Monday, August 19, 2019


      Metatheory may be the study of a given theory and of its foundations, aims, limitations, and relations to other theories. It may also be the study of the nature, form, and meaning of a given theory, and of its properties and applications. it may also be an analysis of the rules according to which the components of a given theory are linked or combined, and an evaluation of the principles of reasoning or methods of argumentation on which a given theory is based.1
      Metatheory may also be a study of the truth, validity, coherence, and completeness of a given theory. Every theory may be an object of study for a corresponding metatheory.
      Metatheory may include the study of formal, scientific, mathematical, philosophical, political, legal, and social theories.
      Examples of formal theories include formal aesthetic, formal ethical, formal epistemological, and formal ontological theories.
      Examples of scientific theories include cosmological theories (e.g. the Big Bang theory, multiverse theory, and superstring theory), biological theories (e.g. cell theory, gene theory, and the theory of evolution), and physical theories (e.g. quantum theory, the theory of relativity, and string theory). 

      Examples of mathematical theories include computability theory, model theory, number theory, and set theory.
      Examples of philosophical theories include virtue theory, value theory, critical theory, theory of mind, and theory of truth.

      Examples of political theories (or ideologies) include anarchism, socialism, capitalism, communism, and totalitarianism.
      Metatheory may be engaged in by a variety of metadisciplines (disciplines involving the study of other disciplines). Every discipline may be an object of study for a corresponding metadiscipline.

      Philosophy may be a metadiscipline, insofar as it includes philosophy of science, philosophy of medicine, philosophy of technology, philosophy of religion, philosophy of education, and so on. But philosophy itself may be an object of study for a metadiscipline (metaphilosophy), whose themes and concerns may include the origin, aims, methods, and limits of philosophy.
      Nicholas Rescher (2014) distinguishes between descriptive or historical metaphilosophy, which describes how philosophy has historically been conducted, and prescriptive or normative metaphilosophy, which describes how it should be conducted. Rescher says that while these two dimensions of metaphilosophy differ in their priorities and emphasis, they aren't completely separable.
      In addition to having metadisciplinary (or interdisciplinary) branches, philosophy may also be divided into other metadisciplines, such as metalogic, metaethics, meta-aesthetics, metaepistemology, metametaphysics, and metaontology.
      Metalogic (or the metatheory of logic) may be the study of the syntax and semantics of the formal languages used to express logical truths, properties, and relations.
      Metaethics (or the metatheory of ethics) may be the study of the origin, nature, and meaning of moral attitudes, opinions, or judgments, and the study of the language, methods, and modes of reasoning employed in ethics.
      Meta-aesthetics may be the study of the origin, nature, and meaning of aesthetic judgments, and the study of how aesthetic judgments are made.
      Metaepistemology may be the study of the origin, nature, and meaning of epistemic judgments, and the study of how epistemic judgments are made.
      Metametaphysics may be the study of the language, aims, concerns, and methodology of metaphysics.
      Metaontology may be the study of the nature, aims, and concerns of ontology. It may also be an analysis of the nature of ontological commitments, such as what a given ontology says about the kinds of things that exist or do not exist. An example of a metaontological question might be "What are we asking when we ask 'What exists?'"
      Metamathematics may be the study and analysis of the symbols, conventions, rules, principles, theorems, and proofs of mathematics.
      We may be engaging in metatheory whenever we examine the adequacy, consistency, completeness, explanatory potential, or practical applicability of a given theory. Any theorizing we do may thus require us to do some metatheorizing as well.
      Are we almost always or only occasionally aware we're thinking about whatever we're thinking about? If the latter is the case, then metathinking may be something we often do without truly being aware we're doing it.
      Metacognition may be an object of study for cognitive science, neuroscience, linguistics, and the philosophy of mind. It may be described as awareness, evaluation, and understanding of our own cognitive processes and the cognitive processes of others, or as reasoning about our own reasoning and the reasoning of others. It may also be an awareness of the extent or limits of our own knowledge and of our ability to understand, modify, and control our own cognitive processes.
4 Aspects of metacognition include metathinking, metareasoning, metalearning, metaknowing, metamemory, and meta-emotions. 
      Metaknowledge may include knowing that (what, how, or why) we or others know or don't know something. It may also include knowing about some domain of knowledge, e.g. about its relevance or applicability to solving a particular problem or illuminating a particular field of inquiry.
      Metaknowledge may also include knowing what we know that others don't know, and what they know that we don't know. Thus, it may also include knowing how much more or less we know than they know.
      It may also include knowing how to access various knowledge domains. Metaknowledge tools or techniques may include tagging sources or references by means of keywords and search terms, using bookmarks, indices, and bibliographies, and doing literature reviews, abstracts, and meta-analyses.
      Michael T. Cox and Anita Raja (2011) formulate a model of reasoning according to which doing is at the ground level, reasoning is at the object level, and metareasoning is at the metalevel. They describe metareasoning as the process of reasoning about the action-perception cycle, whereby doing at the ground level leads by means of perception to reasoning at the object level, and reasoning at the object level leads by means of action selection to doing at the ground level, Thus, metareasoning consists of both the computational control and introspective monitoring of reasoning. According to Cox and Raja, distributed metareasoning requires coordination of metareasoning by multiple agents. Each agent in a multi-agent setting must coordinate their control and monitoring of their own reasoning with other agents' control and monitoring of their own reasoning, if they are to collectively participate in problem solving and decision making and are to successfully engage in a dynamic interaction at the metalevel.5
      Meta-emotions may be emotions about our own emotions or the emotions of others. Thus, in some cases we may be remorseful that we were jealous, or we may feel vaguely disquieted that we felt unsympathetic to someone else's being disappointed, or we may even be pleased that someone has been embarrassed or humiliated (schadenfreude may be a meta-emotion). Our own meta-emotions may be concordant or discordant with those of others, depending on whether they feel the same as or different than we do about our emotions and about their own emotions. Meta-emotions may also be integrated into complex emotions whose components may be concordant or discordant with one another.
      Other metaphenomena include metajudgments, metacriticisms, metainterpretations, metatexts, metadata (descriptive, administrative, and structural), metacontent, metainformation, meta-analysis, meta-argumentation, and metamodeling.
      Language as an object of metatheory may, at the object level, be an object or target language, and at the metalevel, a language about that language (a metalanguage). At the mixed level, it may be both an object language and metalanguage. 
A metalanguage may have its own syntax (metasyntax), semantics (metasemantics), and pragmatics (metapragmatics). 
      A metasyntax may be a set of rules or principles that govern the integration of words and phrases into the well-formed sentences of a metalanguage. A metasemantics may be a set of rules or principles that govern the meaning of words and sentences of a metalanguage. A metapragmatics may be a set of rules or principles that govern the use of the words and sentences of a metalanguage in order to fulfill desired social or communicative functions in a given (sociocultural, linguistic, or discursive) context.
      Examples of metalinguistic utterances include the sentences: "What I meant to say was 'I wasn't ready.'" "What I thought you meant to say was that you weren't really sure." "Did you say you weren't going to be there?" "What I'm telling you is that you have nothing to worry about." and "That's a very roundabout way of saying something that could be said very straightforwardly." 


1"Metatheory," in Wolfram MathWorld (Wolfram Research, Inc., 2019) online at
2Nicholas Rescher, Metaphilosophy: Philosophy in Philosophical Perspective (Lantham, MD: Lexington Books, 2014), p.xi.
3Peter van Inwagen, "Meta-Ontology," in Erkenntnis, 48 (1998), p. 233.
4Donald Meichenbaum (1985). Teaching thinking: A cognitive-behavioral perspective. In S. F., Chipman, J. W. Segal, & R. Glaser (Eds.), Thinking and learning skills, Vol. 2: Research and open questions. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
5Michael T. Cox and Anita Raja, Metareasoning: Thinking about Thinking (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2011), pp. 4-7.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Thin vs. Thick Theology

What distinguishes "thin" from "thick" theology? What makes some theologies "thicker" than others? What makes some moral directives, commands, prescriptions, or permissions theologically "thin," and others theologically "thick"? Where does the "thickness" in thick theology come from? 
      Thin theologies may make rather easy or simple demands on us, while thick theologies may make complex or difficult demands on us. It may often be easy for us to know when we've fully complied with a thin theology, but it may be difficult for us to know when we've fully complied with a thick theology. Thick theologies may not bring us the kind of moral certainty that thin theologies may bring us. 
      For thin theology, truth may be absolute, but for thick theology, it may be relative. Thick theologies may allow for the possibility of doubt, but thin theologies may see doubt as unnecessary and indicating a lack of faith. For thick theologies, however, there is no faith without the possibility of doubt. If doubt were impossible, then there would be no need of faith.
      Thin theology may be monistic, exclusionary, and reductionist in its outlook, aims, and methodology. Thick theology, on the other hand, may be pluralistic, inclusionary, and nonreductionist. For thin theology, there may be only one valid or legitimate way of looking at the world, but for thick theology, there may be many valid or legitimate ways of looking at the world.
      A theology may have both thin and thick components. Theologies may therefore be classified as "thin" or "thick" depending on which components predominate. The thinness or thickness of the components of one theology may, in theory or practice, be greater than, less than, or roughly the same as those of some other theology.
      Thin theologies may be more dogmatic, rigid, and ideological than thick theologies. So when does a theology become an ideology? Are all theologies actually religious ideologies?
      What's the difference between theology and ideology? If one possible definition of an ideology is that it's a system of ideas, beliefs, or opinions that serves to articulate or legitimate a particular political, economic, social, or cultural agenda (or program, social structure, set of institutions, or system of power), then some theologies may indeed be political, economic, social, or cultural ideologies.
      The more politicized and ideologized a theology is, the thinner it may be. To the extent that a theology becomes merely a political ideology, it may lose whatever thickness it may have had.
      Fundamentalist theologies may be thin insofar as they don't recognize the possibility of uncertainty or doubt, but they may also have thick elements that can have a powerful influence on the religious, moral, social, or cultural imagination.
      Michael Freeden (2003) distinguishes between thin and thick ideologies by saying that thin ideologies have a restricted morphology (or internal structure) and are limited in aim and scope. Thick ideologies are macro-ideologies that have broad aims and scope, but thin ideologies are micro-ideologies that have limited aims and scope.1 
      Bernard WIlliams (1985) describes thick ethical terms or concepts as those that are both factual and evaluative in describing and appraising various modes of behavior. The way in which such terms or concepts are applied depends on a factual situation, such as how a person has behaved in a certain set of circumstances, but also involves an evaluation that provides reasons for action.2
      Simon Kirchin (2013) explains that the distinction between thin and thick concepts may apply not only to ethical, but also to aesthetic, epistemic, and other kinds of concepts. The difference between thin and thick concepts may be that thin concepts are primarily evaluative, with little descriptive content, while thick concepts are both evaluative and descriptive.3 
     Examples of thin ethical terms (or concepts) that function primarily to indicate approval or disapproval of various kinds of conduct include the terms "good," "bad," "right," "wrong," "permissible," and "obligatory." Examples of thick ethical terms or concepts, which have descriptive as well as evaluative content, include the terms  "selfish," "unselfish," "kind," "compassionate," "honest," "deceitful," "cruel," "greedy," and "generous," Thick terms aren't simply arbitrary edicts or dictatorial pronouncements about certain modes of behavior; they are more nuanced and balanced evaluations that allow for the possible complexity of motives behind that behavior. Thin ethical terms may express our approval or disapproval of various modes of behavior, but they don't explain exactly why we should approve or disapprove of those modes of behavior. 
     Kirchin (2017) also distinguishes between separationism and nonseparationism with regard to thick terms or concepts, explaining that separationism holds that all or most so-called thick terms or concepts have separable thick or thin components, while nonseparationism holds that they do not.4 Nonseparationism may be cognitivist in asserting that thick evaluations are cognitive evaluations of facts and that they have the same cognitive status as beliefs (which can be shown to be true or false). Separationism, on the other hand, may be noncognitivist in asserting that the evaluative components of thick terms or concepts merely express our approval or disapproval of certain kinds of behavior and are not actually cognitive evaluations of those kinds of behavior.
      Judith Jarvis Thomson (2008) distinguishes between normative judgments (such as "A should move his rook") and non-normative judgments (such as "A is playing chess"). She also distinguishes between evaluative normative judgments (such as "A is a good tennis player" or "B is good at doing crossword puzzles" or "C is good as Ophelia in Hamlet") and directive normative judgments (such as "A should be kind to his little brother" or "B should try to more punctual" or "C should get a haircut").5 
      (Thin or thick) moral normativity may thus be described as the ability or tendency of something to be (thinly or thickly) morally normative, or as the ability or tendency of something to (thinly or thickly) establish a moral norm, standard, or ideal of behavior,
      Thick theological concepts may be those that are densely connotative or deeply metaphorical and capable of engaging and taking hold of our imaginations. Thin theological concepts, on the other hand, may be only weakly connotative and starkly literal, and may therefore be relatively resistant to changes in interpretation and application.
      Thick theological concepts may include those we have to spiritually, intellectually, or philosophically struggle with, those that challenge, disquiet, trouble, or inspire us. Thin theological concepts, on the other hand, may be relatively rigid and inflexible, fixed and incontrovertible, coercively inculcated, "set in stone" to be unquestioningly accepted, and strictly enforced by religious or social sanctions.
      There may be thin or thick readings of religious, ethical, literary, and other kinds of texts, depending on how literal or metaphorical, closed or open, monologic or dialogic, univocal or multivocal, and finalized or unfinalized those readings are. Thick readings may allow for many levels of meaning within a single text, while thin readings may attempt to reduce the meaning of a text to something that is unequivocal, easily interpretable, and readily summarizable.
      Sallie McFague (1982) explains that the tasks of a metaphorical theology include seeking an understanding of the centrality of models of God in religious language, analyzing such models as mediators between metaphors and concepts, criticizing literalized and exclusive models, and investigating the possibilities for transformative and revolutionary models.6 The goal of such an analysis is to challenge the rationale for conforming to the didacticism of traditional orthodoxy, as opposed to adopting the more flexible, open, kerygmatic (proclamatory) point of view epitomized by the parables of the Gospels.7 It's also to recognize that in order to develop truly meaningful theological models, a metaphorical theology must avoid literalism and idolatry of all kinds.8
      Is thick theology merely a kind of postmodern theology, insofar as it questions universalist notions of truth, the reliability of claims to absolute knowledge, and the possibility of objective certainty? Conservative theologians may see postmodernism as a threat to traditional orthodoxy, insofar as it questions the notion of truth as absolute, objective, eternal, and universal. If postmodernism is an attitude of incredulity toward metanarratives9 (grand or overarching narratives that serve to legitimate knowledge claims and to explain the meaning of various events), then it may view religious narratives as metanarratives, and postmodern theology may be viewed by conservative theologians as an attempt to challenge or deliberately subvert the narratives of religious faith.
      But thick theology is not in itself an attempt to question or deconstruct reassuring myths and beguiling metanarratives. Rather, it's an affirmation of religious faith in the face of the kinds of metaphysical, philosophical, social, and cultural challenges posed by postmodernism. Thick theology is thick because, like Keat's "negative capability" (1817),10 it's a capacity to reconcile ourselves with uncertainty, mystery, and doubt.
      The distinction Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1937) makes between "cheap grace" and "costly grace" may also be the distinction between thin and thick theology. Bonhoeffer says, "Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves...the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance...absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross."11 Costly grace, on the other hand, is "the gospel that must be sought again and again, the gift that must be asked for, the door at which we must knock. Such a grace is costly because it calls us to follow...It is costly because it condemns sin, and is grace because it justifies the sinner."12 
      Vincent Lloyd (2014) distinguishes between thin and thick theology in terms of their political and social perspectives by saying that thin theology tends to have a more secular viewpoint, while thick theology tends to offer a more distinctively theological vision. The question then is whether theology must be "thinned" in order to have greater social appeal or whether it can be "thickened" and still be heard in the public square. Lloyd concludes there is sufficient space for thick theology in public discourse, and that it can explicate a variety of ideas, themes, and practices that can promote and guide public action.13


1Michael Freeden, Ideology: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 98. 
2Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1985), p. 129.
3Simon Kirchin, Thick Concepts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 2.
4Kirchin, Thick Evaluation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 2.
5Judith Jarvis Thomson, Normativity (Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company, 2008), p. 2.
6Sallie McFague, Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), p. 28.
7Ibid., p. 28.
8Ibid., p. 19.
9Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), p. xxiv.
10John Keats, The Letters of John Keats, Volume 1, edited by Hyder Edward Rollins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958), p. 193.
11Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, translated by R.H. Fuller, with some revision by Irmgard Booth (New York: Macmillan, 1959), p. 36.
12Ibid., p. 37.
13Vincent Lloyd, "Thick or Thin? Liberal Protestant Public Theology," in Journal of Religious Ethics, Volume 42, Issue 2, April 14, 2014, pp. 337-338.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

A Case for a Gender-Inclusive Lord's Prayer

When I'm in church on Sundays, and it's time to say the Lord's Prayer, I've found it increasingly difficult to begin, along with the rest of the congregation, by saying the words "Our Father." The phrase just seems too worn out and outdated as a way of addressing God. Although the church I belong to has encouraged the use of gender-inclusive language in liturgy and worship, the version of the Lord's Prayer that's printed in the church program usually begins with the words "Our Father," and the reference to God as having a male gender identity has simply become too much for me to accept. Every time I say the words "Our Father" I feel as if I'm implicitly (or perhaps explicitly) supporting patriarchy and sexism within the Christian Church.
      Some of my fellow parishioners have expressed a preference for the version of the Lord's Prayer that's found in the New Zealand Prayer Book, which contains the phrase "Father and Mother of us all," and which seems more gender-inclusive. But the traditional "Our Father" version is the one we're usually called upon to recite at service each Sunday.
      The use of gender-inclusive or gender-neutral language in liturgy and worship has been encouraged by a variety of Christian denominations, including the United Church of Christ, the Metropolitan Community Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, and other denominations. However, there is still progress to be made, and there are further steps to be taken, in promoting more gender-inclusive language in the liturgy, prayer book, and call to worship.
      Gender-inclusive language recognizes that all women and men are equally loved and valued by God. It also encourages us to remember that God is neither male nor female, and that God transcends gender identity.
      Alternatives to saying "Our Father, who art in heaven" at the beginning of the Lord's Prayer might include "Our Creator in heaven," or "Our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, who is in heaven," or "Blessed One, our Father and Mother in heaven" or "Beloved One, who dwells in heaven and on earth." Alternatives to saying "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done" (which connotes a realm ruled by a man who's king) might include "Your dominion come, Your will be done."
      Changing the wording of the Lord's Prayer isn't really a radical thing to do. In 2017, Pope Francis suggested that saying "Do not let us fall into temptation" might be more appropriate than saying, "Lead us not into temptation," since God doesn't lead anyone into sin.1  SImilarly, in 2017 the French Catholic Church changed the phrase "Ne nous sommets pas à la tentation" (Do not subject us to temptation) to "Ne nous laisse pas entrer en tentation" (Do not let us enter into temptation).2 
      An argument I'd like to make for rewording the Lord's Prayer is thatfor those who say we can't change the words of the Lord's Prayer because that would be to say something different from what's written in the Bible or that "Our Father who art in heaven" is what's written in the Bible and therefore those are the words we have to (or are supposed to) saythe ancient Greek text of the Gospel of Matthew (6:9) says that Jesus, who likely spoke in Aramaic, begins his prayer by saying "Οὕτως οὖν προσεύχεσθε ὑμεῖς" ("houtos oun proseuchesthe humeis"), which may be translated (depending on which version of the Bible you are reading) as "Pray then like this" (New Living Translation) or "Therefore pray in this manner" (King James Bible) or "Pray then in this way" (New American Standard Bible) or "This, then, is how your should pray" (New International Version). Jesus doesn't say, "Pray, using precisely these words," or "Repeat the following words," or "Pray in these words, word for word." Because he's teaching us how to pray, he tells us to pray like this, or in this way, or in this manner. This is in keeping with his other instructions on how to pray: "Don't heap up empty phrases" (Matthew 6:7), "Don't stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that you may be seen by others" (Matthew 6:5), and "Don't show off your piety in order to be seen by others" (Matthew 6:1). Because Jesus is teaching us how to pray, he wants us to pray from our hearts. He wants us to pray what's in our hearts, and not simply repeat, word for word, some lines we've memorized. He teaches us to pray to God, so that we may be forgiven for our transgressions and delivered from evil.  
      Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does refer to God as "your Father" (Matthew 5:16, 6:4, 6:8, 6:15, 6:18), "your Father, who is in heaven" (Matthew 6:1), "Our Father" (Matthew 6:9), and "your heavenly Father" (Matthew 5:48, 6:14). But we shouldn't get too bound to the "Father" imagery or think of God exclusively as "Father." Jesus metaphorically refers to God as "Father," but he doesn't say this is the only way of thinking about God. God is not only our Father, but also many other things, including our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. We must therefore learn to think of God in other ways than that of thinking only of God as "Father." To strive for a gender-inclusive Lord's Prayer is to recognize that the God we pray to can't rightly be assigned a gender identity, and that God transcends gender categories.
      Furthermore, the wording of the Lord's Prayer in English has evolved as the English language has evolved. "Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done" is now archaic, and has often been replaced by "Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, Your will be done."
      The imagery of God as "Father" is, of course, also found in the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, and is so interwoven with the creeds that they would have to be extensively rewritten in order for them to become more gender-neutral or gender-inclusive. But that doesn't preclude us from making efforts to ensure that other aspects of the liturgy (such as calls to worship, prayers, scriptural readings, psalms, and hymns) are as gender-balanced or gender-inclusive as possible.


1Julie Zauzmer and Stefano Pitrelli, "'Lead us not into' what? Pope Francis suggests changing the words of the Lord's Prayer," in The Washington Post, December 12, 2017, online at