Thursday, September 17, 2009

Through a glass darkly: the problem of precision in theology

Do you remember your last science class? One of my favorite insights of science was the concept of "significant digits". For example, if you have a digital thermometer, and it tells you that the temperature outside is 82.1 degrees F and it seems to be rising 1 degree per hour, you can't necessarily project a temperature of 85.301247 at a certain future point in time. Why not? Because our measurements aren't that accurate. Sure, our calculators are that accurate; the formulas we're testing are (possibly) that accurate. But our measurements aren't. You started out with precision to 1/10th of a degree. By the time you run past your original level of precision, any further precision is unwarranted and probably misleading. It's a figment of your calculator's imagination. It's not a matter of whether your calculation is right; it's that you can't get out more precision than you had when you started.

Some of my difficulty with theological hair-splitting stems from the same reasoning. If we trust Christ, there are things we do know with certainty -- for example, we can know he will raise us up at the last day, because we have that plain and straight from a trusted source. It's much like knowing that it's 82.1 degrees outside, if we trust the thermometer.

My objection comes with things we are not directly taught. We have a curiosity that generally serves us well. We take what we are given and we start calculating. We get further than we ever would have if we had not started. So we calculate. And we keep calculating. Is God rightly understood as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent? Well, that may be so, but that leaves out his love. How about one essence in three persons? I haven't heard a better explanation, but that's not quite the same thing as conclusive. Is Christ two natures in one person (Chalcedonian) or one new nature in one person (Coptic)? Are we really sure we have enough information directly about that to tell the difference?

I am willing to trust Christ to know God. But when we begin calculating things where we have no direct way to know, we should realize our limitations.

10 comments:

Darrell said...

This is an excellent analogy, which I will be using in class at my soonest opportunity. :-)

Anders said...

I found and read your blog. Since you accept logic I reccommend you to read the website of www.netzarim.co.il ..
It contains a logical proof of the purpose of the Creator.

It also contains research about Ribi Yehoshua from Nazareth (the Messiah).. Research using logic..

Anders Branderud

Howard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Howard said...

(Amended)

Realizing our limitations...
absolutely spot on, and it's something, I hope, that becomes more apparent as we grow (older, and hopefully, wiser) and begin to recognize the realities of our present, pretty limited frame of reference.

I was also interested to note that you touched on some of the really deep mysteries here. I suspect that's the reason we'll need eternal life - it will take such an existence as the norm to grant Our Creator and Redeemer the framework in which to truly begin to express and reveal the magnitude of His nature and to share a measure of that life with us - astounding.

scott m said...

The Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian (which really can't be reduced to Coptic) is an interesting example. What's missing from the modern equation is the heresy that both ultimately rejected, the monophysite heresy. That heresy held basically that Jesus was half God and half man in a single nature. The monophysites rejected the idea that Jesus was fully human and that would have had profound implications for the faith. After all, one of the most profound statements I've found in Christianity is, "What has not been assumed has not been healed."

The modern non-Chalcedonian ancient churches (including Coptic, Armenian, and Ethiopian) don't believe that. Rather they believe that Christ's nature was miaphysite, which is a united nature -- as in fully human and fully God in one united nature. Now that we are centuries removed from the politics of the era, it's my understanding that theologians from both groups generally agree that the Chalcedonian two natures and the miaphysite united nature are simply two ways of saying the same thing, that Christ was fully human and fully God in a single person.

It's a path that stands between Nestorianism (two persons, one human and one divine -- which is a lot more like "avatar") and monophysitism (half-God and half-man). I do think that path marks a critical distinction. If Jesus of Nazareth was not fully human and fully God united in a single person (whether expressed the chalcedonian or miaphysite way) then we're really not talking about the same faith anymore.

If I want avatars, I can take my Hinduism undiluted. And I can't think of anything that would attract me at all in ancient monophysitism. That's not a God to whom I know how to relate or with whom I really want to relate.

I don't disagree with your point. There are things we always see as through a glass darkly. Anything we can ever say about God is necessarily incomplete so that when we say God is something, we have to say that God is also not like that which we said in any way we have experienced it or understood it elsewhere, and that God transcends anything we understand about the way we have described him. We have to say that even when we say that God is love.

At the same time there are things we do have to say and ideas that lead to a very understanding of God. And the monophysitism that both Chalcedon and the non-Chalcedonian miaphysites eventually rejected is, I think, one of those things.

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

And we should realize that all this thinking and hair-splitting is due to the curiosity that is God-given, but getting certain answers is not necessary for salvation.

I have a real nervous reaction to the blog writing of certain pastors of a different branch of the type of church I attend who go on and on about following proper confessional topics, doing the communion in a specific way because the other ways are wrong, and conducting the church services in certain specific ways. Even though these pastors would say that they are saved by grace, I get big vibes of WORKS.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi all

Ah, you know, the blogs in this neighborhood of the blogosphere may not be the most active, but I definitely enjoy the conversations! And Scott, I should've figured you'd know about the other miaphysites. ;)

I'm glad but a little surprised that nobody was offended over my directing a pointed comment towards the Chalcedonian schism in this context. Could I hope that breach may be healed soon? I can always hope.

My attitude towards theological hair-splitting ranges from joining in (like a good game of cards) to polite amusement to exasperation to anger, depending on how it's being used. I just don't think there's nearly enough respect for the fact that we don't have all the knowledge, and we understand in part.

Take care & God bless,
Anne / WF

Martin LaBar said...

Well said. Thanks.

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

You mention that we need to recognize our limitations. In other words: be humble. That's where I get off the bus driven by some people, theologically speaking. The Bible is the Word of God, but interpretation and translation was, is, and will always be subject to human limitations and bias, and is NOT inspired.

The hair splitting can easily come across as I AM RIGHT! Which then implies what? YOU ARE WRONG. Fine, maybe I am wrong. But I am a saved child of God. And if the "I am right" comes across as unloving, then it isn't pointing anybody to God and saving grace.

On one site, I had posted some comments and questions. I also said that I thought that the Bible taught us not to be judgmental. I was very surprised to receive a comment back telling me that it was a Christian duty to judge and point error, citing a specific verse.

Of course we might say that killing somebody is a sin, but the discussion had to do with some specific things about how a church service is conducted and communion is served, and which day of the week to have services.

Sheesh. I know, I know, I know that it is wrong of me to judge this branch of the Church by the several instances I've run into on the web, yet I do because I've felt put down. And then it was pastors of this group that served the nursing home where my mom was previously, and they, the three I heard, did the perfect liturgy, but had no warmth nor connection with the residents. I took comfort in the fact that the Communion was real, no matter who served it. I guess I'm way off your topic and I should pray to let this go.

Weekend Fisher said...

What frustration. Everybody always has such an easy time seeing everyone else's wrong. And it's so easy to get hurt.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF