Human Experience and the Voice of God
Too often have I heard someone claim that God had spoken to them. Sometimes these persons believe that God has chosen them to bring a word to me or to the church. It's possible that this word is from God, but how do I know? Because times change the inherited understandings of our faith traditions come into question, so how do we know if these life questions should lead to changes in the way we practice our faith? Over time questions have emerged about the role of women, and for many of us that has been answered by opening the doors to women to express their faith openly and fully and equally. Currently the question of the place of homosexuals in the church and society is in play. It's a question that is being raised as a result of human experience. So how do we know how this question should be resolved? What is God saying to us in this time and place? That's what we would like to know.
For the past few weeks I've been trying to explore this question through a sermon series that makes use of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. We are asking the question -- how do we hear God's voice and discern God's leading in our lives and in our congregation? To this point we've looked at Scripture, Tradition, and Critical Reason. This triumvirate has a long history, especially in Anglican circles, but to this threesom John Wesley added the voice of experience.
Albert Outler was one of the most learned student's of Wesley's thought and he spoke often of what has come to be known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. For Wesley, it appears, that experience is the reception of the biblical revelation by the heart, the reception by faith of a revelation that is lived. Outler offers a word of counsel as to how this might work:
Even that cheerful thought may be thwarted, however, so long as the phrase “the Wesleyan quadrilateral” is taken too literally. It was intended as a metaphor for a four element syndrome, including the four-fold guidelines of authority in Wesley‟s theological method. In such a quaternity, Holy Scripture is clearly unique. But this in turn is illuminated by the collective Christian wisdom of other ages and cultures between the Apostolic Age and our own. It also allows for the rescue of the Gospel from obscurantism by means of the disciplines of critical reason. But always, Biblical revelation must be received in the heart by faith: this is the requirement of experience.” Wesley‟s theology was eclectic and pluralistic (and I confess my bafflement at the hostility aroused in some minds by such innocent adjectives). Even so, it was a coherent, stable, whole, deriving its fruitfulness from its single, soteriological focus in the Christian evangel of Jesus Christ—”who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was made man!” (Outler, "The Wesleyan Quadrilateral in Wesley," Wesleyan Theological Journal, pp. 11-12).
If critical reason is the reception of the faith by way of the mind, which I believe is important, the mind by itself leaves us with a rather cold religion. But our lived experience of faith and its connection to life is a matter of the heart. And so, while we must be careful with experience, for not all religious or life experience is the same, it has an important role to play. It does, of course, require great discernment to hear the voice of God in this way.
As Disciple theologian Kris Cup puts it:
Experience will not offer us unambiguous perceptions, whole truths, or pure touch points of the holy. Nonetheless, it can disrupt what we have taken for granted about ourselves, others, and God; it can cause us to realign our affections, values, and ideas; and it can compel and shape our conviction of the fullness of justice, mercy, and truth that we name God. (Kris Culp, "What Do We Learn from Experience? in Chalice Introduction to Disciples Theology, p. 71).
Our experiences raise questions, forcing us to re-examine the inherited faith. It doesn't mean that every experience is the same or revelatory, but each experience needs to be examined to see if God is not speaking. I think that's what happened to Peter in his encounter with Cornelius (Acts 11:1-18). Welcoming Gentiles as Gentiles into the faith was new, it was a disruption of his and his colleagues understanding of the realm of God.
What areas of your life are being disrupted by the work of the Spirit?