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Decoding Theology-Speak: Dialectic as Conversations

9 January 2009

Back in the days when playgrounds were playgrounds, we used to have a piece of equipment that required two kids working hard to make it work.  It looked like a see-saw, but it had a tubular steel handle in front of each seat.  The handle linkages, when pushed and pulled in tandem by the two riders, caused the whole thing to start turning.  The harder each rider worked, and the more coordinated they were, the faster the thing would rotate, which, after all, was the whole piont.  You could get going so fast that the thing would pitch you off if you weren’t strong enough to hold on.


When you hear some pionty-headed person speaking of dialectic, that’s the picture to hold in your mind:  two kids on either side of a fulcrum-pivot, working hard and in coordination, neither gaining any sort of permanent advantage, each’s success dependent on the other’s success, always in one another’s orbit but always on the opposite side…and the more successful the interaction, the greater the centrifugal forces required to keep them in one another’s orbit.


In the first post, qb distilled N. T. Wright to say that “truth is the end; divine love is the means.”  Of course, that’s a terrible oversimplification.  Thus far in The New Testament and the People of God, though, it appears to capture an important objective of the book.  Wright is urging us, building a patient case for us, to approach the Scriptures with the same sort of agape love that the Scriptures themselves urge us to adopt with one another.  Wright wants us to read the Scriptures in such a way that self-interest fades into the background – to paraphrase John the Baptist, in such a way that “the Scriptures increase, and we decrease.”  We pursue, then we allow ourselves to be pursued.  We ask questions, then we silence ourselves and listen.  But we do not impose ourselves; we do not consume the Scriptures for our own satisfaction.  All of which is to say that we love the Scriptures as we would like to be loved, as Jesus himself loved us and modeled for us.

That is the sense in which divine love – agape, not eros, not mere phileo – is the means.  Means of what, precisely?  Well, of obtaining the truth and living in it.


Dallas Willard is so helpful here.  We tend to think of truth as some abstract ideal that we can never reach or obtain, and in a relativist society, it’s easy to throw up our hands in despair at ever coming to a knowledge of the truth.  In one sense, of course, we’re right to despair; perfection is always beyond us.  But there is an important sense in which truth is, in fact, achievable, and it is a concrete sense.  Willard likes to tell his students at USC that truth is “what you run into when you’re wrong.”  What he means by that, of course, is that the world works in certain ways, and when we behave in a manner contrary to the way the world works, we eventually hit our noses on something.  The real world smites us when we treat its laws – truth – with contempt or willful ignorance.  Jesus put it this way:  we reap what we sow, not a different species than what we sowed.

We need look no further than our current economy as a wonderful example of that.  But I’ll not chase that rabbit today.


So we’ve got to have truth to live abundantly and freely.  The disciple John has Jesus saying that we “shall know the truth, and the truth shall make [us] free.”  Unfortunately, all too often (and many of my friends and family have been on either the receiving end or the giving end of this) we find truth being used as a weapon of division rather than a communal goal toward which we are all striving.  Living in full accordance with truth would rid us of all of that garbage, but for the time being, “full accordance” is not available to us.  The cheap substitutes for truth – laws, mainly – are our fall-back position.  So we live in suspicion and accusation of one another, considering each other as lawbreakers and threats.

It’s pretty clear, therefore, that the pursuit of truth by itself leads us into a variety of social and cultural (and, yes, religious) pathologies.  The means of skirting those pathologies is agape love, the “attitude” that Paul urged us to have “that is also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2).  In another place, Paul or one of his apprentices urged his readers to “speak the truth in agape” (Ephesians 4:15).


Put truth in one seat, and love in the other.  There will be times that truth has to pull harder, and there will be times that love has to pull harder.  There will be times that they both strain to stay on, to keep the thing moving.  There will be times that love is the end, and truth is the means – disciplining our children, for example – but very seldom, if ever, do we find truth or love operating alone.  In fact, as we move toward Christ, the distinctions between truth and love are pretty likely to evaporate.


That, friends, is an example of dialectic.  We’ll often encounter authors who speak of “holding two apparently contradictory ideas in tension,” which is another way of getting at it.  But the great and divine ideas seldom work alone.  Somehow, God seems to have designed the universe as a dialectical one in which planets, ideas, and people swing ’round one another in orbit.


Some of you are probably thinking, now, about Paul’s great discourse on love in I Corinthians 13.  C’mon, qb, “truth” didn’t even make the top three.  There it is, in black and white!

Fair enough.  My guess is, though, that the setting of the letter to the Corinthians helps us see why that is so.  Isn’t there at least some suggestion in the first few chapters that competition for the right to claim truth was at the root of many of their problems?  If we can agree to that, perhaps we can conclude that the dialectical position of truth in I Corinthians is implicit.


But this series is not about deciding between truth and love.  It’s about decoding and demystifying Christian scholarship.  I hope the idea of “dialectic” is clearer now.  And the next time you have to grapple with a divided soul – you love your son, but his disobedience drives you berserk – you’ll recognize your inner tension as a dialectical conversation between, say, justice and mercy!


3 Comments leave one →
  1. 9 January 2009 1:10 pm


    Robert Bolt (he of “The Mission”) in his play “A Man for All Seasons” has Thomas More say these words (which apply to your effort here):

    “God made the angels to show him splendor—as he made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man he made to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind! If he suffers us to fall to such a case that there is no escaping, then we may stand to our tackle as best we can, and yes, Will, then we may clamor like champions…if we have the spittle for it. And no doubt it delights God to see splendor where He only looked for complexity. But it’s God’s part, not our own, to bring ourselves to that extremity! Our natural business lies in escaping….”



  2. queueball permalink*
    9 January 2009 2:10 pm

    Them’s great words, reminiscent (for some reason) of the Bard’s St. Crispin speech. I love the imagery that calls us to something greater than predation and grazing and procreation and instinct, the exercise of the mind as a unique calling in the kingdom. qb

  3. 9 January 2009 5:27 pm

    Although I prefer my perch as the “fly on the wall” I may find it irresistible to occasionally flit around amongst great conversations such as this. I’m glad to see you move quickly to define your context…I have been known to share your musings. Growing up in a family where “Certainty” was our constant houseguest, my pulse quickens when anyone starts talking about finding truth. Our friend, Mike Armour, helped equip me to consider ideas in tension through his “smell test” hermeneutic. (My application: if it smells like a fish, it probably is; if it smells like rain, I will have to decide whether to grab my umbrella.) It has historically been difficult for our friends and family to listen to Mike preach one sermon because it was impossible for them to understand his context. All one has to do is google “Mike Armour” to see that there are lots of people who continue to come in at the intermission. Now that I think about it, that is probably characteristic of the scholars we read regularly…the ones you mentioned in the last post. I owe each one of them a deep gratitude for helping me mature past reading ABOUT God’s word, to READING God’s word. A special thanks to NT Wright for authoring his “Paul For Everyone” commentary of the New Testament so that I can keep the Galations/Thessolonians volume in my purse and never once decide whether Paul wrote II Thess…and then at night, fight my way through his latest book on Paul reading just a few pages at a time.

    In 2004 Wright delivered a paper, “Men, Women and the Church”at St. John’s College. It’s on his website: In his introductory remarks, among many other things he says, there is this statement: “Among the many things that need to be said about the gospels is that we gain nothing by ignoring the fact that Jesus chose twelve male apostles.” (smells like fish to me.) He then begins to seriously address the three key passages that have caused difficulty. In the last paragraph before his Conclusion,he summarizes Paul’s message in I Timothy 2 and then finishes up with a rather tantalizing challenge. (It smells like rain and I think I’ll grab my umbrella.)

    Ya’ll have fun! MA

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