As many of us are aware, we Episcopalians have long held confidence in three equally important sources for understanding, insight and revelation: Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. Another way to refer to these three authorities is as the “Three-Legged Stool” of Anglicanism.
Like Reformed Protestants, we have confidence in the authority of Scripture to help us understand the human and the divine. Scripture is the inspired Word of God which reveals something of both the will of God and purposes of human existence. With Protestants, we believe it is authoritative for our living and decision-making. However, unlike Protestants, we do not say “sola scriptura” – Scripture will never be our exclusive source of divine inspiration and sacred revelation.
With Roman Catholicism and other Orthodox branches of Christianity, we also hold in high esteem our Tradition. We believe that God’s purposes and our responsibilities are also revealed in that which has been handed down to us: prayers, beliefs, actions, counsels, hymns, and such. These traditional ways of belonging, believing, and behaving are also divine voice, inspired and inspiring. Not just “what we do around here” but divine revelation. However, distinct from orthodoxy’s singular reliance on tradition, we add in “reason” as source of revelation.
Reason is not merely or exclusively that which we think. It is not opposed to emotion (as in “be reasonable”). It is the entirety of human experience, beingness, inquiry, and wisdom. Reason is revelatory of God’s vision to God’s people. It encompasses scientific inquiry and personal experience. It affirms that the human realm of embodiment, exploration, education, and discovery can also reveal something vital and significant about God and humankind alike.
At times, one source may loom larger in our discernment, but taken over time, these are equal partners in our lifelong endeavor to be and become the people of God’s vision and purpose. We depend upon all three. But what does this three-legged stool have to do with our politics, or our political engagements, decisions, and actions? A quick answer is that each informs our political life at least as much as in other spheres of our life. One can see traces of these influences in previous essays and we’ll unfold these in future reflections.
Anglicanism’s reliance on Scripture, Reason and Tradition might improve our political conversations by virtue of its triumvirate nature. All three as equal sources means that there are no easy answers. There is no such thing as “one size fits all” or “once for ever” when it comes to human communities, actions, and policies. To depend upon multiple perspectives in our discernment is to accept the truth that there are many paths to a decision. There are divergent voices and perspectives which alone may warp, but together expand into greater comprehensiveness and wholeness. Hearing from different perspectives, we can meet in action, if we have the will and the courage to hear and learn from each other. No one perspective can possibly cover all the richness of possibility and viability. None wins over the others, but each supports and is supported by the other. Each, by itself, is insufficient to the task – taken together, in conversation, inspiration and revelation are possible. There is such a thing as common ground, but it is not to be understood in win/lose, simplistic terms – but in collegiality, collaboration, and mutual dependence.
This sounds like a healthy democracy to me, and a healthy religion. What about you? Could it be that we Episcopalians might have something of value to give if and when we decide to bring our religion to bear upon our politics? It takes courage, and willingness to be very publicly vulnerable, but it seems to me that this kind of perspective is pretty much what we all need about now. We need to find common ground. We need to reckon with the fact that none of us has the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We need to evaluate prospective decisions (and legislation) through the lens of ethics that are grounded in Scripture, not just rhetorically but actually (I’d suggest we begin with Matthew 25 and Micah 6). We need to challenge those who would interpret Scripture to privilege and protect their own power and in the process, deform and maim it. We also can model ways to purposefully listen to what our past tells of us today’s ethical choices (as well as the consequences of not making them) – precisely because we have experience in respecting and listening to our past (and knowing what is in need of repentance in that same past). We could make a significant contribution to the place of education, experience, reason, and community in the politics of the day.
Are we? Shall we? Can we? Want to help one another? Across any and all “aisles” that would divide us?
Jan Smith Wood