Relational Truth & Systems Theory

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Here's a thought that shook my world that is derived from systemic theory:

Old school philosophical, scientific, and religious inquiry seeks to find objective truth by observing as a neutral party from the outside. Its goal is to discover an absolute truth. However science has been discovering that we cannot be neutral observers because our observation actually changes the results. This is all the more true in relationships: you cannot truly understand another unless you enter into their lives. It is not possible to truly know another without loving them. Truth then cannot be separated from love.

Beyond this, there is also a practical problem with the old school approach of seeking to find the objective impartial truth: in relationships this approach inevitably leads to conflict because it seeks to determine which party was more correct, and thus who “wins”. Theology that is focused on determining these kinds of absolute propositional truth claims (such as systematic theology) has often fallen into this trap. Systemic theory instead seeks a relational understanding of truth. Instead of asking what the absolute right answer is, it seeks to understand how each person in a relationship perceives what is happening. Because its focus is on seeking to understand people relationally rather than determining who is "right", it leads towards reconciliation and understanding instead of towards blame and conflict.

While this is an approach that is relational, it is not relativistic per se. That is, systemic theory does not claim that truth is relative, but simply that we are. We each perceive what we do, and if we care about others, if we care about relationship, we need to care about their perceptions and feelings - about them -more than we do about our being right. You might say its the difference between being right and being righteous. righteousness is not self-focused, but cares for the other.

We are relative because we are all inside of this world of ours, we are all connected to each other in relationship, for better or worse. We are all subjects of God's world. Reality is not subjective, we are. We perceive everything from our own perspective. God is the only one who is absolute and who can speak absolutely. All the rest of us are locked into our own relative perspectives, clouded by our own particular blinders. Yet even God, (who alone could have come making absolute truth claims), when he came among us in Christ did not seek to demonstrate that he was right, but instead focused on relating and reconciling us even though we were all wrong. (and again our wrongness biblically was fundamentally because we were estranged from relationship that was remedied through reconciliation).
Without denying the reality of absolute truth, on a far deeper level we need to recognize that Truth is at its very core relational, and when the one who is Truth came among us it was in order to seek relationship. In other worlds, truth must be the servant of love. The goal of theology needs to be to foster loving relationships by seeking relational understanding rather than to make correct propositional statements. That does not mean we need to throw out all propositions, but that they are means towards love and relationship. Robert Webber in "The Younger Evangelicals" suggests that this relational understanding of truth is leading to a new approach to apologetics and evangelism: instead of using reason to present "evidence that demands a verdict," people are convinced of truth by seeing it embodied and lived out leading to them encountering that truth relationally themselves. Thus knowing truth takes on a biblical relational sense: knowing means loving.

To me, as someone who believes in absolute truth, this is profoundly challenging. It tells me that I need to care more about relating and understanding another than I do about what the "truth" is. That means that I need to re-think what truth means. But the more I think about this the more I see how biblical it is. Truth is not an abstract fact, it is a living Someone. Jesus said "I am the Truth". That means Truth is alive and relational. Truth is loving and life-giving. Truth is transformative and reconciling. Truth is love, and what is unloving and life-sucking simply is not truth.


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Mysticism, Evangelism, and the Emergent Church

Sunday, February 10, 2008


Mysticism is defined primarily as the experience of intimacy with God, and the life practices used to cultivate that relationship. Understood on these relational terms it is at the very heart of Christian faith and life. Mysticism in the form of the monastic tradition has always been the life blood, as well as a key renewal movement with Catholicism. Likewise, within Protestantism's major movements towards reform and vitality found in Pietism and revivalism have been strongly rooted in a mystical experiential connection with God. Indeed Evangelicalism's focus on the centrality of the new birth and the proclamation of the Gospel are at heart relational and mystical concerns. Liberal faith with its roots in Schleiermacher is at heart as well a faith rooted in mystical experience. Finally, Orthodoxy has always maintained that mysticism and theology must go hand in hand. In short, every major branch of Christianity – whether liberal or evangelical, from Catholic to Protestant to Orthodox – is deeply rooted in mystical relational experience of intimacy with God.

The question is where does the emergent church stand in relation to this mystical relational faith? There has been some emphasis on "praying the hours" and other contemplative exercises, but at the same time as Scot McKnight has charged, there is a hostility towards evangelism (the sharing of relationship) and a re-definition of the Gospel in terms of "following Jesus" and his kingdom as a "way" rather than being in an intimate relationship with Christ effecting all of life. The later emphasis on the "kingdom now" at the expense of the eternal is something people like Andrew Jones have criticized in the writings of Brian McClaren. So this is definitely a (critical) conversation that is taking place within the emergent ranks among those who love it rather than simply an outside critique. The meergent church deconstructing itself. That's a good.

Some of the questions that arise are these: Does the emergent church tend towards an understanding of mystical experience that is self-focused with its new found focus on mystic rituals? Does it have an understanding of the gospel as "kingdom way" that is ultimately impersonal and detached from a relational encounter with a transforming God? How can we care about social justice without falling into the trap of secularized liberal church? How can we develop a rich and compassionate understanding of evangelism without falling into the dogmatism of fundamentalism. I'm afraid much of the emergent movement tends towards completely jettisoning the idea of evangelism all together, and is thus in danger of becoming spiritually infertile? Coming from a Pentecostal background as I do, I like the idea evangelism being about a relational encounter with power rather than a rational proposition, and think we would so well to remember our roots in the Great Awakenings that focused on both personal and social transformation through the Spirit working in people's lives and world.

Learning from our past, contextualizing here in our present post modern situation, and looking forwards towards an emerging future, what should be our approach towards mystical relational faith be, both personally and socially?

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How Not to Speak of God - loving the ineffable

Saturday, February 09, 2008


I'm reading through Peter Rollins "How Not to Speak of God". He begins the book by talking about how all of our reflections and thoughts about God in themselves can never really capture who God is, and that while we can acknowledge the reality of God, we need to recognize that we ourselves are limited. God is bigger and more profoundly real than any of our attempts to express or understand. In this, Rollins draws upon the teachings of mystics and their idea that union with the God is found in entering into a "cloud of unknowing," finding God in the dark.

What concerns me here is that in some mystical writings there is a sense of dread, distance, and emptiness that strikes me as abusive and life-sucking. So I am led to ask: how can we approach God in humility and need, not as ones who are devalued and torn down, but in the wide open way that children trust with helpless abandon? The idea of being born again that Jesus talks about in the Gospel of John conveyed this kind of childlike dependent stance. The term "born again" was not original to Jesus, but one common at the time. It meant one who was brand new at something, unexperienced. Church historian Homersham Cox in his "First Century of Christianity" writes,

This phrase "born again" was very common, and was applied in a variety of circumstances to persons who commenced a new career in life. The bridegroom on his marriage, the chief of the academy on his promotion, the king on his enthronement were figuratively said to be newly born. Proselytes are constantly spoken of in the Talmud as new creatures. "If any one become a proselyte he is like a child new born." (p. 274)

In essence, the term "born again" here that Jesus uses is a parallel idea to his teaching that one must "become as a little child" before they can enter into the Kingdom. This was such an affront to Nicodemus because it meant that he would, as an established Jewish leader, need to strip himself of all knowledge, authority, and right and become as one who knew nothing, becoming helpless - a needy dependent child.

The thing that is liberating about this image of becoming a new born baby is that it implies along with dependency a beloved embrace of intimacy with God as Abba Father. It implies being able, in the foolishness of childhood to exclaim at the top of our lungs "I love you Daddy!" The picture the Gospels give us here is of children running to him, interrupting the important meeting of the grow-ups and jumping in his lap, and in that sloppy dirty embrace being welcomed and defended.

Of course as adults this should not mean that we act irresponsibly. We don't need to underplay our ability to make God look good. We should act as intelligently as we are able, using all of our ability, character, and resources. But in that we can find a way as adults to become like little children in how we love the ineffable God - in humility recognizing our limitations and need. That's the paradoxical challenge of learning how to be "as a new born child" while still being a responsible moral adult. How can we learn to speak with the bold trust of a child, while knowing that our feeble words an acts are always just that? Because ultimately it is not about us trying to express or capture truth, it is about loving and being loved by the one who is Truth. We know we cannot have a monopoly on truth, but through childlike loving dependency... maybe Truth can have a monopoly on us.

Rollins insists that transcendence is not a contradiction to immanence, and that in encountering God intimately we also encounter and are overcome by God's hugeness - like an overloaded circuit. I want to agree and underscore this point of his, and at the same time affirm that the converse is also true: not only can we in acknowledging God's transcendence still dare to speak in terms of intimacy with God, but in fact it is precisely in that place of helpless dependent intimacy that we encounter the transcendent God. Rollins is down on "fundamentalist certainty", which he understands as an idolatrous certainty in our own human formulations of who God is. I agree, but there is another kind of certainty: relational certainty. This
is a certainty not based in ourselves, but in relationally being known by God. It says in devotion and trust "I know my redeemer lives". Rollins again speaks of the contrast between the Greek concept of knowing facts vis a vis the Hebrew idea of knowing in a relational sense. This Hebrew knowing is one of trust, a "knowing" synonymous with being loved - "known in a biblical sense" if you will.

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