This far we have looked at three of the four quadrants of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, tradition, and reason. Today we will look at the fourth quadrant, experience.
We recall that the Quadrilateral is a spatial metaphor for describing how human beings do in fact attain theological knowledge (rather than prescribing how one should attain such knowledge). Wesleyan theology includes experience among those factors for attaining theological knowledge.
At first blush, many evangelicals might pull back from such an assertion. Personal experience is often seen as a subjective entity that must be tamed in some sense by the other three quadrants, especially Scripture since it is authoritative. Likewise, reason is unencumbered by subjectivity, and tradition represents the collective wisdom of the ages. If we rely on our personal experience, we will likely go astray. We need these other factors to hold our experience in check.
But there are some problems with this line of thinking. Subjectivity is not simply restricted to personal experience, but involves the other quadrants as well. Scripture, as we have seen, must inevitably be interpreted by human beings, which introduces the personal, subjective, flawed, presence of the interpreter. Likewise it is living, breathing, subjective people who reason and create traditions.
So, experience is not some lesser member of the Quadrilateral, but has its rightful place in it. In fact, the type of experience emphasized in the Quadrilateral is primarily spiritual experience, which is understood both individually and communally. We must be clear that knowledge of spiritual things is not in view here, but a spiritual experience of the risen Christ through the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ (Romans 8:9). In this respect, experience takes a certain pride of place in the Quadrilateral, for it speaks to the end goal for why theological knowledge is attained in the first place.
The Quadrilateral insists that one’s spiritual experience of Christ is a positive contributor to the attainment of theological knowledge. It is not a guarantee in and of itself of such knowledge—committed and sincere Christians are quite often wrong about things, and equally committed Christians will have genuine disagreements over theological matters. Rather, one’s experience of Christ affects how one sees oneself and the world. That experience, if truly spiritual rather than nominal, affects one deeply and thoroughly.
The New Testament speaks of the Church as individuals comprising a collective whole—as members of one body where each member plays its vital role while mutually dependent upon the other members (1 Corinthians 12:12). The spiritual experience that contributes to the attainment of theological knowledge, therefore, is never simply a personal matter but collective, generated and reinforced by the body as a whole.
Embracing the collective spiritual experience for attaining theological knowledge has important implications. One of the more vital implications is what we might call the ethical dimension of theological knowledge. If we are all part of one body and our collective spiritual experience is a key factor in attainting theological knowledge, we will need to proceed with a posture of love and respect for each other.
A second implication is that intelligence and academic achievement, although to be properly honored and utilized, will be submissive to the collective wisdom of the group. Scholars do not lead the Church; the Spirit does, working in and through the collective experience of the members of the body, where each one contributes his or her part with true humility and love.
As we all know, this is a lofty goal, to be sure. In the quest for theological knowledge, disagreements and even animosity can quickly follow. Theological knowledge throughout the church’s history has been used to control others rather than serve. But any theological knowledge divorced from the collective, mutually accepting love of the community is at best only a parody.
There is one last way in which experience comes into play in attaining theological knowledge, what we might call life experience. Life experience is not a wholly distinct category from spiritual experience, since, for spiritual beings, all experiences are folded into the spiritual life. Nevertheless, general life experience most certainly affects how one comes to terms with theological knowledge.
We cannot help when we were born or where. We do not choose our families of origin and the cultures in which we are raised. In our ever-decreasing global village, we are becoming more and more aware of how much our thoughts, attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs are shaped by matters wholly out of our control—accidents of birth, so to speak.
I have taught in many situations where a significant part of the class population is from Asian and African contexts. It quickly became apparent that their experiences are not mine and that those differences lead us to ask very different kinds of theological questions and arrive at very different kinds of answers. For example, Asian and African cultures will be less interested in, say, inerrancy and more interested in what the faith has to say about ancestor worship. African Christians in particular (at least those in my experience, and without wanting to over-generalize) are not overly concerned about reconciling Adam with evolution, but more with things like demon possession and colonialism.
Western Christianity has had an uninspiring track record of imposing their theological interests on other cultures—which is to say, of devaluing the experiences and resultant wisdom that those alternate experiences generate. Today, however, Christians are becoming increasingly aware of how those larger life experiences add to the wisdom of the whole precisely because they are different. The cultures into which we are born make a difference in the attainment of theological knowledge.
Finally, differing personal life experience also affects how one goes bout the theological task. Certainly, the cultural factors mentioned above are in a real sense “personal” life experiences, but here I mean the term in different way. I am thinking particularly of those types of experiences that are universal to all cultures but that do not affect all individuals.
Poverty, oppression from the powerful, emotional and mental suffering (depression, for example) and other factors are all highly formative an in individual’s view of the world and of faith. Jesus himself had a special relationship to the poor, oppressed, and sufferers, because he knew that their life experiences put them in a different vantage point from which to hear the gospel.
The wisdom of this fourth quadrant is recognizing the role that experience necessarily plays in how we theologize. Who we are as people—especially in our collective and individual spiritual union with the crucified and risen Christ—affects the theological task, as do other experiential factors. If anything, recognizing this fact will breed humility and create a context where theological movement via vibrant conversation is expected rather than avoided.