Theology is an argument

October 8, 2005 at 11:09 pm Leave a comment

Dr. Voogt reminded us, on the first day of my Age of the Enlightenment class this semester, that history is an argument.

As he explained it, history deals in fact, and we are constrained by fact, but what we call “history” is really our interpretation of the facts. Interpretations, however, are not absolute; they are merely our best attempts at making sense of the past.

We know, for example, that Rome fell. But why it fell, and what exactly it means that Rome fell, is an entirely different matter. Good luck figuring out a concrete answer to those questions.

History is all about tracing motivations and cause and effect relationships, but it’s nevertheless a very inexact science. And it almost has to be this way, for there is probably no one explanation that can fully and accurately account for why Rome fell, or even what it means that Rome fell.

And so, in history, we make arguments. All historical arguments must be dictated by fact, as I said, and some arguments may be wrong. But even when an argument is valid, it is only a small part of the picture, and it only captures a limited perspective of the truth.

Ultimately, then, our feeble attempts at truth are only approximations of a reality that we can’t quite confine to words.

And now I’m wondering if theology isn’t the same way. There’s truth and falsehood in theology, just like in history, and all theology is accountable to the facts. In that sense, there is “absolute truth.”

But within that absolute truth—like within all those historical facts—there’s an incredible amount of room for argument. With theology, as with history, the truths that we can define are only approximations.

Theological plurality

In this sense, it strikes me that theological plurality is acceptable, or even needed. It’s ok to leave some room for disagreement in theology and not be bothered by it, for such theological jockeying allows us to rein in more and more of the subtleties of knowledge. It’s ok to allow for revisions of our arguments, or to hold two contradictory views in tension, because we know neither one actually captures the full picture, but that both together provide an increasingly precise estimate of truth.

It strikes me, also, that certain truths (or, more accurately, certain angles on truth) are more relevant at certain times, and ought to be emphasized more than other angles. Theology is not anthropocentric, but it is nevertheless true that human needs fluctuate, and the particular ditches into which we tend to swerve vary throughout history.

It seems important, then, to recognize that we need different angles of truth at different times and different places, in order to most effectively combat whichever distortions of truth are currently pressing on us most severely.

Is it not difficult to see, after all, that cementing ourselves in one mindset invariably makes us brittle, and reduces our “truths” to meaninglessness. It is like taking one word or one phrase and repeating it ad nauseum, and coming to that point where the mind ceases to recognize sense in an otherwise useful term.

So there is a need—a necessity, I think—of approaching truth from new angles and expressing it in fresh words, to avoid truth becoming dead to the mind and the mind becoming dead to truth.

The practical side of things

But this is all rather abstract, and maybe it would be useful to pin down some practical application.

For me, right now, the practical applications are in the tension between determinism and free will, and in the tension between naturalistic explanations of events vs. a careful recognition of God’s hands at work in the world. As might be evident from my past few posts, Calvinism and naturalism represent my current stretching points; these issues, for me, represent the place where theology becomes an argument, and both sides are angles that enable my better understanding of God’s world.

On the other hand, I realize this is all a very postmodernist argument on my part. Think I’m nuts? Say so. 😉

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Profile

profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

Email me: jamie.kiley@gmail.com

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