In my previous post, I posited that all conscious thinking are acts of cognitive dissonance, which can motivate resolution through various means. I highlighting the distinction between resolution between listening and rationalization and suggesting that religion has a marked tendency to have theological and ethical systems that rationalize its beliefs to buffer it from counter new information that would challenge those beliefs. On the surface of it, it might sound like I was arguing against the importance of doctrine. That is, after all, a common response to the all-too-common reality that surrounds theological discussions; doctrine isn’t about anything important, so we should just all forget all that stuff and get along and compromise. This isn’t just the response of the doctrine-skeptical spirit of much of modern liberal and progressive Christian theology. It was the response of Emperor Constantine to the Christological controversy between Alexander and Arius, who did not understand the significance of the discussion and thought it was a meaningless discussion that was dividing people.1
However, I would put forward that while religious doctrine readily and frequently devolves into an act of rationalization, this is not the universal reality of all religious doctrine. In fact, doctrine can act as a mental hearing aid, to aid us in the act of listening. As an analogy, consider how communication operates in healthy relationships. A person may tell their parent, spouse, friend, etc. that they are having a rough day; assuming the other person is open to empathy and is not preoccupied by something else in that moment, this communication will not simply be knowledge the person files away in their brain. Rather, it can grab the attention of the other, dropping whatever else is on their mind, and begin to focus their attention on the loved one. Communication aids the other to pay attention to their loved one; unless they were already very perceptive of the person’s feelings through non-verbal cues, they would not have changed their focus and attention at that moment to listen. Similarly, doctrine can act as a mental hearing aid to perceive and understand God’s action and will in the world.
The Gospel of John highlights this view of teaching. In John 5:19-47, Jesus rebukes the religious leadership2 who were criticizing him because he was healing on the Sabbath and that he claimed he was working with the authority of God as a Son. He pins down their rejection of his authority due to the fact that they do not actually know God; quite a strong claim coming towards those who have studied Israel’s Scriptures. But Jesus explains this in vs. 39 to the fact that while they read the Scriptures, they have their own agenda in reading it: they seek to find eternal life. However, Jesus says they serve as a witness to Him and His authority. In other words, if the Scriptures were read rightly, they would help people know who Jesus is, but when read wrongly and with a particular agenda, people fail to know the God who inspired the Scriptures. Similarly, in John 6:43-51, coming to Jesus is predicated on being drawn and taught by the Father, presumably with the Torah as the instrument of the Father’s instruction. Therefore, proper learning is not about gaining some knowledge one can control for oneself, but rather as a tool for listening and understanding.
Therein lies one critical difference theological rationalization and theological listening. Theological rationalization has a specific, immediate goal one wishes to acquire. On the other hand, theological listening does not have a specific, immediate goal or plan to inaugurate. Theological rationalization is rooted in the instrumentalization of knowledge for control. If one masters these ideas, if one puts these ethic principles into action, if one knows the right things to say, then one can be an esteemed teacher, a leader in the (church) community, a good Christian, a respectable politician, a prophetic voice against injustice, etc. etc. Theological rationalization as goals and desires one is attached to, and so will conform one’s reading and understanding to fit within those immediate goals and desires. One might say this is bias, but this is more than simply bias; one can listen carefully and still be biased. But in rationalization, one’s bias if inflexible, rooted in maintaining specific goals and desires at all costs, which motivates resisting new information that would challenge the goodness or attainability of those goals and desires. Thus, theological rationalization draws on desire as the power that allows the preservation of theological and ethical ideas against all counters.
By contrast, theological listening is the instrumentalization of knowledge for the purpose of rigthly understanding. Theological listening entails being able to pay attention so as to identify who God is sending, what God is doing, and what God desires. Theological listening is not simply a passive, only hear and never do anything mindset, but it recognizes one’s own goals and desires may need to be jettisoned for a time period or permanently if new information comes in. Theological listening is sensitive to new information while using what is know to aid in the understanding of this new information; the coming of Jesus as the Son of God was not clearly and unambiguously outlined in the Torah, but it was a rightly understood teaching from the Torah that was an aid in identifying Jesus as God’s Son. Then, once one has adequately understood, then one can pursue specific desires and goals, which have been formed by attuned knowledge rather than forming unattuned knowledge.
However, this act of theological listening extends beyond simply Christological questions. It addresses ethical issues, such as the one I brought up in my previous post about eating meat and idols from the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 8. Paul counters the rationalizing approach of those who eat meat freely because they have “knowledge” about what we would term as monotheism; Paul’s counter isn’t simply some “You need to drop that doctrine and learn to love people” as is common in modern, anti-doctrinal Christianity. Rather, Paul’s counter is to provide a different doctrinal starting point, Christ’s death on behalf of people, and use that doctrinal point to guide people to pay attention to the impact their actions are having on their fellow Christians. By appealing to the love of Christ as a fundamental doctrinal point, Paul makes it an aid in listening to and considering the very people that Christ loves.
The specific challenge then is to be able to identify what sort of theological discussion are forms of theological rationalization and what are forms of theological listening. The answer is never clear from the outset because on the surface, both can look very similar. Both can have their forms of intellectual erudtion and epistemic sources of justification, particularly Scripture. Both can have appearances of Christian virtue on the surface. Both can have persuasive power over others. Both can display forms of bias. Both can lead to error. But the fundamental difference rests on the flexibility or inflexibility of one’s bias in the face of new information that challenges one’s belief.
However, if I may suggest, even from an inward, introspective stance, one can never really know in the moment if one is being flexible or inflexible. We can rationalize how reasonable we are being, perhaps because we have been reasonable in the past, therefore, we must be being reasonable now, although one may not be flexible in this specific instance. Or we may be aware of our mind being aware of multiple options, but unaware that our awareness of multiple options doesn’t mean our hearts are truly open to the multiple options. Our self-perceptions can never be fully and entirely trusted as to our openness and flexibility.
If you can not be aware from an inward introspection, just as you can not be aware from an outward look at the surface, then 1) how can one confidently come to engage in a theological listening rather than a theological rationalizer? and 2) how can we identify theological listening from theological rationalizing? That is something I have been pondering on recently, and what I offer here is not intended as a complete but starting points: To #1 seems to be repentance; this is not some “I am sorry” type of “repentance” that immediately tries to fix things or a groveling, spiritually self-flagellating “repentance,” but rather a repentance where one actually has a change of attitude about what they have thought and done. Repentance can begin the process of excising our rationalizations, theological, ethical, or other forms, by allowing ourselves to experience the feeling of knowing one has been on the wrong side of things, thereby opening our hearts to receive God and His Word rightly. An answer to #2 I find may come from Jesus’ words about false teachers, and how they are known by their fruit. Theological rationalization, even if it contains true propositions, will be used in a false way, leading to bad fruit over the course of time because the rationalization is a cover for over motives and goals that are inconsistent and incoherent with the theological truth. Recognition of a bad batch of fruit doesn’t prove the theology wrong, but does bring it up for examination in either a) its propositional true value or b) the way that knowledge was used and applied.