Search Term Friday: Theological Worlds

I get a lot of search terms about "the problem of suffering" or "the problem of pain" with many of those search terms linking to a post from 2011 about Paul Jones' notion of theological worlds:

Specifically, Paul Jones argues that each of us live within a unique and different "theological world." These "worlds" are characterized by, in Jones's terms, a distinctive obsessio and epiphania. Here is how Jones describes our obsessio:
An obsessio is whatever functions deeply and pervasively in one’s life as a defining quandary, a conundrum, a boggling of the mind, a hemorrhaging of the soul, a wound that bewilders healing, a mystification than renders one’s life cryptic. Whatever inadequate words one might choose to describe it, an obsessio is that which so gets its teeth into a person that it establishes one’s life as plot. It is a memory which, as resident image, becomes so congealed as Question that all else in one’s experience is sifted in terms of its promise as Answer. Put another way, an obsessio is whatever threatens to deadlock Yeses with No. It is one horn that establishes life as dilemma…The etymology of the word says it well: obsessio means “to be besieged."
Basically, the obsessio is the Question of your existence, theologically speaking. What's the location of brokenness in the world or in your life?

The epiphania, by contrast, is the experience (or hope) of an Answer to the obsessio:
epiphania, etymologically meaning “to show upon,” that which keeps the functioning obsessio fluid, hopeful, searching, restless, energized, intriguing, as a question worth pursuing for a lifetime. It keeps one’s obsessio from becoming a fatal conclusion that signals futility…Epiphania is epiphany precisely because its absurdity resides in being too good to be true.
Jones suggests that the experience of obsessio and epiphania can be asymmetrical. For believers who I describe as "Winter Christians" in The Authenticity of Faith the obsessio is the major chord of the faith experience: questions predominate over answers, the experience of brokenness is more acute than the experience of grace. By contrast, for "Summer Christians" the epiphania is the dominant experience, with answers sufficient to the questions and grace able to relieve the brokenness.

But beyond the relative "balance" of obsessio to epiphania Jones goes on to suggest that there are unique and distinctive obsessios and that these create a "theological world."

What is a theological world? According to Jones each obsessio is different. And, as a consequence, so is each epiphania. Basically, my Question might be different from your Question. And what keeps you up at night, spiritually speaking, might be different from what keeps me up at night. We each have different felt experiences about what is wrong with the world. And, as a result, we go looking for different sorts of answers. Thus, your unique obsessio and epiphania--your Question and your quest for an Answer--creates a distinctive spiritual experience, defining the sort of faith quest you are on, your theological world.

What is helpful about Jones' ideas is that they highlight the great diversity of the Christian experience. It's not a one size fits all deal.

Consider one of the theological worlds. Perhaps the dominant theological world in Protestantism is the world where the obsessio is human sin and guilt. In this theological world sin--your sin--is the problem and predicament. Sin, guilt and judgment are what is wrong with the world (and with you in particular). Sin is the location of brokenness. Judgment is what keeps you up at night.

Consequently, the epiphania in this world is forgiveness and grace. The journey in this theological world is to find relief for sin--the obsessio--in the experience of God's salvation and forgiveness.

Importantly, your theological world shapes your Christology, how you see the work of the Christ. When the obsessio is sin and the epiphania is forgiveness the work of the Christ is specified: In the atoning death of Jesus on the cross the predicament of sin is confronted and overcome. In the sacrificial death of Jesus the Question has found an Answer.

Now, it's a big shocker for some Christians to find out that many of their brothers and sisters don't live within this theological world. Sin isn't their obsessio. Not that they deny the existence and problem of sin, just that sin isn't the defining quandary of their spiritual lives.

I am an example of a Christian of this sort. Sin and guilt isn't my obsessio. If you tell me that I'm going to hell I'll just blink at you blandly and yawn. I'm emotionally unmoved. To be clear, it's not that I don't want to go to heaven. I do. I just don't spend my life trying to save my own skin.

Because who really cares if I, one privileged American male, gets to go to heaven when 15 million children will die from hunger this year? I mean, really? I'm supposed to sweat my own eternal destiny in the face of that suffering? Wouldn't a pietistic obsession about my own status in the afterlife seem a bit obscene and self-serving given what is happening in the world?

Of course, you might disagree with me on this score. Strongly so. But that's the point. We live in different theological worlds. Your obsessio is not my obsessio. And these differences cause us to approach our faith experience in qualitatively different ways.

And again, this shapes our respective Christologies. Where someone might see the cross of Jesus as a substitutionary sacrifice--the epiphania for their theological world--I see Divine solidarity with the starving child. I'm not interested in if the death of Jesus "saves" me. No doubt it does. But that's not my obsessio. I'm not looking for those sorts of answers from the cross. I'm looking for an epiphania for my obsessio. What I'm looking for in the cross is less about salvation than about God's solidarity with victims.

To conclude, let me say that no world is "better" than the other, although I expect we each favor our own. The main point is that we are different. And each of us has a bit of the truth. The world is a very broken place. It is sinful and it is suffering. And some of us are attuned to one more than the other. I think that's healthy. May grace abound to us all. May God find you in your theological world, in your dark night of the soul...

No matter what Question keeps you up at night.

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6 thoughts on “Search Term Friday: Theological Worlds”

  1. At the risk of coming across like "Mr. Philosopher" with another comment, let me say that your blog and posts fill me with a healthy hunger and a feast, as well as with a desire to share what meager thoughts are poked within my mind.

    This recognition of the DIFFERENT world that lives in each person is what frees us to recognize God as the DIFFERENT indwelling and engulfing God for each person. That is where I believe the Fundamentalists as well as the angry Atheists, trip up. Fundamentalists, for the most part, cannot see God any greater than their theology, because even their view of pain and suffering must fall somewhere within their doctrinal outline ; and many Atheists are still angry with the Fundamentalist God they "think" they left behind.

    The people who have fed and filled my sense of awe are those who recognize God as the "being, life, mind, wisdom and love" that is ONE and UNIQUE with each person, yet greater than one person,; greater than one tribe, nation, era or age. And it is amazing how the God who is greater than the ages becomes so intimate with one suffering, yet seeking and healing soul.

  2. In a word: humility.

    I have learned that my problem is not with the fact that people hold fundamentalist beliefs, or that people hold progressive or atheist beliefs; or that they disagree with me. My problem is... well... my problem.

  3. I am currently reading Pete Rollins' Idolatry of G*d. Have you read this? This appears to me to be a contrasting point to his thesis. I may be all wet on this, I am still in my first reading, but I see some overlap. I will have to look into Paul Jones after I am done. Another addition to my reading list....I need to find a used theology bookstore!

  4. I think my obsessio would be whether or not God speaks to me. I don't know, maybe that isn't really the heart of it but that is what came to mind. I think a major section of my faith defense would probably be around resolving why it is okay not to hear or meet God the way other people say they do. It doesn't do much for self confidence since I have to try and rely on community feedback to evaluate which is always complicated since I like questions that challenge the status quo.

    It is also nice to know that my callous disregard for sin isn't necessarily a character flaw or indicative of unresolved issues! :)

  5. alcoholics anonymous teaches us alkies that our character flaws are part of the disease of alcoholism. What triggers someone to make alcohol an obsession? Many factors obviously. But however someone comes to drink themselves to death character flaws will part of the problem and a spiritual program like a.a.can restore sanity, sobriety & community. The problem of anyone who suffers from any form of addiction is no ability to have close loving personal relationships that have a large component of empathy. To have empathy is to be able to be in recovery & healed enuff so that my character flaws will become assets to help other addicts recover when I share my experience of remembering how lonely I was and hopeless in my obsessions. Prayers to have a higher power remove my character flaws will be a big part of my deliverance from any form of addiction/obsession.

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