All Italians are jerks. That’s an example of reductionism. Granted, it may be possible that all the Italian people a PARTICULAR PERSON knows are all jerks. But certainly not all Italians are jerks!
The problem with reductionism is that it takes micro-level truths and extracts them out to macro-level truth claims. What the crap am I talking about? NT Wright has just written a new book called “Evil and the Justice of God.” One theme he returns to throughout the book is the idea that the battle between good and evil runs right through the middle of us all. While we are often inclined to look at good vs. evil as us vs. them (as the War on Terror is often framed), a more biblical approach, in Wright’s view, is to see evil in us. So strongly does Wright believe this that he virtually ignores the fact that dozens of Psalms are framed in the us vs. them paradigm. David is constantly chased by evil men who want to harm him. It was the same for Christ. It was the same for Paul. It will be the same for all who want to live a godly life (2 Tim. 3:12-13)
And this is the problem with reductionism. Reductionism takes PART of the truth and elevates it as the WHOLE truth with no regard to other parts of the truth. I believe that reductionism has been responsible for much of the fragmenting of the Church into denominations – that certain groups of people have, at one time or another, emphasized one set of gospel truths ABOVE another set.
Though I think many people have the best of intentions in chasing reductionistic thought, I trace their mistake to two things: lazy thinking and pride. In many respects, the emerging church is a perfect example of all this. While many emergent types have found within their souls something lacking from the Christianity they were raised in, their mistake is to throw out all the thought that has come before them. There is an arrogance that somehow we in the 21st century have it all figured out — as if it’s all downhill after this and people in the 22nd century will look to us for all the answers. I doubt it.
One of the most remarkable things about the Reformed thinkers is that they metaphorically rose Jesus from the dead. During the Middle Ages, Christ had been emptied of His deity and importance in almost all places in the world. The Reformed thinkers brought Him back to His rightful center in the theology of Christianity. Ironically, in trying to find a “more authentic” spirituality, many emergent types are emptying Christ of His pre-eminence in their theologies. I am NOT trying to argue that Christianity as we know it today is perfect. Anyone who reads my blogs knows I see lots wrong. What I am arguing is that much of the searching is resulting in a regression of Christian thought – especially when Jesus is degraded from Savior to mere friend or worse.
This is not Let’s Make a Deal. We don’t have to trade a good prize to get an even better prize. We can hold the good and still go for better. There are vast swaths of theology that we hold correctly. And there are swaths we are lacking or believe wrongly. In speaking on spiritual discernment, Paul said, “Test everything. Hold on to the good” (1 Thess. 5:21). The solution isn’t to LET GO of everything, but to TEST everything.
Why does this matter? It matters because many people today say that Christianity doesn’t resonate with them. And they have begun seeking alternate belief systems. The trap of reductionism is that it tricks us. Suppose I told a 4-year old that their only parent was their dad. The kid grows up believing he doesn’t have a mom. He thinks the whole truth is that dad is the only parent. Sucks to be the kid, huh? They’ve just been cheated out of having a mom. Reductionism does the same – it takes away opportunities of understanding the world in its entirety. In the theological realm, it means nothing less than our relationship with God HIMSELF being affected – we don’t know Him as we could because we’ve accepted only PART of the truth as the WHOLE truth.
How can we be cured of reductionism or sure that we won’t fall prey to its downfalls? The truth is that we’re never 100% covered, but we can take steps. First, we need to be humble enough people to know that we’re not 100% right about everything. It seems obvious, but we sure do spend a lot of time arguing about things we’re not sure about, don’t we? That’s an indication of pride. Second, we need to remember that the “new truth” we read about in a book or hear on TV or in a movie may be 1) complete rubbish or 2) SUPPLEMENT the truth we already believe. There are VERY few instances in which a “new truth” should entirely SUPPLANT the whole body of previously held knowedge. For example, when I read in NT Wright’s book that a proper understanding of evil is that it runs through ME, I can say, “Yes, that is true” but it doesn’t mean that I then say, “So that means I should not think of evil as us vs. them.” If that were the case, no one would have acted against the Nazis. I have reason to believe that evil runs through me AND other people and that I need to confront evil in both.
This is a far more meandering blog than I would have liked. I have been thinking about this theme for about a week now and I will probably revisit it sometime soon. The bottom line is that the teachers of the Church (i.e. people like me) have been charged at helping people not fall prey to reductionist thinking (inside the broader goal of preparing God’s people for good works – Eph. 4:11-12). It is exactly what Paul meant when he said that he “didn’t shrink from declaring…the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Bits and pieces or the whole thing? Pepperonis never impressed me that much, but a pizza does. I want the whole thing. It’s more work, but it’s worth it to know the God of the universe, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit as completely as possible!