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.

Is the rapture a biblical idea?

Last week was a week of deer hunting with my kids. What a great week. In the meantime, standout Nazarene preacher and President of Trevecca Nazarene University (Nashville, TN) Dan Boone did a nice write-up concerning the idea of “the rapture.” This is a great little post. The only thing is, Dan constantly says he’s in the minority view. The thing to note is, the “minority” happens to be virtually everyone who is actually paid to study the New Testament. I’ll stick with the minority! I remember about ten years ago when I slowly discovered a better story in the Scriptures than what the “left behind” American version had taught me growing up, and what a radical, wonderful, joyful story the Bible’s story became, instead of the disheartening, dreadful one so commonly believed by American evangelicals. A friend of mine and I were talking and we agreed it literally changed our lives, and our understanding of the Gospel, in incredibly wonderful ways. Another friend of mine this weekend said “I am more hopeful these days” because of this re-discovered storyline the Bible tells. Thanks Dan. Here’s the link

http://www.danboone.me/left-behind-rapture-biblical/

This is Classic NT Wright !

If you have any doubt that some major theological themes need reworking in our time, read NT Wright’s Justification. It’s an incredibly enjoyable read, and well done. Here’s a classic bit of his writing:

“The theological equivalent of supposing that the sun goes round the earth is the belief that the whole of Christian truth is all about me and my salvation…. That the central question is, ‘What must I do to be saved?’

Now do not misunderstand me. Hold the angry or fearful reaction. Salvation is hugely important. Of course it is!  Knowing God for oneself, as opposed to merely knowing or thinking about him, is at the heart of Christian living. Discovering that God is gracious, rather than a distant bureaucrat or a dangerous tyrant, is the good news that constantly surprises and refreshes u. But we are not the center of the universe. God is not circling around us. We are circling around him. It may look, from our point of view, as though ‘me and my salvation’ are the be-all and end-all of Christianity. Sadly many people – many devout Christians! – have preached that way and lived that way…. It goes back to the high Middle Ages in the Western church… But a full reading of Scripture itself tells a different story.

God made humans for a purpose: not simply for themselves, not simply so that they could be in relationship with him, but so that through them, as his image-bearers, he could bring his wise, glad, fruitful order to the world.  And the closing scenes of Scripture, in the book of Revelation, are not about human beings going off to heaven to be in a close and intimate relationship with God, but about heaven coming to earth. The intimate relationship with God which is indeed promised and celebrated in that great scene of the New Jerusalem issues at once in an outflowing, a further healing activity, the river of the water of life flowing out from the city and the tree of life springing up, with leaves that are for the healing of the nations.

….we are in orbit around God and his purposes, not the other way around. If the Reformation tradition had treated the Gospels as equally important to the Epistles, this mistake might never have happened.”

– Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (2009; InterVarsity Press) p. 23-24

Why this blog?

The reason for this blog is because I believe that Christianity is once again moving through a phase change, shifting, morphing, as it has many times in the past 20 centuries. At this intersection of the modern and postmodern ages, many people are trying to reassemble a Christian theology that makes sense to them and takes into account the new things we are learning (as happens in every century of rapid discovery). They are trying to hold onto (or find for the first time) a Christian faith that has new answers because the answers we inherited from modern evangelicalism do not actually work satisfactorily. Doctrines like original sin, hell, the Bible, other world religions, predestination, Greek ideas about omniscience, what the Gospel IS, atonement, eschatology and many more are all in play. And they need to be, because this is what Christianity does, it responds in new ways of faithfulness to the time in which that group of Christians is living.

The idea that Christian theology has always been this beleaguered set of doctrines, now under attack from liberals is simply untrue to history. Christian theology has morphed and changed dramatically down through the centuries, always integrating new insights, new things learned by experience, in symbiotic relationship with the culture around us or the new ones we enter, just like Jewish theology was doing before and after the time of Jesus.  An easy example is atonement theory. Western Christianity has cycled through at least six major atonement theologies in the past 20 centuries. Each of them made plenty of use of Scripture and each of them made sense in the culture of their time. Old ones gave way to new ones when the old ones no longer made sense in the culture of the day. Wherever Christian theology ends up in 50 or 100 years, it is of course not the end of the process. We are simply swimming in the part of the stream we are in at this time in history.

And that’s the point of this blog. To be part of that process, part of the conversation, give people a chance to read and think through some of the things that friends and colleagues of mine are talking about these days. It’s part of loving God with all our mind.

Some Christians will refuse. They will plant stakes in the ground and hold to whatever theology was last compiled in their tradition, as if it were the finale, the sin qua non, the age-old perfect expression of True gospel (even though it was compiled 500, 200 or 100 years ago!)  That’s ok, no use fussing with them all day. In the mean time, there’s work to do.

Cheers

 

Was Jesus Omniscient ?

I grew up with an image of Jesus as God stuffed inside human skin. Among other ramifications (like not making the cross seem very scary for a Superman like that), this caused us to picture Jesus as omniscient just like God: a toddler already knowing E=mc2, a 5 year old staring off into space and when called to attention by Mary, saying “oh, a cheetah just took down a Thomson’s gazelle 1000 miles south of here, cool.”  Of course, that gazelle wouldn’t be known as a Thomson gazelle until named after explorer Joseph Thomson in the 1800s, but Jesus  Already. Knew. That. At 5. Cause he’s omniscient.

Except that the Bible doesn’t picture the pre-Ascension Jesus like that. The Bible says Jesus grew in wisdom. The Bible says Jesus was surprised at the centurion’s faith. The Bible says Jesus asked “who touched me?” Hebrews says Jesus learned. ‘Knowing what they were thinking’ does not mean Jesus was a mind-reader. I know what my kids are thinking quite often. Jesus was insightful.

And so, even if Jesus spoke of Noah’s flood as historical fact, even if Jesus spoke of Jonah as if it happened rather than being parable, (and we don’t know that he actually thought either of these things), but even if he did, it could mean he thought of these stories the way everyone else in his generation did. Because he wasn’t omniscient in the way we tend to think.

So when Ken Ham says that Michael Gungor needs to believe in the exact historical accuracy of the Genesis flood account because obviously Jesus and Peter and Paul did, and so you can’t rely on anything they said if you don’t believe the Flood narrative is 100% accurate history, Ham is doing what Rob Bell called, a long time ago, ‘brickianity’ – where we build up a brick wall of doctrines, all supported by ones lower down, and we believe the whole construction will come toppling down if we wiggle a brick toward the bottom.

This is a very frightening thought for our fundamentalist friends. And so, whenever they hear something as inconsequential as the views of a Christian singer concerning a six-day Creation (or the Flood narrative, or whether Adam and Eve are historical or parable), they react strongly and defensively. Because, in their minds, all of Christianity is under attack. But Gungor is right. Many, many, many of us follow Jesus without taking everything in the Bible as literal.

I wonder if the same people upset by Gungor’s “unbiblical” views will be just as outraged by the next idiotic, unbiblical Left Behind movie?