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

Worship and extreme doubt

Source: Life Tabernacle Church
Source: Life Tabernacle Church
My mom got me a worship CD a few weeks ago. I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed it. For one, I have trouble with worship because of all my unanswered questions, with next to no answers. I’m actually sitting here wondering if I have any answers. But the worship CD. When I’m by myself, I entertain all the dark, lonely questions of the universe and am just that—alone. However, when I sing along with this worship CD, I’m serene. I feel secure. I’m thoughtful. I stand on centuries of tradition. I experience what many experience in their cars and in their churches every time they gather. I almost enter a place of “Do my questions even matter?” It’s almost like the bliss state from the recent, horribly cut-short show “V.” But then I get out of my car. Back to my questions. Back to my doubts. Back to cursed responsibilities (my wife and I get in fights about this all the time lol). Back to…reality? Are the feelings I experience while singing or listening to that worship CD merely a response to music, an altered state of reality? The guy on the album does have a smooth, hypnotic voice. If I read the bare lyrics, I know the same experience wouldn’t be there, but is that a bad thing? Can the tension just exist there, and I just let it lie (unresolved questions and what feels like very resolved feelings)? Probably not. I like coherence. I like for things to make sense. Granted, I like my horizons to expand to where formerly disparate things can coexist with the right understanding of them, but I am not in that place for my theological/hermeneutical questions and worship.

And just what are some of my problems/questions? Here are a few, and most of them come through a Christian lens, but with philosophical and theological flavor:

  • Revelation– Multiple religious traditions claim god or the gods have revealed themselves through a particular tradition. If that is the case, which one is right? They can’t all be right, right? Or can there be elements of truth in all of them, but not the whole in any? What criteria are there for teasing out revelation? Is it a book? Is it particular persons? Is it an impulse or feeling? Is it nature or reason? Is it a synthesis of many things? If there is revelation in the Bible, but the Bible isn’t inerrant, how does one determine what is or isn’t revelation without recourse to some mysterious spirit? If there were revelation, what does one do with it?
  • Religious experience and God– how does one know that the god of experience is the God of the Bible? Is the god of philosophical argument the God of the Bible? Is the god of religious experience a god at all, or merely physical responses to one’s environment or mental state?
  • Theology and culture– how much of Christianity is transferable to a Western context from a first century Palestinian context? Is it merely a product of its time, therefore, something to move past in foreign (gentile) contexts? Is Christianity of yore merely Judaism with Jesus as the messiah? What does that have to do with the plethora of Christianities today? Is the term “Christian” even useful in describing anything, given the amount of qualifiers the many Christian groups use to distinguish themselves?
  • The (in)justice of God– this list could go on for awhile. I won’t speak for other religions’ gods though I’m sure there’s enough injustice to go around. Christianity’s god seems rather doucheish. Rather than answer Job’s questions that emerged out of his pain, he responds with an elitist monologue (Job 38-40); I mean, imagine a being superior to the Jewish god telling him to shut up with his questions after his son died on the cross)
    Source: Wikipedia
    Source: Wikipedia
    ; David had to pick a punishment on his people for his own sin (which his god made him do…), because his god said so (2 Sam 24.1-17); the unstable lord of the flood incident (Gen 6.5-8) definitely doesn’t sound like a gal who wishes all to come to repentance (2 Pet 2.9); hell as eternal punishment for a finite number of sins (see many verses here); holding people without the law accountable for some somehow “obvious” but actually oblique natural theology (Rom 1.18-20, 1 Tim 1.9); sexual immorality being the only occasion allowable for divorce by Jesus when domestic abuse and emotional scarring sure seem like good ones to me (Mat 19.9, Mk 10.11); if we take the Calvinist sounding verses at face value god creates some vessels for destruction with no chance of redemption because of his immutably capricious will (e.g., Rom 9.22); forcing a rape victim to marry her rapist (Deut 22.28-29), wrecking people’s lives
    Source: Getty Images
    Moore, OK Source: Getty Images
    (Isa 45.7, Lam 3.37-38, Amo 3.6; attention brought to these vv here), etc. I’m not being original here, I don’t think. I’m sure some of the bloggers I follow here, here, here, and here could list many more. And many Christians have probably had trouble with many of these things like I have, but like I have in my past, simply stuffed them back under a bushel to run back to the fluffy god who loves. Or maybe some have come up with legitimate answers to these questions I simply haven’t heard yet. I’m all ears in the comments section or in email (ilostmyprayerhanky at gmail dot com).
  • Occam’s Razor– I started applying this pretty wildly a few years back. When I’m sick, I used to pray and take pills. Now I just take pills. When I was having trouble in my marriage, I could say myself, sin, and Satan were brewing the perfect storm; I would pray and talk with others on how to solve my problems. Then I just focused on my own problems I brought into marriage, without any reference to sin or Satan, and the problems evaporated. Yes there are still arguments, but they’re constructive and healthy. God and anything metaphysical just seem so irrelevant to my life, because when I concentrated on the concrete, results occurred that were controllable, predictable, and concrete.
  • Historicity of Bible and Jesus– suffice it to say, I have trouble with their historicity. I’ll provide examples if desired.
  • God’s absence– I wrote about this earlier, but I’ll mention it again. Things would be a lot clearer if god did his own speaking, rather than letting everyone else have mere opinions on what they think she means. Instead of liberal and conservative views, theist and atheist views, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, or Baha’I views, cataphatic or apophatic views, we would actually have god’s view on abortion, capitalism, Marxism, politics, essentialism, and anything we wished to ask him if she had the time. But instead the teacher leaves the kids to run unattended on the playground with complete freedom to annihilate themselves or grow morally.
  • I share many of the questions listed in the comments section of one of the Evangelical blogs I follow here.

So I sing along with a worship CD and enjoy myself. Should I take that away? Is it a healthy reprieve from my questions? Or a temporary lapse in judgment? Are the good feelings associated with worship music something to maintain or to disrobe? For my own happiness, contentment, and comfort I’d rather keep the good feelings. But in this case, is my happiness, contentment, and comfort the right thing? Is the right thing, rather, going through the grief process of an old system, and then moving on with life? I invite your responses, friends, foes, and strangers alike. One thing I do believe is that I don’t have all the answers and that many people’s experiences can enrich my own if I give them a platform.