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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Excluded Middle

Last night I was reminded of how often people look at a position and assume there are only two alternatives. Usually this happens when someone fails to adequately distinguish what they mean. When this occurs, an oversimplification occurs and an individual asserts a generalization.

Generalizations are dangerous because they rarely carry the meaning a speaker or writer himself thinks of when writing or speaking the assertion.  Such statements fail to account for sense, time, and referent sufficiently. Since the communicator has a different meaning than the recipient, a closed communication loop is created where the original communicator has distanced himself from his audience.  At times, this distance is intentional.

One example may be a speech writer who is intentionally ambiguous and uses a lot of platitudes.  Such a person may want to call to mind, for the speech recipients, various undefined and broad ideas of patriotism along with emotional experiences which are left open to interpretation. This lack of clarity and vague feelings of loyalty may then be attached to the person who delivers the speech in broad generalizations.  In my experience, this seems to be a common tactic in writing speeches which engender support from a wide spectrum.  This is dangerous for both the individual and society as it encourages individuals to assume and then agree to work with other individuals based upon assumption, rather than upon actual knowledge.

This danger is present not only for political parties, government, and civil societies, but it is also present for the church. I cannot count how many times I have read sermon help materials, small group studies, and other materials designed, ostensibly, to help the church which have relied upon sweeping abstraction to make a point.  This happens when a study guide will present a question with only two alternatives- implying that one alternative is more Christ-like than the other.  Many times, the two alternatives are oversimplified in a way that does no justice to either alternative.

At this point, the author is relying on the Law of Excluded Middle to try to force Christians into a guilt based reversal of behavior.  This is problematic for a number reasons.

First, as mentioned earlier a generalization, especially in this case, fails to adequately describe its propositional referents.  This may sound confusing at first, but it is quite simple.  Propositions are statements which must have meaning.  Sometimes, Christians try to make propositions but in reality they are issuing non-nonsensical statements which have no referents.  More often, the propositions fail to specifically enough to a state of affairs to be relevant. If we are vague, then we flounder in our ability to communicate effectively.

Second, the two propositions Christians may be comparing as antithetical (opposites) may not in fact be the opposite of each other. This is a very common mistake.  Just because I have experienced something and then replaced it with a different experience does not mean the second thing I experienced was the universal, unilateral opposite of the thing I replaced it with.  Stated differently, following God and not following God are opposites, but there are number of different ways to do both.  On the outside, actions may usually be seen as neutral, it is the heart that matters.

This brings us to the third point.  Generalizations go wrong when they ignore the hidden qualities of the Christian experience.   One of the reasons people misunderstand the proposition in Christian materials is that they are looking at it from the wrong perspective.  One of the chief ways this happens is that the Law still rules Christians rather than Grace.  For a good introduction to the topic see this book:   Set Free .

Finally, the writer may have jumped to application before preparing the audience through a careful study of scripture.  When we think that application is the only or even the primary reason for studying scripture, we may miss out on God's presence in the reading of that scripture.  Not only that, but we may miss out on the specific meaning of the text which may bring us to even more broad applications.  In short, application is inserted into a proposition as being universally true. God's word is universally true, our application of it is not.

When we pretend that someone either follows our interpretation of scripture or they are disobeying God we employing the Law of the Excluded middle in a devious way. We have disastrously conflated our understanding of God's word with God's word and tried to apply it legalistically to someone else. I've probably been guilty of doing this in my writing before, but this post is a reminder of the need to be gentle, careful, and gracious in my application of scripture.

There are other ways the Law of Excluded may not apply to our readings of scripture, but this should be sufficient to get us reoriented towards humility for now. It was at least a good reminder for myself.