Friday, December 08, 2006

Right, Wrong, and Gavin's Tattoo

(We’ve been having a really good conversation here and there in the Methoblogosphere about the idea of pluralism/doctrine/inclusivism/Gavin’s tattoo etc. It is thoughtful, respectful, and humorous at times, and has evoked some really good insights. Thanks, everyone, for engaging in this healthy conversation.)

What one believes is important. Doctrine is important. And a lot of theology is couched in propositional terminology. I agree with all of these statements.

What I have said in this conversation is that theology is more than merely a set of propositions, and that reducing theological conversation to a rudimentary comparison of proposition sets minimizes the mystery of God’s relationship with the world. Such thinking leads us inevitably into “I’m right and you’re wrong” territory, and that territory is not where I see Jesus calling us to live.

Let’s use John’s analogy of Gavin’s tattoo. He says that either

1) Gavin has a tattoo, or
2) Gavin does not have a tattoo.

One must be true, and both cannot be true, says John, and he asks if there is a third possibility. There is!

3) I saw something on Gavin’s body that looked to me to be a tattoo.

This statement is true, no question about it. (Unless the speaker is lying for some weird reason.) Statement 3 is a testimony or a witness in which the speaker is sharing from her or his own experience of seeing Gavin’s body and noting what appeared to be a tattoo there. However, let’s just say it turns out that Gavin has a large freckle on his body roughly in the shape of the UM cross and flame, had it since birth, doesn’t like to show it off to his friends, kind of embarrassed by it – whatever.

In this case, statement #3 would STILL BE TRUE, although statement #1 would not. See that? I witness to what I believe, to what I have seen and experienced, and that is that there appears to me to be a tattoo on Gavin’s body. That’s pretty much all I can say, unless I am Gavin himself, the tattoo artist, or Gavin’s doctor and can offer a more … um … “intimate” testimony that would either confirm or refute my witness.

I believe that Christ Jesus of Nazareth is God incarnate, sent on God’s gracious mission to save the world from sin and death, and that in his life, death, and resurrection, all creation, including me, is reconciled to God by grace through faith. These doctrines are vitally important to me, and to who I am as a child of God seeking to become the person God desires. But without the “I believe that…” in front of it, this statement may very well become a stumbling block, rather than an entry point. In fact, God alone can confirm (or refute) this testimony fully.

There are ideas that are “I believes” – there are ideas that are “you believes” – there are ideas that are “we believes.” When we talk about the “I believes” and the “you believes” one of the topics of conversation is how we developed these beliefs, or the theological method we use. (Writing my Credo at the end of my seminary time was deeply helpful for me in that I had to closely examine my theological method and ask myself, “Why do I believe this?”) This kind of conversation leads us into thoughtful, sometimes intense dialogue, as we critically engage our own perspectives and the perspectives of others who have their own set of “I believes” to talk about.

The goal of this crucial conversation is not to verify that one person is “right” and the other “wrong,” the goal is faithfulness. We are called to be faithful witnesses to the truth. We are not the truth ourselves, we are but witnesses to it. I’ll testify to everything that I believe, you give me your testimony, and then we’ll celebrate the “we believe” ideas and reason together about the other stuff, in a grace-filled, loving, respectful relationship with one another.

How does that sound?


BruceA said...

Well put!

Speaking of truth, I think it is interesting that Jesus didn't say that he came to teach the truth, but that he was the truth. Ultimately, to get to the truth, we must go beyond mere propositional statements and seek Christ himself.

Larry B said...

I can't resist.

Technically speaking - statement 3 "I saw something on Gavin’s body that looked to me to be a tattoo." isn't a statement that makes any actual claim about whether or not the subject was in a particular state. The object described in statement 3 isn't Gavin's body part, but the observers perception. The statement is true in the sense that it is self evident.

So it really isn't a third alternative to the two statements, and in fact it doesn't allow for another state to exist regarding the actual tatoo which is the object of inquiry.

That's really where I lean heavily (obviously). Ones subjective perception of something doesn't actually alter the object itself.

You also conclude with

"We are not the truth ourselves, we are but witnesses to it.", but you used a self evident statement about oneself (as in statement 3) as an example of truth. So isn't that using oneself as the truth?

I do like your suggestion of using more I believes when having these conversations. Suppose you were sitting in a room with Gavin's doctor who did know of the freckle. By saying "Gavin has a tatoo on his body part" you are making an assertion that doesn't invite reasonable discussion about the issue, rather it causes the "right and wrong" paradigm to pop up - as the doctor could immediately "corret you".

If however you say I believe that there is a tatto, then it's more of an invitation for dialogue regarding how you might believe that and for the offering of evidence by the doctor. After dialogue in this particular case, you no longer have to consider it a belief, but can treat it as knowledge because you have found evidence to support the truth.

John said...

Larry B beat me to it. Your Statement 3 is actually a description of how people perceive Gavin's butt, not its state of being. Gavin's butt remains tattooed or not, regardless of whether people examine it or not. Even if we never get a look at Gavin's butt at MethoBlogCon in Janurary -- or ever -- there are only two possible states:

1. Gavin has the UMC logo tattooed on his butt.
2. Gavin does not have the UMC logo tattooed on his butt.

Anonymous said...

I like the tone of the "I believe" preface as long as it is in the context of reason. For example, if someone says of Gavin's tatoo ...

"I believe that an alien life form tatooed Gavin."

... they will be written off as a wacko even if Gavin could not remember how/when he got the tatoo. I guess what I am saying is that what you believe about something has a lot to do with your belief foundations. In my example that person may have had a foundational belief in alien life forms. For others their foundational beliefs may encompass scriptural literalism or some other view of scripture that causes them to arrive at differing conclusions about "truth" ... some may present themselves as reasonable but other just wacky.

BruceA said...

It may be true that statement 3 is a matter of perception and not a separate possible state of reality, however, in the real world we must often act based on what we perceive, regardless of whether we have all the relevant information that would allow us to make an informed statement of truth.

If we never learn whether Gavin has a UMC tattoo on his butt, then, for all practical purposes it really doesn't matter whether he does or not. Regardless of what the possible realities are, unless we are in a position of absolute knowledge, the only honest statements are those about our own perceptions.

EyeRytStuf said...

Okay, I have to jump in to ask someting. I know nothing of quantum physics, but until the tattoo is observed, isn't it in a state of quantum flux? Say someone TOLD Gavin they were putting patch on his hiney and there was a 50/50 chance of a permanent tattoo being there whent he patch is removed. Wouldn't the tattoo thus be in quantum flux until it was observed?

Which, moving it to the other discussion, isn't the subject of one's belief in quantum flux until whatever one believes is observed to be true or not true?

Just asking. Seriously.

St. Peter's UCC said...


Check it out. Pretty relevant. I try to practice e-prime pretty generally, but I'm not strict about it. -h

Larry B said...


Qauntum mechanics really doesn't apply to the experiment you described here.
Neither does quantum mechanics really make a statement about the intertwining of observation and consciousness. There are several competing ideas about what the overall role of observer is in a quantum mechanical system and what that really means in terms of the reality.

Some say a superposition of states exist, until an observation is taken. Others say that the entanglement of particles needed to form any real observed object we would see reduces the quantum probabilities to near zero, thus disallowing simultaneous states, others say that upon observation the universe splits with one universe having an observer seeing one state and the other having an observer seeing the opposite state.

But bottom line is quantum mechanics actually never intended to make a statement that something could exist in multiple states (such as both dead and alive), but some have inferred that.

In practice quantum mechanics really only differentiates observation from consciousness. Observation can change the state of a system whether the observer is a conscious observer or not.

So trying to apply quantum mechanical principles to conscious observation of macro objects (like tatoos) isn't necessarily a good or scientifically sound approach.

At least that's my understanding from a few years ago in College.

EyeRytStuf said...

Okay, we get I was joking, right? I know quantum mechanics like I know Forest Whitaker.

Which is to say not at all, except to know it exists and maybe I saw it once while standing on the Promenade in Santa Monica and talking to my sister on a pay phone. Maybe. Well, except instead of standing on the Promenade in Santa Monica, I was sitting somewhere, and instead of talking to my sister on a pay phone I was reading "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" by Douglas Adams, which is where I was ever exposed to thoughts on any quantum anything.

I believe that what you believe will happen when you die is what happens. Not really, but I wanted to get you guys back on topic.