“Relational truth” explained

What is “relational” truth?

Several posts ago I argued that the Bible is mainly concerned with relational truth (as opposed to mathematical, physical, or logical truth). Today I want to expand on the notion of relational truth and connect it with the need for Christians to understand in order to believe, rather than “simply believing.”

Relational truth comprises both factual and relational knowledge of entities. On the one hand, it is information about someone as understood more objectively: knowledge of past deeds, situations, and other facts that can be itemized or listed. On the other hand, it is the intimate knowledge that one only gains through ongoing relationship with that individual. This type of information is always personal (though it need not be individual).

To clarify this last point, relational knowledge is information derived from personal involvement and that reveals not just what someone did, who that person is. Yet this information could come via someone else, who has had close involvement with the person in question—someone who “testifies” about this person on the basis of his or her personal experiences.

So relational truth is comprised of factual and relational knowledge. Yet because these words seem overly similar I tend to use French verbs instead, savoir and connaître, in place of “factual knowledge” and “relational knowledge.” Savoir refers to information about someone (date of birth, passport number, employment record, etc.) and connaître refers to knowing someone through relationship (understanding personality, character, preferences, etc.).1

Savoir is knowing details about someone’s life; connaître is actually being a part of that life.

An important characteristic when evaluating savoir and connaître knowledge is what I will call “relational symmetry.” Relational symmetry exists where the the outward characteristics and markings (the factual, savoir knowledge about the individual) are mirrored by the inner qualities that one perceives through the connaître experience of relating with the individual—where the external and visible is consistent and consonant with the inner and private.

Examining this notion more deeply, relational truth must necessarily be attuned to the nature of the parties involved in the relationship: those to whom this truth pertains. In the case of Christianity, we are first dealing with relationship between humans and God. As a result, relational truth is also related to / comprised of anthropological truth (or human-related truth) and theological truth (or God-related truth).

Now one of the reasons that Christians are meant to understand in order to believe (rather than “simply believing”) is that the very nature of Christian faith, as a relationship between human beings and God, requires assessment that is both related to and distinct from how we might assess a human-to-human relationship. In other words, understanding the Bible’s truth claims (and validating them, by determining their truth value) is a process similar to everyday human activities and yet also different.

A couple things bear mentioning here.

On the one hand, this tension between what is similar and what is different is normal and good. More specifically, human beings make use of this sort of tension all the time: we learn how to do new things on the basis of having done other, similar things in the past. And most times the dissimilarities are small or easily accommodated, so on most occasions humans integrate the differences without need to attend to them overly (or even without paying conscious attention to them).

On the other hand, when people “simply believe” Christian truth claims without validating them this has a negative effect both on them and on those with whom they interact. For example, if I “simply believe” that Jesus is God then my belief lacks the complexity and internal structure needed to stand up to evil and despair, nor have I developed the intellectual and emotional acumen to engage well with people who have experienced such. Further, because I have not understood how Christianity integrates with real life I will actually have understood Christianity, and so my presentation of the Christian God will typically be flimsy and uncompelling.

Thus Christians both short-change themselves and others by not engaging with the process of understanding themselves, God, and the relationship between the two, both through the biblical portrayals and through other, valid, information sources.

How we validate the Bible’s truth claims in terms of relational truth must await my next post. Instead I will finish by summarizing two key points.

First, relational truth in comprised of factual and relational knowledge (or what I have called savoir and connaître) and requires a good understanding of both parties within the relationship both (including anthropology and psychology, as the study of humanity, and theology as the study of God).

Second, a key component to relational truth is the alignment of savoir and connaître: relational symmetry. This is crucial to Christianity, both because the biblical text claims that God is good and is involved with humanity for their good / flourishing, and because human beings require consistency within relationships in order to maximize their ability to flourish.

When believing hinders faith

Last post I highlighted the importance of truth-seeking and distinguished various types of truth, with the claim that the Bible focuses on relational truth. Yet before continuing the discussion I need to address what is likely the biggest obstacle to Christians succeeding at truth-seeking (thus developing a robust Christian faith):

Belief.

Excuse me?

To most Christians this probably sounds like madness: how can belief be a problem? Isn’t belief at the heart of what it means to be a Christian? My answer is: Yes and No. For that depends on what belief is—what sense of belief we are meaning.

Let’s first examine the sense of “belief” that is indeed essential for Christians to cultivate. This is belief as a result. In other words, the end-product of my engagement with the Bible and Christianity should be my belief that:

a) humans are a certain sort of being, beings who need to embrace and cultivate their faculties (imagination, rationality, will, memory, emotional response), certain self-understandings (trust and suspicion, confidence and humility, subjective objectivity) and certain relational “goods” (love, truth, patience, forgiveness) in order to thrive,

b) the God of the Bible seeks just the sort of relationship with humans wherein our faculties are most engaged, our self-understandings are best cultivated and our relational goods are maximized,

c) this God began such relationship with human being on a small-scale, with a nation called Israel, with the intention of then expanding these relationships on a global scale, potentially to include all people,

d) God’s relationship with Israel was formalized into a covenant: an agreement of how God and Israel would regard and act toward the other (and of how Israel was to govern itself and interact with others). Yet the intention for global-scale relationship was stalled when the people of Israel wholesale reneged on the agreement,

e) this intention was realized when Jesus of Nazareth, who is both human and divine, acted as Israel and both lived the life required to fulfil Israel’s side of the covenant and died a death that bore Israel’s penalties for having reneged on the covenant,

f) the Bible is a sufficiently trustworthy source of information on this matter, as understood through humans engaging their natural faculties in partnership with God’s guidance (the Holy Spirit).

In other words, the Bible is making certain truth claims about human nature, God’s nature, and the relationship between them, and frames these claims primarily through a series of unique historical events. To be a Christian is to validate these claims and their source—to attest to the positive, truth value of these claims and to the trustworthiness of the Biblical text concerning key aspects of human nature, God’s nature, and their interrelation. 1

So in what way should Christians not cultivate “belief”?

To answer that let’s redefine belief in its positive sense. In this first sense, used above, believing means affirming certain matters as “being the case” or simply being “true.” Several clarifications about belief are important here.

On the one hand, we refer to believing rather than knowing Christianity for two reasons. First, because Christianity deals with unique entities and events rather than with manipulable objects or repeatable phenomenon. So because it cannot be demonstrated through repetition, it cannot be proven scientifically. Second, because humans are the sorts of beings that know in limited ways: our knowledge is dependent on many factors and we possess a limited, or subjective, form of objectivity. Thus we cannot know “beyond doubt.” As such, belief is not just the only method of accepting Christianity, it is the best method.

On the other hand, belief in this sense is a result. It is an orientation that comes about through having cultivated our faculties and developed certain crucial self-understandings, while aiming at key, relational goods. In summary, belief follows the development and application of certain competencies, rightly aimed.

So if belief is the result of certain actions, it is clearly not the means by which that same result is achieved! In other words, holding particular beliefs (about who / what human beings are, God is, and what the relationship between the two should be) is a matter of deeming certain things to be true. And we do this by understanding the claims, assessing their basis and implications, and so becoming convinced that they accurately and fittingly represent the matters to which they pertain.

As such, Christians should never “simply believe” something.

This confuses a claim to truth with its proof, or to confuse truth claims and truth value. Thus I do not believe someone is innocent simply because they claim it, but because the weight of the evidence, rightly interpreted, offers good reason to believe it.

Believing in this second, negative sense amounts to credulity: simply believing what I have been told (and doing so, likely, because I have been taught to do so). In my experience, many evangelical Christians have been raised this way. They have been taught not simply what to believe, but that “belief” is the vehicle by which they acquire their identity, rather than being what holds that identity together.

Let me be blunt: whatever it may be, credulity is not Christian.

Instead, my view is that truly Christian belief results from participatory understanding and observational engagement.

So such belief is the result of the engagement of my whole person with the twin tasks of understanding / pursuing full humanness and committing oneself to truth in all its manifestations. It is a process requiring rigor2, attention, and commitment to one’s own life.

And it can result in peace and joy. Peace through the satisfaction of adopting a lifestyle where one is rightly oriented toward truth, a dedication to honesty with oneself. Joy through the increased possibilities of loving myself and other more rightly as I rightly relate to God, who knows be best and loves me most.

Not a Fan; Misunderstood God

Along with my podcast partner, John Poelstra, I have finished reading and then producing a number of podcasts assessing Kyle Idleman’s Not a Fan and Darin Hufford’s Misunderstood God.  During these podcasts I was generally unimpressed with these books because I perceived a number of issues with both of them, and one problem in particular.

One way of expressing the problem is that these books both make broad claims yet are actually too narrow.  So where they ‘broadly’ aim at presenting the most important aspect(s) of the Christian faith I think that they fail because they lack correct understandings about (and so, as a result, fail correctly to formulate) who God is, what human beings are, and what the relationship between the two is / should be.

Stated differently, their understandings and formulations are skewed because they are derived too narrowly, and it seems to me that this is in three regards.

First, they offer an insufficient reading of the biblical text.  In this regard my podcast partner John Poelstra qualified Idleman’s use of Scripture as “amateur,” which I think is entirely accurate.  Hufford, by contrast, actually makes no use of Scripture at all: beyond applying the general framework of 1 Cor. 13 to his chapter layout he makes not a single biblical reference.

In other words, to the degree that I have formed my opinions of Christianity from a fairly attentive and rigorous focus on Scripture I necessarily need (and should expect!) Christian authors writing on Christianity to buttress their points with a similarly attentive and rigorous approach to Scripture.  To put it another way, I’m looking for more truth than I currently have, not less!  So when we’re making truth claims based on the Bible I want to be more assured (not less!) that those claims are legitimate, particularly if what’s at stake is me changing my mind about some aspect of the Christian faith.

Second, the points and arguments of each author lack sufficient integration with other, valid information sources (my mentor likes to call these other “informers”).  The basic point here is twofold.

On the one hand, while the biblical text may be rightly interpreted as containing truth claims about God, humanity, and the natural world, such claims are presented as being sufficient but not comprehensive regarding such matters (even regarding God, who is both greater than the text and who is best / most fully imaged in Jesus the Christ, who is the logos—the living word!).

On the other hand, incorporation of other, valid information sources mirrors the basic orientation that must, in my opinion, characterize Christian interaction (both with the Bible, other Christians, and non-Christians): dialogue.  Too often Christians take the position of dispute—defensively presenting their perspective as both comprehensive and ultimate.  Instead we need to assume a posture of openness that allows us to incorporate more truth into our understandings (because if all truth is God’s truth we need not fear it, no matter where we find it) AND fosters productive interaction with outsiders by demonstrating a willingness to listen while maintaining the possibility of critique.

So Idleman’s emphasis on “following”—and particularly, why Christians don’t follow Jesus well—would have appeared much more credible if his viewpoint was informed by thinkers like Neil Fiore or Merold Westphal, whereas Hufford’s emphasis on love would been better grounded (and so seemed more convincing) if he had integrated the thought and research of someone like Brené Brown.

Third, these authors propose an impoverished view of human beings insofar as they target only one aspect of humanness.  By “humanness” I’m referring to the various components that make up human beings (such as our individuation, relationality, situatedness, rationality, emotions, imagination, will, experiences, knowledge claims, situatedness, etc.).  So in these two cases Idleman emphasizes ‘the will’ above all else, whereas for Hufford it is ‘the heart’ or the emotions.

Yet a full and robust presentation of the relation between God and human beings must likewise address (and incorporate) the entirety of the human being!  In other words, both reason and the emotions / feelings, the will and the imagination, as well experiences and knowledge claims—the entirety of what it means to be human must both be considered and incorporated into any presentation of what is most crucial to the Christian faith.

So from my perspective, from both my studies and my experience, that which is most essential to the Christian God and human beings may best be summarized under the flexible co-centrality of love and truth, truth and love.  Yet my belief is that these ‘top level’ characteristics / orientations do not suppress or deny the scope of our humanness but rather situate it properly, by most accurately representing that context within which the full scope of our humanness can meet the richest and most biblical portrayal of who God is, a harmony that is also borne out by my personal experience of / with God.

And this, I wager, is what Christians both want and would expect to see: a view of God and self that accurately reflects the biblical claims; understandings and experiences of self and God / self with God that both confirm and enliven those same claims.

Truths about Truth: being pragmatic, subjective, and relative

 

Christians are quite concerned about truth.

For example, Os Guiness argues that Christian truth is opposed to pragmatism, subjectivism, and relativism.  Yet as I discussed last week, we must be careful to distinguish between pragmatism and being pragmatic; between subjectivism and being subjective; between relativism and being relative.

Why?

The issue is that while certain ideologies are destructive their underlying orientations may be helpful (and even necessary).  For example, the ‘ism’ in pragmatism specifies an ideology—it means that a pragmatic orientation is not simply accepted but is one’s “guiding principle.”  So when someone embraces pragmatism ‘functionality‘ becomes more important to that person than anything, even truthfulness.

Now I agree that truthfulness should be a guiding principle for everyone, Christian or not.1  But we must be very careful not to confuse destructive ideologies with proper, human orientations, especially when such orientations are necessary to assessing the Bible’s truth claims correctly (orientations such as being pragmatic, subjective, and relative).  Why necessary?

Here’s why: Christianity concerns not simply intellectual assent but relational content.

In other words, Christianity is not only thinking rightly about God but being rightly disposed to God, and these two things are reciprocal.  So to be in right relationship with God I must know some true things about God (i.e., that this God alone is God, that the Bible especially reveals this God, that I communicate with God by prayer, etc.).  Yet I can only understand and believe the Bible’s relational claims about God (i.e., that God knows me and loves me) through personal experience.

Further, while right disposition begins with right understanding, their reciprocal relation means that right disposition also creates right belief and understanding!  So Christians generally understand that one cannot rightly relate to God if this God is conceived of (and so is pursued) as Allah, the Hindu Gods, etc.  Yet they often misunderstand that the Bible’s undeniably personal and relational claims (i.e., that God knows me better than I know myself and loves more deeply than I love myself) can only be validated through personal experience.

And validating these relational truth claims—recognizing their truth value—requires being pragmatic, relativistic, and subjective.

This is so because these truth claims are both intellectual and relational, in keeping with a) my human nature as situated and finite and b) God’s nature, who is love, and so seeks to be in relationship with me.  Intellectually, I assess any truth claim from my subjective viewpoint and relative to my finite experience.  Yet relationally I am always seeking my own good (I’m pragmatic because it matters to me how things turn out in my own life), and so claims about being known and loved must turn out to be just that!2

Now having personal experience of God does not necessitate that everyone experiences God in dramatic and undeniable ways.  But my hunch is that it does mean that within current communities of Christians there will be personal experiences of relating with God that validate the truth claim that “God knows and loves us” in deep—and deeply healing and satisfying—ways.

What do I mean?

By “current communities” I mean that it is not enough to read how God delivered Israel, supported David, or even how Jesus healed and fed many.  I believe these accounts.  However, my argument is that the Bible’s claims that God is real and good are validated by experiencing God delivering, restoring and healing now, in the lives of real people.  Literally.3

By “personal experiences” I do not mean that God will appear to everyone similarly or with the same intensity.  Instead, Christianity endorses testimony—understandable accounts from credible people—as a valid way to know and understand God.  Through testimony I understand and am mentored in the relational component of Christian faith.  In this respect I would say that God engages with humanity personally but not individually.

Considering these questions may help:
a) If you are Christian, what relational experiences of God are important within your Christian community?
b) If you are not Christian, what relational experiences have been important in your life?

Taunts abut Truth: pragmatism, subjectivism, and relativism

 

Why should you believe in the Christian God?

“Whereas the Bible and the best thinkers of Christian history invite seekers to put their faith in God because the message conveying that invitation is true, countless Christians today believe for various other reasons.  For instance they believe faith is true ‘because it works’ (pragmatism), because they ‘feel it is true in their experience’ (subjectivism), because they sincerely believe it is ‘true for them’ (relativism), and so on.”1

Os Guiness penned this in his Time for Truth.  But if Dr. Guiness believes that Christian truth is contrary to what he calls pragmatism, subjectivism and relativism, what happens if we re-frame his sentence to reflect that?  If we do, it would look like this:

“Countless Christians today believe . . . faith is true ‘because it doesn’t work’, because they ‘do not feel it is true in their experience’, and because they sincerely do not believe it is ‘true for them’.” (Emphasis added).

Does this make Christianity sound truthful?

Or even vaguely appealing?

I hope not.

Instead, this reframing detaches it from human experience and makes it sound completely false and untrue.  So what’s going on?  If it is reasonable (and true!) that Christian truth is unrelated to pragmatism, subjectivism or relativism, then why does it sound so wrong when we plainly express it that way?

Let me suggest two reasons.

First, we need to distinguish between pragmatism and ‘being pragmatic’, where pragmatism indicates an ideology versus a ‘pragmatic’ orientation or interest.  So where being pragmatic means that it’s important that things function as they should, adopting pragmatism means that “functionality” is your guiding principal (over and above, say, truthfulness).2

So is being pragmatic (instead of embracing pragmatism) compatible with believing Christianity to be true?  I think so.  And more than that, it’s the same with being subjective and relative.  Here’s why:

As human beings we should value our own lives (we naturally care how things “work out”—we are pragmatic).  We are indeed finite (we see things from our limited, subjective viewpoint).  We understand contextually (we make sense of things relative to our background and experiences).

As I’ve argued before, these characteristics are not limitations but are the very basis for knowing and experiencing anything at all.  But valuing our existence, embracing our finitude, and acknowledging that human understanding is contextual (i.e., being pragmatic, subjective, and relative) are also the necessary ingredients for developing and maintaining a thriving relationship with God!

Second, Os Guiness also writes that “the Christian faith is not true because it works; it works because it is true.”3  Yet considering what we have discussed above I believe that this is incorrect.  Or rather, insufficient.  In other words, not only do people experience that Christianity “works,” I believe that Christianity must work in order for belief to be credible.

I would put it like this:

“Christianity is true because it works (as truth-for-me), and it works because it is true (as ultimate Truth).”

Now I maintain that it works (for me or anyone) because it is true (and ultimately so), but in order for me to perceive it as true it must—on some real and tangible level—work for me.  It is the alignment of my fullest / best-reasoned truth (call it ‘truth-for-me’) and the Bible’s truth claims (as ultimate Truth) that convinces me of the truth value of these truth claims.

Back to pragmatics, relativity, and subjectivity.

Aligning Truth and truth-for-me is necessary because humans are finite: bereft of unmediated access to God’s ultimate truth we instead evaluate such truth claims from our subjective, relative position.  Yet valuing my life and how things ‘work out’ for me—being pragmatic—means that it is also necessary for me to substantiate the claim that this God is good and that God’s love for me is real (and not fictional or abusive).

Thus being subjective, relative, and pragmatic are not obstacles to embracing Christian truth but are our very means of doing so.  Next week I examine how.

Hell, free will, and love? (Or, Making a hot topic hotter)

 

While it may appear mad, I venture that the free will / predestination debate is actually the most productive place to begin an assessment of the doctrine of Hell.

I recently skimmed Why I am not a Calvinist, where the authors note how in his article ‘How does a sovereign God Love?’ John Piper “insists on adoring a God who might consign his sons to hell.”1  For those like John Piper, God’s sovereignty trumps all: God is both Lord—and so can and should do as God pleases—and God is the measure of all things (something is not good, and so God does it; God does a thing, and so it is good).  Conversely, when non-Christians bemoan the absence of “signs” or “evidence” of God’s existence, other Christians counter that “God won’t prove his existence—that would violate your free will.”

Both of these perspectives are, in different ways, problematic.  And in their proposed resolutions we may find helpful pointers on the question of Hell.

The free will debate turns on what we make of this tension between God’s sovereignty and God’s love.  On the one hand, the authors above believe that “Piper has the question backwards and that . . . the question that we should be asking is how could a God of perfect love express sovereignty?”  Likewise theologian Colin Gunton observes that “in Western theology since Augustine, ‘the theme of love becomes subordinate to that of will.’ ”2

These criticisms express much of my experience: Christianity seems to prioritize laws to love, the will to the heart.  But what about the opposing view, that God is “unobtrusive” to allow human free will to develop into faith?

While I agree that God’s “coming on the scene” is not about convincing through miracles and signs, nor by righting all the world’s wrongs, yet I believe that God must show up.  And just as personal experience is critical to weighing up the Bible’s truth claims correctly, so God must “show up” in a way that does for each of us what God claims to seek to do for all the world: to enable authentic relationship with me.

So my criticism of both views intersects here: how we assess the greatest commandment “Love God with all your heart.”  The sovereigntist thinks to subordinate love to the will.  The free will advocate believes that faith prohibits ostentatious displays.  Both responses misunderstand the nature of love, and so both misportray God.

First, love by its very nature is a gift.  And a gift is no longer a gift when it comes as a response to subjugation (i.e., tribute) or petition (i.e., acquiescing) or threat (i.e., blackmail) or payment (i.e., exchange).  Many responses may come as a result of a command—love is not one of them.

Second, love by its very nature is the epitome of ostentaciousness.  The “economy” of love is superabundance and love is larger than we are (we “fall” into it).  Thus faith is both necessary to belief in God and yet strangely irrelevant in the face of love.

In the end, God’s law being “written on my heart” (Jer 31:33) can only reasonably describe the request of one who loves me deeply, whom I both love and by whom I deeply desire to be beloved; it describes a context wherein “sin itself would be seen not as the transgression of prohibitions but as the antithesis of life and grace.”3  This does not mean that truth vanishes in wishy-wash sea of emotion but that, beyond needing something that makes sense, I must agree with Bono: I need something “that I can feel.”  Deeply and powerfully.

So I wager that it is no co-incidence that while God epitomizes many attributes (justice, mercy, etc.), God substantively is only one: love.4  More to come.

Stories & the Bible: can stories be true?

 

To this point I’ve argued that we come to understand the Bible through the twin notions of truth claims and truth values.

But something is not right.

I am not denying that we have no direct access to the Bible’s t/Truth: we can only access it through interpretation, which means determining its truth claims (so that we can understand what the Bible is about) and weighing their truth value (so we can decided how we respond to that content).

Nor am I denying that we understand the Bible’s truth claims through good exegesis: understanding what the text meant at time of writing by paying special attention to its setting, its literary nature, and the cultural understandings of the period.

But this is not enough.

For the Bible is neither a series of factual propositions (i.e., God is eternal, God is holy, God is love, etc.) nor a string of haphazard, historical events (Jesus was born, he preached, he was crucified, etc.), but is mainly a collection of narratives.  Narratives are stories, both historical and / or fictional.  And engaging with stories does not amount to reducing them either to mere propositions or sequences of events.

No.  Understanding the Bible in terms of truth claims and truth value is only part of the picture.  Or better, we must broaden our understanding of truth if we are to do justice fully to the Bible’s narratives—if we are to maintain a stance of “listening” to the text as an act of love, as I proposed last post.  Here’s how I see it:

The point of the Bible is twofold.  On the one hand to answer the question, “Who is God?”  On the other hand, to foster belief so as to cultivate relationship between this God and humanity.

These two goals are accomplished in several ways.

First, the Bible conveys basic, factual information about God: that God is divine, is the creator of all things, is the only true God, etc.  However, much of this is conveyed through stories.  Second—and points 2 and 3 are what we’ve been missing until now—stories function by drawing readers into their particular world, a world where the reader is invited to be and see ‘otherly’.  Third, the Bible seeks to interweave its story and history with that of the reader.

Let’s concentrate on how the first point relates to the second.

If we define interpretation as what we “make” of something and exegesis as the activity of understanding a writing by way of its textual and cultural context, with narratives we must distinguish between what I understand the story to be about and how I understand myself, the real world, and others in light of the particular world that the narrative proposes.

So in the first instance, fictional stories do not primarily entertain, but actually open a world to the reader.  And this world is no less “real” for not being factual.  Rather, where we encounter the struggles and weigh up the ethical choices of its characters, in fiction we participate—by means of our imagination—in the reality of questioning, struggle, and sometimes triumph.

And in the second instance, historical writings—historiographies, we call them—not only convey information but clearly bear the marks of fiction.  They are never haphazard lists of events but are accounts made meaningful by artistic composition and careful explanation: good historiography, like a good story,  has a compelling (and convincing) plot.

Through good stories we enter the realm of the possible: they invite us to see ourselves—through the events and situations of the text’s world—as being able to realize our potential and challenge us to face our flaws and limitations.  In so doing, non-factual tales can open us to what is most essential about existence.  And most true.

I am not suggesting that biblical narratives are essentially fiction.  But I am suggesting that we need to consider both stories and truth more closely, because both are broader than we typically think.

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 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.