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Wesleyan Tradition Encourages Critical Thinking about Faith

Melanie Overton
September 15, 2012

While teaching a course in College Student Development Theories in Vanderbilt University’s M.Ed. program, I found myself reflecting on the synergy between student development principles and John Wesley’s belief that the core of Christian faith was “revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.” This methodology for United Methodists’ ongoing theological task, dubbed the “quadrilateral”, inspires a potent educational community.

The quadrilateral came alive to me during my undergraduate experience at a United Methodist-related university. Though I don’t remember learning the concept of the quadrilateral (perhaps it was presented to me), it permeated the campus ethos. Both in the classroom and through mentoring relationships with faculty, I was encouraged to view theological inquiry as a nuanced rather than simplistic process.

As I struggled to interpret and apply scripture through the lenses of the best of human scholarship and honest appraisal of personal experience, I was challenged to think critically about how I know and believe. I was not alone in this task; many of my peers were engaged in the same work. While my friends and I unquestionably had “the time of our lives” in college, our fun was undergirded by sincere and shared epistemological reflection.

The creation of dissonance in an environment where students can be supported is the heart of nearly all theories of student development I taught to my Vanderbilt students. Our Wesleyan approach to theological inquiry, when lived out among a supportive campus community, provides a platform for a potent educational experience. Though I did not pursue ordained ministry, the challenge and support provided by the campus community helped me to develop a faith that has guided my being and doing. The campus ethos helped me to celebrate the scholarly pursuit of truth as an act of faithfulness to God. Indeed, it is.

Melanie B. Overton, Ed.D.

Assistant General Secretary – Schools, Colleges, and Universities

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