Overlapping Circles

My friend Amy evinces the most interesting cultural mix in one person that I know. She is of Chinese descent, was born in Hong Kong, grew up in black inner city Boston and Chinatown-NYC, attended elite predominantly white preppy schools (Wellesley prep, and Univ. of Penn), and married a quiet, cool, analytical, white guy from Long Island. These things combine with her acute social sensibilities and profound powers of psychological perception to make for very interesting and illuminating interactions to say the least. One day, in the midst of one of those conversations in which a group of us were playing the part of pseudo-cultural anthropologists, she asked the following:

“If there are three birds on a branch and one gets shot, how many remain?”

Perhaps you’ve heard this before or something like it. The question is intended to demonstrate the thinking style/pattern of the one answering. More generally, it is supposed to show us how different cultures have different thinking styles or variegated thought matrices. For instance, the western born person (North American, European, etc.) would most likely answer –‘ two’, whereas people of a more Eastern mind (Asia, Africa) would answer – ‘zero’. Why?

The person who answers ‘two’ appears to conceive of the problem as one primarily of abstract mathematical calculation, ‘3 birds -1 shot bird = 2 remaining birds’. Mathematical metaphysics trumps physics! However, the person who answers ‘zero,’ sees the issue in a more concrete, integrated way. He/she may reason that the gunshot (and consequent fall of the dead bird) would scare the remaining birds away. Thus, in this case, natural physics trumps metaphysics!

What does this have to do with reformed theology? Incorporating an integrated thinking style into our reading of texts, a style which doesn’t ransack the messy particulars in search of embedded universals, can fund a fuller and faithful reading of scripture and enrich and inform our understanding of theology.

Take the occasion of Galatians two (where Paul gets in Peter’s grill!). For some time, the introduction of Justification by faith (a sacrosanct doctrine to us reformed folks) in 2:15-21, juxtaposed with the confrontation of 2:11-14, was jarring. It left me feeling like I have very little reader competency in this Pauline material.

I think that I was doing the theological equivalent of ‘3 -1 shot bird = 2’ with ‘justification’. I’ve been cognitively habituated so that every time I see the word, ‘justification’ in the biblical texts, I go off on a timeless propositional flight of fancy with regard to what it means. I envision abstract cosmic courtrooms and galaxy-sized gavels being slammed down in favor of some nameless disembodied sinner somewhere, not real people in a particular church.

But to understand ‘justification’ here in Gal. 2, solely as some hypothetical person standing in the divine law court receiving the verdict, ‘not guilty’ (as true as this is), seems to miss the import of it for the particular concrete situation in which Paul is engaged. ‘Justification’ answers the particular problem of Jews and Gentiles not eating together (2:13b). It speaks to concretely circumcised and uncircumcised people sharing the same table (2:13c). In short, justification is about ecclesiology (church) and soteriology (salvation)…on earth as in heaven, right? Maybe I’m theologically ill-formed but I don’t find this conjunction problematic in the least. 3 birds minus 1 shot bird equals 2 birds flying off somewhere and this while not less than a mathematical (theological?) calculation, is far more than that.

I can’t recall hearing a sermon about justification and the church. I’ve heard numerous messages that probe the rich contours of justification in its all of its soteriological beauty. Why is this? I suspect that the long shadow of Plato still influences us. Wouldn’t a sermon on justification be appropriate for a conference on race relations in the church….or even class relations for that matter? Doesn’t relating justification to the church and salvation make it a more robust reformed category, which is faithful to scripture? Just thinking out loud here and wondering if other folks have thoughts about this.

Mark Robinson