Monday, January 26, 2015

Faithfully Valuing the Limits of Scripture (PART 3 - RELATIONSHIPS)

Last post I used the example of progressive revelation as a sort of 'practice' engagement with the issues of faithful Scriptural interpretation, and being willing to reconsider our world-views. Progressive revelation suggests that God's purpose for Scripture may not be focused on perfect unbiased clear communication of cognitive knowledge. In fact, it demonstrates that God deliberately creates bias. This doesn't sit well with the modernistic components of our worldview, and so we tend to minimise this aspect of Scripture, and thus divert from a completely faithful approach to Scripture.

Next I want to start working through to the purpose of Scripture. But before we get to that, we need to explore what God's fundamental aim is in ALL His dealings with us. Often Christians use the same words to describe this topic, but haven't fully considered what these things really mean.

I'll always reiterate that my aim is not to challenge things for the sake of it. I just want us to be willing to challenge our worldview IF being truly faithful to Scripture and God requires it.


First, some broad assumptions. I don't feel these need to be justified in this post, but feel free to use the comment section to disagree or help unpack these things more :) I think it is evident from Scripture and experience that God's fundamental aim in all things, is to express His character in as full and diverse a way as possible, so that other beings can immerse themselves in this expression and 'know' Him. Christ IS God, and contains the fullness of God as a person - something that all other expressions of God cannot come close to doing! In essence, then, all other expressions of God are actually expressions of Christ, and God's aim is that we experience and know Christ through them. This is true regardless of how clearly Christ has been cognitively identified as a distinct person - even in the Old Testament era, God's aim was for people to experience Him (which means experiencing Christ). 

Framed from our perspective, humanity's purpose has always been to experience Christ in a positive and reciprocal way - otherwise known as a relationship of love. This love involves an inclination of our heart toward enjoying this relational engagement with God's character (Christ), wrought by the Holy Spirit. God and Christ are unchanging, therefore the inclination of all God's people's hearts have been directed (by the holy spirit) toward the same person - despite the fact that the conscious experience / revelation of Christ's character varies enormously in its cognitive clarity. This is why Christ accused the Pharisees of not accepting Him - although they appeared to have the right relationship outwardly, they did not have the mark of the Spirit in their hearts - they did not love Christ unconsciously before He was revealed, and so they did not recognise or love Him when he was revealed. God wants us to have this relationship of love even when our conscious cognitive understanding of the details of this relationship are not clear. As it becomes clearer, we will rejoice because the relationship of love already exists in a less 'realised' form. 

But how exactly does a 'relationship of love' behave? What do we really mean when we talk about relationships? There are several interesting observations about relationships (as God's fundamental aim) that run against our 'modernistic' leaning to prioritise detailed cognitive information. Essentially, it makes no sense to conceive of a relationship in terms of a definable 'fullness' that we can attain to. To start with, relationships are ongoing - no amount of expression is enough for a person to have fully expressed themselves or been experienced by another. Also, the expressions and experiences of relationships are creative and dynamic - it is good for individual snapshots of a relationship to express varied aspects of the person rather than everything at once. Even focusing on the concept of 'fullness' in a relationship can be detrimental and insulting - we enjoy the interaction of friends or spouses in the moment, because it expresses who they are. Analysing the clarity of our perception of them through this experience misses the point entirely.  Finally, two people could potentially have the 'same' relationship with another person (i.e. two of my close friends, two of my brothers brothers, two of my elders, two children, two soccer opponents), and yet because each of THEM is different,  each relationship will look different. Even if I can't distinguish between the two relationships in terms of 'health' or 'fullness' or 'inferiority/superiority', the relationships will still be different (including the cognitive conscious interpretations). This isn't because each is imperfect - even in the theoretical (impossible) case where each person fully and accurately cognitively grasping me, the emphases and flow of awareness of each person's cognitive understanding of me will still be different. This isn't because each is incomplete, but because a static definable 'fullness' doesn't make sense, and so identical 'fullness' is impossible. It's just an integral positive aspect of what 'relationship' means. 


Am I really saying that cognition is not very important to relationship, which is God's fundamental aim? Well, yes and no. To start with, there is dissonance between specific cognitive information and proper relationships, as discussed above. Cognition is merely one way to experience someone - just like no particular 'experience' or 'set of experiences' can define a relationship, so neither can a particular cognitive understanding. Even for God, complete intimate and perfectly accurate cognitive knowledge about someone (which I believe He has) does not mean He 'knows' a particular person in the sense that matters (He talks about 'never knowing' people who He casts out), and doesn't seem to be a big part of what He means when He does 'know' us this way. But on top of its problems integrating into relationships, cognition on its own can't even live up to what we expect of it, at least not for humans in this life. It is inherently inaccurate and extremely fallible due to both the inabilities of our mind AND due to deliberate strategies our minds employ! Our minds can only conceive of things that it has developed to be ABLE to conceive of - experience, background, developmental framework, personality and creativity types, what is suggested to us in the moment, all limit our abilities to actually think of or interpret certain things. Not only that, but our minds deliberately employ strategies that make life more efficient but extremely biased - e.g. confirmation bias. Our world-views, desires, existing understandings, etc ALL automatically / subconsciously heavily taint our interpretation of cognitive data - which is what they are designed to do, and which is what makes them useful in everyday life. 

God certainly has the ability to overcome and manipulate all of this as He sees fit when it comes to our theology, but experience and research suggest that He certainly does not do so within His church - we all still adopt a multitude of aspects in our worldview from our cultural surroundings which almost universally predict what our theology will be. And Scripture does not suggest God wants to manipulate this too much either - instead, the Spirit's primary activity seems to be in inspiring love in our hearts (as already discussed), and bringing the experience of the expression of Jesus to us in a more personal way. The Scriptural concept of 'mind' is actually closer to our modern idea of 'will' or 'intentions' or 'attitudes' than anything else, and not detailed cognitive information. And when Paul does speak of doctrine's importance, he uses much the same language as when he talks about works - important, but not God's fundamental aim or method. When we insist that God must routinely enable us to overcome our cognitive weaknesses when it comes to e.g. 'salvation doctrinal issues', we usually do this as a blatant attempt to protect our worldview (by maintaining the importance of detailed accurate cognitive information). God seems to have left us with a very flawed and tainted cognitive interpretation of our otherwise healthy Spirit-wrought relationship with Him - which, like everything He does, must be a deliberate decision for a good purpose. So particular accurate cognitive information is not as important to God as we tend to think. 

But I'm NOT saying that cognition as a process (fallibility and all) is unimportant to God. There are actually several ways that cognition is unique as a mode of experiencing someone, despite its limitations, and thus becomes uniquely  important. First of all, the process of cognition is still required for us to actually consider a relationship 'valid'. You can't enjoy and experience another person in relationship, when their expressions seem to you to be merely a bizarre set of unrelated random experiences. You must engage your cognition to form a picture (incomplete and evolving) of the other person. This picture also enables a relationship to persist when the experiences are limited in some way. And it enables us to grow in a relationship far beyond the concrete limits of our experience - We take our experiences and extrapolate back to what the person must (or could) be like, and where our relationship could take us, exploring this in our minds and 'experiencing' it in an abstract way. This cognitive picture has serious problems as mentioned above - but the process of engaging the cognition in this way is essential to relationships. Second, cognition is required for a relationship to mean anything to us. Relationships have qualities attached to them, like love and hate, which are necessarily driven to be expressed. This drive is partly experienced in our cognition, and requires the cognition to make deliberate decisions that express love or hate - if it is love, the drive is to seek further experiences of the other person, and to express yourself and your love back to them. If these drives are able to be expressed, the relationship quality is enhanced, otherwise it seems incomplete. Its not that you must cognitively understand what you love in detail, but love necessarily engages the cognition in its drive to express itself. This means love's expression may change as it 'discovers' itself more and more in a cognitive sense. 


Cognition has another purpose - it IS part of the expression of someone. For most of us it is a very inaccurate and distant window into our heart, but even God's perfect cognition is a poor representation of His heart - that's just the nature of cognition. But it is a window into the heart, an expression of the person, and so it is important in relationship to experience the other person's cognition. Which requires our cognition to function. The process of deliberately targeting the other person's cognition is called communication. This does not necessarily mean that the mode of communication is verbal or even cognitive, or that the ultimate distant aim is necessarily cognitive either. Communication is simply a means to an end through the use of targeting cognition.

Communication suffers from three extra steps of terrible and extremely variable accuracy when it comes to capturing cognition (EVEN IF the cognition of the author is 'perfect' in accuracy, like God's arguably is). The first step is translation of cognition into communication. Communication can NEVER capture the fullness of our cognition, because it would take years to do so in any 'language' (and I doubt any 'language' has the capacity to capture all the subtle nuances of cognition). Instead, communication must have specific prioritised cognitive targets and intended effects. The second step is the interpretation of communication, which obviously (naturally and appropriately) varies between different recipients. We NEED to introduce bias into our communication if we are to help another different cognition understand our cognition - and this should never apply equally to every individual. This means that IF we are attempting to generalise our communication, we must pay even more attention to prioritising our messages, accepting that efforts spent reinforcing one message to as many people as possible, will probably sometimes have opposing effects on other associated messages or on other individuals. The third step is the impact this cognition has on individuals - in terms of integration into their existing cognition, associated non-cognitive effects, interpretation of other associated cognitive messages, etc. This varies between individuals EVEN IF they all accurately interpret the intended cognitive message.  These three steps mean that communication can simply never be a 'pure' transmission of the authors cognition, and that biased interpretations MUST exist - but this is not a problem if this very bias works towards the best interpretation of the main intended message, or toward the main purpose.

God has also specifically elected to use communication (i.e. Scripture, prophecy, doctrines, prayers) as a one of the primary tools through which we interpret the hearts of others and reach out to them, and establish and grow a relationship of love with God. This does not necessarily mean that God has elected to use PURE communication toward these ends. I don't think this makes sense (as discussed above), but also progressive revelation deliberately included some very unbalanced cognitive presentations of God. God may wish one person to grasp a particular truth strongly at the expense of other truths, while he wishes something different from a different person. In fact, since God's intentions for Scripture are relational, He must have deliberately designed the particular pattern of bias in scripture for this purpose. The fact that a particular doctrine was useful for me at a particular point in time, to grow my relationship with God, does not mean it is the 'most accurate' or 'best' (in some other way) understanding of God, or that I will never change my beliefs to give my relationship better expression in the future. I may see flaws in a particular doctrine, but it may be just as true as my doctrine (just in a different way), and it may spring from a heart that is more established in a loving relationship with God than mine - making that 'wrong' doctrine fulfil its purpose better than mine. Just like our highly fallible interpretation of works and fruit are a useful but dirty window into another's heart, so too are our highly fallible interpretation of another person's doctrines. 


You can see that I'm contrasting two things here: the spiritual relationship of love is the important underlying reality. Whereas cognition (the conscious reception of God's expression) is a dim (but important) reflection of this love. We don't have to properly understand this love in order for it to exist - and some of the improper aspects to our cognition are deliberately designed by God, which must fit with His fundamental aim of relationship with Him. Cognition & communication have many flaws and fallibilities by virtue of their very nature, and are never intended as full encapsulation of the relationship. Instead they are meant to be based upon the relationship, partial expressions of the relationship, and dirty windows into the spiritual relational realities occurring in our hearts.

Comments? Questions? Please discuss below :) Do you agree that relationship is God's fundamental aim? Do you agree with my description of relationships? Are there other ways that our cognition is meant to function in relationship? Are there other limitations to our cognition or communication? 

Coming Soon...

  • Next week I'll quickly talk about morality as very similar to communication - a flawed but important expression of cognition (itself a flawed but important expression of a person). I would have slotted it in here, but the post got too long!
  • After that we get a bit more theological and discuss why God allows bias and ambiguity and confusion about His nature. This is, after all, something I keep insisting He is doing deliberately. This discussion will specifically re-address progressive revelation, but will also expand to the general problem of evil. I'll also (hopefully, space-allowing) talk a little about how faith relates to this fundamental love relationship (as I've been calling it).
  • After that I think we'll be ready to summarise how God intends for us to approach Scripture. And then we can explore this in more detail over some of the phases of progressive revelation. 
  • Then we can talk about the Jewish and Christian MIS-approach to Scripture and the problems its created. And the inverse implications that properly approaching Scripture can have. 
  • Finally we can discuss some contemporary issues with this approach to Scripture in the back of our minds, to see how it informs our discussion and approach.

The series so far: