Have you ever heard of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral? I hadn’t until recently, but it’s been mentioned to me a few times in the past few weeks. The Wikipedia defines the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as “a methodology for theological reflection” that John Wesley came up with in which four different sources are used to come to theological conclusions. The four sources are:
- Scripture (The Holy Bible)
- Tradition (the two millennia history of the church)
- Reason (rational thinking)
- Experience (one’s personal journey in Christ)
I kind of like this idea, especially given that I grew up going to churches where so much of what was preached was based on experience. I used to hear formulas preached based on what happened to one person. i.e.: “I prayed and asked God for an SUV, and I got an SUV… so if you pray and ask God for an SUV, you will get one too.” And if you prayed and asked God for an SUV and you didn’t get one, then you must have prayed wrong or something.
This, incidentally, is one of my main problems with a lot of what is preached in the ex-gay crowds. “I prayed, and sought God, and went to this particular ex-gay group, and now I’m straight, so if you do what I did then God will make you straight.” And if He doesn’t, then it’s somehow our fault.
But that is an aside; I actually wanted to talk about the Quadrilateral idea, specifically Tradition. How much weight can we give to Tradition? Tony Campolo, in a talk he and his wife gave on homosexuality, basically puts all his eggs in the tradition basket, because he knows that the Scriptures people use to say homosexual behavior is bad (or rather the interpretations of these Scriptures) can be challenged using reason, and that the experience of many people also challenges the interpretation of these Scriptures… but he still comes down on Side B (the conservative side) because of the tradition of the church.
I am not saying that we should throw away tradition… I think that would be a huge mistake. Traditions become tradition for a reason (and, by tradition I don’t just mean ritual or liturgy… there are traditions of belief as well), and the wisdom that has been passed down to us should not be tossed aside just because we see it as old fashioned, or out of touch. But, on the other hand, I don’t think we should just believe something because we’ve always believed it. That is just as much of a mistake. There are times when Reason and Experience will trump Tradition… and, dare I say it? There are times when they will even trump Scripture.
Now, let me be clear. By “trumping” Scripture, I mean trumping our interpretation of certain Scriptures. Before you start screaming ‘heretic!” at me, let me give an example. For centuries, tradition and Scripture told us that the sun revolved around the earth. (The main scriptural basis for this was the story where Joshua prayed and the sun stood still, there were others, in the Psalms and Ecclesiastes, but I don’t know the exact references off hand.) This may not seem like such a big deal to us now, but it was a huge deal back when Galileo was around. Just as many people now say that you can’t possibly be gay and Christian, people believed that you couldn’t possibly be a Christian and believe that the earth was not the center of the universe. They saw any attempt to say otherwise as threatening. One priest, Father Lazare said, "...his pretended discovery vitiates the whole Christian plan of salvation. It casts suspicion on the doctrine of the incarnation."
And he wasn’t the only one; other priests insisted that, "It upsets the whole basis of theology. If the Earth is a planet, and only one among several planets, it can not be that any such great things have been done specially for it as the Christian doctrine teaches. If there are other planets, since God makes nothing in vain, they must be inhabited; but how can their inhabitants be descended from Adam? How can they trace back their origin to Noah's ark? How can they have been redeemed by the Savior?"
Galileo was first asked merely to not teach, or defend his theories, but then he was forced to recant his scientific insight and to ‘out’ others who believed in his theories. He did everything the church told him to do, but he was put on house arrest for the rest of his life anyway– they even denied him medical care despite his age and ailing health. And, despite the fact that he had recanted, all of his books (even those that had nothing to do with his heliocentric theory) were banned.
And before us Protestants puff our chests out, it wasn’t only the Catholics. Protestant theologians like Melanchthon and Martin Luther had argued (using a lot of the same arguments) against the same theory when Copernicus came up with it, and proposed some rather harsh punishments as well.
Does any of this sound familiar? “If we allow the belief that the earth revolves around the sun, then suddenly we have to believe in aliens and we can’t believe in Jesus” sounds kind of like “If we allow gay marriage, then we undermine God’s design and people will start marrying goats.” (If you think I’m making that up, think again… I’ve actually heard stuff like this from otherwise reasonable people.)
Or, “Okay, Galileo, you can believe what you want, just don’t teach it,” sounds like “Okay, you can be gay, just don’t do anything gay.”
Or how about the fact that even though he followed all of the church’s instructions, he was condemned anyway? Doesn’t that sound like how we are told, “Go to ex-gay therapy, or just pray and believe, and God will eventually heal you. But if He doesn’t, just be celibate for your entire life. Don’t talk about your attractions, except to ‘confess’ them as ‘sin’. You must follow all of these instructions to the letter. But don’t expect us to let you work with our children, or be involved in any capacity in ministry because you are ‘intrinsically disordered’.” (Yes, I’m mad about that whole ‘ban on gay priests thing’… but it happens in Protestant churches too.)
Or how about the banning of all of his books because of his one ‘heretical belief’? Sounds like all of those boycotts that people participate in against any company that does anything even remotely pro-gay, whether they are otherwise good companies or not. (i.e.: “Don’t go to Disney movies, because they have ‘Gay Day’ at their park!")
This may not seem like a big deal to us, it actually seems silly, but it was huge back then… It was at the very least as divisive an issue, and seen to be as central an issue back then as homosexuality is now. Galileo was threatened with torture, and others had been burned at the stake for believing in other ‘heretical’ scientific beliefs. So, in actuality, it was probably a bigger deal than the gay issue is, because the worst we usually face is rejection… Most of us aren’t killed or tortured, even by the most fundamentalist Christians.
We now know that the earth does in fact move around the sun, and so we’ve taken a look at the verses that we thought said otherwise and have concluded that they must not mean what we thought they meant. Reason and experience (and by ‘experience’ I mean the reality of the situation) won out over tradition and even Scripture (again, though, it was merely our interpretation of these Scriptures).
I’m not necessarily saying that the same will happen now, with homosexuality… but I’m merely saying that it has happened before… we’ve been in this place before, and we’ve had to admit that we were wrong before. The church (as a whole) has basically said that the Experience (the reality of our lives) of the few of us who are gay is not relevant in our interpretation of Scripture. The church has said that Reason (the rising tide of proof that it is not a choice; whether it is biological or psychological, or a combination of both; it is not a choice – and in general it is not reversible; as well as the fact that there are other ways to look at those particular verses) is not relevant to our interpretation of Scripture.
I am still on the fence, and as I have said before, I tend to lean on the side of celibacy – not from any desire for it… in fact, it makes me downright miserable to think about it. I do believe in the authority of the Bible, but our interpretation of the Bible has always been influenced by our reason, experience and tradition – the whole earth and sun thing being a case in point. The Bible says one thing, we believe another, but we can accept that the two don’t conflict by saying that it is merely a ‘figure of speech’, or a ‘matter of perspective’ – basically, that it is up for interpretation. So, knowing that my experience is different from most Christians, but is also the experience of many others; and in keeping with my belief in the authority of Scripture, I am wondering if we are putting too much weight on the Tradition aspect of the Quadrilateral (i.e.: “The church has always said gay marriage is wrong, so it must be true”… which, by the way, isn’t necessarily true, I’m still reading Boswell’s book on gay marriage in medieval Europe), and pretty much ignoring Reason and Experience.
It’s a thought, anyway.