglo-Catholics may put Tradition first, Anglican-Evangelicals will leave Scripture first, and liberals or progressives may place Reason in the first slot. Wesley, to his death an Anglican priest and early in his life an Anglo-Catholic, added a fourth element: Experience.
The “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” thus comprises: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. I think this may be a more realistic and frankly accurate portrayal of how people come to belief and understanding, at least in the Anglican tradition, within which I include Wesley (and Methodism in general, although they have abandoned the more sacramental and liturgically catholic notions).
The Episcopal Church likes to think of itself as the “thinking person’s church,” because we are not fundamentalist, and we allow for a messy openness as we attempt to know and discern God and God’s will for this world. There is an allowance for diverse opinions, theologies, pieties, and practices within certain boundaries of our common prayer. At least that is the theory. What I have come to realize through study and by antidotal evidence is that because Experience generally is not included in the Anglican system, many Episcopalians do not have an experiential faith, an experiential relationship with God/Jesus. They have a belief system to ascent to, a pattern to follow, a method of seeking, but with not much behind all that. They see the edges of the forest and trees and attempt to explain it all, but never enter into the forest. They learn about the man from a distance, but never know him personally.
So, we read all these different theologies and theories of the origin and development of scripture, of God, of salvation, etc., and it all becomes so anthropocentric. New theories and new formulations of Christ, of God, of humankind, of belief, of evidence, of anything just so that it is different than traditional understandings of all these things. They are welcome in the mix of thought and practice of Anglicanism.
Yet, without experience, these theories often destroy the faith of people. Without an experiential relationship with God – the reality of it – they are all just theories, just good lessons, just nice ways to live, all is reconfigured and reformulated and reinterpreted to fit into a cosmology that cannot allow for anything other than the material.
I can read all these different theologies and say, well, that there may be aspects of truth in each and they may all contribute to our overcoming the fact that we see through a glass dimly. However, my faith is not a bit shaken when I encounter a theologian who reconfigures the resurrection story to be just that – a story told by primitive peoples attempting to understand life and to hand-down their understanding to their children. My faith is not a bit shaken when the Jesus Seminar strips scripture of almost any authenticity concerning the human Jesus and his sayings, his mission, and his understanding of himself, let alone being God incarnate.
I experience the reality of scripture, it seems because I believe that scripture can be true. Consider the lilies of the valley and the birds of the air – I have experienced the provision of God in ways beyond just coincidence or good fortune or luck. Consider it pure joy my brothers and sisters when you face trials of many kinds – I experience this. The joy of the Lord is my strength – I experience such things. I sense the presence of God in my quite-time, during worship, as I mumble through prayer (yes, “senses” and “feelings” can be fickle and deceiving). The psalmists wrote from their hearts to God and about God – I have experienced and realized so much of what they write. I experience God, and nothing a theorist postulates to explain away the wellspring, the source, the beginning point of these experiences traditionally understood has yet to convince me that my experiences have not been valid or true. To some the gift of healing, to others the gift of tongues and some others, prophesy – I have experienced such things.
Jonah and the whale – who knows? The lessons are valid, the lessons are knowable, and whether historically or literally true or not, they all speak of relationship with God and the writers’ experiences with God, not simply an attempt to understand the world.
Too many people cannot believe in a god who is personal – a god who is experiential. They cannot believe because they do not allow for such a thing. There are many reasons why they cannot believe, I know, but I hear over and over again how this or that person read this or that certain theologian and suddenly their faith is shattered and they descend into this funk, and then they can no longer believe.
It is more than the Dark Night of the Soul. I think it is anyway. It certainly resembles such a thing, but what are the origins of the experience? God? Man?
I am so glad I began my spiritual life in a system that emphasized the experiential nature of God, descendents of Wesley, because if I started in the intellectualism of much of the Episcopal Church that puts far too much emphasis on the reason leg of the stool, I donÂ’t know whether I would be a Christian right now. I might be a Christian through the ascent to a belief system, but I donÂ’t think I would know and be with my Father in Heaven.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.