I am part of a group of folks wondering if a liberation-oriented Methodist Church might rise from the ashes of a currently dysfunctional and soon to split United (sic) Methodist Church. I’ve been proposing an expansion of a central model of decision-making within the UMChurch called The Quadrilateral—using four perspectives to consider when discerning how to respond to life’s perplexing questions. Currently, the four are Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience (with Scripture in the position of first among equals).
One might expect that the first quality in the development of followers of Jesus was their experience of his presence and teaching in their context of Roman occupation and oppression. He proposed a strategic response of community cohesion in the face of governance through violence and intimidation. Jesus eventually was murdered by the state and attempts made to disappear him.
As it turned out, turning his teaching against the sword was transformed into an army under the banner of the cross. At that point, institutionalism dismissed Experience in favor of Tradition. Delimited Scripture was still fluid, and both trustworthy people and liars can employ Reason.
Tradition held sway up to the point where the technology of printing made the Bible accessible to people in their native tongue. Scripture can be said to have supplanted Tradition, with Reason still usable by the institution. In some sense, Scripture held Experience even further away than did Tradition. Reason seemed to follow whoever happened to be in the ascendancy.
The packaging of Tradition, Scripture, and Reason (in whatever order) supports the development of a Trinitarian approach to monotheism. “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” can also be ordered differently. What probably began as Tradition, the teaching of Father/Pope/Priest, was eventually reformed into a Scripture all about Jee-zus as first among equals. Spiritual Reason continued to float over the surface of the deep, doing its work as commanded.
In the UMChurch, one of its early modelers, John Wesley, returned to the Early Church emphasis upon Experience as a key component to institutional vitality. Experience played a large part in warm-hearted revival. It was also a source to be called upon regarding practical governance through small-groups. Partly through revivals of heart-warming Experience, Methodism became the largest denomination in the USofA.
Experience was also called on to function as a fulcrum for social change. This can be best be seen in John’s sermon, “On Slavery.” His usual sermons are laced with references to Scripture. Regarding slavery, Scripture was a barrier, not a source of liberation. Scripture has been widely and frequently cited to justify slavery. This goes back to a creation story based on the flood that has been interpreted as instituting slavery. It can be seen earlier in a dominating’ Adam over creation and woman. “On Slavery” focused on the violence experienced by slaves, not a biblical justification for such.
John’s anti-slavery sermon did not hold in the face of economic realities in the USofA. Eventually, the Methodist denomination split over slavery into Methodists North and Methodists South in the years prior to the US Civil War over slavery.
Experience has two faces – personal piety and social justice. Over time Experience has come to be defined by its personal piety – its “my” Experience that counts. In much the same way that Tradition was supplanted by Scripture, social justice that honors the Experience of “others” was squeezed out by heart-warming personal piety.
The presenting issue of the coming UMChurch split is human sexuality. An argument for oppression has come from a handful of Scripture verses, a limited citing of Tradition, an emphasis upon “my” Experience, and all tied together with Reason. This constellation brought a very formidable and condemnatory word into UMChurch life, “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian [doctrine] teaching.” This same set of values has been used to keep women in the kitchen and bedroom, blacks as incarcerated or wage slaves, and is breaking now on queer people to keep them in closets.
The social justice aspect of Experience has been reduced and no longer functions as a balance to excesses of its twin – personal piety. The reduction of a two-fold Experience to “my” Experience is leading to another schism.
With Experience not being able to stand against patriarchy, misogynism, racism, heteronormativity, ablism, and more that categorize people on the basis of one characteristic, it is time to rethink the function of a Quadrilateral that has not been able to function as a mechanism keeping us alert to the movement of a Living G*D.
Institutional power within the Church has a long record of literalism, enculturated norms, denial of scientific processes and results, and personal prejudice mobilized into social discrimination. These are used to batter anyone outside a current orthodoxy. Something is needed to help persons within an institution to hear the cry of the oppressed when the institution stuffs their ears with an echo-chamber of My Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience projected as The only Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience.
One proposal is to return to a pre-institutional moment where authority is located within a local setting. History suggests it is difficult to keep this from turning into a setup for tribal feuds and a cover for other power issues. Local control eventually attracts authoritarian leaders.
Another proposal, to add a 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th commandment or authority, has a no better-projected outcome. Tradition, Scripture, and Reason can each be subverted and used to sabotage the others. Experience has come to be associated with Personal Experience, and it might be suggested to add another category for Social Experience. One candidate is “Empathy.”
Empathy is not exempt from being subverted. There are already too many arguments that poverty is good for people as it challenges them to get out of it by simply getting a job. This is bolstered with the theory that if they stay stuck, it must be because of some inherent, less-than-human, characteristic that keeps them from joining the military or economic system of the day.
Whether getting rid of frail systems of authority by tossing them out or refining them further, a reflective pause is needed as another group of people is railroaded out of the community. How do we keep “others” as an intentional part of conversation and decision-making when the “my” aspect of experience keeps trumping anything but itself?
If not something like adding Empathy, is there any expectation but to repeat our current limiting of one another until we only have walls between us?