My father tells the story of how he learned to swim. It started with several summers worth of swimming lessons that were to no avail, lessons that led to him to being able to semi dog paddle or tread water at best. It wasn’t until he was about twelve years old that he finally found himself flailing through the air, falling into the deep end of a public swimming pool after being tossed in by his father. He learned to swim that day not because he planned to, but because he felt he had to keep from drowning.
I imagine that sensation of falling into the water with no way out but flailing about was something like the feeling I had when I got to seminary and took my first class in New Testament. I began to look at the bible not as a singular volume spoken from God’s mouth to man’s ears and finally, to paper through the Holy Spirit writing with a pen, but as a collection of writings that speak to the long, arduous journey taken by several people groups across hundreds of years to speak of the Divine as they saw and understood. Learning this brought about a wonderful change in my understanding of God through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It became experiential, a recognition that my wife pointed out to me once when we were talking about the Wesleyan Quadrilateral and she said, “It’s all the same thing. It’s all experience.”
I believe she was right when it comes to Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. We are actually talking about differing aspects of the same thing. Scripture, while often regarded as the Holy Writ of God, is in a human sense, the experience of those people who encountered what they labeled and termed as Adonai, Jehovah, or God. It is the written record of those encounters influenced by their cultural biases and understandings of the time in which it was written, given to be copied and edited across other cultures and peoples. It is largely a product of the religious understanding of the people who collected it and chose what was important to keep for continuity sake and get rid of otherwise. I believe those experiences have the power to point people in the direction of God, but I see it as the “Word about God through experience” rather the “Words given directly from the mouth of God.”
I believe tradition to another form of experience, that of the Church universal. Those things we call tradition are, I believe, those things which in the past gave people a sense of experiencing God in a communal setting. When we gather to pray, sing, talk about faith, we form these communal settings that have the potential to become a patterned response to experiences shared with one another. Thus, tradition becomes the shared experience of those who believe in God the same way and continue those practices together (i.e. – Methodist tradition, Catholic tradition, etc.).
Reason is often viewed as a raw ability to think, yet the study of reason, and logic in philosophy will, I believe, demonstrate that reason is the shared experience of those who have thought about God and things of Christian significance with one another or with those who have passed their knowledge down to the successive generations. This reason is actually the aggregate of thoughts that have been built upon one another from time immemorial to this day. Reason then, becomes that which we have thought about and passed down both verbally (written and spoken) and genetically.
Finally, experience, as spoken of in this context, is that of personal experience. It is our personal engagement with the Scripture, tradition, and reason within our relationship to God and to the those who claim a belief in God.
I believe this understanding has been freeing in my practice of ministry as it has given me room to speak with people both inside the church and outside in the community on equal footing. For those who hold a view of the bible that says it is ‘straight from the mouth of God’, I can understand their need for that level of emotional security from my own experience while at the same time engaging with those outside the church who would say the Bible is not ‘straight from the mouth of God’. It gives me latitude as a minister to be with people where they are and not feel the need to fit into a particular mold for anyone while still being myself.
With this understanding of experience as the primary perspective of humanity (whether they realize it or not), I have come to see the United Methodist Church as a body of people, bound originally by certain common understandings of experience, who have followed that experience to its logical (or illogical in some cases) conclusions. I think this to be a positive aspect of Methodism, that we can take a group of basic thoughts and allow the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives and social contexts and be used of God to bring about change in our communities and world. Without this understanding Methodism would not be an activist, academic, grass roots, urban, suburban, rural, political, apolitical, red state, blue state expression of faith. We are greater when we realize that the tension that holds us together is the very tension that mirrors our society. When we answer societies cries of division by expressing our own division and do so while remaining together, we set an example. This is not a theological or political argument to be won but an expression of our experiences in its context coming together to make something greater than what otherwise would be.