As a person walks through a deconstruction, it is easy to fall into despair. When every part of your faith is considered sacred, it is hard to know how to let go of one thing without feeling like you need to toss out everything. It is hard to know what to believe or how to believe it. This is where epistemology is helpful.
Epistemology is the study of knowledge. Investigating how we know anything, how we form beliefs, and how we justify those beliefs. This is an entire branch of philosophy, and one I am grossly unqualified to unpack. For a crash course in the philosophy of epistemology, check out this podcast by the Liturgists.
To keep things simple and focused on theology, let's look at John Wesley's Quadrilateral as a form of theological epistemology. (How we know anything about God.) Wesley asserts that we learn things about God through Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. It is important to note that this is not an equilateral. Wesley does not view each of these four as equally valid ways to know God, but ranks them in the given order. For the most part, I agree with him.
It is worth noting that various faith traditions emphasize one of these areas over the other. Evangelicals might prioritize Scripture. Catholics might prioritize Tradition. Charismatics might prioritize Experience. Mainline churches might emphasize Reason.
Wesley asserted that Scripture is the foundation on which to build your faith. (By Scripture he meant the 66 books in the traditional canon.) But when you use Scripture as your foundation, you have to admit a few things:
You are trusting that God inspired the original writing of the text and gave it authority. (Well, you have to first believe that God even exists...) You are trusting that the text was faithfully recorded and transmitted and translated down through the centuries. That the church councils that formed the 'canon' of Scripture were being led by God and made the right calls. That what was written then is still as relevant now. That your specific tradition has handled that text correctly. And the real kicker- that you are understanding and applying the text in the correct way.
It is not enough to say, "I'm just standing on what the Bible says." More often than not that statement is made to simplify something that is complex, add an air of superiority and authority to the person using the text for their own purposes, and halt any meaningful dialogue. It is a trump card that can abdicate its wielder of any responsibility.
A person might more accurately say "I'm standing on what my understanding of what the Bible says, based on the faith tradition I currently identify with and my own personal experiences."
All of that said, I agree with Wesley. If you are a follower of Jesus, it is impossible to understand God apart from the revelation given in Scripture. Jesus is the best explanation of God. The Bible gives us the best explanation of Jesus.
The second piece of knowing God is tradition. Now, this might simply be the denomination you grew up in or now identify with. That tradition might be the primary filter through which you interpret Scripture. But if you are Protestant, that means your tradition only dates back at best 600ish years of a 2000+ year religion. That's not a lot of time in the grand scheme of things. I'd encourage all of us as followers of Jesus to examine the whole historical context of theology.
I'm only 34 years old, and I'd have to be pretty arrogant to think that I came up with new knowledge in the past few years that contradicts what centuries of Christian tradition have taught. If I'm going to veer away from that kind of history, I better have a very, very, very good reason for doing so.
God created the universe intentionally with a design in mind. "God is not a God of disorder." (1 Corinthians 14:33) God created us with minds. Science and reason are not opposed to faith, but should often work well together. Wesley believed that we should use our rational minds to understand and flesh out our faith.
Reason often works as a bridge between tradition and experience. When a personal experience flies in conflict with what we were raised to believe, we may be capable of using logic and reason to work out the conflict.
In the circles I grew up in, the idea of forming a theology and faith based on personal experience was considered inferior. That's ludicrous, and here are a few reasons why.
This is what the original writers of the New Testament did. "We are proclaiming to you what we have seen and heard." (1 John 1:3) "Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen." (John 3:11) "We cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard." (Acts 4:20)
It implies that the Holy Spirit cannot speak to us apart from the Biblical Text. Once again, the Bible itself demonstrates that is not the case.
Everyone's theology is based on their experience. This is the crux of the epistemological view called Empiricism. (All knowledge is based on experience.) That's one of the things that is great about the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. It is forcing honesty about the way that all of us are all already interpreting Scripture.
During my limited time as a follower of Jesus, I have found that an experience (or series of experiences) is most often the catalyst for deconstruction. What we 'see and hear' conflicts with what we have 'been taught and believed' and we are caught in the tension. I think using the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a helpful way to not completely jump ship but make intentional, grounded, wise decisions towards Jesus, not away from him.
In the next post, we'll add another filter to epistemology, theology, and deconstruction- understanding our biases. It's important to be aware of what we want the answers to be. In doing so, we can notice how we might be bending the text to submit to our desires, not bending our desires to submit to the text.