How in Heaven’s Name Do We Think?

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How do you think? Ever thought about that?

Not everyone thinks the same way. We all tend to think—that is, to reason—in different ways, depending upon influences that have shaped us. Probably genetics plays a role, as well.

Influences that shape our thinking come especially from our culture and family background. We (most of us) have been raised to, unconsciously, think according to one or another set of assumptions.

I call these models of thinking. These models shape the ways we think and act, as well as the matters we take for granted.

What are these models or modes of thinking? Four basic ones shape our assumptions and how we act: Hierarchical thinking, linear thinking, cyclical thinking, and ecological thinking. As I reflect on these models, I now see how my own thinking has shifted over the years.

I. Hierarchical Thinking (and acting)

Here authority is the key dynamic. This mode of thinking takes its cues from the structures of authority in the culture and in one’s life. Hierarchical thinking can be pictured as a vertical arrow:

howardUP

As the arrow shows, hierarchical thinking assumes a vertical line from authority (power) to submission; from superiority to inferiority. In theology and spirituality, often this is assumed to be a movement downwards from perfection to imperfection. (For example, The “Great Chain of Being.”)

This mode of thinking places high value on order, stability, and predictability. Theologies which hold to a static, fixed “orders of creation” idea reflect this mode.

Within this model, ecological thinking (discussed below) is difficult, if not impossible. This is hugely important today.

Question: Is this the way you think?

II. Linear Thinking (and acting)

Here the key is an underlying assumption of progress. Or alternatively, in some versions, the assumption of decline. So linear thinking can be pictured in these ways:

howardRIGHT

The basic dynamic here, as the arrows show, is linear progression from one element or stage to the next. Inevitable progress (or decline) is usually assumed. The reversal of the process is considered unlikely or impossible.

This way of thinking easily becomes a philosophy of history, or perhaps a spiritual worldview. It is in fact a worldview assumption that tends to shape the way we think on a whole range of issues, from spirituality to politics to technology.

Is this perhaps the way you think? The mode that reflects or shapes your worldview?

III. Cyclical Thinking (and acting)

Here the assumed dynamic is repetition. What has been is what will be. What will be is assumed to be just another version of the past.

This mode of thinking can thus be pictured this way:

howardCIRCLE2

In this mode of thinking, nothing truly new happens. (Think of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes.) Life is an endless repetition of cycles, with no fundamental progress or real change. If this is our worldview, it will be reflected in the ways we think about life. It will likely influence the way we solve problems.

Cyclical thinking is like hierarchical and linear thinking in that there is a sense of movement. But here the movement is cyclical. It never really goes anywhere totally new. This is reflected in religious worldviews that posit some form of “eternal return.”

In cyclical thinking, historical progression and scientific progress are difficult to conceive of. Some historians see this fact as a key reason why scientific and technological progress developed more in the West than in the East, where cyclical thinking has predominated.

This cyclical way of thinking does of course embody truth. We do in fact live within the cycles of nature and seasons, of families and generations. It is easy to see why this mode of thinking has been so powerful over centuries and millennia.

Further, this mode of thinking can be, and often has been, combined with hierarchical thinking. In fact these various modes of thinking are not always mutually exclusive. People may combine various ways of thinking at times. They may use one or another, depending on circumstances. For most people most of the time, however, it seems that one mode predominates.

Is your thinking essentially cyclical?

Here then we have three basic ways of thinking: Hierarchical, linear, and cyclical. But there is another. Let’s call it ecological thinking.

IV. Ecological Thinking (and acting)

What is the underlying reality and assumption here? It is not authority, nor progress, nor repetition. Rather it is life. And life, while dynamic, is also messy.

So we may picture ecological thinking this way:

howardEVERYWAY2

Here we see multiple interactions in all directions. We encounter multiple feedback loops, often unanticipated. In fact in ecological thinking, very significant but often subtle feedback loops simply cannot be anticipated. (Think of the weather or the climate.)

This is because life is highly complex. In ecological thinking, complexity is assumed. Thus dynamism and continuous flux are assumed and expected.

Ecological thinking means valuing each element (or micro ecosystem) for its own particular role and contribution.

Ecological thinking is organic. It understands the importance of organisms; of all living things, and how they interact with each other and with the larger environment. Ecosystems can be either stable or unstable. They are often fragile; vulnerable to disruption. Ecological thinking reflects upon the ways life actually works.

Ecological thinking is compatible both with Scripture and (thus) with the actual reality of the created order. It recognizes the partial truth of hierarchical, linear, and cyclical processes and modes of thinking. Since it is more comprehensive than other modes of thinking, it is the most wholistic and the most helpful for Christians in attempting to understand theology, mission, and our own lives. Even the Trinity.

The first three models sketched above—hierarchical, linear, and cyclical—have a key weakness. They make it very difficult to really think ecologically or grasp the dynamism of ecology. Thus they make it hard to think comprehensively and wholistically about salvation and about our own discipleship in relation to each other and to the earth.

When you look at the Bible from an ecological perspective, you see that it is amazingly ecological—ecological in a much more profound sense than secular models of ecology. Our theology and our ethics should reflect this. That is, they should be truly ecological in the biblical sense.

Theological Reflection

All four of these modes of thinking have big theological implications. Your theology and your ethics (your life and your discipleship) will be different depending on which of these modes of thinking predominates in your life.

Changing from one way of thinking to another inevitably means a major paradigm shift. Once you move from any of these models to ecological thinking, for instance, your whole understanding of the gospel and of church and mission changes, expands. I know this from experience.

It is true, as already hinted, that we may combine these thinking modes in various ways or in various areas of our lives. But one will be most basic. It will give us our underlying assumptions—that is, our worldview, our worldstory, our world-feeling. Further, each mode is both shaped by and reinforces existing social structures and arrangements. Culture conflicts and social revolutions often involve clashes in thinking modes.

In light of this, we may ask some questions as we reflect on our own theology and sense of mission and discipleship. For example:

  • By which model do we tend to think of or conceptualize the Trinity?
  • The church, in its structure and organization?
  • Society and culture generally?
  • Our relationships in the body of Christ?
  • Our relationship to the earth and God’s other creatures?
  • Do different theological systems tend to assume or favor one of these models of thinking over others?

Thinking of Incarnation

How do these modes of thinking shape the way we envision the life and work of Jesus Christ? How do we understand Jesus’ coming into the world as Messiah? Consider:

Hierarchical model: The Messiah comes down from heaven by the Father’s authority so that we can know God and eventually be taken up to heaven.

Linear model: Messiah comes in fulfillment of the long, long story of God’s redemptive work in history to bring to completion God’s plan for the ages.

Cyclical model: Jesus’ birth is a key point in the cycle of the Christian Year, anticipated by Advent, the annual return of God’s promise to send Messiah and bring salvation.

All these contain truth but are only partial. Grand as they are, they may unintentionally distort the fullness of God’s economy of salvation.

Ecological model: Messiah comes in fulfillment of God’s promises to bring to glorious fulfillment, to full shalom and flourishing, his whole creation—when God’s kingdom comes fully and the whole earth is truly and completely filled with the glory of the Lord.

[PS: I deal with models of thinking in a somewhat different way in the chapter “Thinking Biblically, Thinking Missionally,” in my book Yes In Christ.]

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International Representative, Manchester Wesley Research Centre in Manchester, England. Formerly professor of the history and theology of mission, Asbury Theological Seminary (1996-2006); Professor of Wesley Studies, Tyndale Seminary, Toronto, 2007-2012. Has taught and pastored in São Paulo, Brazil; Detroit, Michigan; and Chicago, Illinois. Dr. Snyder’s main interest is in the power and relevance of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom for the world today and tomorrow. Works include The Problem of Wineskins, Community of the King, and most recently, Jesus and Pocahontas: Gospel, Mission, and National Myth.

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