Friday, March 30, 2012

An Issue Worth Fighting Over: Graphing the Relative Importance and Certainty of Theological Issues

This graph might help demonstrate the relative importance and certainty of certain doctrines and practical issues for teaching and mediation purposes.

An issue might be graphed on this chart if the user can subjectively posit the answers to two questions: 1) How important is the issue, and 2) how certain is the issue?

The farther up and right an issue is graphed, the more certain and important the user believes it to be. The farther left and down, the less certain and important. Something graphed in the farthest corner of the upper right quadrant could be described as both essential and absolute in the mind of the user.

Of course, different people will place different issues at different places on the graph depending on their own subjective estimations, but in many cases, particularly through discussion, two disagreeing parties might at least be able to locate their issue of contention somewhere close to each other.

By visually representing the relative importance and certainty of an issue, perhaps people can get a sense of whether or not an issue is really worth fighting over. Perhaps they can realize that fellowship and cooperation is often possible in spite of disagreements. Or perhaps they may realize the reason why conflict is inevitable or necessary.

A third axis that I have not included in the diagram is the one that goes through the center, making the graph three dimensional. That line could be labeled with degrees of agreement. Whether or not to make a big deal of an issue can be posited based upon two issues of placement: 1) Do the parties substantially agree regarding the issue itself, and 2) do the parties agree upon the placement of the issue upon the graph?   The third axis would account for the first of these two questions.

Both may agree to place the same issue within the same quadrant, but they may disagree severely regarding the issue itself. An obvious example might be that strong Calvinists and strong Arminians will likely place many of their issues of disagreement in the upper right quadrant and will likely come into conflict.  However, if they have placed their issues in the lower left quadrant, they may see that they are neither important nor certain enough to cause conflict.

Issues placed in the upper left quadrant by both parties may mean that real, confident disagreements need not stand in the way of cooperation.  One may believe strongly concerning something, but if he/she does not believe that thing is important, why should it stand in the way of fellowship and cooperation?  As for the lower right quadrant?  I do not yet know what to do with that one.  I suspect that it would be the least populated quadrant, containing questions that people believe are important to research but for which they do not yet have answers. It stands to reason that this quadrant is probably not worth fighting over either.

I said "subjective estimations" above, but I do not mean that estimations of importance and certainty should be determined merely by subjective opinion.  When the diagram is used to graph biblical issues, the estimations will hopefully be guided by each user's understanding of what the Bible teaches, ideally through the complex and difficult job of studying God's Word. However, study as we might, certain variables make estimating certainty and importance an inherently subjective task. These variables might include the users' respective Bible knowledge, theological education, church background, upbringing, hermeneutic, emotions, common sense, intelligence, and a multitude of other unquantifiable influences. Variables like these will probably account for the difference between someone who places an issue in the lower left quadrant and someone who places the same issue in the upper right quadrant.

Of course, all illustrations and diagrams have limits to their usefulness, and I can immediately imagine the inadequacy of this graph for reliably determining cooperation and fellowship in the real world. Rather than using the graph as a tool for determining whether one should come into conflict with someone else, I would prefer the tool be used to reduce conflict by answering the question, "Is this issue really worth fighting over?"

My hope would be that we would be able to more clearly see those things that are not worth fighting over in order to reduce pugilistic dispositions.

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