My 21-month-old grandson Ethan is enjoying a wonderful exploratory season of his development, as he observes his world and seeks to find his place in it. He makes everyone giggle as he observes animals (and objects which resemble animals) and tries to label them. Recently, he has provided great entertainment to all of us because of his simplistic relation to the animal kingdom. Upon seeing the stuffed owl which my 8-year old daughter received for Christmas, he proclaimed it to be a “moose.” Pointing excitedly, and exclaiming “Moose! Moose!” while reaching for it, we all smile at each other at his innocent misunderstanding of the complexities of the species.
My daughter provided some linguistic explanation, by letting us know that in Ethan’s little world, any animal that has four legs is a “dog” and anything else is a “moose“. Sometimes, he even blends these definitions and swaps “moose” for “dog” if it has four legs but seems smaller than a dog. In this model, a cat is a “dog“, a hamster is a “dog“, while a bear is a “moose” as well as a fish and a bird. It’s refreshingly simple and disarming.
It’s funny, in large part, because it is an oversimplified explanation of these creatures/objects, reducing them all to a unified model of literary description which effectively whitewashes everything he sees into the same category.
Our reaction is; “That’s so cute.”
It’s cute precisely because we fully expect him to outgrow this phase of innocence and enter the adult world at the appropriate time. But what if he never did? What if, at age 18, he points at a sea lion at the aquarium and yells, “Moose!” in front of 80 other people, causing them to shift uncomfortably and avoid eye contact with us? Then, it’s not so cute. But, could this happen?
Well, it can and does happen in a multitude of ways. It can be the result of retardation. (I don’t mention this in derogatory fashion, but as an example). It can be the result of a restricted, “bubble-like” existence in which a person is not properly educated along with their peers. (This phenomenon is a factor in institution racism). On a psychological level, it can happen when our understanding of the complexities of life, “the gray areas”, as it were, is compromised or affected by a psychological need to keep that which is a mystery (and potentially could kill us) at bay and safely restrained.
These last two factors happens with theological understandings all the time. (I hesitate to attribute it to retardation, because this would affect my opinion of a great many people who attempt to teach the Word these days). We tend to like to reduce otherwise complex and layered concepts into overly simplified ideological ideas which serve a number of purposes in our understanding of God, faith and our eternal destiny. It is innocent enough when a person comes at the faith problem from an uneducated, open-eyed position, and is presented nothing but a reductionist theological worldview as their initial paradigm of understanding . It is harder to swallow from an individual who clearly should know better, such as a pastor, theologian, or a corporate entity which has great resources at its disposal to dispel reductionist notions, (most commonly, a denominational expression).
But wait, what exactly is reductionism?
Reductionism is an approach to understanding the nature of complex things by reducing them to the interactions of their parts, or to simpler or more fundamental things. The idea of Reductionism was first introduced by Descartes in Part V of his “Discourses” of 1637, where he argued the world was like a machine, its pieces like clockwork mechanisms, and that the machine could be understood by taking its pieces apart, studying them, and then putting them back together to see the larger picture.
In linguistics, reductionism is the idea that everything can be described in a language with a limited number of core concepts, and combinations of those concepts. Put simply, “Reductionism collapses (or reduces) the higher level of meaning and being into the lower level of elemental parts; when this collapse occurs what is left is not the whole but its parts”
It has been suggested that the usefulness of reductionist approaches depends on the purpose to which they are put. For example, investigating brain response to faces might reveal much about how we recognize faces, but this level of description should not perhaps be used to explain human attraction. Likewise, whilst we need to understand the biology of mental disorders, we may not fully understand the disorder without taking account of social factors which influence it. Thus, whilst reductionism is useful, it can lead to incomplete explanations. This is, in a basic way, the problem with reductionism in theology.
So, if I tell my grandson that all dogs are good, and all moose are bad, he will immediately have dire suspicion towards any animal he cannot definitively label as being a “dog”. It doesn’t even matter if the animal in question is actually a bird, or a fish, or any other animal that did not make it into his criteria of evaluation, or even an inanimate object (such as a statue of a moose). Further, if I tell him that only dogs go to heaven and not “cats”, he will begin to wonder about “cats”, especially if he sees all “cats” as “dogs”. He will likely question my credibility in his little mind, since he knows full well that there are only two types of animals; dogs and moose. Ludicrous, I know, but not too far from what I deal with all the time with “adults” (I’ll affectionately call them “dogs”) who try to debate their “theology” with me.
So, I was having this series of coffee meetings with a local dog who happens to pastor a church of other dogs. This dog has practiced decades of theological reductionism. In his simple worldview, there are only two types of people, people who agree with him and people who are lost. (I’m sorry, that is also reductionism, but it’s my blog). Okay, he believes there are only two types of people; saved and unsaved. The saved are those who believe in the gospel (and only those who believe in the gospel he endorses) and those who do not. Even better, his reductionist mindset extends to his understanding of soteriology, eschatology, and all other areas of theology. For instance, in his mind, Law is diametrically opposed to Grace. This is because he has reduced the Law to nothing but a reductionist concept that God in fact used to prove to the stubborn Israelites that they could not obey God on their own, but that someone else had to do it for them. Therefore, any statement in the Bible which seems to show that God expects us to obey Him is subsequently reinterpreted by this dog (and other dogs like him) to be “fulfilled” in Christ, since “obviously” God could not expect us to “actually” obey Him (as this would utterly render useless his belief in the actual purpose of the Law to begin with).
This dog loves to quote chapter and verse in the Bible to prove that his “reductions” are unarguable. For instance, he confidently proclaims to me: “Jesus has cancelled the Law and its ordinances on the cross”, and he points to Colossians 2:14 as his “proof” text. This verse actually says:
“…having cancelled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.”
When I point out to him that the Law was not “nailed to the cross“, but the “certificate of debt“, meaning our guilt because of disobedience to the Law, he blinks hard, and points emphatically back at his Bible (and taps his finger on Col.2:14), as though he is struggling to explain the rules of driving to a British exchange student in America who is insisting on driving in the left hand side of the road.
I go on to ask him how its possible that he can preach the gospel of repentance (which he claims to preach) if he believes that the Law has been fulfilled, and therefore “cancelled” by Christ. He answers that anyone “not in Christ” is still “under the Law”. So I remind him that in his theological world, the Law is no longer in effect, therefore they aren’t under anything, but he once again flips furiously to the book of Galatians and points his sturdy, but gnarled, index finger at the passage which he wants to use for his “proof text”(it doesn’t matter which verse, any will do, since he reserves the right to reinterpret all of them). I press the case by asking what on earth he is insisting that the “lost” repent from if the Law has been fulfilled. He just shakes his head.
I’m a moose, obviously. I just don’t know it yet. I can see it in his eyes. And I don’t think it’s cute.