28 September 2010

Answering Questions #2- Mystery and Eastern v. Western Thought

Here's an exchange I had with a cyber-friend. Though brief, I thought we touched on some interesting topics and wanted to share the conversation with everyone else.


Hi John. I just re-read your "Johnson's Primer" blog. It was clearer than the first time 'round. It is good you are looking for the roots, the root causes, of these messes we find in theologies today. You mention the tension or dialectics of Scripture ( I have called them mysteries--not in a mystic sense but in that without divine revelation they do not make sense to the carnal mind. One must humble himself as a little child to accept the truth and submit to it; not try to merely "master" it with one's mind.)


Mysteries is a great way to put it and probably more Biblical. Unfortunately if you use it people immediately think you mean mystic-ism which I do not.

Language is a wondrous thing, but oh how frustrating it can be! These issues are so complex and there are so many takes and positions that you have to be very precise in what you say or it will be misconstrued.

But, I think I will try to employ the term Mystery a bit more. It's Biblical. Mastering it with one's mind is exactly the problem. We don't want to be mystics....just feeling and not thinking, nor do we want to be rationalists...reducing the Divine Wonders to mere mathematical formula.

It's always two extremes and as I always say the answer usually isn't in the middle...but in the extremes. We need to develop a coherent way of thinking and reasoning which also allows for our finite-ness and a sense of Divine mystery.


I immediately thought of something I had heard years ago: That the Hebrew mind, and language, is different from the Western mind. You know that Hebrew is a language wherein words, and even letters, have whole concept meanings. It's a more "visual" or interpretive type of thought and language. The assertion I heard is that the Western mind, because of the philosophical tradition influenced by Greek thought, giving way to rationalism, thinks differently, thus not able to "understand" the Scriptures quite the way the writers and non-westerners may be able to easily. If that assertion is true (I'm no expert, have had NO philosophy course) then your blog seems to be saying this in another way.


I think there's probably quite a bit of truth to that and it's something philologists and anthropologists argue about. Some have argued the Hebrews were different from other Asiatics in that they did think rationally.

Certainly there are many things in the text, chiasms and alliteration, plays on words that we miss. Some of it stems from translational issues and some of it is indeed in the nature of the words. English has an impressive vocabulary, is full of rule-exceptions, but in another sense lacks some of the tense and structure complexity of other languages.

In Reformed circles it is paramount that 'ministers' learn the Greek and Hebrew. I do think it is important, but at the same time I say...wait a minute... the Bible is not for an elite. The message must be coherent even in the vernacular. Common people must be able to read it and understand it. There's an old doctrine called Perspicuity which I maintain with great zeal.

There's an old painting I've always found fascinating. It's called the School of Athens, perhaps you've seen it? In the center you find Aristotle and Plato. Aristotle points down indicating the Particulars, and Plato points up, indicating the Universals. It's been one of the great battles of Western thought.

Though I'm not a Platonist per se, I would appreciate his way of conceptualizing rather than Aristotle's which is the default for people today. Platonism can also be rationalistic and don't misunderstand I'm not trying to advocate Plato. I simply mean his way of thinking allowed for an eternal element that interacted with the temporal, while Aristotle starts with the temporal and subjects eternal ideas to a temporal criteria.

Now they're both Greek, but many have pointed out that Plato's ideas are more akin to what you find in Asian thought. Certainly with Hindu and Buddhist thinking there is little concern with subjecting metaphysics to some kind of rationalistic criteria. Hence, embracing what is often perceived as contradiction, their theologies are usually described as mystical. Don't take this the wrong way....I'm not saying they're right, but perhaps they're more right? That sounds bad. Let me phrase it this way. Is their problem not so much in the thinking but in the source of authority? By starting at the wrong point (not Christ) they miss the mark.

Others have pointed that due to this non-Rational thought base those civilizations 'fell behind' and did not experience the Scientific Revolution. Certainly the Chinese were far more advanced early on, but they didn't really go anywhere with it. They didn't take paper, gunpowder, the compass etc... and develop them like we did. Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian influences did not spur them on in the way Aristotelianism did in the West.

Maybe so. But how we should we as Christians judge these things?

As far as the Biblical text itself...I endeavour to shape my concepts of spiritual logic and rationality from the text itself. I do have a different view of logic than most Conservative Protestants. I've written about that in some of the earlier posts...the one's that don't get read much(smile). Admittedly it's hard to follow. I think on a basic level many people understand what I'm saying, but I've tried to pick it apart a bit to determine if there's something to it. Because many in the Conservative Protestant world equate or make logic into Logic. It's not a temporal tool, but reflects the very character of God Himself. Logic becomes divine. I don't agree with that.

I think the Scriptures themselves implicitly teach us how we are to think.


By the Reformation, western thought was already much developed on those lines. Don't we see that the early church fathers and Augustine seemed to be saying something else, but have been interpreted away--hijacked--by the later western influences?


Yes and no.

Scholasticism was in many ways an Aristotelian Revival and a rejection of the Platonism of Augustine and the early church. The Reformers were extremely critical of the Scholastics.

But then in the following generations...in the 17th century they re-embraced Scholasticism. This is a violent debate in the Reformed world. I'm in the minority who believe strongly that Beza and others developed a Protestant Scholasticism and abandoned the 'looser/less restricted' method of Calvin and the other Reformers. I believe this came to a head in the Amyraut controversy. That name might not mean much to you and Amyrauldianism is usually just called 4 point Calvinism. But that's incorrect. It was a fundamental argument over method....how do we think and how do we 'do' theology.

So yes, I believe the Reformation (far from perfect) was hijacked to a certain extent by Aristotelian thought...if we could call that western. Plato is western too, but certainly contains a flavour more common with what is often called Eastern thought. But there we go again, if I say that....I'm obviously some kind of New Age Mystic.

Anyway there are many who become quite upset if you suggest Calvin et al. were not 'thinking' the same way as the later Reformed Orthodox or Scholastics. I disagree, but I also get a little disgusted, because I find a spirit in many of them not concerned with the Bible but with their tradition.



It's funny to think that the Lord Himself may be a "Hebrew" in His thought style (after all, Jesus is a Jew.) The ethnocentric nationalists might be shocked to discover that the western mind and culture may not be the epitome of God's perfect plan! Have they made a God in their own image which impinges their ability to be taught? Can some other cultures, not influenced by rationalism, "receive" Scriptural revelation more "easily" than Western?


That's fantastic. Ethnocentric Nationalism. Yes, there are many who glory in Western Civilization more than Christ's Kingdom...or they equate the two. Have they made God into their own image? Are you saying Westernism is a form of idolatry? If so, I totally agree.

As far as other cultures 'receiving' Revelation with more ease?....that's always fascinated me. They too can have their problems. Many have specifically pointed to Watchman Nee and how he introduced elements of Chinese thought into Christianity. He held to a Trichotomous view of man (Body, soul, spirit) vs. a Dichotomous view of man (Body, soul/spirit). 1 Thes. 5.23 uses the body, soul, spirit language and some have argued therefore that man is tripartite. You may have heard this before in Pentecostal circles?

Regardless of how one answers the question, Nee used the 'spirit' element to introduce certain 'mystical' elements into his understanding and application of Christianity.

Every culture is susceptible to error and we all have to try and shape our thinking to conform with the Bible.

Now some have pointed out that with the present Post-modernism we find an opportunity to reach the lost. Post-modernism in its rejection of absolutes does not subject metaphysical discourse to the same 'modernist' rules of the past. That is to say they don't require scientific proofs for spiritual concepts. Yet, what ends up happening is that many of these folks end up in the Emergent Church which is more interested in Spirituality rather than Revelation.

However, I do think there are opportunities and dangers. This has happened before. I hope to write shortly about how Romanticism of the late 18th/early 19th century was a rejection of Enlightenment rationalism and we're seeing the same thing again today in the modernism/post-modernism split.

These movements profoundly affected the church then, and they are today.

Opportunities and dangers.





Anonymous said...

Link? If I click, brings me back to same page.

Protoprotestant said...

Sorry everybody. Not sure why that happened.....