of shadows and epistemology

Photo by Glen Alan Woods

Many things fascinate me. Echoes in a canyon. The interplay of form and light to illumine or mute nuances of an object. The perspective rendered by shadows which reveal a hint of the original, if not its actual essence. The photo in this post was taken at the Garden of the Gods outside of Colorado Springs. The sun was waning in the last moments of full light. Twilight was about to reveal itself. So, I captured this image, thinking meanwhile about the difference between reality and perception, and their relationship to epistemology and its role in discerning the differences between tertiary beliefs, orthodoxy, and heresy.

If I had only seen the shadow in this image, I might have assumed the tree was much smaller than it is, and that it did not have such a long, barren trunk before the onset of its foliage. Such an assumption obviously would have been an error. And easily understandable, given the vantage point of the shadow, but still clearly wrong based on the real physical characteristics of the shadow’s source, the tree itself.

It brings to mind epistemological concerns which ebb and flow in religious and philosophical discourse simultaneously in the realms of practical theology and history, and their abstract counterparts in systematics and philosophy. How do we know what we know and how can we be sure?

There appear to be a variety of approaches to solving these questions as it pertains to the Bible, God, and how we are to respond to both. That is, how do we derive right practices of faith (orthopraxy) from right doctrinal belief (orthodoxy). Furthermore, who decides what is orthodoxy, and what are tertiary (secondary) theological concerns? In the West, it appears that two polar opposites (conservative doctrinal fundamentalism vs social liberalism) take up primary residence in the thinking of many people, with numerous nuanced variations along the way. Thus the onset of denominationalism. Of course, with other thinkers, I hasten to add that denominations were created as much, if not more, by breakdowns in interpersonal relationships (related to power struggles, greed, pride, downright sinfulness, etc). But make no mistake, for many doctrinal purity also played a large role, and continues to do so to this day, with each new denomination often having a sense that they finally have gotten it right. So much for humility and respect for the lessons learned from our forebears in church history.

To pick on both my conservative fundamentalist and socially liberal friends for a moment, I suggest that both see the world and the Bible through rigid cultural interpretive grids which leave little leeway for authentic growth in learning and possibility of relational reconciliation with those whom they disagree. They are entrenched. Relationships matter not when principles are at stake. Right?

Make no mistake, my conservative fundamentalist friends. I agree that doctrine matters. I just might not agree with your specific interpretations at all points. Therein lies the rub. What can we agree is orthodoxy in the Christian tradition? Virgin birth? Full humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ? Bodily death and resurrection of Jesus? To name a few…. Sure. But I won’t agree with some of you in the pentecostal stream that speaking in tongues is a cardinal doctrine of the church. Even if I am a pentecostal pastor. Sure, I agree that it is a gift that God gives to some believers, but I am not persuaded from Scripture that it is mandatory or even expected to be the experience of every believer. There are other tertiary doctrines I could name, but you get the idea. Besides, for many of you, tongues is heresy at worst, or tertiary at best. See my point?

On the other hand, I also agree with my liberal friends that caring for the marginalized around us, specifically widows and orphans in their distress, is the essence of true religion. Shame on us conservatives for wasting so much time arguing theological semantics at the expense of helping those less fortunate on a wider corporate level. Thankfully, there has been a major cultural shift in recent years which is changing the tide in conservative churches, causing us to look outside our walls to the real world in which we live. Could it be we are learning from our liberal friends. Just a little? It’s okay if you do not agree with their theology in every respect. But admit it. You admire that they have long led the way in helping the homeless and poor among us, even if you do lament they often have done so with a gospel bereft of the cross of Jesus Christ and his bodily resurrection, a lament rightly expressed.

Lest my liberal friends become proud, hold on just a moment. Don’t discount my conservative friends so quickly. Many of them have been active in social justice for a lifetime. They just haven’t been noticed as much. You know, that whole give while others aren’t looking thing that Jesus talked about. I am not suggesting anything. But it is something to think about…. And while many of you have disregarded the notion that Jesus bodily rose from the grave, and that he ascended to heaven to be with the Father, and will soon return for his own, please know that your convictions on this matter are as much the consequence of a cultural interpretive grid as that of some conservatives who were hesitant to engage in public social justice for fear of being works-oriented at the expense of belief in salvation by grace through faith alone.

Yes, ideas and beliefs have consequences for both conservatives and liberals. I am no exception. While I hold to conservative theological convictions, I leave room for the fact that I am learning and maturing in faith. Are you willing to do the same? Or, are you entrenched with specific attitudes and cultural convictions that do not allow you to discern between tertiary beliefs and orthodoxy, or even theological heresy? Think of it as discerning between a shadow of a tree and the tree itself, or someone’s abstract painting of the tree which has taken enormous liberties with the real form.


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