Reading oneself and the Bible: follow-up 3

My last blog post was the second of a three-part reply to a recent comment, by “Listener.” In this last part I want to address two of Listener’s points. Here is the first:

“Some things must be felt with the heart because the intellect cannot adequately hold the entire mystery of God.” I agree that our emotional responses provide important information, and that some things may be more immediately accessible to the emotions than, say, the intellect. Yet as I wrote last post about the need to become skilled ‘readers of ourselves’, so I would argue that it is not either the intellect or the emotions. It must, to my way of thinking, always be both.  And not just these two.

In other words, human understanding necessarily incorporates the entirety of what and who we are as human beings. What does this entail? At base, it means learning how to invigorate and then interweave our faculties (intellect, emotions, memory, sense perception, imagination, experience) judiciously yet artfully, such that our way of seeing and our way of being are individually and mutually informing (and so able both to corroborate and critique one another). This, in essence, is the meaning (and result) of being a competent ‘reader’ of oneself.

Concerning the “mystery of God,” I think that we must be careful in what we view as “mysterious” about God, and what we do not.  For instance, whether an event represents God expressing love to me in some rather direct way may be mysterious in that we cannot be definitive about such conclusions, but the fact that God loves us is not.  Much more could be said, but I will leave it there for now.

This leads me to Listener’s second point: “What I have found in my spiritual journey is that people often measure my experiences of God against their own, rather than anything else. In other words, if they do not experience God in the same way, then they will dismiss what I have experienced. This seems to driven (at least in part) either by ego or envy. People can become envious that they have not heard from God in the same way. The fact is that God interacts personally and uniquely with each individual according to the grace given them and to their specific purpose.”

I resonate with this situation. Yet I also think that matters are not so straightforward. First, I believe that scepticism and suspicion must be overcome, not avoided, which is actually best achieved by encouraging my listeners to assume these perspectives: encouraging them to be sceptical and suspicious. And I do so not only by appreciating their questions but by having already applied these perspectives to myself: having my own sceptical and suspicious perspectives “ready at hand” concerning the very experiences that I proclaim, as true, to others.

In fact, I feel comforted when my audience is sceptical or suspicious because then I know that they share with me an important goal: truth-seeking. And my audience will likely be reassured when they understand that I, too, have taken a rigorous approach by applying scepticism to any event to which I attach such large claims, and to myself as the claimant.

Thus for the events in my life that I believe represent “exceptional experiences” of God, I hope that people will judge them. I hope that they will do so by applying scepticism and suspicion to how I present these events and to what I have “made of” the situations upon which they are based. For by so doing my audience inevitably spends more time and pays more attention to these events and, should they view me as credible, may develop greater trust in my accounts (or testimony).

So my job is not to try to avoid their scepticism and suspicion, but to encourage it. Further, by having a better understanding both of human being and the Christian God, my job is both to assist listeners to assess my experiences, whether by anticipating objections (and thus including partial responses when presenting my experiences) or by educating listeners towards the most applicable lines of questioning in order, thereby, to validate my experiences as true.

Lastly, what I’m proposing is time consuming. Yet this is not a problem but to be expected, for my goal is not explaining my experience so much as offering possibilities, through presenting my experience, of relationship between my audience and God. And this means two things.

On the one hand, my experience is not incidental to this “furthering” but essential to it, because I am proposing relationship between my audience and this God, the God that I have encountered and am describing to you. On the other hand, then, I believe that this process of presenting my experience and jointly validating it will both take time to unfold and will itself be part of that larger relationship that I am hope will develop.

In this way, as I engage with the other I both “remain myself” and become part of this person’s relationship with God: I become a partial embodiment of what it means for God to be present to another person, to meet that person’s needs, etc.

Reading oneself and the Bible: follow-up 2

This post is the second part of my reply to “Listener’s” recent comment.

Previously I replied to Listener’s view that followers of God will know God’s voice and be able to identify things that come from God. Further, that “we can be sure of God’s goodness and His character for these things are revealed in Scripture.” To this point I raised the importance of employing scepticism and suspicion, both defining them and then explaining the importance of suspicion.

In this post I want to go further, by putting scepticism and suspicion to work on Listener’s next point.  Her next comment was: “When a person receives something beautiful from the Lord, the enemy will move in quickly to cause them to doubt its authenticity (because his whole goal is to kill, steal and destroy) and if he can do this through the voice of other Christians, it is far more effective in shutting down moves of the Spirit than someone who does not claim faith. That is why it is crucially important for each and every one of us to be very, very careful with the hearts of our brothers and sisters.”

I understand the logic and plausibility of this view, and it has some correspondence with the parable of the sower that is attributed to Jesus in the Gospels (Mt 13, Mk 4, Lk 8). Yet here, too, scepticism and suspicion must be at play.

Recall: scepticism addresses the opacity of facts while suspicion addresses the duplicity of persons.1

So on the level of the facts, scepticism asks: Who says that something is either “beautiful” or is “from the Lord”? On what basis can these claims be substantiated (or, what is the truth value of such truth claims)? On the level of persons, suspicion asks: What else might be going on here? What does the claimant stand to gain by making this claim (or lose if they don’t)? Such questions become more prominent the more the link between the facts and the claims seems weak or incoherent.

Now part of the difficulty in treading this ground is that Christians have never, to my knowledge, systematized claims about experiencing God in the same way that they have systematized, in their theology, claims to information about God.

In other words, knowing God through relationship and knowing about God through the Bible have received very different treatment over the history of Christianity. Yet, ironically, so many Christians want to claim—and seem to base their Christianity upon—the importance of specific, personal experiences with / from God (in the form of answered prayer, providential acts of divine intervention, etc.).

To be clear, I am not advocating theology instead of experience. Actually, I want to redress the overwhelming disparity between the two: to situate them in their proper relationship, which is theology with experience. I believe that at least three basic steps are required to right the relationship between the Bible and experience, between factual knowledge about God and personal / relational knowledge of God.

First, in addition to providing information about human beings and limited information about the natural world, the Bible points to God and explains who God is, how God acts, and what God seeks. As such, experiencing God is theological where it is the natural outcome of a God who acted, and continues to act, so as to seek ongoing relationship with humanity.

Second, experience is not simply the interpreted events or situations of a single person but, in Christianity, experience is essentially corporate. This is because testimony, as the credible accounts of others, is essential in order for people to come to relationship with God or to strengthen existing relationship with God.

So Christianity depends on others sharing their experiences of God yet, because this experiential content also informs us about God’s character and manner of relating (literally, it further informs us who God is relative to human beings), it is essential that Christians are not deceived in what they accept or deceptive in what they share. To this end, the Bible contains numerous warnings about false teachers, false prophets, and wrong teaching. And make no mistake: when we claim special interaction with God (and especially, when we conclude specific things about God on the basis of this interaction) we are indeed taking the role of teacher and potentially, prophet.

Third, given the necessarily theological character of experience and essential nature of testimony, Christians need to cultivate personal ‘exegesis’ on the same level as textual exegesis: Christians need to become equally skilled at ‘reading themselves’ as they do at reading the Bible. This is not to put the two on the same level but to affirm that both are complimentary, as requisites toward attaining the same goal.

Next post I aim to wrap up this examination by considering Listener’s final point: what to do with Christians who seem to respond to our experiential claims with envy or disdain, and to consider our reasons for sharing our “exceptional” experiences.

Reading oneself and the Bible: follow-up 1

I began to reply to the comment that respondent “Listener” left on my last blog post and realized that my reply was itself the size of a full post (larger, in fact). Listener raised some important points so I’ve reprinted the first part of my response here, with the others to follow.

I want to pick up on several points in the comment because I think some important things were mentioned.  First, to clarify, the links that I added to my previous post (regarding interpretation) are actually focused on moving away from the idea of “certainty.” Indeed, I argue that certainty is an illusion (because humans cannot attain certain knowledge) and in Christian terms, an affront to God (because it is idolatrous: to claim certainty is to claim to be like God).

Second, Listener’s comment notes that God’s followers will know God’s voice and be able to identify things that come from God.  Further, “we can be sure of God’s goodness and His character for these things are revealed in Scripture.” True enough, the Bible discloses numerous things about the Christian God.  But the biblical text is just as full, if not more so, of examples of how human beings are apt to deceive themselves.  Further, such self-deception includes not simply committing errors in the epistemological sense or lying in the moral sense, but having entrenched attachments to acting in our own best interest, while both claiming not to be doing so and indeed, being unaware of either our self-interested actions or how we are concealing the whole process (from others and ourselves).

In episode #77 of Untangling Christianity John Poelstra and I explore the notion of scepticism more fully.  In this blog post I will introduce the idea that it is not only (or sometimes, primarily) scepticism that is at play, but suspicion. Now both scepticism and suspicion are essential tools for all human beings: essential modes of interaction with our world and ourselves.  Importantly, however, neither scepticism nor suspicion are isolated orientations but are situated in tension with necessary counterparts. So scepticism is in tension with belief, suspicion is in tension with faith (or trust).

To my mind, the importance of understanding (and so situating) scepticism and suspicion as “in tension” with necessary counterparts should not be underestimated.  But let’s begin with some definitions.

Scepticism is doubt about the evidence: where it came from, how it has been compiled, or what conclusions are based upon it.  Suspicion is misgiving about the person: what his motives are, what he stands to gain or lose here (and how that might impact his decisions). Suspicion is the glance that looks ‘before’, ‘below’, and ‘after’ the supposed facts of the matter to seek to reveal a deeper–and truer–relationship between the person and the evidence.

So where Listener wrote that Christians discounted her claims to have experienced God due to envy or pride, suspicion is the tool that allows us to conclude that someone is really acting out of envy or pride, whereas the person alleges to be simply acting on the “facts” (for instance, in claiming that my approach is unbiblical, my attitude is unchristian, or my claims to have experienced God are bogus).

Suspicion uncovers what we might call “false consciousness.”

It looks under what the person claims (and indeed, honestly believes) to be their real orientation, their legitimate beliefs.  It sees these claims as a mask, under which darker motives at work.  So we may be simply mistaken in thinking that something comes from God when it does not.  Or we may be practicing self-deception through such claims, really being far less sure than we claim to be but asserting the claims adamantly in order to validate our need to feel important, to control others, to fit in, etc.

Now false consciousness is not only symptomatic of non-Christians or “wayward” Christians, or to the sort of Christians that Listener describes as being driven by either ego or envy.

Better stated, the Bible persistently indicates that all human beings are driven by ego and envy, and that the path to living in a manner not governed by these drivers is to adopt the manner of Jesus (in being a servant to all) while living as truth-seekers who identify themselves as beloved by God and who therefore dedicate themselves to loving God entirely, loving themselves rightly, and loving their fellows likewise.

More to come.

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).