Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Hermeneutical Foray

Ever since I became "cyberspatially active" in church affairs--first on the HoB/D about six years ago, then in the blogsphere some 18 months ago--I've been on a quest of sorts. I'm hunting for the elusive Alpha Issue. The catalyst for our angst, of course, is sex--specifically, whether any church has the license to expand the notion of marriage to include same-sex couples, and, if so, whether it may prudently exercise such license at the present time.

But is it really just about sex? My intuition all along has told me that it is not. I have had a sense that there are other issues over which pretty much the same people would break along pretty much the same lines. For instance, in the fall of 2005 there was a long thread on the HoB/D about whether congenital disabilities--e.g. blindness, deafness, and the like--participate in the order of creation purely conceived ("That's the way God made me") or whether they participate in that aspect of creation which the Christian theological tradition names as "fallen''--in effect, then, the order of Sin. (The implication here is certainly not that a congenital disability is a direct sign of a person's sinfulness, and still less a punishment for that sinfulness, but that the condition is a sign not of God's "very good" creation, but of the grip that Sin has on that creation.)

To my mild astonishment, commenters who had a reputation for conservative views on the sexuality issue tended uniformly to assess congenital disabilities as evidence of the Fall, while those who carried the "progressive" banner uniformly lined up behind the "God made me that way" placard. Interesting, to be sure. But what does it mean? What is the underlying mindset that, if we could isolate and identify it, could become a universal marker--a predictive sign--for one's position on a range of different concrete issues?

I still don't know. But once in a while I see another telltale sign of the existence of such an Alpha Issue. Today's news included the announcement of the publication of God, Gays, & the Church: Human Sexuality in Christian Thinking. The publisher's internet blurb contained this excerpt from the foreword by the Bishop of Winchester (Michael Scott-Joynt):

‘With Christians in every century including our own, and in every part of the world, I should want to continue to say that every Christian is called to have her or his “experience” conformed to the teachings of Scripture, and then to those of the “great tradition” of the Church down the centuries’
.

As soon as this quote hit the HoB/D, many on the port side of the vessel got rather agitated. The venerable (not by ecclesiastical honor, but in a generic sense) Tom Woodward, a retired priest in the Diocese of the Rio Grande, offered the following (which I quote with his permission):


With all due respect to the Bishop of Winchester, he fails to make three crucial distinctions.

The first is that there are a lot of "teachings of Scripture" which are beneath the dignity of the people of God and the people we are called to serve.

The second, of course, is that it is probably more precise and more helpful to indicate that the teachings are of the authors and sources of the various books of the Bible, not of "Scripture, itself."

Third, both Jesus and Paul point to experience as one of the marks for how we are to judge holiness. In fact, while we hold Scripture in highest regard, Jesus would hold most Scriptural admonitions to the standards of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:2ff) and the standard of agape love (pretty much the whole of John and the Johannine epistles). Paul, as has often been noted, in Galatians 5 and other places, insists on a subjective test for the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Is this revealing, or what? I thought it was, at any rate, and here's why: Few would disagree that the Bible is simultaneously one book (if for no other reason than it is published in one volume) and many books (at least 66 distinct documents--more when you count the Apocrypha and stil more when you welcome scholarly speculation about multiple authorship of some of them). The Christian community has always maintained a belief that the Holy Scripture is in some way divinely-inspired (God-breathed)--both the individual texts and the compilation of the whole. At the same time, in no era--particularly in the last two or three centuries--has the church been entirely reticent about acknowledging the particular character imparted to the biblical documents by the fact that they are the work of quite human authors, who were subject to all the limitations associated with humanity.

We may all realize that the reality of one and the reality of many need to be held in a sort of dialectical tension. Well, perhaps not everybody, as you can see here:


What a stand-up guy! He don't need no stinkin' dialectical tension--for him, the Bible is one book and God wrote it (standing up, no doubt).

But there are others--including my friend Fr Woodward, perhaps?--who might prefer, for reasons of didactic clarity, to suffer the inconvenience of having each of the biblical documents published under separate cover--a respectable book in the case of the Psalms or Ezekiel, a couple of sticky notes in the case of III John--and who bristle at phrases like "the Bible says" or "scriptural teaching."

I must confess that, having been initially formed as a "fundagelical"--if not all the way on the one book end of the spectrum, at least in that general neighborhood--in my riper years, by way of either reaction or compensation, I do tend to say "as St Paul writes to the Romans" rather than "as the Bible says in the Book of Romans." My preaching has been enlivened by a disciplined resistance to the temptation to harmonize the gospels, but rather to let the idiosyncratic voice of each of the Evangelists speak for itself. I am not scandalized by the insights of biblical criticism. The notion that not every word attributed to Jesus in the gospels necessarily passed his lips does not shake my faith.

But I never fail to be struck afresh on a regular basis by how the Bible--yes, the Bible--is bound by a golden thread, a coherent meta-narrative, that bespeaks a single energizing Spirit, a unified Voice. The "authentic" words of Jesus in the gospels are not more authoritative than those "composed" by the Evangelist. Colossians is no less authoritative because it may be pseudonymous while Galatians must be taken more seriously because it is indisputably Pauline. Still less are the epistles less binding on my conscience than are the gospels. It is the whole Bible that stands in judgment over the Church's teaching and practice.

So, what I'm wondering is this: Can the way one speaks of Scripture serve as a consistent predictor of how one will come down on other issues, including the issue du jour? When we hear exclusively many books language, are we probably talking to a "progressive"? And when hear predominantly one book language, are we most likely in the presence of a "reasserter"?

I realize I have raised more hermeneutical questions than I have answered. (Hermeneutics, by the way, refers to the over-arching governing principles by which one interprets the Bible.) But am I getting warmer? Have I smelled the breath of the Ideological Sasquatch?

20 comments:

ruidh said...

I think you're missing the fundamental difference that perhaps the other discussion on creation versus fall gets at more directly. The difference is one of worldview.

For many Christians, the Bible provides a worldview that is revealed and unquestionable. The push for a creationist alternative tot he evolution narritive arises out of this worldview. At less of an extreme, scientific knowledge is accepted as truthful but missing the fundamental relationship of God-Earth-Man. Science is wrapped around the Biblical worldview. The predominant worldview of the Bible is one the Israelites held.

On the other hand, many Episcopalians come to this church with at least a liberal arts education in modern science and have to fit their view of Scripture around the truths they see in science. In this worldview, the Fall is a just-so story or, at best, a deep metaphor about our separation from God. Disease exists in the world, not because some person disobeyed, but because a universe complicated enough to evolve us contains within it the potential for little bits of life to live parasitically off other organisms. Disease long predated the evolution of humans, so disease can't be a consequence of human disobeying.

I think this is really the fundamental issue. Do we conform our science to the Bible or do we conform our interpretation of the Bible to our science?

ruidh said...

Just one more comment. The "nonsense" comment to the bishop's quote in that HoBD thread gets at this issue more directly. Should we conform experience (and science is definitely an experiential activity) to theology or theology to experience? This is the fundamental conflict.

Anonymous said...

The Alpha Issue is one of Authority- who has it? Or, I ahould write - Who has it?

Are we each, individually, the final authority about how our lives are to be lived, or is GOD?

If we are the authority, what I do and what is good is up to me. If so, why would I need a Saviour? Why get up on Sunday mornings?

Are there such things as good and evil? If so, how do we determine which are good and which are evil?

If God is the Authority, if God is in charge and not we ourselves, should we not seek to conform ourselves to His will and to understand what that is? If God is the Authority, is there not a measure for when we fail to conform ourselves and live up to what God wants for us?

I say that God is the Authority and that we can begin to understand what He wants for us, what is good and what is evil, 1) through Scripture and 2) turning to Jesus, (through His Body, the Church) for instruction, forgiveness, understanding, and fellowship.

THAT’s the Alpha Issue. It’s the basic, rock-bottom, issue of our lives.

Connie

Scott K said...

Respectfully, I completely disagree with ruidh, at least concerning her observations on how science is embraced or not embraced by the competing worldviews.

I know very few conservative Episcopalians (ones who subscribe to the doctrine of The Fall) who reject the science of evolution or believe in literal creationism as an alternative. However, evolution and science in general do not say anything our (or the world's) relationship to God, and I see no conflict between my college degree and the belief that at some point, sin entered the world and that the universe we experience is not the "good" creation that God intends for us.

I do, however, agree with your first paragraph, excluding your evolution/creation strawman. I think we get closer to Dan's "Alpha Issue" when we consider the nature of sin and whether or not, and to what degree, it separates us from God. And, as a result of the sin we find ourselves in, how trustworthy is our experience? Can we rely on our own interpretation of our experience despite our sinfulness, or do we need Scripture and the church's reading of scripture to interperet our experience for us? I would say the latter; my guess is most progressives would say the former.

Christopher said...

Dan,

It seems to me that a canonical-narrative approach to Scripture doesn't necessarily lead one to "reasserter" viewpoints. Look at Rowan and Hauerwas. Both have speculated in the past about the need for "reappraisal"; nor has Rowan outright repudiated his speculations, even if he's been disappointed by their reception among conservatives.

Chris Ashley

Anonymous said...

Connie @ 7:14

Amen Sister! Fr. Dan should already know this being a priest who has had the privilege of seminary!

ruidh said...

"I think we get closer to Dan's "Alpha Issue" when we consider the nature of sin and whether or not, and to what degree, it separates us from God. And, as a result of the sin we find ourselves in, how trustworthy is our experience?"

And this comes down to the issue of discernment -- how do we discern the experience. Surely we all know that people can convince themselves of the most remarkable things.

I am of the opinion that such discernment is properly done in the context of a Christian community. By sharing our experiences and reflecting them in the community, we get an important sounding board and get to hear another voice -- perhaps the voice of God -- replying back.

Others reply that the Church has already considered these issues and come to a conclusion and experience is really of no use where the Church has spoken.

"Can we rely on our own interpretation of our experience despite our sinfulness, or do we need Scripture and the church's reading of scripture to interpret our experience for us? I would say the latter; my guess is most progressives would say the former."

One of the main accomplishments of the Reformation was to get Scripture into the hands of the people. Prior to that, only educated perople could read Scripture for themselves and people were dependent on the Church telling them what Scripture meant and what God was calling them to do. A fundamental result is that people can read Scripture and decide for themselves what it means.

When you come right down to it, everyone is responsible for their own Salvation. It's much to important to leave in the hands of the Church.

Anonymous said...

I suspect that Ruidh is correct in surmising that most progressives believe that we can "rely on our own interpretation of our experience despite our sinfulness."

What I am about to write should not be taken as absolving reasserters from our own conceits. That having been said, the biggest single problem I have seen from progressives is what F. A. Hayek describes as the "progressivist fallacy," namely the idea that if we just gather enough factual information (data) on which we bring to bear sufficient human expertise (panel of experts) then we will all know the answer. This strikes me as being all too reminiscent of what I understand original sin to be about--wanting to believe that we can be like God. I also think Connie has it about right in her comment, above. Unfortunately, this fallacy has historically led to an arrogance the likes of which readily accounts for most of the human atrocities of history, many of them perpetrated in terms of "the common good."

We see the phenomenon not only in the current unpleasantness in TEC, but in the attitude that anthropogenic global warming is a decided issue (it is not), and in the proffered belief on the part of various would-be presidents that the government has the ability to give us all as much "health care" as we would, collectively, like to consume, as though it were a "free good," and in myriad other situations from the Hoover administration to the junior Bush administration. Humans are so addicted to thinking they understand how the world should work (i.e., thinking they can decide what is good and what is evil) that there is no end of human folly.

If anyone thinks original sin is imaginary, he (she) has not looked honestly into his (her) own heart!

Blessings and regards,
Martial Artist

Scott K said...

"If anyone thinks original sin is imaginary, he (she) has not looked honestly into his (her) own heart!"

Or does not have small children!

Malcolm+ said...

Dan has written in broad strokes. It is a blog, after all, not a Summa.

But Dan a) has avoided (as best one can in broad strokes) from defining straw men, and b) placed the issue in terms of questions rather than answers.

No, Connie, the issue is not whether authority lies with God or with us. That is a convenient straw man for "conservatives" to rail against, but it is a particularly frail straw man.

I'm not aware of any liberal who denies that God is the one in authority. Not a single one.

I think the issue is rather about certainty. Can we know, with certainty, what God's will is on any given question? Conservatives arguing the affirmative and liberals the negative.

Or perhaps it is a little more subtle than that. Perhaps it is more a question of how confident we should be that our understanding of God's will is accurate. This has the advantage of setting the issue as a continuum of opinion, with the most conservative arguing for the greatest confidence and the most liberals for the least.

As a liberal (I actually hate that label, but you know what I mean by it) I see that the Church has changed her views on a range of issues from usury to slavery to the role of women. The is not proof that she should change her view on issues of sexuality, but it does raise the possibility that she may, guided by the Holy Spirit.

Marshall said...

I think, malcolm+, you get perhaps a bit closer to the alpha issue, as does martial artist (although not, I think, in the way he thought). What martial artist describes as a "progressive fallacy," a sort of authority by expertism, fails to appreciate the importance of your last clause, "guided by the Holy Spirit." The importance of the multiple opinions over one is the belief that the Spirit is moving in each individual, and that in hearing multiple voices speaking of how they hear the Spirit, we are all more likely to hear the Spirit accurately.

And perhaps that is the alpha issue: whether authority lies in what the Spirit shared in Scripture to the exclusion (or nearly so) of what the Spirit has shared since, or if the continuing guidance of the Spirit supplements and complements Scripture to a measurable and significant extent. It seems to me not unlike the long-standing disagreement between Southern Baptists (and many other Baptists) and Holiness Churches, expressed in arguing whether the gifts of the Spirit were limited to the Apostolic Age. My mother, raised a Southern Baptist and granddaughter of a Baptist preacher, remembers from her youth the disdain of "good Baptists" for the "Holy Rollers." Preachers were more academic, but equally disdainful: the charismata ceased with the death of John the Elder; and anything more recent was unnacceptable "enthusiasm."

The Episcopal Church these days is, I think, more charismatic in a real sense than most contemporary American churches. (I admit we see this more theologically than expressively; but I've also said Anglo-catholic liturgy is how Anglicans really express pentecostalism.) It is expressed in sacramental theology (trusting that God continues to act in and through things material) and our theology of baptism (which includes indwelling of the Spirit), and so in our theological anthropology. It is not simply that God created us good in the beginning, but also that God continues to find us acceptable as vessels for the Spirit now, and not because of our purity but by his grace.

So, the issue is, I think, not simply the authority of Scripture but also whether the continuing presence of the Spirit in all of us demonstrates authority that is exclusively derivative of Scripture, or is complementary and/or supplementary of Scripture.

Malcolm+ said...

That issue of the Spirit's indwelling and leading is key, it seems to me.

My dogmatics professor used to jest about those "who believe the Holy Spirit dies after the Council of Ephesus."

Bob G+ said...

After getting over being intimidated by your former post on grammar... To be honest, I doubt there is a single "Alpha" issue. So many things come into play concerning why a person believes or does anything, obviously.

There are issues that seem to play to a individual or collective angst and people gravitate to them as a means of expressing or exercising that angst.

I keep coming back to the two great commandments of Jesus. I wonder whether the extent to which we take seriously these commandments - to the point of obeying them even to our detriment - contributes to our troubles?

There are elements of truth contained in everything written above. I gravitate to some of them more than others, yet I know what causes me to gravitate to one over another has to do with many past experiences, my past understanding of Scripture, past hurts and sins, past joys, past relationships - all wrapped together in some form of hope that as I (we) go forward God is there and willing to guide and correct and heal. Do we put first the command to love regardless of circumstance or outcome? That really does take some stand-up pissing, IMHO!

Craig G said...

Ruidh: "... such discernment is properly done in the context of a Christian community. By sharing our experiences and reflecting them in the community, we get an important sounding board and get to hear another voice -- perhaps the voice of God -- replying back.... people can read Scripture and decide for themselves what it means."

Well, of course, Scripture must be interpreted in the light of experience. My experience, of course -- bounced off that of the Christian community, my friends, because I hang out with mostly people like me. And the Holy Spirit is right there, guiding us, we don't need the Church to tell us what it all means; the Holy Spirit working within us will handle that.

What a wonderful, modern thought! Well, perhaps not quite so fresh and modern as all that:

Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment the worst is what these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within. Any one who knows any body knows how it would work; any one who knows any one from the Higher Thought Centre knows how it does work. That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within. Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners.

(Chesterton, Orthodoxy, ch. V)

What is quite modern about all this -- indeed postmodern -- is the overt underlying Humpty Dumpty narcissism of the hermeneutic. Actual texts have meaning only in terms of my experience; reading Moby Dick as a novel of obsession is no more valid than reading it as an allegorical description of the joys of a Danish and coffee; it all depends on my very own interpretation.

This is the Alpha Issue -- is there any moral reality, any authority (pace Connie) outside ourselves, or is it all at most a vague fog (as malcom+ maintains) which we must individually (ruidh) interpret according to our very own Inner Light?

ruidh said...

This is the Alpha Issue -- is there any moral reality, any authority (pace Connie) outside ourselves, or is it all at most a vague fog (as malcom+ maintains) which we must individually (ruidh) interpret according to our very own Inner Light?"

Wow! You really didn't understand a single word I said. You even quoted the part where I said you need to reflect in a Christian community (i.e. the Church) and yet you still ascribe the claim that there is no moral reality outside of ourselves to me.

There clearly is a moral authority outside of ourselves, but knowing what the moral action is in a situation requires discernment and the ability to reason about moral choices. There is no way to know what is the correct choice with certainty.

Malcolm+ said...

Well, Craig, I'll leave aside your complete misrepresentation of what I said, choosing to ascribe it to confusion rather than malice.

I certainly wasn't advocating "fog. " Indeed, never used the word at all.

What I did suggest was that there is a legitimate question about how confident we ought to be that we can know with certainty the mind of God. We mere mortals should be a bit trepidatious about such a claim - certainly for ourselves, but even for our institutions. Indeed, do we not all claim to follow a Lord who was quick to tell the religious authorities of his day that they'd gotten it wrong?

Thus, it seems to me, that Christians must be open to the possibility that God still has more to reveal to us. Our ancestors believed that God sanctioned slavery, and an honest reading of scripture seemed to confirm that. Yet today I find no Christians advocating slavery. Likewise with usury.

Call it "fog" if you will, Craig. I'll call it humility.

BTW, Fr. Dan, even though we seem to be on different sides in the current debates, I have added you as a link on my blog.

mark said...

Why are some people born deaf or blind or lame? Why do innocents suffer? This is the question of theodicy, to which there is no good answer, certainly this side of eternity, although I have read rabbinical writings that offer at least a somewhat satisfying answer. The unfortunate among us exist so that we can do good to them and therby glorify God in the process. Think of it. If we had no opportunities to do good, how would we obey the commands of God to do just that? Not exactly soul satisfying, I admit, but a better explanation than most I have heard..

ruidh said...

"The unfortunate among us exist so that we can do good to them and thereby glorify God in the process. Think of it. If we had no opportunities to do good, how would we obey the commands of God to do just that? Not exactly soul satisfying, I admit, but a better explanation than most I have heard."

Wow. So God does this to people deliberately? Will there be disabilities in the Kingdom? Or will our bodies be perfected? If there aren't, will there be an opportunity to do good?

Anonymous said...

Please check out these related references on the relation between reductionist exoteric religion, and reductionist scientism, both of which share the same reductionist presumptions about God, the cosmos, and Humankind.

1. http://www.dabase.org/noface.htm
2. http://www.dabase.org/christmc2.htm
3. http://www.dabase.org/ilchurst.htm
4. http://www.realgod.org
5. http://www.dabase.org/dht7.htm

ruidh said...

The links above are to some cult's webpage, not to Christian theology. Their guy is a "God-Man" and has had revelations.