Protestantism And Contemporary Rationality - Dialoguing with Zvetan Todorov (1939-2017)

This year the Christian World commemorates the five-hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, an event that tradition tells us began on October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. At the center of this movement stands Luther’s rediscovery of the Gospel message: human beings do not earn their salvation by doing good works, but rather God freely offers salvation to all who believe. In last month’s column I considered some protestant theological tenets (e.g. the “universal Priesthood of all Believers”) that facilitated the emergence and reinforcement of modern Individualism as a positive but also an ambivalent sociological event – one that deeply conditions today’s societies and churches and urgently demands a new theological and cultural reflection.

A second main characteristic of the Reformation is represented by its radical defense of the “Sola Scriptura” principle. “By the Bible alone”, was Luther’s solid answer to the religious and secular authorities of the Holy Roman Empire, gathered in 1521 at the imperial Diet of Worms. By upholding Scripture as the only and unique sound foundation for theology and piety Luther’s Protestantism pursued two goals. It purified a medieval religion that was excessively mixed with superstition, power and unchristian elements, and it facilitated the emergence of a new religion whose strength resided in an unknown immediacy between God and the believer. Scripture was placed in front of a medieval religion that had become overwhelming complicated with its numberless religious mediations. But, beyond the undoubted religious benefits the “Sola Scriptura” principle brought, and beyond an “exclusive” or “inclusive” understanding churches and believers might have of it, this principle also has introduced a new psychological and sociological configuration. For the sake of brevity let’s term it: the emergence of “linear thinking”.

1. Benefits and limits of “linear thinking”

Western societies in their various cultural, pedagogical or organizational systems are heavily based upon “linear thinking”. Most people have been taught over the course of their lifetime to see things linearly interconnected. We are continually instructed that there is a beginning and then an end, a problem and then a solution, a rise and then a fall, an action and then a reaction. These are linked in an orderly and sequential fashion as an antecedent conditioning cause followed by a conditioned and resulting effect. This way of reading and approaching reality has been tremendously effective because it has given our lives discipline, control, order and efficiency. Even religion, Adventism included, has been modeled this way. However, the collateral and unexpected effect of this has been the emergence of an irresistible obsession to simplify reality to fit into this model of thinking. Our way of reading and approaching reality has become unidirectional, sequential, causative and mechanistic. Linear thinking tends to overlook important aspects of situations. It ignores the existence of complex or paradoxical systems by reading them unilaterally. Reality says instead that there is much more at any given moment than a simple start and finish, or cause and effect.

The emergence of linear thinking is certainly multifactorial. And the seeds of it can even be found in Aristotle himself and three aspects of thinking he describes: the identity, non-contradiction and excluded-middle principles. But it’s only in modern times that linear thinking really gets its epistemological, scientific, philosophical, political and social justification. Descartes, Kant, Marx and Bacon, Galileo, Newton and many other leading western thinkers have contributed, in various ways, to reinforce this model. But one of the most important “unnoticed” mechanisms responsible for the success of today’s linear thinking has been the massive proliferation of books, and most prominently, the Bible. Not the “content” but the “form” of the book itself has been determinant. This is the thesis, among others, of Marshal McLuhan's book “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man”, published in 1964. McLuhan proposes that a “medium” itself, not the content it carries, should be the focus of study to really assess the impact of any way of communicating. He said that a “medium” affects the society in which it plays a role, not only by the content delivered over the medium, but also by the characteristics of the medium itself. And the “book” as “medium” has definitively transformed us – psychologically and sociologically (M. McLuhan, “The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man”). By reading our books from left to right, sequentially and causatively, our thinking and finally our life itself has been transformed (and deformed) into a unidirectional and reductive experience. And the same deformation process has touched our reading of the Bible and our self-understanding as believers. By faithfully reading the bible as a “book”, we have become “linear-mechanic” readers of a “linear-mechanic Bible”, independently of the good things we can get from it. The bible as God’s Revelation has not been transmitted to us orally or by images or on scrolls – as in old or new testament times – but in a typical “modern” form: a book. In this sense modern culture doesn’t follow our reading of the bible in the various honest applications we can make of it, but it rather precedes it. Even more, it is because of modern culture that we have access to the Bible in its book form. But, as no culture is monolithically bad or good, ours has given us efficiency and order but also a reductive linear approach in reading the Bible. And Linear thinking ended up “disenchanting” the Bible and believers beyond any self-labels like “progressive” or “conservative”.

2. Is it possible to go beyond “linear thinking” in reading the Bible?

The strong self-correcting mechanisms present in western society has also pushed it to be partially aware of this unilateralism of linear thinking, and to find some alternatives to it. So we have today non-linear approaches to reality in various disciplines which work with multi-directional, holistic strategies – such as those applied by “systems-thinking” (Von Bertalanffy, Bateson). Non-linear thinking, a relatively new term, reminds us that human thought is characterized by expansion in multiple directions and based on the concept that there are many starting points from which one can apply differentiated logic to a problem. Non-linear thinking is less constrictive and, because of its inherent lack of structure, better allows your creative side to run rampant. Non-linear thought increases possible outcomes by not being dogmatically certain about the starting point for any process. Non-linear thinkers tend to jump forward and from side-to-side, through the steps of a project, in an effort to see the big picture and tackle those areas where they have the most interest. Non-linear approaches unfortunately have not changed the general Western trend, but rather created a new polarization.

In his own way the Bulgarian linguistic, sociologist and cultural analyst Tzvetan Todorov, who passed away early this year, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, offers us an alternative to rethink our approach to reality and to the Bible. His points to a provocative sentence taken from Dostoevsky’s novel “The Idiot”, which says: “The Beauty will save the world”. In a presentation to the Protestant Theological Faculty of Paris (2006), and subsequently published as a book (“The Apostles of Beauty”, 2011), Todorov reminds us that Western thought has always had enormous difficulty in considering elements outside its own rational, linear-thinking system. But, at the same time, there have always been witnesses to reality’s complexity. In pre-modern times these were mainly religious figures, like the mystics. In our times the witness is mainly given, says Todorov, by artists and authors.

Can we Adventists, starting from the Bible, overcome – or at least limit – the strong impact of linear thinking we derived from the Bible itself, and subsequently extended to theology, administration, pedagogy and ethics? We should try for at least two reasons. First, linear-thinking is not mandatory. Alternatives can be valid. The previous allusions to non-linear approaches are examples. Second – and the main reason – is the Bible itself. The main literary biblical forms are poetry, narrative, parables, oracles, visions and prophetic or apocalyptic metaphors. All these forms are essentially “plurivocal” and thus opposite to the typical “univocity” of linear-thinking. Our justified insistence on the Bible’s clarity and accessibility should not lead us to dismantle its structural complexity. Protestantism has, is and should be, a living witness – not of a “linear Bible”, but of the healing capacity of a “complex”, “heterogeneous” and “poly-centric” Bible.

Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

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Adventism is based on linear thinking, starting with the seven days of creation and all the way through to “the time of the end”. It’s difficult enough for any pf us humans not to think that time flows like a river and we are carried by it for a period of time. Quantum physics, however, tells a different story. Space and time can be bent in on itself, and can also be thought of as a column instead of a river. The “space-time” column can be dissected at any point (from the outside of it) to access an event. In other words space-time is there in its totality (alpha and omega together). This is exciting to me because it makes some of the Bible’s claims make sense, scientifically. Let’s just say, the universe isn’t exactly what we think it is.

The term “linear thinking” as defined by this author in this article is complex. I see it as simply If a = b, and b = c, then a = c. There are still some “Adventist Fossils” who pride ourselves on being distinctively creative and want to offer fundamental alternatives to the status quo of apathy. We rejoice in the big ideas, in the new discoveries, and in the satisfaction of creation. We are always on the lookout with new ways to solve problems, love the questions “what if?” and don’t mind jumping ahead in a discussion to tell the world what we just thought of. Would Socrates have made a good Adventist philosopher?
I believe that these two God-given characteristics of humans (logic and creativity) are related to different, but not disconnected types of thought processes: Linear and non-Linear thinking. they are both integral to success in our theological pursuits, and on a practical level, our life. In our Greek classes we were taught the importance of the linear as “continuing action”. It is sad that we lack the linear dimension in many practical administrative decisions that we make as a church where we don’t think bigger and bolder and often settle for safe and smaller.

Christians typically have been programmed from little kids to understand that the Bible is One Big Book, but with 2 Chapters. Chapter 1 – called “OLD”. Chapter 2 – called "NEW’.
But the Bible is actually 66 different Books bound in one cover. So IS NOT a “BOOK” but a Library of many books by many authors and many contributing authors, and by many editors who have edited the 66 books down through the ages.
Chapter 1 received its Final Editing during the 70 years in Babylon, and after the return to Jerusalem. It was at those times that only 39 “books” were considered worthy to be included in Chapter 1 by the Jews.
Chapter 2 likewise took a long time before only 27 “books” were considered worthy to be included in
Chapter 2.
So, to “study” the Bible as one continuous story, given by God, from Genesis to Malachi, and Matthew to Revelation does injury to both the Library, and to the reader of the Library.
Actually The Christian Old Book is NOT put together the same way that the Jewish Old Book is put together. They are the same, but in different order. Would THIS make a difference in our approach
to the Chapter 1.
In Chapter 2, WHAT would happen to our thinking should its Library have been put in Chronological Order of when written? James would be at the front. Would Galatians come before Romans? John would be in the back of the Library.
There ARE LOTS ABOUT the Bible that are NEVER DISCUSSED, are SHOVED UNDER THE RUG, when it comes to SDA members’ knowledge about the Bible, and how it ACTUALLY, REALLY came to be.


How exciting to see the author referencing Marshal McLuhan,the medium is still the message! And this very fact should not only influence how we read the Bible, but also how we consider the gospel commission in today’s ‘plugged in’ world.