Reductio ad absurdum: one of those nice little Latin phrases that comes in handy every now and then. It has a noble pedigree and describes an age-old form of argument designed to pick one’s opponent’s claims apart. It means ‘reduction to the absurd’, or ‘to the point of absurdity’. And it is definitely worth mastering.

However, that is not my intention in this post. Rather, I want to (mis)appropriate it (slightly), because reductionism is all around us. And everyone’s at it. In fact, I’m going to fall into the trap of doing it myself, even within this post. Just you wait.

For in a spin-doctored, sound-bite culture, we’re all searching for that nice little précis to cling to, or that slam-dunk retort to bludgeon with. I don’t know who coined the phrase, but it is the product of an ingenious mind – for someone once coined the term ‘nothing buttery’, to describe those who say that ‘X is nothing but Y’. And we’ve got to watch out – for as I find myself saying more and more frequently (or is this the result of ongoing middle age?), ‘well, it’s not quite as simple as that…’ For sometimes, if it were, things would really have become quite absurd. Here are a few examples off the top of my head (OK, sure, they’re not all strictly reductionisms in quite same way, but this rant is not a time for pedantry):

  • The Scientific Materialist: Human beings are nothing but skinfulls of chemicals. There is no real ghost in the machine, consciousness is just a chemical reaction, existence in the cosmos has no intrinsic meaning.
  • The Political Demoniser: If it is suggested by someone from the left / right (delete as appropriate) then it must be wrong, until someone from the left / right (delete opposite) comes up with a similar idea (but we won’t mention that).
  • The Politically Correct: if you think differently from someone about how things should be done (whether it be in matters of identity, sexuality, religion, race, nationality, etc etc), you obviously must hate them.
  • The Textual Interpreter: Because a text can only ever be about one thing, our task is always to find that one thing.
  • The ‘Job’s Friend’: If things go wrong in life, it must be because of a lack of faith – ie it is always my fault somehow. Take note, you prosperity gospel types…
  • The OT Interpreter: Because Jesus is pre-existent, active in, and the fulfilment of, the OT, he therefore must be the answer to every question, every theophany, every prophecy. As one rather cheeky OT scholar I know describes it, it has become the ‘Where’s Wally/Waldo’ Approach to OT study – as if the only reason we have the OT is to find Jesus in it.
  • The Cultural Analyst: Society has all gone to pot because of X… if only we could get back to X, everything would just be fine.

And so on and so on… You can probably think of many others. Do add them in comments.

So we’ve all got to stop it, ok? In the immortal words of Bob Newhart, ‘just stop it!’.

But of course, that in itself is a reductionism. For are all reductions necessarily wrong? No, I don’t think so. For that would of course be a nothing buttery.

And when it comes to textual interpretation, we need to take some care because the quest for simplicity (and thereby clarity) is a hugely important one. Simplicity is not synonymous with being simplistic, let alone simple (in the sense of being stupid). So for example, trying to summarise and condense texts to their core meanings is a hugely important hermeneutical tool. For as I often say in my teaching, an inability to offer a summary sentence of a passage is a clear indication of a lack of understanding.

Furthermore, we should certainly not abandon the importance of authorial intent, for authors very often have clear purposes in writing. They may even have one. But that doesn’t mean that we can reduce a text to saying just one thing. There may be primary themes with secondary themes of varying significance (rather like a river with tributaries).

But my primary point in writing this post still stands… OK?

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This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Ian Paul

    Ouch! 4 and 6 are a bit close to the mark. There are whole seminaries and theological traditions built on these!

  2. Murray Wright

    I first came across the term ‘nothing-buttery’ in Professor Donald Mackay’s book “The Clockwork Image”. Suspect it is out of print now. It was one of the first books to influence my thinking regarding Science-Religion back in the 1970’s.

    1. quaesitor

      Thanks so much for the heads-up about the book – will definitely check it out…

  3. Andy Upton

    Thanks for this. Got me thinking about the death of Bin Ladin and how he has been called ‘pure evil’. Really? Isn’t he also made in the image of God? And then our response to small children – ‘totally innocent’ – when any parent knows they are also sinners? We become reductionists so quickly.

  4. Eleanor Smith

    ‘Nothing buttery’ was a common topic of conversation at the breakfast table when I was a child. Donald MacKay was my father.

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