Old Categories or New?

In his book Science, Truth and Democracy, scientific philosopher Philip Kitcher argues that the old way of doing science with its hierarchies, taxonomies and categories, such as could be applied to species, must be challenged. Did the species simply originate and we labeled them accordingly, or are our categories an attempt to organize and understand an overwhelming world? The problem with our firm categories is that we force new findings into them. This puts the integrity of the research and the findings at risk. Approaching the new data with our preconceived ideas and taxonomies compromises the whole process as well as the results. Also, the whole idea of species articulated by Darwin included the evolutionary process… that entities could develop, change and evolve. But if our categories are too rigid, it doesn’t allow for this. Kitcher suggests that we loosen our commitment to these categories in order to inject new energy into and open new horizons for scientific research.

Is it possible that the same thing must happen with theology and ecclesiology? Why are many of us still working with and within old categories that are obviously long outdated? Is it a possibility that, for instance, the strong reaction to Rob Bell’s and other modern writers’ ideas, is an old taxonomy competing with a new taxonomy? Do we sometimes oppose even the search for a new taxonomy?

So let’s take a hot example: Hell. The old category says one thing, with a physical place, flames and eternal suffering. But a new movement is afoot trying to understand the concept of Hell in a new way. Is it enough to simply chuck the whole idea because it is repugnant to us? Or should we continue our research until we discover a new way to understand and articulate the concept that isn’t offensive to the modern mind and conscience?

The same can be applied to sexuality. The old categories insist on married sex between a man and a woman only, and that if you don’t fit within this category then you are an abomination. But is there new research, evidence and findings that might suggest new categories are necessary that are more in keeping with the spirit of the text as well as with what is most beneficial to the human race?

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  • Christine

    Hey David, way to combine your two most controversial topics of interest into a single post. 🙂

    But seriously…

    I think I could almost swallow the categories if they came at all from anywhere credible.

    The modern notion of hell (flames and whatnot) is a pagan/ancient Greek idea of Hades merges into Christianity. It hasn’t any roots in Judaism, and the NT barely supports it (you have to take quite literally some things that seem fairly clearly to be metaphorical).

    On marriage, the idea that it has been a consistent institution for even the last sixty years (at least in the West) is laughable – let alone 2000 or even 5000 years (!), depending on who’s counting. Not to mention, it has been completely different since the industrial revolution and has no consistency between cultures (Christian or otherwise). As much as some would like to disagree, marriage is primarily a social institution, not a religious one (as evidenced by the fact that marriage rites transcend all cultures and religious and continue to the secular). But it has also been constantly changing as a result; since it’s social, it changes with society. (Not to mention all that polygamy and extra-marital sex in the Bible… but I digress.)

    Modern notions of hell and sexuality are based on our (now changing) social norms, much of which is more influenced by Greek philosophy and misogyny than the Bible.

    That makes it a little too much to take – even if in theory we would benefit from categories (which we might not). The problem, as you pointed out, being that categories that we invent are inevitably artificial. Jesus and Paul seem more interested in breaking down and challenging categories – so maybe we should take our sues there.

  • Hi.

    Do we really have to redefine simple basic words like atom, cell, marriage and hell?

  • Yes.
    There is nothing that we cannot redefine into our own desires.

    This is the nature of sin.

  • Christine

    Aishah – It’s rediculous to think that any of the *existing* definitions aren’t already human redefinitions that have already undergone much redefining.

    A word might be simple, but the concepts they represent are quite complex. To deny that is simple ignorance.

    We get into danger (including judgement, Steve – to draw on our other conversation) when we assume we have the perfect definitions, without ever examining them for the humna-made concepts that they are.

  • I find it very interesting the list that Aishah groups in her question. The atom is actually a really good example to group in there with marriage and hell as “basic words” that shouldn’t be “redefined”. When I was in high school, we were taught to understand the construct of an atom using the Bohr model. You know, that one where you have electrons orbiting around the nucleus like planets orbiting around the sun. The Bohr model was replaced by a more accurate model of what atoms are really like long before I was even born, much less entered high school. It is in many ways obsolete. It is none-the-less still the number one model of choice when introducing students to the concept of atoms for the fist time. It is a simple way of understanding something that is in reality far more complex. It works in many situations and is therefore still considered useful even though it fails miserably on a deeper level. Of course, for the vast majority of us, who do not choose to pursue deeper understandings of quantum physics and chemistry, the Bohr model provides the understanding of what an atom is that will stick with us and most people never even realize that it is not correct. For those that do go on to pursue studies in these fields, it will likely seem that the atom is being “redefined” as they learn that it does not fit within the confines of the model they were first taught.

    Similarly, people are now claiming that marriage is being “redefined” because the we are looking at it in ways that do not fit within the model that they were first taught. But is it really being redefined? Marriage has never fit within the model that we are being told is the true definition of marriage. Marriage has always been a far more complex structure than what those that are supposedly “defending the definition of marriage” would have us believe. The history of marriage is an extremely varied one that has not been consistent over time or throughout different cultures. Marriage has always meant different things to different people. If anything, the people that are trying to fit marriage into a narrow definition that suits their limited view of what it is are the ones that are trying to “redefine” marriage. They are trying to take something that is in reality very complex and conform it to their simple understanding. But choosing to define marriage as being between one man and one woman no more makes it so than teaching the Bohr model of an atom makes it the way all atoms actually behave. Life isn’t that simple folks.

    It is particularly perplexing to me that people attempt to use the bible to create these limited definitions. Marriage and sexuality in the bible is a very complex subject. It is very difficult to nail down what exactly a “biblical” view on the topic would be. But, like the Bohr model of the atom is taught to students to introduce them in a simple way to an otherwise very complex concept, so too people are taught the “biblical view” of marriage and sexuality as a very simplistic model that much of scripture does not fit into. And just as most people never go on to study deeper into quantum physics/chemistry and learn the failings of the model they were first taught, so too most Christians never go on to study deeper into the teachings of scripture on marriage/sexuality and learn the failings of the model they were first taught. The same could definitely be said for hell.