July 2010

The kinds of warning lights these sorts of discussions begin to set off are understandable.  Do not Christians stand for truth?  Does not the Bible give us truth?  Is not God a God of truth?  The word relativism is a dirty word in many Christian circles, where it is used to refer to a perspective on the world that is squishy and does not have a clear cut sense of rights and wrongs.  Sometimes the antidote is seen as “absolutism,” which is often taken to mean that right is right and wrong is wrong.

We suspect that the protests in these voices have some validity to them, validity because these terms and arguments are attempts to talk with the mind about things their hearts sense are not right.  Nevertheless, the intellectual arguments in these sorts of discussions are often not a little confused, despite the veneer of intellectual argument.  For example, not every right or wrong is an absolute.  The sense we take from Romans 13 that believers should obey those in authority over them is not an absolute.  If your boss commands you to murder a co-worker, God would not want you to comply.  “Absolute” means no exceptions, but many if not most biblical commands not only allow for but demand exceptions.

Further, some of God’s commands are relative, indeed many of them are.  Jesus did not treat the Sabbath command as an absolute in Mark 2:23-27.  Indeed, Paul does not even treat it as a universal command that applies to everyone (Rom. 14:5; cf. Col. 2:16), even though it is one of the 10 commandments.  Christians believe in definite rights and wrongs, some of which are absolutes–particularly the commands to love God and love neighbor (e.g., Matt. 22:37-40).  But whether a right or wrong is “absolute,” “universal but not absolute,” or “relative” has to be weighed one by one. [1] Anything short of this is not only bad thinking but quite possibly a harmful misrepresentation of God.

The response is also understandable that sees the books of the Bible as somehow insulated from the kinds of changing frameworks of understanding we have been discussing.  Yes, one might say, culture may change and intellectual frameworks may change, but the Bible gives us God’s unchanging and timeless perspective.  These are very well intentioned sentiments and they often reflect a person whose heart is in the right place.  But it is an unreflective sentiment that ultimately misses two crucial elements in the equation: you as a knower and the nature of the original revelation of the biblical books.

The unreflective reader of the Bible, the majority of Bible readers, is generally unaware of the fact that they are in fact interpreting the Bible as they read it, defining the words on the basis of their inherited frameworks of understanding–contemporary frameworks.  For example, when they read the word tithe, they may understand that it was a tenth of one’s intake.  But an American believer will inevitably understand this tenth from within a framework of money and income.  They earn a certain amount of money.  They will thus see a tithe as contributing to a church or some other God-institution ten percent of their income.  They might debate whether they should tithe on the gross or the net income.

Needless to say, this framework of understanding tithing is quite different in its connotations within ancient Israel’s framework of understanding.  It would be worthwhile for us to reflect on whether giving a tenth today is the most accurate appropriation of this ancient practice.  For one thing, the New Testament never gives any instruction to Christians to give a tenth of their income.  The only mention is Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23, where he affirms their tithing but condemns their priorities.  Paul’s approach is one of giving the entirety of your excess to others in need (2 Cor. 8-9), which one might argue requires more of us than a mere tenth.

The ancient world was a “subsistence” economy, where people generally produced only what they needed to survive.  Those who had more than this amount, the rich, were often viewed as suspect, perhaps as thieves who had gained their excess at the expense of others (cf. Jas. 5:1-6).  Further, the Old Testament world was an agricultural world, where tithes were a percentage of a crop, not money.  It was not a world where it was at all likely that a person would have any significant amount of food or resources above what was necessary for you and your family to survive.

Our monetary economy, where one person’s wealth need not imply someone else’s poverty, is drastically different from any of the cultures of the Bible.  Certainly we do find something like investment in the Parable of the Talents, which most of the gospel audiences may have experienced as strangely removed from their worlds even at the time.  But we also find the Parable of the Unjust Steward, where money is treated as something from a quite different world from that of God, and we find Jesus saying something similar when he suggests coinage is something that relates to Caesar, not God (e.g., Mark 12:17). 

Perhaps God does want Christians today still to give a tenth of their income to one of his causes.  Perhaps he wants even more than a tenth from us today!  Our point here is that the distance between our world and the biblical worlds is significant and generally unknown to us.  The issue is one that we must prayerfully and carefully work through together.  Those who take a black and white approach because of certain words they read in a Bible verse are both unaware of their own framework of understanding and unaware of the framework of understanding the individual biblical authors had. 

If we are to listen to the Bible, it tells us that its original audiences were ancient Israelites, Thessalonians, Romans, and so forth.  These ancient audiences had frameworks of understanding just as we do.  Assuming that God wanted them to understand what he was saying initially to them, assuming that the commands God gave to them were meaningful to them, our default assumption must be that the primary framework of the Bible’s original meaning was theirs.  And most of the time, their frameworks will not be our frameworks, at least not exactly.  The degree to which the words of the Bible seem directly relevant to us is a fairly good indicator of the degree to which we are reading it out of context, whether reflectively or unreflectively. [2]

The application of the social sciences to the interpretation of the Bible has been incredibly fruitful these last few decades, but it has also highlighted how often modern readers of the Bible unreflectively impose their social categories on the words of Scripture. [3] The “blesseds” of the Beatitudes are not about being happy but about being honored by God, as we might expect of an honor-shame culture (Matt. 5:3-10).  An entire household can be baptized because the ancient world was largely a group culture rather than an individualist one, where a father could make a faith decision for an entire family (Acts 16).  

Uncleanness had to do with things being in their appropriate place, so that eels were inappropriate to the sea because they did not have fins and scales (Lev. *). [3]  Similarly a bird that could not fly was not a clean bird (Lev. *).  Blood contained the life-force and belonged in the body, not out (Lev. *).  Purity was thus a matter of a framework of understanding that saw you in the right place, holiness was a category in that framework that saw you in God’s place. 

Holiness in the Old Testament was not a matter of individual moral purity, understood primarily in ethical terms.  Holiness meant that one belonged to God with all the connotations of that fact, which went far beyond some simple mental assent.  It meant that things that touched Mt. Sinai had to die (Exod. *) and that someone who touch the Ark of the Covenant, even with good intensions, would have to die (1 Sam. *).  The way a person lived was important not because of individual moral purity but because of the honor or dishonor it brought to God.

The point of this discussion is that our intellectual frameworks change from time to time, and those who are living at any one time are often unaware of their own frameworks.  The default is to assume that those from other cultures are stupid or wrong to think and do things differently.  We interpret words, actions, intentions, and events from within our own framework of understanding with little or no sense of how our frameworks developed over time.  Obviously I would contradict myself if I thought these facts meant that there was no such thing as definite truth.  Why even write then? 

The point is humility in our knowledge, a recognition that the understanding I am laying out here has the weight of all the processing that has gone before, but it is still flawed and finite.  Someone will find potential errors in my analysis and perhaps a more complete understanding will come forward in the days to come.  But I write this analysis because I am convinced that it is a good expression of how our knowing takes place, that I am far more reflective about my knowing of the Bible and the world than I used to be.  I am a “critical realist,” someone who believes in definite truth but who also recognizes that my apprehension of that truth will always be flawed.

Next week: critical realism 

[1] The category of universally valid rights and wrongs, but with exceptions is a far more helpful category than that of absolutes, which by definition do not allow for exceptions.

[2] One thing we will argue in the next chapter is that it is possible, perhaps even desirable to loosen the words of the Bible from their context the more it is done reflectively.

[3] The work of Malina *** 

[4] The work of Mary Douglas is invaluable here, Purity and Danger***


So Kant highlighted the dominant role our minds play in the organization of our experiences.  What he did not anticipate is how relative human frameworks of understanding actually are.  The twentieth century saw the rise of disciplines like cultural anthropology, where it became clear that the very same action can have a quite different meaning in one culture than it has in another.  A gesture that might get you killed in Italy might be meaningless in North America.  A pair of clothing that is perfectly modest in one location might be quite obscene in another. 

In short, a clear distinction exists between actions or events and their meaning.  The same applies to language.  A word that is highly insulting or obscene in one language might have no real impact in another.  The way we interpret things always involves a certain framework of thinking.  Before 9-11, a middle eastern looking person on a plane would hardly have drawn my attention.  After 9-11, that bit of data in my environment is much more likely to grab my interest.  To be enamoured with Karl Marx’s philosophy was not nearly as significant in the late 1800s in America as it was in the late 1950s.

An old professor of mine put it this way, “Context is everything.”  Thomas Kuhn (1992-96) is best known for his analysis of scientific revolutions. [1]  He argued that scientific progress is largely an illusion.  Rather, he argued that we simply have change from one scientific paradigm to another facilitated by shifts in power.  Copernicus’ arguments that the earth went around the sun were not obviously better than the math of those who thought the sun went around the earth.  In our opinion, Kuhn’s position was extreme and we can argue for scientific progress on the basis of how much more useful scientific theories are today than ever before.  Nevertheless, he did demonstrate well how prominent a role the human exercise of power plays in scientific change, coupled with the coincidences of history. 

Michel Foucault (1926-84) similarly analyzed historical shifts in things like how people are punished for crimes or how the insane are viewed or how sexuality is viewed. [2]  Again, he argued that the amount of human power involved in such changes is at least the same and perhaps even greater.  These developments, he would say, are not clearly evolutionary to where we have progressed.  In the end, we view his positions as extreme.  Nevertheless, he does seem to have demonstrated very clearly that what seems to be the common sense on the most basic of topics changes from time to time and that we often have no sense of how different they are from before.

For example, we tend today to view both homo- and heterosexuality as orientations that a person has.  In our current framework, a person is either attracted to the opposite sex or to the same sex.  Foucault argued that this way of thinking about homosexual acts is relatively recent, less than two hundred years old.  He would say that prior to the modern period, people did not think of “sexuality” as an aspect of a person.  People had sex, and some sex acts were appropriate and others were not.  No thought was given to a person having an “orientation.”  It was just thought that some people had sex with the wrong people and were thus deviant human beings.  If Foucault was right, then even those who oppose homosexuality today view the subject from within a different framework than anyone prior to the 1800s.

Next: impact on reading the Bible (social scientific studies)

[1] The Structure of Scientific Revolutions 

[2] Crime and Punishment, History of Sexuality, ***

The previous bread crumb is here.

Adjusting Frameworks cont.

… In the end, we can identify too many other clear sources for our presumptions to maintain that God is the ultimate basis for very many of them.  It is always dangerous to try to summarize the development of ideas in history.  Indeed, that conclusion flows ironically from my own summary of the development of ideas in the West these last few centuries.  The history of ideas is more complex than any human mind could ever truly fathom, a variegated mixture of chance, circumstances, and human engagement whose true formula only God knows.  No doubt to make a summary such as I now attempt is far more foolhardy than I or any of us could imagine.

But it does seem that in the century or so surrounding René Descartes (1596-1650), a fundamental shift took place among many of the ideological leaders of the West.  As Charles Taylor has explored well, leading thinkers shifted from assuming a fixed order in the world to a view of the world as a massive set of particular data, the general truths of which had to be argued for one by one. [1]  I do not believe this is a matter in which we can simply “go back” to the way we viewed the world prior to Descartes.  If you are a pre-Cartesian, a pre-modern, it is because you have not yet understood him.

Descartes asked a simple question–“What can I be absolutely certain of?”  This simple question, experienced throughout the world of his day even by those who would have had no exposure to philosophy, is the undoing of the earlier view.  The reason is that there is really almost nothing of which we can be absolutely certain purely on the basis of evidence and reason.  Descartes only came up with one absolute certainty that I could know: “I think; therefore I am.”  Even this claim is too much.  I think; therefore whatever this thought is, exists. 

In the end, almost everything we think about the world is based on fundamental faiths or assumptions we make.  The movie Matrix constructed a world where we are not really where we think we are but are actually in tubes being harvested by machines in a future more than a century from now.  I don’t think that’s true… but I can’t prove it.  I cannot, for example, prove that I am not a sophisticated computer program in the twenty-fifth century.  Our lives are fundamentally based on countless “faiths” and assumptions.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) represents yet another watershed moment in Western thinking.  His contemporary David Hume (1711-76) had forced him to deal with the fact that we cannot explain our way of looking at the world simply by saying truth is a matter of what we experience.  We do not experience the continuity of time, for example, but only one moment after another.  In that sense, we do not experience some law of cause and effect.  We only experience one thing happening after another. 

Kant rescued truth for the Western philosophers of his day by suggesting that the data of our thinking comes from our senses and experiences but that the organization of this data is a function of certain categories built into our mind. Kant himself believed that these categories were built into our minds by God, but predictably not all who followed him agreed.  Whatever we decide on that score, the basic structure of Kant’s suggestion seems to work very well to express what seems to take place regularly in human understanding.  The “glue” that we use to connect the things we experience is much more a function of things in our heads rather than of reality itself. 

For example, let’s say I tell someone that their hair looks bad, and they fall over dead.  Is there a cause-effect connection between the two “facts”?  The sense of cause-effect in our heads will really push us toward seeing a connection, but it is also possible that this person had other things going on in their body that just happened to result in death at this moment.  In logic, we call this the post hoc propter hoc fallacy (“after this, because of this”).  In real life, we will often assume that something is caused by what has immediately preceded it.  But logic recognizes that such a connection is not in any way absolute.  It is my head that connects the two, whether correctly or incorrectly.  It is not a matter of fact but of my brain’s organization of the data I have experienced.

Kuhn/anthropology to come…

[1] We should make it clear that Taylor does not stop with this predicament or even affirm it.  A key chapter in Sources of the Self *** is ***

Previous posts for this chapter, “The Priority of the Heart,” included:

Postmodern Trends 1
Postmodern Trends 2

Adjusting Frameworks
What sort of adjustments in Christian thinking are appropriate given recent postmodern challenges?  First, at the very least we must admit that the vast majority of our reasoning is based in either faith or presumption.  By faith, here, I mean ideas and frameworks of thinking that we quite intentionally adopt with significant awareness of the doubt that accompanies them.  Anyone who takes a “what you see is what you get” approach to reality does not operate with faith but on presumption.  And by presumption, here, we mean an unreflective approach to what we believe. 

One conclusion we should draw from postmodern challenges is that we are all inescapably unreflective on many things.  The difficulty with such unreflectivity is that, by definition, we do not really know at what points we are unreflective.  It takes some challenge to our existing framework to draw attention to it.  True faith is not resistance to new ideas or reflection on our assumptions.  True faith welcomes challenges because of its confidence in what it affirms.

If truth is not the basis for the vast magnitude of things we presume, then where do those ideas and frameworks come from?  It would be a coherent possibility to say they come from God, but this answer is pitifully inadequate for many reasons.  For one, we find so many different understandings of God even within conservative Christianity–over 20,000 small conservative Protestant groups.  If our unexamined presumptions mostly come from God, then we must either conclude that one of these little groups is the one God truly favors (and the vast majority of the rest of us are sunk) or that God is not overly concerned with us having our heads all sorted out.  Indeed, this conclusion seems the only reasonable one.  For so much of human history, so many people–including the people of God–have believed such different things on such fundamental issues that it seems inescapable but to conclude that God is not primarily concerned with right thinking. [1]

In the next chapter we will delve a little into the differing understandings we find even within Scripture itself, such as the fact that the Old Testament has almost no sense of a meaningful afterlife.  Yet in the progressive revelation of the New Testament, resurrection becomes a fundamental understanding.  Consider how many of God’s people from the Pentateuch to the Psalms and wisdom books lived in proper relationship to God without God bothering to correct their understanding on this issue!  And when we read the Old Testament books in context, they have little understanding of what the messiah would truly be like–certainly not that he would be the pre-existent second person of the Trinity.  This understanding was not really clarified until the fourth century after Christ.  Again, it seems impossible to affirm these things without forming a picture of God who patiently walks in relationship with his people without being primarily concerned with sorting out all their understandings, even on fundamental issues.

In the end, we can identify too many other clear sources for our presumptions to maintain that God is the ultimate basis for the vast majority of them.  Descartes-Kant-Kuhn to come…