In social sciences, the words “Emic” and “Etic” have very specific meanings. I’m not sure of them because I wasn’t introduced to these words in the context of social sciences and I certainly never heard them in school (we didn’t use them back in the Dark Ages of the Late 20th Century, although I would have loved to have known them in my class on Sex and Gender at NYU). These words entered my world via a book by Robert Anton Wilson (RAW). These concepts are in several of his works and I’ve read most of his non-fiction and a lot of his fiction, so I’m not even sure where I first read them, although the internet points to Right Where You Are Sitting Now as the fullest exposition. I have read it, that’s why the cover of same book is the header image for this post. In his usage (following the usages of neuro-linguistic scientists and philosophers) there is the Etic event and the Emic description of the event. The words we use, the languages we speak, the cultural norms in which we live all filter our experience. The event precedes our words, our lived experience of the event proceeds from them. This is not the same as neo-gnostic claims that our reality is “made” by our thoughts and dreams, but rather that our cultural constructs limit how we experience and what we experience. The “event” if you will, is certainly real. It’s not an illusion or “created” by our brains or by a machine matrix.
The “experience” of same-sex sexual activity, to use an isolated and polarizing topic, will disgust some, will arouse others, is perfectly accepted in some cultures, and violently rejected by others. Please note that “emic” and “etic” do not allow claims of “moral” and “immoral”. Instead in this field those would be entirely “emic” issues. The experience, itself, is outside those labels. In RAW’s view, once words come into play, we are one step away from etic reality, already into emic reality. We can begin to impose multiple emic layers, as the person who rejects something as immoral in one emic reality is called a “hater” by person speaking from another emic reality and a third person waffles between the two claims, creating a third emic reality that angers both the other parties.All of these are removed at least by one layer from the person who engages in the experience and calls it “good” or “fun” or “love” or “hot”, etc.
Clearly in a discussion with RAW (an imaginary one: he’s dead now) for him Christianity would be just one of many emic constructs imposed on the real or etic reality. In fact, we as Christians would have to agree because we can see other emic constructs around us. We may agree or disagree to one degree or another with any one of them, but they are there. To be sure, we are not alone in this: what passes for modern science is only an emic construct using “science words”. The awesome value of “9 light years” is only imposed by our culture: it’s equal to 9 micometers in universal scale. 6 days is no less or more mythological than 93 Billion years. Pointing out to some of our modern Prophets of Scientism how they use language in the same way as any other religion really annoys them.
CS Lewis offers us this in Perelandra:
There is no emic-free reality for humans.To say 6 days is mythological but 93 billion years is not is to impose an invisible bogey, just like God, through words, unless you have a being that has been alive for 93 Billion years and is telling you something without words… The map is not the territory.
In the days of my former delusion, as they say, I attended a class about the misnamed “Progressive Christians”. We were watching a video of some Bible-Debunkers’ stories about how they had come to debunk the Bible and how – after two thousand years of Christianity – these folks had finally understood what Jesus was on about. Oddly enough, Jesus sounded like a cross between Oprah and a collection of Chinese fortune cookies written by fifth graders in lieu of letters to Santa: in the Kingdom of God you get a car. And you get a car. And you get a car! And anyone who says you don’t get a car is a racist cis-gendered white, heterosexual male like St Paul. We can ignore them. Yet even a stopped clock is right twice a day, Unless it’s on military time, but that’s another issue.
In the New Testament, the Greek says it is “pistis” that saves us and the Latin says “fides”. Not “I hold in my thoughts/my heart the idea that Jesus is the Son of God and that he will come again” but rather, “This is how things are, I am 100% certain.” Your pistis, says Jesus, has saved you. Contrary to my earlier feelings, doctrines do matter: you can’t put your full faith and credit in something without knowing what it is.
This is where the stopped clock comes back in: walking across the universe one step at a time and at the moment you put you foot down there was something invisible holding you up. Faith, the pleroma of pistis, the fullness of fides, is acting as if your personal emic construct is the same as the etic reality. In Byzantine Rite Matins we discuss this. The Orthodox faith asserts that God is unknowable in his essence and that “God is the Lord and has revealed himself to us”. We insist that the Eternal and Unknowable One who is beyond all our categories (the Perfectly Etic One, if you will) has made known to us himself. We insist that our theology is not a word painting about God, but a direct revelation from God – he says he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The one Etic Reality has manifested to us the true Emic reality. Far from being beyond words, God has spoken his living Word directly into our world in the Incarnation – and continues to speak that Word into our lives today in the Eucharist.
Faith is not a list of doctrines, but rather taking the next step in your life as if the doctrines, the reality you’ve been show in in the doctrines of the Church is reality, itself: not merely one interpretation of reality, or “my understanding” of it, but reality itself. Fides, pistis without works is dead: in fact, it is the same thing. Sitting in the corner reciting doctrines (even the true ones) makes you an Armchair Christian. If you’re not running the course set before us, you are not living the faith.
By way of a postscript: I know that some of my friends, Christian or not, will be surprised or perhaps even annoyed that I use the works of Robert Anton Wilson in this manner. Any Truth is Truth. The Early Christians take no offense at this: St Justin Martyr, in Chapter 46 of his 1st Apology, says:
We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them; and among the barbarians, Abraham, and Ananias, and Azarias, and Misael, and Elias, and many others…