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What The Heck Is Wrong With Systems, Anyway? Part 1

September 5, 2013

“I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity”–Friedrich Nietzche

““We’re probably at our worst when we present our faith not as a story but a system,”–Brian McLaren

“…one of the most damaging things in any faith tradition – or in any cultural system, for that matter – is the idolatry of certainty.”–Christian Piatt

I had originally intended to write just one post on this topic, but after much thinking, I have decided to split this into several parts. That way, instead of writing a thousand-word rant, I can write ten thousand-word rants.

This first post will focus on the three quotes above. I’ll start with Piatt’s quote and work backwards.

Christian Piatt claims that the “idolatry of certainty”  is an absolutely terrible thing. He is not unique in claiming this. It’s a cliche that people do terrible things if they are certain of conclusions. After all, the Spanish Colonists/Jesuit Inquisitors/Nazis were absolutely certain about things, and this led to them committing horrible atrocities. We New Agers/Free Spirits/Tony Jones wannabes, however, don’t have any certainties, any commitments, any dogma, and, consequently, we wouldn’t hurt a fly. There seems to be truth in this idea. After all, anyone who doesn’t believe that anything is worth dying for won’t believe that anything is worth killing for.

This idea, however, falls apart once it is analyzed, You say that the Nazis were absolutely certain that the Jews needed to be killed. Fine. I, on the other hand, am absolutely certain that the Nazis were wrong. I am absolutely certain that racial minorities should be given equal rights. I am absolutely certain that chattel slavery is wrong. I have a hard time believing that Christian Piatt or Brian McLaren are not certain about those things as well. I can hardly imagine Brian McLaren saying, “Well, I think racism is a sin, but, you know, I could be wrong.” Christian Piatt says that certainty is “one of the most damaging things” to faith–is he certain about that conclusion?

As G.K. Chesterton pointed out, everyone has a dogma. Everyone believes certain things are true beyond the shadow of a reasonable doubt. Anytime someone claims that they don’t have a dogma, or an ideology, or a certainty, they are usually not telling the truth. If you look closely at their thought, you can find a shadow dogma, a ghost ideology that haunts what they say. If they really did not have a dogma, or a certainty, or (God forbid) a creed, they would not say what they were saying. They would not say anything.

Further, it seems that Christianity demands a sort of certainty that Piatt doesn’t like. Christianity demands that on some points we be absolutely certain. There is only one God, maker of heaven and earth. Jesus Christ came to the world to save sinners by his death on the cross. He died and rose again on the third day. Thou shalt not commit adultery. These are things that are not easy to believe, that we don’t much or any proof for, but we are commanded to believe in these things certainly.

Let’s move on to McLaren’s quote. McLaren prefers seeing religion as a story rather than a “system.” Fair enough. But what does this actually mean? First, many parts of the Bible seem to lean more to the system side than the story side. Take the Levitical laws, for instance. There’s not a lot of “story” going on here (“As Martha Goldstein awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, she found herself covered in leprosy. She was pronounced unclean and sent outside the camp. The end.”) Paul’s epistles contain more theology and instruction than narrative. Even the Gospels are more like a collection of sayings by Jesus than a modern, novelistic “narrative.” (A good comparison would be with Nietzche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.) Based on this, I can’t be completely certain that religion is better presented as a “story” than as a “system.” (Christian Piatt is relieved.) 

McLaren’s quote does have an important grain of truth: you cannot separate the “immanence” part of Christianity from the “transcendence.” The story of the Gospel, God’s interaction with man, is vitally important. It is not a set of “lifeless” propositions found by “pure reason,” but it is a relationship between God and man, no between God and this man, this woman, between God and Bob, and God and Sue, and God and Rakeem, and so on. And All relationships are stories. I think its important to realize that McLaren gets this partially right. Also, stories are much more interesting to the common person than, say, a deductive syllogism.

However, Brian McLaren is not just a kindly old man who likes Veggie Tales and hates boring sermons.  In his same speech that I took the quote from, he railed against “Fundamentalists,” talked about how he officiated his son’s gay “commitment ceremony,” talked a lot about every kind of inclusiveness, and said “We have a Catholic priesthood more concerned with keeping women out of the priesthood as the world is destroyed by carbon gases.” (All of this reinforces my belief that McLaren really wants to be a hippy.) McLaren’s theology is, at best, deeply suspect when viewed from a (theologically) conservative viewpoint.

“But,” you say, “perhaps McLaren is a lefty, but why would that make his notion of story bad? What is wrong with his insistence of stories over systems.” The main problem is that systems are relatively inflexible, while stories are infinitely flexible. You can break one of the Ten Commandments. You cannot break “Little Red Riding Hood.” Refashioning Christianity as a “story” instead of a “system” gives you the opportunity to downplay whatever unpleasant propositional truths you don’t want to follow. If Jesus says, “You shall not commit adultery,” as a Christian you are obligated to follow it. However, it is possible to break it, and lie to yourself and tell yourself that you are following a “real” Christianity, that you are living out the “relationship” of Christianity, rather than being beholden to those nasty propositional truths. The slippery concept of “story” gives you an opportunity to justify actions that would be strongly opposed by those propositional “truths.”

And now for the necessary caveats: Of course, I don’t think Brian McLaren is anything but faithful to his wife, and of course I don’t think he’s intentionally trying to subvert Christianity. I don’t know his heart. I do, however, know my heart, and I’m very good at coming up with justifications for my actions. Worse, I’m able to take good ideas and use them to justify my bad thoughts. Because of my temperament, my justifications tend to come from areas like logic, morals, and duty. But, supposing someone has a “soft” temperament as opposed to my “hard” temperament: their justifications would tend to come from areas like “story,” and “compassion,” and “I hate stuff that’s organized and bad stuff like that.” Perhaps I’m a cynic, but I can’t help but seeing a dark undercurrent in the stream of anti-systematizing. I’m not the only one, either–many Christian thinkers have leveled critiques at McLaren’s work. You can read some of them here and here . I want to be fair to Brian McLaren’s work (which, to be honest, I’m not as familar with as I would like to be,) so here is his website.

As for Nietzche–well, that, dear reader, is the stuff of another post. In our next post, I’ll take a look at Nietzche and why so many Christians are enamoured of him. Next, I’ll look at the love affair between the French Deconstructionists and Christian Postmodernists. After that–who knows.

Current Listening: “Lillian, Egypt” by Josh Ritter

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