How the Wesleyan Quadrilateral Can Help in Times of Polarization

According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, America is more polarized than ever before. The study, which has examined political polarization for 25 years, found that polarization has drastically increased during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barrack Obama.

This should not come as a shock to anyone. Nearly everything in our culture is defined by whether it is “liberal” or “conservative,” such as where we get our news, where we worship, or even where we buy our chicken. It is the rare event, group, or person that has not been labeled by our polarized culture.

Political polarization makes it difficult to engage and understand the complex issues that face our country. For instance, something as important as job creation can be boxed into a “liberal idea” or a “conservative idea.” Polarization makes it difficult to hear or engage the other side, because we want to promote our view or our idea over that of the other side. 

Of course, polarization can affect the church and its people. In a polarized culture, religious groups on the left and right often express that following their way is the only option if someone wants to be truly obedient to Christ. It can be difficult for a Christian to engage the public square when everything is defined by extreme perspectives.

This brings us to this question: How can a Christian interact with public issues in a polarized culture? I believe we can by using the Wesleyan Quadrilateral can help us.

The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is based on the research of Albert Outler, a noted Wesleyan historian who used much of John Wesley’s work to determine how he did theology. There are four main areas. Scripture is the prime authority with tradition, reason, and experiencing helping to interpret or understand an issue. By using this method, we can keep several things in focus. It gives a Christian the ability to experience and understand God’s desires on a certain issue and it can provide a healthy balance to the talking points that are published by political parities and interest groups.

So, how does the Wesleyan Quadrilateral help us engage a public issue?

First, Scripture must be the place we begin our theological work of engaging an issue. We begin here because the engagement of any must be grounded in our faith in Christ and the revelation of the Holy Spirit. Beginning anywhere else would place various thoughts or desires on top of our relationship with God. It would bias us as we read Scripture and seek to understand a given issue.

Scripture must be held as the prime authority because it is God’s narrative of salvation for the world. It is God’s truth and law. Every verse and chapter describes God’s love and the hopes God has for humanity. Thus, we must prayerfully engage Scripture and seek God’s desires for us and our communities.

In engaging public theology, we come to Scripture with this question: What does God say about this issue? We want to see, first, if the issue has been addressed in a given passage. If it has not, then we want to examine the larger narrative of how God has addressed similar issues.

It is important to note that we are not looking at the New Testament only. All Scripture is important. To eliminate one section of the Bible because it is too hard to read or understand limits our relationship with God and it places us in the uncomfortable position of being a redactor of Scripture.

After we have prayerfully engaged Scripture, then we want to take on the challenge of examining tradition, reason, and experience. There is no real order for which one is used next. It is really the individual’s preference. Each is used not to correct Scripture, but to help us to think through the things we are thinking about after we have looked at Scripture.

With tradition, we want to see how the church has addressed this issue. This does not mean we limit our investigation to only modern sources. We must engage the entire history of the church, from the Church Fathers and Mothers, to the Reformers, to modern-day theologians such as John Howard Yoder or Stanley Hauerwas. If we only engage modern sources we are preventing ourselves from experiencing the depth of knowledge available to us from the community of saints.

Also, a modern-only engagement with tradition says that the early leaders of the church have nothing to say to our more enlightened minds. This is wrong. When we examine the history of the church’s writings, we will see that the entire history of the church has thought about and struggled with the same issues we are discussing. Our engagement with tradition must cast a wide net.

Looking at our experiences is where our modern perspectives can be effectively used. Here we take a look at how a specific issue has affected our lives or how we have seen it affect others.

Experience can be the most dangerous of the three interpretive tools. This is because we live in a self-focused culture that sees the individual as central to all things. Individualism has had its benefits in American culture, but it can hinder deep theological engagement.

There are two main traps that we must be aware of when it comes to our experiences. First, our experiences can make us believe that our perspective is always right. Second, we can believe that our experience is authoritative. Both of these traps are self-focused. It says we are the most important and that our experience is what matters. This prevents us from reviewing our experiences. It is possible that our experiences may not be relevant to a situation, because we may not have any experience with the issue or our experiences would not merit deep and truthful engagement.

In these instances, it would be best to learn from others and gain their perspective. Interviewing others is an important tool when we look at our experience. It allows us to learn from others an see how a specific issue has affected their life as a Christian. If our perspective of an issue has only been from one side, interviewing someone from a different perspective will help us to learn more about the issue. It may also allow us to hear more about what God desires.

Finally, we have to take time to reason with what we have learned. This is our time to think things through. It is perhaps best that reason is the last tool that we use, because reasoning allows us to process what we have read, learned, and experienced.

There are several key questions we can ask to help us. What did Scripture say about this issue? What did it not say? What were the thoughts of key theologians throughout the history of the church? Whose thoughts had the most influence on me? What experiences have I had with this issue? What did I learn from others? What did I think about this issue before I began to study it? How have my thoughts changed?

After we have spent time in deep study, we should take time to pray and ask God to open our hearts to the Lord’s desire for these issues.

This may seem like a complicated process, but it is something that we all can do in engaging public issues and our faith in Christ. Each of us can take Scripture and engage our experiences (what we have see), reason (what we think), and tradition (what we believe) regarding different issues. When we do, we will experience Christ desires and be more prepared to live in a polarized American political environment.

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4 thoughts on “How the Wesleyan Quadrilateral Can Help in Times of Polarization

  1. Shannon, I teach theology and was wondering if I may get your permission to print and distribute your article on the Quadrilatral to my students.

  2. Shannon, doing a little study on the Quadrilateral and your article popped up (and I had not read it previously). Good article and the part that is especially helpful to me is your “two traps” with experience. I copied those paragraphs and intend to plagiarize (sp?) you at my earliest convenience (joking, of course).

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