the coherent incoherence of theology

The science-fiction writer Ursula Le Guin has been getting some good press lately (which is fantastic because her writing is brilliant and stimulating).

Le Guin begins the preface to her collection of short stories, The Birthday of the World, by reporting how she feels about her science-fiction universe, ‘the Ekumen’: ‘I don’t exactly feel that I invented it. I blundered into it, and have been blundering around in it unsystematically every since — dropping a millennium here, forgetting a planet there’.

This, it turns out, frustrates her fans, particularly those who want to plot everything neatly on a time line, map every world (or whatever).

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Yet the confusion and disorder of Le Guin’s fictional universe actually turns out to be a coherent incoherence. There are good reasons why it resists the attempt to be plotted and mapped.

Her explanation of this coherent incoherence is worth quoting at length because I think it opens a window on Christian systematic theology, which likewise resists over-neat ‘totalising’ explanations that explain — or rather explain away — everything, resolving every tension:

There are reasons for this incoherence, other than authorial carelessness, forgetfulness, and impatience. Space, after all, is essentially gap. Inhabited worlds are a long, long way apart. Einstein said people couldn’t travel faster than the speed of light, so I generally let my people travel only nearly as fast as light. This means that whenever they cross space, they scarcely age, thanks to Einsteinian time dilation, but they do end up decades or centuries after the set out, and can only find out what happened meanwhile back on the farm by using my handy device, the ansible. (It’s interesting to think that the ansible is older than the Internet, and faster — I do let information travel instantaneously.) So in my universe, as in this one, now here is then there, and vice versa, which is a good way to keep history from being either clear or useful.

What I’m suggesting is that what is true of Le Guin’s fictional universe is also true of systematic theology. Make sense?

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6 comments

  1. Interesting bro – what do you reckon constitutes overneat systematic explanations? It seems a little subjective… I’ve been trying to wrestle with this sort of thing lately too. When does neat become overneat?

    1. That’s a great question — to which I’m not sure I have a ready answer! I guess I’m thinking along the lines of treatments of say the divine sovereignty-human responsibility tension that hold one side over against the other, such that one effectively cancels out the other.

      I’m aware that deciding when this has happened is a judgement call and so necessarily at least a little ‘subjective’, in that it involves the person making the call as a knowing ‘subject’. But then again, what doesn’t?

  2. Thanks for the thoughts bro. I reckon there’s something in those last 2 sentences of yours. Certainly the one who brings the charge of ‘overneat’ reveals their own presuppositions about what they’re comfortable with (at a subjective level).

    Someone once told me that D.B. Knox used to hold to something like: 2 speculations away from the text is the limit. There’s some common sense there, but what exactly two speculations away means….. that’s anyone’s guess! (though, maybe his lack of footnoting meant he could get away with a couple of extra leaps!)

    It’s interesting how you can pick up, say Francis Turretin’s Elenctic Theology and be dazzled with the fierce logic in his theology (good old law of non-contradiction), then turn to say, Rowan Williams’ poetry and be dazzled by his lack of logic! Yet both are ways of doing theology. I like that.

    John Frame reckon we should do theology in lots of ways: song, poetry, logic, narrative etc since that reflects the contours of Scripture. I like that too! So, a place for fierce logic, and a place for narrative. Neither overturn the other, but we encourage both…. What do you reckon? Care to respond with a sonnet? 😉

    1. ‘a place for fierce logic, and a place for narrative. Neither overturn the other, but we encourage both’

      Sure. But we’re still going to have the same problem, aren’t we? Who gets to say when one has overturned the other?

  3. Hmm, agree. Perhaps it’s the same situation with Scripture itself? Since Scripture is true, it must be coherent and without real contradiction. Yet, we see poetry, narrative etc within Scripture’s fabric.

    Interestingly we see true metaphors in Scripture – like God is a Shepherd. That’s true, but not literally.

    So, perhaps it’s something like coherent systematic theology is one important perspective, and poetic theology is another? Neither actually overturn each other – they’re both valid, but are doing different things. Perhaps even, both need each other: one to inform the other?

    What do you reckon bro?

    1. Thanks, Mark. But I’m not sure I get the parallel you’re drawing with Scripture or even what you mean by a ‘coherent systematic theology’.

      On the one hand, while it may be true that ‘Since Scripture is true, it must be coherent and without real contradiction’, I wonder where our human limitations kick in. I seem to recall that in Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, J. I. Packer, for example, thinks that the way divine sovereignty coheres with human responsibility (without contradiction) isn’t accessible to us — it’s hidden in an antinomy. I may trust that Scripture is without real contradiction in this matter, but on what grounds can I base my confidence that I’ll be able to see, understand and pin-down that coherence in my system?

      On the other hand, don’t most of the Protestant summaries of ‘coherent systematic theology’ (e.g., The Thirty-Nine Articles, The Westminster Confession, etc) contain a kind of ‘self-revision switch’ that embodies the always reforming aspect of Reformed theology? You know, the clause that locates the coherence of the system outside itself … in Scripture? That is, doesn’t too strong an insistence on (already achieved) coherence of a system run the risk of falsifying the system by closing the circuit of its own authority?

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