How to Disagree About Invisible Stuff, or What a Systematic Theologian Likes About the Emerging Church (by Jonathan P. Case)
I teach that ‘nasty little subject’ (to borrow a phrase from William James) called systematic theology, frequently maligned by emergents. Yes, I know, emergents often say they’re keen on studying theology, but generally not the kind of study I’m talking about: reading dense books (often translated from German) with footnotes, writing dense papers with footnotes and arguing with other theologians whose idea of fashion is wearing a tweed jacket and sweater vest. Systematic theology isn’t as cool as sociology or communications, as intellectually respectable as philosophy or as relevant as ‘cultural exegesis’.
Admittedly, my discipline frequently is badly bungled: scores of religion majors choking down volumes by Grudem, Oden or Pannenberg, piling up abstraction upon abstraction in pursuit of the great white whale called Truth (‘truth’ or Absolute Truth, depending on your place on the theological spectrum). Compared to engineering, computer science or early childhood education, we systematicians trade in a lot of ‘invisible stuff’: Eastern v Western concepts of the Trinity, divine sovereignty v human freedom, Alexandrian v Antiochian Christology, filioque v no filioque, imputed v imparted righteousness, etc. My teenage daughter jokes that her Dad can’t be wrong about anything because he teaches things that nobody can test. (She hasn’t read Karl Popper, and her joking is funny only part of the time.) In this article I want to lay out some problems I’ve come to see in being too rigid systematically with one’s invisible stuff and what I think the emergents have right in their approach to theological discussion. I don’t consider myself a full-on emergent (whatever that would mean), but over the past few years I’ve come to really like these people.
I believe the following about theology: it’s challenging, it’s fun (I write that with a straight face) and, yes, it’s important. But over the years I’ve grown to be suspicious of too-neatly constructed systems (I’m probably the least systematic systematic theologian you’ll ever meet) and the air of certainty and self-importance that accompanies pronouncements on invisible subjects. (When’s the last time you heard a professional theologian say, ‘We just can’t answer that one’? AAR and ETS would go out of business.)
We pile up doctrine upon doctrine (God, creation, anthropology, sin, Israel, Christology, Holy Spirit, church, eschatology) like an invisible theological Burj Dubai reaching into the heavens, loaded with centuries-old debates. And just how do you research invisible realities? A biologist colleague once remarked that I can do ‘research’ without ever leaving my office. After all, it’s relatively easy to research invisible stuff. Then you tie your results together neatly, so what you say about creation, for example, works itself out predictably when you talk about Christology or church. Too easily, sometimes.
At its heart, systematic theology is about being coherent and responsible in your talk about God. Make the connections between the great ideas of the faith and be aware of the consequences of what you’re saying about God! Now I still maintain that consistent and coherent talk about God is a good thing (God knows I’ve critiqued enough student papers through the years for lack of it), but there is such a thing as overdoing it: letting One Big Idea solve all problems and tie all loose ends together. The longer I teach, the less I trust this notion.
Isaiah Berlin once classified thinkers as Archilochus’ hedgehogs or foxes: the former see the world through the lens of one big idea, while the latter know many little things. Christian theologians have been notorious for posing as hedgehogs, but if there is One Big Idea running through the Biblical story , we’ve never been able to agree on what exactly it is. I would say, as my Sunday school teacher taught me: Jesus, but what Jesus means in God’s economy is hardly simple. As Whitehead (no mean systematizer himself) once said, ‘Seek simplicity, and distrust it.’ From what I understand, this all seems close to the emergent ethos.
I can hear the objections coming. ‘It’s not all “invisible stuff.” We have the Bible before us (anything but invisible) with texts that obey grammatical rules, which constrain what we can do with these texts.’ Exegesis, not eisegesis and all that. Finding answers to theological questions remains a lot more concrete than what I’m leading you to believe. Right. Presently, Christians divide themselves into over 30,000 denominations worldwide, many (most?) of whom disagree with each other over who possesses the correct interpretation of The Book. Not because the book is invisible and not because the lexicons that help us translate Zechariah or Ephesians are invisible, but because the methodological questions that divide us depend in large measure upon a host of interpretive and theological allegiances on the scene long before the work of exegesis even happens.
Six credible Biblical scholars from six different denominations all exegete the same passage and arrive at radically different conclusions. Is the scholar from your denomination correct because of a superior exegetical method that allows her to get at the unvarnished truth? Not only does the Bible never say, ‘All you need is the Bible,’ it also never gives a hermeneutics lesson or outlines an inductive study method guaranteeing results. If it were that simple, we wouldn’t have those 30,000 groups.
Another objection: ‘But ideas – about all that ‘invisible stuff’- have real, visible consequences!’ Ecclesiastical and political decisions surrounding environmental issues, evolution v creationism, homosexuality, women in ministry, sacraments, etc, are all said to flow from those theological positions. Of course. But too often the following scenario develops: If I come to a different conclusion than you on any of those thorny issues, the problem is not simply that we’re both limited in our approaches. The problem must be that you’re not genuinely committed to the truth, or intelligent or spiritual enough. Perhaps you even intend to distort the Bible or destroy ‘the historic’ Christian faith. So now I’m obligated to denounce you publicly as an enemy of the Gospel and maybe even find a way to have you blackballed or dismissed from your position, all in the name of Christ. Sorry, you don’t have all the invisible stuff lined up correctly.
Emerging folks, I take it, are more likely to say we’re all constrained by our situatedness (upbringing, temperament, church tradition, social location, etc), and what’s compelling to you about how to arrange all the invisible stuff may just not convince someone else. And if someone is not convinced by the case you’re attempting to make, then no amount of cajoling, bribing or threatening is going to help. At any rate, you certainly can’t ask someone to ‘fake it’ and say they believe something if you’ve failed to convince them. The shortcomings of what we call rational discourse are frequently apparent to all, e.g., when people who’ve studied and taught invisible stuff for years cannot agree on basic methodological questions. What seem like fairly straightforward exegetical arguments often fail to convince largely on account of implicit interpretive commitments that lie hidden like landmines.
A third objection runs like this: ‘Do you even believe in truth anymore? This all sounds like a recommendation of skepticism. If you’re skeptical about everything, why don’t you find something other than teach theology? Our students need certain answers in the classroom.’ To begin, I’m not skeptical about everything. Everyone operates with a set of non-negotiables. And as far as the question of truth is concerned, the plain fact is that we all make truth claims. It’s ridiculous to charge the emerging movement with giving up on the idea of truth; no one would ever write a book or speak at a conference if they didn’t believe what they were saying was true.
I suspect that most people operate with a set of beliefs that you could arrange in concentric circles, with those you hold dead-set certainly true in the middle circle, and beliefs you’re increasingly less certain about scattered in the larger outside circles. But certainty, that great buttress for evangelicals and fundamentalists, is a psychological state and never a guarantor of truth. The important questions to focus on when discussing truth are not whether one believes in ‘Absolute truth’ or one’s state of certainty but how you justify the truth claims you make and what kind of justification is appropriate for our invisible stuff.
Rather than giving a lecture on the atonement in which I attempt to pronounce with certainty ‘the’ meaning of the death of Christ (which students wouldn’t believe anyway, since they’re Googling ten different professors while I’m lecturing), I’m far more likely to say something emergent-ish like, ‘Atonement? Ok, break out Anselm, Hodge, Girard. Let’s get ready toooo ruuuumble. Then pizza and football at my house tonight.’ Throwing yourself with abandon on the mercy of Christ is different than declaring this is how it all works. Theories of the atonement don’t save us, and we had better learn to be friends throughout our sometimes fierce disagreements over how things work.
Over the past few years, in view of so much nasty theological sniping, I John 4.20 has struck me with renewed urgency: ‘Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.’ (I John 4.20) I’ve come to believe that emergents have a better grasp of this than many more conventional believers. Yes, I know about some of the now-famous spats amongst emergents, but on balance, one of the things that impresses me as I get to know the emerging crowd is the importance they place on friendship and hospitality in face of sometimes prickly disagreement over invisible stuff. In view of that, and insofar as the Apostle enjoins us to ‘as far, as possible, live peaceably with all people,’ I’d like to make a few suggestions of my own about disagreeing over invisible stuff.
1. Recognize that you’re not the only one interested in truth.
This means giving the other person the benefit of the doubt regarding their pursuit of truth. Don’t automatically assume that, because they disagree with you or your theological tradition, they’re your intellectual or spiritual inferior, or that they’re up to no good. John Wesley once said, ‘never assume anyone sins because he disagrees with you.’ If I want to be taken seriously, as someone who pursues the truth in good conscience, I must grant my conversation partner the same courtesy, even if, despite my best efforts, I fail to convince him or her. Yet how many times have you witnessed (or been part of) conversations between people of hugely different opinions that started out politely enough, with each person doing their best to convince the other, but finally ended in a shouting match about each other’s character or moral fitness for ministry? Or, if it’s an online discussion, how often have you noticed people eventually resorting to the ‘CONVINCE’ font (all capitals), accusing each other of being a tool of the Enemy, perhaps launching a few expletives and then breaking off the conversation?
So many theological disagreements emerge at root from philosophical commitments that verge on the nature of rationality itself – why something makes sense to one person, church or culture and not another. When we finally arrive at those commitments in a conversation, we often don’t know how to proceed. But this much is sure: abusive ad hominem attacks will never help someone make sense of your position. Respect throughout.
2. Keep your distinctives in perspective.
Beware of allowing the theological ‘distinctives’ of your tradition to grow in your own mind, Godzilla-like, until it causes you to look down on other believers. Inerrancy, the historic episcopate, justification by faith, double predestination, entire sanctification, speaking in tongues, believer’s baptism: most groups have ‘distinctives’ crucial to their understanding of the Bible, salvation or the Christian life. Denominational identities rest on those distinctives. But if your tradition alone in all of Christendom holds this particular belief, could be all that important in God’s great economy or the key that unlocks the secrets to the Bible or Christian life? Some popular theological watchdogs (self-styled ‘heresy hunters’) on the internet, foaming at the mouth over their protection of the ‘truth,’ seem to me to be what the ancient church would have called ‘schismatics.’
3. Humanize the discussions, and know when to cool out.
Once you put a human face on a theological disagreement and take the time to get to know someone holding a radically different position to your own, the emotional temperature surrounding ‘the problem’ usually goes down a few degrees and the conversation can proceed in more productive directions. If you can’t or won’t do this, then at least have the good sense to recognize that after a certain emotional temperature has been reached in a vigorous ‘discussion,’ further attempts to convince actually become counter-productive. Once your conversation partner is ‘in the zone,’ the chances of changing their mind in the heat of battle are pretty remote. In my experience, most people change their minds on important issues over a lengthy and painful period of questioning, study, reflection and conversation, and almost never through a silver-bullet conversation with someone holding an opposing viewpoint. There’s generally too much ego involved for someone (especially professionals) to stop in the middle of a heated argument and say: ‘Yup, you’ve convinced me. I’ve held this position for all these years but now I see I’m wrong about it.’
4. Learn to recognize who your friends are.
Over the past several years emerging leaders like Tony Jones and Brian McLaren have taken heaps of unfair criticism. Yet I’ve heard Tony say publicly that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central event in the cosmos, and in Naked Spirituality Brian writes unapologetically of being ‘transparently Trinitarian.’ Whatever other disagreements one may have with their respective theologies, I’m constantly reminding my evangelical colleagues: given everything else we have to face in the world today, these people are our friends. I suspect that many of the criticisms of the emerging movement could be just as easily addressed to any number of denominations on the middle-to-left sections of the theological spectrum, but emergents in particular are taking it on the chin these days because they’re highly visible.
5. When all else fails, then at the very least: do no harm.
With some issues, the really interesting question is this: what do we do when no agreement, compromise or even further civil conversations seems possible? When all the best available, exegetical, theological and cultural arguments pro and con have been laid on the table, we look each other in the eye and realize that there is nothing more to be said: how do we then treat each other?
Further, we all tend to think of ourselves as being on a mission to persuade other, as-yet undecided people to our way to our way of thinking. Is it possible to do this by staying with the issues and not demonizing the opposition? The ancient rhetorical advice to make your opponent stronger seems to me to be sound for several reasons: 1) constructing straw-man arguments about your opponents’ positions and then knocking them down has a short shelf life when sharp thinkers get their hands on them 2) attracting people to your position by demonizing the opposition plays to the lesser angels of our nature; in other words, you tend to attract haters who always find reasons to hate and 3) if you expect your conversation partners to take the time to hear and treat you and your arguments fairly and respectfully, then (again!) any conversation carried out in good faith demands that you extend the same respect to them. (Why is it so hard for us to live by the Golden Rule when talking to fellow Christians?) Of course whenever we extend that courtesy to another it carries the risk that we may have to change our minds, but without that risk no learning is possible.
6. Pose the eschatological scenario.
When push comes to shove and you have to make a theological decision, ask yourself what position you’d be willing to defend on that great gettin’ up mornin’. Now if it turns out I am wrong about a position I’ve arrived at in good faith, through diligent study and reflection, do I truly need to fear being drop-kicked into perdition by the Christ I’ve worshipped as Lord and God? I suspect that Jesus is going to ask me more questions about how I actually tried to follow him and love the people around me. Further, am I willing to say before Christ that, yes, it was worth disagreeing with someone to the point of ruining their reputation, all in Your name, Lord? I’ve become far more willing to err on the side of love and mercy than judgment and condemnation, and more willing to commend other believers who see things differently than I do to the mercy of Christ.
7. Keep doxology central.
Remember that at the heart of the Gospel stands the personal reality of God in Christ, which is a fancy way of saying that Jesus is alive. Because of that, when speaking of the church, our common commitment to doxology (how we respond to this living Jesus) is the best theological defense against schism. In other words, there’s a close relationship between doxology and identity, between the God whom we worship and who we are as a particular community with a mission. Now maybe it’s a category mistake to call the emerging church a ‘church.’ Maybe it really is simply a conversation or a movement, in which case the conversational boundaries can be as porous as the AAR and founded on little more than the conviction that friendship and open conversation is a good thing. No doubt genuine friendship has theological moorings, but the church (insofar as it is the body of Christ) is based on more than a commitment to conversation and friendship.
There are theological boundaries to our doxology, even if those boundaries are wide indeed. If the emerging consensus (whatever that might mean) were to finally alight on the position that we shouldn’t worship Jesus or be filled with the Holy Spirit, or that we should worship Vishnu, Angelina Jolie or Captain Falcon in addition to Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then that would be a deal-breaker, at least as far as the ‘church’ part of the ‘emerging church’ is concerned. But, as far as I can determine, worshiping and following the living Christ remains core to the emergent ethos and provides, I would argue, the best basis for lovingly disagreeing about our invisible stuff.
Jonathan Case is Professor of Theology at Houghton College. Prior to Houghton, he taught for several years at Kingsley College, Melbourne (Australia). He enjoys mountain biking, vocal trance, FC Barcelona and makes the meanest marinara sauce in Allegany county. Case and his family live in the bustling metropolis of Fillmore, New York.