Your brain has been formatted to approach the learning process—and it might not give us what we need or want to engage theology or personal relationships.
In a simple way, I hope to give some language to the tools of our inquiries. This is offered with the hope that we will use them better and gain what they point toward, but often fall short of providing. For convenience, we will discuss the tools with four labels: definitions, descriptions, dogma, and dynamics. At the end of our discussion we will apply our tools to the task of knowing God.
Definitions are generalized statements about the meaning we give to a particular word. Thus, marriage has been defined as a relationship between a man and a woman until recently, but it has long had this generally accepted meaning that gave it definitional status. A wife is defined as the female in a marriage. Definitions tell us what something is. We go to the dictionary to get the generally accepted meaning as to what the term in question is in its ideal form—thank you Plato. Philosophy loves to define the nature of things: what is the nature of the cosmos, truth, goodness, beauty, personhood, evil, knowledge, and so on. While definitions are a record of common use, they have a historically intended task to give generally give a simple picture of what delineates and distinguishes a word’s meaning.
Descriptions give us the particulars of what something does or its characteristics. A description of marriage is a relationship that begins with a ceremony, continues as they live together, expresses some level of sexual intimacy with fidelity, may have kids, and lasts until death or divorce. A husband is described as one who promises to love his wife, meet her needs, and remain faithful to her, maybe as a provider, but the particular details are in flux, but need to be fleshed out. We go to an encyclopedia for descriptions, including the history of an idea, its various forms in different cultures, or the current state of discussion as to the thinking about particulars on that subject. Descriptions are for the purpose of distinguishing one thing from another by showing the difference in what each does or to delineate its aspects. A husband is not a wife because of what each does or may do. Marriage is different from being single because of what one does in the new relationship. Descriptions tell us how things work, and what expectations exist in order to fulfil the meaning of a term. A job description tells what the employer wants you to do. Ethics, as a branch of philosophy, explores what activities are acceptable for a marriage or a job: what one can or cannot do to be considered married, an employee, etc. Descriptions do not throw out definitions; they build on them for an understanding of how the concept is played out in the particulars.
Dogma refers to a created system of thought to explain a specific idea. It explains what one is to believe about a field of thought or use of a term. Science, as a whole and in each field, is a dogma in that it tells us how to think about the objective world. It tells us what to believe and what to disbelieve. Dogma is a gathered and organized set of ideas about a subject that has its own reasoning, based on the nature of what is studied. Science, art, religion, engineering, politics, the military, agriculture, and nations all have their complex set of beliefs. Each has specialists who shape and grow the discipline. We go to a textbook to get the current dogma on a particular field of thought. For example, marriage textbooks are complex manuals of research with implications for current practice of married life. They do not all agree, but they are all contending for authoritative status as leaders in their field. We have come to believe that marriage is an institution, meaning that it has value as a dogma to be defended and pursued for the good of the people. Dogma has a history of development. It engages discussions on the distinctives of different theorists, current practice, and the future of research. Dogmas have heroes. They are the ones who have championed the ideas most widely held by the academy in particular, but sometimes in popular thought as well. Dogma attempts to cover the what, why, when, where, and how questions as to the elements and boundaries of a field of thought. This does not mean there is agreement by the different practitioners. Each tries to clarify the dogma within their view of the system. Dogma does not throw out definitions or descriptions, but sets them within a broader context that may shape and change those definitions and descriptions to fit the system.
Dynamics are the actual working out of ideas in real life. It involves the actual activities of how we relate to each other and the world. It does not throw out definitions, descriptions, or dogma. Dynamics are the constant state of application, adaptation, clarification, and active realization of the meaning of the words and ideas. All the thinking has been pointing towards active living. The dynamics of life are the intended and enacted interactions of our relationships towards each other and our environment. To learn about the dynamics of life, you most likely go to a person who can understand and guide you—probably employing definitions, descriptions, and dogma. Then you personally apply their wisdom to your life context. Working out the dynamics of life, we are must remember past dynamics, apply them as we participate in current dynamics, and anticipate the dynamics of where we want the relationship to go. We must draw on the other thinking tools, but practice them in actual relations. With a dynamic approach, we always need to be aware of the importance of understanding the other persons in our relating. We must explore the possibilities and problems that may arise. We also have to make room for unknown elements, including the fact that the mystery of other persons is beyond definition, description, or dogma.
Now we can observe the tools of our brain as depicted in the first three descriptors, which are all abstract reflections on the world—meaning, not the thing itself, rather they are derived from the acts of observing and thinking about the object of study. Then, as we have been proposing, we have the concrete application of those rational tools in the dynamics of life. Many academics never get past the definitions, descriptions, and dogma to explore the dynamics for which they were intended. I contend that the tools fail if not taken into the dynamic of living.
With God we have definitions. God is triune, historically defined as one substance in three persons. That is a definition, but we need more, and not less. The church is the body of Christ, but we often forget that the body needs a head. Consequently, many focus on the humans as the church—but we need the full definition so we do not have a headless monster.
With God we also have descriptions. God has an internal life of relation referred to as the immanent Trinity—the shared life between the three persons. In this life, the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father. There also is an external life of relating to all creation called the economic Trinity. This describes the Son as begotten of the Father, the Image of God in the world, and depicts the Spirit as proceeding from the Father. The Spirit is sent by the Father (and maybe the Son; this is where East and West divide their opinion). Every aspect of the trinitarian life has been studied, trying to find words to describe the nature of the being and acts of God implied in each element.
Then, there are dogmatic studies. These investigations create texts that attempt to develop a system of thought that is seen through a lens that is true to the Bible and the nature of God. The creeds are small dogmatics, attempting to give a brief description of God and God’s activities. Calvin built on this to write his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Karl Barth saw through the lens of Jesus Christ as the revelation of God and wrote his massive Church Dogmatics. Each of the great theologians over the centuries has provided a lens to serve the church in knowing about God—but knowing about does not get us all the way to the dynamic of knowing relation. In a sense, we have a limited access to the life of God—the Bible as a witness to Jesus, who reveals God. But from within those limits, we have tons of dogmatic discussions as to how to understand God best.
Discussing the dynamics of a life with God is the point where the most significant challenges come to the foreground. Historically, the academy has been reluctant to engage the topic of the dynamics of relationship for several reasons. It wants to be objective like the other academic disciplines. It has arguments as to whether the study of dynamics is to focus on God, or on what the human is to think and do. The academy has a tradition of training clergy to perform functions like preaching and administering the sacraments. Thus, worship becomes a human occupation performed for God, but not really engaging the deep question regarding how we facilitate the dynamic of every person daily relating to God. Unfortunately, if people show up to church, pay their tithes, and live a respectable life then all is good. But this falls far short of asking how we might use all our tools in order to help the sheep hear the Shephard’s voice. But the church desperately needs to live in the dynamic of being led by her living head, Jesus Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. We need for people to cry out “Abba, dear Father.” Only then will they begin a dynamic life within the Family of God facilitated by the Spirit. Otherwise, their heads will be filled with dusty definitions and descriptions that malnourish them spiritually.
The future of the church depends on the academy and the church learning to facilitate the dynamics of life with God, our neighbor, and ourselves. This is not new. Distractedly, we have been too focused on the definitions, descriptions, and dogmatics to notice that the patient is dying—the church needs its life renewed for a dynamic relationship that has been offered by God, but from which we have become distracted. Let me be clear, we need not throw any of the past findings out. But we need to practice and teach for relationship in a way we are not currently engaging.
I am a trinitarian, relational theologian towards this end. In this paper, I put these thoughts out so we can see the formatting of our brains, displayed as they have been formatted, out there on the table. Now we can put them back in our heads and see that we are embodied beings, not just brains. We desperately need to live an active life of participation with the Father, Son, and Spirit. But we must go on to actively love the body called to serve them, as well as our neighbors and the significant relationships that are surround us.
Lastly, we need to understand ourselves, accept ourselves as God’s good creation, and see the fulfillment of life as acted out in these loving relationships. Many of us are currently fractured into our individual, separated lives. The church and all humans need the Great Physician. Each of us needs to see ourselves as servants, to be transformed by the renewing of our whole being. We need to live the grace-filled life that is offered to us and guides our relating in every aspect of life every day, because God is dynamically part of it. Theology is the hope of the world, but we need to rediscover and reorient the dynamic of our task in a bursting-forth theological resurrection.
FURTHER READING – See Colin Gunton, The One, the Three and the Many for some of the seeds of the thoughts in this blog, especially on the ideas of definition and description coming from Plato and Aristotle, carried forward in the church especially by Augustine and Aquinas.