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Reflexivity: A Response

As promised, here is Mike’s response to the previous post.

——

Hi Ryan,

Thanks for your reply, and your willingness to engage in a little conversation around our new friend George Soros and his Theory of Reflexivity. Your suspicions were correct of course. You’ve told me before that the economic waters are not your favorite place to swim. However I appreciate your wisdom, and they way you bring critical thinking to bear on a subject (your undergrad degree in philosophy helps too).  To be honest, it was not your view of the economic aspects of the theory that I was after.

Having said that, your synopsis of Soros’ theory is bang-on. George’s main complaint is that the way we have been rightly taught to consider the natural sciences (see a fact, make a statement about said fact, statement is either true or false depending on whether or not it corresponds with the fact) is completely inappropriate when it comes issues that involve, as he puts it, “thinking participants.”  He goes on to say that this is the problem as he sees it with the generally accepted economic theory: that markets tend towards equilibrium, and that market participants tend to discount (or anticipate the future and react accordingly) correctly. He believes, and I tend to think he is right, that it is the very actions of those same market participants, believing that they are simply reacting to the anticipated (and rigid) future, which actually shape or create that future.

George sums it up with this conundrum: “Therefore, the situation participants have to deal with does not consist of facts independently given but facts which will be shaped by the decision of the participants.” I think that is brilliant economic thinking.

But, we’re not here to talk about economics.

Why did this theory resonate with me on a “Kingdom level”?

I appreciate your kind words in your introduction of me in your previous post. Let me draw a direct connection between two points you raised there, those being my view that “the kingdom of God really does entail a new way of living, loving, believing, and acting in the world, ” and my conviction that “following Jesus ought to be a force for revolutionary change in this world not just the world to come.” (This is also part of the reason I like interacting with you: You articulate my own views better than I can!)

I believe that God has a plan to redeem all of Creation. In fact, I believe that is what God has been up to since the fall of humanity; God is moving us back to communion with the Divine, just as it was in the garden. This is the future that we are inevitably moving towards: The kingdom will come in its fullness, and God’s will will be done on Earth, as in Heaven (I believe that Heaven comes to us, and not the reverse, but that is an eschatological debate for another day).

This is where my thinking dovetails with George’s view: We have an active role to play in the redemption of Creation. Like those anonymous financial market participants, it is our actions in anticipation of this God-guaranteed future that actually assist in bringing it about (and I believe the inverse is true—our lack of action delays this ultimate yet perhaps unscheduled future).  In my view this is not forcing God’s hand, or compelling God to act, but simply the execution of God’s plan for Creation as announced and exemplified by Jesus.

I could go on forever on this point; in fact this is basically what the book I am writing is about. But let me stop there and check for responses.

What do you think?

Peace,
Mike

24 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    It sounds to me like the eschatology Mike described here, and the role humanity plays in it, is postmillenial. I am wondering if the theology of Mike’s and Ryan’s churches is postmillenial, amillenial or premillenial.

    George Soros’ idea sounds postmodern to me – the idea that we shape reality with our beliefs. I am wondering if you believe that postmodern thought is more compatible with postmillenialism than with the alternatives.

    George Soros’s idea also sounds to me like he believes that the market’s future functions according to self-fulfilling prophecy. That idea extended to eschatology is, of course, incompatible with postmillenialism and the alternatives.

    February 22, 2009
  2. I can’t speak for Mike, but the Canadian MB Conference of which I am a part is decidedly non-committal on the whole amill/premill/postmill question—a position I am happy to affirm 🙂

    Personally, I would put myself in the amillennial camp but I agree with you—the theory as described by Mike and I is quite compatible with postmillennialism. I think that postmodern thought (to whatever extent we can claim this to be a term which describes a fixed and precise entity), with its emphasis upon the role we play in shaping reality, would fit best with postmillennialism, but probably amillennialism as well. It obviously doesn’t fit with premillennialism (which is probably one of the many reasons why I don’t find premill eschatology very appealing!).

    February 22, 2009
  3. Ken #

    Even if your denomination is officially neutral on the millennial question, I wonder which way it tilts.

    I generally associate amillennialism with Calvin’s ideas within Protestantism. Under Calvin’s approach we respond to God’s grace, in part, by trying to reform society but I don’t think the idea is that we are in any sense bringing about the kingdom of God. (Does this match your understanding of Calvin’s approach?)

    Does your church believe we are in some some way bringing about the kingdom of God or that our efforts in some way affect the timing?

    February 22, 2009
  4. Mdaele #

    If we frame the future in any kind of guaranteed way, what meaningful things can we say about our participation in the arrival of this future? If God’s plan is subject to our involvement can we accurately suggest that it is in any way inevitable or “ultimate”?
    I’ll submit that the answers to these questions have significant implications for our concepts of hope and obedience…

    February 22, 2009
  5. “Decidedly non-committal”… I like the sounds of that. I would say that is also the position of my church, but then again, my church could fit in your living room with space for a few last minute stragglers, so take that into consideration.

    And to jump ahead to Ken’s question, yes, I do believe that we are participating in the coming of the Kingdom, that we have a role to play, and that we can have an impact of the timing of it. But I’m open to being wrong on that. Jesus didn’t spend much time on that subject. Rather, he spent a lot of time teaching us how to live together in love. That part he was clear on.

    To clarify for Mdaele, I believe the timing of God’s plan is subject to our involvement, and I find no conflict with using the terms “inevitable” and “ultimate” in this. God’s Kingdom comes — We know that. And I agree, these answers do have significant implications for our concepts of hope and obedience. Huge implications.

    February 22, 2009
  6. Ken, I think you’re right about amillennialism’s roots (or at least rise to prominence) in the Protestant reformation. My knowledge of the history of this debate is fairly limited, but I do know that Anabaptists were some of the premillennialists that folks like Calvin and Luther reacted strongly against! I think your reading of Calvin is pretty much correct, although again I’m hardly an expert (as a general rule, I try to think about Calvin as little as possible :)).

    So I guess that leads back to your first question—where would the Mennonite Brethren come down? The short answer is, “Who knows? Depends where, when, and to whom, you ask the question!” There have certainly been some (from my perspective) crazy and embarrassing views held by my theological ancestors, but today I suspect you would get a pretty wide mix that would cover the whole spectrum. One of the blessings (and curses!) of not enforcing a high degree of doctrinal precision, I suppose…

    February 23, 2009
  7. Ken #

    I grew up with theology in which the whole idea of a second coming is discounted, and yet which remained amillennial in its perspective towards what is happening now in the world and our role in it. Postmillennialism is, therefore, somewhat alien to me. I understand it with my mind, but my reflexes don’t move me that way. So it is interesting to observe your conversation here and try to think the same way.

    I am wondering if when you say you are amillennial if you are referring to a kind of nonliteral interpretation of the millennium and that, practically speaking, your view of what is happening now and our role in it is postmillennial. And I am wondering if you can trace the roots of your beliefs on this subject.

    For me, my roots are at least as much in existentialism as they are in Christianity. By that I mean that existentialism, especially that of my parents, has formed my world view. As I think about all of this I think that existentialism is most compatible with amillennialism. I think it is more compatible with premillennialism than with postmillennialism.

    I think that in most churches the theologies of the congregation vary, regardless of the theology the church officially confesses. I think one of the challenges of ministry today is to speak meaningfully to a theologically diverse congregations and denominations. These differences cause awful fights.

    February 23, 2009
  8. Mdaele #

    Is framing the future as ‘God-guaranteed’, ‘ultimate’ or ‘inevitable’ necessary? What difference does having this concept of the future make for those who would follow God?
    That our participation in God’s plan is primarily consequential in the future seems problematic. As a rationale for our obedience to God this future realization seems pretty thin and similar to the theology we have been commonly been taught that alienates Christians from their immediate existance. Shouldn’t our actions and obedience to God’s principles yield some significant ramifications for the present life of His followers and those they serve (regardless of the consequences of future design or eventualities)? It sound like you would advocate the importance of radical obedience to Christ’s principles. For me the primary even the most important feature of our obedient action should be the difference it will make for our lives now regardless of how it impacts the future accomplishment of the Kingdom (it would be my assumption that positive actions in the present would inevitably affect the future in the same way).
    What if we could frame the hope of the gospel without the ‘baggage’ of future hope? What if we could frame the gospel as being important for redemption of humanity right now and whatever comes later is gravy – even if nothing ever comes?
    Perhaps these questions and ideas are not that far off from what you were meaning in the first place Mike but I thought I would bang on the keyboard anyways…

    February 23, 2009
  9. Ken #

    I would like to add something to the discussion related to the words Mdaele wrote here:

    “What if we could frame the hope of the gospel without the ‘baggage’ of future hope? What if we could frame the gospel as being important for redemption of humanity right now and whatever comes later is gravy – even if nothing ever comes?”

    The idea that how we live our lives makes a difference in whether we have prosperity, health, friends, longevity, and other good things in this life is deeply rooted in the Bible, all the way back to Genesis. At the same time, the realization that it does not always turn out that way is also reflected in the Bible, for example, in Ecclesiastes, Job, Psalms, and in the prophets. Additionally, the idea that hope lies in the future through the loving-kindness of God, through the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and through the redemptive work of Christ, has at least equal prominence in the Bible as the idea that how we live matters. Both ideas became part of Christian theology.

    I think another way to understand the hope associated with the future is this: it is a faith that God will not let us down.

    February 24, 2009
  10. Ken,

    I am wondering if when you say you are amillennial if you are referring to a kind of nonliteral interpretation of the millennium and that, practically speaking, your view of what is happening now and our role in it is postmillennial. And I am wondering if you can trace the roots of your beliefs on this subject.

    You’ve probably got it about right. I think that the book of Revelation and other apocalyptic literature is highly symbolic in nature and was not intended to provide a blow-by-blow, literal description of the end times.

    Practically speaking, you may be right—postmillennialism seems to fit with how I think we are to live and what we are to do. The postmillenialists always thought their job was to bring about God’s kingdom, “on earth as it is in heaven.” I wouldn’t share the confidence of some of the nineteenth-century postmillennialists in our abilities to do this, but I do think that we can participate in God’s kingdom becoming ever more of a reality.

    Re: the roots of my belief on this subject, I’m not exactly sure I can pin them down. I was raised in an ordinary Mennonite church which largely reflected our confession of faith (oddly enough!) in that there was no official “fixed” eschatological views preached from the front. I do remember wondering about things like “the rapture” and whether or not I would be “left behind,” so I suppose some wild strains of premillennialism crept in at some point. Whatever the case, they must not have sunk int too deep—I found the move to a more symbolic view of scripture and less rigid eschatology to be fairly painless transition as I progressed in my studies.

    February 24, 2009
  11. mdaele,

    I know you addressed your comment to Mike, but I couldn’t resist…

    Is framing the future as ‘God-guaranteed’, ‘ultimate’ or ‘inevitable’ necessary? What difference does having this concept of the future make for those who would follow God?

    In my opinion, it is absolutely necessary. Without some kind of belief that what we work towards in the present is more real, more excellent, praiseworthy, and good, more true than the world of pain and evil we live in, that it reflects the way the world really should be, and that this will one day be made clear and rendered a final reality, it would be too easy to give in to despair.

    Our efforts are so meager, in the grand scheme of things—so much of what we do is lost, misconstrued, wasted, perverted, distorted, and undertaken with less than ideal intentions. Our efforts are never enough—we need a hope that goes beyond what we can be/do. This isn’t to disagree with anything you say about how following Christ ought to make a profound difference in the present; but I think that the present hope really is nourished and sustained by the future hope.

    February 24, 2009
  12. Ryan, I’m glad you couldn’t resist, because the despair issue is critical, and yet probably not one I would have thought to respond with. So thanks.

    “What if we could frame the hope of the gospel without the ‘baggage’ of future hope? What if we could frame the gospel as being important for redemption of humanity right now and whatever comes later is gravy – even if nothing ever comes?”

    Ken and Mdaele might be technically correct in saying that it shouldn’t be “necessary” for the future to be God-guaranteed, but I disagree for practical reasons. (I’m also horrified by the expression “the baggage of future hope”!) The point I may be too-subtly trying to make is that living out the teachings of Jesus is the hallmark (or, dare I say it, a requirement) of following Jesus. (Actually, as I type that it strikes me that nowhere other than in the church could someone claim to follow someone else without actually doing what that other person said. It’s ludicrous, but I digress.)

    This leads me to the other problem I see. I believe what you are describing is, for the most part, the modern western church as it stands today. Doing all those things Jesus talked about would certainly be nice, and they might even be a loose goal for some time in the future, but we’ve rendered them effectively optional.

    Finally, I think we’re creating something of a false dichotomy between the present and the future. I am not suggesting that Jesus said, “Go and make the Kingdom come.” Rather, I believe he said, “Go and love each other… and the Kingdom will come.” It is all about the present. We are all broken people. When you help me on my path of healing, and I help you, that’s a little bit of the Kingdom. And when we both turn and help others, that’s another bit of the Kingdom. In this sense I think the Kingdom spreads–or comes–like a virus, with Jesus as “patient 1”.

    Ryan, I’m giving thought to your point on dynamic disequilibrium in the most recent post and will get back to you.

    February 24, 2009
  13. Mdaele #

    Ryan,
    I am unconvinced.
    I don’t want to get into a semantic convolution so allow me to clarify: It seems clear that there is preferrable way of life that God intends his creation to live (one that, according to his design, affords us a more complete and beneficial existance – I suppose). In the context of this intention, I can affirm a prefferable world toward which God is exerting his influence.
    I also do not dispute that our present efforts are meager and failing. I not sure how that precludes the need for a future hope and especially one that is at least in part pre-determined. I will suggest that if hope is displaced even partly until ‘then’ it must remove us from the immediate consequences of our complete dependance and obedience to the principles of Christ. At some point we have to suggest that God will intervene in human machinery and change things so that his outcome comes to fruition and then we have to suggest that God does not really mean it when he says that human free-will is actually free. a better future might still be possible but if God’s conquest over evil cannot give us complete hope for the present through our obedience – well then it feels like that hope is pretty thin…

    February 24, 2009
  14. Mdaele #

    the only thing that our meager efforts indicate is a lack of compliance to God’s principles right?

    February 24, 2009
  15. Mdaele,

    You said:

    I will suggest that if hope is displaced even partly until ‘then’ it must remove us from the immediate consequences of our complete dependance and obedience to the principles of Christ.

    I’m curious about the “must” in this sentence. Why do you feel this is the case?

    a better future might still be possible but if God’s conquest over evil cannot give us complete hope for the present through our obedience – well then it feels like that hope is pretty thin…

    What evidence do we have of God’s conquest over evil in the present with no appeal to the future? If ever there was a feature of the human condition that depended upon the future, this would be it, in my view. Indeed, the belief that God’s victory over evil had begun with the career of Jesus and would one day be finally consummated at his return and judgment, seems to have been the primary impetus for the early church’s mission.

    the only thing that our meager efforts indicate is a lack of compliance to God’s principles right?

    I think they also just indicate that we are limited creatures, with limited means, whose hopes and longings go beyond what we are able to secure for ourselves.

    February 24, 2009
  16. Mdaele #

    Ryan,
    How does a yet unfulfilled future give us any evidence whatsoever? Should not the primary evidence of God’s victory over evil be already available?
    Re: the ‘must’ (which is realted to my use of the temr baggage) Augustine who gave us many of our theological foundations influenced a significant shift in the theology of heaven in 4thC. Essentially, he drew the distinction between the present Kingdom of God (manifest in the Roman Empire under Constantine) and the future Kingdom of heaven. I am not the only one who argues that this distinction was the catalyst for the alienating theology that influenced so much of Christian theology and allowed people to divorce their temporal actions from destiny (this was later strongly reinforced through indulgences). From there evangelicalism subtracts us even further by focusing on how critical the salvation of the soul is througha personal decision (gettin’ souls into the pearly gates). I suggest that when our focus is on the future eventualities we distort the power of the gospel. I would say history strongly affirms this premise.
    Mike I suspected that the charge of false dichotomy might arise (I think it is an intrinsic danger of drawing these distinctions). I appreciate your comments. Draw these distinctions is crucial as I said earlier to how we formulate our concepts of hope and obedience.
    Obedience to a design that will eventually be fulfilled makes my obedience at least in part inconsequential. Not only is that not motivating it also means that the real help I give to people will not be as careful as it would if I believe that the entire plan depends on my obedience. Hope deferred means that we have to tell people that justice and grace may never be theirs to experience in any meaningfulway in this present reality. But what real difference does justice and grace have when the world has come to an end anyway.
    I contend that heaven and ultimate redemption is true – just not primary. My initial inquiry was to wonder whether it is possible to frame theology that has a different focal point than future restoration. It seems that it likely is not.
    While my comprehension of Soros’ theory is faint at best – I think that drawing the parallels to human particiaption vs. predetermined economic factors is a valuabel discussion for both economics and our concept of the gospel…

    February 24, 2009
    • Mdaele,

      How does a yet unfulfilled future give us any evidence whatsoever? Should not the primary evidence of God’s victory over evil be already available?

      Is this criteria fulfilled, from your perspective? How? I’m not saying that the future itself provides evidence (how could it?). What I am saying is that the belief in a future final victory over evil was crucial to the self-understanding of the early church and an essential component of Jesus’ message. This in no way ought to take focus off of what God wants (and what we are to do) for his world in the present

      I suggest that when our focus is on the future eventualities we distort the power of the gospel. I would say history strongly affirms this premise.

      I still don’t see why this is necessarily the case. Sure, history has given us many examples of people who were too heavenly minded to be any earthly good. But when the pendulum swings too far one way, the answer isn’t to go to the opposite extreme and claim that the future shouldn’t factor in at all.

      February 24, 2009
  17. Ken #

    I think Mdaele’s instinct is sound that there is a here and now aspect of the gospel, and it is, in a sense, primary. I think the postmillennialism expressed by Mike and Ryan reflect that, even while it acknowledges what is not yet fulfilled. I think Mdaele, is rightfully resisting a common misunderstanding of Christianity as an escape from this world and the present. And, of course, Ryan and Mike are resisting that too.

    When I think of the gospel, I think of the proclamation found in the Bible that the kingdom of God is at hand. It is presented as something imminent, not something in the distant future. When Jesus did not return before the disciples died, as they expected, this represented a crisis in the Christian communities and it remains a theological problem or crisis for us today.

    I think the church came to understand that the kingdom is imminent not in the sense of a predictable future date, but rather in the sense that it is within our grasp, always available in the next moment which is to say available now. I think it is common for a Christian to experience something of the imminence of the judgment and the imminence of deliverance in every moment of our lives. The ways this has been expressed in theology have varied over time and among the churches, but it has always been expressed. In the Roman Catholic Church it is expressed in the Eucharist. In Protestantism it is the basis of the the Ministry of the Word and Sacrament. In addition, in Evangelical Protestantism it is expressed in the urgency of and the life-changing aspect of one’s conversion, a moment that remains present in the mind for the rest of our lives, a moment that changes every other moment in our lives. It compels us to act here and now.

    February 24, 2009
  18. Good words, Ken. I also think we need to consider that the kingdom is “at hand” in the sense that Jesus had/has given us the tools to help usher it in.

    February 24, 2009
  19. Mdaele #

    Nope, I am not suggesting that conclusive evidence CAN be found in the present expression of Christian obedience – only that it should (and primarily so).
    I suppose we could debate what we mean by crucial or essential but we live too far away from each other to have any fun with that. I hold that a “belief in a future final victory” was not AS central a component of the early church theology as we have made it seem. In fact as I pointed out Augustine seems to be a pivotal point of departure in terms defining the theological aspects of this concept.
    I suppose that making a “belief in a future final victory” a central feature of one’s theological perspective might NOT necessarily lead to distortion. But history seems to indicate that it is more than likely. I am also not advocating a swing in the theological pendulum for its own sake. Rather, I think it can be a valuable theological exercise to examine those aspects of theology that we perceive to be central or indispensible and try to construct a meaningful theology around that. I think it keeps us humble.
    I’m not interested in getting rid of a concept of heaven or ultimate redemption – I suppose that in the end – for me at least – whatever comes afterward is gravy (I think Paul used the gain).

    February 24, 2009
  20. Fair enough, Dale. I don’t like the word “gravy”—I think think it connotes a kind of unnecessary extra when, as I’ve argued, I think that the consummation of our hope is vitally necessary—but I absolutely agree that our emphasis as Christ-followers could certainly use a significant shift earthward.

    February 24, 2009
  21. J #

    I’ve only skimmed through the previous comments, so I apologize from the outset if what I say repeats a point that’s already been noted.

    In response to Mdaele’s observations, it seems to me that the Christian story calls us to adopt a kind of “reflexive posture” in which our hope is rooted BOTH in what God has done for us in the present AND what God will do in the future. Why?

    As has already been noted, to focus too much on the future can lead to distortion. For example, we may figure that because Jesus will someday take us to heaven, we can just do whatever we want with the world because it’s going to hell anyway. On the other hand, to focus too much on the present leads to distortion as well. For example, in my 20s I struggled with depression. Even though I could see glimpses of God’s kingdom, those fragments of hope certainly paled in comparison to the pain and the hurt that I was seeing. In other words, God has done good stuff right here and now, but that’s not enough.

    As far as I can tell, the present glimpses of hope take on a very different complexion when they are anchored in a hope of future fulfillment. In fact, a “conversion moment” for me was when I somehow caught the vision of a future redemption. It was that future hope that pulled me out of my depression. In other words, future hope is what motivates my hopeful action in the present (and vice versa).

    I suppose it’s in that sense that I have an amillennialist outlook.

    Anyways, I hope what I’ve written isn’t too sermonic or trite or whatever. I’ve been struggling for years to put into words what has been a life-altering change in perspective.

    I’ll stop now.

    February 24, 2009
  22. Thanks J. This is neither sermonic nor trite, but a very helpful (and hopeful) articulation of the Christian perspective toward the present and the future.

    February 25, 2009
  23. Ditto. It’s both present and future.

    February 25, 2009

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