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.