Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Knowing Together (Narrative Gospel Part 6)

If individual objectivity is a myth, what happens when individuals in a community of believers are honest about their own subjectivity? What happens when they don’t deny their subjectivity, but rather own it in dialogue with each other in the context of communal relationships? Stanley Grenz suggests:

“Narrative thinkers remind us that we must view theology in terms of its relationship to the story of God’s action in history. This seminal assertion carries important implications. One ramification is that we can pursue the theological task only ‘from within’—only from the vantage point of the faith community in which we stand…Theology, then is the task of the faith community; it is a community act.”

Thus, as the community of faith attempts to interpret Scripture and speak of God we offer all of our perspectives to each other in honesty, humility and love. We learn to listen to each other and be shaped by each other’s perspectives. This allows each of us to “think outside ourselves”, not by claiming a position of objective neutrality, but by learning to hear other perspectives. Admittedly and intentionally we operate from a position of faith. We do not claim or seek objective neutrality. We have put our confidence and hope in this narrative. Kierkegaard (under a pseudonym) said “Subjectivity is truth” . Though what he meant by his enigmatic statement is somewhat debatable (which would seem to prove his point), I suspect that he was pointing to exactly the reality that we’ve been exploring.
(To be continued...)


preacherman said...

I want to thank you for this wonderful post. You have don't a wonderful job on this series. Your blog is definately one of my favorites. Keep up the great work and have a blessed week!!!

Mike L. said...

I find it difficult when anybody (including myself) tries to speak of things like "truth" or "subjectivity" without any kind of qualifier. Do you have anything specific in mind here? Are you maybe thinking about the historicity of scripture?

I agree that we must recognize certain subjective points of view in our understanding, but that doesn't mean we can't ever be objective or reasonably certain in anything.

For example, we may have to admit a level of subjectivity about ontological ideas, but that should not stop us from allowing for some level of certainty about other things like the Earth's rotation around the Sun, the boiling point of water, Evolution, or the sources of scripture. In other words, we can learn to be comfortable with the paradox created by our various subjective viewpoints on abstract or "yet to be proven" ideas. But all our most objective scientific principles were once subjective myths. At some point most things move from the category of unknown to known. At some point things move from subjectivity to objectivity as the picture becomes more clear and more defined?

I've never seen the Earth revolve around the Sun but I'm willing to wager it does based on the evidence that I have. That question seems objective for us today, but it is easy to see how ancient people got it backwards. I wasn't around in the 1st century, but I'm willing to wager the resurrection story is a mythical event (a truth-filled myth that I highly value). I can't claim complete objectivity or certainty on either the Earth's orbit or the resurrection event, but I don't see any problem with adopting the most probable answer based on a comprehensive analysis of all our most current data.

Adam said...

This is where you and I are on different pages. We are both making value judgments, and neither of us is doing so in a vacuum. I have chosen to place confidence (trust, hope, faith)in the text and the God it reveals (and I have no problem saying that it was a "choice"). I do not do so unthinkingly or uncritically, and I'm certainly not a fundamentalist, but rather I do so from a position of trust, love, and hopefully humility. You have admittedly (correct me if I'm wrong here) chosen a different value system that still values scripture and the God is presents, but also places a higher value on other things (scientific method, human rationality, etc.) It is a legitimate choice, but a choice nonetheless. We each have reasons for the ways we've prioritized these values and the stories, ideologies, etc. that we've placed faith in.
It would be quite easy, though not terribly helpful, for me to point out the flaws in the scientific method (plus the places even today where we are finding out that many of the assumptions we made based on the "evidence" couldn't be more wrong), and the terrible places that human rationality has sometimes taken us. I do not believe that it is in any way possible (and possibly not even desirable) for human being to achieve the status of objectivity. You (if I'm reading you right) believe that we can, and in particular matters of faith, you believe that you have in ways that I haven't. This would appear to be a bit of an impasse.

However, I'm not trying to prove you wrong. It's not because I can't engage in the debate (or that I wouldn't enjoy it on some level ;) ), but rather it's because I don't see the point in that kind of engagement. It doesn't make any sense to me. The the point of what I've been writing in this series, I believe such an engagement to be inherently coercive. Instead, I'll proclaim what I believe, in all its subjectivity. I'll consider new questions and challenges. I'll continually reconsider where I may have misread and misinterpreted. I'll adjust my understanding when I find I have misinterpreted and misunderstood due to my own ignorance or arrogance. But, I will do all of these things from inside the narrative. I will do all of these things from a position of faith. I choose to engage in a hermeneutics of love rather than a hermeneutics of suspicion.
P.S. Enjoyed lunch yesterday. We'll have to do it again sometime soon.

Mike L. said...


Thanks for the follow up. I see a couple of good points in your last comment that I can address and it might help with our impasse.

First, I’d like you to understand a bit more about how I see the relation of the modern enlightenment (scientific understanding of the universe) and scripture. I think we agree in large part, but use different language and definitions regarding post-modernity. I’ll draw on the couple of comments you made about how you see my affinity for science to illustrate this point.

I don’t place a higher value on science over religion. I do, however, have a negative reaction to the notion that science and religion should be prioritized (with either one becoming superior without conditions or categorization). I don’t think it is a problem of priority. It is a problem of categorization. The biggest mistake of modern religious fundamentalists is to assume the bible’s purpose is to explain the workings of the universe (you might substitute “the natural world” here but I really don’t like that term since I shy away from a dualist perspective of natural/supernatural) to all people in all times. Fundamentalists assume the Bible belongs in the same category as a science text book and by being in the same category one must choose or prioritize. In the same line of mistakes, atheists often try to categorize the Bible as “bad science”. If it is used as science, then it certainly is “bad”, but both these modern groups have mistakenly categorized the texts.

I do mean to remove the Bible as an authoritative document in some categories (namely science). But removing this scientific authority from the Bible does not lessen the Bible’s impact in other areas. In fact, I would suggest it frees the Bible from the shackles of the ancient worldviews that authored its texts. In the same way, making Betty Crocker’s cookbook an authority for automobile repair would render it useless. I might note here that the Bible has a recipe or two in its texts, yet I don’t know of anyone that uses it as the authority for cooking. Suggesting that Betty Crocker is more authoritative in cooking does not lessen the value of the Bible. I’m sure we both agree on this point, so I wonder what I’ve said that leads you to assume I might prioritize science over scripture. You’ve said we both made a choice on this issue. I’m not sure how anyone has a realistic “choice” about this categorization. I think a healthy postmodern approach to scripture recognizes that this battle between faith and science ended during modernity and should be left there. This is a modern point of resolve that we should carry into post modernity. That may feel like conceding a victory to post-liberalism, but this is one area that is deserving of concession and allows us to move past modernism’s big conflict. As postmodern thinkers, we should be able to reconcile our concessions to modernity with a love of what we can now confidently call our “sacred myths”. Moderns were obsessed with the arguments about the status of scripture (either fiction or non-fiction), post-modernity really shouldn’t be mired in that debate. Liberalism wins the debate in one sense (the Bible is largely fiction), yet religion wins in another sense (the myths are profoundly “truth-filled”). The paradox of post-modernity is not a rejection of science and a return to pre-modern views of scripture. Instead, it is a resolve to accept the mythical status of our stories while no longer holding a negative reaction to the word “myth”. Myths are “more-than-true”, not “less-than-factual”. We accept modernity’s mythical classification of our text, but move to a place past (post) the modern devaluing of myth (art, narrative, poetry).

I don’t mean to cut out the more mythical parts of the Bible (following in Thomas Jefferson’s footsteps). That would be a product of Jefferson’s modern inability to grasp the value of mythical storytelling. The better “post-modern” approach would be to leave the myths intact and no longer shy away from the idea that a myth can be more truth-filled than a history book.

As for the scientific method, I’m not sure you could provide an example of its “failure”. I’d be interested to hear what you might consider a failure of the scientific method.

When science adds to, changes or even disproves aspects of our previous understanding then that is NOT a failure. It is a huge success and a validation of the scientific method’s ability to continue questioning and expanding our knowledge. The wonderful thing about the modern enlightenment is that it emboldened the notion of constantly challenging and rethinking our previous understanding. That may feel unsettling to rigid systems, institutions, and dogmatic ideologies. To be post-modern is to embrace the idea of constantly retesting our theories and giving space to expand our growing knowledge. This is what makes us post-MODERN and not post-ancient. We’ve embraced the modernist contribution to our collective intellectual fabric and now moved on to see how we can apply our latest understanding in a post-modern world that no longer has to fight those old battles common to the last few centuries of the modern enlightenment and the fundamentalist reactions it spawned. Our collective scientific knowledge is a great example of how we "know together" as a community. I can say "we know" when I really mean that some scientist published something that is now "public knowledge".

Sorry for the length of my response! I have a question for you that I’ll place in a response to your latest post. It has more to do with your conclusion and I'd like to get your input on this first.


Adam said...

There's a lot to respond to here, and we do have a few points of agreement. I do not read the Bible as a Science (or any other kind of) textbook. The Bible simply was not nor could not be written to modern standards of science, history, etc. I agree that fundamentalist, and unthinking literalist readings of the text do violence to Scripture.

However this does not mean that the text is not in any sense historical. The fact that ancient writers wrote history by different standards and methodologies does not mean that it is not making historical claims. No ancient documents, the Bible included, are written to modern standards, and to make such a claim would be to say that there is no history. This is not to say that every single part of the Bible presents itself as history, but it certainly does not mean that every part is automatically discounted as history. For me, the Bible functions less as a impenetrable boundary for thought and investigation, and more of an interpretive lens (and we all have our interpretive lenses, whether we admit it or not).

Additionally, you and I do define postmodernism differently. I get mine from philosophy and it is closely associated with concepts like deconstruction and undecidability. Yours seems (and I could be wrong here) to fall along the line of: "the advent of the enlightenment and modernity has ushered in a new age where the arguments and questions of the unenlightened have been settled, and thus we can move on "from" the advent of modernity building on the new, enlightened world it ushered in." In philosophical terms, this definition would be more along the lines of a "hyper-modernity" or even a "neo-modernity". Postmodernity is not a total rejection of Modernity, but it is very suspicious of it.

In theological terms, it is an interesting statement to make to say that Liberalism won. As someone who studies theology, I would have to say that neither conservatism or liberalism won the day, but rather made it clear that they had framed the entire argument wrong. They reached an impasse of distrust and condescension from both sides. The state of theology today is generally becoming defined by the post-conservative and post-liberal schools of thought who have basically rejected their predecessors' framing of the entire construct. They are now (generally) finding incredible opportunities for dialogue and convergence, from positions of humility.
Anyway, you can feel better about your "long rambling response", because I've at least matched you on both counts. ;)

Mike L. said...

ok, I admit that I'm a nerd. I love this stuff...

I don’t think you are anything like a literalist. I hope you didn’t hear that! I like how you said “the Bible functions less as a impenetrable boundary for thought and investigation, and more of an interpretive lens”. Good point!

I also agree that scripture has references to historical people and events. For example, I accept there was probably a historical Jesus. However, I claim Jesus’ historicity with a great deal of humility because I recognize I would be lying if I said there was reasonable proof he did exist. In fact, I think that the evidence is very sketchy at best. I admit my bias on this. I really want to think he was one single guy that really lived and breathed, not a later accumulation of legends about a variety of 1st century messiah figures. Either way, I don’t really care if he did or didn’t exist in history. He does exist in the story and that is where I find him. What I do feel comfortable claiming is that I’m following the portrait we get in our sacred myths and the message that comes from that character in the story regardless of the historicity behind the stories. Unlike doubting Thomas, I don’t need to “see” (or have proof) to follow. I follow the legend even if there may be little history behind it. By asserting faith in Jesus, I’m not claiming that I “know” anything about his is existence. I’m claiming that this lifestyle I see presented in the story is a better life and yields better results for the whole world. I think that is what John’s gospel is attempting to commend in the doubting Thomas scene. I see that scene as recognition of our following (faith) without knowing (belief/certainty).

It sounds as if you’d see no value in the story if the story was not historically factual (at least in part). How do you feel about that? Do you embrace the text ONLY because you’re able to rationalize some historicity or could you imagine a way it might hold value even without any historical facts?

As for our conflicting views of post-modernity, I agree that you are accurately presenting the definition that I usually hear in Emerging circles. I’m not completely sure it coincides with either Derrida or Caputo (both lean toward agnosticism or even rightly pass for atheists – I’m sure I do too). In my view, deconstruction is not so much the dismantling of any one particular system or belief, but a dismantling of the concept that dogmatic systems, beliefs and institutions are somehow more effective at changing lives than ancient mythical narratives (or other forms of artistic expression).

I’ll own whatever label best describes me. I feel good where I’m at for the moment (though I’m open to change). However, I just don’t think the hyper-modernist or neo-modernist labels fit me at all. I would use those labels for someone like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris who show a disrespect for myths and sacred stories. My appreciation for symbolic narrative, myths, and metaphorical language seems to exclude me from those categories. I don’t think a reconciliation of faith and reason means a mushy lack of commitment. I’m fully committed to both faith and reason without diminishing either. I acknowledge this story is a mythical narrative, yet I claim that mythical story is the defining force that shapes my life. Does that really fit what you mean by “hyper-modernism”?

Lastly, when I said “liberalism won”, I mean merely in the narrow issue of biblical literalism. I don’t think that being postmodern means blindly following liberalism in whole just because an institution says so. I mean that this argument just isn’t really as close or fuzzy as some would like it to be. I would never suggest any debate is ever really “settled”. I also don’t think we can pretend this debate is even close. “Win” was a bad term on my part.

I don’t think the answer to every question is a middle ground just because it makes for less conflict (I'm sure you don't either). To suggest we can never call out an ancient belief as a superstition makes no more sense than having Galileo compromise with the Catholic Church by suggesting the Earth partially rotates around the sun, we live on a semi-flat planet, or maybe Jesus physically ascended a little bit into the sky but then God beamed him up before he burned in the ozone layer. That type of compromise is unproductive and dishonest. We can’t make blanket claims of undecidability about anything we want. Nobody really does that. Not even Derrida.

Adam said...

I think we are getting to a little more clarity, and I do want to note that I appreciate how you conduct yourself in these exchanges...as a friend with more invested in the relationship than your particular point. I hope I can do the same.

In response to your response (we could do this forever, huh?)...
I could and do find a great deal of value in many narratives and myths that are devoid of historicity. I'm sort of a story junkie. I love narratives and will sit through even terrible movies and finish even poorly written books just to see the story through. I do not attribute historicity to the Biblical narratives simply because I have to or they could be of no value to me. I've read many of the cases that question the historicity of the text. As you know I make no claims of operating from a position of certainty. However, most of these historical critiques operate from many fairly obvious presuppositions and assumptions that they neither name or claim (the same is true of much Biblical interpretation and Apologetics that comes out of fundamentalist circles, and it is equally frustrating there). While there are certainly places that require "faith" in determining the historicity of the text, and while ancient authors did not adhere to our modern standards of "how history is written", there is also a great deal of evidence from non-Christian and even anti-Christian sources documenting Jesus as a historical figure. I guess even these could be somehow mistaken or deluded...but I can't figure out how it would benefit them to legendize Jesus. Neither case is as conclusive as those on either side would like to believe.

As per the philosophy questions, I did not mean to spin Derrida as a particularly religious man or Caputo as someone that most (even "progressive" evangelicals would be comfortable with...though they would likely be more comfortable with Caputo than Derrida. Both, however, would bristle at all of our labels, including agnostic (which is very frustrating to some people). Admittedly, some Emergent writers turned me on to Derrida, but I've actually read quite a bit of his work myself now, and quite a bit that has been written about him (and not from a Christian perspective). The man could and did deconstruct any and everything. He took to anything that claimed certainty, ironclad logic, and or choices of binary oppostions. He would play with all of this "serious" subject matter (often utilizing weird French intellectual puns) and drench it all in undecidability. It infuriated many, and several professors even protested (and I believe effectively blocked) their university's plan to grant Derrida an honorary PhD. The "trouble" he caused initially was mostly in secular institutions. The Christian community mostly started criticizing him after some of the Emergent authors picked up on his stuff. Of course, I don't buy everything he said, but I do find much of his work to be helpful.

As for my labeling you (how's that for hypocritical?) as "hyper" or "neo" modern, I hope that it came across that I believed that I may well be wrong about the labels but that's what it appeared to be from my perspective. As per your last response, I agree that Dawkins and Harris may fit there better, and that you wouldn't really fit in the same category as them. I believe that postmodernity is still in its embrionic stages in many ways, and it is a very large umbrella that we both somehow fit under with our differing worldviews.

Finally, I have never (nor am I now) advocating taking a "middle of the road" position for the sake of peace and compromise (seriously, ask anyone who knows me). I strive to seek and proclaim truth with both honesty and humility. I have confidence in the truth I proclaim and believe, but hopefully it is a confidence that is proper for a finite human being who dares to seek the infinite with a three and a half pound brain ;)

Mike L. said...


I’d like to know more about your exposure to historical critiques of the Jesus stories. I’d like to hear what makes you think they’ve operated from “fairly obvious presuppositions and assumptions that they neither name or claim”. I’ve really focused a great deal of time on that subject and haven’t found the same bias in most cases. Actually, my journey through that collection of textual criticism really convicted me of my own previous bias and stretched me to shake my own preconceived notions about the texts. Maybe we are looking at different sources. I’d be interested to hear about your experiences with those texts. I’d also like to here where you’ve found other sources for the historicity of Jesus. I haven’t heard of any outside of a couple of brief, questionable and possibly doctored texts from Josephus. Again, I DO think there was a historical Jesus. I just don’t see enough evidence to try and settle the issue as abruptly as most apologists attempt to do.

Don’t worry about labeling me (I’m still looking for one myself!). I actually found it helpful when you categorized my views. It let me know where I've fallen short in my communication. Restating what you think the other person in thinking is a great way to communicate, clarify, and iron-out misconceptions. Although some people get bent out of shape when they are mislabeled. I wouldn't expect our first attempts to hit the mark. My goal in any discussion like this would be that in the end, I’d be able to restate your position in my own words and you’d say, “yep, that’s my view” and vice versa. So, I'm not looking for agreement, just understanding. Most disagreements and even arguments among Christians usually happen because people don’t truly understand the other and end up arguing against straw-man positions. One of the great things about Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright is that they really do understand each other even on the points where they disagree. I’m sure that didn’t happen over night. I’ve enjoyed their dialog.

Adam said...

Sorry it's taken so long for me to get back with you. Weekends don't allow much blogging time for me.

There are several other historical references other than Josephus (Suetonius and Pliny the Younger come to mind without looking, but there are many others) and I can pass them along to you personally. The problem with pointing out that Josephus was "possibly" doctored though, is that this suspicion can be raised of any historical document and once it's lobbed out there it serves to discredit a document on the grounds of speculation. (I realize this wasn't your argument per se and not even a major point that you were making, but it bears mentioning).

My problem with the bias and assumptions of much of the historical critical works I've read (which is a pretty good bit), is not that they have assumptions and presuppositions, but that they don't admit them. I'm quite sure that in anything I write, you can see that I have assumptions and presuppositions. I own them and I'm fine with that. I'm even ok with my presuppositions being challenged. The problem is that when you don't claim these, you are ascribing to a coercive metanarrative that demands assent. It's a power game where the determinative (yet subjective) framing of the argument is slid-in under the radar. I have problems when fundamentalists attempt to do this just as when historical critical scholars begin to do this.

I think I'm beginning to see a few of the fundamental differences in our perspectives (though there is also some resonance), but it will keep for not. Thanks for the dialogue. I've enjoyed it as well.