Wednesday, September 24, 2014

My Journey, Part 7.5: Excursus on Oversystematization

This is part 7 .5of my rebooted series on my journey from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. The full series can be found here:

1Back to the beginning
2Cracks appear
3Questions multiply
4Questioning the "gospel"
5The big question
6A better hermeneutic
7Explorations in epistemology
7.5Excursus on oversystematization
8Back to the gospel
9The new direction
10Ecclesiological foundations
11.1Sola scriptura
11.2The insufficiency of Scripture
11.25Addenda on sola scriptura
11.3Holy Tradition
12Bridging the cracks
13.1Orthodoxy and Genesis 1–3
13.2A Better Atonement (Against Penal Substitution)
13.3Faith Alone?
13.4The Colour and the Shape of the Gospel
14Worshipping with the Church
15Mary, Saints, Baptism, and Other Odds/Ends
16Looking Back, Coming Home

Sadly, this interlude isn't for as high a purpose as the interlude of my series on God's providence two years ago, which marked a major turning point in my struggles with doubts about God's goodness (already related in post 3 of this series). This is just some extra material that was supposed to go in post 7, but which required enough explaining, unpacking, and digressing from the main trajectory of my story that it seemed best to split it off. (This way you can skip it if it puts you to sleep)

Somewhat relatedly to my thinking about epistemology, I kept wrestling with a theological habit that I've noticed for years, but have had a lot of trouble clearly defining. I call it "spiritual object" thinking. I saw it in a lot of the theological "big important words" that form the building blocks of evangelical theology.

Pinning it down

After a good deal of reflection, I think I can take a stab at defining it. I think that at the root of spiritual object thinking is the assumption that our theological terminology corresponds to clearly-definable theological concepts on a one-to-one basis—a simple form of the view that truth is "that which corresponds to reality". These term/concept unities are what I call "spiritual objects". They are assumed to have some kind of substantial existence or "life-of-one's-own" as opposed to being human constructs, somewhat like Plato's forms, and so are kept conceptually separate from one another with careful definitions. (For example, "righteousness" and "justice", which are translated from the same word in biblical Greek, dikaiosyne, though krisis, "judgment", is a different word and can sometimes translate to "justice" as well)

From there, the way these concepts/terms are used goes in two different directions. First, we specify a large amount of meaning for them, so that concepts like "salvation", "gospel", "the glory of God", etc. become very rich and deep. But at the same time, we try to pin down and establish these meanings very precisely. Normally, words can take on a range of possible meanings, determined by their usage and context, centered around what we would consider their definition. For example, the verb "plan" takes on different connotations when it is used to describe a shopping excursion vs. a military operation; the two meanings coincide at a certain level of abstraction. Words can also be used in more concrete or more metaphorical/analogical ways, like "concrete". Normally rich, deep words like "love" have a very wide range of possible uses on multiple levels; it's part of what makes them so rich.

But theological concepts that we treat as spiritual objects are different. While we specify lots of meaning for them, we do so in a narrow way. Their "conceptual space" (to borrow a term from Douglas Hofstadter) is small or nonexistent; they mean basically the exact same thing regardless of context, like technical terms or symbols in formulas. Their meaning is self-contained; the only context they require to be fully meant is other abstract spiritual objects. When we encounter the "regular", more concrete versions of these concepts, we don't treat them independently but subsume them under the spiritual object version, which is seen as more important or simply more real, again something like Plato's forms.

Some examples:
  • When we think about (say) sin in a spiritual object manner, we can do so without reference to a particular sin committed (which could be anything) or the one doing the sinning (who could be anyone); the one sinned against is always the same. We refer to an abstracted concept of sin, apart from particulars, as the human condition of alienation from God and an inability to do good on our own, inherited from Adam.When we do get to talking about particulars, we still use our self-contained, context-free understanding of sin. Rather than focusing on our particular sins, we mostly see this spiritual object of sin that has to be dealt with by the spiritual object of justification so that we can receive the spiritual object of salvation, etc... After being saved, though we still commit sins, our "sin" has been taken away by Jesus, which is considered the important part but which shows the difference between the definitions.
  • When we talk about "salvation", we mean the very specific process where our "sin" (see above) is exchanged for Christ's righteousness via imputation. Again, we can do so without reference to the person being saved; the one doing the saving and what he/she is saved from are always the same. We see it as a spiritual object that God gives us in exchange for "saving faith", and can (or definitely can't, depending on your tradition) be "lost". The theological concept of salvation is quite consciously held distinct from lesser salvations (individual instances of deliverance or rescue from something). For example, we make clear that though an important sacrament, the act of baptism is not salvific in itself; it is merely a signifier of the true act of salvation which happens by faith alone. Similarly lesser biblical salvations (like the Israelites from Egypt and Babylon, or Noah from the flood) are seen as "foreshadows" of the true salvation that comes from Christ.
  • "Inspiration" is a spiritual object that the books of the (Protestant) biblical canon are believed to have which automatically makes them (or our interpretation of them) "authoritative" over any other source of truth. We can talk about it without reference to what, specifically, it means for a certain book of the Bible to be inspired; it just is, what what we may say about specific books is subsumed under it. It is intentionally differentiated from lesser instances of brilliance (literary or otherwise) that we might call "inspired" in other contexts. Either a book is inspired, or it merely human words.
This way of conceptualizing theological truth is more prescriptive than descriptive; the realities we talk about are established abstractly and then used as a pre-formed mold into which we expect our own situation to fit. It is more universal and propositional than particular and personal. It tends to view concepts more as nouns than verbs, even ones like "salvation" or "inspiration" that start as verbs. Because they are thought to be based on God's infinite nature, they are thought of as absolute, all-or-nothing, totally present or totally absent. The practice of typology is not dependent on spiritual object thinking, but with its casting of biblical people and events as "shadows" of the life and work of Jesus, it lends itself easily enough.

I stress that these are tendencies, not certainties and certainly not hard-and-fast rules that theologians are taught to follow. But that doesn't mean they aren't real. I think this kind of "spiritual object" thinking describes a fair deal of how evangelical Christians process and handle the gospel, at least at the lay/semi-academic level. I think it boils down to the bad habits of oversystematization and overabstraction in academic theology. It is what happens when the systematic descriptions of theological truths become our definitions for them. It can induce us to read the Bible as a systematic theology textbook rather than the diverse, often-messy, always-surprising collection of inspired books that it is.

Words break

The problem (besides the fact that we're digesting Christian theology into a form that bears little resemblence to anything in the Bible) is that language (certainly theological language) doesn't work the same way as mathematics. You can't expect to encapsulate theological concepts into self-contained definitions that simply interact like variables in a formula. Trying to pack so much meaning into isolated words risks making them meaningless and largely disconnected from experience—at least for me. I'm reminded of a poem that N.T. Wright cited to illustrate the weight that gets placed on on the word "justification".
                    Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Will not stay still.
(T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, I.v)
In one journal entry, I objected to the "spiritual objectification" of the "glory of God", which I frequently heard thrown around as little more than the generic justification for God to do anything. Is this really the place the glory of God should occupy in our theology?
'The glory of God'—three simple words behind (or within) which much can be hidden. It's as if a breathtaking mountain landscape could be packed into a suitcase and carried off, bought and sold, changing hands dozens of times while its handlers remain blind to its contents. (2013-9-9)
If I wrote this entry today, I might have the suitcase be full of dynamite instead. In another entry, I was becoming suspicious of how oversystematization tends to make us read concepts like "gospel" as technical terms, always referring to the same thing. I observed the potential for misreadings of Scripture this could cause:
Galatians 3:8 reminded me of how much we have turned 'the gospel' into a technical term, a bit of Christian jargon. But Paul seems to be using it to simply mean 'told good news' here. Our technical definition forces us to read all kinds of meaning into simple passages so 'the gospel' as we define it can be found there. (2013-11-27)
I also observed how it sets us up to see "tensions" where there need not be any. By trying to nail down clear, context-free definitions of things, it can unnaturally separate things that come together in the Christian gospel.
Spiritual object thinking tends to miss how the various parts of our salvation and new life can paradoxically combine—God's grace and our effort/works, the divine inspiration and humanity of Scripture, the divinity/humanity of puts these concepts in airtight compartments. We can talk about how they interact as from a distance, but this doesn't go far enough, as a relational model does, which views them as dynamic parts of a relationship. It [spiritual object thinking] also leaves the question of how to apply things like 'life by grace' rather open to hidden tradition. Relational theology sees these things as their own application. (2014-1-5)
Such important parts of the Christian message, viewed as spiritual objects, seemed to be always held at arm's length; you had to authentically understand and believe them, then somehow apply them to your own life. I longed for a more immediate theology where definitions did not abstractify and isolate from our experience, where the simplistic model of belief -> application was shaken up, if not done away with entirely. I nebulously termed this ideal "relational theology", but I had trouble specifically describing it, much less envisioning it.

A better way?

I'll get to how I went about finding a way past this kind of oversystematic thinking later. But for now, in light of how I've defined it, some suggestions present themselves.

First, we can realize that even though we have the Bible, we are still only human. We have no God's-eye perspective on spiritual realities; there is much beyond our purview, and our terminology doesn't necessarily map directly to tidy, noun-like concepts, even if it is from Scripture. The limitations of our knowledge don't just mean that we can't always find answers to our questions—the questions themselves, and the categories/patterns of thought that underlie them, may need correcting.

We should strive to be descriptive rather than prescriptive in our theology, realizing the fine distinction between understanding something and controlling it, if only in our minds. We should be open to redefining and expanding our theological concepts, even radically, and not exclusively holding onto the definitions we've built as "the way things are". Realizing that our terms and definitions will never fully encompass the things of God frees us from expecting them to pull so much weight and from using them as technical terms. We are able to use them in smaller (but still important) ways, like calling the manifestations of grace by which God delivers us from sin "salvific" without detracting from Christ's "finished" work of redemption by doing so.

In light of Jesus' identity as the ultimate Truth God reveals to us (Jhn 14:6, Hbr 1:1), we do well to pay attention to the personal, experiential side of truth as well as the propositional, even though it can be much messier. This doesn't replace the propositional aspect of Christian belief—there are plenty of definite things about Him to proclaim—but it puts doctrine in its proper place and makes our theology dynamic not static; personal not mathematical. We can never define a human person completely with propositions; how much less God Himself! Persons can always surprise us—though we can trust that, being perfect, Jesus will only do so positively. Trusting God to be Himself even on admittedly imperfect knowledge is a crucial part of what faith is. What we say and believe about Jesus avails us nothing if it isn't informed by our knowing and being known by Him.

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