Saturday, September 25, 2010


Craig Adams posted this excerpt from N. T. Wright addressing what is commonly referred to as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (a concept I touched on at an earlier point in my own journey). Wright disparages the idea of allowing personal experience to influence our theology, pointing out how often it ends up becoming a trump card in which one's personal feelings override all other considerations.

And certainly Wright's concern is valid, if we allow something as shallow as how a particular command or belief makes one feel to dictate whether or not we accept it as valid. I would argue, though, that experience plays an inextricable role in one's theology whether or not it is consciously acknowledged. How a person interprets the Bible is going to be colored by one's culture, language, teachers, peers and personal biases as two thousand years of church history - and countless theological disputes - ought to make abundantly clear.

"The heart is deceitful above all things," Wright quotes from Jeremiah 17:9 - but that applies just as much to the sola scriptura adherent as it does to those who employ the quadrilateral. Scripture may be a Christian's primary source of information about God, but our ability to interpret scripture to correctly divine God's will is considerably more fallible. One need look no further than the abuses (and even atrocities) that otherwise devout Christians have cited "Biblical" commands to justify to recognize the danger of declaring that scripture is the sole source of our doctrine.

Hence the quadrilateral (and the Anglican church's "three-legged stool" from which it was derived). Scripture constitutes a single leg of the stool not because it is of limited value, but because we humans need additional guideposts to keep us from straying too far off course when we make errors in our interpretations of what God is trying to tell us through its pages (as we inevitably will).

The ex-gay movement is a textbook example of how focusing entirely on scripture (with perhaps a nod to tradition) can lead to harm. Based on the prevailing evangelical/fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, it seemed logical to conclude that God ordained that everyone was really heterosexual, and that homosexuality was therefore just a sinful illusion that could (and should) be dispelled through prayer, counseling and/or conditioning.

By the time that Exodus was founded, however, reason already stood in opposition to that conclusion. The APA's 1973 decision to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders is still dismissed by some Christians as a purely political move, even though it was the "Christian" side of the debate that refused (and all too often still refuses) to even acknowledge the existence of any evidence that didn't fit its preconceived dictates.

And since that time, the experiences of countless participants in ex-gay programs have demonstrated that "freedom from homosexuality" is little more than an exercise in semantics; extremely few have experienced a genuine shift in their attractions, while far more have found that wholeness lies in self-acceptance and living openly as gay and lesbian individuals. Even most of those who remain committed to the ex-gay path acknowledge that their "change" is primarily in behavior and perhaps in the intensity of their same-sex attractions. The idea that one can name and claim one's way to heterosexuality has led to far more harm than good, as disillusioned ex-gay participants have left the church in droves.

While it is possible to sincerely disagree over whether God will bless a same-sex union, the allegedly biblical notion that being gay is merely a sinful choice or a psychological aberration has led to a trail of damaged lives and done much to undermine the church's credibility. Through such episodes we see the value of the quadrilateral:

-Scripture necessarily plays a central role in the formation of any Christian doctrine; without the Bible, Christianity could never be more than a hollow institution or a vague cultural notion. But as history has demonstrated over and over again, interpreting the wisdom contained in the Bible's pages is a considerably more problematic venture.

-Tradition, the second side of our quadrilateral, helps us to understand how we got to where we are today. Just as parents can continue to offer valuable advice long after their children are fully grown, so past generations of believers can guide us around certain pitfalls and give us a leg up in our own explorations. But an overemphasis on tradition can lead to stagnation and irrelevance; just because people did things a certain way for centuries doesn't guarantee that those methods will continue to work in our current situation.

-Without reason, we might still live as peasants subject to the whims of all-powerful kings as we burn alleged witches at the stake and kill the cats that could have stopped the latest plague from spreading. Although most churches in the West now champion the ideals of democratic society and individual rights, they came to do so in the wake of the Enlightenment, not at its onset. Human reason is not infallible by any means, but to ignore what the philosophers and scientists have to say is to surrender to superstition and impoverishment (both material and spiritual).

-Experience is, admittedly, the most easily abused of the four. If we allow experience to be shallowly used as a trump card whenever a proposed doctrine makes us uncomfortable (as Wright accuses others of doing), then we might as well quit pretending that we have anything worth taking seriously. But to dismiss experience because some would abuse it is equally shallow, and equally dangerous.

Experience is the forum in which our theology becomes practical. If we never stop to evaluate the fruits of our beliefs, then we risk becoming oppressors of the worst sort. When a doctrine of ours demonstrably causes more harm than good, it is time to reevaluate what we thought to be true rather than blaming those we have harmed for their supposed failure. Without experience as a guidepost, our mandate to love others eventually devolves into an abstraction in which the needs of the people we claim to love are not truly the focus of our concern.

By listening to experience we have one final quality test to ensure that we have not veered too far off course. We allow our lives and the lives of those around us to inform our doctrines, not because we don't value the Bible, but because we value it too highly to allow it to become a symbol for oppression and injustice. We take the experiences of others into account not because truth is relative, but because truth is complex and so much larger than our finite ability to fully grasp it.

Stated in this way, I don't know for sure how far apart Wright and I really are on this issue. Since I haven't read much of his writing I hesitate to put words into his mouth. But I would hope that he recognizes the importance of stepping outside the sterile confines of the seminary before claiming to have divined God's will for those who live in the everyday world.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

More Links

1. Kathy Baldock visits a mosque to increase her understanding of Islam. A lengthy post but worth the effort.

2. History really does repeat itself, much as today's social conservatives try to pretend that things are different this time around.

3. Happy first birthday to Highlands Church in Denver.

4. All things considered, I think this is a fair question. Just don't hold your breath waiting for an answer.

Thursday, September 09, 2010


A pitfall common to all people of faith, but recognized by far too few...
Herein lies the most obvious moral danger of religious faith. In taking themselves to be guided by divinely ordained commandments, theists may be tempted to relax the rigor with which they scrutinize their actions, and are thus capable of the most unspeakable atrocities. That is, secure in the faith that God wills a certain course of action, they may be prepared to disregard any suggestion (even from their own consciences) that this may not in fact be the morally correct thing to do. … Unfortunately, it is also often a tenet of faith that to question God is itself an immoral act, and so it can become especially difficult to correct a moral error once it has been made on these grounds. This is because the difference between questioning a command of God and questioning one’s own understanding of that command is a subtle one, not at all easily recognized, and harder yet when any doubt is seen as weakness of faith and therefore sinful in itself.

…This pride is uniquely difficult to identify, for it is well cloaked in the garb of pious humility. What makes it so elusive is that it appears as a faith in God, when in reality it is a misplaced faith in one’s own judgment. It may well be that God is just and perfect and incapable of error, but we most certainly are none of these things, and to act with the firm belief that one is in perfect harmony with God’s perfectly just wishes is to lose sight of that truth. Indeed, the person who acts in this way is guilty of the greatest pride, for she puts her moral judgment on a level with God’s. She claims to know with absolute certainty that which can be known only to God. The faith here, then, is not in God at all, but in the individual’s own reliability in knowing God, and if we understand idolatry as the sin of ascribing divine significance to a human artifact, the pride involved is idolatrous when the individual believes her knowledge to be perfect in this regard.

-Tom Cantine, via Patrick Fitzgerald

Monday, September 06, 2010


I've largely stayed away from all the controversy surrounding the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque;" it seems to be a lot of hysteria over something that shouldn't have ever been interesting enough to make the news. Sadly, the uproar didn't die down even after the facts of the matter became common knowledge.

This post by Slacktivist sums up the behavior of so many people who identify as Christians in recent weeks: "This is what the hospitality of Sodom looks like."

It's a sad irony that individuals who have very likely used the story of Sodom as a club to batter their gay neighbors are, in fact, the ones whose behavior most closely matches that of the citizens of Sodom.

Update: As it so often does, the Onion sums it up all too well...