Monday, May 29, 2006

6 Conclusion

Let me now try to review the path we have trod to bring us to a point of decision of some sort. Postmodernism has brought with it certain challenges to the way mainstream evangelicalism does its business. In my opinion, it has brought less challenge to the way the Wesleyan Church does business because we have always tended to read the Bible in a more "spiritual" and thus pre-modern way than the stalwart, Calvinist dominated Evangelical Theological Society might.

In my opinion, the greatest value of postmodernity is the way it lets us look into the abyss of uncertainty surrounding everything we think we know. It humbles us and calls attention to the role that faith plays in all knowledge. But you can't live in that abyss--it is an endless falling, never to land, not even to go splat. We learn our lesson from the look and then do our best to move forward as reflectively as we can. Thus one of my colleagues would consider me more a "chastened modernist" than a true postmodernist.

No matter. Given the uncertainty that surrounds the meaning of the biblical text on every side, given the multiply valid ways one might connect its parts to one another, given the countless ways in which one might connect the text to today's world, the postmodern reader needs controls on the meaning of the biblical text. As Christians we must have some "check and balance" on a text that by itself can come to mean almost anything.

Throughout this paper I have suggested three such controls.

1. The original meaning.
The first control I am suggesting is the original meaning of the words of the Bible, which is the meaning these words first had when they were written to their original contexts. To know this meaning to any significant degree you must have an extensive knowledge of the original languages and the ancient cultures and situations to which these books were first written. In many, many cases the best scholar will still have insufficient evidence to conclude on the original meaning with any degree of certainty.

The primary value of the original meaning is two fold. It is first, the meaning that God inspired some ancient author to write to some specific ancient context. The complex, methodical path of mainstream evangelical scholarship is not wrong, it is just filled with great uncertainty and complexity. If it is the only path to finding God's Word, then most of the Christians who have lived and died throughout history have not heard God's Word with any degree of certainty.

The second value is that the original meaning is a primary catalyst for reform. Studying the original meaning helps us identify development of doctrine of practice, not to reject it, but so that the church can evaluate it in the open with greater reflectivity.

2. The Holy Spirit
Both the original texts of Scripture and the authentic developments of belief and practice in the church have been directed by the Holy Spirit. Whether you are Catholic or Protestant, we cannot be who we are unless we affirm the continued work of the Holy Spirit beyond New Testament times. We would not even have a New Testament if God had not led the church to affirm these specific books. We would simply have a bunch of good books, including the Gnostic gospels and countless other books of varying value.

And the Spirit continues to speak even today. The Wesleyan Church is one of an increasing movement of churches that affirms that the Spirit fills both men and women equally and that our daughters can prophesy in this age just as well as our sons. The church of a hundred years from now will look back on us as some of those who heard the Spirit's voice on this topic, while it will shake its head in shame at those who opposed women in all roles of ministry in this time. The church of the future will wonder about the spirituality of Christians today who pigeonhole women into certain earthly roles just as we question the spirituality of those Christians a hundred years ago who were in favor of slavery. There is nothing those opposed to women in these roles can do to stop this forward movement of the church, for they are fighting the Spirit.

3. The Consensus of the Church
There are things that all Christians agree on, things that the Holy Spirit has long since led all mainstream Christians to affirm. I refer to the rule of faith as those canons of Christian belief long established in the church. They are more than the creeds. I would argue that belief in things like fallen human nature and creation of the world out of nothing go beyond both what the Bible clearly teaches and anything explicitly stated in the creeds. Yet these are the common beliefs of Christendom, affirmations we make in communion with the saints of the ages.

The law of love is the unanimous affirmation of the New Testament, beginning with Jesus himself and reiterated by Paul, James, and John. Any appropriation of Scripture in violation with the love of our neighbor is not an appropriate use of Scripture.

So who is the ideal Christian reader of the biblical texts? The ideal Christian reader knows as much as a human can know about the text, is as filled with the Holy Spirit as a Christian can be with the Spirit, and is in as much communion with the saints of the ages as an individual can be. Clearly such a person does not exist. That is why Christians must read the Bible in community far more than as lone individuals. The task of appropriating the Bible for today is bigger than any one person. It is the ongoing task of the church in its entirety.

5 Ideal Christian Reader 2

So how would the ideal Christian reader read the words of the Bible in addition to the knowledge of the original meaning options that we have already suggested? A second aspect of such a reader, and one very amenable to our Wesleyan tradition, is that the ideal Christian reader will be as full of the Holy Spirit as humanly possible as he or she reads the text. Certainly when God is defining the words for you, you will hear God's Word in the words.

The Bible itself implies that such Spirit readings may or may not be in continuity with the original meaning of the text. The easy example that I often use is Matthew 2:15's use of Hosea 11:1. Hosea 11:1 in its original meaning clearly is talking about Israel and its exodus from Egypt, "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called them, the more they went from me; they sacrificed to the Baals and offered incense to idols."

But Matthew sees a portion of Hosea 11:1 fulfilled in Jesus' exit from Egypt over 700 years after Hosea. Clearly the spiritual meaning Matthew found in these words is quite removed from anything Hosea intended. In this one example alone we have the deconstruction of the modernist evangelical paradigm. When we place the locus of biblical authority in the original meaning, the original meaning tells us that the original meaning is not necessarily the locus of biblical authority.

However, we have already mentioned the danger of looking for the Spirit apart from context and original meaning. Who is to say that you are really hearing the Spirit? It is an easy excuse to fall back into the pre-modern paradigm. So we need something more, the weak link in the Protestantism paradigm, namely, the church.

If the Spirit of Christ inhabits the body of Christ, then it is when we are most in communion with the church, made up of the saints of the ages, that we are most likely to hear the Spirit. In other words, the ideal Christian reader will read the Bible through the eyes of the church, in communion with the saints of the ages.

What does this mean in practical terms? The early fathers referred to something they called the "rule of faith" of Scripture. Augustine suggests that it comes "from the plainer passages of Scripture and from the authority of the church" (De Doctrina 2.2). When a Christian is confronted with "unclear" passages, you use either the context or this rule of faith to steer you toward the correct interpretation.

You might recognize Augustine's teaching here as nothing other than Kuhn's model for how paradigms work. The church of Augustine's day had established certain interpretations of key texts as the controlling texts. For example, Augustine mentions in On Doctrine that Scripture enjoins nothing but love (2.10). So any passage that might seem to contradict the love principle must be read differently or figuratively. In other words, if a literal meaning did not seem to fit with the rule of faith, Augustine downshifted into metaphor or allegory.

Of course Augustine was a pre-modern reader. But as postmodern evangelicals, we can follow his basic principles with our eyes open to context. There are certain rules to what a Christian can believe and do. We find these in the creeds and universal traditions of the church. It is possible to read the words of the Bible in ways that contradict these, and we would find plausible arguments from original meaning scholars in their favor.

But these are not the Christian ways of reading these texts. You could easily argue that Genesis 1:1-2 were not originally about ex nihilo creation, but this is not the Christian way of talking about this text. You could easily argue that New Testament texts calling Jesus Son of God are about his cosmic royalty rather than his ontological divinity. But this is not the Christian way of talking about these texts. For Christians, the words of these texts should cue discussions about certain beliefs all Christians hold in common, the consensus ecclesiae, the "consensus of the church."

This is the rule of faith in belief and the law of love in practice. Any reading of the words of Scripture that does not eventually cue the common beliefs of Christendom or the practice of love is not a properly Christian reading of the words.

5 The Ideal Christian Reader

The natural tendency would be to run through this litany of examples and philosophy and then leave like the person of James who after looking at his or her face in the mirror, goes away only to forget what they look like. So as we now ask who the ideal Christian reader is, it is important that we take with us the conclusions of our quest thus far.

1. First, all readers of the Bible are, to one extent or another, unreflective readers. By this we mean that all of us read the biblical text to some extent or another without realizing that the text might possibly mean something other than the options we have considered. More specifically, all of us, to one extent or another, read the biblical text out of context. This is true of everyone from the best scholar of all time to the worst biblical interpreter in the world.

But some readers of the Bible are less aware of what context is than others, and we would call a reading of Scripture that is programmed paradigmatically to read the text out of context a "pre-modern" approach to the biblical text. In many respects, such pre-modern readings aren't as far off as your typical seminary professor might lead you to believe, especially if you read the text unreflectively as an orthodox Christian. A Wesleyan reading the Bible in a pre-modern way is far to be preferred from a faithless atheist trying to read the Bible in its original context with no allowance for miracles or the literal existence of God.

Yet the words of the Bible can come to mean anything with the pre-modern approach, so it is the basis for cults and all kinds of false teaching. Ulimately, text can come to mean anything the individual wants the text to mean, and their voice subtly becomes the voice of God, which is extremely dangerous.

On the other side of the coin is what I call the principle of reform. We in this room are Protestants, and while Luther's reforms were not perfect and in some respects went to an opposite extreme in their relative separation and isolation of Scripture from the church, the idea of the original meaning of Scripture holds within it a catalyst for reform. The process of identifying beliefs we might have as Christians today that were not on the map of the earliest Christians is a wonderful tool for ecclesiological self-examination.

So for Luther, the concepts of puratory and celibacy of the clergy were ideas clearly not based in Scripture. The Roman Catholic Church might have read them into Scripture in a non-reflective way, but they are not aspects of the original meaning. These moments of reflectivity lead to the Protestant Reformation. So if we do not accept the principle of reform on the basis of the church's foundations, closely related to the original meaning of Scripture, then we should all become Roman Catholic.

On the other hand, simply because we identify a point of development doesn't mean that we must abandon it. This is the point where I believe Luther and Protestantism has got it wrong. For example, I do not believe the early church had anything like ordination as we now practice it. Nor did they practice communion the way we do nor did they have a developed understanding of the Trinity or the dual nature of Christ that we do. We need not abandon church buildings as the house church movement does, simply because that's the way most of the early church did it. It is not development of doctrine and practice after New Testament times that we should reject, but inappropriate development of doctrine and practice. The original meaning is the most appropriate catalyst for such reflection on development, and we should have some pin heads like me around to ask inane original meaning questions.

The ideal Christian reader will know everything that can be known about the original meaning of the text. Such a reader does not exist of course, but we should have as a part of the body of Christ scholars who devote their energies to reading the Bible in context.

2. At the same time, the quest for the original meaning is not strictly the church's quest to hear God's Word in the words either. Again, let's remember what we saw in the mirror. The original meaning of the biblical text is often uncertain and requires a technical expertise in original languages and in ancient history and literature that few in the church are competent to conduct. There are many plausible reconstructions of the original meaning of the biblical text that are at best pre-Christian and many plausible reconstructions--in terms of the evidence--that may actually conflict with things we believe as Christians.

And let me mention at this point that the Wesleyan Church has intrinsically voted against the original meaning as the appropriate path to Scripture. If we thought the original meaning were the path to God's Word, then we would require Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic of anyone who had the capacity to learn it. We would go and sell all we had to learn ancient Canaanite and Mediterranean culture so that we could read the words in their original historical and literary context. We would get our hands on every commentary we could, whether it be written by Christian or atheist, and be open to many concepts we traditionally are not, because we don't want to take any chance of missing the true original meaning of the text. We would rather be heretics or liberal than let traditional Christian interpretations trump the original meaning.

But this is not the way we read Scripture. Indeed, it is not the way evangelical Bible scholars read Scripture, though they might deny it vehemently. When I used Hays and Duvall's evangelical inductive Bible study textbook this Spring, I had to smile at a category they called "presuppositions" for biblical interpretation. It amounted to a set of rules for how a Christian is allowed to read the text. It intrinsically deconstructs the evangelical claim to hear God's Word strictly in the original meaning of the Bible, for it sets non-biblical parameters for what we can and cannot let the text mean.

In the postmodern age, I am arguing that it is and has always been appropriate to read the biblical texts with Christian glasses on, whether what we are seeing turns out to be the original meaning or not. When the early church was debating over the Trinity, the anti-trinitarian Arius himself argued from Scripture that Christ was in fact the first of God's creations before time. He used texts like Colossians 1:15 to argue his case--"he is the firstborn of all creation." Indeed, the church largely abandoned the use of logos language such as we find in John 1:1--"In the beginning was the logos... and the logos was God"--because the background concept of the logos saw it as the first of God's creations.

In short, to defend the idea of the Trinity, the biblical language alone was insufficient to fend off heresy. The Nicene creed uses quasi-philosophical language to present we all as Christians believe: "God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made..." Each one of these phrases is pointed at one or another controversy in the early church. And all of them require us to read the biblical text well beyond its original meaning. The quest for the original meaning will not guarantee us the Christian meaning that for which we turn to these texts.

The conclusion will follow later today: reading the Bible as the church, under the rule of faith and the law of love, and with the Spirit.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

4 Unified Meaning 3: Faith and Works

We might multiply the preceding example many times over, almost denomination by denomination as we identified controlling ideas and corresponding texts, then explored how anomalous texts are reinterpreted and reappropriated accordingly. These pre-modern paradigms, because they largely do not read biblical texts against their original contexts, generate countless different understandings of the Bible's teaching as a whole. They construct their unified meanings with little limitation on how they reinterpret individual texts. And thus individual biblical texts become a unified "Bible."

By contrast, the evangelical paradigm tries to play the game of integrating texts on a more restrictive playing field, namely, that of the original contexts of individual biblical texts. What is important is not so much to fit the words of biblical texts together but suggested principles behind the words. However, I would argue that, like the modernism of which twentieth century evangelicalism was a part, this strategy is not quite reflective enough, even if it is far more reflective than its pre-modern cousin.

Pre-modern interpretation actually creates a very unified meaning from the biblical texts, because the context against which the books are read is singular--it is fairly straightforwardly that of the person or group reading the text. It is as if the pre-modern reader is looking into the text as a mirror for what they already believe. They come to the text with the dictionary of their own mind and unsurprisingly find that the words come to mean exactly what they believe.

In contrast, evangelical interpretation faces a much more daunting task, for it tries to find a unified meaning in the midst of 66 different texts and thus 66 different contexts. It is no surprise that evangelical books on how to study the Bible often read like complex manuals or that Asbury's classic interpretation text is titled Methodical Bible Study. What is ironic is that the end product is still often very diverse--more stable than the pre-modern free for all, but still quite unstable yet.

To illustrate, let's take the issue of faith and works. The pre-modern ground is already well staked out. One of the battle cries of the Reformation was sola fide or "by faith alone." Luther chose a number of controlling texts in Paul's writings, invested those words with a particular meaning, and then proceeded to cope with the naughty verses elsewhere that might seem to conflict. He created a kind of "canon within the canon," where his interpretation of Paul became the most important lens through which to read the other books of the Bible. To this day Protestantism tends to emphasize Paul's writings over the gospels as far as theology is concerned.

The classic "naughty verse" for Luther was of course James 2:24: "a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." This verse was so troublesome to Luther's paradigm that he initially did not even translate James into German, calling it a "right strawy epistle." The same authority he felt to exclude the deuterocanonical books that had been in use by Christians nearly since the beginning of Christendom also initially gave him the boldness to question the authority of James.

On this particular issue, some reflectivity on context actually helps resolve some of the tension between the texts on justification and faith in Paul and this passage in James. To be sure, all the resolution is something we are doing from the outside of the text looking on. The Bible itself, the Bible alone, does not tell us how to fit Paul and James together. James does not say, here's how what I'm saying about justification fits with Paul, and Paul says nothing of this sort either. The glue we use to connect individual teachings in the Bible to one another is not biblical glue--it is theological and rational glue we provide from our interpretive paradigms to create a unified meaning to Scripture, to be able to say "the Bible" says this or that.

The Wesleyan tradition has always had an easier time connecting these texts in Paul and James than some other traditions. In the Lutheran tradition, it is very important that no human effort at all be involved in justification. The very essence of "by grace alone" for the Lutheran is that God forgives with no basis in human action whatsoever. And for the Reformed individual, because God predestines those who will be saved, truly there is no pretext in human action for salvation.

Yet the Wesleyan tradition has always emphasized the importance of what we call holiness after justification. So we have easily suggested that James is giving us the other side to the coin to Paul. True, we get right with God because of his grace, not because of any merit on our part. But if we do not produce fruit, then we will not stay right with God for long.

But what were Paul and James themselves thinking in terms of the original meaning of these texts? Let me now bring us out of the pre-modern discussion, where the focus is on the text without much attention to the underlying context. Indeed, I have been able to discuss faith versus works above with barely one concrete reference to a specific biblical text. My point for the next minute or two is to show 1) just how much uncertainty exists about the original meaning of these texts and 2) just how much thinking and creativity we would really have to exert to create a unified meaning if we follow through with the evangelical path to make the Bible speak to us today. I wish simply to give a glimpse of the kinds of issues we would need to address in a masters or doctoral level discussion of the original meaning of these passages. My point is not to resolve these issues, just to show how complicated the question of meaning quickly becomes.

First, what is the meaning of the following terms in passages like Romans 3, Galatians 2, Ephesians 2, and James 2: justification, salvation, faith, faith of Jesus Christ, works, works of law? What is the timing of salvation and what were the audiences to be saved from. It is the consensus of Pauline scholarship that Paul used salvation language primarily in relation to the future, that we will be saved from God's wrath on the Day of Judgment (e.g., Rom. 5:9). Here is already one distinction between the way most American Christians discuss these texts in contrast to Paul. We use the verb "saved" primarily in the present and past tense; Paul apparently used it most literally in relation to an event that has not yet taken place even for him.

Still again, Ephesians is unusual among Paul's writings in the wording "You have been saved through faith." Paul's writings more typically connect faith with justification rather than salvation, which is then a result of justification that we will experience in the end times (Rom. 10:9). So we begin to see that we must not only integrate Paul with James, but we ourselves must integrate the teaching of Paul's own writings with each other as well. Paul in Romans does not tell us how to connect its teaching to Ephesians, and Ephesians does not tell us how to integrate its wording with Galatians or Romans. These are all tasks we are forced to do. We begin to see the absurdity of claiming that our understanding comes from the Bible alone. Much more is involved.

The plot thickens. When Paul told the Galatians and Romans that they were justified by "faith of Jesus Christ," he used a phrase that can be translated either as "faith in Christ" or as the "faithfulness of Christ." There is no current consensus among original meaning scholars as to which Paul had in mind. American Pauline scholars tend to favor the faithfulness of Christ as what justifies us, with an emphasis on our faith in God and what God has done by raising Jesus from the dead. European scholars--particularly Lutheran ones--have held out longer for the traditional Protestant reading faith in Christ.

There's more. The phrase that Paul uses in Galatians and Romans is not usually just "works" but "works of law." There is no consensus among original meaning scholars as to what exactly this phrase precisely has in mind. A good portion thinks that it refers not to human effort in general but to aspects of the Jewish law that separated Jew and Gentile ethnically, boundary issues like circumcision and food laws. Indeed, many would suggest that we should understand grace in Paul's writings in terms of patron-client relationships in the ancient world, informal relationships between have's and have not's in ancient society. If so, then grace not only could involve action on the client's part, but may have required it for the patron to continue to extend grace.

Scholars would also be divided on whether the language of James 2 is meant deliberately to evoke Paul's writings or arguments. James sure sounds like he is in dialog with some Pauline argument. Paul says Abraham was justified by faith; I say he was justified by works. But works in James are nothing like what they are in Paul. Works for James are concrete good deeds of a largely social nature, helping the poor, widows, the fatherless. Paul never uses the word in this way, with the possible exception of Ephesians. Is James in dialog with Paul or with perverters of Paul?

I'll stop now, but believe me I could go on to worlds unknown. Hundreds and hundreds of pages of doctoral level discussion has taken place over these issues with no clear consensus among those who are supposedly the experts on these topics. So what hope is there for the rest of us? Surely there is another way. My point is the immense controversy and uncertainty surrounding the original meaning of key passages, not to mention the question of how we might integrate them together into a unified teaching so that we can say, "the Bible says this or that." We have seen disagreement among those who are supposed to know the most about the original meaning of every passage. What did the terms faith, works, justification, salvation, faith of Jesus, works of law mean in each individual passage?

And even if we knew the original meaning of each passage, there would be more than one way to integrate them. For example, as Protestants, we have a tendency to treat Paul's texts as the controlling texts. But it would be equally legitimate to make James and Matthew the controlling texts, and consider Paul's texts the less central ones. Someone might suggest that Paul was dealing with a particular juncture in salvation history when it was important to incorporate Gentiles into Christianity without forcing them to be circumcised. We might then treat his writings as more time-bound and the others as more timeless.

Matthew strongly emphasizes the continuity of the Jewish law and the importance of true, concrete righteousness. Its Parable of the Wedding Banquet arguably casts a Gentile Christian into outer darkness for being "dressed" inappropriately. And not all who say "Lord, Lord" will enter the kingdom of heaven, even individuals who cast out demons in Jesus' name. Those who did not clothe the naked or feed the hungry are arguably some of those who, even if Christians, will be cast into outer darkness where there is much weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. This approach fits well with that of James. I can think of no valid argument a person might make against a group that would view these texts as the controlling texts and Paul's as side discussions dealing with issues particular to his time.

My point in all this discussion is not to argue that we change the way we understand Paul or prioritize the teaching of the New Testament--I personally quite like making my camp in Paul's writings. My point is that we are quite significantly unaware of how we come to think "the Bible says" something or another and that the real reasons for our thoughts involve far more than just the Bible alone. We know intuitively that the Bible is immediately relevant to every individual. We know the bulk of what God is saying to us through its words. But we have argued here that 1) most Christians really don't know how to read the words in context in terms of their original meaning; 2) even those who know how to read the words in terms of the original meaning disagree on what that meaning was and 3) even if we knew the original meaning we would still be able to integrate the individual teachings together in multiple, legitimate ways.

Who will free us from this body of polyvalence? Let me show you a more excellent way...

Friday, May 26, 2006

4 Unified Meaning 2: United Pentecostal Church

Our pre-modern example of how individuals and groups create a unified meaning to the biblical texts comes to us from the United Pentecostal Church. As with most small Christian groups with particular ideologies, the UPC has a handfull of biblical texts that serve as the controlling texts for its interpretive paradigm. Acts 2 is probably the most important, but selections from Acts 19 and Titus 2 also serve very important roles.

We start with two very important "definitions" for Acts 2. First, the UPC equates the Spirit filling of Pentecost and all the Spirit fillings of Acts with initial conversion. This is not an unreasonable position to take, given that by far most New Testament scholars would agree. However, the UPC then takes the fact that the early Christians speak in tongues on this occasion and conclude that a person who truly receives the Spirit will speak in tongues (the first major distinguishing mark of the UPC paradigm).

So with this controlling text and controlling idea in hand, the UPC proceeds to assume that tongues are always involved whenever the New Testament speaks of receiving the Holy Spirit, even though it is only in Acts and 1 Corinthians that tongues are mentioned in the New Testament.

The group also notes that baptism in the book of Acts is always "in the name of Jesus Christ." This becomes the controlling idea in the second major distinguishing mark of the UPC paradigm, namely, that one must not be baptized in the name of the Trinity, but in the name of Jesus only. So we turn to Acts 19:1-7 where Paul has a group of "disciples" rebaptized because they have not been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. We note that they speak in tongues when they are baptized in the name of Jesus.

Two other concepts/texts of interest are 1) the fact that God is one and 2) Titus 2:13, which refers to Jesus as "our great God and Savior." They put these concepts together and conclude that there are not three persons in some Trinity, but that there is only one person, God in the Old Testament who becomes Jesus who becomes the Holy Spirit.

These are the controlling ideas and texts in the UPC paradigm. We see immediately that this group has paid a good deal of attention to Scripture to get to this point. No one could accuse this group of a liberal view of Scripture--they have formulated their beliefs on the basis of a close reading of the words of the text. This reading--baptism in the name of Jesus only resulting in speaking in tongues--is the normal science, the controlling ideas in their interpretive paradigm.

But almost any interpretive paradigm will find "naughty data," in this case "naughty verses," that do not fit as easily into the paradigm as others. The UPC, like any church, has developed an ingenious set of coping strategies, "interpretive patches," if you would, that fit the anomalous data into the system.

So take Matthew 28:19: "baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." Now for the ingenious rejoinder: "But look, the word name is singular here, meaning that these are all the same person in three forms. And beside, this is the only reference in the NT like this, Acts consistently mentions baptism in the name of Jesus only."

OK, so what of 1 Corinthians 12:30: "All don't speak in tongues, do they?" This is a question expecting a negative answer. In other words, Paul's very point is that all Christians do not speak in tongues. Another ingenious rejoinder: "Ah but this passage is dealing with the gift of tongues. Everyone must have faith to be a Christian, but only a smaller number have the gift of faith. So with tongues. Tongues in Acts are the evidence of having the Holy Spirit. But some will have the gift of tongues over and above the basic evidence of the Spirit."

If you have ever dealt with someone from any sect like this one, you will know how well rehearsed their answers are to our common sense arguments. No one can accuse them of not paying the closest of detailed attention to the biblical text. No one can accuse them of having a low view of Scripture. Indeed, it is there so called "high" view of Scripture that keeps them from realizing that a good deal of the problem with their unified meaning is that it does not take into account that these books were not in fact part of a single book originally. Matthew, Acts, 1 Corinthians, and Titus were all written under different circumstances and can't be expected to formulate concepts or use language the same ways.

In any case, the UPC gives us a beautiful example of the way paradigms work with regard to the pre-modern creation of unified meaning in the text. A group or individual comes to have a controlling idea or text, usually as a result of cultural or sociological forces at work at the time of the groups inception. Then other biblical texts are integrated into the paradigm of the controlling concept. Problem verses are then ingeniously reinterpreted to fit. Paradigm revolutions are then the stuff of split offs. The UPC itself is the result of a paradigm shift out of the parent Assemblies of God group. And the Assemblies of God group is a slight paradigm shift from the original Azusa Street Pentecostals, who were a paradigm shift from the holiness revivals of the late 1800's, which were arguably a paradigm shift from Wesley and earlier Methodism, and so on.

Next post, how paradigms work with regard to the original meaning of biblical texts.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

4 Creating a Unified Meaning for the Bible

It might seem strange at first glance that the title of this section is creating a unified meaning rather than finding such a meaning. But that is exactly the point I wish to show in this section. Both theory and history demonstrate that it is possible, indeed almost certain, that different individuals and groups will claim to find unified meanings to Scripture that differ from one another. What we will show is that, because words take on different meanings depending on the context against which they are read, we must consider these different unified meanings equally valid in terms of the text alone. It is only when a specific context is specified that we can begin to evaluate certain unified meanings as more or less valid.

The process goes as follows: 1) an individual or group will have a controlling concept or text on a given matter; 2) texts that cohere with this controlling concept or text, or whose meaning can be made to cohere with it, are prioritized; 3) texts that do not cohere as well or are potential threats to the controlling interpretation are reinterpreted and deprioritized.

Here the postmodern philosophers of choice are Thomas Kuhn and Michel Foucault. Kuhn's name will be familiar to many here for his popularizing of the word paradigm in the 80's. Dealing with the philosophy of science, Kuhn discussed the "structure of scientific revolutions." According to Kuhn, "normal science" proceeds in accordance with certain paradigms. So currently, some dominant paradigms are relativity, quantum mechanics, evolution, etc... The bulk of scientists operate under the basic assumptions of these paradigms. They will not, for example, look at the fossil evidence to determine if evolution is the best hypothesis--it is the assumption under which they operate. Instead, they will work to fill in the details of evolution or to explain data that doesn't seem to fit.

But normal science will assume the data does fit. It will not throw the dominant paradigm out simply because of anomalous data. Indeed, normal science will fight tooth and nail to maintain the dominant paradigm, whether it be the idea that the sun goes around the earth or that packages of energy do not just simply jump from one state to the next. It is at this point that we might mention another postmodernist philosopher of science, Paul Feyerabend, who has discussed the scientific guild as a social institution. Those who even suggest something outside the dominant paradigm are often shamed by the guild, ousted or prevented from having jobs, etc... These dynamics remind us of Michel Foucault, who has pointed out that power is always involved in what is considered truth by a given group.

But Kuhn points out that eventually the anomalous data, what I call "naughty data," will eat at some young upstart (or old upstart) who begins, often secretly or on the side, to brainstorm outside the box of the dominant paradigm. If they can convince others or maneuver their ideas well enough politically, those who hold to the old paradigm will eventually die off, leaving them as the power wielders of the new normal science. So Einstein never accepted quantum mechanics. But he's dead now, and you will search long and hard to find any competent physicist who disagrees with it.

It is important to note that Kuhn is not arguing for some evolution of knowledge. Although he backpeddled a little when some suggested creation science might be as valid a paradigm as evolution, Kuhn's basic point was that science is not evolving into more accurate constructions of reality. It is just changing, in his view, moving from one paradigm to the next.

He has renegged somewhat on this extreme view, and I think he should. I have already mentioned that I view scientific claims as modern equivalents to ancient myths. But I do not in any way suggest that they are therefore false or to be discouraged in any way. Clearly some scientific myths are better expressions of the mysteries of nature than others. Clearly some scientific theories have better predictive power than others, and it would be silly to throw the baby out with the bath water.

What does all this have to do with the Bible? I wish to discuss two examples of interpretive paradigms at work to create a unified meaning in the biblical texts. I wish to start with a pre-modern example of these dynamics at work and then follow it up with an example of how they work when we are trying to read the biblical books in their original context. What we will find is that the idea of a "biblical worldview" or a "biblical perspective" always involves the operation of a particular theological paradigm on the data of the biblical text. When the child says, "Jesus loves me; this I know, for the Bible tells me so," the "Bible" here is the processing of individual texts by way of a particular theological paradigm with a resultant "biblical perspective." The idea of "the Bible" as a singular entity is thus a construct built from the combination of multiple texts plus theological paradigm.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Uncertainties of Biblical Meaning

Let me try again...

I once had a conversation with a fellow Wesleyan in which I was talking about how our "tradition" interprets the Bible. At some point in the discussion, the person began to get frustrated and finally exclaimed, "Stop calling it our tradition. We just read the Bible and do what it says!"

We do not need to reference post-modernism to recognize the incredible diversity of biblical interpretation out there. There are over 20,000 different American denominations who claim to get their beliefs from the Bible, yet we will find that each one has its own unique understandings and "traditions" of how to interpret and apply different passages. Go to a typical Bible study within each of these churches and you will multiply the interpretations a thousandfold, perhaps a millionfold, as each individual within each of these groups brings his or her unique lenses to bear on the biblical text. "Here's what it means to me. What does it say to you?"

In my opinion, the current situation in relation to the Bible implies that Luther really lost his debate with Erasmus on the question of whether the Bible in isolation from the church is a sufficient basis for Christianity. Someone like David Koresh had the Bible and believed it to be fully inerrant in every aspect, yet apart from the church he found heinously unChristian meanings to its words. Severed from the church, the Bible in his hands became a catalyst for evil.

We might say that the Bible along with the Holy Spirit is sufficient, but how are we to know when someone is hearing the Spirit? People sometimes "hear" the Spirit giving conflicting messages. Is not the church a safer forum to test the spirits than as isolated individualists?

But these are the end points of our quest. What we want now is to find an island of order in this sea of interpretive chaos and chart a course to it.

I have personally found the thinking of several late modernist and post-modernist thinkers very helpful in conceptualizing the reason for such diverse biblical interpretations. Let me suggest some of the reasons for such incredible diversity.

1. Meaning is a function of minds.
Those of you who are acquainted with post-modern thought will immediately recognize that most thoroughbred postmodernists would not like the way I have worded this first point. For Derrida or Heidegger, I have messed up from the very beginning. For Derrida, I have invoked meaning as if it were a presence, while he would argue it is not a thing but an absence. For Heidegger and others, I have seemed to invoke the mind as if it were distinguishable from the world it contemplates, the so called distinction between I as subject and the world as object.

So goes the ongoing discussion we call the history of philosophy. My sense is that their language is laced with a good deal of irrelevant baggage from philosopher reacting to the philosopher before her, who was reacting to the philosopher before him, etc... I find useful things in all of them, but often feel the need to discard much that is the business of professional philosophical accountants.

Enough of that. All of it is to say that I am using "meaning" and "mind" in non-technical senses. I do not know what mind or meaning really might "be"--and I'm not suggesting that anyone else really does either. But they are certainly useful concepts, modern "myths," if you would, that express true mysteries. Don't be alarmed at my use of the word myth in this way, for I consider scientific equations to be very precise modern myths that express truths about the ultimately mysterious workings of nature.

Back to meaning and minds. In my journey to understand language, one late modernist thinker I have found helpful as one entry point is Ferdinand de Saussure. In particular, he argued that there is no pre-existent set of concepts that the words of a language map to. Rather, the specific meanings of words in a language depends on the culture that speaks the language. Further, the look and sound of the words in a language are pretty much arbitrary.

Take for example the word dog. This word neither looks anything nor sounds anything like a dog. The "signifier" that means "dog" in English is for all intents and purposes arbitrary. In that sense, texts (whether they be written or oral) are really cues of meaning--there is no meaning in the squiggles on a page or the sounds in the air. The meaning in my mind is cued by these sights or sounds (or in the case of brail, feelings--we could communicate by smell or taste as well). But the meaning is ultimately a matter of the mind looking at the text.

A simple illustration will suffice. The word "Gift" is a set of sounds I just uttered or if you are reading this paper, a set of marks on a screen or page. But what does it mean in your mind? If you are primarily an English speaker, you probably thought of something someone gives. But in German, the word "Gift" means poison. The meaning this word cues has nothing to do with the look or sound of the word. It completely depends on the mind reading it.

2. Meaning is a function of context.
Perhaps the most important idea of late modernism in relationship to meaning came from Ludwig Wittgenstein. In his own way, Wittgenstein helps us see that the words we use do not have some fixed meaning behind them. What the full blooded postmodernist Jacques Derrida would do in a far more flamboyant and far less helpful way, Wittgenstein gives us in a much more useful way.

Derrida argued that words have indeterminate meaning. He makes much of the Greek word pharmakon that can mean either poison or remedy. The word, he argues, has opposing meanings in and of itself. Yet while Derrida goes on to try to destabilize the meaning of any text, Wittgenstein stands ready to help us from the very beginning. After a number of migraines from reading Derrida, after the smoke clears, we are left basically with two useful conclusions: 1) that words are slippery things whose meaning can quickly unravel and escape and 2) that "context is everything" in determining the meaning of words.

Words do not have fixed meanings, to where some thing that is the meaning of the word will always or even often appear in a bubble over your head when you read or hear the word. In some cases they might in a most basic way. A two year old sees a fire and says, "dat?" The Mommy replies, "fire" and points to the fire. The two year old says, "fir."

But Wittgenstein pointed out that we often have nothing concrete to point to--in other words, there's no picture in the bubble over our heads. What concrete thing stands behind the word "is" or "righteousness"? In the end, a word needs a context for us to have any real sense of what it means.

So you can't know the meaning of the word fire unless you hear it in a context. "Well of course I can," someone might say. "I can tell you what the word fire means without a sentence. It is something that burns, has a orangish-yellow hue," etc...

But what if the sentence I have in mind is the following: "I am going to fire you." How well does the burning, orangish-yellow definition suit this sentence. Unless you have just come off of a really bad week, I doubt the definition that first came to your mind corresponds to the needed definition for the word fire in this case.

We can easily show just how complicated the situation can become. "Ready, aim, fire." "I'm all fired up for the Truth Conference." "Come on, baby, light my fire." This last phrase in particular raises an even more significant issue. A non-English speaker might put this last sentence into Google and translate it. But there's a better than average chance that they will end up with a puzzled look on their face. "Come forward, infant, ignite my" what? My match? My grill? Frankly, an American of fifty years ago might not make much sense of the sentence anymore than they might a phrase like "shock and awe," "google," or "blog."

Really to understand the sentence, "Come on, baby, light my fire," you need to know late twentieth century American slang and probably have heard a certain song by the Doors in the early 70's. Wittgenstein well put it when he suggested that we wouldn't likely understand a lion even if it spoke English, because we would not have a frame of reference from which to know what language games the lion's words were playing.

We could multiply many an amusing story at this point. At the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, the German demanding surrender from the American general found himself unable to interpret the response he received, "Nuts." What does that mean, thought the General and his translators? He'll surrender if we send them some nuts?

During my early days in England I felt the same way. I remember a night in particular I spent during my first week in England. All the words I heard around me were words I knew, but because I knew nothing of British TV or "football" culture, I really had no real idea what anyone was saying--it was similar to a feeling I would have in Germany a couple years later when everyone was speaking German all around me.

So, Wittgenstein wisely suggested, the meaning of a word derives from the "language game" you are playing in particular setting in life. A dictionary thus does not tell us what a word means--as if the word had some fixed meaning in itself. Dictionaries are lists of how words are used at any point in time, and these change all the time. The meanings are listed from most common to least. New meanings are constantly being added and old meanings constantly removed.

So what, you might ask, does any of this have to do with the Bible? The answer is that individual words, phrases, sentences, etc... can have multiple meanings and combinations of meanings. The Bible is made up of at least 66 books written in three languages over the course of at least 1000 years all over the ancient world in countless individual settings. It has many, many words. This multiplies the potential meanings of its words, especially in combination, into the billions.

The fact that the uses of words change over time also contributes to such complexity. Dictionaries are constantly adding new meanings and removing archaic ones. Indeed, this is the biggest problem with continuing to use the 1769 revision of the 1611 King James Version (most KJV advocates don't realize that the version they refuse to update is the fifth major revision to update its language with 1000's of changes from the original 1611 version). The English language has changed significantly since the late 1700's.

So when the KJV says to let your "conversation be known to every man," it does not mean talking; it means your manner of living. Even someone who has used the KJV all their life may not realize these subtle shifts in meaning.

Let us do a brief case study in the changes in meaning that we can observe with the words of the biblical text using Daniel 11:31: "They will set up the abomination that causes desolation." The phrase "abomination of desolations" provides us with a great example of Derrida's idea that words have an indeterminant meaning.

Anyone who has followed the Left Behind series or its Late Great Planet Earth predecessor will know the popular interpretation of this verse. The Antichrist will rebuild the Jerusalem temple and reinstitute the daily sacrifice. But at some point in the Great Tribulation, the Antichrist will set himself up as God in that temple: thus, the "abomination of desolations." Perhaps these heirs of John Darby (1800's) are correct about the end of time. But if they are, it is because the Holy Spirit has given them this perspective on these words in the Bible. As most in this room will know, the Darby approach to prophecy is an ingenious (and pre-modern) interweaving of biblical texts together that originally had little to do with each other.

Here is our first example of the flexibility of the meaning of words. The tendency of every generation of Bible users is to read the words of Scripture in the light of their own culture, situations, and contexts. The interpretations of biblical prophecy are only an extreme example. The tendency is to do this with every part of Scripture, ranging from what we might think it specifically means to "love your neighbor" to the specifics and connotations of what it means to "commit adultery." The greatest cause behind the myriad of biblical interpretations is the tendency of all interpreters to define the words in the light of their own dictionaries, their own "language games" and "forms of life."

Luke 21 interpreted the "abomination" of Daniel 11 differently from Darby, Lindsay, or LaHaye. There Luke renders a prophetic word of Christ in relation to the destruction of the Jerusalem in AD70: "When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, know that its desolation is near." Luke takes the abomination as the destruction of Jerusalem as a whole, not specifically in terms of anything placed or done in the Jerusalem temple.

Matthew and Mark, just slightly earlier than Luke, give us a more ambiguous and slightly different impression of the phrase "abomination of desolations." On the one hand, the context of the prophecy leads us to see it also in terms of the events surrounding the destruction of the temple in AD70. But their wording pushes more in the direction of something "standing" in the temple. Also, their wording of the prophecy tends to mix words relating to the destruction of the temple in AD70 with words relating to the second coming of Christ. LaHaye would not use Luke to argue that these prophecies are about the end times. Luke teases out almost all the elements of the prophecy relating to the second coming and focuses the words on the destruction of the temple in AD70.

From where we sit today, 2 Thessalonians 2 is a case study in biblical ambiguity. Paul probably had Daniel 11 in mind when he said that a "man of lawnessness" would set himself up in the temple as God. But what temple did he have in mind? Did he mean the church, since he tells the Corinthians, "You are the temple of the Lord"? Did he mean the temple in Jerusalem? It was of course standing when Paul wrote these words. But it is now gone and Paul says nothing of its destruction, let alone its later reconstruction. Should we hear an event in AD39 in the back of Paul's mind as he wrote these words? In that year, the emperor Caligula tried to set up a statue of himself in the temple, thinking himself a god. Was Paul speaking of a similar event in the near future? At the end of time? Was it a reference to the destruction of the temple in AD70? Did he expect Nero to try something like this?

This is again an extreme example of ambiguity, but it demonstrates the fact that even the original meaning of Scripture is capable of great ambiguity even when we know how to search for the original meaning. 2 Thessalonians 2 is filled with ambiguous comments that remind us that we are not the original audience, that we are not the original "you" of this text. Paul tells the ancient Thessalonians, "Don't you remember I told you about these things when I was with you?" They may have known--we weren't there.

It is universally agreed that the original referent of Daniel 11:31 was the desecration of the temple in Jerusalem in 167BC by Antiochus Epiphanes. The series of events throughout Daniel 11 read like a history book of the early second century at least up until 11:40.

So we see in this case study an example of how the same words can and have come to take on quite a variety of meanings depending on the context against which they are read. Not only is this phenomenon true of those unequipped to ask after the original meaning, but it is true among those who are so equipped. As a side note, this case study shows that the biblical text itself swims in the ambiguity of its own texts. When Biblical books interact with other biblical books, they frequently reinterpret the meaning of words and phrases, providing us with a microcosm of what has and will always take place in the interpretation of biblical words.

In the light of these realities, it is naive to suggest that the text of the Bible alone can serve as the authority for Christianity. The text itself is capable of taking on almost limitless different meanings. The only safe path is to define carefully which meaning of the Bible is authoritative for Christians. To say that the Bible is the authority without specifying a context against which to read its words is to open the door for any individual reader to define the words and, thus, to allow that individual's mind to have the authority of God. The quest for biblical authority is a quest for the appropriate context against which to read the biblical texts.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Just How Postmodern Am I?

I've been doing a little reading this weekend, and the question I am asking myself is how postmodern I really am. I'm not interested in having a certain cool label. Nate Crawford has brought up Gadamer and the merging of horizons--I've never really clicked with the two horizons thrust, but maybe it's because I don't fully understand it. This is on my agenda for this week.

Here are four issues where I raise the question: how postmodern am I?

1. Descartes: I actually invoke Descartes, the father of modernism, in my epistemology. I agree that you can legitimately doubt the truth almost everything.

However, I don't arrive at the conclusion that "I" am the only thing I can't doubt. I conclude that something exists, the thing I am calling "thought." It has something to do with what I call "I."

And my enterprise is not to establish certainty in knowledge, which was Descartes enterprise (to lay "foundations" for truth). My enterprise is more to establish degree of doubtability. To what extent am I unsure rather than to what extent am I sure. I normalize faith as the essential ingredient in all "knowledge." The question is the amount of faith required for anything known.

2. Most fundamentally, I operate with the distinction between subject and object, between myself and external reality. Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida, each in their own way (and Derrida most extremely), rejected any "correspondence" model of truth, where truth is when my idea corresponds to that which is outside me.

This is the point where Derrida might simply label me a modernist. I operate with meta-language, with the distinction between sign and signified.

But I do so only because it seems necessary as a heuristic tool in the name of pragmatic realism. And I don't have any narrow correspondence understanding of truth. I might say, "Watch out for that carpet nail" in hope that my daughter won't step on it and bleed. But I have no real sense of what these words really correspond to outside of myself. What I know is that these words potentially work to change the course of things I think of as real world "events." In that sense, the correspondence test for truth for me is really little more than the pragmatic test for truth--does the "concept" work in the course of human events?

So I am content to say that I also do not know what the external "truth" of the meta-language such as this post is (this is a meta-post, and that a meta-comment on the post, and that a meta-comment on the meta-comment on the post, and that...). But some will nodd at my comments or believe they "understand" them. I think I am saying something too. To that extent the subject-object model of epistemic operation seems to "work," even though we do not really know what is "really" going on.

3. Third, I agree with Kant that it works to say by faith that things in themselves exist. Yet we only know them as our minds organize them. Does this critical realism make me a modernist?

But I do not agree with Kant on the rules for our minds or with the universality of the categories of our minds. Unlike Kant, we know that the brain stands behind such unities of consciousness, and these functions of our brains seem to derive overwhelmingly from physical organ structures and chemical interactions. Neurophysiology (not to mention cultural anthropology) seems to knock the wind out of Kant's sails.

4. Lastly, I believe it is important for a historic Christian to acknowledge the "objective" existence of God beyond this universe. Derrida would take a via negativa, where God is only defined in terms of what He is not rather than what he is.

But I start with the assumption that God is outside this universe and thus that 1) we mostly know him negatively, even though by faith we affirm His existence beyond our frame of reference (again noting that this language works without us really knowing what we are saying) and 2) by analogy as He has revealed Himself to us, particularly in Jesus Christ.

Am I postmodern?

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Training for the Pew

I'm going to recast this uncertainty thing, but I had a thought today I thought I'd mention by way of intermission.

Pastors have to undergo training, whether at a college or seminary or study program. We all know that doesn't make them perfect. It doesn't guarantee they'll have good interpersonal skills or not be arrogant or ignorant. But at least someone has taken a shot at helping them be equipped to lead spiritually and wisely.

It occurred to me that the people in the pew don't ever get this kind of education. Sure, their pastors go blah, blah, blah from the pulpit all the time. But you don't want to hear instruction from the person who's ticking you off, and sometimes the things that are ticking the people off are real faults or misjudgments of their pastors.

But it sure seems like a denomination might do well to arrange something like "in the pew seminary" to help the person in the pew realize that they shouldn't use all available fellowship time at church to sell Avon or leave the church because their grandson wasn't elected Sunday School Superintendent. And maybe the pastor's attention was absorbed by someone in the hand shaking line before you and shouldn't be faulted because your hand was neglected.

But of course who would teach it? Do our DS-es have the required wisdom or clout to have a zone meeting once or twice a year on "pew etiquette"? Or should the denomination create a short curriculum for Sunday School?

Anyway, idle thoughts about how carnal most pew sitters seem to be out there in the real world--I dare not say the real church. I am blessed to attend a church that doesn't seem to be overrun with the petty backstabbers and nitpickers of home church U.S.A.

Uncertainty, Take 4

Okay, okay, let me try the whole sequence again.

3. The Uncertainties of Biblical Meaning
The philosophy of the twentieth century was pre-occupied with language and meaning in texts. One of the early influential thinkers in this regard was Ferdinand de Saussure, who discussed the arbitrary relationship between what he called a "signifier" and what it "signifies." Take for example the word dog. This word neither looks anything nor sounds anything like a dog. The "signifier" that means "dog" in English is for all intents and purposes arbitrary.

In that sense, texts (whether they be written or oral) are really cues of meaning--there is no meaning in the squiggles on a page or the sounds in the air. The meaning is cued by these sights or sounds (or in the case of brail, feelings--we could communicate by smell or taste as well). But the meaning is ultimately a matter of the mind.

Do words correspond neatly to things? Not really. In some cases they do in a most basic way. A two year old sees a fire and says, "dat?" The Mommy replies, "fire" and points to the fire. The two year old says, "fir."

But the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein has pointed out that we often have nothing concrete to point to. What concrete thing stands behind the word "is" or "righteousness"?

In the end, a word needs a context for us to have any real sense of what it means. So you can't know the meaning of the word fire unless you hear it in a context.

"Well of course I can tell you what the word fire means without a sentence," someone might retort. "It is something that burns, has a orangish-yellow hue," etc...

But what if the sentence I have in mind is the following: "I am going to fire you." How well does the burning, orangish-yellow definition suit this sentence. Unless you have just come off of a really bad week, I doubt the definition that first came to your mind corresponds to the needed definition for the word fire in this case.

We can easily show just how complicated the situation can become. "Ready, aim, fire." "I'm all fired up for the Truth Conference." "Come on, baby, light my fire."

This last phrase in particular raises an even more significant issue. A non-English speaker might put this last sentence into Google and translate it. But there's a better than average chance that they will end up with a puzzled look on their face. "Come forward, infant, ignite my" what? My match? My grill? Frankly, an American of fifty years ago might not make much sense of the sentence anymore than they might a phrase like "shock and awe," "google," or "blog."

Really to understand the sentence, "Come on, baby, light my fire," you need to know late twentieth century American slang and probably have heard a certain song by the Doors in the early 70's. Wittgenstein well put it when he suggested that we wouldn't likely understand a lion even if it spoke English, because we would not have a frame of reference from which to know what language games the lion's words were playing.

We could multiply many an amusing story at this point. At the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, the German demanding surrender from the American general found himself unable to interpret the response he received, "Nuts." What does that mean, thought the General and his translators? He'll surrender if we send them some nuts?

During my early days in England I felt the same way. I remember a night in particular I spent during my first week in England. All the words I heard around me were words I knew, but because I knew nothing of British TV or "football" culture, I really had no real idea what anyone was saying--it was similar to a feeling I would have in Germany a couple years later when everyone was speaking German all around me.

So, Wittgenstein wisely suggested, the meaning of a word derives from the "language game" you are playing in particular setting in life. A dictionary thus does not tell us what a word means--as if the word had some fixed meaning in itself. Dictionaries are lists of how words are used at any point in time, and these change all the time. The meanings are listed from most common to least. New meanings are constantly being added and old meanings constantly removed.

So what, you might ask, does any of this have to do with the Bible?

The answer is that individual words, phrases, sentences, etc... can have multiple meanings and combinations of meanings. The Bible is made up of at least 66 books written in three languages over the course of at least 1000 years all over the ancient world in countless individual settings. It has many, many words. This multiplies the potential meanings of its words, especially in combination, into the billions.

The fact that the uses of words change over time also contributes to such complexity. Dictionaries are constantly adding new meanings and removing archaic ones. Indeed, this is the biggest problem with continuing to use the 1769 revision of the 1611 King James Version. The English language has changed significantly since the late 1700's. So when it mentions "conversation," it does not mean just talking; it means your manner of living. Even someone who has used the KJV all their life may not realize these subtle shifts in meaning.

Let us do a brief case study in the changes in meaning that we can observe with the words of the biblical text using Daniel 11:31: "They will set up the abomination that causes desolation." Anyone who has followed the Left Behind series or its Late Great Planet Earth predecessor will know the popular interpretation of this verse. The Antichrist will rebuild the Jerusalem temple and reinstitute the daily sacrifice. But at some point in the Great Tribulation, the Antichrist will set himself up as God in that temple: thus, the "abomination that causes desolation."

Perhaps these heirs of Darby are all correct about the end of time. But if they are, it is because the Holy Spirit has given them this perspective on these words in the Bible. As most in this room will know, the Darby approach to prophecy is an ingenious (and pre-modern) interweaving of biblical texts together that originally had little to do with each other.

Here is our first example of the flexibility of the meaning of words. The tendency of every generation of Bible users is to read the words of Scripture in the light of their own culture, situations, and contexts. The interpretations of biblical prophecy are only an extreme example. The tendency is to do this with every part of Scripture, ranging from what we might think it specifically means to "love your neighbor" to the specifics and connotations of what it means to "commit adultery." The greatest cause behind the myriad of biblical interpretations is the tendency of all interpreters to define the words in the light of their own dictionaries.

Luke 21 interpreted the "abomination" differently. There Luke renders a prophetic word of Christ in relation to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD70: "When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, know that its desolation is near." Luke takes the abomination as the destruction of Jerusalem as a whole, not specifically in terms of anything placed or done in the Jerusalem temple.

Matthew and Mark, just a little earlier than Luke, both interpret the phrase "abomination that causes desolation" also in terms of the events surrounding the destruction of the temple in AD70, but their wording pushes still more in the direction of something "standing" in the temple. Their rendition of the prophecy also tends to mix words relating to the destruction of the temple in AD70 with words relating to the second coming of Christ. In contrast, Luke teases out almost all the elements of the prophecy relating to the second coming and focuses the words on the destruction of the temple in AD70.

Paul probably had Daniel 11 in mind when he said that a "man of lawnessness" would set himself up in the temple as God. But what temple did he have in mind? Did he mean the church, since he tells the Corinthians, "You are the temple of the Lord"? Did he mean the temple in Jerusalem? It was of course standing when Paul wrote these words. But it is now gone and Paul says nothing of its destruction, let alone its later reconstruction. Should we hear an event in AD39 in the back of Paul's mind as he wrote these words? In that year, the emperor Caligula tried to set up a statue of himself in the temple, thinking himself a god. Was Paul speaking of a similar event in the near future? At the end of time? Was it a reference to the destruction of the temple in AD70? Did he expect Nero to try something like this?

This is again an extreme example of ambiguity, but it demonstrates the fact that even the original meaning of Scripture is capable of great ambiguity even when we know how to search for the original meaning. 2 Thessalonians 2 is filled with ambiguous comments that remind us that we are not the original audience, that we are not the original "you" of this text. Paul tells the ancient Thessalonians, "Don't you remember I told you about these things when I was with you?" They may have known--we weren't there.

It is universally agreed that the original referent of Daniel 11:31 was the desecration of the temple in Jerusalem in 167BC by Antiochus Epiphanes. The series of events throughout Daniel 11 read like a history book of the early second century at least up until 11:40.

So we see in this case study an example of how the same words can and have come to take on quite a variety of meanings depending on the context against which they are read. Not only is this phenomenon true of those unequipped to ask after the original meaning, but it is true among those who are so equipped. Finally, we see in this case study the fact that even the New Testament itself sometimes reinterprets the meaning of words and phrases in the Old Testament, a microcosm of what has and will always take place in the interpretation of biblical words.

Uncertainty, Take 3

I'll continue to babble and edit it down and into something that is tight and researched (I'm in Florida right now for my mother's 80th birthday).

It seems impossible to go very deeply at all into biblical studies and not soon realize how great the volume of different interpretations and proposed scenarios there are for what the meaning of practically any biblical passage might really be. As I frequently tell New Testament survey classes, if a true false question begins, "Some scholars think...," the answer to the question is probably true, because you can't throw a rock and not hit a scholar who thinks some thing about just about everything.

Let me spin out just two or three cases in biblical ambiguity. One comes to mind in light of the Da Vinci Code. The Bible of course never tells us that Jesus was married. But then again, we wouldn't know Peter or James was married either if Paul had not chanced to mention this fact really quite incidentally in 1 Corinthians 9:5. We think to ourselves, "Surely the Bible would mention if Jesus were married." But the point is of course that this is "we" thinking to "ourselves." What if in fact this issue is far more significant to us that it would have been to the authors of the gospels? We would have mentioned it. But you could make a good case that the matter would have been a matter of indifference to them.

[By the way, while I don't think Jesus was married, I can't think of anything heretical about this suggestion in itself. We believe Jesus was fully human. We don't believe sex is evil. Only the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions have theological problems with this, since they have come over time to view sex as an activity for the less than perfect or a necessary evil. Now the idea that Jesus had a child wierds me out.]

And now for the case of semantic ambiguity. After the resurrection, Mary Magdalene says to Jesus (without knowing it's Jesus), "They have taken my Lord away, and I don't know where they have put him" (John 20:13). The word Lord is our case in point. In many languages, the word Mister actually is the same as the word Master (case in point). In Spanish, Jesus is Senior, and, oh look, there's Senior Smith. In German, Jesus is der Herr and look, there's Herr Schmidt. So in Greek, Jesus is kurios. And there's Kurios Dukakis.

So is Mary asking where her Mister is?

I don't think so. First, I really don't know if this convention goes as far back as the first century. But notice that when Mary finds out it's Jesus, she calls him Rabboni, teacher. Funny not to call your husband something a little more spectacular when you realize it's him. And I doubt that Thomas is calling Jesus husband when he says a little later, "My Lord and my God" (John 20:28). Well, my point was just one in semantic ambiguity and to give a taste of how much reading between the lines is involved in biblical interpretation.

Let me spin out another perfectly plausible scenario behind the creation and incorporation of the material in Philippians 2:6-11. The evidence does not of course suggest that this is what actually happened--the following scenario is simply wild and unsubstantiated speculation. But it is perfectly possible, as countless other wild speculative scenarios might be. And of course that is my point: the smallest tidbit of added evidence might lead us to modify our understanding of countless biblical passages vastly, even in precisely the opposite direction to current understanding.

In AD39ish, the emperor Gaius Caligula tried to set a statue of himself up in the Jerusalem temple. He was talked out of it by Herod Agrippa 1 (see Acts 12) and Petronius, the Roman procurator at that time. Well you can imagine that this event sent shockwaves throughout the Jewish world. It's hard for me to imagine that it didn't spawn a lot of thinking on Daniel 11, which talks about a king from the north setting up an "abomination of desolation" in the temple.

Sometime in the 40's, a Jew named Philo wrote a little treatise about his embassy to Gaius. Some have suggested (there's the line) that he may have written it for the emperor Claudius as a warning--don't mess with the Jewish people because God watches out for us. I find this improbable--what emperor would care? But that's not important right now.

One line near the end of this treatise is striking. Philo suggests that it's not so easy to counterfeit the "form of God." Philo is probably playing on the image Caligula tried to set up in the temple. But I suspect he's also saying that Caligula himself was not really in the form of a god either.

Now for the wild speculation. Let's say Apollos takes a trip to his home town of Alexandria in the early 50's sometime. He comes across the treatise there, which everyone is enjoying because it puts down Caligula. The line "form of God" strikes him. Unlike Caligula, Jesus really did have the form of a god, but unlike Caligula, he didn't treat his divine royalty as something to exploit, but he took the form of a servant. Here we remember that the OT refers to human kings as sons of God (2 Samuel 7:14; Psalm 2:7; 89:27) and even as God (Psalm 45:6; Isaiah 9:6).

So Apollos goes hymnic, and writes a poem with something like the following in sense:

Although [Jesus] had the authority of divine royalty
He did not think of it as something to exploit
But he emptied himself
And played the role of a servant

After he became like mere mortals
And looked like a mere man to us
He humbled himself
And became obedient to death

Therefore God super-exalted him
And bestowed on him the name above all names
That every knee should bow and tongue confess
That Jesus Christ is Lord.

Now it seems to me that I have created a scenario here that is perfectly plausible and I think I could defend this interpretation of the words in Philippians and reconstruction of its original form in a doctoral level journal. I'm not saying that this is the right interpretation, only that I think I could defend it and that no one could easily prove it wrong even if we cannot prove it right either.

So this is my point. I have been able to speculate on a series of events and meanings that are quite different from the usual understanding of these words. Usually the phrase "form of God" is taken to refer to Christ's pre-existent divine nature. His becoming in the likeness of humans is usually taken as a reference to the incarnation. But if we know just one little bit of data--that the author of this hymn that Paul expands on in Philippians had read Philo's Embassy to Gaius and had been struck by the line "form of God" in it--then our interpretation of the Philippian hymn would have to change significantly.

Well, you know the tales of ambiguity never cease. I could go on and on and would enjoy doing it, but it would kill you with boredom. How about my current translation of Galatians 2:16: "since we know a person is not justified by works of law unless by way of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, even we [Jews] have exercised faith so as to be incorporated into Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by a Christ-like faith and not by works of law..." Compare it to any translation you have.

My goal at this point of the paper is merely to argue that the meaning of the biblical text is really far more ambiguous than most Christians would imagine. Which of my many examples these last three posts makes that point best?

Friday, May 19, 2006

Uncertainty, Take 2

When we come to the Bible, the nature of our situation multiplies the polyvalence of these texts a billionfold. First, we have millions of individual readers each of whom brings his or her own unique "dictionary" to the text--where the text itself is made up of at least 66 books written in three languages all over the ancient world over the course of a 1000 years or more. I assume that there is of course a high degree of overlap of interpretation on many issues. But there is also the x factor of individuality that we observe in any old Bible study group where someone says, "When I read this passage, I think of..."

And here let me mention just two distinctions: denotation and connotation, and the question of literal versus metaphor.

Take the word dog. The literal denotation of this word is an animal with which most humans are probably acquainted. Words often do have concrete references in the world that anchor their meaning somewhat. In my opinion, Derrida's approach to language goes to an extreme by not taking the frequently referential dimension of language into account (cf. Ricoeur).

On the other hand, Wittgenstein has made it very clear that words and expressions do not have to be referential--in fact that any referential dimension to words is really icing on the cake. Wittgenstein's linguistic breakthrough allegedly came when a friend of his gave him the Italian version of the finger and said something like, "Hey Ludwig, picture this." Wittgenstein realized that the real meaning of the finger does not correspond to some real world referent that you can picture.

Once the bubble of the "picture" theory of language is busted, its failure seems all too obvious. To what real world thing does the word "is" correpond? Or righteousness? Indeed, while I believe we must affirm the objective existence of God apart from ourselves, I would argue that most people do not really use God-language in this way. Even to ask a question like, "Why should I believe in God?" often betrays that a person uses God language not in reference to a Being that either exists beyond this universe of doesn't.

The historical question of God's existence is a question that has nothing to do with personal benefit any more than the question of my existence does. Why should I believe you exist, Ken? Because I do--whether you like it or not.

So words often have a denotation that is grounded in the world outside ourselves. In other instances, the denotation will not have any real world referent. It is only in recent times--mainly because of these kinds of discussions--that I think of a goose when I use the phrase "go on a wild goose chase." For most of my life I understood what these words meant with no thought of geese or chases. The meaning of the phrase is no longer tied to any concrete reference--a foreigner could understand the phrase without knowing what a goose was.

On the other hand, connotation greatly multiplies potential ambiguity. If a person is being ironic, for example, the meaning of a statement may be the exact opposite of what the person really means: "That dress sure fits." Slap.

And what kind of a dog do you picture. We may know what the denotation of a dog is, but is it a comfy American poodle in a pet hotel while it's upper class "parents" go on vacation (maybe they take the dog with them). Or is it a scrawy third world dog that has to fend for its own food, is susceptible to rabies, and is less likely to make it into the house than the chickens are?

And if an author goes metaphorical, then any vague similarity between literal denotation and the intended meaning becomes the governing factor. Non-literal uses of language multiply potential variance in meaning out the wazoo. When Philippians 3 says, "Beware of the dogs," what does Paul mean? Did Philippi have particular problems with traveling bands of dogs?

To understand Paul, we will need to know a vast deal more than what a dog looks like. Did Jews refer to non-Jews as "dogs"? Did they do so in part because Gentiles were not circumcised? So is Paul referring to Jews here? Jewish Christians? Jewish Christians who tried to get Gentile Christians to get circumcised? Were there already people like this at Philippi that Paul knew about? Where was Paul when he wrote these words? Had he recently written Galatians? Was this chapter originally from a different letter Paul had earlier written the Philippians, given that some think 3:1 goes off on a diversion until chapter 4?

We cannot answer many of these questions with certainty. I presently think that Paul was imprisoned at Ephesus when he wrote Philippians. I think he had recently written Galatians and was still reeling from Jewish Christians undermining his ministry there by telling his Gentile converts that they weren't ensured salvation from God's wrath unless they go all the way and get circumcised. I think Paul is warning the Philippians in case some of these same Jewish Christian missionaries come to Philippi.

I also think Paul is being deeply ironic by referring to such individuals as "dogs." He is basically calling individuals whose flesh is circumcised by the name they normally call people who are uncircumcised. Am I sure of all this? Not at all.

As usual I have gotten a little off my outline. My intention was to show how polyvalent the biblical text is. I started by talking about individual readers and how many different interpretations they can come up with. My second point was to be how many different interpretations denominations come up with. But rather than give you examples, let me simply point to the fact that there are over 20,000 different Protestant denominations in America that claim to get their beliefs and practices from the Bible.

My third point was to talk about the original meaning and just how much diversity of interpretation there is, not just among scholars today (at this point in time), but especially when you consider how scholarship goes through stages and phases. The consensus of scholarship today, at least apparently more informed than that of yesterday, can change at any moment when a new moment of new reflectivity or a new archaeological discovery surfaces.

With regard to my explanation of Philippians 3:2, I have a plausible hypothesis. But it is not the only or even necessarily most common one.

But we particularly get to the rub when we ask what the original meaning might have to do with anyone alive today. There are no Jewish Christian missionaries going around arguing this sort of thing today. Even when you have a scholar coming up with some plausible hypothesis, the process of identifying "timeless principles" in the passage introduces another element in the equation that involves many, many variables. We try to identify the points of similarity and dissimilarity between the original meaning and some contemporary context in order to appropriate the text for today. In a way, we are looking for the right "metaphorical" meaning for the text. How is this text "like" our contemporary situation.

Again, I am not arguing that a text cannot have a stable meaning in a particular context. What I am arguing is that the formula for any given meaning is quite complex. In the case, of Scripture, no one should be surprised how many billions of different interpretations there have been in the history of these texts. And even if every one of them is a stable product whose formula we can potentially identify. The meaning of the text "alone" (which doesn't actually exist--a mind is required for meaning to occur) is clearly highly unstable in itself.

Well, I consider this entry a failure of economy. It will have to be seriously pruned to get to what I will say at the end of the month conference. My point has been to bring across the level of uncertainty that truly surrounds the meaning biblical texts. I do not throw up my hands as some, convinced of the pointlessness of trying. Some would say I haven't really gotten my own point (is Bill Patrick listening out there? Keith Drury would do this with regard to the original meaning I think).

But I would say that there is a great deal of reflectivity going on in this post--more than the vast majority of Bible readers have reflected on. I believe that someone aware of these distinctions can identify with clarity a good number of stable meanings the text takes on in specific contexts. Once we have taken this step--to the limits of our current reflectivity--we are adequately prepared to ask the next question, which is which of these is the meaning of the Bible as Scripture.

If we define the Scriptural meaning of the biblical text as the significance these texts have for us (and of course we might have that debate), as God's living word to us, then it is the meaning of these words as we are to appropriate them to today. Perhaps the original meaning is on the path to this significance, but it cannot be the meaning of the Bible as Scripture by definition. Even when we find out that the situation with regard to murder is more or less the same today as it was then (which I frankly doubt it really is when we get to the level of connotation), we have not stopped at the original meaning on the path to the words becoming Scripture. We have gone on to the final step of asking how to jump the gap between then and now.

More (sorry) to come...

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Uncertainty and Meaning, Take 1

One of the key domains in the world that is postmodernism is deconstruction. Deconstruction is the school of unthought suggesting that words do not have stable meanings. As we try to construct meaning in texts, we often see that meaning begin to unravel at the same time--thus de-construction. The cause goes back to Ferdinand de Saussure's distinction in language between a "sign" such as a letter or sound and that which is "signified," meaning. In most cases, the relationship between the two is arbitrary. The word "box" in English does not suggest either by the way the letters look or by the way it sounds what it might mean. In other words, there is no fixed relationship between a word and its meaning.

I personally tend to bring up another philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, at this point. Wittgenstein's greatest contribution to the philosophy of language was when he realized that words take on different meanings in different contexts. What does the word "fire" mean? We really can't know unless we know what "language game" we are playing. In other words, I need at least a sentence to know, and maybe more than a sentence.

Your first inclination might be, "Well of course I can tell you what the word fire means without a sentence. It is something that burns, has a orangish-yellow hue," etc... But what if the sentence I have in mind is the following: "I am going to fire you." How well does the burning, orangish-yellow definition suit this sentence. Unless you have just come off of a really bad week, I doubt the definition that first came to your mind corresponds to the needed definition for the word fire in this case.

We can easily show just how complicated the situation can become. "Ready, aim, fire." "I'm all fired up for the Truth Conference." "Come on, baby, light my fire." This last phrase in particular raises an even more significant issue. A non-English speaker might put this last sentence into Google and translate it. But there's a better than average change that they will end up with a puzzled look on their face. "Come forward, infant, ignite my" what? My match? My grill? Frankly, an American of fifty years ago might not make much sense of the sentence anymore than they might a phrase like "shock and awe," "google," or "blog."

Really to understand the sentence, "Come on, baby, light my fire," you need to know late twentieth century American slang and probably have heard a certain song by the Doors in the early 70's. Wittgenstein well put it when he suggested that we wouldn't likely understand a lion even if it spoke English, because we would not have a frame of reference from which to know what language games the lion's words were playing.

We could multiply many an amusing story at this point. At the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, the German demanding surrender from the American general found himself unable to interpret the response he received, "Nuts." What does that mean, thought the General and his translators? During my early days in England I felt the same way. I remember a particular night in particular I spent during my first week in England. All the words I heard around me were words I knew, but because I knew nothing of British TV or "football" culture, I really had no real idea what anyone was saying--it was similar to a feeling I would have in Germany a couple years later when everyone was speaking German all around me.

Now all of these things bear directly on the matter of the Bible. Most Bible readers are "pre-modern" on this score. They are unaware of just how ambiguous and potentially polyvalent (or capable of multiple meanings) these words of the Bible are. I was once talking to a Wesleyan about how our "tradition" understands the words of Scripture. At one point the person finally said, "Stop talking about our tradition. We just read the Bible and do what it says." This is a pre-modern understanding of the Bible's words, an understanding that is unaware of the role our cultural and personal environment inevitably plays in the way we understand words.

In the second half of this section, I wish to reflect on the potential ambiguity of the words of the Bible and the implications it has for reading the Bible in a postmodern age.

2 What is Postmodernism?

I mentioned a moment ago that a good starting definition for postmodernism is simply to define it as "after modernism"--fair enough. So what is modernism? Are we referring to a period of cultural history, to a philosophy? These labels seem all too vague and imprecise, even if they are pointing to some truth somehow.

Indeed, before I am done defining postmodernism, I hope to convert this language into categories that are slightly more precise and useful.

In philosophy, we might date the birth of "modern" philosophy to Rene Descartes, author of the famous dictum, "I think; therefore, I am." Descartes had set himself to doubt everything that he could possibly doubt. By the time he was finished, he found that the only thing he could not doubt was the fact that he existed as a doubter. Movies like the Matrix now of course call even that into question. Perhaps I am a very sophisticated future computer program. So maybe we should now put it as "I think; therefore, something is."

Let me use Descartes to point out three of the no doubt many features of the modernist period of Western thought. Descartes was very reflective in his doubting process--he was focused on himself as a "knower." Secondly, he tried to be as objective as possible. He tried as logically as possible, using the evidence at hand, to form an unbiased unconclusion. Secondly, he was preoccupied in his venture with certainty of knowledge. He wanted to know what he could not doubt about reality.

These are some of the main features of modernism as we are speaking of it. You will notice how scientific these characteristics all sound. It is no coincidence that these last five hundred years have been the age of science. As Stanley Grenz once suggested, the character of Spock from Star Trek is an excellent picture of modernism. He is completely aware of himself as a knower, can tell you the percentage of certainty on any question, and is absolutely objective--he is in control of his emotions and they do not influence his decisions.

I will now sadly reveal that I can quote certain lines from the first Star Trek movie in the '80's. Captain Kirk and Spock are having a casual conversation when Kirk says something like, "I won't argue with you." Spock then responds, "That is wise." It is not that Spock is boasting--he cannot boast, for that would involve his emotions. He is simply making a logical, objective assessment of the situation. He objectively, as a detached knower of reality, knows that he is correct. It would be foolish to argue with someone who knows the truth and is completely objective and certain.

Against this backdrop, postmodernism affirms that no knowledge is certain, that no one is completely aware of themselves as a knower, and that no one can thereby be completely objective. Here I am struck by the fact that these characteristics of postmodernism are really the outworking of the original "modernist" principles that I first mentioned. Indeed, these concepts seem to flow naturally out of Descartes' agenda to doubt anything he could doubt until he could not doubt anything. He just didn't see that he could doubt further than the existence of himself as an "I."

So what we call postmodernism is really only the answer to the modernist equation. It is the outworking of the principle that we are all stuck in our heads, that we reflect on the world from where we sit and that no one can be fully objective. There is no such thing as Spock, emotions or no emotions. Everything except existence itself can be doubted--and maybe the only reason I think existence itself cannot be doubted is because I've missed something ;-)

Let us therefore use slightly more precise categories than the vague terms, pre-modern, modern, and post-modern. The entire enterprise basically collapses into pre-modern and post-modern: unreflective knowing and various degrees of reflective knowing. These are not really epochs of culture or stages of development in an individual's intellectual pilgrimage. This is everyone at every point of his or her life. We are all at the same time some combination of reflectivity and unreflectivity. And it is impossible for us to know the exact combination for we are, by definition, unaware of those things about which we are unreflective. We can perhaps get some sense of where we've been in relation to where we are now and at least have the impression that we are more reflective today than we were yesterday and thus more reflective than we might be.

Accordingly, only God is perfectly reflective in His knowing. Only God knows all the data in its proper relationship to all the other data. Only God is truly objective and certain in His knowing.

You'll notice that I have introduced God into the equation. So did Descartes, Locke, and so many of the early modernist philosophers at this point. The enterprise of epistemological reflection--reflection on the manner of our knowing--inevitably raises the question of faith. Am I to get stuck in a profitless solipsism, where I conclude that I am the only thing that really exists and that you all are simply products of my warped and twisted imagination? Or am I to assume by faith what all sane people seem to--that while I can't prove it, things really do exist outside myself?

And here let me remind us of Immanuel Kant's contribution to these issues of epistemology, noting once again that postmodernism is little more than the working out of the modernist enterprise. Kant suggested that while the world outside myself exists, I can only know it as my mind processes it. What I can't know, he suggested, was das Ding an sich, the "thing-in-itself." I can know a wall as it appears to me. But I can't know what the wall really is apart from me knowing it (or what it likes to do on weekends). As a side note, Kant--like Descartes and others--finds himself introducing God into the equation again in order to end up with some sense of confidence that the way his mind puts reality together is something like what it actually is.

Let me flash forward to today. If we think of postmodernism as a bomb that has blown up human pretenses to knowledge, the smoke has had some time to clear and it looks to me that we have two things left standing. From a non-Christian perspective, what is left standing is Richard Rorty's pragmatic realism and, perhaps a slightly more Christian perspective, what is called critical realism. I would sum up pragmatic realism as a philosophy that says, "reality works." Sure, I can't really know for sure that things outside me exist, but it works to step out of the way of moving traffic.

Critical realism goes a little further. I affirm by faith that reality exists outside myself, but acknowledge that my apprehension of that reality will inevitably come from where I sit apprehending it. Within critical realism, we will find various levels of confidence by various individuals about the degree to which this perspective might skew our apprehension of reality in itself.

This quick overview is more than adequate for the task at hand. Time will tell of paradigms, the deconstruction in the meaning of texts, and the role of power in truth. (By the way, I might very fittingly have summed up these three "concepts" by way of their primary power brokers, three of postmodernism's most prominent "knowers": Thomas Kuhn, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault.

My Amazon Store