Along the Way: Faith–Reality or Reality TV?

Faith exists in the context of closed-system or open-system thinking. [1] Both systems use the term “progressive revelation” but they mean different things by it.

Closed-system thinking believes progress occurs only in relation to already-established “orthodoxies” (variously defined by respective groups), and that we remain faithful only as we affirm the doctrines, statements of faith, etc. that have been created by the group.

Closed-system thinking idealizes/idolizes “past” revelatory events, accepting or rejecting new things relative to them. Truth is in place, and it can be known with certainty. “Progress” can occur, but only within established beliefs and practices. Venturing beyond the already-drawn map is to go where “there be dragons.”

When I think of closed-system thinking, I remember the movie “The Truman Show.”  Without knowing it, Truman Burbank is growing up in an elaborately designed TV town (Seahaven), where he has everything he needs. Christof has created it all and directs the show. It is only when Truman pokes a hole in the horizon while sailing that he realizes there is more reality than he has been exposed to.

Christof has to admit that there is more, but he tries to convince Truman that Seahaven is the only world he needs. Fortunately, Truman follows his intuition rather than the television setting, and ends up living a larger and more authentic life than he would ever have if he had stayed in Seahaven. He chooses Reality over reality tv.

“The Truman Show” is a contemporary cinemagraphic depiction of closed-system thinking, and it goes even further to expose it in its religious manifestations. Christof (Christ-off, a knock-off Christ) personifies the illusion of closed-system thinking, and even when his lie is exposed, he continues to allege that while the reality-tv world is not everything, it’s “all you need”—it’s “one-stop shopping” in all things God. To think otherwise, Christof asserts, is to move away from Truth and head down “the slippery slope” of infidelity.

But there is another way: open-system thinking. Truman characterizes it. He chooses Reality over reality tv. Open-system thinking believes progress can occur through things never considered before. It believes there are genuinely new things. It takes its cue from the cosmos and its micro and macro revelations, where new things are coming into being all the time.

The model for this, and the encourager of open-system thinking is Christ, who wanted his followers to have “eyes to see” (Mark 8:18), and that included experiences of seeing things they had never seen before (Mark 2:12). Ilia Delio describes this as being a seer, “The seer sees something that does not yet exist; knows something is seeking to exist; and acts to make something exist in a new way.” [2]

When I think of open-system thinking, I remember Jesus’ baptism, which we celebrated this past Sunday. In closed-system thinking, ritual cleansing had to be done in Jerusalem by authorized religious personnel. Jesus chose instead to be baptized in the desert by John the Baptist, and even though it was not a “real baptism” in the closed system, it was enough to evoke the voice of God the descent of the Spirit (Luke 2:21-22).

From Jesus’ baptism, we learn an important thing about open-system thinking. It is not revolutionary thinking, but rather subversive thinking. It is not out to destroy the system, but to transform it. Jesus followed the custom, but did it in a new way. He continued to go to the synagogue, but set it in the context of a new mission.(Luke 4:18-19). He honored the Temple, but overthrew the corrupt buying and selling going on in it (Matthew 21:12-13). Open-system faith does not deny the past, but neither does it does make it definitive henceforth and forevermore. It rejects obscurantism. As a kingdom-of-God way of thinking, open-system faith brings forth treasures old and new (Matthew 13:52).

Open-system faith does not “progress” out of doctrines and dogmas, but from eternal principles which precede them. In the Christian tradition, the cardinal principle is love, described in the two great commandments (Matthew 22:34-40), and manifested as the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).

Open-system faith does not destroy the law, it fulfills it (Matthew 5:17). It does this by proclaiming the kingdom of God rather than the “kingdoms of this world” (civic and religious imperialism), and by producing new wineskins to hold God’s wine, while journeying into the new creation.

Open-system faith does not emerge from group documents, but from the God-given desire to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8), and with a particular concern for “the poor” (Psalm 41:1)—the anawim (whom Jesus called “the least of these”)…anyone and everyone treated as less-than, marginalized and excluded, and harmed by oppressive attitudes and actions perpetrated by closed-system thinkers.

Open-system faith is congruent with creation, which is itself “in progress” with new worlds coming into existence. It is in sync with the new creation in which the old passes away so that the new can come (2 Corinthians 5:17). Open-system faith seeks Reality, and for that reason it cannot settle for or rest in the “reality tv” faith that closed-systems create and try to convince us is the real thing.

[1] I am grateful for Thomas Oord and the pioneering work he is doing in “Open and Relational Theology.” Find out more at c4ort.com.

[2] ‘The Heart of the Matter’ email, 1/11/21.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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