I firmly believe that a sound theology must be rooted in a sound anthropology. Before we can begin to come to sensible conclusions about a Creator, in other words, we first need to develop a proper perspective on humanity. That this is imperative may not be immediately obvious, but failure to do so is ultimately – and I intend no trace of hyperbole here – utterly catastrophic.
Whenever we attempt to develop an understanding of God, we are dealing with a subject both invisible and intangible. I am aware that many will claim that God speaks to them, but that “speaking” is only ever ‘heard’ personally and is never externally verifiable. All ‘listening’ for God, then, is an interpretive act. And because of this, all our engagements with God are prone to the dangers inherent in any interpretive activity: who we are influences what we hear. This is true even when the ‘speaker’ is another human from a similar socio-cultural context. How much more so would this caution be advisable when the subject is invisible and utterly alien? If, then, we are going to start with the assumption that there is a God, and that this God wants – for some reason – to communicate with human beings, we need first to understand how our human nature is likely to impact on our capacity to hear the message before we can make any claims about understanding that message. And since we are going to make deductions about God’s nature and motivations based on the message – deductions with far-reaching implications for how we live and relate to others – I think we have an obligation to be diligent in our listening.
If we are going to make inferences about the nature of an invisible God from the communications from said deity, we need to ascertain certain things. First, we need to be sure that the communications in question are, in fact, from God. This should be obvious, but if the communications have a human hand, then we are no longer making deductions about God’s nature, but about our own, and projecting that onto God. And the net result is that we justify exploitative power relations by providing a divine mandate for our human tyrannies, whether on a domestic or a societal scale. The modern Evangelical mantra: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” is an irresponsible and destructive one. It absolves us of all responsibility for engaging critically with what we believe. Reworded, it says: “God says it is okay for me to behave this way; I don’t accept responsibility for the problematic relationships in my life; deal with it”. If we cannot see our own hand in the construction of our Gods, we are doomed. The construction of a sound anthropology is an indispensable precursor to the construction of a sound theology.
If we can satisfy ourselves that the communications do indeed have a divine origin, the second thing we need to ascertain is the extent to which our own contexts impact on our capacity to hear and understand the message. In other words, if there is a message, how can we be sure we have heard and understood it accurately?
Let me give you an example: recently my domestic worker commented to my sister-in-law that she was fat. In modern Western society such a remark is, at best, a major social faux pas, and at worst a terrible insult. From my domestic worker’s African perspective, however, it was offered as an observation that my sister-in-law was prospering, even in difficult economic times, and that this was admirable and commendable. It was a compliment. Coming from such different positions in terms of privilege, and given such varied cultural and educational life experiences, both parties understand life in vastly different ways. And when we communicate with others, such paradigms always infuse both what we say and what we hear. She said nothing, but I have no doubt that my sister-in-law would have been hurt by the remark. But she had the good grace and the cultural sensitivity to accept it as it was intended.
All the vehicles for our communications – our words, our gestures, our actions – carry worlds with them. Those worlds affect what we say to others and what we hear when others communicate with us. And if we cannot see that, whether through ignorance or denial, even the kindest communications can threaten relationships.
If we accept, then, that a certain communication is from God, and we acknowledge that God has a frame of reference different from our own, then before we act on that communication, we have a tremendous responsibility to look past our own frames of reference to try to understand the message as intended. And that is an impossible task if – as is all too often the case – we are blissfully unaware that those frames of reference even exist.
Exploring these frames of reference is what I wish to explore in this blog for a while. Now I acknowledge that I am (broadly speaking) Christian, so these observations are offered from that perspective, but I am sure that some of the principles will apply to any theological journey. If you are from another faith background and wish to share your insights, that would be most enriching. I will spend some time in coming months looking at how our Christian framework has been constructed and from there, we will attempt to make sense of the message.
But wait, I hear you say. Aren’t you skipping the first step – determining whether there actually is a message at all? Well, yes and no. My previous posts will be enough to outline my stance on that matter, which – briefly summarised – is this: God is alien to our experience and unknowable outside of revelation (we cannot reason towards God because all reasoning starts from a human base of understanding, using the familiar to make sense of the unfamiliar, so that reasoning towards God ends up with God’s characteristics being human ones amplified to the nth degree). Through reasoning alone, we can only ever find ourselves, never God. Still, reasoning is necessary, but first we need a non-human starting point: God must reveal Godself. Sacred text is not in itself revelation (God is not a book) but may conceivably bear (imperfect and subjective) witness to revelation. Jesus is that revelation; Jesus is the message. By the way, I like the idea of incarnation as a revelatory tool because by taking on human likeness, God allows us to access the communication through our human frame of reference, which also becomes God’s frame of reference. Also, it is a message rooted in history, not a vision bestowed on some fortunate devotee, impossible to verify.
Which brings us to where we are now: we have a message, but we cannot hear it. And we cannot hear it because we refuse to acknowledge that listening is an interpretive act, filtered through ideological frameworks we are not even aware we possess. It doesn’t help that we are hearing the message through testimonies (infused with their own interpretive filters) in a language not our own, and from socio-cultural circumstances alien to us, 2000 years after the fact. But God – in Jesus – called us fat, and if we hope to understand what that means, we must start somewhere. It seems to me that a good place to start would be exploring our own meaning-making frameworks. Get comfy, folks, it is going to be a long and (I suspect) difficult journey.