Recently a friend was discussing her interpretation of a biblical passage.
“Yes,” I said, “that position originates with Augustine.”
“Ah, excuse me?” she replied, “I don’t remember mentioning Augustine. We’re talking about what I know from what I read in the Bible.”
Her view of interpretation is different from the “you-may-need-to-interpret-but-I-just-read-what’s-there” view. Instead of claiming not to interpret, she was claiming to interpret independently of other, past sources: to interpret the Bible directly, on the basis of her skills and knowledge alone.
This raises several points. First, this method of interpretation consists in being maximally open to the Bible’s content. Second, by assuming that we should (and can) interpret from our present situation and knowledge alone, it equates openness with being unbiased by past views and unprejudiced by false beliefs. Third, it arrives at its goal (of getting the best possible interpretation) by basing interpretations not on mere biases or beliefs, but on true knowledge.
Now openness to biblical texts is important. But is this degree of openness—or openness achieved in this way—possible?
I think not.
Let’s start by re-considering the above conversation. How did my friend acquire her knowledge of the Bible? Well, from her Christian family, her pastor, and her Bible college professors. And how did they get their knowledge? And how did their sources get their knowledge? And how did. . . ?
New understandings are possible. Yet they always stand in relationship to (and have been informed by) past views. Thus no view is ever independent of the course of its development. Stated another way, knowledge itself has a history. And being ignorant of that history does not mean that we are unaffected by it.
Rather, as historical beings humans have a deep and unbreakable relationship with the past. Humans are contingent beings: our way of perceiving and understanding the world is conditioned by the world itself. As such we cannot escape—or be unaffected by—our gender, race, ethnic background, or upbringing.
So seen, it is not only unfavourable to be unprejudiced, it is impossible! Aspiring to such “absolute” openness is desiring neutrality and detachment from our world and our history. For Christians, this amounts to disparaging both the necessity and “goodness” of God’s creation, and our own nature as creatures within it.
In short, it is by our attachment to the world that we know and understand anything at all.
In fact, our English word “prejudice” comes from the French préjugé légitime—legitimate prejudgements. Prejudgements are the result of being in the world—existing in specific ways and situations. They are legitimate because everyone has them: we need them in order to get by (and even survive) in these specific ways and situations.
So the goal is not to be unprejudiced, but to know our prejudgements, their origins, and their limitations. In other words, adapting our prejudgements as we receive new information (about ourselves, others, the world, and possibly God) from a variety of sources.
As contingent beings we always run the risk of founding our understandings on false beliefs. But we cannot swap (mere) belief for (true) knowledge. This is neither possible—humans cannot be like God, knowing all things truly—nor desirable. For even as our beliefs are formed through our attachment to this world, so they also anchor us to this world: they centre us on the only locale where humans may encounter God.
And who is this God?
We come a step closer to knowing by contrasting the biblical picture of God with this ideal of unbiased, unprejudiced, neutrality. The Christian God is far from neutral. God is clearly presented as being for us before ever being against us, and as constantly seeking relationship with humanity. And God’s motivation for performing God’s greatest act, sending Jesus? “For God so loved the world . . .”