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 . . .”

5 thoughts on “The Cheese stands alone!

  1. I have heard it said that it is often in our attempts to be original that we are not, but, rather, it is in the sharing of the knowledge and experience of the other, that we become original. No one comes to a thought without the influence of others, whether it be of good or bad influence. However, it is only the individual who can choose to, or not to, except a thought.

    • Hi Philip,
      Thanks for your comment. Yes, I wonder to what degree the notion of originality or the desire to be original influences how people interpret texts like the Bible.
      In a few earlier posts I sketched how those who do are bound to the Bible’s text (in that we need to interpret both the text and its cultural context). Here my hope here was to lay out how (and how much) those who do are bound to the past–how every biblical interpretation we “come up with” is already informed by the long history of its interpretation, whether we know that history or not!
      I wonder, too, how much this notion of originality is either an expression of freedom (of what I can do) or of identity (of who I am). And where this is so, I wonder to what degree Christians interpret the Bible this way because they feel like who they are as individuals is unimportant relative to the Bible’s larger, all-encompassing story. In short, I wonder if Christians try to be original in their interpretations because they feel like they have lost their own stories (or are supposed to lose them), and yet deeply need to express who they are.

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  3. I do think, within Christianity, that there is an overbearing theme of self-denial. So heavy is this concept that many have completely lost themselves or, as you wonderfully put it, lost their own stories. A tragedy, I do contend.
    Is this what Christ meant when calling those to deny themselves and pick up their cross? Are we all to become clone Jesus’? I don’t believe that was what Christ meant by it.

    • Yes, self-denial or even self-effacement. And I too think it is a tragedy, made worse by the fact that it is contrary to both functional human interaction and the biblical text.
      So on the one hand we teach our children that they are valuable because we love them–the very disposition of a healthy, functional parent is to lavish love upon one’s child. Not to spoil or develop egocentricity, but as a way of cultivating the beautiful individuality of this unique being: nurturing what makes them them.
      And on the other hand, Christians seem so often to view God as ‘Lord’ that they fail to see God as father, or parent. And as Father, God sees us (and hopes for us) at least as much as the best parent: God revels in the uniqueness of each of us and opens possibilities for our to engage collaboratively with God in the bringing about of God’s kingdom.

      To my mind, this self-effacement is the product of bad theology bred of poor Bible reading. So passages like Galatians 2:20a (“and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me”) tend to be completely decontextualized. The entire book of Galatians argues against Christians adopting Jewish practices, and this section contrasts life under the law (Torah) with life with (and in) Christ. The point of the above verse is not an absolute distinction (where my self, my story, and everything else are replaced by Christ), but a limited one. Through faith in Christ people are freed from Torah (and by extension, from all else) and are unified under Christ. Yet this singularity does not annul but enlivens distinction: we can best be our ownmost selves in and through Christ. The above is rather compressed, but I think you see where I’m coming from.

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