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Theological Cartography Syndrome

Theological Cartography Syndrome

Sometimes, when one falls under the influence of a particular author or scholar, one comes to see their opinions as indisputable. They become a theological map-maker (cartographer) for us rather than a trail-guide or teacher.

When was the last time you took serious issue with a scholar most of your peers seemed to agree with—say Walter Brueggemann, Scot McKnight or N.T. Wright? If you did, what would the fans of that scholar likely say? Somewhere in there might be an attitude conveying, “Who are you to argue with the great Brueggemann, McKnight or Wright?”—a suggestion none of the three aforementioned scholars would endorse. Such an attitude is developed, often, with too much reading and too little thinking critically about what we’ve read. It’s better to learn lots and think lots, with the “epistemic humility” (thanks, Dr. Fred Aquino) to learn thoughtfully.

If we metabolize what the author we’re reading is saying, and they’re saying anything of substance, we should question some of their assertions.

No, really. We should.

The stakes are high when one does theology with such a platform and influence. We do ourselves and those we teach no favors by uncritically accepting what we read as fact or dismissing those who might challenge what we’ve read and love.

For the record, I’ve been significantly and positively influenced by all three of the aforementioned scholars. Save Dallas Willard, they have probably impacted me more than any other three. Yet, I have some points of deviation with each of them. At times, when discussing those points of deviation with friends, we’ll reach the inevitable, “He’s right because he’s Wright,” moment. Ironically, these intellectual giants made their contributions by critiquing and improving upon the “facts” of the theological authorities before them. That’s part of the beauty of theology. It’s an ongoing, thoughtful dialogue about God that really matters.

Theological Cartography Syndrome is vicious. It creates an environment in which constructive dialogue and critical thinking goes to die. Not all learning. Critical thinking. Where theological or ideological cartography reigns supreme, people become reluctant to question or to prod further discussion. In other cases, they are simply dismissed because they paddle against the ideological current. This leads inevitably to narrow, rusty thinking over time. It makes science out of theology, when theology is not science.

Pastoral Cartography Syndrome

The same can be true in the field of ministry. It’s sometimes assumed that everything a guru or amazing church says is, by nature, correct. It may be. It may be for a hundred years. But, it may also be assumed correct incorrectly for just as long.

Everyone knew the earth was flat.

Everyone knew everything orbited around the earth.

Everyone knew these things because the authorities (even the church) told them so. To question it was heresy or to be thought of a fool. While our disagreements over the issues of our time may not be “flat earth” in substance, they can be “flat earth” in ideological rigidity.

Let’s not make popes out of pastors or science out of another’s ideas or experiences. They don’t want that anyway.

I’m so thankful for the guidance I receive from what I read and hear from various teachers in theology, ministry and biblical studies. However, they aren’t cartographers for me—telling me where the very earth begins and ends factually. They are open to critique, and they can handle it. True scholars and leaders welcome it.

Thoughts? Have you seen this at work?

This article originally appeared here.