Tuesday, March 22, 2011

When Our Models Don't Agree...

When you study the weather and how it works in detail as I have, you quickly realize that the atmosphere is a chaotic and constantly changing environment. The equations that describe its motion defy a simple solution. Many variables are changing all at once and predicting the weather turns out to be a very complex problem to solve—requiring the use of advanced mathematics I don’t think I ever fully understood. Now you know why I became a writer/editor!

Meteorologists reduce the complexity of the problem by making some simplifying assumptions about the behavior of the atmosphere. This constrains things a bit and allows us to come up with mathematical model of the atmosphere that we can use to predict tomorrow’s weather… and several days into the future. Every model is limited in its ability to predict the weather however—in many cases, precisely because of the assumptions made to simplify the problem.

Forecasters usually use several different models when they make a forecast. For example, when the National Weather Service makes a forecast, they run a whole group of these mathematical models together. Every day, a group of experienced forecasters get together and compare and contrast what the different models are saying to try and get the most complete picture of the real atmosphere possible before they issue a forecast. When the majority of the models are in close agreement about the evolution of the weather pattern, the forecasters can issue a forecast with more confidence than when the various models disagree. (You’ll often hear about these models whenever a snowstorm is the weather forecast. You may hear a forecaster make a statement like, “The models don’t agree…” or “The models are now in agreement.”)

Models are useful tools for helping to predict the behavior of the atmosphere, but the real atmosphere is more complex than any of the models—even the all the models combined fail to fully describe the real atmosphere.

Now, if the atmosphere is so complex to describe, then it only makes sense that the Creator of all that complexity is infinitely more complex to describe. On one hand it’s sort of silly to talk about “solving” God like we solve a math problem. As John Eldredge says it, “Life is not a problem to be solved it is an adventure to be lived.”

But on the other hand, I think drawing an analogy to meteorology has some merit. In both cases we try and take something extremely complex and simplify it so that we can make sense of it. Just like meteorologists model the atmosphere, theologians have likewise come up with various models that help us understand God. They represent our best attempts to make an infinite God more accessible and understandable to finite human beings.

Let’s consider a specific example. What purpose does the coming of Jesus serve in carrying out God’s plan for redeeming the world? Now, I’m sure we’ll all agree that’s a very complex problem, and then we’ll promptly disagree over the answer. Theologians have been disagreeing about this for centuries, so we are in good company. The fact is there are about as many answers out there as there are faith traditions.

We could call each answer a model of Jesus. Each model makes a starting assumption about the problem the human race faces, and provides an explanation how the “good news” of Jesus helps us solve that otherwise unsolvable problem.

In a sense, the theologians have done exactly what the weather forecast models do. By focusing on a single problem the human race faces, they have reduced a complex multi-faceted problem to one that is more tractable to solve. And in each case, Jesus is viewed as the solution to the problem.

The table below lists several of the most common models of Jesus. It comes from a book called A Generous Orthodoxy, where Brian McLaren shares the story of his own faith journey. In the book, McLaren explains that he was introduced to Jesus as a child, and outside of a brief “rebellious” period in his teen years, he has sought to follow Jesus his whole life. As he progressed on his journey he encountered the various faith traditions outlined below that helped him experience Jesus in new ways. Each tradition introduced him to a new model of Jesus. But McLaren didn’t feel that he had to reject the previous models to embrace the new one. Rather, he used each new model he learned about to get an increasingly more “complete” picture of the real Jesus.

Each new model of Jesus McLaren learned about filled in more and more “missing pieces” if you will, and answered “nagging questions” that remained. And I suspect if you asked McLaren, he would be the first to tell you that the quest to discover the real Jesus will continue for the rest of his life.

Type of Christian

(Name of Model)

Focus (Problem)

Good News (Solution)

Conservative Protestant

The human race is guilty of sin and wrongdoing.

Jesus’ death on the cross pays the full penalty for sin


The human race is held down by disease and poverty.

Jesus teaches us how to receive miracles and healing from God through faith in God’s promises.

Roman Catholic

The human race is enslaved by death.

Jesus’ resurrection defeats death and liberates humanity.

Eastern Orthodox

The human race is spiritually sick and needs healing; it has dropped out of the dance of creation.

Jesus’ entry (or incarnation) into humanity and history brings healing to the human race and all of creation

Liberal Protestant

The human race suffers from ignorance of the teachings and ways of Christ.

Jesus’ example and teachings inspire us to work compassionately for social justice.


The human race is divided and violent and needs to learn the ways of Christ in community.

Jesus convenes a learning community of disciples who seek to model lives of love and peace.

Liberation Theology


Humanity is oppressed by corrupt powers, systems, and regimes.

Jesus commissions and leads bands of activists to confront unjust regimes and make room for the shalom of God.

Source: This Table is copied from A Generous Orthodoxy, Chapter 1, pp. 64-65.

When described this way, McLaren’s journey of faith sounds analogous to the process of making a weather forecast described previously. By using all these models McLaren gleans a ever-more complete (but never totally complete!) picture of the real Jesus. Likewise, the skilled forecaster is familiar with many models of the atmosphere and consults them all to gain the most complete picture possible of the real atmosphere before making his/her forecast.

What McLaren describes here has been dubbed a generous orthodoxy—hence the book title. It is a humble approach to faith that acknowledges that any human model of Jesus (or God) falls far short of describing the real Jesus (God) and we are best served by learning about and drawing from the strengths of each tradition.

I think we start to go astray when we assume any one model of Jesus is the only acceptable model. Sometimes, in our human arrogance, we come to a place where we think we’ve got God “solved” and we’re no longer open to learning about other models of Jesus. Before too long, we’re worshipping our particular model of God rather than the one, true, and living God. Anyone who doesn’t agree with our model is dismissed (sometimes literally!) as not worthy of consideration. We start calling them all kinds of nasty names—like heretic or some others I won’t repeat.

In my experience, it is a lot easier to demonize a total stranger than it is your friend. When we actually take the time to get to know people from different faith traditions who may think about and experience God in ways that are unfamiliar to us, we might find our experience of God enriched as a result.

Now, having said that, at the end of the day sometimes even good friends disagree; the issue is not so much that we disagree, but how we disagree. Yes, Jesus did pray that we’d be unified, but we’re human beings, not robots. I think it’s unrealistic to assume that Jesus assumed that being unified meant that we would all experience God exactly the same way and or all be together in one combined worship service.

If we are open to it, there is room for a wonderful diversity in the body of Christ. There are certain things that believers will generally agree on but there is a whole lot more that is up for debate. Again, God is more than all the models combined!

Because I respect my friend as a fellow follower of Jesus I am willing to give him/her the benefit of the doubt and assume that, like me, he/she is doing the very best they can as a finite creature to understand an infinite Creator. Even if I don’t share my friend’s perspective, there might be something God wants me to learn from them, so I had better not dismiss their point of view too quickly. And I certainly shouldn’t be presumptuous enough to condemn my friend to a place of eternal, conscious torment just because they disagree with me about whether such a place literally exists—or about any other “litmus test” we could list here that defines orthodox belief.

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