Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Self-Referential Incoherence

I wish I could take credit for the phrase, ‘self-referential incoherence,’ but I cannot. I believe it was born in the mind of Professor Alvin Plantiga. Way back in the late 80’s, when I was in Aberdeen, Scotland, studying with Professor J. B. Torrance, Plantiga came to give the prestigious Gifford Lectures. After one of his lectures, several of us gathered for a beer and a follow up discussion with the famous philosopher. It was then, I believe, that he shared that great phrase with us. It stuck with me ever since. Over the years I have expanded it slightly into, ‘the latent deism of the Latin West and its ongoing problem with self-referential incoherence,’ as a larger statement about how lost we become when God is only watching us ‘from a distance.’ But I digress.

I think Plantiga meant to give us a thought to put in our back pockets for the days when the naysayers out do themselves during Q & A. Nonetheless, ‘self-referential incoherence’ is a profound insight into the problem of ‘the fall.’ For the most part we have been taught to think of sin as primarily a moral problem. I think sin is fundamentally a reference problem, followed, of course, by all manner of other rippling relational, social and moral issues. In the fall, Adam’s reference point moved from God to himself. He became self-referential, and thus developed a perception of himself, God and the world from a center in himself and his terrible fear. From that point the human race was trapped in its own way of seeing. If it does not ‘make sense to us’ it cannot be true. Our way of perceiving a person or a situation is the way it is. And that is the problem fraught with utter impossibility. Even the Lord’s presence and self-revelation, and indeed his way of thinking and saving, has to pass through Adam—and our—way of thinking, and thus the Lord himself and all his ways are subject to our judgment. He must make sense to us, or He is not correct, and thus dismissed. So we invent a god in the image of our own self-reference—which, of course, from the Lord’s perspective is utterly incoherent—and judge God’s presence and action by it.

So how could the Lord possibly reach us, and establish a real relationship with us in our self-referential incoherence? Everything the Lord does will be perceived, or misperceived, through our grids of judgment. Whatever he ‘says’ will be ‘heard’ through our ears. Who among us would ever suspect that our way of thinking or hearing could possibly be faulty? And even if we stumbled onto the idea that our judgment could be wrong-headed, what could we possibly do to escape our self-referentialism?

How does the Lord reach us? How do we escape our own way of seeing? How could we possibly perceive beyond our own perception and know the Lord as he is? How could we have real relationship with each other when between us stands our own judgment?


Anonymous said...

Thank you Baxter for posting this blog. It cuts to the very basis of our relationship with God and our terrible focus on our self reference, which self reference pervades modern Christianity. And we really need to escape this self reference in order to see the Lord as He is.

But herein resides a great problem. You see, Christianity has found an unwilling ally in its focus on self reference. This ally is the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke.)
These Gospels primarily show Jesus confronting the law types, the crowd, and even His disciples with the folly of their self reference in trying to get the job done with God. Well, mainstream Christianity has taken these words and events given to collapse self reference and made them normative for Christians.

Yet, when the New Covenant books, which follow the Synoptic Gospels, are read, the writers for these books, meaning John, Luke (in Acts), Paul, the writer of Hebrews, James, Peter, and Jude, generally ignore the “pre-cross” words of Jesus found in the Synoptic Gospels. It is as if these following writers are trying to convey a different message. And you know what? That is exactly what they are doing. They are trying to get us to stop looking at the darkness of our natural selves and instead to look to the Light of Jesus within.

Sadly, mainstream Christianity likes the self reference. So it clubs its adherents over the head with the “you are in great darkness” words Jesus used to press Old Covenant folks up against the cross as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. The result is a no hope faith trying to placate a distance, angry God.

Christianity would do well to rethink its reliance on the Synoptic Gospels as a battering ram to promote its position. Instead, we are better served when we see the Savior smashing self reference as shown by the Synoptic Gospels, and then embrace the Savior living within us as revealed by the New Covenant writers’ message of great hope, comfort, and joy.

The best to you always!

J. Richard Parker

Unknown said...

My Story!

I want to thank you for your heart in your writings, for through these I have found personal accountability. Let me explain this briefly!

I was born into the stream of Dutch Reformed thinking, rebelled during my teenage years and told God to get lost until I was 38. Off course He never left! Health conditions and a deep sense of impending death had me change my mind. What else is new, right?
I came into the World Wide Church of God where I became a legalist of the highest order; I even condemned all other Christians as pagans and certainly did not believe in the Trinity!
In 1995 God in mercy brought some of us out of our own darkened paradigms of Jewish thinking. At that same time while still a member I came under the teaching of Exchanged Life Ministries. I jumped in with both feet and after 10 years was teaching this exchange to believers. To believers because unbelievers were not part of this exchange, for even though “Christ as Life” was taught, it came from a separated and Existential mind set.

In 2005 started attending a local missionary church and was accepted with open arms because of this teaching. It was about 20 months ago through a magazine of the World Wide Church of God that I came to read “The Mediation of Christ”, it rocked all of my foundational paradigms as I sought to find out “Who is Jesus” Within a short period of time the relationship at this church went from overwhelming acceptance to absolute rejection. They wanted nothing to do with people who spoke about a God who had united Himself with all humanity in the Spirit through the God-man, Jesus. My teaching in this area was over and on hindsight more a failure than success, I am however grateful for if not, I might not be writing this right now!

For the past while I have kept in touch with interviews at the World Wide Church of God and have had my mind renovated through many of these as well as your writings and others.

So today find rest in many areas, however need to continually live from His life, rather than smother the Spirit with my own stinking thinking. I have a love for all people including my enemies that I did not have before, and view them in the same re-created humanity in Jesus as I am. I am one of those who questions things and need to prove them. I will continue to say and write things and put my foot in my mouth, (perhaps even both) but I am okay with that for I do not take myself too serious anymore. The one that is laughing with me is Jesus.

Sometimes I write and am amazed at what God is putting down on paper, while on other days it is just regurgitated self induced dribble. For me I just want to see what Jesus sees, and listen to what the Father has to say, and move where the Spirit is moving. I am so tired of my own self-composed (compost) of mythological thought, purpose and action. So Holy Spirit in your timing may I continue to come to know the Father in the reality of Jesus Christ!

C. Baxter Kruger, Ph.D. said...

Richard, the bible is constantly used by the fallen mind (self-referntial) to find proof of its mythology. Jesus entered into our mythology to meet us, and he deliberately and shockingly submitted himself to our bizarre wrong-headedness and its judgment, thereby establishing a real relationship with us at our very worst. When I read the synoptics from this perspective they read very much in line with what you call the 'new covenant' books.

C. Baxter Kruger, Ph.D. said...

John, not unlike Saul of Tarsus, the pharisees among us become, in the Spirit, megaphones of grace. Ducth Reformed! That is a hard lot. I was born out of the womb of Calvinism, so I can relate to and rejoice with you and your miraculous escape. Sometimes what looks like rebellion against God is running from self-referential crap masking in Jesus' name, and is in actual fact running to Jesus, even if we don't know it—yet.

Your line, "I am so tired of my own self-composed (compost) of mythological thought, purpose and action" gets five stars. Can I use it?

What a world it will be when we all cry out to the Holy Spirit to help us see what Jesus sees, know what he (or who) he knows, and live by participation in his (not our own) way of being.

Thanks John for sharing your heart.

Come Holy Spirit.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your encouraging words; I never thought that in my rebellion, I was actually running towards Him. Need to meditate on that! Yes, use the one liner as you choose!

Anonymous said...

I find much resistance as I try to listen to what is said here and elsewhere. I wish I could sit down and dive into all the Calvinistic arguments lying around there to prove" the world isn't really the world, and election is to salvation;etc. Then of course there is arthur pink who is paraded around in the true believers of 5-point highdom along with Gordon Clark. It gave me nothing but mental illness. That along with the inwrought shame I bore; elders pronounced me unsaved. I happen to have been indoctrinated into Pauline Dispensationalism along with it@ergo; there you have for a volitile mix of mystery surrounding an indifferent "god" who may or may not be ready to make an example of his justice out of you in the never-cooling fires of hellish torment. Did I mention Jonathan Edwards and the puritans yet? Oh, yeah this neurotic guy searched them all out. I tried to feel all the drpravity I could being led to believe that then i would have a right to flee to Christ. But how could I know my deceived heart? my motive? fleeing from hell wasn't exactly loving the gospel. There is no message of hope for the one who wants to think and at the same time really knows the inherent mess he is inside. I wish I could take the medicine but it is hard for me to let it be so easy. I hope this gets widely read and discussed. I have no sympathy for the reformed salesmen of whom I sat in front of while they displayed their fancydutch credentials; not a one of them ever had any gospel for me. They were both poor entertainers and lacked what i thought was real joy. They write alot of books. They speak more of the reformers than of the Father and the Son's relationship. I cant remember a message on relationship. I have been in most of these camps; they all degenerate into arguments on positions and pedigrees. Hope to push some buttons; If you guys really believe this; DONT WASTE YOUR TIME; AND DONT OVERLOOK ONES LIKE ME WHO WENT CRAZY BY LISTENING TO THOSE CALLED TEACHERS.
THANKS SO MUCH. I wuld love to talk to any and all. (ps I left seminary a mess of ruptures,Bruce's word)

C. Baxter Kruger, Ph.D. said...

The Father is exactly like Jesus who came across all worlds to find us and embrace us forever. May you be healed of all vestiges of the pagan-Calvinistic god, and know Jesus' Father with him in the love of the Holy Spirit.

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Anonymous said...

self referential incoherence actually came from sextus empiricus.. a long time ago. not 20 years ago

Onedaringjew said...

Hi Baxter, I enjoyed your article very much. Thanks for the depth of your thinking on this matter.
Now the bad news (for most (all?) of you on this blog. I'm a, I'm a Jewish, I'm a Jewish - Calvinist. Oivey with him!

Frankie, you said: "the world isn't really the world, and election is to salvation."

In John 17, Jesus says he is not praying for the "world." Does the "world" include his disciples and all those whom the Father draws (Jn 6:44). What do you find wrong with Charles Spurgeon's (the Calvinist)explanation of "world"?

“The whole world has gone after him Did all the world go after Christ? Then went all Judea, and were baptized of him in Jordan. Was all Judea, or all Jerusalem, baptized in Jordan? Ye are of God, little children, and the whole world lieth in the wicked one. Does the whole world there mean everybody? The words world and all are used in some seven or eight senses in Scripture, and it is very rarely that all means all persons, taken individually. The words are generally used to signify that Christ has redeemed some of all sorts some Jews, some Gentiles, some rich, some poor, and has not restricted His redemption to either Jew or Gentile.” C.H. Spurgeon from a sermon on Particular Redemption.

And your "election to salvation."
For critics of Calvinism, the doctrine they (you?)hate most is the Calvinist (= Augustinian) doctrine of election, which is intimately tied to "predestination" (mentioned several times in Paul).

Frank, you seem to believe in "universal" election, that is, that election also applies to those who are not saved. Is this what you mean?

Some of you on ths blog have come to despise Calvin, Pink, Jonathan Edwards because you see them "going on" a lot about the depravity of man, which at bottom means, of course, that they suffer from "self-referential incoherence," as Baxter explained so well. My point is that the central doctrine of the Reformers is none of those "five points," so hated by most Christians. The central doctrine of Calvin and all those in the Reformed tradition is the majesty of God. And, of course, relationships between believers, is also crucial.