How I read the Bible
edited: Tuesday, August 05, 2003
By Fr. Kurt Messick
Posted: Tuesday, August 05, 2003
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Some principles and thoughts that guide me as I look at biblical texts.
But our captain counts the Image of God nevertheless his image, cut in ebony as if done in ivory.
- Thomas Fuller, The Good Sea-Captain
Every event or act of knowing or perceiving is an interpretation. Perhaps there is no clearer division between modern intellectual constructs and philosophies and those of previous eras in human history than the realisation and understand that there is no completely objective way of approaching any subject, and that the best way to maintain a fair and balanced framework for interpretation is to understand as fully as possible those influences, subtle and explicit, which have a part in forming the way in which the universe, or any part thereof, is interpreted. This is particularly true of any work whose validity largely rests on intellectual interpretation, of which the Bible is a primary example. It constantly amazes me the number of times I hear people say something similar to: ‘I don’t interpret the Bible; I take it literally’, without the conceptual understanding that the decision to make a literal interpretation (whatever that truly means) is in itself an act of interpretation.
In reviewing the various aspects of what makes up the core of influences that guide my own interpretative framework, there are many factors to be considered. These include ‘objective’ statuses such as gender, race, age, place of origin, etc., as well as more malleable, subjective statuses such as economic class, religious affiliation, personality type, education level, etc. For these to be meaningful, however, they need to be analysed in a critical way, with the full understanding that, in many respects, such a self-analysis will have elements of circular reasoning.
Culture doesn't save anything or anyone, it doesn't justify. But it's a product of man: he projects himself into it, he recognises himself in it; that critical mirror alone offers him his image.
- J.P. Sartre, Les Mots
Looking back into earlier ways of interpreting the Bible, there have been many approaches, even within the academic/liberal category in which I place myself. A recent volume on major themes in Biblical interpretation has this disclaimer as part of its introduction:
Studies of women interpreters are underrepresented, as are studies of those who are not Western, white males. This volume is clearly oriented toward those who have produced significant work in the Western branch of the Christian church and whose writings have, on the whole, emerged from Europe or North America. This is where predominant writings have been produced since the Middle Ages. (McKin, p. x)
In the Western world, even among the intellectuals, it has only been recently that the limitations of this particular world-view, the idea that it is not in fact the normative standard once hoped for, has come into common acceptance.
The West, in some respects, is anomalous relative to the rest of the human family, and indeed relative to its own traditions. But the arm of its influence extends globally, and it is an important question to what extent the exportation of the characteristic ethos of science and technology, and the attitudes going with them, will not create elsewhere difficulties, certainly discomforts for religious orientations to being. (Desmond, p. 23)
This remains, however, the framework into which I was educated and indoctrinated, deliberately and subjectively; this is the lens through which I view the universe. Rather like the atmospheric interference against which astronomers must work, this overall atmosphere of Western culture is something of which I must be aware, and for which I must compensate in drawing my conclusions, but from which I cannot escape.
Whether one approaches culture and society with modernist interpretations (that of collective unconscious a la Jung) or with more ancient conceptions (Actonian visions of developmental histories being built largely upon the works of powerful and famous men), it is easy to see that, however removed an empirically and objectively separate God may be from the manipulative forces of humanity, the image of God as perceived by human beings has always been shaped by culture and society. The dominant forces of culture and society shape the dominant image of God, either in response or reaction to, but never neutral from, such forces.
Cultural development of the image of God perhaps reminiscent to the Groupthink phenomenon, only writ large across a society. This is as likely to occur in academic settings as it is dogmatically defined and controlled communities. Groupthink is 'a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.' (Janis, p. 9) Groupthink includes a selective bias 'in the way the group reacts to factual information and relevant judgments from experts' (p. 10) This has a powerful, subtle way of influencing the individual, often without there being a direct, identifiable source of influence. If Groupthink falls short of explaining some of the development, then perhaps more subtly as in political theories of Martin Wight and Hans J. Morgenthau which presume rationality, individuality, independent and objective reality not subject to too many multiple, correct interpretations, would be a better fit. In this model, while admitting the necessity for diversity of interpretation, it seeks to set standards by which interpretations can be judged more or less ‘correct’, by which are more useful or valuable or successfully predictive.
A society in which the 'invisible hand' of capitalism seems to be the primary, most-successful means of world sustenance economically has little problem with conceptualising, if not actually believing, in an invisible God with vague, directive powers but little actual interference. Of course, pursuing the capitalist model further, in an ideal model, the less governmental interference, the greater the efficiency of the system -- likewise, as humanity perceives itself to be 'evolving' to greater rationality, might there be the assumption that the invisible hand of God would become at one with the overall direction of society? This sounds very conservative in many ways. However, it shows the difficulty of ascribing seemingly commonplace terms such as ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ to particular frames of reference.
Certainly, the overall conservative philosophy of theocentric humanism espoused by Edmund Burke and developed upon Dante Germino and Eric Voegelin (liberal vs. conservative -- secularisation of society, etc.) would not see God removed or increasingly irrelevant, as much of secular humanism is characterised as doing. These are, to be sure, very Western philosophies, which have little parallel or understanding of or with other ways of thinking and knowing in the world.
I have been concentrating on historical and political means of knowing, for my education and upbringing have largely prepared me in this manner. My family have been involved in government and diplomacy for over a millennium; my family background and formal education has been thoroughly steeped in the language and custom of international diplomatic and political frames of reference. While in many ways this has been a means to a broader education than that to which most are afforded access, it was still always couched in terms of Anglo-American domination, the dogmatic preference of the use of the English language over all others, and the unstated assumption that Western society, customs and mores were superior.
Perhaps at this point a simple listing will be order. I am a white male, which places me (at the beginning of the twenty-first century) in a relative position of power in most parts of the world. I come from a family that has some means at its disposal, and a history of such, and as such likewise have a worldview that comes from a very privileged position. I am currently in my mid-30s, university educated, a single man with moderate political viewpoints that always (as should be apparent by the focus of this paper) tend toward the theoretical and academic. Contrary (or perhaps, reactionary) to my upbringing, my value system tends toward the liberal, inclusive, open-ended and tolerant side. While the British class system has tended to be among the most rigid in terms of social mobility as well as standards of conduct in the history of world, it has a tendency of producing members who defy various aspects of the social position who nonetheless hold the system as a whole as an integral part of themselves. I confess I am still in this situation.
Part and parcel with my social position came my denominational affiliation, the state church of the realm, the Church of England, which has tended in its history of putting more stock in social conformity and use of the authorized Book of Common Prayer than in any set piece of Biblical interpretation. Indeed, I can never remember a time when the Bible was presented as being more authoritative or even as authoritative as the Book of Common Prayer, which had the much more practical aspect of regulating liturgy and worship. A side affiliation to this, however, is the fact that my family has strong Jewish roots, which, being largely ignored for centuries, were revitalized in response to the Holocaust and the loss of a majority of our continental relatives. Perhaps another reason the Bible was never presented in a dogmatic, strict, authoritarian way was that there has been a divided manner of consideration toward the Bible in my family. My education largely reflects this -- I have a Jewish Studies certificate to balance my formal Christian education and training.
All these things tie together to present a way of approaching the Bible that at some times is perhaps too theoretical and academic, as if it were a logical puzzle or game rather than a document of faith. I have had adult experiences that have made me rethink the way my spiritual and vocational life was directed that had more to do with confronting a holy mystery than with researching an historical curiosity.
Knowing about poverty and living it are two different things. Becoming a disciple of the Son of Man requires that we meditate daily in the here and now, in our lived context, on what it means to be called ‘one of us’. (Haring, p. 12)
There is a way of knowing that comes from experience, experience I had not quite had, experience which I began to have, when I began to participate in worship as a community activity of faith and commitment rather than as a required social duty for the ‘political’ community in which I took part. This caused me to rethink many things, all the while being aware of those tools and limitations I brought with me from the past.
This is a process of coming to know the way I know things that is in constant development and refinement, occasionally with radical shifts, but most often with a consistent if not always predictable slow changing of perception. God is made new, yet remains the same. The Bible is read anew, yet remains the same text. Through a dialectical exchange of ideas and approaches, some internal, some external, some faith-fully held, some academic, and many more falling in between the extremes, the process of interpretation itself is constantly reinvented and reinterpreted as life continues.
William Desmond, in The Examined Life, Stanley Rosen, ed. 2000, New York: Random House
William Harbour, The Foundations of Conservative Thought: An Anglo-American Tradition in Perspective, 1982, Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press
Bernard Haring, Priesthood Imperiled, 1989 Liguori, Missouri: Liguori Publications
Irving Janis, Groupthink, 1982, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin
Donald McKim, Historical Handbook of Major Biblical Interpreters,1998, Downers Grove: Intervarsity
Kenneth W. Thompson, ed., Masters of International Thought, 1980, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press