The Play of Theories

theoriesWe once had a little fun in a seminar. What is the answer, I asked the group, to the question: “Who will be taken and who will be left, in the story that Jesus tells about “the days of Noah” in Matthew 24? “Is it the ones who are taken who are saved or the ones who are left?” Some said it was the taken, others the ones who were left.

Now I wasn’t asking that question because I wanted to correct the “wrong” answer. The point was to draw attention to the role that theories play in our lives, including in our beliefs. Two different theories were at work in that audience. A premillennial rapture theory was informing the beliefs of those who said that the taken were the saved. For the others, the story of Noah, or at least the aspects of it that Jesus details in Matthew 24:36-41, was the theory.

Bringing up the word “theory” easily puts many people off, but there’s no good reason for that, especially because no one, but no one, gets through a day without relying on theories. “Theory” is not just a word for the intellectual. Besides, who is not “intellectual”? Anyone using the mind is intellectual.

I’m not using the word, here, in the technical sense, for instance, of a scientific theory, or a political theory, or a theory of art, or of any other kind of highly abstract body of thought. I’m using it simply in the general sense of a set of beliefs, or policies, or procedures that inform our daily actions. And most of the time, for many of us, we are not conscious of this until it is pointed out to us, as I did in that seminar.

Several months ago on this blog I told a humorous story about “cannon ball races” in order to call attention to the troubling but overlooked phenomenon that is often at the heart of communication breakdowns. There, we considered the problem of conflicting theories, which in some cases (not that one) can lead to a bad argument, division, enmity, or even violence. Now the communication’s problem in that story, as we saw, easily resolved, but here I want to look briefly at another role that theories play in our lives. It affects larger and more crucial issues that are not so easily solved, such as come up in a society’s disputes about science, education, religion, or politics. Problems in such arenas will be especially difficult to resolve when the people working on them bring different theories to it.

Take an example from the White House. U.S. presidents, at least the wisest of them, will listen to different theoretical voices, so to speak, when they are analyzing international incidents. But as a rule, when it comes to interpreting those incidents and deciding on policies of response to them, presidents rely on insight from their closest advisers, who have been chosen because they hold a theory about international relations that to a large degree agrees with the presidents’ theories.

This is why, as the implications of President George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism” became clearer in 2002 and 2003, editorials appeared in America wondering if Al Gore would have responded differently to the 9/11 terrorist attack on America had he been the U.S. president. Would Gore have begun a “war on terrorism?” Would he have gone to war in Afghanistan? Would he have invaded Iraq to get rid of Saddam Hussein? The editorials recognized that Bush and Gore held two different, and conflicting, political theories.

So, most of us don’t advise presidents! But most of us have, at one time or another, found ourselves in a debate over whether home schooling or public schooling is better, or how to discipline the kids, or whether a Democrat or a Republican should be our state’s next governor. Should marijuana be legalized? Should the federal income tax laws be overhauled? Should we have invaded Iraq? What about gay marriage, or national health care, the death penalty? Is global warming occurring?

That these and dozens of other large issues are argued daily across America, and not just around waters coolers but in schools and homes as well, testifies to the different theories at play in the debates.

This post, then, has underlined the fact that different theories inform how people think about issues. In the next post, I want us to consider why we need a wisdom that makes sound theories possible for dealing with life’s pressing issues.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

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