Experience in Theology: From One Dimensional Quadrilateral to Multi-Dimensional Hexadecahedron[i]


by Tom Greggs.[i]


The idea of the Wesleyan quadrilateral is pervasive that it is almost no longer fittingly spoken of as ‘Wesleyan’.[ii] Theological statements rest on the coalescence of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience, and what is most particular in this for the theology of Wesley’s own time is the final of those four categories—the role of experience in theological statements. [iii] In distinction from Hooker who saw the sources of theology as Scripture, reason and tradition (alongside natural law),[iv] Wesley, adds the experiential in faith as a datum for the claims of the faith: the faith by which we believe is for Wesley, with his emphasis on sanctification, a contributory component of the faith that is believed, and thereby a source of theology.

In using experience as a datum of theology, however, there is a need to be aware of its limits. Experience is not some kind of uncritical, unadulterated subjectivist interiority. Experience is rather, for Wesley, an account of the experience of the church: ‘the experience not of two or three, not of a few, but of a great multitude which no man can number. It has been confirmed, both in this and in all ages, by “a cloud of” living and dying “witnesses”’.[v] Furthermore, Wesley is overtly aware of the limitations of this source of theological knowledge, and the capacity for self-deception:

“How many have mistaken the voice of their own imagination for this ‘witness of the Spirit’ of God, and thence idly presumed they were the children of God while they were doing the works of the devil! These are truly and properly enthusiasts; and, indeed, in the worst sense of the word.”[vi]

It is only in conjunction with Scripture, the teaching of the church (tradition), and reason that experience can recognize that which is sanctified, and thereby as that which is part of the material of theology. Doing theology is not a case of reflecting uncritically on any and every experience the human has, but rather a case of locating experience in relation to the other sources and norms of theology to judge experience’s capacity to offer theological truth: only when adjudged as part of the sanctified life can the experience of the creature be understood as s source for theology. Part of this judgment is a critical appraisal of experience because the sanctified believer realizes that the fundamental form of sanctification rests on the recognition of the believer’s own propensity to sin and self-deception, and the need to fall back on the grace and mercy of God.[vii] The one who does not, in being conscious of God’s presence in her spirit, repent,[viii] but becomes confident of her assurance, grows ‘haughty’ in her behaviour and thereby in the sense of confidence she may have in her own experience. There is always the need in relation to the category of experience to be reminded: ‘Discover thyself, thou poor self-deceiver! Thou who art confident of being a child of God … O cry unto him, that the scales may fall from thine eyes …’[ix]  Enthusiasm in the unlovely sense of the word is what it means to mistake our own voice with the voice of God; Methodism is more about the experience of the believer methodically and reasonably related to the life and experience of the church as a whole in its traditions as the church lives under the sovereign authority of Scripture as witness to Jesus Christ.[x]

This description of experience points out something very fundamental: in describing the quadrilateral of sources for theology, these four locations of theological data do not exist as independent and un-related or competitive sources of theological information; they exist rather only in relation to each other. Anna Williams points helpfully in this direction when she states about the point of the quadrilateral:

“do not stand on a par with each other: the claims of tradition, reason, and experience to the states of free-standing warrants are exceedingly weak. They serve as interpreters of scripture, rarely as autonomous alternatives to it. The claim of scripture to be the sole warrant is equally implausible…”[xi]

Key is the relationality of the different components of the quadrilateral to each other: they are ‘radically interpretable’.[xii] They do not function to provide end points to theological discussion, but starting points (as sources), and the interpretation of each of them rests in each’s relation to the others by and through which their interpretation will be made possible.

Theological method is not, for Methodism, about locating what Scripture, then tradition, then reason, then experience may say about a given topic, and then coming to some judgement on it. Theological method is about what each area of theological data says in relation and in conversation with the other. It is not that we have four squares, so to speak, but rather four sides to the one quadrilateral. Indeed, I would want to argue that we need to move from thinking about the single one-dimensional quadrilateral to thinking more fully about theology as a multi-dimensional hexadecahedron: an expression of the sources and norms of theology variously inter-related to one another in complex and multi-dimensional ways.


[i] The ideas in this piece (and some of its content) are taken from a longer treatment of these themes. See Tom Greggs, ‘On the Nature, Task and Method of Theology: A Very Methodist Account’, International Journal of Systematic Theology (2018), vol. 20, no. 3, 309-334.

[ii] Indeed, Anna Williams, discusses these in an extremely helpful summary as ‘warrants’, discussing Wesley largely in relation to her consideration of experience; see Anna Williams, The Architecture of Theology: System, Structure, and Ratio (Oxford: OUP, 2011), 89-91.

[iii] The origins of this approach to theology are, however, remarkably recent. The term ‘quadrilateral’ is not one original to Wesley, but is a coda or hermeneutical key for unlocking Wesley’s approach to theology, as described by the great Wesley scholar Albert C. Outler. However, it is certainly true (with an acknowledgment of the complexity of this and of these terms) that for Wesley the data of theology (the authority on which theological statements might rest) is fourfold. For a survey of Outler’s approach, see ‘The Wesleyan Quadrilateral – in John Wesley’, Wesleyan Theological Journal vol. 20:1 (1985), 7-18; cf. Gunter W. Stephen, Ted A. Campbell, Scott J. Jones, Rebekah L. Miles, Randy L. Maddox, Wesley and the quadrilateral: renewing the conversation (Nashville: Abingdon: 1997). The term is foreshadowed in the work of Colin W. Williams, John Wesley’s Theology Today (London: Epworth, 1960) in his account of authority and experience (ch. 2).

[iv] Cf. Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, edited by Arthur McGrade(Oxford: OUP, 2013), 1.16 & 3.9.

[v] Wesley, Sermons I, 290.

[vi] Wesley, Sermons I, 269.

[vii] As Wesley puts it in his sermon on the witness of the Spirit: ‘The Scriptures describe that joy in the Lord which accompanies the witness of his Spirit as an humble joy, a joy that abases to the dust; that makes a pardoned sinner cry out, “I am vile! …” And wherever lowliness is, there is patience, gentleness, long-suffering. There is a soft, yielding spirit, a mildness and sweetness, a tenderness of soul which words cannot express. But do these fruits attend that supposed testimony of the Spirit in a presumptuous man? Just the reverse.’ Wesley, Sermons I, 280. Cf. Luther: ‘God receives none but those who are forsaken, restores health to none but those who are sick, gives sight to none but the blind, and life to one but the dead. He does not give saintliness to any but sinners, nor wisdom to any but fools. In short: He has mercy on none but the wretched and gives grace to none but those who are in disgrace. Therefore no arrogant saint, or just or wise man can be material for God, neither can he do the work of God, but he remains confined within his own work and makes of himself a fictitious, ostensible, false, and deceitful saint, that is, a hypocrite.’ Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Jaroslav Pelikan and Daniel E. Poellot (ed.), Arnold Guebert (trans.), vol. 14 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1958), 163. 

[viii] This is a point that is made repeatedly by the Blumhardts. For a helpful account of the dangers of experience as a warrant or norm, see Williams, Architecture, 89-94.

[ix] Wesley, Sermons I, 281-2.

[x] See Clive Marsh ‘Appealing to Experience: What does it mean’ in Methodist Theology Today, ed. Marsh et al., 118-30 for an account of some of the complexities and issues at stake in the role of experience in Methodist theology.

[xi] Williams, Architecture, 94.

[xii] Williams, Architecture, 111.

18 thoughts on “Experience in Theology: From One Dimensional Quadrilateral to Multi-Dimensional Hexadecahedron[i]

  1. I agree that one person’s experience has to bee seen against the background of the whole – though that might have implications for a lone person named Jesus – but on a parallel there are difficulties in a theologically conservative Church. Where is the forum for making our theology meet the needs of the present day? Where traditional theories of e.g. atonement are called into question and seen as irrelevant or even objectionable, where 1st century ideas of the supposed ‘divinity’ of Christ persist, where does the Church examine and update its ideas except in the realm of ‘liberals’ who can happily be ignored for the ‘true’ teaching of the Church? Our hymnary and understanding are full of images that cut no ice with today’s world. In a church where teaching and exploration are in many places non existent how do we explore new ways of thinking among the grass roots? As a preacher I’m not allowed to openly query past understanding, Methodism’s hallowed precepts, yet unfortunately there is nowhere except in worship to do so. How do we give theology back to the people in the pews? The sad fact is that many of our people understand almost nothing of what they hear and sing and care even less – they really are sheep without a shepherd.

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  2. When Paul arrived in Athens, he appreciated that the prevailing local culture necessitated a different approached from the one he had been using elsewhere, if people were to understand his message, let alone accept it. Have we learnt from that example?

    The idea of the Wesley quadrilateral stems from an era when the British culture was assumed to be fairly homogeneous. It was also a time when the twin concepts of “Authority” and “Hierarchy” were ingrained. A time when a hymn could include “The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, God made them, high or lowly, And ordered their estate.” Woe betide those who challenged that authority. Those in power also controlled employment, and what there was of a justice system. There were well over 200 separate capital offences at that time. The Church of England in which Wesley served was part of the establishment and very sure of its role of spiritual control. What it preached was “the incontrovertible truth” to which there could be no challenge. There was little in the way of a police force and lawlessness was rife. The fear of God’s wrath was used to inculcate moral and ethical behaviour. The history of absolute monarchs was fresh enough to profoundly influence thinking about God as “King of Kings”.

    Not only has the prevailing culture in the UK changed radically since that time, but we now have a multi-cultural society. From the little that most churches have changed in the last 50 years, it seems that they are only now gradually beginning to recognize that. Many continue to operate largely as if those changes haven’t taken place, as they seek to cling on to what little is left of their own authority. Although Methodist Church reports recognize seven different approaches to the bible, the headline message that is promulgated in outreach courses is that “The bible is true”, “It is God speaking”; and thus it trumps all other authority. That the different books of the bible were all written in a pre-scientific age when meaning, mythology and mystery were regarded as far more important than factually accuracy is rarely mentioned. The implication is that God hasn’t communicated with us since the bible canon was closed. Church tradition has been accorded an almost sacred role. 450 years on, the 39 Articles of Religion still define doctrine in the Anglican church and, as Pandjhyne has pointed out, no Methodist preacher is allowed to suggest that Wesley’s thinking needs to be updated in the light of all the new knowledge and insights of the last 330 years. (Are we also expected to still accept Wesley’s statement that the best way to treat mental illness is to place the sufferer under a large waterfall?)

    In 2005, an Evangelical Alliance internal report, “How will change happen?” commented, “Much of our preaching was concerned with individualistic piety and stringent orthodoxy, at the expense of holistic biblical application. Social, political or institutional evil was rarely on our agenda. We neglected to interpret and apply our scriptural knowledge not only to the “big questions” of concern to God, such as justice, but to the matters of everyday living – the themes that Jesus often took. So we are now in a position where the Church largely exists in a parallel reality: our hearers, as it were, speak Swedish while we shout at them in polished Spanish.” This suggested problem with language and communication is reflected in a recent post where Neil Richardson suggested that “judgement and wrath, sin and repentance … are widely misunderstood, or not understood at all.” If key concepts are not understood even within the church, what hope is there for successful evangelism?

    Yes, of course, the gospel has always been counter-cultural, but it has to speak to, and to interact with, the culture in which it finds itself, whatever the country, time period, prevailing philosophies and influences, and the key situations of the day. We also need to appreciate in our grand theological models and designs that faith actually operates on a very personal level. We have diverse personalities and different social and educational backgrounds, and as we mature, our experiences and relationships will shape us and our beliefs and values further. Regardless of models, we need a theology that speaks to our individual current situation with our needs, our hopes and fears, and our dreams. It is much more about our personal relationships with the Divine and with our fellow humans than about religious authority.

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  3. I was almost put off by the title of this article because it sounds more like a geometry lesson than a theological reflection, and maths was never my thing. Is theology a science or an art? If it’s an art there is room for some imagination!
    I need to believe in a God who judges fairly, because I know I am biased. I need to believe in a God of unconditional love and unfailing mercy, because I know mine are severely limited. I need to believe in a God of salvation, because when I see and hear what human beings are doing to the planet and to each other, I fear that, without God’s help, we are heading for self-destruction.
    I need a church that reveres the Scriptures, upholds its traditions, and practices the core Christian principles of faith, hope and charity. I need the Bible and the cross, the death and the resurrection of Jesus. For me, without these there is no church.
    Having said that, I do think that churches of all denominations need to allow their seekers the space to explore, encounter and experience God in their own unique way. Without the personal experiences of Abraham, Jacob and Moses, the Old Testament would not exist. Without the personal experiences of Mary, Jesus and Saul of Tarsus, the New Testament would not exist. As the Samaritan woman at the well and John Wesley both discovered, we can all have our hearts ‘strangely warmed’ by a personal encounter with the Divine. Our personal relationship with God enriches and enlivens our faith, and enables us to become well-oiled cogs in the machinery of the church.

    ‘All I have needed, Thy hand has provided, great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.’

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    1. Don’t worry about the maths! You’d never encounter a one-dimensional quadrilateral in a geometry lesson (or in any practical situation). It could only ever be a theological concept.

      Do you think that the Jerusalem Christians thought of Saul/Paul as a well-oiled cog in their church machinery? I would suggest that Luther and Wesley, whose outside the box experiences of God each moved the church forward, were seen by the Catholic church and the Anglican church respectively as spanners in the works. Isn’t the problem for the church that it has become an institution, obsessed with its own internal workings? Shouldn’t it rather be a movement responding to the situation it finds itself in and to the spiritual needs it encounters?

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      1. Thanks James, I think Saul/Paul was more of a designer or an engineer, working out how the machinery could best serve the people. Luther and Wesley may well have been seen as spanners in the works by some, and as a ‘new, improved version’ by others. There are always those who want progress and those who are happy with the status quo; that’s just life in every age and culture.
        I agree the church’s priority should be the spiritual needs of those who come through its doors. We are all needy in some way, whether that’s physically, emotionally or spiritually. Some people just need to be needed. There are many charities and other agencies to address the physical and emotional needs of a community, but if a church does not tend to our spiritual needs, where else can we turn? I find if my spiritual needs are fulfilled, I am in a better place to help others.
        Pages 4/5 of today’s Daily Mail make interesting reading!

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  4. Thanks, Tom. I totally agree. Nearly 50 years ago, on an exchange visit to Oscott Catholic seminary, I heard an exasperated Catholic student say, ‘why is it that whenever I ask a Methodist what they believe, they tell me how they feel?’ The problem, as you suggest, comes when experience is thought of as the autonomous possession of this or
    that individual, counting as an unassailable authority. In fact, of course, experience is always shaped by its social (including ecclesial) context, just as ‘reason’ depends on the way a community (like the church) identifies its sources of authority and its core narrative. When I taught classes in doctrine I would always say that anytime we focus on an area of doctrine (Christology, providence, etc.) in isolation, we inevitably distort it. They only really make sense in relation to all the others. You can’t (at least as a Christian) understanding salvation except in relation to creation, Christology, the Holy Spirit and so on. What you have reminded us of here is that the same applies to our theological method. and that we therefore have always to relate them to each other.

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    1. When Patrick Purnell SJ wrote his 1985 book, “Our Faith Story – its Telling and Sharing”, he was senior educational adviser within the UK Catholic Church. He was writing for Catholic teachers about passing on the faith to the next generation. Speaking of his own journey of faith, he wrote “I came to see faith in terms of personal relationships: between myself and God, and between myself and my fellow human beings in whom God dwelt.” He went on to explain, “Faith is the relationship; beliefs describe the relationship. There is the closest connection between faith and beliefs because as soon as I begin to think and speak of who God is for me, I use images, ideas and words which are the makings of beliefs. And these images, ideas and words I have learnt from the human family to which I belong. It may well be that these ways of expressing what my faith means to me are inadequate: they only approximate to what I feel. Often we have heard people say, ‘How difficult it is for me to put into words what I feel!’.” Your exasperated Catholic student had obviously not yet grasped that, Richard. Like so many others, he was clearly assuming that faith was all about intellectual assent to religious propositions.

      When John Wesley was asked what Methodists believe, he responded, “The distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not his opinions of any sort. A Methodist is one who has the love of God shed abroad in his heart.” Too many these days try to scientise faith and, in so doing, allow themselves to be seduced into playing by Richard Dawkins’ rules, even within the church. It becomes all about intellectual argument, and quoting evidence, and whose beliefs are right, when the evidence that really matters is seen in changed lives. So much attention is given to arguments, that the realities, blessings, consolation and mystery of everyday faith are often lost amidst all the words. We have to stop judging people by whether their spiritual experiences reflect ours and by the religious language they use, and start valuing them for the way they love and live in relation to God and to others. To paraphrase St Paul: “I may have a wonderfully thought out theology, but if I do not have love and compassion, it all counts for nothing; I am like an empty vessel that makes a hollow sound.”

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      1. Thanks again, James! This is so helpful.
        The ironic thing is that over-zealous liberals can be just as pharisaic in their manner as fundamentalists, trying to make others conform to their view of how church should be. Whichever side of the divide we are on, we need to remember that we are all one Christian family! We don’t always agree on things but we should respect (dare I even say celebrate?) our differences, in order to live in harmony.

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  5. So, here we are again. Liberals questioning the tradition, credal theology and the “authority” of the church on one side, and traditionalists wary of change on the other. Change of course is inevitable and I applaud the Methodist Church for it’s attitude to feminist issues and LGBTQ+, but what about the judgmentalism inherent in harmful Christianity. Church attendance is now at about 8% of the population and I refuse to believe that the 92% should be judged as evil sinners that are excluded from the love of God. There is much that is good about church and I have heard many great sermons. However I am not expecting a revival based on the loveless doctrine of credal Christianity, but hope for a welcoming church that focussed on love rather than righteousness, reflecting the inclusiveness and non-judgmental nature of the unconditional love of God. Dare I say it? Let’s put Christ back into Christianity.

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  6. More to say! It came as a surprise to me to realise that as Pandjhyne has pointed out, no Methodist preacher is allowed to suggest that Wesley’s thinking needs to be updated in the light of all the new knowledge and insights of the last 330 years. This is censorship, a gagging order! Is that why judgmental attitudes persist in an organisation supposedly devoted to love, respect, care, justice and fairness for all? John Wesley presumably read about the love Jesus showed to everyone in the bible and still came up with his “treatment” for mental illness and his exhortation to beat children into submission! There is something wrong here. Also, if we measure all “truths” by the words of our founder are we not creating a sect? The ethical spirituality that motivates my Christian faith demands an openness to all knowledge, a questioning attitude that measures all “truths” against a fundamental ethical concern for others. OK. We are supposedly a broad church with many different opinions and theologies, but the amazing unconditional love of God is absolute and nothing to do with judgement.

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    1. We can all choose whether we want to belong to the Methodist Church, Robert, or any other denomination for that matter! If all you want is a community of good people with no beliefs, creeds or doctrines, why go to a church? Why not just find a group of nice friends who agree with you? You’d save yourself a lot of angst 😉

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    2. Robert, we must distinguish between intellectual explorations that properly belong in theological discussions, articles or books, and sharing our faith, which has to touch our hearers at a much deeper level than the intellect, if it is to have a real impact. We have to give people food for the soul, not just food for the mind. Sermons aren’t meant to be aimed just at people’s minds; they’re not theology lectures. We don’t want people to be able to write an essay on doctrine at the end of it. We want them to deepen their relationship with God. Teachers teach themselves as much as they teach their subject. Doesn’t that apply equally to preachers? Through everything they say they should be sharing a living faith, not just their intellectual understanding of it.
      Congregations include a range of life and faith experiences, varying hopes and fears, and differing spiritual needs . We should try to provide variety within the service elements to reflect this and to give opportunities for people to respond individually ln the way most appropriate for them at their differing points on their spiritual journeys.

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  7. Robert, have you heard of the Maginot Line, the heavily fortified defensive line of concrete bunkers and gun emplacements which France constructed along its borders with Germany and Italy? Just charging headlong at it would just lead to you exhausting all your energy and resources. Angry attacks on traditional doctrine won’t get us very far either, because those whose power and influence come from traditional teaching will defend it vigorously and they are entrenched behind bastions built up over centuries. Their ranks include those who are passionately convinced that certain doctrines are the key to salvation and that to give ground is to betray all that is holy.
    Also, angrily proclaiming a message of love is counter-productive. The message that people outside the churches will take is that faith is clearly really more about angry disputes than the love the different parties claim to represent. If we are to make an impact on the general public, we have to find a route round the controversies and get directly to the people who need a new vision of what life is about and to present a positive message. How we do that is the prime challenge for those who want to introduce new Christian thinking.

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  8. Pavel, It all depends on one’s life experiences. Unfortunately I have had to deal with long term stressful situations where I have been the victim, or the friend of victims, of “harmful” Christianity. This includes the suicide of a young woman convinced of her unworthiness and condemnation to eternal damnation because of her “sinful” nature. Events like this focus the mind on what is important in life! I cannot, and will not, forget them. If I come over as angry at judgmental attitudes and doctrines in the Church it is because I feel I must show my depth of concern, so that others may not have to suffer.
    It struck me that angry disputes in the church are necessary! The Honest to God debate of the 1960’s regarding the radical ideas of Tillich and Robinson, Luther fly-posting a cathedral, Wesley and the rise of Methodism, Kierkegaard’s attack on Christendom. As I see it love does not mean peace and comfort, but a call to responsibility for others.
    Given a situation of conflict is it enough to reach for the bible and present a “living faith” as the answer. If we are only justified, or saved, by our faith then what do we make of the faith of biblical fundamentalists, Islamic extremists, the Ku Klux Klan? A living faith must surely be ratified by reason, theological reflection or intellectual exploration otherwise it can become unethical and loveless.
    Of course at the end of the day you can say that this is me doing an intellectual exploration rather than presenting a “living” faith, so you can safely ignore it!

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    1. I understand your anger. I’ve been there. But anger tends to be destructive and also to blind one to other people’s experiences and strengths. Yes, we need to be able to explore faith with our minds – we are called to love God with our mind as well as with our heart – but we also need to accept our limitations in understanding. Arguing angrily over doctrine tends to produce a lot of heat but very little light. The 14th century writer of “The Cloud of Unknowing” expressed this as, “God can be loved but he cannot be thought. He can be grasped by love but never by concepts. So less thinking and more loving.” This should be reflected in the way we talk to people about faith.

      In modern times there’s been a trend towards seeing faith as intellectual assent to beliefs about God. This attempt to rationalize Christianity to fit in with an age of science has too often led to literalization of scripture and an over-emphasis on doctrines, but also to a failure to appreciate that some aspects of faith go beyond the logical. As a result, stories, metaphors, and images that sought to express a relationship with a God who is beyond description become treated as factual accounts and the supra-rational truths they contain lose much of their power.

      The best evidence for the truth of Christianity has never been intellectual reasoning; it has always been people’s personal experiences of God and lives that have been transformed by faith. Sharing our faith effectively has to touch our hearers or readers at a much deeper level than the intellect, if it is to have a real impact. We have to give people food for the soul, not just food for the mind.

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  9. Robert, I hope these words might help in some small way:

    “I think if we try to communicate what Jesus’ social justice teaching is, we won’t find a highly rarefied explanation of justice theories, and so forth. The way to do justice is to live simply, to not cooperate with consumerism, with militarism, with all the games that have us trapped. Jesus just does it differently, ignoring unjust systems and building up a better system by his teaching to his disciples. His name for the better system was the kingdom of God or the reign of God. The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. He’s showing us “We’re just going to do it better. Let’s not be anti-anything. Let’s be for something: for life, and for universal love.”
    (Richard Rohr’s daily meditation, Monday 18.10.21)

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