Sunday, January 10, 2010

Stereotyping God

Sam Gosling is a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. To guess by his book Snoop, he seems to be on the liberal side of the political spectrum. He also argues -- somewhat controversially -- for the usefulness of stereotyping. He doesn't mean that he agrees with stereotyping people by race or gender because he has seen these stereotypes used in oppressive ways; but he does argue for stereotypes' general usefulness as a shortcut when accurate knowledge takes a lot of time or work to acquire. He cites research suggesting that some stereotypes are valid (such as people from the U.S. Midwest being outgoing, or from New York being tightly-wound). He portrays stereotypes as basically a rough estimate of personality traits and a legitimate starting point for assessing someone.

While I have reservations about stereotyping other people -- and so does he, as he mentions in his book -- there are two points that I'd like to highlight: 1) most people have some stereotypes in their heads, whether it's of people who listen to rock music or people who drive pick-up trucks, 2) you often can predict one or more personality traits from another factor like that, so that the stereotypes are at least partly valid, even though they are sometimes wrong and misleading.

This is a continuation of the previous post on two kinds of orthodoxy: one that starts with certain givens in the form of narrative or raw data and tries to build understanding based on that, and the other that starts with certain interpretive frameworks and tries to fit things into those frameworks. If a framework is good, in theory it should help our understanding. If a framework is bad, it will distort our understanding. The question is whether we can tell the difference. If we are working with a bad framework will be be able to tell, or will the framework shape how we see things so much that we cannot detect the distortion?

Everyone has interpretive frameworks. We have them because, to some extent, they work. They help us understand -- at least some things. Our theological systems help us understand the Bible -- or at least parts of it. They help us understand God. But they run one grave risk: the risk of stereotyping God so that we never truly come to know him, being unable to get past the mental image that we have fixed in our minds.

This series has become important to me; at this point I'm planning 2 more posts in the series. The next will be on what we want theology or an interpretive framework to do as far as helping us understand, and after that I plan a post on specific things we can look for to alert us to times when we've got a distortion going.

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