How can we understand God? This is a big question. Depending on your religious background, you probably answer this question differently. If you’re a Christian, you probably point to the Bible, or perhaps the Pope or some other kind of religious authority. If you are spiritual but not religious, perhaps you point to your own experience with a higher power.
The Wesleyan Quadrilateral
I attend a Methodist Church, and they have an interesting approach for how they answer this question. They point to four sources of understanding. We can think about our understanding of God as a table, and these four sources are the legs that hold up the table. Here are the 4 sources:
- Bible. The Bible is a very important book for Christians, because it describes God’s engagement with human beings over the course of history. It also describes the life and teaching of Jesus, whom Christians believe is the best representation of God on Earth. The Bible also describes the life of the apostles (i.e., the followers of Jesus) and early church, which can teach us important lessons about what it means to follow Jesus in a community of believers.
- Tradition. We also understand God through the tradition of the church over the years. Now we have to be careful about this source, because the church hasn’t always gotten everything right over the years. And the church is made up of imperfect people like you and me. Still, it can be helpful to have historical humility and consider how the church has understood God over the years.
- Experience. It is also important to take seriously our own personal experience with God. If we believe God is alive today and engaged with us and the world, then we can experience God in relationship with us. We know that God loves us, for example, not just because it says so in the Bible, but because we experience his love toward us.
- Reason. Finally, we understand God through science and reason. All truth is God’s truth. Science and religion have historically been uneasy bedfellows, but I don’t think this needs to be the case. Science and reason can help us understand deep truths about God, ourselves, and the world.
Balancing the 4 Sources
I like this model of understanding God because it is balanced. Relying solely on one of the four sources of truth can lead you in some troubling directions. However, if you take each source seriously, I think you are more likely to land on a balanced understanding of who God is and what God is doing in your life and the world.
Discussion: What do you think of the Wesleyan quadrilateral model of understanding God? Do you rank the four sources of truth equally, or is one source more important than the others?