Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Starting Points and Conclusions

Theology has less to do with conclusions than it does with starting points. Conclusions, in fact, are extremely overrated. There's all sorts of hype about doctrinal statements but why doesn't anybody care about how those doctrines were formulated or where they started out? Everyone's got a starting point. Nobody simply picks up a Bible without any life experience and objectively comes up with doctrines (I'm sure that if they tried, in fact, they wouldn't come up with half the things that many Evangelical churches deem as "non-negotiable"). We each go into the text and into our theological reflection with some presupposition about God, about the world, about the direction of history etc. It's impossible, though exegetes will try and try again, to strip away every layer of presupposition until we discover objectivity... even if we are somehow able to decipher and identify each layer. So the conclusions are always informed by the starting points and the starting points determine the conclusions. For example, if I start by presupposing a God who judges, then a conclusion that God is merciful will come less naturally and the nature of such mercy will always be informed by justice. However, if I start by presupposing a God who is merciful, then the conclusion that God is a righteous judge my be less natural and will always be informed by mercy. That's at least the gist of how it works.

Try it. See how much easier it is to rationalize the violence in the old testament if your starting point is a righteous judging God rather than a loving merciful servant.

So reflecting on your starting point is at least as valuable as building a conclusion from it. Will my conclusions be better if I presuppose God as a righteous savior or as a suffering servant who identifies with my suffering? What starting point does the Bible seem to suggest? And, messy as it is, no starting point can or should be either one thing or another. Rather, for example, starting points should blend. It's the way it blends, the ideas which are emphasized, which makes the difference.

But here's where it get's messy... as if it weren't messy enough. The conclusions of some theological reflections might very well be the starting points of another. Indeed, even your conclusion might be my starting point. The theological conclusions to which I have come in relation to social justice issues might indeed be the very presupposition of someone else. The conclusions to which someone might come in relation to salvation and the nature of Hell might very well be the starting point of someone else. Indeed, for some, Hell itself is a starting point rather than a conclusion.

That's why universalism--or what I've sometimes called inclusivism or evangelical universalism (a Christocentric, Biblical, and theologically rational justification for universal restoration)--is such bad news to some people. If you're starting point is Hell or if Hell is a natural conclusion to another starting point, perhaps that salvation comes through the verbal confession of Christ during life, then Hell just won't be a theological problem for you. But if your starting point is that God loves everything God created, that God desires all to be saved, or that the all grace is undeserved, then Hell itself will be a problem (although not necessarily irrefutable problem). Some start with Hell and try to rationalize heaven, some start with heaven and try to rationalize Hell.

Indeed, if you proof-text enough, just about every conclusion is Biblical and just about every starting point can be argued. But, as I've said before, theology is nothing until it hits the ground and what's most important about a theology is not whether or not it's "true" but it's the way it hits the ground. Do our theology hit the ground in such a way that they roll us in the direction that God is moving? Or does it take us somewhere else. That's what matters. What direction will your starting point take you and should you consider starting somewhere else?


Danny said...

When I work with my geometry students, I always tell them the process and how you get to the conclusion is more important than the conclusion itself. Geometry is interesting because it is all built around theorems and presuppositions (mathematicians calls them "postulates") that are pretty much what you are calling starting points. Also, when I prepared students for the high school exit exam, they would try to memorize the answers on the diagonistic test rather than learn how to do the problems.

I'm not saying theology is like math, but I am saying they are similar in that the process of finding the answer is much more important than having the right answer without having gone through the process.

WES ELLIS said...

Right on. That makes sense to me even though I never made it to geometry in school... true story.