Monday, September 28, 2009

The problem with pendulums and the lessons we get from them

[Note: this may be the most technical post I've ever written. It is also pretty long.  I'm sorry about that. But the good news is that it has picture!]

I've heard a bit about pendulums lately. That is, the pendulum of philosophic argumentation. Most recently
Stef shared a blog post about the movie Lord, Save Us from Your Followers. The post was titled, Ken Davis & the Law of the Pendulum by Greg Sponberg. Rather than writing about the movie, I was to discuss the problem with the Law of the Pendulum.

First, some background on the Law would show us that in history, philosophic arguments tend to swing from one extreme to the other. Particularly in this discussion the swing is from Truth to Grace. These swings are as a result of a culture that puts too much weight on one side, then a counter culture forcing the issue the other way. So, in the case of Truth verses Grace, the Western church is often seen as moving out of a time when truth was held too strongly and God's grace under-emphasized.  Of course, not everyone agrees with this perception, but people like Ken Davis do. So they begin emphasizing grace. And of course, the reaction of the pro-truth crowd is that the pro-grace people give up on truth. Naturally, there is a counter reaction to the first reaction and the pendulum begins swinging.

For a physical pendulum to work, it must swing from one side to the other without outside force. Gravity is the only force at work, theoretically. And as Sponberg points out in his blog, the swing is ever decreesing. That is true because there are more forces than just gravity, namely air friction is causing the pendulum to slow down. This is true for a physical pendulum.

The problem is, it isn't necessarily true for the philosophic pendulum which is of course a metaphor, and all metaphors have their limitations.

Here's what I see as the problem. A natural pendulum has a point of equilibrium. Demonstrated in this picture, that equilibrium is when gravity holds it steady at point C. For our philosophic pendulum, this might be named absolute truth, the point of perfect agreement with Truth or with God.

The problem occurs when the a misunderstanding moves a culture to an extreme position. That's demonstrated by the swing to R2 in this diagram. For the sake of argument, let's say that R2 is those who feel they have to uphold truth at all costs.

Naturally, the reaction against that philosophy, is those who believe they have to uphold Grace at all cost. The are represented by L2 on this diagram. The seem very far apart and they are. It would be natural for people to want to expell much energy fighting against the pull of R2 if you hold L2 position and visa versa.

The truth is, few people ever end up in the world of the L2 or R2. In the Christian debate of Truth and Grace, almost all Christians I know of believe in both. Therefore, they are more accurately portrayed by the position of L1 and R1.

Here's the problem. No matter where any person or group is on the swing of the pendulum, it is the perception of that person or group, to assume that they are holding to the truth, or that they are holding to the C position.  Because of that, it seem that any pull away from the C position is a pull to the extreme of another position. More reasonably, most people aren't advocates of any position, but seeking the truth, the C of whatever it is we are thinking about. Where we feel tension is when our culture (our church/our society/our family) has settled on an extreme position we may desire to move from that position, but at that point even the centralist argument is going to feel like the pendulum is swinging hard. And the truth is, the pull to a centralist position will create in itself a momentum to the opposite direction. This will be uncomfortable. People will be yelling about the slippery slope of this or of that. There will be accusations of pendulumating the issue.

Here's the good thing. When a natural pendulum is stuck (say the grandfather clock has something jammed up against it), it takes a force to begin the pendulum';s movement again. It is only through that force that the swing can again work itself toward the point of equilibrium.

So our lesson in this long and technical post is that when we are faced with philosophic arguments that challenge our perceptions or our cultural norms, rather than labeling them bad from the onset, consider how they are helping us to find the final point of equilibrium. In the end, God is the force of gravity that will pull us all the the center eventually.