Saturday, August 8, 2009

Counter Balance

I like to talk sometimes about maintaining balance, that many things in life, philosophy, theology, and so on require balancing between two "extremes" to find truth.

This is certainly a good thing, and there are plenty of examples of its fruitfulness. However, I've been thinking some tonight about some of the downsides (dangers?) of "balance".

The problem is we live in a culture obsessed with "balance".

This kind can be philosophical pluralism, (all views are equally valid options). Sometimes this is sociological: we want to (over?)-represent those who are perceived as under-represented (such as race, culture, gender, sexual orientation, etc.). Sometimes it is perspective: postmodernism has taught us that everyone sees the world differently -- and so we want to understand how others perceive the world. (Jane Espenson had an awesome quote at Comicon... she was asked about how she's contributed to the writing of female characters as the only female writer in BSG, she essentially said "I don't think you have to be a female to write good female characters"). Or it can be in the realm of ideas: we want the "under dog" to ultimately triumph over either evil oppressors (of ideas especially), or the willfully ignorant.

The word "balance" itself can mean a lot of things, such as a new-age peace with self / universe, or a form of mental/emotional health. "Balance" can be more of a cop-out to sound "smart" when you really don't have good answers for difficult questions. "Balance" can also be a mask for something that is not really balanced.

So in light of all these options, what is this balance (in regards to theology, and more importantly the Christian mind) that I talk way to much about? Well.. this isn't exhaustive, but a few ideas I had to distinguish it from some of the examples above:

1) Balance between "extremes"
This would hopefully go without saying, but I'm going to say it anyway. Just because there likely is balance to be found between "extremes" does not mean all "extremes" are equally valid. In fact, for such "balance" to occur, there actually is required to have two "extremes" that contain valid elements worth striking a balance between.

What makes it valid? My initial thought is that it has some "significant" explication of truth that justifies the question of balance. Another form of this would be minor revision: perhaps one view is almost entirely wrong, but only has a sliver of truth, that the counter point simply has to slightly modify itself to incorporate that truth.

The point here is that "balance" is a movement towards truth: not just pluralism, and not just...

2) Synthesis
"Balance" is trying to synthesize the elements of truth in the views under question into something close to the truth. This isn't a "pure" synthesis, because you are only dealing with specific aspects of a view, (or making minor alterations to one view). I think my point here is that sometimes "balance" between two views means blurring lines so that "both can be right" without really answering any of the tensions. This really doesn't strike me as a movement towards truth, but rather a movement away from conflict.

This isn't a pure "synthesis", there is no real option of Calminiasm or such. Instead, it is recognizing the points of value and truth and trying to synthesize these points in a way that is harmonious with scripture's presentation of these themes.

3) Scriptural
That last sentence is the more important: we're not just taking claim A, finding its element of truth and fitting it in with the element of truth in claim B. We're taking what seems to be true of both, and finding out where the "balance" or "synthesis" of the two is within the actual themes of scripture. This isn't always possible, and that's why we have systematic theology: to at least present our best reasoning of how these themes can work together. But the goal is to find where the "balance" lies within the text of scripture, and not just some made-up formula.

A harder example is the presence and future of God's Kingdom. This is an example of more true "balance" and less "synthesis", because scripture fluctuates between the two. There isn't a clear "middle ground", but much more of a "tension" in the sense that there are aspects of the kingdom that are present, and aspects that are yet future.

4) Humility
I don't want to sound mean here... but there seems to be this perception that to be a good, grounded theologian, scholar, or minister, you have to at least be sure of what you do know, and have a lot of answers. On the one hand, I would agree that to function well in those positions, you better have a solid grasp of things, but at the same time, true "balance" is found in recognizing the difference between "gray areas" of truth and those that are rock solid. I wouldn't think much of a minister who wavered on things like the unique sufficiency of Christ's work, or the complete authority of Scripture.

That's all I have for now, but hopefully the picture I'm trying to paint is clear enough, or at least getting there. I suspect that the hardest point here is actually determining the validity of a claim and whether it is worthy actually trying to strike a balance. But this at least seems to be a basic component of good critical thinking. And ultimately, that's all I've really been talking about.

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