We have been reviewing John Stackhouse’s book Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World. We now enter part three of the book “Making the Best of It” (Chapters 5-8), where Stackhouse builds his case for Christian realism. Today we will look at chapter five, “Method in Ethics: A Sketch.”
Method in Ethics
“I take discipleship to be the fundamental concept in the Christian ethos.” (165) God calls us into friendship and servanthood, and adopts us into family. Stackhouse writes:
God supplies us with the understanding we need, not necessarily the understanding we want, and not necessarily with greater understanding the others (Christian or not.) Our reliance is on God, not on gifts of knowledge. Stackhouse goes on:
I can’t stress enough how central this statement is to how I process decisions and how disturbing to me is the absence of this perspective in so much of the idealistic Christian transformation agendas (left, right, or whatever) bandied about today.
So how should we approach ethical/theological issues we confront?
A (Protestant) Christian Tetralectic
Christians have traditionally drawn on four resources in their thinking: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience (i.e, The Wesleyan Quadrilateral). Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants have often weighted or coordinated the resources in different ways. Stackhouse believes his is a particularly Protestant view but he believes much of it has application for other streams of the church as well. Stackhouse calls his conceptualization a “tetralectic” signifying the dynamic interactive quality of the four resources.
Scripture – The canon of sixty-six books. Scripture is typically understood to play both a foundational role (the fundamental written revelation of God) and an adjudicatory role as we wrestle with the issues.
Tradition – “… that which one generation deems worthwhile to pass on to the next. This could include formal creeds but also would include things like rituals, hymns or, “other encodings of Christian thought, behavior, and values.” Quoting G. K. Chesterton, tradition means giving one’s ancestors a vote.
Reason – While cultures may differ in what they see as authoritative data (say tradition versus science) most have a sense of things like the law of non-contradiction. Reason is an important human quality. Reason would include natural sciences, social sciences, applied sciences, humanities.
Experience – We take into account, as individuals or communities, past experiences that relate to the issues we are considering.
Conceiving of these as a quadrilateral is problematic in that we may be inclined to see them as static discreet entities. Theology and Christian life is dynamic. The four resources operate as an on-going four-way conversation … a tetralectic. Some other concerns.
Second, we never have at our disposal simply Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. In the case of the Bible, for example, the actual Bible that we have on hand in any given case is just those portions of the Bible we can remember, that we are bringing to bear on the question, and that operate in the background shaping our presuppositions. … The tetralectic thus takes place not among Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience but among our interpretations of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.
Third, it is unlikely that a single pass through the resources or – better – one round of conversation among them will be enough. The hermeneutical circle is better seen as hermeneutical spiral, in which successive readings of each resource and successive syntheses of the four resources bring us to what we hope are progressively better understandings. (173-174)
Stackhouse makes the important observation that error in tetralectic approach can also spiral us away from the truth. Furthermore, he cautions against binary thinking: yes or no, right or wrong, true or false. It is better to think in terms of strong warrant versus weak warrant for taking a position, not absolutism. There is no way we can be sure we’ve collected all relevant data and interpreted it correctly. (In other posts, I’ve referred to Kenneth Bailey’s posture of “tentative finality” about decisions and I think Stackhouse has something similar in mind.) There is no, “…epistemic guarantee outside the person of God himself to guides us.” (175)
Stackhouse points out that God typically locates believers in a community and that participation in community is important for positively shaping our thinking and decision-making. But Stackhouse cautions against the tendency of some to offer community as the panacea for western “individualism.” Community has a dark side as well and can lead us away from truth.
Finally, in closing the chapter, Stackhouse stresses the importance of the Holy Spirit in our discipleship. As we engage in a tetralectic dynamic, the Spirit aids in our quest. As we move more deeply into this tetralectic mode we are better able to discern the Spirit’s leading. There is type intuition we sometimes use that makes sense of things below “articulate consciousness” but there are also acts of the Spirit that give us insight as well. Whether intuition or the Spirit, these insights figure into, and are tested by, the tetralectic dynamic.
There you have a brief summary of the ethical dynamic Stackhouse sees at work in our discipleship. This is a great articulation of many of the conclusions I’ve come to over my lifetime, though Stackhouse puts them together with such artful focus and nuance. What do you think?
Next up, we will spend some time in chapter six, “The Story and the Mission.”