Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Quaker "Quintilateral"

[This is an excerpt from the book Wrestling with Our Faith Tradition by Lloyd Lee Wilson. In it, Wilson describes one of the pillars of Quaker spirituality: The direct, unmediated relationship with God--the belief that God speaks directly to us, if we are willing to dial down and listen. A fundamental teaching of Quakerism is, as George Fox put it, that "Christ has come to teach His people Himself."]

"Some Christian traditions emphasize the Scripture as the pre-eminent source of guidance for the believer; some emphasize the teachings or traditions of the institutional church. Christians in the Wesleyan [Methodist] tradition talk of a "quadrilateral" of Scripture, tradition, reasoning, and experience that interact with one another. Friends [Quakers] add a fifth element, and consider it more important than the others: this immediate relationship, direct communication, continuing revelation. It is this direct revelation that adds creativity and innovation to the Wesleyan quadrilateral.

In the contemporary world, many persons experience the scriptures as devaluing them as individuals, or condoning violence, or having been used as a tool to keep them "under control." Whether Scripture, properly understood, can be said to support these understandings is less important than the fact that a large number of persons are turning away from Scripture and the ways Scripture is presented as irrelevant or even inimical to their own lives. Church tradition, and the institutional church generally, no longer receive the trust of many persons. The recent problems of the Roman Catholic church are only the latest and most publicized of the many reasons individuals have become increasingly suspicious of the truths the institutional church is trying to teach them--suspicious even of the motives of their own church leaders.

Our own reason has proven us false, as well. We are the heirs of over two centuries of the great Enlightenment project. I stand before you as an example of the idea--the faith, really--that the intellect and reason of human beings could and would solve all our problems, leading humanity ever forward in a steady progress toward a better and better world. I was raised and educated in the great tradition of the modern mind; I have two degrees from MIT, and went through my college years convinced that technology, the fruit of our human reason, could and would solve all our problems in time. Nearly forty years after first setting foot on the MIT campus, I must admit technology has failed us. Our human reason alone has not enabled us even to feed, clothe, and house each other adequately.

The forth side of the Wesleyan quadrilateral is experience. It is to experience that many persons have retreated as these other sources of truth have proven untrustworthy. "At least I can depend on my own experience," seems to be the common thought. But our personal experience is not big enough to answer the really important questions. It seems to draw us into an egocentric view of the world, where accumulating stuff--possessions, power, and prestige--provides meaning to one's life. It is a transient, hollow meaning because ultimately we all die, and our "stuff" vanishes or passes to someone else.

What Friends [Quakers] have to say to people who have experienced the unreliability of these other sources of truth and guidance is, "Listen." There is One who is already reaching out to you, One who is already talking to you, who yearns to be in intimate relationship with you all your life, and beyond. This One is reliable; this One is completely trustworthy, because this One loves you infinitely."


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