This morning we are talking about Wesley’s Quadrilateral of faith. We have already discussed the first three sides of the quadrilateral. 1) Scripture, always primary; 2) Tradition, meaning the tradition of the people of God, and 3) Reason in all its legitimate forms. 4) This morning we are talking about the 4th side of the quadrilateral, Experience, meaning the believer’s experience of God, both as an individual and in community.
We start by looking at the experience of our community of faith, beginning with our own families. Now, in his book, “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” William James opined that he was not interested in the experience of those who “received their religion by tradition and retained it by habit.” I agree in part, but consider it disingenuous to start our discussion of experience by ignoring those who have come before us. Like most of you, I am a child of the covenant. My parents were believers, and they offered me to God in baptism. In the Moravian Church we baptize our children based upon “the faith of the parents and of the church.” Later, I affirmed my baptism in the rite of confirmation, making it my own. Later still, I came to an even more authentic faith apart from any ritual of the church.
I have told you the story before. I was living in San Diego, California, and I got up one morning with an inclination toward God. I took out a Bible, allowed it to fall open, and used my finger to select a verse at random. This method is risky. You may be like the man seeking divine guidance whose finger fell on Matthew 27:5 wherein, following his betrayal of Jesus, Judas went and hanged himself. I fared better. My finger fell upon a verse from the book of James. It read:
A wise man does not say, I am going into this city to buy and sell and get gain, but, if God wills, I am going into this city to buy and sell and get gain.
Luther called the book of James, “an epistle of straw.” I beg to disagree. The phrase “if God wills” cut me like a knife, because I had never really considered God’s will for my life. For more than a week, those words hung over my days and haunted my nights. Finally, way early one morning, when I could stand it no longer, I got out of bed, went to the small kitchen of our one-bedroom apartment on Point Loma Blvd., knelt down, stuck my finger in the air like the Adam of Michelangelo’s Creation scene, and said, “Okay, God, if you are real, just touch the tip of my finger and I will believe in you.”
You know what happened. Nothing. There was no bursting vision of light; no shaking of the foundations, no voice, and, above all, no touch. Yet, in that awkward position I felt closer to God than ever before, so, I said, “Okay, God, I will do it your way, I will do what my father has preached back home in the Moravian Church, I will put my faith in your son, Jesus, and seek your will for my life.” Then I stood up and went to bed and went to sleep. The next day, I told my friend, Sonny Kyle that I had finally become a Christian.
Now, admittedly, I have told this story often, and I have made it as interesting as possible while sticking to the facts. In point of fact, my experience of faith is not so very different from most of yours. Some achieve faith in a crisis—some, like me, gradually, over time, in a series of steps, but all Moravians make the same confession come Easter Sunday Morning:
“By our own reason and strength, we cannot believe in Jesus Christ our Lord, or come to him, but (God) calls us by the gospel, enlighten us by the gifts of the Spirit, confirms and preserves us in the true faith.”
I have already mentioned the role of the Bible in my faith, and I suspect it plays a role in your faith, too. Charles Haddon Spurgeon said that the Scripture was like a two-edged sword, “It cuts fore stroke and back stroke; if it does not do us good, it does us harm.” Consider these examples of the Word doing someone good.
In his journal, John Wesley tells us in chapel on Aldersgate Street in London, while he listened to a Moravian brother read from the preface of Luther’s commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, his heart was strangely warmed. He said, “I felt I did trust Christ, and Christ alone for my salvation. “
My friend D____ had a very different experience. He went for a walk in the woods on a sunny winter Sunday. He was out for several hours, and it was growing dark when he realized he was lost. He remembered several texts of scripture, one from the Psalms, “Thy word, O Lord is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” Danny prayed that God might direct his steps. Almost as soon as he had verbalized that prayer he saw the headlights of a car play briefly on a darkened hillside. He picked out a tall tree and started toward it. Eventually, he came to a road, followed it, and found his car parked just a hundred yards or so down the road. As a result of that experience, he rededicated his life to Christ.
Or what about this. A woman lost her job to downsizing and not long after her boyfriend—whom she had hoped to marry abandoned her. She was beaten and broken. Then, one Sunday, the reader proclaimed a text from Jeremiah:
“I know what plans I have for you,” says the Lord, “plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
That word was originally spoken by the prophet to the people of Israel, but cut into her heart, healed it, and gave her new hope.
I suppose that most people who owe their faith to Scripture, owe it to the gospels. This is not surprising. I have spoken to you before about the great psychologist Carl Jung. In his theory of personality types, Jung suggested that there were four main personality types: 1) SJ’s or Sensing Judgers who value tradition, gather data through their five senses, and want to make a reasonable decision, then stick with it. 2) SP’s or Sensing Perceivers, who gather data through their five senses, make snap decisions, then keep their options open by abandoning any something good for something better. “Good, better, best, never let it rest, until the good is better and the better best. SP’s can turn on a dime. 3) NF’s, iNtuitive Feelers, who have great intuition based simply on how they feel. They are particularly drawn to beauty and are more easily swayed by the touching than by the convincing. Finally, 4). NT’s, or iNtuitive Thinkers who have intuition as good or better than NF’s, because their intuition is rooted in observable facts which they take in and process more rapidly than any of the other types. They think conceptually, often without even realizing it.
I mention this theory by Jung, because many New Testament theologians have observed that we have four gospels, and each of those gospels appeals to one of Jung’s major personality types. Sensing Judgers are drawn to Matthew because Matthew is all about tradition. Sensing Perceivers are Drawn to Mark, because, in Mark Jesus does everything “immediately,” and Mark does not waste words. It is the gospel for ADD’s like me. iNtuitive feelers are drawn to Luke, because it is, after all, the most beautiful book ever written. And iNtuitive Thinkers are drawn to John because John gives us an exalted, refined, and thoughtful view of Jesus that goes far beyond anything in the other gospels. What Matthew, Mark, and Luke saw as points of light—john saw as blazing Suns! I once asked one of our Bishops, whom I knew to be an iNuitive Thinker which of the gospels was his favorite. I was not surprised when he answered, “Why, John, of course.”
I think it is safe to say that many people’s experience of God begins in the Bible; but it starts in different places for different people. Psalm 19 tells us that God’s Word is not limited to scripture, rather, “The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech and night to night declares knowledge.” It was Hegel who said, “I believe in God because of the starry heavens above and the moral aught within.” That is—Hegel believed in God because of the observable universe, and because of the moral Law that he felt God had put within his own heart and soul.
Our experience of God is not limited to the Bible; nor is it limited to a particular time and place, like a church or a sanctuary. In his book, “Surprised by Joy,” C.S. Lewis tells how he started a bicycle journey as an agnostic, and arrived at his destination convinced he had somehow become a Christian. What changed his mind? Not even Lewis could say for sure.
Some people claim that faith is all there is or ever will be. But others say that faith is just the beginning of our religious experience. Pentecostals say that no conversion is genuine if one does not speak in Tongues. I can’t accept that—as, even in the New Testament, tongues is a very limited experience. And Corinth, where tongues were most prominent, was one of the most problematic of Paul’s churches. One member was even living with his father’s wife!
My father used to tell a story of what he believed to be an encounter with God that took place the morning after he responded to an altar call at old Pine Chapel Church. Dad said that he passed some friends on his way to school. They told him that they had heard he had become a Christian—and they made fun of him. They said, “Norwood, say it ain’t so!” My dad said that his mouth was in motion even before he could put his brain in gear. He responded, “You damn right I am a Christian!” That statement surprised my dad—and his friends. He said that as continued on his way to school, he felt he was “bathed in liquid love.”
Now, I will admit this language always sounded rather extravagant to me, and was always a little suspicious of it. Dad was eager for me to share his experience, and every once in a while, he would grab me and pray that I might—but, in those days, I never did.
I did eventually learn to respect my father’s experience. It happened during what I call my Pannenberg period, when I was reading the work Wolfheart Pannenberg. Pannenberg was one of the most celebrated protestant theologians of the last 100 years. In his books, he exalted the role that reason plays in our coming to faith in Jesus Christ. Imagine my surprise when, in one of his smaller papers, he confessed that, though his theology of Jesus was based on reason, his own faith was based on a singular experience of God that preceded his faith in Jesus Christ. When he described the experience he used virtually the same language my dad had used.
Is such an experience necessary? Hardly, in one of her last works, Mother Teresa, now Saint Teresa, told how she always sought such an experience—but never received it. She had to rely on faith, and faith alone. I am almost glad she did not have such an experience, for, like Carl Barth, I believe that “feelings are just the patchwork by product of faith.” We ought never to exalt feelings or what we regard as miracles or anything else above faith C.S. Lewis used to say that he believed in miracles, but he was thankful that God rarely gives us miracles, lest we learn to depend upon miracles and not God. Likewise, I suppose that some feelings are from God, but even those who experience them deeply rarely have them, perhaps, lest we learn to depend on feelings and not upon God.
Perhaps you will recall that John Wesley said that “the witness of the Holy Spirit” was two-fold. First, it was “an inward impress upon the soul.” Second, and far more important, it was the evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in the life of the believer. Paul list the fruit of the Spirit as love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance. I doubt Paul ever intended this list to be exclusive. Other aspects of the fruit of the spirit may reveal themselves in your life or mine.
Now let me return to where we began, the community. For I think that our experience of God is best when it shared by the community. For instance, in Psalm 22:3 we read that “God dwells in the praises of his people.” I was reminded of this when I delivered a memoir for the late Johnnie Hauser, who worked with me as a choirmaster for many, many years. As I prepared the memoir, one of the members of the choir that Johnnie led recalled how she directed the Hallelujah Chorus at the end of each Christmas lovefeast. As the choir started the final five hallelujahs, Johnnie started counting them down, “Hallelujah”—1 finger. “Hallelujah”—2 fingers. “Hallelujah”—3 fingers. “Hallelujah”—4 fingers. “Hallelujaaaaaah”—5 fingers. I always watched and I always sang along, but I never noticed Johnnie doing that—perhaps because I was always caught up in the moment, and in the music, and in the sights and sounds and smells of the candlelight lovefeast, and, dare I say it, in that collective experience of God. God does indeed, dwell in the praises of his people.” Perhaps that is why so many people leave an inspirational worship service stronger, and more confident than when they entered it. The fourth side of Wesley’s quadrilateral is experience, yours, mine, and ours.
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.