Structuration Theory and Theology PART TWO: the water and the stones

In the last post I described the sociology theory “Structuration” and how I compare its view (of the development of human societies) to water in a streambed flowing among stones – both the water and the stones mutually affecting each other. I was talking about this because I suspect the history of change in Christian theology is also a story of Structuration.

Christians I know tend to have a variety of ideas about changes in theology. Some see change as a watering down of the clear, Divinely-inspired teaching of the Bible; as in, people change theology to suit their whims instead of obeying what God has said. I don’t think that accurately describes the development of Christian doctrine down through the centuries, and certainly doesn’t reflect how a doctrine like, say, the Atonement, has undergone change. People who take this approach are well-meaning I am sure, but I don’t think their understanding of the history of Christian thought is very robust.

Others see it more in terms of progressive revelation; as in, God is helping us slowly develop better and better theology as the centuries unfold. This sounds encouraging, though we have to admit it’s pretty us-focused, self-serving, and naïve concerning the negative effects much theology has.

Some see it as simply a matter of applying the correct scientific methods of interpreting the Scriptures, and whoever does the best work is the one who is correct. Thus the exegetical wars between Wesleyans and Calvinists, etc. etc., ad nauseum.  I think history has shown these wars of textual minutia to be unwinnable, with a large swath of bombed-out territory in between the trenches, littered with lots and lots of human casualties that too many of the weapons-designers don’t get out to see.

I suspect that the truth about changes in theology is a lot like Structuration theory’s explanation of change in human societies. The traditions, beliefs and worldviews a person grows up with shapes their view of theology, (and their understanding of what the Scriptures mean, and which Scriptures are more important than others). But then again, that person’s unique thought processes interpret what they see in the world around them in ways that are possible to break beyond the bounds of the prevailing thought around them – thus pushing the stream of water flow in a different direction, in a minor – or sometimes major – shift. These changes in perspective in theology are often in response to discoveries or new thought in other realms – biology, physics, archeology, humanities, etc. But it’s not one-way, because the prevailing theology/worldview shapes the assumptions those scientists come to their work with as well. Thus I think history shows that the human society and its prevailing thought systems (and new discoveries) affects theology’s development, and theology affects the society as well, in an on-going interplay.  Easy example: when we discover the earth goes ‘round the sun, instead of the sun going ‘round the earth, it’s hard to stick with a theology – and an exegetical method – that says the sun goes ‘round the earth.  There’s a lot more to be said about this. Our theologies have changed in all kinds of ways down through the centuries because of things we’ve learned in science, or because of our consciences. More on structuration theory and theology in the next post.

Today is the fifth day of Christmas Season in the Christian calendar. So it’s not too late for me to sincerely wish you: Merry Christmas.

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Structuration theory and Christian theology; Like Water Flowing Around Stones

Structuration is a theory, conceived by sociologist Anthony Gibbens, utilized in community development studies to describe how societies or cultures change, develop and evolve. It takes the view that traditions, norms and the institutions that embody them (the “structures”) shape people (the “agents”), but then again people shape those structures, in an on-going feedback loop/ Coriolis spiral of symbiotic, fluid, interplay.  It serves as sort of a macro-level, umbrella theory that encompasses many of the other theories of community development (all of which are noticeably true, it seems, in at least some ways, but incomplete in the bigger picture). In structuration theory you can’t point to just one element and say “that’s why societies change.” There’s something more complex going on.

I like to picture it as water in a stream flowing around stones.

Picture a stream flowing around stones. Close your eyes. Let out a deep breath. Feeling more peaceful already, aren’t you? I know, I know, I’m wonderful.

Anyway, the stream flowing around stones is a picture of Structuration theory. The traditions, beliefs and practices of society (also organized into institutions) are the stones (“structures”) and the water is the people (“agents”). Notice how the stones shape the direction of the water, here a boulder divides the stream, over there the ledge pushes the flow into a bend, down a ways the field of round stones causes a small rapid. However, the water shapes the stones too.  The water moves the stones around, wears them into new shapes, even, as happened here during a hurricane, moves the course of the stream completely out of the riverbed and carves something new (the Russian revolution of 1917 or the American one of 1776 would be examples  of this).  In the same way, in Structuration theory structures and agents are seen to mutually shape each other – a duality of affecting forces. Neither has priority over the other.

While more specific analyses of communities are necessary in order to avoid partial and/or too vague conclusions, a strength of Structuration theory is it’s etic, get-out-of-your-fishbowl, big picture overview. The reason I am talking about this is that I suspect Structuration theory accurately describes how Christian theology works, and has developed down through the centuries. We can get to that in the next post.

Working our way backwards to, not forward from, the Virgin Birth

When I’m drinking coffee with someone poking around on the edges of Christian faith, one of the things that sometimes comes up (especially this time of year), is serious doubt about the Virgin Birth. I’ve come to the spot where I no longer try to convince people of the Virgin Birth, rather I think it’s a doctrine we work our way backwards to; after discovering more and more what God is like in our own lives, it becomes easier to believe this God could and would do something like a Virgin Birth. Trying to get someone over the intellectual hurdle of the Virgin Birth before they can exert some faith in Christ seems to me, after 20+ years of full time pastoral experience, to be going about this from the wrong direction. I don’t know anyone under the age 50 who ever came to faith by saying “Well, since the Bible says Jesus was born of a virgin, he must be God!” That would be to suppose that people already assume the Bible is true, something by no means the case today.

So the conversation for me often looks something like this: First, I don’t follow Jesus or believe in the Creator God because of the truth or untruth of a doctrine like the Virgin Birth. Even if it turned out that the Virgin Birth was just a way Matthew and Luke were saying  Jesus was from God but not to be taken literally (though I think there are strong historical reasons why neither of them would want to write anything like the Virgin Birth narrative unless they believed it to be utterly and literally true – far too risky considering the easy comparison to Greco-Roman mythology – both of these men were demonstrably very smart thinkers; and no one, as far as we can tell, in the 400 years from Isaiah to Matthew, ever put together the idea of Immanuel and the Messiah until Matthew himself does – so it isn’t a case of text-proofing), I would still follow Jesus for all the reasons I believe doing so is the smart human option. I don’t do it due to his birth circumstances.

Second, after we “taste and see that the Lord is good,” after we get an experience little by little of what living the way of Jesus is like, and experiencing the strange and new experience of having His Spirit at work in our hearts and minds, we start to find ourselves trusting His way (and Himself!) more and more. As our based-on-experience time accumulates and we watch things happen in life that we have a hard time explaining outside of God, we become more and more aware that there are things God is doing in our lives supernaturally. We see situations change, prayer affect peoples’ hearts, hard-to-explain healings, and other things occur to the extent that we begin to find it easier and easier to believe that the God working in Jesus really did heal people (no one in that generation ever claimed he didn’t – they just accused him of black magic), and from there it becomes easier to believe that this God would do something extraordinary like a Virgin Birth, as well. When you’ve experienced the presence of God working in your own life more and more, and found yourself changing as a result in ways that delight you, when you’ve seen miracles occur, it becomes easier and easier to reason your way backwards then, to something like the Virgin Birth.

“Until then,” I usually say, “I wouldn’t worry overmuch about the Virgin Birth. I don’t mind if you believe it or not. I’m not saying disregard it, I don’t believe in intellectual dishonesty – it always backfires. But maybe it’s a subject you can always come back to, anytime you want. Right now, I’d suggest you set it off to the side for the moment.  At this point in your life, there may be more compelling reasons to consider trying out the way of Jesus. And you may find that the results shed new light on this whole question.”

To me. this approach makes the Virgin Birth a doctrine we work our way backwards to, rather than forwards from.

In the jungles of Costa Rica

cabecar jungle

 

So I’ve been AWOL for a month here, in a flurry of activity that has kept me largely away from my computer and for sure away from doing things like blogging. One of the best of these activities, in a month packed with fun, (Thanksgiving, deer hunting, etc), was a week long trip to Costa Rica, where I found myself climbing mountains in the jungle on a remote Indian Reservation doing a feasibility study for development work for an inter-agency cooperation.

From 2012-2014 I did an MA in International Development at Eastern University in St. Davids, PA at Eastern’s  (Tony) Campolo School of Leadership and Development. As a pastor, I’ve always believed in putting your money where your mouth is, and a degree in development would, I hoped, help me comprehend better how to do good work in the under-developed world, instead of blundering through with good intentions.  It was great fun and very stimulating and put me with an incredible group of people I am blessed to call friends. One of the organizations looking at development work among the Native Americans in Costa Rica knew me and asked me to come along on an assessment trip as their ‘development specialist.’ An all-expenses-paid chance to hike around in the jungle and maybe even do some good? Easy choice.  My folks paid for our 17 year old son to come along as a student observer and that made it even better.

So it was pretty sweet, interviewing folks all over, taking a look at their water and sanitation issues, and education, health services and infrastructure needs. We spent three days in the jungle and the next three days hammering out reports and sitting in long, long meetings. All in all, it was dream work. The dream job. I’m grateful to belong to a denomination with a vision for transformation of not only peoples’ spiritual lives, but all of their existence, in culturally appropriate, missiologically and anthropologically sound ways.