In my last post we looked at the second of the four quadrants of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: tradition. “Tradition” refers to beliefs and practices transmitted over time among a particular group that selects to engage those transmitted beliefs and practices. In theological discussions, “tradition” is understood in two ways: (1) the Christian tradition as a whole, typically summarized in the ancient ecumenical creeds (Nicene and Apostles’), and (2) the various and diverse ways in which the Christian tradition has been articulated throughout its history (various denominations and movements).
By making tradition one quadrant of the Quadrilateral, Wesleyan theology acknowledges that attaining theological knowledge obligates Christians to revisit the thinking of the church as broadly as possible. Christian thought in all its breadth and diversity is an asset for contemporary theological thinking, not a hindrance or an unfortunate circumstance to be corrected. Indeed, the Spirit itself is pleased for these diverse traditions to exist side-by-side throughout church history.
Today we will look at the third quadrant of the Quadrilateral: reason.
Reason is not “neutral”
Human beings are reasoning machines. We are constantly sifting through stimuli and data and putting them together into a coherent and meaningful “whole.” Our minds naturally “put pieces together” to structure and make sense of our reality.
When it comes to theology, “reason” has a more restricted focus, but the process of “putting together the pieces” is no less evident. Reason is the process by which we sift through data and draw theological conclusions. Reason is the means by which the other three quadrants enter into dialogue with each other, so to speak.
One might be tempted to think of Scripture, tradition, and our own experience as tainted by subjectivity and religious content, whereas reason is objective and free of religious influence. But we should not think of “reason” as an outside, neutral force of some sort, as it is often portrayed in modern western thought.
Particularly in Christian theology, reason is not the neutral and objective guide of theological truth. Instead, reason is informed by and in dialogue with Scripture, tradition, and experience. In other words, reason is every bit a part of this mutually informative dialogue among the four quadrants as we have seen scripture and tradition to be (and we will look at experience in the next post).
It might be tempting to say that reason is subject to the teachings of Scripture. But as we have seen, the “teachings of Scripture” are only discerned by means of the unavoidable interplay between the four quadrants. It is important to get our heads around this, for what can be said of Scripture must certainly be said of reason. Reason is informed by and in dialogue with the other three quadrants. Reason is not “over” the other three, even if reason’s role is to bring together the other three to some coherent expression. Rather, reason is inconversation with the other three.
In other words, reason in theological discourse is reason in relationship, i.e., part of the delicate interplay between the quadrants.
Reason is not exhaustive
Just as reason is not neutral, neither is it exhaustive. To embrace the Quadrilateral is to know that reason has its limits—it cannot fathom the mysteries of ultimate religious truth.
This should strike home quickly when we consider how “unreasonable” the Christian faith is at times. For example, God is both three and one. This is not a “reasonable” statement by any normal standards of reason. But the Trinity is a mystery of the Christian faith that is not attainable by “normal” standards of reason, but one informed by the interplay of Scripture and early church tradition.
The most profound truth of the Christian faith is likewise “unreasonable”: the incarnation. The incarnation is both foundational to Christianity and a profound mystery that transcends human faculties of reason. “God dwelling with us as a man” is not an idea that would readily come to mind apart from the Christian story as seen in the New Testament.
Moreover, neither is the incarnation a concept that one can truly understand. Since the very beginning of the church, theologians have been pondering this mystery, trying to explain it, and very often disagreeing strongly over it.
The fact that two such core elements of Christianity (Trinity and incarnation) are so outside the realm of what we would normally arrive at through “reason” tells us that reason has its limits, even if at the very same time it is indispensable to the task of doing theology.
The big task of reason
The Book of Disciple of the United Methodist Church, in speaking of the role of reason in the Quadrilateral, makes the following point: “By reason we relate our witness to the full range of human knowledge, experience, and service.”
There is much to unpack in this brief statement, but I want to draw our attention to one element that is particularly important for the science/faith discussion. Reason has a big task of not only articulating theology, but in bringing those theological articulations into conversation with “the full range of human knowledge.”
Reason functions not only to listen to the delicate interplay between Scripture, tradition and experience. It also obligates us to engage human knowledge in our time and place. With respect to the evolution discussion, that knowledge pertains to two well known areas: scientific advances in our understanding of human origins and our growing understanding of the nature of religious literature from the ancient Near Eastern world in which Israel originated.
A proper, Christian use of reason obligates us to be in dialogue not only with Scripture, tradition, and experience, but with the human intellectual journey as a whole. That is why a simplistic appeal to Scripture will not settle profoundly complex scientific issues such as the origin of life on our planet. The matters before us require much greater intellectual subtlety, and the Wesleyan Quadrilateral provides a potentially powerful model for leading us in that direction.