Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Christian Theology's Great Mistake

The fundamental mistake that I believe has been made in Christian theology, has been to read deep and complicated metaphysical ideas into the Bible. We have over-spiritualised it all. What do I mean?

Let’s use the example of “sin”. Say I sin by killing someone, what’s the result?
At one end of the spectrum, we have a tangible, physical result: The person is dead, I get put in prison, I possibly feel bad about it.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have an intangible, spiritual result: We can imagine a giant big fuzzy black cloud of spiritual “sin” that exists in some spiritual dimension and blocks my relationship with God.

We have a continuum:
This-worldly <--------------------> Other-worldly, Spiritual dimensions

What Christian theology has done is tended, over time, further and further to the right on the spectrum. Judaism was a very down-to-earth “this is how you should live, these are the rules you should follow” type religion near the left end of the spectrum. But over the centuries, as theology has developed and changed, Christianity has quite progressively and steadily moved further and further right. Bit by bit each individual theological concept has slid further right, and today when we read our bibles the terms invoke in our heads complicated abstract and theoretical ideas that we have been taught which happen in spiritual dimensions, rather than the far more tangible and practical ideas that happen in this world that they were intended to represent. It’s possible to trace these changes throughout the last 2000 years of Christian history and see this right-ward slide into the other-worldly and metaphysical, and finally see the appearance of the most abstract and theoretical system yet: Evangelicalism.

What does the theology we are taught today say? Our sin is an intangible spiritual force which creates a spiritual barrier between us and God, which must be removed before we can make it into heaven (a not-of-this-world place). Christ fixes this problem in a complicated theoretical way: His spiritual separation from God caused by the metaphysical transfer of sin onto him on the cross, etc. Looking at the continuum above, these concepts all fall on the extreme right end of the spectrum: Everything of importance happens in some spiritual dimension that we can only know about through reading it in the Bible. This, I believe, is simply a mistake. Over the centuries, as our reading of the bible has slid toward the right, we have moved further and further away from what the authors meant. They were writing about practical things, things they had experienced, and we’ve constructed a complex and theoretical theology that has only a vague relation to the actual world - everything of importance happens in some spiritual dimension somewhere out there.

Consider the following: “They went out of the house”
Now, you could read that and think that the house represents an enclosure in which sin spiritually entraps us, and that this phrase means that these people have escaped the spiritual clutches of sin. Or you could read it and think it means that some people left a house. It sounds stupid, but that’s exactly the sort of thing that we’ve been taught to do to our bibles. We have been trained to fill the words with as far to the right end of the spectrum meanings as is possible. We are happy seeing the Old Testament in the left end – when God “saves” Israel from her enemies, we see immediately the left-end meaning of a physical rescue from invading nations. Yet when we come to the New Testament we have been taught to change mental gear – if we see “saved” in the New Testament we pull out our complicated spiritual concepts of “salvation” and start stuffing those meanings into the words without thinking twice. Quite simply, we are deceiving ourselves if we do this, and we will misunderstand what the author meant.

Another distinction a lot of people are more familiar with is the
Literal <--------------------------> Metaphorical
distinction. We are generally taught today that "taking things metaphorically" is a cop-out, and that you've got to take the text literally. For example you could take the stories about Abraham, and either say "these are literal stories about a real person called Abraham", or say "Abraham is a symbol representing the Church... etc" and explain it away as metaphorical. But perhaps the lesson we should be taking for this is not to avoid metaphor, but to avoid over-spiritualising the text when there is plainly an every-day normal meaning we could be taking out of it - the lesson isn't to tend left on the literal <-> metaphor spectrum, but to tend left on the this-dimension <-> other-dimension spectrum.

Consider another example I see a lot: Paul's dying and rising with Christ passage in Romans 6. We can either take it literally and think that on some spiritual plane of existence that is somewhere out there in the aether our spirits which exist on that plane died and rose again in some sort of ethereal union with Christ. (I have seen plenty of people take this view) Or we can say that Paul is using a metaphor to describe the this-worldly fact that our lives ought to undergo a radical transformation when we become Christians (ie we change our behaviour). We have a choice of interpretation between literal & spiritual-realms versus metaphorical & concrete. A similar issue applies to many of the more theologically deep passages of the NT.

I find it interesting that our ingrained tendency toward literalism often forces our reading toward the spiritual end of the spectrum. I believe this is a mistake. A good rule is this: A reading that is at the concrete end of the concrete <-> spiritual spectrum is to be prefered over a spiritualised reading. The mistake has been to focus on the literal <-> metaphorical spectrum and insist on literalness. Metaphorical interpretation is only bad when it is clearly contrived, or leads to over-spiritualising. Literal interpretation is equal bad if it leads to over-spiritualising. When we read passages we need to think about the full meaning of our interpretation, and if we find ourselves inventing whole spiritual planes of existence then we are interpreting it wrongly.

We know Judaism was at the concrete end of the spectrum. We know scholars for years misunderstood Jewish apocalyptic literature because they took it too literally & spiritually, rather than metaphorically & concretely. We know by Occam's Razor (a philosophical rule that says "don't make theories that involve the existence of unevidence entities if you don't need to") that we ought not to posit the existence of entire planes of spiritual existence simply to explain a sentence that could quite easily be a metaphor for something concrete. So when we see "dying and rising with Christ", or "the blood of Christ cleanses us from sin", or "the righteousness of God", or "saved" or any of the other theological statements or terms in the New Testament, we ought to be careful not to get carried away imputing over-spiritualised meanings to them and look for the most concrete way to interpreting them, even if it involves ~gasp~ a metaphor.


Blogger Scott said...

What does the theology we are taught today say? Our sin is an intangible spiritual force which creates a spiritual barrier between us and God, which must be removed before we can make it into heaven (a not-of-this-world place). Christ fixes this problem in a complicated theoretical way: His spiritual separation from God caused by the metaphysical transfer of sin onto him on the cross, etc.

That does sound rather ridiculous. How about this:

We have rejected and scorned God's rule over our lives, and trampled his worth into the ground. We have failed to glorify (value) him above all things. (= sin)

This inevitably creates emnity between us and God, due to his judgement on us, because of our rejection of God.

Making characatures about some 'spiritual force' does not do much to clarify the real differences in your thought from real evangelicalism. (Maybe pentecostalised evangelicalism tho).

Blogger incognito said...

Good as usual, Andrew. I'd like to know how you'd interpret "the blood of Christ cleanses us from sin".

Blogger Andrew said...

Hmmm Scott, you could be correct, but I can't actually tell.

We have rejected and scorned God's rule over our lives, and trampled his worth into the ground.

I think I'd distinctly remember doing something as major as that if I had indeed done so. In fact, if any normal human was looking at my life and was using language in the way it is normally used they would say that I certainly haven't done such a thing at all. You seem to have successfully brought your theology back to this world, but at the cost of making your descriptions of the events in this world use language that no one else would deem appropriate. Try starting off with "We have all done things in our lives which we ought not to have done, and not always valued God as highly as we should have" and see if you can rephrase what you were saying so that it uses normal language.

Reuben, well off-hand I can think of four different interpretations for "the blood of Christ cleanses us from sin":

Literally & of-this-world: ie the blood of Christ is poured over our head in a sticky mess and we are cleaned of our sin... doesn't quite work does it?

Literally & of-the-spiritual-world: ie the spiritual power of the blood of Christ removes our sin on a spiritual plane. A lot of Christians would take such a meaning out of this.

Non-literally & this-world:
a) the fact that Christ did what he did leads us to be free of sin. I prefer this interpretation
b) the suffering of Christ causes God to forgive us. Scott probably prefers this interpretation.

Blogger Scott said...

Andrew, I was using figurative language to describe something accurate about human sinfulness.
Also, I was referring to humanity as a collective grouping. I don't think my language is too strong at all when you look at the world, and how it does not acknowledge God.

I don't think our problem is as simple as messing up 'some' of the time. I am describing the condition of our hearts towards God. Our 'spiritual' condition is to do with our 'blindness' towards God. Again, figurative language, but an accurate description of how we feel and think about God and his importance.

Blogger Andrew said...

After a bit of reflection, I think perhaps I would want to modify my original spectrum to something along the lines of:
Obvious/What we can observe <----------------> We wouldn't know without someone telling us

This is really what I was trying to get at before. It's a kind of Occam's Razor thing... I'm objecting to the fact that theology has built itself up by adding more and more theoretical propositions: Ideas that are just no obvious unless someone tells you; Theories about how the universe "actually" works.

Looking back at the example of "the blood of Christ cleanses us from sin", we see that some of the interpretations presuppose a whole lot more theoretical ideas than others:

* "the spiritual power of the blood of Christ removes our sin on a spiritual plane."
=> What are spiritual planes? What is sin in the spiritual world? Why does it need removing? How does the blood of Christ do this? What is the (apparently physical) blood of Christ doing on a spiritual world?
The interpretation assumes we have made up answers to all these questions. ie, it NEEDS a large amount of theological development - a large amount of doctrines to be invented - before it makes any sense whatsoever. As I look at history I see this happening: Doctrines are developed - and then other doctrines are developed which use those first doctrines as a basis and would have made no sense whatsoever without the earlier doctrines being in place.

* "the suffering of Christ causes God to forgive us."
=> Why did God need to forgive us? Why can't God simply forgive us normally? How is the suffering of Christ connected to God forgiving us?
Again, development of answers to these ideas is required before the interpretation itself makes much sense, and again we can trace the development of these basic ideas through history and see the interpretation being built on top of the previous development.

That sort of problem is going to be inevitable for any interpretation which is located at the right-hand end of the spectrum above. Any theory that requires a large number of theoretical assumptions to make sense of it, just doesn't cut the mustard.

This is why I think that a this-is-obviously-true-because-we-can-observe-it style interpretation is much better. So something like "because Christ came and taught and died, thereby giving us teachings and an example to follow, we are shown and taught how to live good lives and not sin, and we can think of this as like a parallel with the Sacrifical system" is a much more likely explanation of what a NT writer would be thinking as he wrote something like "the blood of Christ cleanses us from sin".

Blogger Dan said...

Is it really so complicated?

Why isn't it as simple as the Bible says it is: "...all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God..."?

Sin is sin is sin, in God's eyes. How we see it makes little difference, as long as we recognise that we are sinners, and respond biblically.

Your arguments seem to be contrasting legalism with gnosticism, but I have no idea how you arrive at Evangelicalism.

I invite you to come and visit my church family. We are possibly one of the more 'evangelical' churches in NZ. You will find that our out-working of the gospel is neither abstract, theoretical, nor intangible.

I know it is hard not to make generalisations; I have offended the odd person with mine from time-to-time.


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