Tag Archives: epistemology

Placher on the Unknowable God | A Chapter from The Triune God

I paused this morning to read. I have been writing for the past two days and I needed a change of mode. Finding myself not able to return to sleep at 4:00am I went downstairs and picked up William Placher’s book The Triune God and read first chapter, “The Unknowable God.”

My Reflections

Placher was admittedly a huge fan of Karl Barth, calling him “the greatest theologian of the twentieth century,” (23) and therefore is building a case for revelation through Jesus as the only possible starting point for any theological discourse. ((my professors at Luther would disagree. They would take a more phenomenological approach and acknowledge the reality that all knowledge must begin with our experience of the thing observed–in this case the revelation of God in Jesus–and must be bracketed before we can enter into communicative reason to understand the phenomenon of the Word became flesh.)) His Barthian adoration aside, I found this chapter to be helpful for me at two levels.

First, it was another systematic, historical rehearsal of the arguments that have shaped the Western conversation around the Trinity. I am not a philosopher, nor am I a systematic theologian (I’m still not quite sure what I am), so every time I hear/read someone who can provide digestible synopses of key thinkers, I am indebted to that person.

Placher steps through the thought of Descartes, Locke, and Kant to describe how they each, for different reasons, came to the unknowability of God. They arrived here because they were using the modern notion of rational thought as the means to “know” God. To know God rationally–meaning to be able to explain God with human language and symbols–is impossible. This is what gave rise to atheism and secularism. Placher then revisits Anselm, Aquinas, and Eckhart and demonstrates how these theologians were not trying to explain God, but began with the faith that God exists outside of our ability to explain. Their pursuit was to understand/know God.

Placher’s point is to demonstrate that the modern philosophers and the Medieval theologians were not pursuing the same ends. The modern philosophers began with a subjective skepticism and sought to prove the existence of God through reason. The Medieval theologians began in a culture where faith in God was the norm, and pursued the understanding of that faith, not the explanation or defense of that faith.

Placher recognizes that today, in our postmodern context, we do not have the luxury of returning to the Medieval theological premise. He then names three late modern/postmodern philosophers: Kierkegaard, Levinas, and Wittgenstein who demonstrate how we must create space within our own experience to acknowledge the existence of the unknowable. We must, he argues, navigate the space between idolatry–creating a false god with our words–and secularity–believing there is nothing unknowable outside our physical experience.

The Second way I found this chapter helpful was in regard to my own writing. It helped me put my dissertation writing into perspective. I have been processing so much information for the past three years, and yet I feel like I don’t know anything. There are so many voices and so many perspectives that are using words to explain/describe/encounter that which is impossible to explain or even describe…and some would even say impossible to encounter. My advisor cautioned me last night to make sure that I stay attentive to the data–meaning the reflections of the people in my research team, and my interaction with the process–and to make sure that my framing structure of the dissertation is necessary to the emerging argument. I interpret that to mean that I may be trying to say too much. (I get that a lot)

Placher’s chapter helped me to remember that it is not possible for me to explain the Trinity. All of the words regarding Trinity continually run the risk of constructing another idol. This is not my desire. I seek to understand. I seek to know as I am known, to quote Parker Palmer, not to explain. May it ever be so.

The Triune GodPlacher, William C. The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007.

My Highlights

“When philosophy textbooks gather under the same heading a range of texts from the Middle Ages to today, from Anselm and Aquinas through Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, and Kant to contemporary writers, as if all these folks were doing the same thing–offering ‘proofs for the existence of God’–they mislead the students who read them. In fact, the medieval texts so cited were usually doing something like the opposite–giving an account of God that would render anything like ‘proof’ altogether inappropriate. Those who seek to reduce Christian faith to the arena of rational proof–whether liberal Deists trying to eliminate Christianity’s ‘irrational’ elements or conservative advocates of ‘intelligent design’ trying to make religion fit their own version of the ‘scientific’–are not preserving traditional Christianity but engaging in a particular and characteristically modern project that has diverged from the Christian tradition.

“Medieval authors lived in a biblically shaped word, and the God made known in the Bible is not the subject of rational proofs. Indeed, this God cannot be represented by any image; the divine name cannot even be pronounced. When the Roman general Pompey conquered Jerusalem, he horrified the Jews by pushing into the Holy of Holies, the sacred space only the high priest could enter once a year. The story goes that Pompey was puzzled when, at the center of the Holy of Holies, where he expected to see the most valuable and sacred religious artifact, there was only empty space. As Jacques Derrida wrote:

This place and this figure have a singular structure: the structure encloses its void within itself, shelters only its own proper interiorized desert, opens onto nothing, confines nothing, contains as its treasure only nothingness: a hole, an empty spacing….Nothing behind the curtains. Hence the ingenious surprise of a non-Jew when he opens, is allowed to open or violates the tabernacle, when he enters the dwelling or the temple, and after so many ritual detours to gain access to the secret center, he discovers nothing–only nothingness.

No center, no heart, an empty space, nothing. (Jacques Derrida, Glas. 1986)

The closer you get to seeing God, Gregory of Nyssa said, the more you realize that God is invisible. (The Life of Moses)” (11)

“So the theological task becomes more difficult. If we try to talk about God in a way that fits God into human categories and systems, we end up not with God but with an idol (and our arguments for the existence of the idol do not work very well anyway). Idols are things we can control. In Isaiah the prophet appropriately ridicules those who take some wood, use part of it to roast meat and warm themselves, and make the rest into a god (Isa. 44:16-17)–as if we could make gods for ourselves as and when we needed them. But if we too quickly simply acknowledge the meaninglessness of all talk about God, we run the risk that our secular contemporaries will rest content in their unqualified secularity, have a beer, and go bowling–whether alone or not.

“A theology appropriate to our postmodern time, therefore, might ask whether there are permanently unanswerable questions that point beyond the realm of our experience and to which Christian revelation could provide a totally unexpected answer. A line of philosophers has been exploring such possibilities at least since Kant, but the task is tricky. On the one side lies the risk of falling back into the modern project and coming up with  some answer we can understand to ‘ultimate questions’–an answer that inevitably describes an idol. On the other side is the danger of pointing toward an answer so amorphous that it collapses into a vaguely poetic way of talking about what turns out in the end to be just ordinary experience.” (22)

Kierkegaard – “let his pseudonyms show from the inside the unsatisfactory character of various forms of life, without then claiming to offer any argument for a kind a religiousness that could come only by revelation. He left us, one might say, with an empty space into which God’s revelation might enter.” (40)

Levinas – “found in the face of another human being an infinite demand that deconstructed all totalities, though he could not quite decide whether that infinite demand pointed beyond the other human being.” (39)

Wittgenstein – “found himself haunted by questions that by his own rules it made no sense to ask. Answering the questions in clear language would give us idols; abandoning them would leave us with flat secularity.” He kept running against the boundaries of language, which indicated that there was something to run up against. (39)

“One of the great insights behind the doctrine of the Trinity was that such mediation does not work [the Plotinian emanations]. No matter how many rungs are in the ladder, the topmost rung is still on the ladder, and therefore not an utterly transcendent mystery. The only way we can be connected with the utterly transcendent is if it/he/she reaches out to us in love, overcoming all the intervening levels in one act of condescension. That is what happens in Jesus Christ, and explaining the logic of how that can be led Christian theologians to the Trinity.
“The issues discussed in this chapter invite in our time an analogous move in an epistemological mode. The world of our experience keeps pushing uncomfortably against its borders, but any effort on our part to see beyond those borders gets us into epistemological trouble–either the questions melt away or we answer them in ways that leave us holding idols within our control. In the face of certain kinds of questions we do not know how to answer and indeed scarcely know how to pose, we can come to knowledge only if it is revealed to us. And the logic of such revelation leads us, likewise, to the Trinity–that will be the argument of the rest of this book.

“Great religious texts from many traditions keep the questions alive while rejecting all our answers, in a dialectic that never comes to closure….Biblical texts claim to tell us more. It is God’s self-revelation, and that alone, that can get us beyond fumbling, unanswered questions, beyond, ‘not this, not this.’ ‘Every phenomenon of revelation,’ Marion has written, ‘would imply the radical anonymity of that which appeals.’ The one with whom Jacob wrestles never gives a name. We take the first step to controlling someone if we know their name, and a ‘revelation’ we can control comes from an idol of our own making. As Marion puts it, ‘Strictly speaking, an appeal which would say its name would no longer appeal, but instead presents the one who appeals, delivering it back to the simple visibility of an occupant of the world, stifling the world with the evidence of a spectacle.’ If God appeared as a man six yards tall, or as ‘a very rare and tremendously large green bird, with a red beak,…perhaps even whistling in an unheard of manner,’ Kierkegaard wrote, this would render faith impossible. We would simply have to account for one more object in the world.

“It is different when God comes among us as an ordinary human being, in the form of a servant. Nothing tempts us to say that we now understand God, yet God has been present among us. So, at the transfiguration, the apostles see a dazzling spectacle, but the voice form heaven calls them not to attend to the vision but to listen to the Son. Then all distinctive spectacle vanishes. ‘suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus’ (Mark 9:8).” (40-41)

The Holy Spirit, Twitter, and Practical Wisdom

practicalwisdom_schwartzI believe the Holy Spirit moves through Twitter. I know that sounds weird, but the story I am about to tell is one that has happened often to me.

Yesterday I started writing an essay about dualisms and how we can navigate between seemingly polarized opposites. I’ll post it when it is finished. This morning I opened up Twitter and the first tweet I saw was from Brain Pickings and was a link to Maria’s review of Practical Wisdom by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe. Maria is a great writer and her review of this book, and the quotes that she highlighted, were a great help to my essay and to my research in general.

I look forward to reading this book in the future. For now, let me highlight some of Maria’s highlights.

The book is built upon Aristotle’s reflections on wisdom and his belief that wisdom is not built from rules, but from telos. The Greek word telos literally means end or goal. For Aristotle, it meant knowing the bigger picture and purpose for why we do certain things. For example, a physician’s telos is to heal people. A musician’s telos is to play music. Each of these disciplines–medicine and music–have certain rules and guidelines that frame the practice, but the telos of the practice is not to rigidly follow the rules. The telos is to heal people and play music, and sometimes that requires improvisation. The wise person knows when to bend, or even break, the rules in order to achieve the telos of the practice. Many people in our culture slavishly follow the letter of the law in the name of wisdom, but, according to Schwartz, are actually unwise and often hurtful to themselves and society.

I believe this is what the Apostle Paul meant when he discussed the Law and the purpose of the Law in his letters, specifically in his letter to the Galatians. He was, of course, following Jesus’ lead in his reframing of the Law in Matthew 5-7. The telos of Law is life, not blind rigid obedience.

Schwartz describes how we are hardwired to become wise as we grow throughout our lives. Maria summarizes the argument, “We exercise our capacity for wisdom in three key ways: natural categorization (our predisposition to organize the world into categories of things, arranged in nuanced ways); framing (finding a context of comparison for things we are evaluating); and storytelling (constructing sense-making narratives about our lives and our experiences). One particularly interesting feature of our predilection for categories is the notion of “fuzziness” — the idea that the categories in which we classify the world are more often based on a nuanced spectrum than a binary dichotomy.

This is where I got really excited because the very thing about which I was writing yesterday was the navigation of these binary dichotomies. Additionally, I decided, within the past week, to frame my dissertation around a narrative structure under the premise that we are storytelling creatures who make sense out of our stories and how we frame them.

The fact that Twitter led me to this post, today, seems to be one of those affirmations from God, and the movement of the Holy Spirit, that I am on a good path. (At least that is the story I’m telling myself as I frame it in this moment 😉 )

Here are some quotes that Maria highlighted that I feel are worth requoting here:

“Schwartz and Sharpe go on to outline the six core qualities of the person endowed with telos:

  1. A wise person knows the proper aims of the activity she is engaged in. She wants to do the right thing to achieve these aims—wants to meet the needs of the people she is serving.
  2. A wise person knows how to improvise, balancing conflicting aims and interpreting rules and principles in light of the particularities of each context.
  3. A wise person is perceptive, knows how to read a social context, and knows how to move beyond the black-and-white of rules and see the gray in a situation.
  4. A wise person knows how to take on the perspective of another—to see the situation as the other person does and thus to understand how the other person feels. This perspective-taking is what enables a wise person to feel empathy for others and to make decisions that serve the client’s (student’s, patient’s, friend’s) needs.
  5. A wise person knows how to make emotion an ally of reason, to rely on emotion to signal what a situation calls for, and to inform judgment without distorting it. He can feel, intuit, or “just know” what the right thing to do is, enabling him to act quickly when timing matters. His emotions and intuitions are well educated.
  6. A wise person is an experienced person. Practical wisdom is a craft and craftsmen are trained by having the right experiences. People learn how to be brave, said Aristotle, by doing brave things. So, too, with honesty, justice, loyalty, caring, listening, and counseling.”


“Frame” is a wonderful metaphor because it emphasizes our capacity to take the chaos of the social world around us and organize it in an understandable way. In framing the scene, we are setting the picture off from its surroundings, excluding what is on the outside and defining what is inside as special and worthy of attention. Frames tell us what is important and help us establish what should be compared with what. The capacity we have to frame enables us to do one of the most important things that practical wisdom demands — discern what is relevant about a particular context or event in regard to the decision we face. Learning to frame well helps make us wise.
“Framing” has gotten a bad name. In a marketing context, it is characterized as an effort to manipulate us into buying things we don’t need. In a political context, it is labeled as “spin” and characterized as an effort to slant or distort the truth in the direction of our favored position. And evidence that we depend on the frame, or context of comparison, for making judgments is sometimes regarded as a defect of human reason. We should be able to see and evaluate things as they “really” are, unbiased by the way they are packaged. But in fact, it is our capacity to frame that enables all our judgments, and it is nearly impossible to make judgments that do not depend on frames… It is only our capacity to do this automatic framing that enables us to make sensible judgments at all.
Framing is pervasive, inevitable, and often automatic. There is no “neutral,” frame-free way to evaluate anything.

compare the above quote to my article on frames.

A wise person knows when and how to make the exception to every rule… A wise person knows how to improvise… Real-world problems are often ambiguous and ill-defined and the context is always changing. A wise person is like a jazz musician — using the notes on the page, but dancing around them, inventing combinations that are appropriate for the situation and the people at hand. A wise person knows how to use these moral skills in the service of the right aims. To serve other people, not to manipulate other people. And finally, perhaps most important, a wise person is made, not born. Wisdom depends on experience, and not just any experience. You need the time to get to know the people that you’re serving. You need permission to be allowed to improvise, try new things, occasionally to fail and to learn from your failures. And you need to be mentored by wise teachers.

Let me frame this in the narrative of my research. A wise person is one who is participating in the life of the Trinity, involved in a dynamic relationship with God in ever-deepening layers of discernment, aware and in tune with both the Word of God in scripture and also the Word of God in the World, following the prompting of the Holy Spirit to know what is best in each particular moment for the good of the other and the best interest for all.

A wise person is improvising in the Trinity’s Jazz band, yes?

Thank you Spirit, for using Twitter to lead me to this reflection today. Thanks for listening.

Book | The Practice of Communicative Theology by Scharer and Hilberath

communicative theologyScharer, Matthias Hilberath Bernd Jochen. The Practice Of Communicative Theology: Introduction To A New Theological Culture. New York: Crossroad Pub. CO. 2008.


The Authors — Matthias Scharer and Bernd Jochen Hilberath

My Reflections

Sharer and Hilberath are two German, Roman Catholic theologians who have adopted Ruth Cohn’s Theme-Centered Interaction (TCI) model as the means of doing theology. This pedagogy comes from a long history of Catholic theology and is rooted, most apparently, in Habermas’ communicative rationality. The combination of TCI and Habermas leads to their label: Communicative Theology.

This book is important for my research on two levels. First, it describes the process I used to facilitate the Research Team meetings during phase one of the project. The interesting fact is that I was not aware of this book when I led those meetings. The process I used was based Peter Block’s Community Building methodologies and my own experience in adult learning forums. Communicative Theology and TCI help give credence to my methodology and help me to articulate better its theological underpinnings.

The second reason this book is important to my research is that it connects the pedagogical methodology to the Trinity. My research question asks how an increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity might impact the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in suburban ELCA congregations. Communicative Theology and TCI demonstrate that a communicative methodology is constituted by the relationality of God. It is the image of the communicative God as revealed/demonstrated in the three persons of the Trinity. By using a communicative methodology I am organically and implicitly raising the research team’s awareness and understanding of the social/relational/entangled/communicative Trinity.

My Key Notes from the Book

Communicative Orientations in North American Catholic Theology


tradition of personalism. Dialogical Personalism.
Martin Buber and Gabriel Marcel = the significance of dialogue.
Neo-Orthodoxy of Karl Barth
Catholic rsourcement theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar
Joseph Ratzinger – traced dialogue to Plato and Artistotle
Avery Cardinal Dulles – combined these personalisms with symbolic and sacramental modes of communication in Catholic practice.


20th century interpreters of Thomas Aquinas–Karl Rahner, Edward Schillebeeckx, and Bernard Lonergan.

“Lonergan identified communication as one of eight functional specialities that constitute the theological enterprise within the church: ‘Through communication there is constituted community and, conversely, community constitutes and perfects itself through communication.’ (Lonergan. Method in Theology (New York, 1972), 363)


Robert Schreiter–reflecting on liberation theologians in Latin America and inculturation theologians in Africa and Asia–analysis of concrete practices of communication in the development of local theologies.

semiotic approach to culture:

  • syntactics–the grammar-like rules that function in the relation of signs
  • semantics–the content or meaningn of the message
  • pragmatics–rules that govern communication in the range of meanings

Stephen Bevans.

“For dialogical personalism, the problem of misunderstanding is about overcoming obstacles and limits in knowing another individual and oneself. For the hermeneutical approach, individuals and groups must face recurring misunderstandings of texts and traditions. For these particular forms of contextual theology–Black, Hispanic, Asian, among others–misunderstanding is a question of prejudice against linguistic, cultural, and religious traditions, which contributes to economic and social hardship, and all too frequently results in conflict and violence.” (6)

Thomas H. Groome–drawing on Habermas’ work on theory and practice and Paulo Freire’s praxis-based pedagogy–advanced a “shared Christian praxis” approach to religious education and pastoral ministry.


Paul A. Soukop – six aspects of the communicative process:

  • language (a structured system of conveying meaning);
  • aesthetic experience;
  • creation of culture
  • interpersonal dialogue;
  • sender-receiver or rhetorical communication (the broadcast model);
  • theological analogue, that is, modeling human communication on the divine. (7)

Soukop is concerned that there has not been adequate investigation into the use of new communication technologies.

Outline of Book

  1. Theology as Process
  2. Preliminary Observations about the Communicative Characterr of Human Beings
  3. The “Battle of the Gods” as a Dilemma in a Communication-Conscious Society
  4. The Communicative God of Christian Revelation and God’s Communication in History
  5. The Church as a Community of Communication: The “We” as Gift.
  6. Communication as a Practice of Theological Awareness: The Perspective of TCI
  7. Keeping the Faith Tradition and Implicit “God-Talk” in Balance
  8. A Theme Takes Shape: Drama on the Eve of the Council of Nicea and Drama in the Church Today.

The Theological Question

“The theological question is: what do people associate with God and how do they do it? This way of stating the question calls attention to a pivotal theological insight: There is an inextricable connection between God (or better, what we know of God on the basis of revelation and the Christian tradition) and the actual lives of people. In theological knowing it is not only the what of the faith that counts. The what is inseparably linked to the way in which knowledge coming from God is received and transmitted. In short, it is linked with the how of God’s communication through past Christian tradition and in contemporary life histories.” (34)

Theology is communicative

“Theology is not ‘some thing’ that then is to be communicated; rather, communication is the central content of theology. So communication is neither a thing added or applied to theology nor a substitute for what theology should really be. Theology is itself a communicative event, and when it no longer is this it stops being theology. This thesis, certainly unusual and perhaps jarring to many, presupposs a particular understanding of communication on the one hand and of theology on the other.” (13)

The little gods and the Great God

“The image of the global village with its boundless communication takes on particularly religious connotations when the new media and the global market invade those areas of human life where faith and religion traditionally held sway. These are the areas of meaning and orientation, of history and the future, of right action and enduring happiness. Stopping to think about modern communication and its religious and ideological implications makes one aware of the degree to which the ‘little gods’ of boundless knowledge, global-communicative ability, and never-ending consumption are replacing the hope for the coming of the ‘great God.’ It is a battle between ‘gods’ who satisfy immediate needs and a God who ‘dries all tears’ (Revelation 21:4; cf. Isaiah 65:19). It is a confrontation between the boundless freedom promised to these globally connected in the communication network and the God who communicates God’s self to all people, especially to those excluded from the communication process, who calls all humankind to become one community in the freedom of the children of God. In this new world of global communication, the arguable monopoly of salvation formerly ascribed to the church appears to have been transferred to the media, so that the old adage ‘extra ecclesia nulla salus’ (there is not salvation outside the church) becomes ‘extra media nulla salus’ (there is no salvation outside the media). Such a world obviously needs to reflect on communication from the perspective of the biblical God and God’s communication with people. It is from this theological perspective that communicate theology enters critically into the (post) modern debate about communication, a debate that is growing in importance on the scientific, social, and religious levels.” (42-43)

God as communicative being

“If we look once again toward the God of whom theology speaks, we can further clarify the definition of God as a communicative being.” For the believer, God is a relational being. This is no human invention; rather, it is something made possible by God’s own revelation of God’s self. That is to say, God enters into a relationship with the world as creation and with people as created beings, as sinner and redeemed, and as beings on the way to perfection. Only in this way can we speak about God as relational. Even in Christian theology, we can make no statements about God in and for God’s self. This God in and for God’s self we can meet only as God for us. But we cannot draw the conclusion that God in and for God’s self does not exist. It is really a question of drawing a line to mark the limits of theological reflection and expression. With regard to the concept of communicative theology we can say: it is only because God enters into a relationship with us, because he wishes to be in communion with us and makes contact with us, that we can speak about and with God. We can also add further precision to our description by saying that God is the communicative being par excellence. It is first and foremost God who makes possible communication and community, which keeps us alive. This is our faith in God the creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. It is not, in the first place, God’s self-revelation in history that shows God to be the communicative being; this is already manifested by God’s self-revelation as creator.” (65)

My Reflection on this quote: I understand what they are saying, but I want to make one critique. They say that God is “a communicative being,” even further that God is “the communicative being par excellence.” If God is a being–even the being–then isn’t God just one being among many? Might it be more accurate to say that God is being itself and being is communicative, and this communicative being is the ground from which all being emerges. It is the relationality of the divine persons that is the constitutive, communicative being from which all life is created. This is similar to their statement “this is already manifested by God’s self-revelation as creator,” however, in the way that they speak of God as a being, it denotes the image of God as a being creating another being out of the nothing that is outside of God. Then this relational God chooses to relate to the creation.

I realize this is beyond the scope of the intention of this book, but I think it is an important distinction to hone our language to not limit God to a being. The relationality, thus the communicative nature of God is the being, the very fabric of existence from which all that we perceive as the created universe comes. God’s otherness is in the person of the creator, in that the creature is not the divine, thus allowing space for Buber’s I-Thou relationship. Yet, the relationality of the second and third person allows for the interdependency and communicative, on-going creative-redemptive-sustaining process to proceed. This is modeled in the TCI process.

The Paradigm



imageThe “I” as the individual person. This factor is aware of itself and truns to others and to the themed in a given group situation.

The “WE” as the group. This factor represents the relationship of individuals to one another and to the theme of their interaction.

The “IT” as a task or as a theme. This factor singles out the topical concerns to be worked out in the interaction.

The “GLOBE” as environment. This factor influences the group in their relationships and in their working together in both a narrower and in a broader sense.

Buber and Levinas

Martin Buber
describes the human person as a dialogical being. “Buber distinguishes between the ‘basic word’ “I-Thou” and “I-It” with regard to human encounters.” (30)

Levinas – The Importance of Other

The face of the other.

“in opposition to Buber, radicalizes the intersubjective perspective. For Levinas, the ‘face’ of tanother person is the key metaphor for the other. Radically trunign toward the face of the other makes the experience of transcendence ultimately possible. meeting the other is not donfined to an ‘I-Thou” relationship. When the ‘otherness’ of the other is seen, one’s own freedom is questioned. Qyestions of compassion, justice, and mercy also arise.” (31)

These two philosophies come together to demonstrate the communicative nature of human interaction. We do not choose to relate, we are constituted by relationship, yet, the separation of the other causes us to serve the other.

TCI described by the Universtät Innsbruck

The following section is copied from
http://www.uibk.ac.at/peacestudies/ecm/ecm-as-elicitive-working-method/theme-centered-interaction-tci.html (accessed July 5, 2014)

From the Universität Innsbruck website:

Theme-Centered Interaction (TCI)

Created by Ruth Cohn, TCI is a strictly relational concept of human communication in groups and focuses on the balance between theme, group and individual work in order to work both on relationships and factual problems. This holistic tool of communication aims at stimulating the constructive and healing potential in a person, while being firmly rooted in a community-related conflict formation.

Cohn adopts a strictly relational approach to group communication and represents the balance between the factual and the relational elements in the form of a triangle:

the I as person, facing the theme and the others;

the we of the group members who become a group by facing the theme and by interacting with one another;

the it as a theme to be worked on by the group.

The triangle is surrounded by an area referred to as the Globe, which influences the work directly or indirectly.

Cohn (2004) developed three axioms, twopostulates, and nine auxiliary guidelines, which we explain shortly as follows:


Autonomy: Of an anthropological grain, the first axiom concerns both the independence and dependence (connectedness) as an existential component of being. For Cohn, the individual’s autonomy increases with his/her awareness of his/her connectedness to everyone and everything.

Appreciation: Of an ethical and social grain, the second axiom refers to the value that Cohn places on the human, whereas she finds the inhuman worthless. Cohn tried to call upon a balance between sensitivity and spirituality, feelings and knowledge, rationality and spirituality.

Expanding one’s limits: Of a pragmatic and political nature, the third axiom indicates that decisions can be made freely insofar as they are conditioned by internal and external limits. Conceived in a systemic way, this points to the awareness of universal interdependency as the foundation of human responsibility: “I am not omnipotent, I am not impotent, I am partially potent” (Cohn 2004, 205).

These three axioms give raise to two postulatesin relation to human paradox and conditional freedom:

Be your own chairperson: If you are aware of your internal disposition (I) and the external conditions (Globe) in a relational (We) or factual (Theme) conflict, you can take every situation as an invitation to decide on your own and act responsibly for yourself and others.

Disturbances have priority: In a system, nothing happens by pure chance. There is no division between inside and outside. Therefore, disturbances have to be dealt with priority, whether they come from the I, the We, the Theme or the Globe. Without the prior transformation of the disturbing energy, the flow of the system as a whole will be blocked, distracted or irritated.

Auxiliary guidelines

Authentic self-representation: express statements of fact with ‘I’, not ‘we’ or ‘one’, in order to avoid projecting and obscuring.

Meaningful questions: authentic requests for information can be identified by their personal and clear rationale.

Selective authenticity: it is important to determine if statements genuinely result from a personal value system, or whether they spring from an internalized sense of obligation created by social conventions.

Timely interpretation: interpretations have a content dimension and a temporal dimension. Interpretations that are incorrect or untimely have great potential for disruption and should only be admitted when dismissing them would create an even larger disruption.

No factual generalizations: they interrupt the flow of communication and distract from the specific subject at hand.

No personal evaluations: Only opinions of the other are possible, which have no claim to general validity. Cohn recommends refraining as much as possible from statements of evaluation.

Immediately address side discussions:they occur for a reason and they disrupt the process. Side discussions are indicative of a disruption in the group context. According to the second postulate, addressing disruptions must be prioritized in order to ensure smooth communication flow henceforth.

Only one person speaks at a time: It is necessary in order to ensure that everyone has a complete view of the group.

Clear rules for speaking: the group leader should ensure that there is a clear view of all conversation threads that exist in the group. In particular in cases of conflict it will be necessary to sort through them and to ensure that the most important ones are processed.

Drawing from Cohn, we could find in the guidelines orientation for the elicitive conflict worker to move to the fore the element of the I, We, It or Globe that is receiving less attention. In this manner, homeostasis can be re-established in the corresponding setting.

Book | The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Lesslie Newbigin

The-Gospel-in-a-Pluralist-Society-9780802804266Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans; WCC Publications 1989.

newbiginThe Author – Lesslie Newbigin

Key Quotes

“If the gospel is to challenge the public life of our society, if Christians are to occupy the “high ground” which they vacated in the noontime of “modernity,” it will not be by forming a Christian political party, or by aggressive propaganda campaigns. Once again it has to be said that there can be no going back to the “Constantinian” era. It will only be by movements that begin with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known, and experienced, and from which men and women will go into every sector of public life to claim it for Christ, to unmask the illusions which have remained hidden and to expose all areas of public life to the illumination of the gospel. But that will only happen as and when local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life, and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society.” (pp. 232-233)

“To be chosen, to be elect, therefore does not mean that the elect are the saved and the rest are the lost. To be elect in Christ Jesus, and there is no other election, means to be incorporated into his mission to the world, to be the bearer of God’s saving purpose for his whole world, to be the sign and the agent and the firstfruit of his blessed kingdom which is for all. It means therefore, as the New Testament makes abundantly clear, to take our share in his suffering, to bear the scars of the passion. It means, as Paul says elsewhere, to bear in the body the dying of Jesus so that the life of the risen Jesus may be manifest and made available for others. It means that this particular body of people who bear the name of Jesus through history, this strange and often absurd company of people so feeble, so foolish, so often fatally compromised with the world, this body with all its contingency and particularity, is the body which has the responsibility of bearing the secret of God’s reign through world history. The logic of election is all of one piece with the logic of the gospel. God’s purpose of salvation is not that we should be taken out of history and related to him in some way which bypasses the specificities and particularities of history. His purpose is that in and through history there should be brought into being that which is symbolized in the vision with which the Bible ends — the Holy City into which all the glory of the nations will finally be gathered. But — and of course this is the crux of the matter — that consummation can only lie on the other side of death and resurrection. It is the calling of the Church to bear through history to its end the secret of the lordship of the crucified.” (pp. 86-87)

“We have to conclude that [Bertrund] Russell’s account [the scientific method] does not do justice to the way science actually works. If we attend only to the textbook writers and the popularizers of science we get the impression that all this is “fact,” quite different from the worlds of imagination and intuition in which poets move and from the world of faith in which religious people move. But if we look at the way scientists actually work, we see that this is a false impression. There are not two separate avenues to understanding, one marked “knowledge” and the other marked “faith.” There is no knowing without believing, and believing is the way to knowing. The quest for certainty through universal doubt is a blind alley. The program of universal doubt, the proposal that every belief should be doubted until it could be validated by evidence and arguments not open to doubt, can in the end only lead — as it has led– to universal scepticism and nihilism, to the world which Nietzsche foresaw and which Allan Bloom and other contemporary writers describe.” (32-33)




1 {Newbigin, 1989 #111@232-233}

2 {Newbigin, 1989 #111@86-87}

3 {Newbigin, 1989 #111@32-33}