Sunday, January 11, 2009

How Wrong is Wrong?!?


It's all dark but I'm okay with that.

Which eye do you want me to aim at you with?

Not afraid of the dark. Light, however, is way too intense.

Somebody once said -- and it's been variously attributed around greater blogdom -- something to the effect of:
"Twenty percent of my theology is wrong; I just don't know which twenty percent."
Some people quote this with varying percentages, up to seventy percent error but without knowing which seventy percent. But what they all have in common -- regardless of the actual percentage being claimed -- is the belief that this attitude represents a true and admirable humility. A respectably "chastened epistomology".

Let's cut to the chase here: if you really, truly believe that seventy percent of what you say may be theological cow patties, then please shut up until you sort out what you believe.

I guess another way of putting it would be: how much darkness negates light? We usually boldly say something about a single candle can make darkness flee. Does that analogy work when it comes to what we believe? When does the inability to focus on and articulate truth negate our ability to say "we see"? (cf. the three pix at the top of this post)
I mean, I wouldn't seek treatment for a life-threatening illness from a doctor who (humbly or otherwise) stated that they was 70% wrong about medicine, and they weren't sure which 70%. And a dentist sticking a drill in my mouth with a similar skill percentage? Not likely, amigo.

If we take "chastened epistomology" to mean less arrogance, less hair-splitting over non-essentials, and more grace towards others with differing views, then by all means let's pursue it.

But if we use "chastened epistomology" to mean that we can't say anything definitively, then I wonder if we're not playing some sort of theological russian roulette.

Because if we believe that James 3:1 is part of the Canon...
"Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly."
...then no matter how humbly we say it, being content with high percentages of uncertainty disqualifies us.

8 comments:

  1. I know that NT Wright said this at a conference about 5 years ago - he used a third - and he wasn't being glib. This to me is about where we put our confidence - is it in our own understanding OR simply in Christ. However, even saying that is from a position of understanding ;-) I think it is important to honest about our areas of ambiguity, and to keep exploring alternative view points.

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  2. I hear what you are saying, Rob. 70% is a bit high indeed. When I heard Wright say it, he said 30% (or less) and was clearly, if only partially, tongue in cheek.

    What gets me is when people used "chastened epistemology" as a badge of honour. The whole point of it is humility and yet some fault ignorance (or at least espoused ignorance) as though it is a sign of spiritual maturity.

    Your definition of "chastened epistemology" is one I easily affirm.

    Peace,
    Jamie

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  3. this is a two-beer discussion at least :)

    just to make sure we make it to the second beer, i'll go way out there ...

    what if i told ypu that almost 100% of what i believed is wrong. with us and god it is more like the blind man and the elephant.

    the thing which gives us permission to move forward is not the accuracy of our picture, but the beauty of that which draws us forward.

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  4. Jon,

    I've heard the quote (with varying percentages) attributed to Wright and also to Leslie Newbiggin, and I think someone else but I can't recall who. I didn't use names in the original posts because ultimately it wasn't about who said it, but how what was said is being applied.

    I agree with the conundrum you mentioned: even saying "focus on Jesus" presupposes some level of (hopefully truthful) understanding. It's almost a catch-22, in some ways! :)

    Jamie,

    Exactly! My association with many charismatics (and post-charismatics) yielded a similar mindset in some ways: they disdained theological understanding or especially training as inferior to simply being "led by the Spirit". Which has repeatedly led segments of the charismatic community off the side of a cliff (think: Bentley & his Emma-angel, and his claim to have been given the spirit of William Branham).

    I'd hate to see "chastened epistomology" co-opted in the same way that "led by the Spirit" came to be equated with a celebration of ignorance yet still being somehow superior.

    Misfit Toy,

    You'll have to forgive me for throwing out a third-beer-worthy comeback. :)

    What if "the beauty of that which draws us forward" is someone masquerading as an angel of light? (And I'm not referring to Bentley this time)

    Should we order curry fries to go with the next round of ale? :)

    Michael Thom,

    I'm not sure if you're "hear, hear"-ing my post or Misfit Toy's comment, so I'll have to default to assuming you meant the post, and so I'll simply say, "thank you". :)

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  5. Hey Rob, good post.

    Concerning these thoughts:
    Robbymac
    "But if we use "chastened epistomology" to mean that we can't say anything definitively, then I wonder if we're not playing some sort of theological russian roulette."
    "I'd hate to see "chastened epistomology" co-opted in the same way that "led by the Spirit" came to be equated with a celebration of ignorance yet still being somehow superior."
    Jamie
    What gets me is when people used "chastened epistemology" as a badge of honour. The whole point of it is humility and yet some fault ignorance (or at least espoused ignorance) as though it is a sign of spiritual maturity.



    The challenge I keep having is among the post-charismatics I know is that in the effort to move away from being an elitist Xian there is so little that is now definitively held on to (or at least spoken) that it is becoming difficult to determine what is still believed.
    I have no problems with a period of doubt over certain beliefs (and even taking copious amounts of time examining non-essentials), but at what point do we stand up and say with certainly that "I believe..." and then stick with it? At what point does a claim of ignorance or doubt or spiritual humility just become an excuse for inaction? And at what point does our lack-of-action concerning what we confess to believe become the evidence that we no longer believe?

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  6. KSG,

    Wow. Thanks for adding these questions and observations!

    I don't know what would qualify as "adequate time" for re-examining beliefs (particularly in the post-charismatic vein), but I think it would vary depending on the person. But the crucial bit would be recognizing the potential, as you say, of never getting to a point of re-engagement and (dare I say) "chastened" convictions.

    Your last question hits the nail on the head. Sounds a bit like "faith without works is dead", eh? :)

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  7. Wow, couldn't agree more. By all means, lets pursue "less arrogance, less hair-splitting over non-essentials, and more grace towards others with differing views," but please don't spat gray week in and week out - it is an ugly color and not very inspiring.

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