Beware Potted Theology

Philosopher Susan Stebbing has something important to say to us about thinking clearly. Peter West, writing for Aeon, pass along this crucial insight of Stebbing:

What does thinking clearly involve? One important step, Stebbing argues, is to train ourselves out of bad habits of thinking. For example, she describes what she calls ‘potted thinking’. This is oversimplifying ideas using crude characterizations or slogans. While slogans aren’t always a bad thing, Stebbing thinks that they have a tendency to oversimplify more nuanced or sophisticated views and to hide the intricacies of an idea behind a catchy phrase. . . .

To the contemporary reader, this metaphor is perhaps a little dated, with her talk of ‘potted thinking’, because Stebbing is drawing a comparison with potted meat: a vacuum-packed product such as Spam that you might find in a wartime ration pack. She is careful to explain that we should always stop and examine the metaphors we see being used in public discourse. (As she puts it: ‘Do not accept the metaphor too hastily’!) With that in mind, she explains the metaphor:

Potted meat is sometimes a convenient form of food; it may be tasty, it contains some nourishment. But its nutritive value is not equivalent to that of the fresh meat from which it was potted. Also, it must have originally been made from fresh meat, and must not be allowed to grow stale. Similarly, a potted belief is convenient; it can be stated briefly, sometimes also in a snappy manner likely to attract attention.

Her point is that potted thinking takes something that once had high ‘nutritive value’ and packages it in a way that’s easier to sell but harder to find any genuine nourishment in. The worst type of potted thinking, according to Stebbing, is when we grow into the habit of ‘using words repeated parrot-fashion’ – put another way, when we start talking in slogans that have no thought or consideration behind them at all.

I thought of our preaching, often characterized by sound bites and sloganeering, catchy phrases and displays of cleverness, perhaps a distillation of something true, but processed nonetheless.

The New Testament speaks of the difference between solid food and milk. Hebrews 5:14 says, “But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” Hebrews 5:12, in the same passage, contains this rebuke: “In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!”

1 Peter 2:2-3 says, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.”

In 1 Corinthians 3:1-2, Paul writes, “Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.”

The challenge in preaching is to offer the Word of God in a helpful way, a way that fosters maturity and invites growth, that aids each person in thinking clearly about the gospel for themselves.

We want people to receive the full nutritional value that comes via knowledge of the truth, not a potted theological substitute.

Discern, then Respond

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