Theology as Story Telling

Nothing is more common than for men to think that because they are familiar with words they understand the ideas they stand for.
– John Henry Newman

Toward Theological Renewal

It’s important to recognize that theological renewal is only part of the larger process of overall renewal. Christianity is more than its theology – it is a set of practices, institutions, and most importantly – a way of life. Certainly, belief influences action. Yet the integrity of our personal and communal witness is much more vital for overall renewal than precise intellectual formulations. 

Still, the renewal of the Christian theological enterprise is crucial for the sake of Western culture. Yet in order for a renewed theology to effectively speak to today’s Post Christian culture, certain concerns must first be addressed. We must get not just the message right, but also the precise language, as well as make every effort to justify our theological claims with evidence-based thinking, and finally, finding the right tone and nuance for our arguments – if we want to have any hope of influencing the Western world today in any positive and serious manner.

The Christian mythos (again, the word myth means metanarrative, not fiction) appears to be in decline, because the manner in which Christians present their claims largely don’t align with of our experience and knowledge of reality. Our current expressions of Christianity are losing their meaning in the culture. How Christians talk about God, salvation, and spirituality and so on, is increasingly foreign to contemporary ears. 

Christians must focus on explaining the meaning of their religious claims, casting that meaning into terms today’s world can understand. Spirituality is the human arena of meaning and purpose – the human art of crafting a worldview. For spirituality to be genuine, it must be centered on the truth – not elaborate, ungrounded theology or grand speculation without foundation.

Again, we recognize that the further our theology moves away from reality—the more abstract our claims, the more internecine and insular our preoccupations, the more removed from our everyday experience, including our everyday spiritual-religious experience – the weaker, more speculative, and less meaningful our claims become. 

We must remain focused on explicating the meaning of Christianity in ways that make sense today – to people who have not already adopted a Christian way of looking at the world, who do not speak “theologese.” 

Theological & Spiritual Realism

Many find the supernatural world utterly implausible. They are deeply uncomfortable with the inauthentic pretense they feel compelled to uphold when they involve themselves in religious practices that presuppose a supernatural worldview. And they desperately long for a serious interpretation of religion that fits their naturalist way of living and understanding. Survey data suggest that this group is much smaller than the supernaturalist group in the United States at the current time. This is not surprising; the popular dominance of supernaturalism has probably been unbroken since the beginning of religious belief. What is surprising is that so few theologians have undertaken to speak directly to and on behalf of such people.

 

Theological Realism is rooted in a view of the world that includes those things which we can observe or directly conclude from observations. A realist conception of reality balances the natural world as outlined by the latest scientific understanding with the mythopoetic method of theology.

Both approaches, in order to be realist, must be grounded in evidential thinking and the insights and findings of all disciplines of human knowing – theology included – must be offered justification, evidence, and be demonstrated as corresponding to the way reality truly is, as we are best able to judge. 

Therefore, a theological realism would treat claims for which we have no evidence, as mythopoetic descriptions of reality, a wrestling with meaning, metaphors for true insights, but not literal descriptions of fact. Therefore, theological realism doe not assert literal affirmation of such claims and does not make any other claims about them.

It is known in philosophy as the principle of falsification. If there is no fact, experience or observation that would lead one to conclude that a statement was not true, then there is nothing that the statement asserts. In other words, if a statement cannot be falsified the statement is meaningless. That is the fundamental issue that must be faced by those who assert the meaningfulness of language about god.

This approach is one of humility and plain spokenness. It is a view that accepts that it is quite possible, even likely, that many things exist which we cannot detect, but we believe in a reasoned, realist approach to all claims, theological ones included. 

With humility, we can recognize that human beings are imperfect in their ability to know all things. Therefore, we are careful to limit our claims about reality to what we can experience and measure, as well as reproduce and show to others. On all else, we are content to admit “we don’t know”.

Spirituality for many is associated with the supernatural. However, the approach of theological realism starts with the original sense of the word. The Latin root word spiritus meant ‘wind’ or ‘breath’, or the essence of something. As we might speak of the ‘spirit of the law’ or ‘school spirit’, the spiritual is that which is concerned with the essence of life – or the essential things in life. Therefore, spirituality is the arena of human thought and inquiry related to existential issues – Why are we here and where do we come from? What does it mean to be human? Is there meaning and purpose to life? How shall we live? What happens when we die? 

Thus, a person with no sense of spirituality would be a person who lives on the surface, always dealing only with the shallow or the mundane; perhaps even a materialistic person. But to have spirituality is to be concerned with the larger, deeper, and essential matters of life and to apply ourselves consciously toward them in a committed practice or ‘walk’. This includes, as Socrates put it, the ‘examined life’, and this is what we mean by spirituality.

Narrative Theology

Christian theology would do well to refocus itself as telling a story with an engaging plot. A story that illustrates the meaning and purpose of life and offers wisdom on how to live and find wholeness. 

Affirming a narrative theology – the notion that a coherent narrative presentation of Bible is normative for the development of a systematic theology – means rethinking Christianity along the lines of plot. Underlying this claim is the assumption that the text is not an arbitrary collection of claims, but expressive of a more or less unified narrative that was recognized as cohesive in some manner by the progression of original authors, as well as the deciders of the content of the canon.

Narrative theology understands the story as constitutive of both individual and communal identity. Therefore, individual meaning is relative to one’s place in the communal narrative of Christianity. In other words, to be a Christian is to call the scriptures one’s own story, or at least the context for their own story, and to locate oneself in it’s mythic narrative, therein, finding meaning for one’s life.

Christianity makes many claims. And many ongoing efforts to reconcile Christian claims with modernity’s commitment to rational inquiry often downplay the importance of the original meaning of scriptural or doctrinal claims in favor of an emphasis on contemporary individual experience  – what matters is the meaning we, today, find in these claims. Therefore, doctrinal and scriptural statements are treated as open to the revision of their original meaning, even highly varied or contradictory revisions.

New aspects, new insights, and new applications for the original meaning may be explicated, but the core meaning remains. Narrative theology makes an effort to maintain the integrity of the overall scriptural narrative. The bible contains a complex, but unified narrative that sets parameters around interpretation and practice. The focus on narrative integrity forces consideration of the particularity of Jesus and the communities that emerged around and after him. This requires a respect for the particularity of ancient Christian traditions, beliefs, and practices in an internally consistent way. And it further requires that we take those original claims and their meanings as normative.

In other words, the theological meaning of the Bible cannot be properly understood apart from historical and cultural context – those contexts may not be discarded, rather they must remain a constant part of the ongoing interpretive conservation of Christians with Christianity with neither the past nor the present trumping one another.

If we decide that the ancient meaning is no longer valid or applies, we may not simply ignore them, rather we must always wrestle with why such a claim was asserted in the first place. This is not to argue that we must slavishly keep to the text. Doing so would be impossible, in any matter, as much of the ancient worldview of the time no longer applies. For example, we need not follow Paul’s advice that women shouldn’t teach, but we have to at least try to understand why he would argue such. In this sense, the implied methodology is symbiotic – history informs present and present informs the meaning of history – thus working toward an organic meaning as opposed to an artificial or imposed one.

Narrative theology appreciates the utility of standard Liberal hermeneutical techniques for understanding the scriptures and other theological claims, adopting an approach that asks what is the correct analysis of language of theological claims? Are they metaphorical, analogical poetic, or propositional? Also, understanding the cultural and historical realities that these claims emerged from, is necessary. And like Liberal methodologies, narrative theology affirms that the interpretative authority resides within the community, and not the text itself.

Therefore, narrative theology believes that theology is at its best when it’s telling a story and explicating the plot clearly and carefully for our audience. Our task is to draw meaning from the story and relate it to today’s realities. It means having the answer to the question, “so what?” always in the front of our mind anytime we make theological claims. It means taking these ancient meanings, wrestling with them, applying them today, and making them our own by showing how they make sense in our own lives. 

Changing the Narrative

From the traditional narrative arose the modern Christian notion that the deep religious question is how we can be reconciled with a supernatural divine person in order to escape hell and gain eternal fellowship with God in heaven. This, in large part, is the heart of Evangelical theology.

Theological realism seeks to change the direction of narrative, relying on a framework that emphasizes the Divine as creativity, the central religious question therefore becomes how can exercise our creative powers to continue the human project, enhancing the parts we prize, controlling our violence, and shunning our terrible ability to destroy our world. Of course, human beings participate in the serendipitous creativity that produced human life and we can, if we so choose, enrich that happy trajectory of creativity still further. But many challenges stand in the way and we face a profoundly uncertain future, so we need a model.

Jesus is offered as an expression of the embodied Divine creative and shows us the  human possibilities for aligning with this power and unleashing it in our lives.

Jesus’ radical commitment to agape love, and his burning conviction that it should and could be expressed at every moment of our lives, present a compelling picture of an extraordinarily creative possibility.

Those who sign up to be followers of Jesus’ radical vision of human life commit themselves to live according to that vision of agape love. There is no promise of an afterlife here, but there is life abundant in the here and now. There are no supernatural rescue stories but there is a relentless drive for justice that enhances health and happiness for everyone. There is no supernatural consummation of worldly history but there is a future lying open before us, and subject to our creative influence. And perhaps most significantly, there are no guarantees that taking Jesus’ life and teaching as a norm for our own behavior and decisions will solve the desperate problems we face. There are only creative trajectories to which we are attracted and can commit ourselves if we so choose.

Jesus is not the only model and norm for a lifestyle of ecological responsibility, social justice, and a better future, but his vision is one that we can choose. And that is good news indeed.

The elements of this view have been present all along within the wider Christian movement, but they have been so tangled up with mythical and superstitious elements that they were difficult to tease out. It is only changing circumstances that have allowed this gospel to become distilled into the clear, focused, and encouraging form that a number of modern theologians have given it.

The key to this sort of Christology is to reject the proposition that Jesus Christ is absolutely, universally, uniquely, unsurpassably significant for revelation and salvation.  By passing forms of supernaturalism helps avoid the moral dangers that much traditional Christology presents, such as vulnerability to anti-Judaism or cultural imperialism. Above all, it rails against the fundamentalist-literalist trajectory in most of contemporary Christian theology.

Illative Reasoning and Theology as Storytelling

Christianity derives much of its meaning from past events, and claims these meanings as axiomatic. Christianity weaves a story with these events, pulling out their meaning and connecting them into a cogent narrative. Yet as with all of the past, we lack direct access. We also lack a full understanding of the intention and meaning of the ancient authors who wrote about these events. This is not to say that we lack any understanding or meaning – we grasp the basic outline of the plot. Rather, it is to admit that no tradition, denomination, theologian, or teaching authority can claim the definitive or complete meaning of these events – no one, no tradition, no authority tells the story fully or perfectly. 

Further, theology by its nature, tells its story relying on poetic method, employing myth, simile, metaphor, and allegory to convey the meaning of its claims. Despite relying on poetic and metaphorical language, theology is not exempt from complying with the truth and the demands of human reason. Even theologies that claim to rely on revealed truth must still analyze the content of revelation reasonably, not to mention also explain the mechanisms for and reliability of such revealed knowledge.

The work of healthy theological reasoning is to give defense and support to our religious convictions through the elucidation of accumulated information from what we determine to be reliable facts, authoritative sources, sound reasoning, and critical reflection on our own experiences aided by ongoing verification and corroboration – none of which on its own is air-tight or convincing, but when put together allows for us to reach tentative, but satisfactory conclusions.

This manner of logic has been called illative reasoning (see the work of John Henry Newman, particularly The Grammar of Assent) and relies primarily on the mental operation of insight (see the work of Bernard Lonergan, SJ.) This manner of reasoning is at the core of all sound theological methodology and analysis.

Newman drew upon Aristotle’s prudent practical judgment, often called phronesis. This function of human intelligence Aristotle attributed to wisdom – a form of wisdom concerning practical things, granting an ability to discern proper moral behavior, reach reliable conclusions concerning practical situations, and assess the character of others. It has also been called practical wisdom or prudence.

Later, Heidegger, and others, would interpret phronesis as a primary form of knowledge and thus necessary for sophia, a form of basic wisdom that allows for other forms of understanding. Alistair McIntyre, in After Virtue, also argues that phronesis, or, illative reasoning is crucial for ethical reasoning as well as navigating the world on a daily basis whereas most of life important judgments cannot be reached through deductive reasoning.

Newman argued that illative reasoning operated using informal inference, whereby one reaches a conclusion by considering the accumulation of converging antecedent probabilities. Many of our convictions in life lack formal proof, or what some might call conclusive evidence. Yet these convictions can rise to the level of rational  or justified, in that the the best one can achieve is converging probabilities in favour of a conclusion. Consider your moral beliefs. None of these beliefs will be self-evident, evident to the senses, or incorrigible.

For Newman, theological relies heavily on illative reasoning. Our convictions that God exists and out thoughts concerning the nature of this God, that certain teachings of the scriptures should be generally trusted, and that particular religious and ethical actions have merit, all flow from this manner of analysis.

Illative reasoning occurs on both the personal and communal level, and is indeed, most reliable when illative judgments are affirmed by clear thinking communities engaged in honest, ongoing discernment.

Christian theology tells a story that is based on interwoven insights arrived at through illative reasoning and that cannot be strictly argued for using deductive methods or scientifically demonstrated. Christians must realize that their theology always needs to be aimed at helping others see the world the way we see it – because we believe the way we see it is true and has value.

Therefore, the work of Christian theology is helping others see what we see. 

Illative Reasoning and Helping Others See 

Theology is a way of seeing the world. And we justify our conclusions of what see using illative reasoning. Illative reasoning relies on insight – a mental function of grasping the essence or truth of a thing, situation, or claim. Insights are not easily shared or communicated – they cannot be purely logically demonstrated – they don’t yield to deductive exposition. 

In order to have meaningful dialog and engage in argument or persuasion, the central task of such becomes getting our conversation partners to see what we see. This can be a painstaking task and one that requires time and patience.

The theological task also requires humility. Good theology operates from an epistemological conservatism – humbly seeking to understand reality and trying to offer a theology that aligns with that understanding. Theology must conform to the fullest sense of the truth we can muster.

Christian theology accepts a correspondence approach to truth –  that truth consists in the adequate alignment – a correspondence – of our propositions and judgements, our claims about reality – and reality itself. Accordingly, theology must assess the adequacy of our religious claims concerning their alignment with reality. Such a task is an ongoing process. 

We must avoid ideological theology that lacks humility, makes unwarranted claims, and arrogantly demands that reality conform to its narrow views. Are our stories formed by reality or do them force reality to conform to them? Any theology that imposes itself on reality in ideological fashion, without regard for reason and the truth that emerges from lived experience, is false theology.

Humility therefore must be a core theological virtue. Spiritual conviction should, ideally, be a matter of educated reasoning, experience, and trial and error; it is careful analysis of reality as to what is credible in hope. 

To be successful in the theological enterprise further requires that we are clear about the content of our insights and then formulate the clearest ways of expressing them. Our choice of language, metaphor, and examples are crucial to the task.

We need to speak theologically, while avoiding terminology, concepts, and words that essentially amount to jargon – language only understood by other, educated and theologically trained Christians, and often only those from the same or similar theological traditions as ourselves. 

We must at all costs avoid speaking a theological language that the current unchurched population have no fluency in and no reference points to make sense of – in other words, we need to speak our theology plainly – in simple terms.

Toward A Plain Spoken Theology

A central aim of plain spoken theology is to show the value of Christianity in addressing real world problems and to do so in an intellectually consistent and humble manner. To achieve this, plain spoken theology has four concerns:

First, plain spoken theology proceeds from the conviction that the central claims of Christianity should always be presented as claims about meaning in life and wisdom on how to obtain wholeness. It is not theology’s place to attempt to speak authoritatively on issues of science or history.

Second, plain spoken theology believes that the strength of religious claims is in direct proportion to their justifiability in terms of reasoned analysis of our everyday experience and the best of human knowledge.

Third, plain spoken theology advocates for the use of plain language in our theology. Plain language doesn’t mean dumbed-down language, we should assume an intelligent and educated audience. But plain language does mean avoiding jargon and excessively obscure terminology and formulations. Beyond words, plain spoken theology also insists on plain meanings, avoiding pedantic arguments that are of concern only to a few or which have no consequence in today’s world.

Fourth, plain spoken theology insists that our theological claims be explained in ways that make sense to people today – not by replacing their traditional meanings with new, avant garde meaning that will appeal to the baser aspects of the secular mind, but by presenting their ageless meaning and wisdom through humble process of justifying our theological forms of reasoning.

It is vital that we recognize that the further our theology moves away from reality, the more abstract our claims, the more internecine and insular, the more removed from our everyday experience, including our everyday spiritual-religious experience – the weaker, more speculative, and less meaningful our claims become.

A plain spoken theology resists complex, dogmatic answers to tough, intricate problems. A plain spoken theology is committed to clear expression and explanation of theological claims. Such a theological commitment lends itself to responding to the complex issues of contemporary society in a language, form, and manner that people today can understand.

Notes on Faith as Trust in the Claims of the Narrative

The English word faith, in Hebrew, emunah, and Greek, pisti, have layered meanings. Emunah translates as secure or confident, implying a confidence about one’s claims or situation or the character of another. Pisti translates as persuaded and also implies a sense of trust in the reliability of one’s claims or the character of another.

Understanding the origins and meanings of these words raises questions about our contemporary, American Christian sense of the term. In common place English, to say you have faith in something, is to say you are confident or trusting of it. However, in many religious contexts, faith is often used in a manner which suggests permission to make claims without the need for justification.

Many have experienced conversations where claims are made about some religious topic, such as the Resurrection, eucharist, or the existence of angels. In these conversations, some, when asked for explication and justification of their claims, answer, “because I have faith that it is so.” Unfortunately, faith used in this manner isn’t really an answer, and is simply side stepping the question.

If one makes a claim, even a fantastical one, such as “purple ants from Mars live in my shoes”, one will likely be asked, “what do you mean by that?” or “explain to us how this can be” or “show us these ants.” A reply of, “I can’t show you the ants, but I know they are there, because I have faith that they are …”, will hopefully be recognized as inadequate, incomplete, and in need of further explication. The use of faith as justification for a claim made is not fully sufficient in terms of reason. 

Unfortunately, and increasingly, to the unchurched ears of contemporary culture, Christian claims of resurrection, eucharist, salvation, God’s existence, and so on – fundamental claims of Christianity – sound almost as strange as a claim of purple space ants. And worse, large numbers of Christians, when asked to explain or justify their claims, answer with what amounts to an incomplete answer – “because I have faith.”

Faith is not justification for magical thinking or fantasy projection. Returning to the scriptural implications of the concept, faith appears to imply trust or confidence. Explicating one’s reasons for such trust or confidence provides a fuller explanation for one’s claims and the reasoning behind them. Sadly, many Christians are either incapable of offering cogent reasoning for their claims, or worse, don’t see the need for such.

Asking for justification or further explanation for the reasoning behind one’s claims is a reasonable human request – it’s how effective communication and rational human interaction occurs. Those wishing to renew Christianity in our Post Christian culture must be prepared to offer reasons and justifications for their religious claims.

The New Testament writings tend to use the concept of faith in terms of trust. When the early Christians employed the term, or expressed faith in Jesus or the content of his teachings, they were not engaging in wishful thinking, they were expressing a sense of confidence in the message and agenda of Jesus. And the reason for their faith – their trust – was based on the integrity of their experience, the reliability of the testimony of others, and general, overlapping judgments about how life and reality work.

In this sense, faith as discussed earlier – meaning trust – is not simply wishful assertion without foundation. Rather, that sense of trust is the result of illative reasoning, the underlying reasoning and weighing of evidence and information in reaching conclusions. Illative reasoning is not deduction, its results are not demonstrable in purely valid logical form. Yet they are still a reliable manner for understanding the truth of our lives and the world.

Faith is trust in the basic claims of the Christian narrative, affirming the direction of the plot, and finding oneself, one’s meaning, in reference to such. 

Notes on Theology & Science

Religious thinking does not happen in a vacuum, nor is theology exempt from complying without the insights from other forms of human knowledge. Theology does not override, trump, or cancel the verified and accepted findings of other branches of knowledge. 

Theology and science analyze the same reality, but tell different stories. This isn’t a problem, since both disciplines are looking at different aspects of the same reality. They see different, yet interrelated things. 

The purpose of theology isn’t to intervene in science (or other disciplines) over questions that science is much better prepared to address, but to relate the material universe studied by science to questions of ultimate concern — of value and meaning — which science can’t address and are instead the proper sphere of religion and philosophy.

Much of theological reasoning wrestles with claims that cannot be deduced or induced or justified through scientific method. Rather, much of the religious enterprise relies on illative reasoning which operates by drawing together variant strands of arguments and evidence, none of which is conclusive on its own, but together may offer a reasonable argument.

Such thinking is not simplistic spiritual assertions into “gaps.” Rather, it is the recognition that existential realities are often passed by, unnoticed by the tools of science as the sea is not caught in totality by the fisherman’s net.

We are not speaking here of practical problems in need of theological answers – science will continue to provide answers to practical questions – rather, we are speaking of mysteries that call for reflection and meditation. Mysteries of existential meaning and purpose do not cry out for solutions or scientific answers – they (may) find their resolution in awe and wonder and a willingness to engage the question “why?” And this “why?” is not the curious probing of science, it is the subjective yearning of each human heart. 

Pondering “why” is part of the pivotal undoing of the flattening effects of secularization – the tendencies toward nihilism and dehumanization – and provides an Archimedean point from which culture can be judged and renewed. Cultivating this sense of awe and reverence is the purpose of spirituality.