Reading the Bible, reading myself

In a recent discussion someone raised the idea that personal experiences of God should not be treated with skepticism:

“When someone sees something beautiful in their life and recognizes it as the hand of God and through that experience moves an inch closer to intimacy with Him, woe is the man (or woman) who answers them with skepticism! There is a deeply in-grained skeptical attitude within the hearts of many of those who claim the name of God. Take the example about the eagle flying and someone seeing that as something God has given them as a demonstration of His love and attention, no one should take that from them. Did God put the eagle there in the first place? Maybe. Maybe not. But if He didn’t, He turned that person’s attention to the eagle and turned their thoughts to Him. And if that person relates this story to another person and they respond with a scoffing attitude, what they are in essence saying to that person is….’there is no way that God would go out of His way to do that for you…you really aren’t that important.’ ”

I very much agree with you that God desires good things for each person. More specifically, I believe that God does so such that the content of this goodness and the manner in which it is manifested or disseminated is situated within the broader context of furthering God’s kingdom. Thus in my view a Christian perspective contains a dual context for defining such important benefits as goodness, care, and love. On the one hand, goodness is only truly good if it is situated within the greater project of realizing God’s kingdom. On the other hand, goodness is only perceivable as good—it is only really “for me”—if it manifests and impacts me as beneficial, rejuvenating, etc.

This of course raises the matter of interpretation, but more broadly than we normally think. Typically we think of interpreting texts and, for many Christians, good interpretation is what permits us to understand the Bible correctly. I agree. However, another type of interpretation is also at play, though typically those interpreting in this way are unaware of doing so and unskilled in its use.

Specifically, all of us are engaged all the time in interpreting our own experiences. The vast majority of us do so without reflection or consideration, and certainly without special “training” (indeed most events require no great consideration or training to understand).  Now coming back to this comment: Christians explain God, to other Christians and to non-Christians, both through how they read (or interpret) the Bible and how the understand (or interpret) events in their lives that they believe have some bearing on God, such as having some form of encounter with God).

Now to some people the notion that we interpret the Bible (instead of simply “reading what’s there”) may seem surprising.  More so, to some it means that human beings are “in charge” of determining who God is, which can cause distress. For if God’s love (or perhaps worse, truth!) is a matter of my interpretation or that of others, then how can we be certain that we’re not misrepresenting God or characterizing God in any number of potentially conflicting —and even harmful—ways?  As such, Christians not only appeal to a source of information about God (the Bible) but many Christians also favour particular approaches to biblical interpretations, reading techniques such as proper exegetical method, historical and literary awareness, etc.

In other words, most Christians most of the time would not be content to “make of the Bible” whatever we pleased. Yet accepting experientially-based claims about God as authoritative without examining their interpretation is precisely what we would be doing if we agree that we cannot (indeed, must not) doubt the validity another person’s perspective about how God acted / communicated / was present in that person’s life in some special way.

A bit of a problem, I think. Yet the matter doesn’t end here. For considerations of accuracy and truthfulness in interpreting experiences have further similarities with interpreting Bible readings.

Interpretation needs not only to be viewed more broadly (as encompassing the interpretation of experience) but it also needs to be understood as a “skill,” which means that the individual’s skill as an interpreter of themselves is now also at issue.  In other words, if it’s reasonable to prefer N. T. Wright’s reading of a given biblical passage because I have good reason to think N. T. Wright is a more skillful interpreter of the Bible than another exegete, why is it not also reasonable to prefer my (or yours or John’s) interpretation of an event because I think I am (or you are or he is) a better interpreter of experience than another person?  Must it be the case that someone is always the best interpreter of their own experience?  I think not. 1

Stated differently—and I think this is crucial—I would characterize Christians as truth-seekers whose seeking is to be oriented by and toward loving God entirely, love themselves rightly, and love their fellows likewise. From this context Christians are called to act in in the service of both love (of God, myself and others) and truth (biblical and personal), and so are OBLIGED to engage not only with someone’s claims about God based on their interpretation of John’s gospel but also claims about God based on her / his interpretation of their experiences.

And when we do so, we not only prevent certain problems but acquire certain benefits. A willingness to investigate and question may keep us from falling prey to the common, North American orientation that Jesus died “for me,” to “save me from my sins.”  It would do so by promoting deeper engagement with the biblical text that may well lead us to seeking fuller explanations of who Jesus is (and so move us toward broader, more covenantal presentations of the gospel, such as N. T. Wright proposes).  I wager that this joint orientation toward love and truth also creates stronger and more vibrant communities, communities that love and listen while not losing the ability to speak (and where necessary, critique).

Bad things we do with Bible verses (Part II)

 

Last week I highlighted two ideas from Pastor Kyle Idleman’s recent book, not a fan, and I noted how poor biblical exegesis leads to misunderstanding the Bible.  Yet is that really something “bad” that we do with Bible verses?

Hmmmn.

Maybe not so much.  But let’s see what comes from examining Kyle’s notion that “the only way to be filled with the Spirit is to empty myself of me. . . . The more he fills me, the less room there is for me” (not a fan, 95).  .

Sadly, none of the half dozen verses Kyle uses in this chapter actually support his view.  But let’s help him out—let’s suggest a passage, like Galatians 2:20: “and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me . . .”  This is likely the clearest basis upon which this notion can be based.

But is Kyle’s view of the Holy Spirit actually borne out here—what does this verse mean?

To start, let’s put matters in context by taking (at bare minimum) the whole idea that Paul is expressing: So Gal 2:19-20 reads: “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God, I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live but it is Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

As author N. T. Wright observes, “there was nothing wrong with wanting to keep Torah, it was merely impossible to do it.” (Climax of the Covenant, 197).  Rather, the point about this section of Galatians “is not, in other words, a small number for whom ‘national righteousness’ avails after all, but those who, like Paul himself, have died and risen with Christ.”  (Climax, 247).

The point is clear: Gal 2:19-21 actually concludes a long argument that the opportunity for right relationship with God has been made possible through the life and death of Jesus.  Christ “living in me” is the state of embracing this opportunity, whereas for all other approaches (even attempting to keep Torah—itself a good gift from God) it is “I who live,” which is insufficient.

But is there is another problem here?

To my mind, the bigger issue with Kyle’s preference for self-effacement (and preference it is, lacking biblical support) is that it ignores, and so undermines, the truth and wonder of human relationality.  In essence, Kyle undermines the very truth of created existence, truth that God has established to point us towards Godself.

How so?

Well, as any parent knows, when a new child enters your life you are not forced to love your spouse, friends, etc. less.  Likewise when a second child comes into a family it does not mean that you must divide in half the love that you give to your first child.  No.  In either case, the result is actually more love: love begets love.

So where it essentially detaches our love relationship with God from healthy human love relationships, Kyle’s view abstracts God from our experience: God no longer informs our existence, and we no longer understand God through our existence.

The upshot: Christians effectively burn bridges with those whom they most wish to communicate because such Christians do not live in (nor can they relate to) the real world!

Compounding matters, such Christians often explain the negative responses non-Christians have to their witnessing on the basis that the gospel is “offensive” or a “stumbling block,” or that “the world hates us.”

I wonder if it has occurred to these Christians that it is only the content of the Gospel (i.e., the truth claim that Jesus is God’s son who has come to reclaim all existence—and so all humanity—for God, as part of God’s kingdom) that should rightly be an obstacle, and not the ignorance, miscomprehensions, and perversions of both real life and the Bible that so many Christians seem so willing both to accept and pass-off to others?

Bad things we do with Bible verses (Part I)

 

“I love you, but really you’re unimportant—it’s all about me.”

“In fact, you should love me so much that you hate everyone else by comparison.”

It’s easy to hear these perspectives in television or films.  We might, sadly enough, hear them in people’s homes or even our own.  But hopefully we recognize them for what they are: warped and twisted.

So while reading Kyle Idleman’s not a fan (a recent Christian publication that garnered some acclaim) I was dismayed and saddened to find these perspectives not only meekly hidden but openly espoused.

Here are two examples:

First, the author explains about being filled with the Holy Spirit: “The only way to be filled with the Spirit is to empty myself of me. . . . The more he fills me, the less room there is for me” (95).  Sure, God loves me, but the more of God there is in me (and the less of me), the better.

Second, the author describes the type of relationship that God wants with us: “Jesus isn’t just saying, ‘I want to be first place in your life.’  He is saying, ’I don’t even want there to be a second place.’ (page 59).  This means that if you follow Jesus “you’re so committed to him that by comparison, you hate everyone else.” (65).

Where does he get this stuff?

The Bible.  Or so he claims.

For reasons of space I’ll focus on his second idea, which Kyle takes from Luke 14: 26, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father or mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

But because he misunderstands the verses he uses to support his view, Kyle also misunderstands what it means to follow Jesus (and love God) .

As I discussed earlier, verses cannot be rightly understood when taken in isolation either to the book that contains them or to the remainder of, in this case, the New Testament.  So the meaning of Luke 14:26 is understood in light of the greater context of Luke and its parallel account in Matthew.  Let’s see how.

Matt 10:37-39 offers a slightly different rendering of the same idea: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Next, Luke 8:20-21 contextualizes Luke’s view of ‘family’: “And [Jesus] was told, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.’  But he said to them, ‘My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’ “

So what does this mean?

One commentary puts it this way: “In antiquity the extended family meant everything. . . . But a surrogate family, what anthropologists call a fictive kin group, could serve many of the same functions as a biological family.  The Christian group acting as a surrogate family is for Luke the locus of the good news.” (page 335). 1

Concerning the passage immediately prior to Kyle’s verse—the story of inviting everyone and anyone to dine with you (Luke 14:15-24)—the same commentator notes that “Jesus’ call for inclusive table fellowship . . . is here made explicit and the price to be paid for it [(i.e., Luke 14:26)] is spelled out.” (369).

Taking this information together, we should read Luke 14:26 as follows:

As those who are “to love the Lord your God” with all their being and love their neighbours as themselves (as per Luke 10:27), Christians are to embrace each other even to the point of violating traditional norms of interaction (such as restricting table fellowship to those of the same class or family), even where such violations—in the culture of antiquity—could be perceived as hateful acts towards one’s own family.

The Cheese stands alone!

 

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 nformation (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 . . .”

Understanding the Bible: love the text as yourself

 

Biblical interpretation, or exegesis, empowers belief.  But it can also destroy it.

The interpretation of biblical texts—determining their meaning according to linguistic content and cultural / historical context—is exegesis.  Yet it allows us better to understand biblical truth claims and the Bible’s various stories (and overarching Story) by giving content to these truth claims and specifying the nature and character of their protagonist: God.

In other words, exegesis helps us know what the Bible is claiming and, literally, who God is.  And this insight is crucial in deciding how we respond to the Bible and its God.

Before delving into the two passages from last post we must consider not only exegesis but what precedes it: our orientation towards texts in general.

At its core, biblical interpretation (or exegesis) is attuning ourselves to the unique nature of the text: letting the text “be itself”.  It is neither seeking to impose our views and understandings on it nor abandoning all we know and understand, and accepting it unquestioningly.  Yet neither is this an attempt to be ‘neutrally’ disposed towards the text, as if this were even possible.

Rather it is first “listening” to the text through a posture of respect, openness, consideration—the very stance that I hope others would take towards my writing or speech!  Quite literally, I am advocating treating the text according the golden rule: loving it like another person, as I love myself.

So the co-centrality of love and truth resurfaces, for it is by putting love in conjunction with truth that we most genuinely offer the text ‘a hearing’.

In my last post, then, I referred to two biblical texts that are easily misinterpreted.  This can be due to assumptions that a) culture in biblical times is similar enough to our own that no translation between them is needed, or b) the linguistic translation of the Bible (e.g., from Greek to English) yields unambiguous results, and so c) readers can understand a Bible verse by its own content alone, without overly considering the surrounding verses, or the chapter or book that contains it.  These are false assumptions.

For example, the role of honor and shame in 1st century Palestine is key to reading Matthew 5:39 properly, “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (NRSV).  In that culture honor was like good credit: it offered privileges and possibilities unavailable to those of lesser esteem.  So a slap to the right cheek—a back-handed slap, designed to humiliate and reduce someone’s honour—was a big deal.

So rather than advocating pacifism in the face of abusive treatment, the verse contains the implicit cultural understanding that unwarranted incidents like this would prompt a community response.  Thus it calls for the wronged individual to allow the community to intervene as the best way for right relationships to be restored between the two parties.1

Similarly, in Romans 8:28, “all things work together for good for those who love God” (NRSV), Paul’s tightly woven argument throughout Romans, the linguistic complexity of the verse, and the context of the surrounding chapter are key to proper exegesis.

In a recent paper on Romans 8:28 Mark Gignilliat notes four possible interpretations:
a) God works together with all things,
b) God works all things,
c) The Spirit works with all things for those who love God.
d) All things work together for good,
First he cites another Romans scholar who finds option d) to be “the least probable” option. Then he and argues for the one that he believes makes best sense, given the language use and context—option a) “And we know that in all things God is working together (with the Spirit) for good to those loving God.”

I am persuaded by the reasoning in Gignilliat’s paper that this is the best reading of the four. Further, this interpretation also defeats the objection that Romans 8:28 shows that God works with / uses evil (and so it has the additional benefit of harmonizing / making sense alongside of other biblical texts rather than contradicting or being at odds with passages that bear on issue of God and evil).2

In fact, the notion that God makes use of, or even needs, evil to bring good is called The Greater Good argument.  Such a God has more in common with Buddhist or Hindu perspectives, and Christians who hold this view typically believe that everything is “God’s will.”  But have they forgotten how Jesus taught us to pray: “…Your will be done, on earth, as it is in Heaven”?3

Clearly, things down here don’t always happen as God wills.  But that’s for another post.

Understanding the Bible: interpretation for everyone

 

Having recently discussed the necessity—indeed, the inescapability—of interpretation, it’s time to examine it more closely.  What is interpretation, and how does it work?

Stated plainly, interpreting is deciding “what we make” of something—it is reading or seeing something as something.  Interpretation applies not only to texts but to situations, and its scholarly study (the field of hermeneutics, which is the theory and practice of interpretation) includes the branches of legal, biblical, and philosophical hermeneutics—the latter being the interpretation of existence.

Crucial to this decision of what we “make of” something is the setting, or context, of the object or situation being interpreted.

As I noted in my last post, interpretation is important because it allows us to gain meaningful connection to ourselves and to others, and to evaluate how (and how authentically) they connect with us.  When we consider biblical interpretation, however, we often think of it as understanding the Bible’s meaning—getting at its t/Truth in terms of ideas.

But this is only part of the picture.

Particularly, if the God of the Bible “is love” and wants to be in relationship with humanity, then the focus of the Bible itself is for readers to understand the meaning of its truth claims and adjudicate their value in order to assess whether God is real.  More so, to asses whether this God is an entity with whom I want to engage—whether God’s love is authentic and God’s offer for relationship is genuine!

Such assessments require two types of interpretation: interpretation of texts and interpretation of experience (or existence).  So a) we interpret the Bible in order to determine its truth claims and then, for those claims that are experiential—such as God loving us—b) we interpret how such claims “play out” in everyday life in order to assess their truth value.

Let’s consider the first step—textual interpretation.

As context is key to proper interpretation, so interpreting the Bible requires reading its various books in context—reading them as ancient texts written according to various literary forms (narrative, prophecy, wisdom literature, etc.).  Moreover, it means reading these texts as documents containing various literary features (hyperbole, parable, chiasm), composed for a particular audience, to certain ends (to inform, persuade, denounce, etc.).

As the Bible was not written in English, readers need to understand—or at least be aware of—the nuances of the original languages.  Further, understanding its words requires recognizing that we make sense of a given portion of text on the basis of the text that surrounds it: the “co-text.”

For example, by interpreting Romans 8:28 without duly considering its setting in Romans 8 (and indeed, in the whole book) and without due attention to its grammatical nuances in the Greek (note particularly the word “work”), we risk misreading this verse as endorsing the ‘greater good argument‘.  So we risk viewing the Bible as explaining—or explaining away—bad things as necessary for the sake of some greater good.  It does not.  I’ll explain this in detail in my next post.

Also, especially with ancient texts, we must be not only open to its words but conversant with its setting.  So we must understand the society / culture within which it was created to know the cultural expectations and understandings of its author and audience.

For example, without understanding the role of honour and shame in 1st century Palestine, we risk misreading Matthew 5:39 (when “struck on the right cheek, turn the other also”) as advocating pacifism or even abuse.  Again, it does neither.  And again, more details to follow.

Finally, the upshot of the preceding is not that we have to be biblical scholars in order to interpret the Bible well.  Instead, seeking the truth value of various truth claims is something everyone does all the time, so everyone has some experience and skill with it.  And like interpreting situations, textual interpretation is a skill that can be cultivated and improved.

Interpretation and love?

In my last post I argued that, for both Christians and non-Christians, we neither have—nor can have—certainty about the Bible’s claims nor about the validity of its claims.  In place of certainty we have interpretation.

Before rushing into a technical discussion about interpretation, however, it is important to situate such a discussion within its practical, real-life context.  Why?  Because this seemingly dry topic is important—important enough even to get “picky” about what interpretation is and how to do it—for a very practical and personal reason: people matter.

Typically we think of interpretation as focusing on ideas: techniques to help us know things better.  Certainly ideas are important and interpretation both requires that we think about ideas and helps us better to understand them. 

But ideas are not the point.  People are the point.

So this discussion of interpretation was actually borne from my earlier challenge that absolute / ultimate truth (or Truth) is only meaningful if it is true “for me.”  This challenge itself resulted from my claim that love and truth are essential to human existence, where I noted that the greatest truth-for-me is to be deeply loved by one who knows me truly, and whom I deeply love in return.

Thus where the desire to love and be loved is a central human aspiration, the pursuit of truth is integral to meaningful, human existence.  We may take this a step further and note that ours is not only a desire to be loved, but to be loved in and as who we are.  In other words, it is a desire not to be treated as an object but known profoundly—and being so known, to be cherished—as the self that we are.

Reframed, we desire to be known truly and loved profoundly by one / those whom we likewise know genuinely and love deeply.

So truth is integral to love in several ways.  First, I want the knowledge that others have about me to be true, so that their love is really for me: they don’t idolize me for isolated qualities nor value me mistakenly (as someone or something that I am not).  Rather they know my authentic self, and in so knowing me they love me. 

Second, in order for another to know me truly I must know and understand myself—as Socrates would say, I must know who I truly am.

Third, I likewise want to know my beloved truly.  So my beloved’s identity (as someone who claims to respect, be loyal to, and love me) must not be based on incomplete or false information (as an unconfessed affair, or a hidden need to marry in order to retain citizenship / have financial security, etc.)

Thus my interest in interpretation is neither to dethrone notions of ultimate t/Truth nor merely to supplant one view with another.  Rather, interpretation (of texts, experiences, situations, etc.) is a skill that matters because it allows us to gain some of our most meaningful connection to ourselves, to other people, and to evaluate how and how authentically they connect with us.

My point, then, is that truth remains connected with love, through and through.  And just as truth-seeking and truth-finding are integral to loving and being loved, so accurately assessing truth claims and truth values by way of interpretation is among the most meaningful of tasks.

In subsequent posts I reframe interpretation.  It is not an all-or-nothing hedge against relativism but is a skill that all possess and that can be improved with practice and knowledge.

In the end, interpretation helps keep us honest: it insists that we remain amongst the ambiguities and tensions inherent to our finite situation.  But it also gives gifts: we can have strong confidence in knowing (and so understanding) some things, even in knowing the that we love and, perhaps, are loved.

Experience, creation, and interpretation

God sees things as the truly are; people interpret.

Given this, we should not be surprised to encounter a myriad of different views on the Bible’s content—its truth claims—where neither the most important of which can be stated uncontestedly nor their truth value substantiated indisputably.  For example, we have a variety of views on who the God of the Bible is (i.e., various interpretations of the Bible’s claims about God), and the very notion of God’s existence is itself deeply contested (i.e., different interpretations of the value of such claims).

At its heart, the tension here is between claims that are ultimate in nature yet whose verification is necessarily down to finite individuals endowed with limited faculties, perspectives and experiences.

But in trying to protect ultimate truth from becoming relative truth—in trying to avoid a take-it-or-leave-it model of truth where everything is down to the individual’s preferences and so, seemingly, “anything goes”—have some Christians betrayed their own, dearest beliefs?

I think that they have.

In my last post I equated this betrayal with idolatry.  For in their efforts to protect against relativism regarding the Bible’s truth claims, many Christians contend not to need to interpret (“maybe you interpret the Bible, but I just read what’s there”) or to interpret flawlessly (“my interpretations are right; theirs are wrong”).  They profess to access the Bible’s claims and truth value absolutely, or with certainty.  Yet this amounts to seeing and knowing things as only God can.  And professing equality with God is idolatry.

But there’s more.

In their efforts to protect against relativism regarding the Bible’s truth values, many Christians are often selectively suspicious of the value of experience.  So where non-Christians might conclude that Christianity is a lie because they do not to experience its claims to be true, Evangelicals often insist that non-Christians must first accept and believe in Christianity in order to understand its truth.

Later we’ll examine this view more closely.  For now I note two, glaring contradictions.

First, if a Muslim insisted that non-Muslims must first embrace Islam in order to understand its truth, would Christians do this?  I doubt it.  Second, many Christians maintain that God is quintessentially personal and that belief in God means experiencing God in and through personal relationship.  So clearly certain experiences are essential to Christianity.

And this is the second betrayal: denigrating experience actually disparages the goodness of creation.  The God of the Bible has pronounced creation “good,” and importantly so.  For our created world is the environment that provides experiences necessary to knowing God, and our own created nature (as our unique personality and viewpoint) are crucial for entering into relationship with a personal God.  Denigrating experience, which is our human perspective on the created order, calls God a liar and disowns the truth of knowing God in and through relationship.

So where does this leave us?

On the one hand, for both Christians and non-Christians, we neither have—nor can have—certainty about the Bible’s claims nor about their validity.  Indeed, I think that “certain knowledge” is a myth born of modernist philosophy.  Instead, while God sees things as they really are and knows truly, human interpret and know with varying degrees of probability and according to particular perspectives.

On the other hand, interpreting implies neither a lack of truth (as though interpretations are mere unfounded opinions) nor a weakness (as though, if we were only smarter or more Godly, when reading the Bible we would just “read what’s there”).

Rather if we who are finite must interpret, we who are finite also may interpret.  In other words, while we do not have God’s absolute / ultimate perspective (and Truth), we are not left without any perspective (and no truth).  Far from being “stuck” in a fog of relativism, the good news is that we can actually better evaluate truth claims / values by becoming more competent interpreters.  How?

I’ll examine how this may be in my next post.  Stay tuned ‘til then.

Interpretation or idolatry (aka: What’s wrong with claiming absolute Truth?)

 

Many Christians contend that the Bible offers absolute (or ultimate) truth.  But this contention immediately raises two problems.  First, Christians do not know the Bible’s claims to be True (with a capital ‘T’) but rather believe them to be.  Second, there are a plethora of understandings of the Bible: what makes a particular Christian’s view better than anyone else’s?

At stake here is the distinction between absolute (or ultimate) truth and absolute (or ultimate) access to this Truth.1

We can clarify matters by using the terms truth claims (i.e., what is being claimed to be true) and truth value (i.e., just how true a given claim is).  So concerning the nature of its truth claims, Christians point to its content (it concerns matters of ultimate importance for human existence) and its origin (it is divinely revealed) in holding that the Bible’s claims are not simply relative, as perhaps truth-for-me, but absolute / ultimate Truth.

Yet with any assessment of a truth claim—both a) properly determining what the claim is and b) accurately adjudicating that claim: determining whether it is indeed true—we are always faced with the question of how (and how well) we can access this truth claim.  In other words, how (and how well) do we know what is being claimed, and how (and how well) do we decide whether/ to what extent it is true?

Essentially the question of access (to truth claims and their values) depends on our relationship to knowledge: to knowing things and entities.  As such, dealing with truth claims and truth values requires first that we know something about knowing.2

Expressed philosophically, human being are “contingent knowers.”  So our knowledge is limited—but also made possible—by our abilities, situation, and circumstances.  For instance, we know things via our senses, our reason, our experiences, etc.  Expressed theologically, God is infinite and complete, whereas humans are finite and limited.

So what does this mean?

Let’s answer that question by taking these philosophical and theological views about our relationship to knowledge and connecting them with my two, introductory problems with absolute / ultimate truth: the issue of believing versus knowing, and of multiple understandings.

On the one hand, emphasizing that Christians do not know the Bible’s claims to be True, but rather believe them, underscores the need for faith.  But it does so in order to affirm that people (Christians included) are not like God.  God knows things as they truly are; people understand through the grid work of their finite, situated existence.

On the other hand, the upshot of the preceding is that we necessarily have multiple understandings, given our diversity of backgrounds, experiences, etc.  In other words, as limited beings we necessarily interpret.  Only God has certainty; humans have varying degrees of probability.  God knows, people interpret.

Some classic examples of wrong-headed thinking are to claim, as I’ve heard some Christians do, that when reading the Bible they do not interpret but simply “Read what’s there.”  Or again to claim, as I’ve heard other Christians do, essentially that they interpret flawlessly: that their interpretations are “right” whereas those of other Christians or non-Christians are “wrong.”

Philosophically speaking, to claim either that we do not interpret or interpret flawlessly is to claim to know (or access) absolute Truth absolutely.  It is to claim certainty, which is beyond human ability.  Theologically speaking, it is to declare ourselves beyond the limited, situated scope within which God created us and to make ourselves equals with God.  It is to break the First Commandment: it is idolatry.

The point, then, is that even if we grant that biblical truth claims may be ultimately True, Christians do not (nor does anyone else) possess absolute access to this absolute / ultimate truth, nor can they offer such to others.

In my next post I examine the positive significance of finitude for our relation to t/Truth: the importance of interpretation and experience.