Monday, March 28, 2011

Theology as a Study of the Models of Human Life

Imagine a man who finds himself inching forward through a narrow path at the middle of the night. His primary concern is safety, which very much depends upon how well he views his surroundings and his forward path. He wouldn't want to place his foot on a snake or to fall headlong into a pit. If he does not place each step carefully, he will suffer its consequences. Although he cannot see most of his surroundings, he sees a picture of that place within his mind, which includes not only the visible but also the invisible. This picture, though far from the reality, helps him move on. As he moves on, his mental picture becomes closer to the reality.

Our life in this world, as individuals and communities, is very similar to this situation. We make this trip in darkness. We don't know what we are, where we are, or why we are here. Our safety depends upon how well we view our journey of life in spite of the darkness of ignorance. Our sciences, philosophies and all other branches of knowledge are like torches that help us see as clearly as possible.

In spite of all these torches of knowledge, some of the basic questions of life remain unknown. In order to live our life we need a model of life-- a picture in our mind. What is known about life fits into this model. When it comes to questions such as why we live and what we are, we are in the field of the unknown. A working model of life can be created only if we can fill in what is unknown. Where facts are not available, we fill in with beliefs and hypotheses. This is similar to how a scientist works with a hypothesis.

This model of human life includes and supports all branches of knowledge. Such a model answers the basic questions of life such as what we are and why we are here to the members of its community so that they can keep living their life. This model makes a distinction between what we know and what we don't about our life. Instead of leaving what we don't know as a dark blank, it creatively fills such spaces with meaningful beliefs. About what we know, it accepts the facts offered by the various branches of knowledge. About what we don't know, it offers beliefs or hypotheses. Such a model of life is specific to a culture or a community that builds up a life based on it.

The process of creating a working model of human life is a highly creative work of art of a community of people and it lasts decades or centuries. When a model of life is transferred to the child-generation from the parent-generation, a gap of understanding occurs because such a complex work of art cannot be readily understood. If the child-generation takes the pain to decode the work of art, it can create a much more sophisticated model of life for themselves. If the child-generation doesn't do so, it either discards the model of life, or literally follows it without knowing its meaning.

The term theology is sometimes used to denote such a model of life specific to a community, but it is more meaningfully used to denote a branch of knowledge that engages in a systematic study of such models of life. History is how we remember and interpret our past experiences in relation to our present situation. Being lessons from the past experiences, history helps us face our challenges in the present. Understood properly, Theology and History do not hinder each other; they only support each other. The former gives us a working model of the whole, and the latter brings insights from the past. Problem occurs when beliefs are misunderstood as facts, and metaphors are taken literally.

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