Theological Worlds

Last week I was guest lecturing at McMurry University talking to a class about my research regarding Summer and Winter Christians. During the discussion we got into a conversation about Paul Jones' notion of theological worlds.

The first part of Jones' thesis is that our spiritual lives are characterized by an obsessio and an 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 Winter Christians 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. For Summer Christians the epiphania is the dominant experience, with answers sufficient to the questions and grace able to relieve the brokenness.

I like to use Jones' notion of obsessio and epiphania to illustrate the theological differences between Summer and Winter Christians. But in my lecture at McMurry we moved on to discuss Jones' notion of theological worlds.

What is a theological world? According to Jones each obsessio is different. And, as a consequence, so is each epiphania. Basically, my Questions might be different from your Questions. 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 distinct 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 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 stripe. 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. You might go to church and rejoice in the experience of God's grace and God's great and amazing love for us. I, by contrast, am calculating in my mind that over 7,000 children starved to death while were standing here singing praise songs.

We just are living in two different theological worlds.

And, again, this shapes our respective Christologies. Where you see the cross of Jesus as a substitutionary sacrifice--the epiphania for your 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. As Jurgen Moltmann has written:
The crucified Christ becomes the brother of the despised, abandoned and oppressed. And this is why brotherhood with the "least of his brethren" is a necessary part of brotherhood with Christ and identification with him.
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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4 thoughts on “Theological Worlds”

  1. I really like this Obsessio/Epiphineo frame work; mainly, it feels like it names something of our human fabric.. A couple of things I'm wondering:

    Do God's revelations depend on the obsessios of the hearers of those revelations, or are they independent of any particular hearer?

    If I today, don't share in the obsessio of the first church, and if Atonement is a theological world view which stems directly from their obsessio, can I legitimately understand--or see--the Christ Event in ways other than Atonement, on the basis that I see our human obsessio differently than my first century siblings- an obsessio the nature of which, they wouldn't have had any way of seeing?

  2. Hi Richard,

    Thanks for your explanation of diversity.

    I was thinking I was a bit of a strange christian not so much involved and interested in salvation by the cross.

    Now I understand my obession is about being alone, of people being isolated because love is not flowing. And the quest I have or search for is about meeting, real contact between me and God, between people, between different parts within a person...

    From your blog I learn that there is nothing wrong about not being involved primarily in the sin-saved quest, I have a different one!

    Nothing more practical than a good theory...


  3. Interesting...I heard about this blog at a post-evangelical blog. Just so you know I'm an agnostic today and had some experiences with some Pharises that helped drive me out the church. But in my "world" another factor was being so overwhelmed with questions that I couldn't find answers to, and people wanted to ignore. These are some of them.

    1. Can a Christian be disappointed in God? Can they ever be angry at God? If not...then why? Why do Christians always attribute positive acts to God and negative acts to Satan? Why don't they ever hold God responsible? Why don't Christians ever get frustrated publically about God? Do they believe its a sin...and if that Biblical?

    2. What about evil that doesn't invovle free will? How is that explained?

    3. What exactly is the prosperity gospel? How would you define it? What is the difference between being blessed versus believing in the prosperity gospel? Is the prosperity gospel more embedded in Christianity today that people would want to admit?

    4. Do Christians make the Bible and idol? Do Christians worship the Bible?

    5. Do Christians take some liberties in saying that the Bible is from God and divine? I was thinking the Gospel of John starts out by saying the word became flesh (reference to Jesus) and while I am familiar with vs like 2 Timothy 3:16, Joshua 1:8-9, etc.. wouldn't you say those versus are retrospective to those individual books? I mean (and I may be me on the carpet...) there really isn't a verse in the Bible that says these 66 Books from Genesis to Revelation are divine and from God and exist in this intended format to be used in this way. Do you think Christians are mistranslating the Bible when they say that?

    6. In the Bible if it talks about generational sin, and that comes down upon people, then where does the issue of free will come in? Isn't there a conflict there?

    7. Also in regards to Adam...why is it that Adams' sin affects and carries down to you? Why am I or anyone held responsible for Adams' original sin?

    8. When it comes to sin, why don't Christians get outraged over some of the murders or sin that God commits? For example in the Bible it talks about Harold being immoral and corrupt in the slaughter of the innocents. Yet in the plagues that God brought down upon Egypt what about when God murdered all the infants and new born Egyptians? I mean I can understand Pharaoh and he being held responsible...but what did a 9 month year old child do where he deserved to be killed?

    9. I could be mistaken but it seems as if the Gospel message of salvation has its historical and geographic limitations. In this "You need to know Jesus to be saved" environment what about those who never heard the gospel due to where they lived, or the time the lived? For example...did the people who lived in China at about the time God walked the earth go staright to hell becuase they never knew Jesus? What about Australia or those in other parts of the world?

    Those were some of the questions I wrestled with in my world that I couldn't get answers to. Please understand I'm not at all trying to hijack this post, just talk about the questions that effected "my world".

  4. I must say this post gave me quite a lot to think about. I had never heard of the notion of theological worlds, but I was instantly intrigued. I have always believed that every individual wants and needs different things from religion and the ideas of obsessio and epiphania are such a wonderful way to illustrate it. These concepts are something I would enjoy studying more in depth. Thank you for such an enlightening post.

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