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.

The Bible or Life: Which comes first?

Much religious conversation between Christians and non-Christians is a non-starter: it’s over before it even begins.  Why?  Because before any discussion begins the parties typically have radically opposing views about how to understand human existence.

Here Christians effectively insist: think like me (i.e., accept my beliefs on faith) and then you’ll understand Christianity—and so all of reality—correctly.  Non-Christians, for reasons that I’ve already discussed, find this offensive and effectively insist: think (i.e., get in touch with reality, like the rest of us) and then you’ll understand the world (and Christian belief) correctly.

This antithesis represents the different answers that we hold about starting points: which comes first, Christian belief or life experience?

Most Christians that I know do not even recognize this as being a question.  In other words, most Christians have an implicit ‘answer’ that is short and decisive: the Bible conditions how we understand existence.  Full stop.  Any other view contradicts their beliefs and so must be wrong.  For most non-Christians that I know the question, when given any air time, is less implicit but the response no less short and decisive: existence conditions how we understand the Bible.  Full stop.  Any other view is illogical because it negates experience, and so must be wrong.

Yet both of these views fall prey to reductionism: the claim that we can only understand matters in one way (or else be wrong).  And the result of reductionism is polarization: holding an absolute position that precludes dialogue, just as I have described above.

Strikingly though, I think that both parties are right and wrong: truth need neither be circumscribed by a certain belief system nor limited to a given groups’ rationality or experience.  In other words, both views require re-formulation because both fail to reflect both the complexity / diversity of human existence and the specificity of the biblical text.

Let’s start with the typical Christian perspective.  When Christians consider (and do not dismiss) the above question, how do they respond?  A Christian professor of mine did so by citing what he called the Christian tetralectic (or “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”).  He suggested that in order to arrive at truth Christian thinking draws from four sources: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.  When asked how to adjudicate between them when they are in conflict, he responded that a Christian should always privilege Scripture.

His model assumes that Christianity is good and the Bible is valuable, which indeed it may be.  Yet it fails to assume that Christianity can also be bad and the Bible problematic.

Here are two examples:

First, a philosopher referred to writing as two-edged sword—a “Pharmikon,” he called it.  In brief, writing is valuable for recording events and can contain, and present things in a manner that speech cannot.  Yet writing is problematic in that it effectively replaces memory and can give the appearance of knowledge without any real understanding.

The role of the Bible as Scripture, a text that is determinative for life and practice, is similar.  Scripture helps Christians to understand who God is and what Christian practice is about, but can be problematic when Christians equate these understandings with God and with practicing the Christian life.

Second, the problem becomes worse—and the solution more inaccessible—when entire Christian contexts are characterized by corruption or dysfunction (as the corrupt church in Nazi Germany / apartheid South Africa, but also the dysfunctional church as characterized by over-confidence and informed by a good portion of current, biblical hermeneutics).

Within such contexts the only endorsed interpretations of Scripture are those that validate (and so perpetuate) this very context.  Yet one can only reject such corruption or dysfunctionality by privileging one’s experience and understanding over such interpretations of Scripture.1

While the discussion is much longer, this highlights the need for a crucial modification to my former professor’ model: where his embraces faith (in Scripture, in reason, in experience, in tradition) we need also suspicion.  And we need not only suspicion of others but also the ability to re-orient it towards ourselves.