Saturday, July 26, 2014
There’s a difference between
1) an infallible text/fallible interpretation and
2) fallible text/fallible interpretation.
At least in the first one people agree on the starting point, just not where you go from there. In the second one there is no starting point. ... There are things that are pretty clear – like forgive, love your neighbor, etc. – but on what grounds can we rely on those as true if the text isn’t “infallible”? ... Even the focus on love – that sounds straight forward but it isn’t. That’s based on Jesus words to love God and love your neighbor – as recorded in scripture. If the Bible isn’t infallible, how are we to rely on these words as accurate?
And that's just the point: We can only talk about correctly applying something if we understand it. If we can assess it. There cannot be correct interpretation without understanding, and that is not simply a matter of "what does it say?" but "is this moral?" That means this is not just about me questioning the stuff I find objectionable, but also questioning the stuff I affirm in order to be able to follow well. I question so that I can follow. There simply can be no obedience without understanding. Obedience without understanding always puts on a collision course with hurt and error. There is no way around that. The Bible should lead us to moral reflection, not shut it down.
This is the problem with infallibility as it commonly understood: It leads us to shut down all moral reflection, to turn off our brains and conscience. It blinds us to our sin, causing us to justify it with religious language. This was the sin of the Pharisees and how they applied Scripture, and it is the sin of conservative evangelicalism as well. Whatever infallibility means (and it is not a word we find anywhere in the Bible) if it leads us to be less moral, if it leads us to be less compassionate, less reflective, then it is wrong.
So again we are faced with the question: How do we know what is moral, what is good? Even when we say we want to follow the teaching of Jesus (which I do) we still need to understand why and how it is good in order to be able to practice it correctly. To unquestioningly follow the text without moral assessment inevitably leads to abuse. So how do we make those moral evaluations? If it is not as simple as saying "the text says so, that settles it" then what is our criteria?
Speaking of how we can recognize the difference between a real and false prophet, Jesus proposes the following criteria: By their fruits you shall know them. Paul similarly speaks of the "fruits" of the Spirit. From that I would propose that our criteria for moral evaluation is to observe the results in people's lives. Does our application of a particular teaching (like how we practice turning the other cheek) lead to flourishing and love? Or does it lead to harm and oppression? We look at the fruits of our interpretation played out in our practice and evaluate whether those fruits are good or whether they are rotten. Do they lead to life or to death? That's the question Jesus is constantly asking and the question we need to be asking, too.
Take for example the issue of homosexuality: The way that it has been approached by conservative Christians is to basically say, "The Bible says it's wrong. It does not matter that this does not make sense to me, and it does not matter that I can see that gays are being hurt by my rejection of them. The Bible says it, that settles it." As a result we hear stories of parents rejecting their own children, and this being actively encouraged from the pulpit. This leads to broken relationships and profound hurt. That is the fruit, and it is rotten fruit for sure. They recognize the hurt it causes but feel obligated to persist nonetheless because they believe that this is what faithfulness to scripture requires of them. However I would say that they are here reading the Bible in just the same hurtful and wrong way that the Pharisees did, and as a result are "shutting the door to the kingdom of God in people's faces" in that they are rejecting people who very obviously are deeply in need of love and affirmation. We know by looking at the fruit, not by blindly following a text regardless of the fruit, which is exactly how many conservatives are interpreting scripture in this regard.
This brings me to a comment by Kent, who writes,
"We need to be led by our hearts more and our heads less. Love can be subjective to the mind, but not the heart. In my first post, I suggested that revelation was to the heart which convinces the head. What we do as humans is just the opposite. We take in information, process and categorize it with the mind, and then attempt to change our hearts by conforming our behavior to our 'new' paradigms."When I went to Asbury Seminary our motto was where head and heart go hand in hand. Yes it's kinda cheesy, but I always liked it anyway, and as an artist have always been very focused on the heart. I'd like to suggest that another way of saying essentially the same thing would be to say that it is our experience and relationships which convince our heads. People change their mind about homosexuality because they get to know people, they see them, not as a theory or a statistic, but as a real person who they know and care about and respect, and that ends up changing their minds.
So the "heart" part is really about relationships, about our real lived lives together. If our "head" theology is based on theoretical ideology and doctrinal statements then this is indeed in conflict with the heart and with relationships and with life. However consider that the scientific model is one that is instead based on observing how life works and deriving our understanding based on that. Science certainly involves the "head", but it does so in a way that is not based on ideologies, but based on observing life. Our theology should also be based on life, on observing what leads people to life and flourishing, and what leads to harm.