In the last two posts in this series (first here, second here) we explored the idea that when the Greeks began to shift their writing direction from right-to-left to left-to-right (like English), analytical thinking began to emerge. While these posts dealt with the link between writing and right or left-brain thinking, this post will attempt to explain what we actually mean when we speak of Hebrew thinking or Greek thinking.
I was first interested in what is frequently referred to as Hebrew thought several years ago when I read a book called Our Father Abraham by Marvin Wilson. In his book, Wilson spoke of Greek thought as “step logic” while he spoke of Hebrew thought as “block logic.”1 What did he mean? Let’s start by looking at step logic (Greek) since it is what we are most familiar with. Wilson writes:
“Greek logic, which has to a large extent influenced the Western world…often used a tightly contained step logic whereby one would argue from premises to a conclusion, each step linked tightly to the next in coherent, rational, logical fashion.”2
To make it simple, think of this as button-your-shirt thinking. Ever get near the last button of your shirt and realize that you did it wrong? How did you know? Things didn’t line up right when you were done. You have to button your shirt in sequence or it doesn’t really work. Get one step wrong and the whole thing will be off. A better analogy might be that of architecture. Each step in the design and construction of a building is vital to the integrity of the whole building. It is obvious that the foundation is vitally important, but so is each brick that is laid on top of it.
I remember a building in Halifax, Nova Scotia —the city where I grew up — that had a pool on the top floor. Nothing new here. What was interesting, however, is that the pool was never filled with water. Whoever designed the building forgot to account for the weight of the water during the design stage. Had the pool been filled with water the whole building would have been at risk. The weight of the water had to be supported by the rest of the building. Our logic works in a similar way. To argue a point well, each step in your argument has to be tightly connected or your argument won’t hold any water.
I’m a part of a Facebook discussion group dealing with a new and fairly controversial theological book. There are many opinions being posted by people a lot smarter than me, so I am well aware that if I want to post my opinion on a thread that I have to state it very carefully. My ‘thought opponents’ are looking for a loophole in my argument. If any one step in my thought doesn’t make sense or line up just right, my whole thought will either be derailed or dismissed. Every little part matters. There’s nothing wrong with this, by the way, it’s just how we think.
Hebrew thought — ancient Hebrew thought specifically — is different. Wilson explains,
“The Hebrews often made use of block logic. That is, concepts were expressed in self-contained units or blocks of thought. These blocks did not necessarily fit together in any obviously rational or harmonious pattern, particularly when one block represented the human perspective on truth and the other represented the divine. This way of thinking created a propensity for paradox, antinomy, or apparent contradiction, as one block stood in tension–and often illogical relation–to the other. Hence, polarity of thought or dialectic often characterized block logic.”3
Have you ever watched someone paint a picture on several different canvases and then, upon completion, watch as they put those pictures together to form a single picture? That’s not Hebrew thought. In Hebrew thought a person might try to answer questions such as ‘what is God like?’ or ‘what does it mean to be human?’ and paint their answer upon several different canvases. Each canvas might be very beautiful, but the canvases would most likely not fit together to form a neat and tidy combined picture. Actually, you might have two pictures that looked very different from each other. They might even seem contradictory. This is where we typically run into problems.
Let’s go back to the architectural analogy for a moment. Image that two architects are given the same materials to work with. The one carefully plans each step and builds a structure that is good in both form and function. This architect then goes to look at the work of the other architect who was given the same materials to work with but recently and unexpectedly died. Upon arriving to look at the work of the deceased architect what he sees before him are two different structures and concludes that his fellow architect didn’t finish the project before his untimely death. He decides to take the project on himself as a way to honor the man but is, frankly, quite perplexed as to how to make the two structures fit together. He works and works to combine these structures but the end result is awkward and ugly. What this architect didn’t understand is that the two pieces were not meant to go together; they were meant to be seen side-by-side.
There is a way of reading the Hebrew scriptures that is not unlike our architect trying to put together things that were meant to be seen side-by-side. Such attempts feel awkward; forced. The mystery gets lost for the sake of own clarity. Interestingly, G.K. Chesterton reminds us that the mystics have always been okay with seeming contradiction. Why? Because the mystic “always cared more for truth than for consistency.” He continues, “If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them.”4 When we are so steeped in our type linear type of logic this perhaps seems impossible. Still, Chesterton reminds us that although we are not used to holding two different perspectives together in our minds, we do it all the time with our eyes. For the mystic’s “spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that.”5 Perhaps learning to live with the tension, as uncomfortable as it might seem at first, will help us see not less, but more; to see with stereoscopic vision.
1 Marvin Wilson, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1989). 150
4 G.K. Chesteron, Orthodoxy. (New York: First Image) 1908 (this ed. 2001). p. 23