Friday, July 06, 2007

One of my pet hates

One of the little niggles I have that bugs me on a regular basis when reading works about the beliefs of the Church Fathers is a tendency of the writer to lay out their own theological paradigm as a series of connected points then examine what the Church Fathers had to say about each of those points rather than attempt to construct the theological paradigm of the Church Fathers themselves. In my view, authors score bonus points for being annoying when they start passing negative value judgments on the failure of the Church Fathers to endorse those points thoroughly.

Any sensible analysis of someone's thought and worldview surely consists of trying to 'get inside' that person's head and find out what they thought. To see their worldview as a whole, explore how all the bits are connected, find out what is important to them and what is not, and how they see different bits working together and being related is of surely the goal. To simply present your own predefined system of beliefs laid out in your logical schema and then ask for each individual point whether or not and to what extent you can find traces of ideas in their thinking that matches your individual point is simply poor methodology.

More and more I'm convinced that when it comes to understanding people's ideas and belief systems, there are three important things. (1) A list of simple propositions involved. (2) The importance they place on different ones of these. (3) How they join these propositions together. Of these three, the third is the most important and most neglected. As a useful analogy, imagine a car was dissembled into its component pieces. There are all sorts of ways those pieces could be reassembled and all sorts of devices a mechanically inclined person could construct from those pieces. To simply take a crude inventory of these pieces (eg "sheets of metal, check") and find that someone else's airplane when dissembled into pieces roughly matched your car-pieces inventory hardly implies any sort of equivalence between cars and planes. Similarly we can imagine two wildly different cars which look nothing alike, are not similar in the materials used, and are not alike under the hood (petrol vs electric say), but which are still be functionally similar in what they do and what they are designed to do. But if you broke them down and took an inventory of parts your list might be very different, which would mean that if you just compared inventories or judged from a photograph you'd totally miss the intended similarity of function.

I notice that a common mistake when people examine other people's views is to use (2) and (3) above from their own paradigm as a baseline of comparison and then start doing a comparison where they compare their own (1) to the other person's (1). Unsurprisingly this virtually always leads to a conclusion that the other person's view is deficient in some way because it is missing things that are necessary in the view of the person doing the assessing.

What all this demonstrates is that it is not the components themselves that is important, but how they interact. It is the functioning of the system as a whole that is important, and it is by examining how the individual components interact with each other to affect the functioning of the wider system that is key to an understanding of the system. I think anyone who's dealt with software programming knows the importance of programming "to the interface not the implementation" - in other words it is functional equivalence that is what's important not the concrete implementation and in my experience this applies to philosophical and theological paradigms every bit as much as it does in software.

Now I think that in general all humans have a tendency to use this faulty approach in comparing other people's views with their own. This is probably because it is an approach that works well enough when two people have very similar worldviews, and because it requires a great deal of effort and intelligence to get inside someone else's mind and explore their worldview... inter-paradigm analysis is a non-trivial exercise. But, even understanding why they do it, it irks me whenever I read what someone has written on theology of the church fathers and see they've laid out their contents matching a modern Systematic Theology and gone through a inventory tick-list to see if the church fathers believed all the right things. This is not a helpful methodology when one is trying to understand the theological paradigm(s) of the church fathers in its own right.


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