Subjectivity, Text, Interpretation, and Faith

This is a letter I wrote to someone dear to me after s/he asked about my faith, with only a little editing. Edits will be inside brackets.

 

“Hey [person who is dear to me]

Thanks for opening up what I think can be a fruitful dialogue. I’m composing this for you as well as for me so I can put down some thoughts […].

The subject line [‘Subjectivity, Text, Interpretation, Faith’] shows in an abstract way how I think we arrive at faith. Children are not born religious or really anything. The faith that they accumulate or don’t comes from life experience. Subjectivity in my model includes all that goes into making a person: habits, decisions, mistakes, parents, thoughts, relationships, abuse/acceptance, bodies, societies, communities, wars, money, education, livelihood, hobbies, etc. I wouldn’t say any one of these things are necessarily more important than any other [after further reflection, I find some of those elements far more influential than others] in self-formation; selves are an amalgam of things that become more or less stable over time.

We bring all (or sometimes only parts depending on how integrated we are as persons) of ourselves to the texts that we read. Based on our experiences we can reject or accept things in texts rather quickly. At other times there are texts that give one pause, particularly if they are eloquent, beautiful, jarring, peculiar, or any combination of these things. If I read a headline, I bring a political bent, previous thinking, as well as openness to the text at hand. More often than not it goes out of my mind by the next day because of the nature of that genre of text. Texts such as the Bible, which contain rich layers of genre and human interest, I […] give more time to.

When I told you today that I hadn’t really touched a Bible that much in a while, unless for class, [it] is because I have spent a lot of time […] ruminating over various passages. Some of these textual interactions have been with me since I was a boy: humans are special (image of God; even if I am probably more of an agnostic now, this value has continued to develop in me even after I left tradition), we are built for community and owe to our communities (brother’s keeper, not good for [hu]man[s] to be alone; the owing of ourselves to our communities is a more recent development), redemption (not so much in an orthodox understanding, but in a narrative sense, I have experienced redemption after Sarah’s and my relationship became better). Things that have moved me beyond reconciliation with evangelicalism (if one assumes inerrancy an integral part of that label): patriarchy as divinely ordained[…], death penalties for trivial things (blasphemy, sorcery, men having sex with men [note the lack of the same standard for women!- original brackets], Sabbath breaking [technically one is to be cut off from the people, but that’s essentially a death sentence in that context- original brackets]), proclivity to war, authoritarianism, embeddedness in monarchy and empire, the concept of messianism, the injustice of [substitutionary] atonement theory, racism/ethnocentrism, slavery, and choosing ambiguities of faith over certainties of reason (particularly when the two are in conflict).

On interpretation, I see it as organically springing from our persons as described above. We can be trained in various interpretive models–the more traditional ones that involve history, language, syntax, and sociology–or more avant guard [hehe, avant-garde] ones like feminist, queer, post-colonial, ideological/Marxist, reader-response, deconstruction, economic, and African-American (this could probably fit entirely under post-colonial approaches). The more avant guard [again, avant-garde] ones call into question the traditional historical-critical approach that understood there to be one inherent meaning per text. Scholars such as Dale Martin have demonstrated that when two scholars beholden to the same historical-critical methods approached one text, they arrived at diametrically opposed conclusions.

Probably where I fit in interpretation is synthetic. I think we have to make use of the building blocks of history, language, and syntax (kind of the historical-critical school in a nutshell) but texts tend not to just sit there as “fully interpreted” if we stop at “this verb means this in such and such tense when followed by the definite article in Hebrew and when used by the leader of a family household.” If that’s what it meant for such a person, what, if anything, has that to do with me? That question involves what I call the gap. There is a vast chasm between ancient literature and myself, of time, language, and culture. I can fill in some of that, but inevitably I fill in with tools from my training, my community, and my life experience. This is why there’s no such thing as a commentary on the Bible without an author. There simply is no such thing as a biblical interpretation without human subjectivity involved. At all. Some are uncomfortable with this. When I came to this realization, it was preposterously disconcerting, especially since I was raised with the idea that the Bible is the only authoritative rule for faith and practice. If that’s the case, we’re screwed. Tons of traditions agree on the idea of inerrancy, but then claim that they have the right interpretation in the bag, regardless of how much diversity of opinion there ends up being.

If God/Jesus/Spirit ruled as a physical personage, we would know who the right and wrong were, for then they could settle the dispute! They’re [the trinity] conspicuously silent when I really need them to come through. We could have real loyalists and real rebels. As we have it, we have a lot of people grasping at straws about the unseen and then holding people accountable based on that unseen thing that some apparently have access to[,] but [which] I don’t to corroborate it. I get along quite well with people even if they accept this. It gets hard when it gets political[,] though [,] for then the innocuous belief becomes a concrete political option that makes or breaks communities.

From my religious studies training, I was exposed to the debate between idealism and materialism. All religions have elements of both: you’d call one theology and one ethics, or the immaterial and material. Because of where I’m at, I focus on the material. If the Bible says, “If a man lays with a man as with a woman, that is an abomination,” (it says something similar to this in Leviticus; I’m just going from memory) and in the other form of that passage it adds the death penalty, I’m going to stop and think a bit before I do something [about the] concrete passage. Even if we account for genre and time, that is still present in the inerrant text. If two men happen to pork each other, and they aren’t doing it in public or to children, I see no reason why they should be stoned, particularly since passages like this one give no reason for the ruling other than “God said” or a sacred text said so. Such arguments from authority simply don’t do anything for me anymore. If there is not a rational basis and God is perfect, that [text] couldn’t have been spoken by God, for then it would be associating irrationality or tyranny with God.

This is getting long. Suffice it to say, I have access to God/Jesus/Spirit solely through a text and the person of Monte I bring to that text. The ONLY thing that would change that would be if they were to speak for themselves. Short of that, we are all gods […] since we end up being the final arbiter of which texts we find authoritative and which ones we don’t.

Love you. Thanks for speaking with me about this and for letting me speak candidly with you.

Even though some of the statements above are put pretty bluntly, or maybe as if I am hardened to change, that is not the case. I am open to dialogue. Challenge me on things. Question me. Ask what my narrative has to do with my interpretation. Ask for clarification. Provide difference of opinion. And defend it.

Again, love you
Mont”

Transcendence, Worship, Openness, and Empathy

I have this severe desire to encounter god unmediatedly. Not attributable to mental state. Not attributable to something I do, say, believe, or think. Not attributable to social construct, be it ritual, theology, ceremony. Not attributable to my sleep patterns and resultant moods. Subject to transcendent subject encounter. Is that just not how it works and I need to come to terms with that? If god is transcendent, I believe he’s doing a good job at that. I long for the deity’s immanence. Would I be unable to handle it, and that’s why it doesn’t happen? Is theology actually non-essentialist, and therefore, convoluted word play? If that is so, is my quest futile to begin with. I will admit this: I am clueless.

This morning we had a worship set in chapel that was refreshing. I sang the songs. Some familiar. Some not. It was refreshing. It was not what I would call an encounter on my part. I was very aware of my surroundings. But I won’t speak of my inner experience so much as what I witnessed on their faces. Maybe reverie isn’t the right word. Bliss might be closer to it. Just people lost in pleasure in their experience of god. It was quite soothing to me. People in surrender to what was happening to them. I miss that state. Is there any going back? Maybe I can go through the motions until the worship experience becomes “real” again. I mused on what they were thinking about. Undoubtedly, some were probably focusing on god’s love for them and others. Others were probably thinking about his mercy bestowed on their circumstance, and thankfulness for it. Some may have been merely caught up in the music, which I don’t tend to believe to be evil. A mighty few may have been checked out, thinking on their tasks for the day.

What would it be like to trade minds for a day? What if I picked a handful of people from that chapel setting, have us all experience a similar worship set again, but this time we thought with each others’ cognitions? Would they worship the same? With some of the verses I pointed out here, notably Isa 45.7, Lam 3.37-38, Amo 3.6, would others still be able to worship? Might they have an experience, belief matrix, or understanding that would allow me to worship again as they? I can’t cavalierly dismiss those verses with a “You need to check the context,” when the

Source: Virgin Media
Source: Virgin Media
context sort of reinforces what the “proof texts” are saying. But maybe it is that simple. Maybe I’m a touch rash when it comes to expected Evangelical responses. It may turn out that some of those explanations are true. I just don’t think so at the moment from my experiences and study. Back to worship. Would we grow closer if doubts were raised in the open, truly heard, and issues wrestled with to give constructive responses, or would that process do what many fear, and the Church would crumble like a deck of cards? If the latter, how fragile an institution to belong to. To me that’s like the poor Chinese government thinking it will topple if its people remember Tiananmen Square.

Maybe that’s a pipe-dream. Many people aren’t willing to share their feelings or thoughts with their significant others, much less the public. Many have been hurt by virtue of their raw authenticity. They share, only to have their faces shoved down in it until they choke. Some fear that definitely real possibility. But I think there is much to be gleaned from open sharing. It reduces what I guess I would call “others-idolatry,” where others are put on pedestals as gods, to the humans that they are, beings in process and imperfection. It opens up at least the opportunity for help in moving beyond what has kept one burdened in the past. What if I had opened up today when we huddled for prayer, really letting loose? What if, instead of playing it safe, asking for prayer for sleep because of my newborn son, I let fly with the father from the old story, “I believe. Help me overcome my unbelief”? Would I receive sympathy in my questioning, or lame attempts

Source: counselor.org
Source: counselor.org
at answering during what is supposed to be a time of prayer? Are some things only safe to share with some but not others, so it’s best to pick which occasions to be open? Is that authentic? Would shotgun openness build moral courage, or merely be narcissistic, masturbatory self-aggrandizement? What if when we heard someone question an established practice, we let them voice it, probe them for more, and then left them with some sort of affirming bodily gesture? I think still others are afraid of openness because they feel they have to have an answer (of which they happen to be ignorant) to the question/issue, missing the point that sometimes sharing is just a feeler put out for connection, not answer-time. Maybe some are afraid of openness because they have never asked such questions, and now they have anxiety, because, man, those are some good questions. And maybe I’m in the vast minority, and some think faith has nothing to do with questions, but with the naked exertion of belief against all odds. I’ve heard these people exist, and they probably do in great numbers; I’ve just never encountered them.

In church language, I covet your thoughts. Drop a line. If you don’t feel like putting it all out there for others to see, email me at ilostmyprayerhanky at gmail dot com. I’d love to correspond with you.

What is this thing we call theology?

The question of god is one of the most important questions one can answer. But how do I communicate that importance to many who can go on living as though the question has absolutely no bearing on life whether one answers it or not? Does the fact that one can possibly lead a completely full life without any input from god or theology indicate the irrelevance and unimportance of those two to (especially theology) to the vast majority of humanity? Can one say that there is more to the importance and relevance of those two subjects than what interests certain personality types?

I’m fascinated by theology and philosophy. I love things that make absolutely no money, but are enjoyable in and of themselves as intellectual titillation. I find that these things that “don’t produce anything” in fact produce culture. When some speak of the flowerings of culture, they sometimes refer to the artifacts that have “productive value” like inventions, but they also mean those priceless art pieces such as Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, da Vinci’s paintings, Michelangelo’s murals, the political thought of Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes, and the theology, I contend, of Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, and others. These pieces speak to many of the heights of human reason, design and creativity, the possibilities of what can be, possible futures to experiment with, individuality risen above the norm to be fostered and kept by future generations.

Theology is but a mix of philosophy, literature, and poetry devoted to a god. But when I do theology in this day and age, and in my cultural understanding, what am I even doing? What is that to which I devote theology? What is it when I speak of god? I was taught to do theology similar to what Roger Olson wrote about in a three part series on what theology entails and who does it here, here, and here. Essentially, the posts speak to constructing theology almost primarily (in some cases solely?) from Scripture, in dialogue with historical theological tradition, reason, and experience. What happens when one starts with reason and experience rather than revelation and its subsidiary tradition?

Theology runs on assumptions. Most theology has run on the assumption that god exists and that the deity has revealed godself in the bible. If the assumption runs that we’re not sure he exists and we know nothing of a sure revelation, what kind of theology may be constructed? There is a death of god theology that sounds very intriguing to me by its very title (I actually have no knowledge of what it entails), but how does it serve as a theology, a discourse on god? Might theology have to take on a new definition than discourse on god? Maybe discourse on man and his plight? This prospect excites me for it might be new and bring up more for discussion in the history of theology. A modern humanity, groping about in the dark, and yet boldly going where no one has gone before.