Hallucinating Your Ideology

“A theory is a very dangerous thing to have.”
-Nassim Nicholas Taleb

One of the core ideas of Nassim Taleb’s work is that many small errors in a system are much safer than one big one. If you let individual grocery store managers handle their own ordering, sometimes they’re gonna screw it up, and a particular store will run out of potatoes. You can solve that problem by taking away local control, and hiring a handful of specialists at headquarters. But if you centrally control all ordering from corporate headquarters, when you make a mistake, all the stores west of the Mississippi run out of potatoes at the same time.

So yes, the store manager in Paducah is bad at ordering produce, but his errors don’t propagate to other stores, and someone from the produce department can always pop over to the next town and grab a few crates of potatoes to hold them over until the next shipment. Can’t do that when corporate makes a similar mistake, because the consequences are so much bigger. Centralized control prevents many small errors, then in a single blunder costs more than all the small errors put together.

And this why giving primacy to exegesis works better than giving primacy to an organizing theological concept.

Examples of that centralized, top-down approach abound–it’s far more common than not. Gordon Clark is a particularly good example, because he was very clear-eyed about what he was doing. Clark talked up the importance of starting points, and pointedly said that his starting point was the sovereignty of God, and he never wavered from it–and to my eye, he didn’t, even when that meant doing violence to a particular text of Scripture in service to his big idea. The truth is that everybody does this sometimes, and most theologians do it habitually; they just pretend they don’t.  Very few are as clear and honest about it as Clark was. God bless him for his clarity.

I’m not against Big Idea thinking; it’s a good lens to look through at times. You see some things you’d have missed otherwise. The danger is that if you look through the same lens all the time–if you allow the Big Idea to become your master rather than your tool–you can no longer see clearly. You see your Big Idea in everything, whether it’s there or not. And the corollary danger is that you miss things that are right in front of you, because you’re too busy hallucinating your ideology to notice what’s actually there.

Once you do that, you’re not doing exegesis anymore.


3 Responses to Hallucinating Your Ideology

  1. Jim Reitman says:

    Dang it!

    So … we can miss the trees for the forest too? I was so on a roll with my own Big Idea. Killjoy.

    Three things occur to me in response:

    1. I find it helps to think about layers of authorial intent when doing exegesis in any given thought-unit of Scripture. An author is generally
    a) painting a genre-and-context-shaped theological depiction with his writing ( = locution); which he uses to:
    b) apply “leverage” to his reader(s) in such a way that, if successful, will result in a desired internal “heart response” ( = illocution); which in turn will hopefully result in:
    c) a desired transformation of our disposition(s) toward God, self, and/or others, often accompanied by external behavioral change ( = perlocution).
    When we look at the text through these three lenses we often “expand our horizon” as to what God is saying and why, and that in turn should be mutually informing at both the “micro” and “macro” levels.

    2. Why are evangelicals such “loners” when we do exegesis? It would seem to me that engaging the process more consistently with others—which would require exegetical humility—might afford an “economy of scale” to help protect against this kind of exegetical myopia.

  2. Tim Nichols says:

    Sorry so late responding to this — last two weeks have been a blur. So I’m all a-flutter with curiosity as to what #3 is, I must say. You’re a man of mystery.

    re. #2 — YES!!! And I learned that, bone-deep, from John Niemela at CTS. We taught a particular exegetical method there, which I still practice, teach, and highly, highly recommend. Steep learning curve, and not a lot of people really dig into it, more’s the pity. But the particular conventions and principles that we teach, valuable as they are, are only half the picture. They gave us a common language, but the other half of the picture is how we used that common language: the class was a free-for-all where no exegetical question or position was off-limits, and you were expected to regularly disagree with your peers and with us, and be ready to back it up. Heck, we regularly fought with each other as co-teachers (to model productive debate for the students, sure–but we actually disagreed). I’ve seen John change his view on a passage–something he’s taught for years, even published on, doesn’t matter–in heartbeat because a student made a solid argument that hadn’t occurred to him. I’ve seen him change his diagram or outline of the passage live, on the fly, with his computer screen projected on the wall for everybody to watch while he moved things around. Not a shred of ego; the Word is the authority, and the Body is how we come to know it better. That was the other half of what we taught: your grasp of the passage after you hash it through with your peers is light-years better than it was before, and that is always true, no matter how much time you spend in the study.

  3. Jim Reitman says:

    Uh … about #3 …

    The only thing worse than losing something in cyberspace is losing it in brainspace. Maybe I’ll retrieve it in exegetical community.


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