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Posts Tagged ‘biblical hermaneutics’

While it might seem easy, discerning saints from sinners can be rather difficult. Hence, we are urged not to judge, lest we, too, be judged. This lesson landed on me when I found my opinion on a seemingly-saintly elderly woman change dramatically.

The elderly Philipino woman whom I met seemed at first to be very pious, having an explicit desire to gain the attribute of holiness. The simplicity of her faith appealed to me. Yet when I made reference to one of her priests being–to put it nicely–more of an administrator than a pastor, she replied that her priest “was Jesus.” I replied that the priests are in the line of the Apostles, rather than instantiating Jesus. I cited apostolic succession, and she relented. Not content to be corrected, she asserted that the Bible is sufficient as a source of historical evidence. I replied that a faith narrative is neither written with the intention of recording historical facts nor of the genre of historical writings that is taken as proffering historical evidence. The woman disagreed, insisting that a faith narrative can be considered as a source of historical facts. I asked her whether she knows or believes the so-called facts. She readily replied that she knows them. “Well,” I observed, “then it would seem that you have no use for faith then.” My unexpected comment stopped her in her tracks. “What do you mean?” she asked. “We have faith in things we don’t know–things we are not certain of, such as whether we will be alive tomorrow,” I replied. “It doesn’t make sense to have faith in something we know because there is not uncertainty about it. So if the Bible gives you facts that you know, that tells me that it is not a matter of faith.” Taken back, she repeated that she knew that the Bible proves that certain historical events took place. “And you can’t be wrong about that?” I asked. “Yes, I can’t be wrong about it.” As if giving the conclusion of a syllogism, I remarked, “Then that means that not only is faith unnecessary for you, but it is based on arrogance–that of presuming that you cannot be wrong.” My pronouncement stunned her into speechlessness. She stood staring at the ground as if unable to move. There was no anger or resentment–just a wall that was blocking her view and not letting her pass.

If Jesus is a door, then a believer opens the door and walks through; one does not keep holding on to a front door once one has entered a house. The elderly woman was stuck holding on to a doornob as if it were attached to a wall. For myself, I was simply stunned that religion could so distort cognition so much and involve denial to the extent that a human being readily admits to not being able to be wrong about something that most of us would say involves belief rather than knowledge. It is as if the domain furtherest from certain knowledge were somehow the most capable of proffering evidence about which a person could not be wrong.

Perhaps this exchange reflects the saying, “Where God builds a church, Satan builds a chapel.” My question is: In preaching against arrogance, was I in the church or chapel?

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In my posts regarding the Bible, some readers have sent me messages  stating that my statements are subjective–very suubjective in fact–while the person’s own biblical views are objective.   Such commentators are assuming that their own views simply reflect what is in the text, and that the Bible is objective fact.   I want to suggest that we tend to enable the cloak of religion to essentially excuse such presumption and utter rudeness–what is in actuality passive aggression.  On the street, were another person to say, “your view is subjective, while mine and that of my favorite book are objective,” one would quite understandably feel insulted and wonder how such presumption could have gone unchecked (presumably the other person is an adult physiologically).   In actuality, it is quite childish behavior.   Even if the person believes his or her favorite religious text to be objective, and therefore superior to any mere opinion, the objectivity is not something that can be proved, for it is itself a matter of opinion.  

For example, when I suggest that the biblical writers or the people written about in the Bible (assuming historical personage here) might have been influenced at times by their vested personal interest in writing or saying something religious (rather than it coming from God), I find it a sort of brain-sickness (to use a Nietzschean term) to suggest that I’m just being subjective and so my view should be dismissed while the person disagreeing with me is representing objectivity.  The sickness is in the extent of the presumption and passive aggression, as well as in the person’s blind-spot concerning it.  The corrective feedback loop is inoperative.  It is perhaps physiological/neurological in origin.  It is a bit like the street person who claims to be Julius Ceasar.   The guy has no clue, and yet presumes to be above everyone else. 

I assume that every human being is subjective, so even if one views his or her favorite book as objective, that claim cannot go beyond that person’s subjectivity.  In other words, we can’t possibly be objective about objective truth (which is not to say that it does not exist).  I also take it as palpably insulting to tell someone that they are subjective while the person himself claims to have an objective source.  As I mention above, it is really a case of passive aggression.  Why there is so much of it in religion, I don’t know.  However, I suspect that the phenomenon of religion has a vulnerablity to it, and may even facilitate that sort of brain sickness–under the rubric of superiority, of course.   Confronting such a sickness with itself assumes a strength that does not exist in such fecklessness.   In my subjective opinion, the only reaction I can recommend is to treat it as an attack and walk away (i.e., state your decision not to continue, based on the insult–calling it what it is).   Trying to get the other person to confront their sickness is like trying to get an active alcoholic to confront his or her disease.  Both, I submit, are mind diseases.  Both defend themselves by the presumption that they can’t be wrong about themselves and others.   In dealing with such illnesses, dialogue is impossible.  Typically anyway, the person presuming to be objective will view the notification of the insult as the insult and will find it convenient to walk away rather than to confront the possibility of what may lie within himself.

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Someone wrote me to ask me to cite theologians and passages from the bible so it is not just opinion.   I thought it was interesting that he presumed that not only bible verses, but theologians too (and Toto too), instantiate fact, whereas I proffer “just opinion.”   I wonder if he had known that I have a theological book in press at a real publisher, would he consider my quotes from myself to instantiate fact or fiction?  I suppose it would depend on whether he agrees with what is quoted.  

That anyone would consider a theologian’s published interpretation “fact” stupifies me.  I am used to people regarding bible passages thusly, even though they too were written by human beings even if revealed by God.   “Ah,” some of you are saying, “there is his true colors!”  Well, yes.  I do believe that religious texts can be inspired with a spiritual or divine basis, though there is still the matter of the human filter which must write down the words–and then there are the all-too-human copiers over the centuries.  To treat a biblical passage as “fact” is essentally a verdict of one’s own convenience–and is religion reduced to that?  

In any other domain, to treat some human interpretations as “fact” and others as “mere opinion” would be thrown out as poppicock–sheer artifice.   One would wonder if the person had all of his or her marbles.  Yet in religion, such common sense does not necessarily prevail.  It would seem that some people are susceptable to “cognitive misfirings” that under normal circumstances would be diagnosed rather than enabled.   Far from blaming those individuals in that context, I suggest that the problem is in religion itself.  

So here is my question: what is it about religion that prompts or permits such lapses as in treating “favorable” opinions (i.e., to which one agrees) as fact while antithetical stances are deemed “mere opinion” even though both are written or spoken by human beings?  So too, I might add, is the person who deems one opinion as fact and another as mere opinion.   The distinction is being really used as passive aggression, you know.  It is perhaps ironic that such stealth aggression would take place under the rubric of religion, for I believe there is much good possible when humans partake in religious experience.  

So I proffer an investigation separating the wheat from the chaff in religion.  What in particular is behind the false “fact” rendering as well as the presumption that one is in a position to declare only some opinions as facts?   Underneath the problematic declaration is the presumption, which must also be explained in reference to religion.   At the very least, it is ironic, is it not?   But this is merely my opinion, is it not?

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This morning, I read the introduction of Karen Armstrong’s A Case for God.  I had seen her on a talk show last night.  Her basic argument is that the modern advocates or apologists of the dominant faiths in the West (e.g., Judaism, Christianity and Islam) suffer from an “unskillful” practice.   She claims that the scientific tenor of Western society since the 1600s has transformed the approaches to religion to stress cognition (i.e., belief) and rationality in way that renders religious narrative, or myth, as reduceable to a factual and historical basis.  For example, did the historical Jesus really walk around after he had been crucified?  Was he really a poor carpenter?  Was Mary a virgin physiologically?  The historical German method of interpreting the Bible led the way in this line of hermaneutics, but the twentieth-century fundamentalism (e.g., evangelicalism) was not far behind with its literalness.  

In contrast to the dominant modern rendering of religion in terms of cognitive belief affirmations of fact and historical literalness, Armstrong claims that religion is about practice.  Such praxis, she  maintains, is geared to compassionate (i.e., feeling with) humility.  Although she claims that all religions aim at this practical goal, it is so close to Jesus’ teachings and example that she might be projecting a Christianity-based understanding onto religion itself.   Also, in practically reducing religion to practice, she may be reacting against another extreme (the cognitive-literal approach).  In other words, her rendering could be viewed as partial rather than synopic.   For instance, she claims that the metaphysical claims in a religion should be read as that the ethical practices have meaning.   In my view, she comes very close to reducing religion to ethics, which is something liberal Protestantism has been criticized for doing.   Take, for example, “God is love.”   I interpret this as teaching that love is the source or basis of existence.  Even though our acts of love (and feelings!…which Armstrong also discounts relative to conduct) involve “God is love” being actualized, there is also the sense irrespective of one’s conduct that existence itself is love.  I take the transcendent wisdom of the latter to be just as important as conduct in religious terms.  

I take religion to be a multifaceted phenomenon that does not reduce to practice or creedal belief.  Even though Armstrong may come up short in this respect, she makes an excellent point that the modern understanding of religion is presumptuous (e.g., assuming we know more about God than we are entitled as finite beings to be able to know) and ahistoric.   On the latter, she means that we have not sufficiently studied ancient and medieval interpretations that would place our modern cognitive and literal approach in relief as rather narrow and, indeed, out of sorts with the nature of religion.   That is to say, if faith is not primarily about cognition or empirical knowledge of past events or persons (e.g., Moses, Jesus or Mohammad), then the dominant modern approach is “unskillful” or misplaced.  It is ironic that moderns who may be so far off would presume to know so much about God, citing revelation.   Of course, even perfect revelation would have to make its way through our own limited and imperfect eyes or ears, and neuropathways/rationality.   Especially where a religion is reduced to its cognitive factfulness and empirical truth, our own limitations become quite salient.  

I must admit I have been astounded (and frustrated) at the presumptuousness evinced by finite human beings who assume that the perfection of revelation runs perfectly through them as if they were innert permeable membranes rather than filters.  In actuality, if the revelation was written without cognitive affirmation or literalness being assumed throughout, a “believer” who reads scripture in such terms could be distorting it without realizing it because of ignorance of the writers’ perspective.   Of course, jthe fact that someone had to write down the revelation makes it difficult to maintain that the revelation itself is perfect.  That someone taking himself to be a believer would not only assume that he has the truth but also seek to actively impose it on another human being with different beliefs is a rather emetic phenomenon.  It is a package built on stilts…yet presumes it can run!   That one human being would say to another, “No, your faith is wrong…Here’s mine…it is true” reminds me of self-idolatry (i.e., taking oneself to be God, or reducing God to a projection of oneself). 

 Observing the modern context of presumptuousness even as religion is understood and portrayed so differently than it has been understood historically, I wonder if the problems discussed by Armstrong are remeable.    Can arrogance and presumption designed to bypass human critique by being based on God’s revelation be rectified by humans?  It seems to me that the tools brought to bear on this problem would simply be dismissed–which is part and parcel of arrogant presumption.   It could be that the only efficacious correction possible would have to come from within the “unskilled” themselves.  This would involve a person recognizing and coming to terms with his or her own presumption as presumption.   It may be far more likely that an approach to religion in line with the nature of religion will have to wait for a new epoch–perhaps one less enamored with rationality and empirical truth (i.e., “Just the facts”).  

The attempts in the twentieth century to reduce religion to terms extrinsic to the nature of the phenomenon may be a symption of a broader societal decadence (which includes arrogant presumption, ironically).   If I am correct in my thesis here, the old saying “You can’t fight ignorance” would be relevant.  When confronted with an arrogant and ignorant person, I suppose all we can do is remember our own limitations and try to be compassionate.   The nexus of arrogance and ignorance issuing in presumptuous claims may simply be the front gard of a suffering and insecure person.   Reducing him or her to the shock wherein his or her faith turns against itself and freezes up may be deserved, but it would hardly be compassionate.

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