Thursday, May 1, 2008

Theological Excluded Middle

It was Paul Hiebert who first introduced the term “excluded middle” to theology. This is originally a philosophical term which refers to the exclusion of “middle cases" between logical alternatives (Blackburn S 2005:125). The theological “excluded middle” has been a pervasive characteristic of the Church in the Global North. The Church in the Global North has had “a theology of God in cosmic history” (Hiebert P G 1994:198) -- that is, a God who is “the origin, purpose, and destiny” of all He has created (:199) -- and “an awareness of God in natural history” (:199) -- that is, a God who ordains “social relationships [and] the natural world” (:199). However, it has tended to exclude “a theology of God in human history” (:198). This may refer either to the reality of “the spirit world” (:200), or to God’s present acts in “human history and . . . personal biography” (:218). Thus missionaries of the Global North have frequently found themselves in situations where they have been unable to address questions of “the middle level” (:198), to relate the gospel e.g. to demonic influences or the need for divine guidance. However, Hiebert considers that there are two extremes against which we must guard. The first is to tend too much towards “denying the spiritual realm” (:200). The second is “a Christianized form of animism in which spirits and magic are used to explain everything” (:200). QUESTION: Are God’s involvement in the spirit world / human history / personal biography on your leadership menu? Should they be? The photo is a recent one of Paul Hiebert.


Steve Hayes said...

I'm afraid I can't make head or tail of it (or belly button, not to exclude the middle).

What are the extremes, and what is the middle? Does the global North adopt one extreme and the global South the other?

Thomas Scarborough said...

Thanks Steve. I’ll restate it. The Western Church tends to believe in the God of the cosmos on the one hand, and an intimate personal God on the other. But “middle cases” tend to get stripped out of the scheme. So the Western Church tends to strip out God’s control over history, His power over the detail of my daily life, and the reality of the spirit world. The Third World tends to retain these “middle” aspects, but, as Hiebert says, may sometimes go too far in the direction of magic. I’m no great fan of Hiebert, because he speaks as an anthropologist -- but his anthropological observations are, I think, important.