This time around I thought I'd respond to a couple questions I got from readers this week revolving around the question of epistemology, which is a fancy way of saying "how do we know what we know?" Specifically, how do we know that our interpretation of the Bible is right? And what do we base that on?
Such questions become especially relevant when we begin to ethically question the Bible. We read something in the Bible that seems morally questionable--genocide, slavery, and so on. But if we are questioning the Bible, then this brings up the question: On what authority can we question it?
I don't say that as way of saying "Stop asking those questions!" like the Wizard of Oz from behind the curtain. Rather it is an important question that we need to be asking ourselves. The fear is that when we question the Bible, we are sawing the branch out from under ourselves, cutting off our moral foundation. Does questioning scripture become like the string that we begin to pull which unravels the whole sweater? is it true that once we start pulling that proverbial string--once we start to question things in the Bible--soon everything will just come undone?
What is the basis of our authority that allows us to question scripture? That's an important and legitimate question that we need to ask ourselves. Along these lines, OfGrace asks,
"What is to guide our understanding and interpretation of the texts and how do we know we are being directed by the Holy Spirit in our interpretations where we differ with one another (the application of the NT's prohibition on same-sex sexual acts being in this category in the modern era)? What are authoritative parameters for how to read, interpret and apply the Christian Scriptures (i.e., the apostolic teaching)?"
The most common answer to this question among Protestants is that of sola scriptura meaning that we look to the Bible for the answer. How to do that can range from looking for the "plain reading" of the text to looking to our understanding of context, language, genre, ancient cultures, and so on in order to have scholarship help us unearth what the "authorial intent" of the text was.
A slight tweak on this which has gained a lot of traction among my tribe of progressive evangelical folks is to read the Bible through the eyes of Jesus. However, if we apply the same above method that we all learned in seminary classes on exegesis, the question still comes down to looking for the "plain reading" of what Jesus meant or using scholarship to unearth what Jesus meant.
That sounds great, but how do we do that exactly? The problem is that there are plenty of people who read the Bible in a way that I think is profoundly wrong and immoral who claim to be doing so based on Jesus. There are people who would claim to be reading the Bible through the eyes of Jesus who promote all sorts of stuff that I see as deeply wrong and hurtful--oppression, violence, hatred.
They, in turn, of course think that I am wrong, even though I likewise claim to be reading the Bible like Jesus did. The bottom line here is that simply reaching for the WWJD card is apparently not a guarantee that we will end up on the same page or with the same values. It simply does not work as a safeguard to stop people from arriving at really awful and harmful readings.
So what do we do?
What I would propose instead is that we adopt the evaluative criteria Jesus suggested to tell a false prophet from a genuine one: Look at the fruits, Jesus said.
We can look at the fruits of a particular interpretation, and observe the effects it has in people's lives. The question we ultimately need to be asking is not so much "Is this interpretation correct?" But more importantly "Is this interpretation good
?" Or to put it another way: Will my reading and application of this passage or teaching result in something good or in something hurtful? Are the fruits good, or are they rotten? Does it lead to flourishing and wholeness? Does it make us better and more compassionate people? Or does it instead wound and crush our spirits, leaving us worse than before? In short: Does it lead us to life or death?
This approach is practical and liveable. It provides us with objective criteria (as objective as we humans are capable of being) that can be used to evaluate any interpretation or teaching. It provides a means for continually testing and refining our interpretation "on the ground" based on observing its effects on people's lives.
With that in mind, let me now bring in a possible objection from Samuel Adams who writes this on my Facebook page,
"I'd just like to clarify that Jesus is, in his person, the fulfillment or end of the law. He is faithful Israel. His example is closely tied to his person--the two cannot be separated. What I'm resisting is the slip by some to a point where Jesus is simply a moral example. Don't get me wrong, his example is important and authoritative, but always and everywhere tied to his person.
What I'm saying is that both 'law' and 'spirit of the law' are objects that humans can control/determine/possess. They tend to be what we want them to be. By making the person of Jesus inseparable from his teaching we are placing ourselves always under the gracious judgement of God... Christian ethics is bound to the living/commanding Jesus.
Let me begin by underlining what I agree with here: I agree with the stress on relationship with God that I see in Samuel's comment. Ultimately Christianity is about relationship, not religion. We are striving not to connect with a philosophy or example, but to connect with a living Someone. One major consequence of this is that we need to recognize that we are always subjective, we are always limited in our perception. There is therefore no way for us to ever be certain or to ever be done, ever to say "this is the final word."
Certainty is dangerous. Certainty--including certainty in our doctrines, certainty in the Bible-- has a long history of leading people to do things that violate conscience and cause great harm. Certainty is the opposite of faith. Faith is about recognizing our need, our lack. Faith and humility go hand in hand. So when the question is "how can we be sure we've got it right?" the answer is quite simply:
We will, even with the best of intentions, get it wrong. Recognizing this is part of growing up. However, the reality is that we do need to make choices as humans. We need some practical way to decide what is good and what is hurtful right now. Even if we will stumble, still we do need to try to find the best way to live, and I would thus propose that the model of "looking at the fruits" represents the best way we have for evaluating a doctrine, teaching, or biblical interpretation.
I further want to point out that the method I am proposing takes into account the reality of our subjectivity. The method I am proposing has its roots in the scientific method. That is, while it is ethical, it does not come from the discipline of ethics or philosophy, but from the social sciences which are different from older disciplines such as ethics, philosophy or moral teaching in that science is guided by a methodology of testing a hypothesis. Put differently, science is not based on an abstract theory, rather it is derived from observing how life works. It is discovered.
Science recognizes that we are never truly objective, and so works by continually testing and observing, continually growing in knowledge. Our understanding of physics today has grown beyond what Newton proposed as we continued to experiment and test. It will continue to grow beyond what it is today as that scientific pursuit continues. We will never reach the point of saying "this is now the finished understanding" but the scientific method does present the best means we fallible humans have of understanding how our universe works.
In the realm of understanding how we humans thrive both as individuals and together, we get into the specific study of the social sciences, which also operate through the same scientific method of testing things out in life. So mental health practitioners will determine what constitutes a mental illness based on how much it impairs a person from being able to function in society.
For example if you drink to feel merry, then fine. But if your drinking causes you to lose your job, estrange your entire family, and end up in an alley way turning tricks, then this is a problem. Whether it's addiction or schizophrenia or depression or something else, the main question that mental health experts are asking is an intensely practical one: Does this impair you from being able to have the life you want to have? And following this up with: How can we help you to be able to lead the life you want to have, consistent with what you value?
Just as the natural sciences grow and evolve through continued experimentation and research, the practical ways that mental health clinicians help people also grows and develops, based on observing what works in praxis, and using these observations to shape and adapt their approach. Neil deGrasse Tyson describes the scientific method like this,
"Test ideas through experiment and observation.
Build on those ideas that past the test. Reject those that fail. Follow
the evidence where ever it leads, and question everything."
The same holds true for mental health clinicians, only they are not using test tubes or telescopes, but working with people, and their observations are done not only through studies and research, but also in clinical praxis as therapists observe what works and does not work. We might compare this to how a software company gets feedback from users and fixes bugs and adds new features in response. The software thus becomes better through that process. In the same way, based on such observation, psychology changes and grows and develops.
For example very early on psychologists observed that when you tell someone "what you are doing here is hurtful" people reacted defensively and took this not as a comment on their actions giving them an opportunity to change, but as a condemnation of them as a person. So rather than listening openly and changing their behavior, they would feel attacked and put up walls. Freud called this "denial" but whatever you want to call it, what this draws out is the fact that our behavior is not just a matter of rational moral choices--there's something else going on that can keep us from making good choices.
Therefore if a therapist wants their client to stop being hurtful, they need to find a way to get past that defensive wall which had the good purpose of self-reservation but which was now stopping them from being good, stopping them from being who they wanted to be. We call that "dysfunctional" because it has a good function (self-preservation and care) that has become maladaptive (rather than protecting ourselves it ends up keeping us stuck in patterns that hurt ourselves and others). So psychology needed to find ways to get around that roadblock, like a river changing its course, curving until it finds a way.
There are of course many other examples I could mention, but the larger point is that mental health practitioners have been doing this for a long time now. That means my proposal that we observe the effects that the application of a certain scriptural principle or teaching has on people's lives (be it "turn the other cheek" or "bruises and wounds cleanse the soul") and use these observations as our evaluative criteria is not something I just pulled out of my hat just now, but rather how those in the field of mental health have been working for a long time.
For me to imagine the marraige of theology and the social sciences is easy because I'm a theologian who is married to a psychotherapist. However, understanding mental health as I do, what I notice among my fellow theologians and scholars is that there is for the most part a huge gulf between religion and social science. What I have continually found is that the vast majority of pastors and scholars--who may have a PhD biblical studies and speak fluent Coptic and Greek--nevertheless often have virtually no understanding of how the social sciences actually function today. To some extent this is because of animosity because of a perceived conflict between religion and science (and this is most relevant not in the natural sciences, but in the social sciences) and other times simply because it is outside of their field of knowledge. So they know as much about psychology as a therapist knows about Coptic and Greek.
Understanding both as I do, I want to say that the two would make great partners. Religion and the social sciences should be allies not foes. Specifically, what I am proposing here is that the ethical interpretation of scripture would greatly benefit from incorporating the practical working method of those working in the field of mental health.
Let me give an example of how this approach could work in biblical interpretation: Consider Jesus teaching to "turn the other cheek." Gandhi and Martin Luther King applied this in the context of protesting oppressive power, and found that it was an effective means to expose injustice and bring about societal pressure for change. Feminists however have pointed out that when turning the other cheek is understood to mean counseling a woman to remain in a situation of domestic violence, that this instead ends up supporting oppression and hurt, rather than stopping it. So as this teaching is applied in different contexts, we can observe where it bears good fruit and where it instead produces harmful outcomes. From this we can evaluate what the "right" application is, based on looking at the fruits borne out in our lives. The "right" interpretation therefore is not the one that gets the tense of the Greek word just right, but the one that works, the one that leads to life. That is something we can objectively evaluate.
There is much more I could say about this. This an approach that naturally lends itself to developing and growing, rather than tethering us to the past. This approach is also by definition a communal approach, which allows it to grow and develop in a community of praxis--in this case in a community of those who are actively living out the way of Jesus. This therefore brings us in dialog with the wisdom of community and tradition, and specifically with a Jesus-shaped tradition and community. I could also discuss how this approach sheds light on controversial topics, such as homosexuality, and what an approach would look like that bears good fruit. Perhaps I'll do a "part 2" to this so I can give those subjects the attention they deserve.