Fully Human: How to Think Part III Why we need all 4 sources

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In the last post we discussed why it is important to think in such a way that gives priority to Scripture.  In this post I outline, in bullet form, 4 reasons why our thinking must still value the other sources of knowledge (Tradition, Reason, Experience.  For a review of those 3 sources, click here)

1)   Because The Scriptures don’t tell us everything we need to know:  The Scriptures are perfect in regards to what they are communicating but we must also recognize that they don’t address every situation we find ourselves in.  The Scriptures may help provide the basic principles for thinking about a modern topic, like say for developing an ethic of social media.  However in order to really hash out an ethic like this we will also need to use our rational faculties and draw on knowledge gained from our experience.

2)   Because The Scriptures cannot be accessed apart from the other resources:  As much as we are to preference Scripture, we must always recognize that we cannot consult Scripture in isolation from the other sources of knowledge.  Our experience, reason, and tradition will inevitably shape how we read Scripture, even as our view of Scripture will shape how we view our experience, tradition, and reason.  They key is to have these four sources in the proper order and in proper conversation with each other.

3)   Because Reason, Experience, and Tradition can teach us some good things:  There are many insights that the other 3 resources can teach us:  for instance our tradition may tell us that being faithful in a marriage is important, our reason may tell us that things like stealing and lying are wrong, and our experience may tell us, particularly while we are growing up, that things are much more likely to go well for us if we honour our parents.

You may have noticed that the examples mentioned all refer to a few of the 10 Commandments.  I chose these examples intentionally to show that some of the morality of Scripture can also be gained through the use of our other faculties.  My conviction is that the types of morality that we can gain from our other faculties are those things that can be found in the moral “lists” or “laws” (for more on laws see my post here).  This type of morality may be referred to as the “common morality” or “basic morality”.  It refers to the things that people can agree on regardless of their religious conviction.  From a Christian point of view, the “common morality” is good but is not the greatest good.  To discover what is at the heart of morality in Christianity, you need Scripture.

Part of the reason why I share this insight is because as Christians we find ourselves living in a nation that does not give primary importance to Scripture; in fact as a society Scripture does not even exist as a unique category.  This means that as believers we must temper our expectations in regards to what type of morality we will find in our society.  It’s unrealistic and in fact unfair to expect our society to be organized around the morality of Scripture.  We must instead be willing to accept from our society a lowest common denominator of morality, something that is OK but not perfect.

4)   Because If Christians want to impact society we must be knowledgeable enough to converse using the language of reason, tradition, and experience:  It’s perfectly fair to be motivated by Scripture but it does no good to quote something as authoritative to people who do not see it that way.  The way broader society hears our Scripture quotations is similar to the way we hear quotations from the Koran or other religion’s scriptures.  They may be interesting, they may in fact communicate something that makes good sense; however their claims will not be held as valuable because they belong to the category of Scripture but will rather only be held as valuable if they make sense according to our reason, experience, or tradition.  For that reason, if we want to make an impact and change on our society we must speak the language of our time and place.

Fully Human: How to Think Part II

In the second part of the “how to think” section I explore the unique status ithat Christians grant to a 4th source of human knowledge:  the Scriptures.

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            The purpose of this course is to look at the difference that the fourth source of knowledge, i.e. the Scripture, has on our ethics.  We will look in detail at this source in future weeks but for now we will speak generally about the Scriptures as a concept. Christians place the Scriptures in a special category because they believe it to be the word of God.  It is understood to be an inspired and authoritative revelation to human beings of God’s character.  Now to be fair we may argue that God’s character can be known through the other 3 sources of experience, tradition, and reason just as well as it can be known through Scripture.  And indeed, I believe that people can obtain at least some knowledge of God through these other sources; however we must understand the knowledge from these sources in the right way.  Insights about God that comes from experience, reason, or tradition must be examined in light of what we know about God through in the Scriptures.  If the insights are congruent with Scripture they may be understood to have a degree of validity if they are incongruent or contradictory in comparison with the picture of God in the Scriptures than believers must defer to the Bible and reexamine/rethink their insights.

            Part of the reason why Christians defer to Scripture can be observed through lessons learned from our history.  For example I belong to a denomination that traces its origins back to Menno Simons.  Menno Simons was a part of a larger movement called Anabaptism and in his day there was an extremist minority within Anabaptism that justified all kinds of heinous behaviour and doctrine (including polygamy, a complete disregard of personal property, and the belief that they were God’s soldiers sent to purify the world of evil through violence) because they believed they had experienced God telling them that this was the case.  Menno Simons’ main contribution to the Anabaptist movement was to say that the reason why these extremist Anabaptists ran amok in their belief and behaviour was because they did not properly understand how to interpret their experience.  He said that our experiences of God come from the same Spirit that inspired the Scriptures and it is therefore impossible for that Spirit to communicate something that directly contradicts the Scripture.  For that reason Menno said that the inner word (i.e. experience) must be interpreted under the authority of the outer word (i.e. Scripture).  I think that Menno is right on the money here.  In my observation, understandings of God that privilege experience, reason, or tradition above the Scriptures tend to fall short.  They look far more like products of the human imagination rather than the dynamic, surprising, and loving God of Scripture who always does the unexpected and departs so significantly from anything that human beings could dream up.  

Fully Human: How to Think Part I

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 In this we move on from thinking about why it is important to think to examining how we think.  In this part I define and describe three of the sources of knowledge that human beings draw from:  Tradition, Experience, and Reason.

1. Tradition:

Tradition refers to those things—wisdom, knowledge, etc—that were prized by the people that came before us and were deliberately handed down to us.  Tradition may occur on a small scale, such as within families; my wife’s family for example has the “3 day rule” meaning that if they are staying at someone’s house they will never stay more than 3 days.  This is a piece of wisdom that was prized by Whitney’s grandfather and has been passed down to each generation.

Tradition may also exist on the broad societal scale.  As a nation, for instance, Canada prizes the value of being polite as its chief virtue and this trait is passed faithfully from generation to generation.  This tradition differs from say Australia, a nation that prizes truth telling as her highest virtue.  This is why Canadians believe Australians to be rude and belligerent and why, as my Australian professor Rikk Watts used to remind us, Australians think Canadians are a bunch of liars!

2. Reason:

Reason is another source of knowledge that refers to the knowledge that we gain through analysis and logic.  This includes the information that we as individuals or a society possess from the realms of science or the arts like history and linguistics.  When it comes to making ethical choices, we are using our reason when we attempt to take into account all of the information available to us and make the best choice.  For example a current hot topic is the matter of the oil sands in Alberta.  In order to make wise moral choices as a society we ought to decide what is reasonable based on all the data available to us:  environmental impact studies, economic impact studies, and of course that great wealth of hard data—the 1970s rock and roll star Neil Young…or not.

3.  Experience:

The third source of knowledge is our experience.  What we have gone through in life will inevitably shape how we process information and how we look at the world.  One example that comes to my mind is gardening.  Whitney and I love the idea of having our own vegetable garden.  Each year we plant a few things and each year we inevitably have far more failures than successes.  Now some use of reason can cut down on the failures: for instance good research can tell you the types of plants that grow best in your soil, knowledge of how much sun or shade a particular vegetable likes can also help, etc but as any good gardener can tell you, much of the learning only comes through experience, through that old standby method of trial and error…