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.

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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

 

Can “lack” exist in the World to Come? Un-doing Platonic assumptions…

Ever since I was a young buck in my earliest days of theological education, I figured any theology which winded up necessitating evil in order for good to exist (by comparison) was a flawed system. Likewise, any construct where the only way we could grow spiritually was for us to have to go through pain and suffering was also flawed, as it necessitated evil in order for good to develop. I haven’t changed my mind on that, but I have started to wonder about how we equate “lack” and “evil.” A Jewish friend of mine, who is a part of our church family and a follower of Jesus, got me thinking about this by some things he said this fall while we walked the Rails-to-Trails conversion between Ship and Newville. (Walking with Richard is a delight for numerous reasons, including that he looks just like pictures of Jesus, so you look really holy being seen with him).

Many, if not most, of us equate a lack of something in Creation with evil. It’s easy to see why we do this, as a lack of food in places of famine equals people starving to death, and we’ve seen many skeletal photographs of them suffering. We also tend to equate danger with evil present  in Creation,  like a Great White Shark biting you in half. We jump from this to assuming even the laws of physics – like gravity – are somehow affected, as if jumping off a five story building and breaking your leg as a result, is somehow  a manifestation of sin which wouldn’t occur in pre-sin Eden.  But my rabbinically-trained friend Richard said to me ‘there was lack in the Garden, before sin entered the world; Adam says in Hebrew “At last – this one!” when he sees Eve – the rabbis point out that this means even the ‘perfect’ world of Eden included lack. Struggle – such as to overcome lack or deficiency or scarcity – is not evil – none of those things are.’

Richard’s words set off a chain reaction in my mind which caused all sorts of things that had been swirling around to start to coalesce into some thoughts that dovetailed with his comment. If, in the Age to Come, “the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:2) and “those who have been faithful with a few things will be entrusted with being in charge of many things” (Mt 25:21), it seems there is still work to do in the World to Come, and work typically entails effort, struggle, overcoming a lack or deficiency – all things we tend to associate with sin or ripple effects of evil. Do limits still exist in the Age to Come? Are there still consequences for ignoring danger implicit in the way the Universe is created?  Are our ideas about the future world so colored by Greek and Platonic ideas about perfection that we have confused categories like effort, deficiency, and lack, with evil? I wonder if process theology can help us think through some things in this area?

Why new theology?

Almost 500 years ago some guys in Europe thought the world needed a better Christian theology than the one in use. What these guys ended up with (the theology of the Protestant Reformation) has completely shaped what we evangelicals assume the Gospel is today. We take what they said for granted, we take it for gospel.

Today the same thing is happening. Christians are looking around themselves and saying “I think we need a better theology than the one that is in use.” And I think, for a whole host of reasons, they are right. And that’s one of the reasons I am very interested in new turns in Christian theology. Open Theism? Emergent theology? Process Theology? Liberation theology? Social Justice? Green theology, narrative theology, Black theology? Inter-religious dialogue? Yes, let’s talk! For those who think it’s a waste of time, allow me to remind you of that little conversation four to five centuries ago – the Protestant Reformation.

Some Christians fear any new discussion of theology. They fear that the conversation itself, or questions arising from it, will end up with people in hell. The problem with this is that it really means they are counting on correct answers on a theology test to save them, rather than Jesus. And that’s very bad theology.

Thomas Jay Oord

I can remember a time when I knew who all the theology faculty of each of our Nazarene universities were, and the kind of work they were doing. Unfortunately, the life of the pastorate and having a family of six kids has precluded me from keeping up, as I wish I had, on who’s who currently in Nazarene theology. But I am fairly familiar with the work of one of our theologians and I want to recommend him to you. Thomas Jay Oord is a Nazarene theologian serving at Northwest Nazarene University. Tom is doing outstanding work, being widely published across a spectrum of publishers, and makes me proud he is one of ours. Much of Tom’s work revolves around  ‘love’. I would not be surprised if Tom is one of our leading thinkers, period. I heartily recommend you explore his blog. There’s plenty to catch up on there. http://thomasjayoord.com/

If you are intentionally Wesleyan in your theology, (as opposed to being a fundamentalist or Calvinist hanging out in a Nazarene setting), I’d be interested in what you think of Tom’s list of ten reasons Wesleyan thinkers are attracted to process theology: http://thomasjayoord.com/index.php/blog/archives/process_and_wesleyan_theologies/#.UbpRhvk4u0A

What do you think?