Thursday, 12 March 2009

Is theology the 'grammar of faith'...

In other words, its wholly possible to speak a language while remaining oblivious to its grammar and even its written form. Likewise (by metaphor) isn't it also possible to have a faith that is broadly unconcerned with the details and only interested in 'getting on with it'?

If this comparison works then does the following hold true as well: yes, you can speak without knowing any grammar and yet when you try to teach someone else to speak this new language (or at least to teach them WELL) don't you then have a problem because you suddenly NEED the stuff you previously thought was irrelevant?

Can you see where I am going?

Faith is, of course, essential and can be enjoyed and lived without a care for the supposed minutiae of doctrine/theology. The trouble, however, comes when you try to talk to other people about this new 'language' of faith and you suddenly realise that without a 'grammar' you are left with mere subjective feelings and perspectives...

What do you think? Is this true?


  1. Apologies if I've misunderstood, but are you suggesting the need for a shared basis with which we can discuss faith? Defining Grammar as "the system of rules implicit in a language" or something similar...

    If so, I'd pehaps ask "what's the need?" Is faith alone not sufficient? Of course many would say that without a knowledge of the Bible and the doctrines of whichever denomination you align yourself with you do not truely 'belong' to any church at all, but in ontological terms if you 'know' God then you know God. Arguably this alone should be the basis that allows us to discuss faith amongst ourselves. Requiring the knowledge of any shared rules (the grammar of the language in the metaphor) is a human concept and perhaps nothing to do with true faith at all.

  2. Thanks for dropping in Rob and for sharing your ideas...
    No, you haven't misunderstood, I WAS suggesting the need for a 'shared basis' that will help us to meaningfully discuss faith.
    I know that this probably sounds turgid and old-fashioned, but is it really?
    You ask: "Is faith alone not sufficient?" my question back is: "faith IN what/whom?" and then as soon as you answer this question you will by necessity start to apply theological terms/concepts to your understanding.

    For example, if you say I have an ontological faith in God - the obvious question is "which God?" and if, like me, you hold a Judaeo-Christian perspective then immediately you are using theologically/doctrinally laden terms.

    Yes, I agree that our focus ought to be our love and faith in God. What I am a little wary of is the route of 'freedom' offered by some believers (I won't call them Christians as this I suppose would be too theology-bound) that wants to break free into a doctrine/theology Free Zone. I can see the appeal but fear the ideological malaise it creates.
    I once asked someone of the no-doctrine persuasion how they would ever know if someone was heterodox (i.e. outside of an orthodox theological position) and he said, "there's no such thing as heterodox, we each have our own take on faith and it is real for each one of us..." hmmm, that sounds wonderful until I then said, "Okay, so what if I am a Satanist and I want to come and worship with you?" He just had no answer, because if he were to condemn Satanists as theologically unsound he realised that he would need a theological base from which to do so...

    Man, this is fascinating stuff! Thanks for setting me off on one Rob - this is exactly the kind of dialogue I'd hoped for through this Blog. I do hope that you'll drop by again...

    Anyway, I hope that I've made myself a little clearer now?

    Having said all this, Dr Graham McFarlane who is my PhD supervisor, once memorably (and in my opinion, very WISELY) stated that, "theres more to the truth than words can convey..."

    That said, it doesn't have to mean, IMHO, that we say NOTHING - that is the road to nihilism and antinomianism...

    Phew! I guess that's enough for now...

  3. The problem is though that once you enter into defining a theological basis like this you have a set of terms and meanings thats acceptable to you and your now open to challenge from the philosophy of religion. So you have defined your terms in language the people you wish to discuss things with can use but then you have to explain why it's meaningful language.

    My thought is that you can get so caught up in the debate and spend a lot of time on it and then end up with nothing but words for your efforts.

    Though "we do not do things because they are easy", and the philosophy of language would arguably largely attempt to call religious language meaningless anyway so my arguement is not necissarily one that should deter people from finding a grammar.

  4. A couple of thoughts.

    If grammar is an aspect of language, and it is through language that we organize our sensory data and 'make sense' of what we perceive, then we always operate within a grammar. It is inescapable. So I don't think it is "possible to speak a language while remaining oblivious to its grammar". Even if we cannot articulate the 'rules', we still assume them when we use language. They are implicit in our use of language, even if we have never examined or articulated explicitly.

    In terms of 'knowing' God providing a basis for discussion, in English the word 'know' can have an objective sense (possessing information about something or someone) and a subjective sense(personally knowing through contact with). The latter, however, always involves the former whereas the former need not involve the latter. You don't need to know someone personally to learn about them, but to know someone personally is to gain information about them.

    The problem with 'knowing' God personally is that we need to 'make sense' of our sensory experience, first of all to determine that it is God we have experienced in any particular instance, and then how we should understand the particulars of the experience. We require an 'interpretive framework' within which to understand any sensory data including those experiences we judge to be of 'knowing' God.

    For example, when I am participating in prayer with other Christians and one of them shares something with me that relates to something specific in my life and stirs my emotions, then I experience this as God speaking to me because of the 'interpretive framework' I have learnt through my life from the scriptures, friends,the churches I have been involved with, etc.

    I simply don't think we can drive a wedge between knowing about and knowing relationally.