Theory Matters: Bringing Tanner, Taylor, Kegan, and Grenz into Conversation with the Deep in the Burbs Data

I have already stated several times that one key assumption behind the DITB project was that theology is not the process of constructing an abstract, systematic model of God. At least, it shouldn’t be. Unfortunately, much theology is just that. Modern academic theology has tended toward the pursuit of constructing grand systems of theory that attempt to explain God and the universe. The end result of this endeavor is inevitably the construction of an idol made, not of gold, wood, and stone, but of human ideas. A reasonably adequate Christian theology, on the other hand, is the observation and reflection (theological praxis) of what God is doing in, with, under, against, and for the local congregation.[1] The DITB project was an attempt to embody this statement and observe what would happen if a group of ELCA suburbanites—who have had no traditional, academic theological training—engage in what many consider to be one of the most difficult and abstract theological concepts: the Trinity.[2] Further, I wanted to see what would happen if we tried to connect the Trinity—traditionally a conversation reserved for the conversation of the intellectual elite—with the practice of spiritual formation—something traditionally considered a matter of “practical” theology.

Is it possible to bridge the gap between abstract theological ideas and practical spiritual practices? I believe it is not only possible, but is essential to the future of the church. That is what the DITB project attempted to demonstrate. I have already noted that the DITB project data indicated that the theological conversations the RT had regarding the social Trinity did have an impact on the practical experience of spiritual formation. This, in itself, is an important finding that can lend credence to the pursuit of phenomenological theological studies. Furthermore, I presented an extensive theological and theoretical framework for this project in chapter two. The framework set up the project and provided guidelines for its adaptation along the way. Now that the project is finished, it is time to refine the theoretical and theological framework and bring it into conversation with the data.

In this section I will bring four theories into conversation with the DITB data and demonstrate that the findings support a view that trinitarian praxis opens space for self-transcendence, which is at the core of spiritual formation. I will attempt to create a mental picture that will build a new layer with the addition of each theory. The four theories are as follows. First is Kathryn Tanner’s Theories of Culture. The second is Charles Taylor’s theory of the buffered vs. porous self. The third is Robert Kegan’s evolution of the self and the Five Orders of Consciousness. The fourth is Stanley Grenz’s theory of the Ecclesial Self.

Kathryn Tanner: Theories of Culture

The first theory I will introduce into the conversation is Tanner’s Theories of Culture.[3] Tanner describes a contrast between the modern anthropological definition of culture on the one hand, and the post-modern definition of culture on the other. The modern model understands culture to be a homogenous, monolithic grouping of people centered around a single, static set of norms, values, and practices. Each culture of the world is a self-contained system consisting of a single center and a rigid boundary, completely set apart from every other culture. The modern anthropologist stands outside the boundary of the culture as an objective, distant observer and makes critical judgments based upon empirical data.

The Modern Theory of Culture

Figure 8. The Modern Theory Of Culture

Here is the first layer of our picture. Imagine that culture A is a circle with a solid border and a single center. Culture B is a similar circle, completely separate from Culture A. Finally, the anthropologist stands outside both circles as the objective observer. This is the modern theory of culture.

Tanner argues that this modern definition and picture of culture and the role of the anthropologist is not only false, it is also destructive to culture. The post-modern turn has allowed cultural studies to reimagine this model of culture. The postmodern model states that a more accurate model of culture pictures it as a dynamic mixture of people, norms, values, and practices. A culture has a porous boundary and a multivalent center. The heart of every culture is not a solid, single core, but has within it a constant struggle for power between multiple factions to determine who will control the central values and habits of the culture. Likewise, the boundary of every culture is not rigid and impregnable, but is a porous, semi permeable cloud that allows the culture to intersect and interact with other cultures. This co-mingling at the edges often works its way into the center of culture with the dynamic passage of time, thus creating mutations as cultures continually interact in the global arena.

Let us add the postmodern image to the first layer of our picture. Culture A is no longer a static circle with a rigid boundary. It is a dynamic, porous flux of competing centers intersecting with culture B, which has a similar core of competing centers. The intersection of these cultures creates the potential for a sub-culture of Ab or Ba. The anthropologist brings with her yet another culture, and, in the act of observing, creates a new intermingling and potential for the fusion of horizons. It is important for the anthropologist to acknowledge the impossibility of objectivity and, instead, embrace the communicative action that takes place in the process of the intersection of cultures. This is the postmodern theory of culture.

The Postmodern Model of Culture

Figure 9. The Postmodern Model of Culture

Charles Taylor: The Buffered vs. The Porous Self

The second theory I will introduce into the conversation is that of Taylor’s theory of the buffered self and the porous self.[4] Tanner’s theory dealt with whole cultures, but Taylor focuses on the identity of the individual self within culture. Taylor argues that pre-modern Western culture and most non-Western cultures understand the self to have porous boundaries. In other words, the human self understands that it is not an isolated, atomistic substance, separate from all other substances—human or otherwise—in the universe. Rather, the porous self recognizes that it is interconnected and interdependent with the world—both physical and spiritual, seen and unseen. Taylor calls this the enchanted world of the porous self.

The Porous Self

Figure 10. The Porous Self

Taylor further argues that the rise of rationalism in the Enlightenment project of Western Europe in the sixteen and seventeenth centuries denounced the porous self and gave rise to the buffered self. The modern Western “enlightened” self functions within the perspective of Cartesian dualism and understands that the only acceptable form of knowledge comes from the acquisition of scientific information through the process of empirical observation. The only thing that actually exists is that which can be observed with human senses and explained by human reason. Anything else is ignored as superstition and relegated to the private sector or disregarded altogether.

Here we have the second layer of our picture. The modern individual is a supposedly objective observer of nature—human and otherwise. It has a rigid boundary around itself, thus buffering it—or separating it—from all other substances in the universe. Now, with Tanner and Taylor in the conversation, we can see similarities in the pictures we’ve created from each theory. Both theories contrast a modern idea with a non-modern idea. The circle in the modern image is a single substance—a culture in Tanner’s case and a self in Taylor’s case—which is self-contained within a rigid boundary and has a single-substance at its center. Both theories contrast this rigid substance with a non-modern picture of a dynamic substance that has a multivalent center and a porous boundary interconnected with its environment. Now let us add another layer to the picture.

The Buffered Self

Figure 11. The Buffered Self

Robert Kegan: The Evolution Of The Self

The third theory I will bring into the conversation is that of Kegan’s theory of the evolution of self and the five orders of consciousness.[5] Kegan argues that the human self and its cognitive ability to adapt to its environment evolves over time. He has observed that there are five possible phases—or orders—through which the human self can evolve. The first three orders are the natural process of human development from childhood to adolescence and young adulthood. Most adults remain stable at the third-order consciousness and progress no further. The third-order human understands that she is part of system larger than herself that contains other selves like her and the physical environment of which she is interconnected. We can understand the third-order by drawing upon the images of Tanner’s and Taylor’s theories. The third-order individual is like Taylor’s pre-modern, porous self. She understands that she exists within a dynamic, interconnected system, of which she is just a part, and apart from which she cannot exist. However, her concept of the system in which she exists is more like Tanner’s modern definition of culture. Her culture has rigid boundaries and a single center. It is a complex system, but also simple, in that it is the only system that exists. Kegan would argue that the rigidity of this system is not the result of a conscious choice or bigotry, but due to the limitation of perspective. In other words, the third-order individual is not aware that there are other cultures in the world that would be different from her own.

Third-Order Consciousness

Figure 12. Third-Order Consciousness

Kegan observes that, as the world has evolved through the modern era, and technology has increasingly brought more and more common citizens into regular contact with multiple and competing cultures, the human has had to adapt and evolve into a fourth-order way of cognitively processing the world. The fourth-order individual sees himself as an autonomous individual that is a separate substance from his culture of origin. He stands outside all cultures and is able to negotiate equally with them all. This image of self is equivalent to Tanner’s modern anthropologist and Taylor’s buffered self. This is the modern man. He is enlightened beyond the superstitious third-order thinkers and becomes the master of his own destiny in an atomistic, mechanistic, transactionally-based, material world.[6]

Fourth-Order Consciousness

Figure 13. Fourth-Order Consciousness

Kegan argues that modern, fourth-order thinking has been a necessary evolutionary step, but, it has ultimately led to a world of polarized either/or stand-offs and constant power struggles between self-perceived free agents in the world. This behavior, he laments, will only lead to the self-destruction of the species. Kegan has observed that there is a fifth-order consciousness that moves beyond the self-sufficient, self-focused autonomy of the fourth-order consciousness and recognizes two important things about the human condition. First, it recognizes that the human being cannot stand apart from her own culture, thus discrediting the myth of autonomy. We are interdependently connected with our environment—both human and otherwise. Second, it recognizes that one’s own culture cannot stand alone and apart from all other human cultures. Each culture is interdependent with every other culture, just as each individual is interdependent with her environment.

Let us further develop our picture by adding to it Kegan’s theory. The fourth-order individual is similar to Tanner’s modern model and Taylor’s buffered self. The fifth-order individual is similar to Tanner’s post-modern model of cultures and Taylor’s theory of the porous self. The intersection of cultures in Tanner’s model is reflected in Kegan’s fifth-order as both individuals and cultures experience a fusion. Kegan calls this transcategorical interaction. This transcategorical interdependence is only possible if the self is porous and has the ability to empathize with others, see from another’s perspective (as much as possible), and be open to the unseen, unexplainable, and/or spiritual dimension of the universe.

Fifth-Order Consciousness

Figure 14. Fifth-Order Consciousness

Stanley Grenz: The Ecclesial Self

The fourth theory that I will bring into the conversation will now turn us toward the two primary theological topics of this research: the Trinity and spiritual formation. Grenz argues for the ecclesial self in which the individual sees herself, not as an atomistic, autonomous substance who is self-sufficient, but as a porous self, individuated by narrative and biological differences—culture, race, gender, etc.—but interdependently co-created by the relationships with the human species, the natural environment, and, ultimately, the Triune God.[7]

The complexity of Grenz’s theory is worth exploring more fully as it relates to the broader context of the DITB project.[8] Grenz draws upon two theological conversations. The first is the evolution of the theories of self in the West. He traces the ideological lineage from William James to George Mead to the postmodern dramaturgical model. In each case he notes the distinction between the me and the I in the human self. William James proposed the functionalist self which is self-creating and self-constituting. The me, according to James, is the objective, empirical person that simply exists. The I, on the other hand, is the subjective consciousness of the me as it moves through time.

William James Model of the Me and the I

Figure 15. William James’ Model Of The Me And The I

Mead propelled James’ I/me duality, which, he thought, was still trapped in Cartesian dualism. The social me, according to Mead, is that self understanding that has been created for us by the social and vocal gestures of the other mes surrounding us in society. In other words, I don’t get to choose where I was born, the culture in which I developed, or the messages that people fed me about myself and reality as I grew up. The social me was created for me. It was done to me. The I, on the other hand, Mead says, is the self’s response to the social me and the generalized other in society. The I is the active agent of the self that gets to make choices and take action in the world. Those actions, in turn, illicit responses and generate various levels of consequences that impact the environment and feedback on the social me and affect a change to the self. Human development, over time, according to Mead, is the feedback loop of the I reacting to the me, which is then reshaped by the action, thus eliciting a new reaction of the I, and so on.

George Meads Model of the Social Me

Figure 16. George Mead’s Model Of The Social Me

Grenz suggests that the sense of self and any form of agency in the I has been lost in the postmodern milieu. Recent theories have diminished the agency of the I, and have rendered the total self—both the me and the I—to be a creation of the societal gestures surrounding the individual and merely a part of the grand, unfolding human drama in which the individual is simply a myth.

The Dramaturgical Model of the Self

Figure 17. The Dramaturgical Model Of The Self

Grenz seeks to reclaim the identity of the individual self. He does not, however, desire to return to modern, atomistic autonomy, but finds a third way through the developmental psychology of Erikson and the relational ontology of Zizioulas and Pannenberg. Grenz argues that the self is, indeed, a me created by the social gestures of her environment, but is not lost completely in the flow of human drama. Rather, the I is not lost, but is constituted by the relationality of the Triune God and the dynamically interdependent ecosystems of the universe.

The MeWe Principle

I call this interaction between the social me and the uncertainty of the I the meWe principle. Let us take a small detour into the analogy of grammar for a moment to explore this idea. When an individual is the subject of a sentence it is an I. I love you. I go to the store. I am the agent in the sentence. When an individual is the direct object of a sentence, and the passive receiver of the action, it is a me. You love me. The ball hit me. She gave it to me. I am passive when I am me. My identity, the self that I perceive, is done to me. The dramaturgical, post-modern model of self, as I mentioned earlier, would say that the autonomous agent I a myth and all that exists is the social me. It is a passive pawn that is moved about in the sea of life. Grenz points out that the dramaturgical model goes too far. Our intuition, formed by our lived experience of being human, tells us that the I does exist. I do have some agency. I do matter. Further, as a Christian, we believe that God has created us to be part of the body of Christ. Our existence matters for something. The Christian self needs an active I, at some level. However, the I of the modern, buffered self seems does not seem to be a good candidate. The modern I seems to be the self-centered, greedy, inner person that the apostle Paul calls the flesh or the sinful man. Jesus called us to die the I. I am not the master of my own destiny. So, what is the I to do?

The Grammar of the MeWe Priniciple

Figure 18. The Grammar Of The MeWe Priniciple

This is why, in the ecclesial self that Grenz suggests, the I is not an I, but a We.[9] I do not exist without the other. To be human is not to be an autonomous, self-sufficient individual. Grenz argues that this is obvious through the simple bifurcation of biological gender. To be human is not to be male or female. To be human is to be one-in-relation-to the other. This is true of the human species, but is also true beyond it as we observe the interdependence of all species and all things in the universe. Finally, Grenz makes the theological move and argues that the universe itself exists in, and because of, the interdependent being-in-relation-to the Triune God. The me that is created is an agent-in-relation, or a We. Thus, our identity is found in the meWe principle of life.

The MeWe of the Trinitarian Life

Figure 19. The MeWe Of The Trinitarian Life

Let us add Grenz’s layer to the picture. The modern I is a single substance with a rigid boundary, completely isolated from everything else, like Tanner’s modern culture, Taylor’s buffered self, and Kegan’s 4th order. The meWe, on the other hand, is analogous to Tanner’s postmodern model, Taylor’s porous self, and Kegan’s fifth-order. The meWe is a porous self that has a multivalent center—the mind, the spirit, and the body. It is interdependent with the other, as exemplified through gender, familial/social relationships, the balance of eco-systems, etc.[10]

Bringing the Theories Together

How does all of this relate to spiritual formation and the DITB data? Spiritual formation is the ongoing process of self-transcendence.[11] It is the intentional process of dying to one’s self and living for the good of the other in the power of the Holy Spirit, through Jesus, to the glory of the Creator. It was my assumption that the typical mid-western, suburban, member of a suburban ELCA congregation would be functioning within either a third-order or fourth-order consciousness. If they were third-order they would view their own culture/belief system as the only valid system. If they were fourth-order they would be more tolerant of competing systems, but would view all systems as other-than themselves and open for negotiation as they navigate society as an autonomous free agent. Thus, in either case, they would ultimately have a self-identity much like the buffered self that Taylor suggests.

Spiritual formation, when viewed from the perspective of the buffered self, would then be seen as the cultivation of the vertical-personal relationship with God as a separate-and-completely-other substance in which the spiritual practices would either (a) increase one’s personal sense of peace and fulfillment, (b) increase one’s closeness to God and otherworldly sense of purpose and transcendence, or (c) a combination of these two. Self-transcendence, then, would be imagined as the ultimate shedding of the body and a spiritual union with God in Heaven after death. The Trinity, within this ideation of spiritual formation, was practically irrelevant to the praxis of spiritual formation. At best, the Trinity functioned within a moralistic model in which the active agent was the Holy Spirit that descended into the personal life of the believer to assist in the spiritual formation process. All of these options are focused on individual piety and fulfillment. The data indicate that the research team primarily functioned within this set of assumptions at the beginning of the project.[12]

The data seems to further indicate that the Trinitarian Praxis of Dwelling in the Word and reflective action centered on the social/relational/entangled Trinity cultivated spaces in which the RT’s imagination was reframed and able to shift to the horizontal-communal ideation of spiritual formation and perceive the porous culture/self, or the meWe, as the primary identity of self-in-God. This movement from the buffered self to the porous self is a form of self-transcendence. This shift is spiritual formation, and it is the type of formation that is desperately needed in the suburban context.

I would suggest, based on these findings, that when missional leaders begin to see themselves as stewards of God’s power, or gardeners who cultivate spaces in which communicative action can allow the Spirit to flow in, with, under, against, for, and through the church, then the suburban world will be able to taste the sweet wine of the fruit produced through the indwelling process of remaining in the vine. They can go deep in the burbs.



[1] I am indebted to Patrick Keifert for this insight.

[2] I must acknowledge that one member of the RT—Phil—was an ordained Lutheran Pastor, thus had received traditional, academic theological training. This was evident in his reflections.

[3] Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology, Guides to Theological Inquiry (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997).

[4] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007).

[5] Robert Kegan, The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982); Robert Kegan, In over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994).

[6] I am purposefully using the masculine pronoun in this description because the modern era has been characterized my male-domination in which the male is viewed as the primary agency in the world and the female, child, and third-order thinkers are passive and in need of leaders.

[7] Stanley J. Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei, 1st ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001).

[8] This in no way implies that Grenz’s theory is somehow more complex than Tanner’s or Taylor’s. I have purposely expressed a severely simplistic portrayal of Tanner and Taylor for the purpose of this argument. Grenz, on the other hand, touches more closely to the topic of my research, thus requires a parsing of his theory of self from the social Trinity.

[9] The language of We and the MeWe Priniciple is my addition to Grenz’ argument.

[10] See Figure 7.

[11] See the Spiritual Formation Frame, specifically Schneider’s definition.

[12] See Figure 6.