Don Miller’s Catch-22 image

Don Miller’s Catch-22

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Don Miller says that - no, wait, Don Miller wonders whether - our theological positions are not much more than a function of our brain chemistry. Oh yes.

If Brian McLaren and John Piper switched brain chemistry, Miller argues suggests, they would might also switch their views on doctrine and theology. Some people, like McLaren and Miller himself, have the chemicals in their brains configured such that they are “comfortable with ambiguity”, whereas others, like Piper, have a “high need for control”. (Nice that the categories are expressed in such neutral, not-at-all-loaded terms). Consequently, their theological commitments emerge may emerge simply from the relative amounts of seratonin, dopamine and norepinephrine in their brains. That’s why That may be why Piper is a high Calvinist and McLaren is cool with gay marriage, you see.

As an argumentative tactic, it’s a brilliant leveller. It makes all theological positions equally valid, on the basis that we only hold them for chemical reasons, and thereby leaves people free to choose whichever one they want (which presumably appeals to those who are comfortable with ambiguity, or even a bit too hip for their own good). You’re not sure whether the Bible is true? Don’t worry; you’ve got a lot of seratonin. Wobbly about the divinity of Christ? No problem; a bit more dopamine will sort that out. Not only that, but it’s a superbly conceived Catch-22, since it silences any rebuttal by definition: you only think I’m wrong because you’ve got more blah-di-blah in your brain than I have. Heads I win, tails you lose. As Tom Wright said in a different context, you do wonder if some people would recognise a reductio ad absurdum if it bit them on the nose.

I’ve been a Don Miller fan for years. His Searching for God Knows What is one of the five best books I’ve ever read, and I have quite self-consciously modelled my writing style on his, as anyone who has read If God Then What? will recognise. On the other hand, I’ve been a John Piper fan for years as well; his Desiring God and The Pleasures of God are also in my top five. (The other two, by the way, are Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, and The Good God by Mike Reeves). According to Miller’s article, this shouldn’t happen: my enjoyment of Piper and Reeves suggests that my brain chemicals make me “black and white” and likely to see the world as “hostile”, but then that in turn means that I wouldn’t like Miller’s own books (or Bell’s, or Petersen’s), which it turns out I do. To quote Dr Johnson out of context, I refute him thus.

Now, to be fair to an insightful writer and a very nice guy, there is obviously a connection between personality and theological method. In the smorgasbord of churchgoing options offered in contemporary America, it would be astonishing if we did not tend to find people gravitating towards churches, social networks and theological approaches that they found more intuitive. (Yes, I can hear those Roman Catholics saying “I told you so” too; try and put them out of your mind for a moment). If anyone reading this, or Miller’s original post, finds it revealing or surprising that our personalities and our theologies are in some way linked, then I suggest you just hover around the Emergent Village and The Gospel Coalition for a few minutes, and observe the jokes they tell and the clothes they wear. So at one level, Miller isn’t saying anything we don’t already know: people will instinctively gravitate to ways of doing theology that fit their personality profiles. All he’s doing is explaining the latter using the names of some chemicals, rather than using a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

But at another level, he’s doing a lot more than that. If you read the piece, you’ll see that he’s also saying suggesting that people’s theology is mostly about brain chemistry. He’s saying that wondering whether finding right and wrong in a text, or true and untrue, results from a dislike of mystery, a desire for control, and a personal quest for security. He is also arguing that asking if those who can’t decide which ideas are absolutely true, by contrast, are more relaxed, less inclined to link their beliefs with their egos, and more likely to continue learning than to believe they’ve got it all figured out already. And most bizarrely, he is saying suggesting that we should stop trying to come to agreement at all, despite Paul’s insistence that we should, since the biblical instructions in this area are “confusing” and “frustrating”. Especially for people with a chemical mix that makes them incline towards ecclesiological fragmentation, individual expression and the autonomy of the self.

But that’s one reason why I love the stylistic diversity of the biblical canon. The personality types (in our terms, not theirs) of the Scripture-writers are extraordinarily diverse - Paul the argumentative Pharisee and John the mystical fisherman, James the blunt Jew and Luke the gentle Gentile, Moses the insecure and Solomon the rather-too-secure, weeping Jeremiah and fiery Ezekiel - and yet they all contend for truth, and they all leave room for mystery, depending on the doctrine at stake. Paul contends for the gospel with his all, but freely admits there’s all sorts of things he doesn’t know; he pushes for harmony and reconciliation in some contexts, and sharply disagrees and confronts in others. John is about as mystery-laden and open-to-ambiguity as any Emergent could wish him to be, but he’s also emphatic that anyone who denies certain truths of the gospel is an antichrist. Jesus himself holds the two together, of course: clear yet at times ambiguous, inclusive yet exclusive, confrontational yet welcoming, mysterious yet forcefully direct. So we need to be careful about explaining theological positions in terms of brain chemistry and thereby validating them all. Brian McLaren may well have a brain that makes him more open to gay marriage. But he’s wrong, all the same.

We follow a man who said “whoever is not against us is for us”, and who also said “whoever is not for us is against us”. Put simply, there are many issues over which we need to hold onto the truth with all our might (the Trinity, Christology, the gospel, Scripture, new creation, the return of Christ), and many over which we need to concede that, for all our study, we can’t really be certain (liturgical forms, the proper way to administer the sacraments, church government models, handling spiritual gifts, eschatological timetables, and so on). There are times when Don Miller contends for the truth with his all, and there are times when John Piper says he has no earthly idea what the answer is. The fact that their brains affect which they prefer, which I do not doubt, does not legitimate any amount of strident yelling, nor any amount of cowardly obfuscating. It just means we need to consider the scriptures carefully, to see which truths are worth fighting to preserve, and which things we can agree to disagree over - and to acknowledge the connection between our personalities and our perspectives.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep reading Miller and keep reading Piper. After all, whoever is not against us is for us.

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