A proposal from Brett McCracken for a Wisdom Pyramid in the vein of the USDA’s food pyramid to help us navigate the often overwhelming waters of the information age has inspired me to tackle some of my questions, criticisms, and hopefully helpful suggestions for such a project.
McCracken puts the Bible and Church at the foundation of his Wisdom Pyramid. If pyramids are a bad model and nature should be more foundational what about the Bible and the Church? Where do they fit into this picture of Wisdom I’m painting?
First, let me say that I appreciate a lot of what McCracken says about the Bible and the Church in his model. I might tweak some of his language about the Bible to better fit my understanding, but I agree with the basic idea that the Bible is a source for knowledge and understanding about how the People of God have experienced the divine. For Christians, the Bible is an essential source of wisdom and understanding about God and the world. The problem we will explore a bit later is how modern people can read, interpret, and understand this ancient document.
One of the keys to reading the Bible is a community. I also appreciate what McCracken has to say about the church.
It’s important for our sanity in today’s world that we are grounded in physical, regular community. The local church provides this… The other aspect of church that gives us sanity is its historical continuity. Time-tested theology. It’s the reassurance that we are not reinventing the wheel here. There are church practices and beliefs that have been practiced and believed for 2,000 years. We need to surround ourselves with this.
Being grounded in a community as well as a tradition is an important part of Wisdom. However, there are numerous examples of how the tradition has changed and evolved over time; issues related to race, slavery, and women, for example. You can even see within the text of the Bible itself an evolution of understanding as Paul, for example, reinterprets and applies Scripture to his current context and experience (see The Evolutionary Gospel). In addition, after the Reformation, we have a multitude of traditions (denominations) that are interpreting the same Scripture in some cases very differently.
Quadrilaterals instead of Pyramids?
One of my seminary professors, Rady Roldan-Figueroa, once shared something helpful in class that I have returned to again and again when faced with this question about how to interpret the Bible. (I’m honestly surprised I’ve never written about this before because I refer to it so often.) It has helpful implications for how to approach a model for Wisdom as well.
The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a method for theological interpretation that is attributed to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, but was formulated by Albert Outler in the 20th Century. The basic idea is that there are four sources for understanding and interpreting our faith: Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason. In the Wesleyan formulation (and many Protestant theologies) Scripture is the primary authority. Tradition, Experience, and Reason are filtered through Scripture to arrive at the Truth. One problem with this model is that we always read Scripture with our own Tradition, Reason, and Experience. There is not a way to read and interpret Scripture somehow purely and apart from these influences. The idea that this is even possible is perhaps what creates so many problems with the rigid certitude that many Christians have about the particular interpretation or understanding that they have about what Scripture means.
This is where my seminary professor really blew my mind. He argued that we should try to keep these four elements in a dynamic tension and dialogue with each other. Furthermore, many of the distortions of the faith in the Christian Tradition come from emphasizing one of these elements over the others. For example, the Roman Catholic Church tends to emphasize Tradition over the other elements. This sometimes results in interpretations or practices that have lost their connections to people’s experience, reason, or Scripture. In Pentecostalism Experience is exalted above the other elements. The search to include a real lived experience and encounter with God can and does lead some to abandon Reason, Tradition, or even Scripture in light of some new revelation of God. The worst of that stream has no checks or balances for what God is supposedly speaking to people. Indeed, God has “said” some strange and dangerous things to people when Experience trumps all other forms of interpretation. Reason is sometimes idolized by mainstream Protestants and in some cases makes it easy for them to abandon elements of the Christian Tradition, and in many ways adopt a materialist, scientific outlook with a thin veneer of religion. This doesn’t have to mean that religion and science or reason are at odds, but in this distortion, they are no longer in dialogue or tension when one trumps the other.
For me, as a part of the Anabaptist tradition, I believe that the way of Jesus is nonviolent or peaceful. This pacifism comes in many different shapes and forms within the Anabaptist tradition but stands in contrast to many of the rest of Christianity since Augustine and Aquinas that has subscribed to some form of Just War Theory. It is important therefore for me to acknowledge that this is a commitment I have made. This means I have to wrestle with certain violent passages in Scripture and try to make sense of them in light of who I believe Jesus to be. What I, and Rady Roldan-Figueroa, are advocating is that this task of interpretation and doing theology must involve a dialogue and dynamic tension between Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience as we pursue greater understanding and truth led by the Spirit.
The Wise Community
So, hopefully, you can see how the Bible and the Church are tied together in how we understand, form, and shape our faith. This work of interpretation and seeking wisdom is best done in a community. Now, to take one step further back and incorporate our broader understanding of the place of nature in our evolving model for Wisdom. As I previously stated, we are not separate from nature and cannot choose or not choose to include nature in our model. So the community in which we live and move and have our being is not just the Church, but the broader community of Creation. This broader community must surround and permeate our understanding and interpretation of the Bible and the Church is we hope to reconnect to the ancient wisdom of this text, community, and tradition. As Ellen Davis argues in her incredible book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, the Bible is an agrarian book written by agrarian people. We cannot properly understand it without this intimate knowledge of our connection to the land.
So the Bible and the Church are a part of the larger community of Creation that forms the Wise Community. We find Wisdom as we listen to the animals, plants, and community of Creation as we learned from Job (see the previous post). As we seek Wisdom within a faith community we must continue to hold a dialogue with Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience.