According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for
this world to recreate, reclaim, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of
explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. - anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. - anon
... Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument.
There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is
irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a
power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table
to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace,
reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants
us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. - anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals
and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power
is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. - anon

Sunday, July 13, 2014

On Knowing in the Bible: How Can We Know That We Know? Part 1 & 2


Storm Clouds over the border of New Mexico, looking from Arizona


Every system has its weakness even as every system has its prejudices.
A proper epistemology should candidly tell us about ourselves and not
hide us deeper from ourselves within our presumptions and fallacies.

- R.E. Slater, November 25, 2014


Part 1
Introduction

A recent Facebook discussion began with the following observation by my friend Rance:

---

Rance: The following comment on the nature of scripture is why I believe most apologists for the Bible are wasting every one's time. In the end, they are probably doing more harm than good. [Here's one such example:]

Jeff: "The intent of the scriptures is to reveal a God who is infinitely loving, good, and loyal to His creation. This revelation, though often missed and obscured by the ignorance of certain of the scriptural writers, is perfectly revealed, unhindered, in the person of Jesus Christ!

"What the scriptures do *NOT* seek to reveal are their own perfection, and internal harmony. The truth of God's nature, from beginning to end, is what they are attempting to communicate. Again, this message is often missed or misinterpreted, due to the pre-Christ understandings of those who wrote the scriptures, but is ultimately at the heart of all that they seek to reveal. Even when things are gotten wrong, the right answer is always God's love.

"What we often do, however, in the name of apologetics, is use the scriptures to prove the perfection of the scriptures, instead of to reveal the true nature of God. This is where we often fall into error and unnecessary debate, for the scriptures are not seeking to prove their perfection, but to reveal God as infinitely loving and good, which is an understanding that sometimes runs contradictory to the writer's understanding. The beautiful thing about God is that He has allowed men - yes, even sometimes ignorant men - to tell His story, but has finished and perfected it Himself, in the person of Jesus Christ. Every misconception and every improper view of Himself is done away with through the revelation of His Son.

"When we make the scriptures themselves the point of the scriptures, we are not left with perfection. When we see, however, that their purpose is to reveal God as loving, even when that means contradicting themselves, we are left with nothing but perfection."

---

To which Rance had the following responses:

Jonathan: I’m afraid this argument is a false dichotomy. I believe the Bible is both true and a demonstration of God’s love. I believe that Jesus is the fullest expression of who God is, and that our understanding of who Jesus is comes from the Bible. When we interpret the Bible we are supposed to view the context in which a particular passage was written, then see how we can apply it in our time. I believe so much of what we call contradiction in the Bible is our trying to read words written in a vastly different middle eastern culture through a western rationalist lens.

It’s important to me to have a reverent view of the Bible. Not because I worship the written Word, but because I view it as a demonstration of God’s love. Of all the stuff that has happened throughout history, this is what He chose as most important for us to read. When I read the Bible, I see God doing amazing things through flawed people, and I see the entire book pointing to Jesus as truth and life. I see an infinitely loving and good God, and I see His Word as trustworthy and true.

Russ: In agreement with the general argument as I have blogged about this subject in the past. But would not go so far as calling the biblical authors ignorant (as Jeff did) unless special revelation is jettisoned all together and the bible is no longer special. As an errantist (not inerrantist) I do critique the bible but hold back from making it absurd. What say you?

Rance: For sure, Russ. Scripture is inspired and canon, life-giving and Christo-telic; but its true authority is its the ability to point beyond itself to the Creator God known fully in Jesus.

Russ: Agreed. In addition to working biblical interpretation out along these lines I would like to see this discipline pushed forward by including an anthropological and narrative hermeneutic among other things. Inspired. Yes. Authoritative. Yes. Authentic. Yes. Jesus centered. Yes. Just not inerrant. And bag the literalism beat.

---

The Deficiencies of Theology

As you can tell, I had pretty strong feelings about calling the biblical writers "ignorant" however well meaning the Facebook observer was. It simply moves the entire biblical discussion of biblical knowing away from what theologian's call "special revelation" to that of another human book. A great book. But not a book we would consider the Word of God when this is done.

Which brings us to Dru Johnson's interview with David Moore in the following article below. First, I do not know either the interviewee or the interviewer beyond my quick review of their online credentials showing a general conservative evangelical background. However, from the topic on hand comes the question of "how do we know" from within the biblical script. Asking the question of epistemology re: special v. natural theology to the human conscious.

That is, how do we read the Bible? With a capital "B" or with a small "b"? As God's Word or as an ancient book composed in dusty ages past. Or perhaps as both? That is, as God's ancient word that is allowed by the Holy Spirit to be dissected, studied, redacted, and scrutinized by the minds and hearts of men and women through all the ages past and present? Or is the Bible a holy book placed on a high, holy altar untouchable lest we die? In the worst case this leads to biblio-idolatry or bibliolatry. In the best case it remains God's Word to our hearts and minds.

For myself the answer is all the above with the exception of bibliolatry and with the grave understanding that in the end, after all the dissection, study, redaction, and scrutinization, there is still somewhere upon the Bible's ancient text God's fingerprints and empowering speech that can revolutionize our lives through Jesus His Son our Incarnate Redeemer.

To which conservative forms of Christianity will then add their own words of inerrantism and literalism. Two categories of thought that for this writer do not help in interpreting the Bible but rather hold back the biblical script from being relevant to every age of man. Not relative but relevant. It is an important distinction to make.

To make the Bible relative is to remove the ground of God's being to that of the variable human psyche which would replace God's Word for his own words through time and history. But admittedly the Bible must be made relevant to the variable human psyche by divesting the meaning of God's Word for one's age or time in a way that keeps God as God and understands there is a point to which the bible can be over scrutinized as to be become spiritually neutralized, tasteless, and without its gospel salt.

As such, too much investment makes the Bible rigid, closed, and static. A religiously dogmatic book espousing a line of dogmatic teaching in the name of God but most typically our own words and not God's. But too little investment makes the Bible human, relative, and just another ancient text with the story of mankind laid out on its pages from which we draw out lessons, observations, and moral sayings. But the right amount of investment presents to us a Bible that is fluid, open, and dynamic. It communicates to us God and becomes relevant to our times and events. And it is this line of knowing that provides to us God's sure word breathed from the past upon our present lives.

As example, I sat in an Old Testament course in university learning from the world's most renowned Ugaritic scholar and archaeologist (Ugarit was closely associated with the Hittite empire). The able professor's grasp of the bible was astounding so much so that I came to the realization that the concept of God, or of Jesus' salvation, or even the concept of special revelation of God's Word was mostly consigned to the dusty bins of religion. And that the Bible had become the bible with a small "b" to many in his field of biblical research.

He was a kindly, older man, who took special pains to dialogue with me in his office on many occasions, but one who could not acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Savior. It was beyond his idea of the saving faith found in the pages of the bible. And it was a very sad day for me to finally acknowledge this would ever be so in this good man's religious convictions.

But to the point at hand. Several years ago I began writing this blog questioning basic evangelical doctrines which had been my own doctrines over a lifetime of learning and engagement. And by-and-large is so still today in its historic orthodox foundations. But to those foundations I have steadily expanded its reach to include contemporary scholarship within a structured postmodern venue. It was my realization then, as it still is today, that conservative Christianity needed to both explode - and then recompose itself - from its own static religious basis to a lively faith based upon a better idea of "knowing" and "being".

So what does this mean?

An Open Bible and Fluid Theology

That my Christian faith as beheld in the eyes and voices of its well-meaning, and conservative, leadership and pulpiteers, had done exactly to the Word of God as my good Ugaritic professor. By utilizing the idea of inerrancy (a Bible without error) and literalism (a Bible that is wooden linguistically) they have created a closed Bible and a closed faith just as assuredly as any non-religious researcher in the biblical field of study.

But again, we have spoken on this subject of a closed bible and a closed faith many times through the reciprocating topics of an open Bible and an open faith (see this link here as a beginning point). However, what I wanted is the pith of evangelicalism's foundation extended where everything becomes centered on Jesus as encapsulated in both the Old and New Testament through prophetic and apostolic voice. But I also wanted an evangelic orthodoxy and heritage that could open up the Bible beyond its own closed versions of God's Word. One that could become relevant without becoming relative psychologically or sociologically. To do this something had to be dropped. And those omissions must be the evangelical standards of inerrancy and literalism.

However, even those theological admissions would not be enough. The Bible must also be opened up to its relevancy of revelation when nakedly stripped of its religious pretensions while being re-centered upon its cultural openness and fluid narratival dynamisms within its linguistic structures that would speak to every age beyond its own ancient comportments. Thus the idea behind a Jesus-centeredness coupled with an anthropologic and narratival hermeneutic as primary interpreters of the Bible. By which is meant we learn to see in people - both past and present, both biblical figure and church father, both present day pulpiteer and theologian - their own story line (or narrative) within God's continuing (and expanding) narratival revelation. That the Bible is neither bounded off to us in cultural interpretation and understanding, nor so relativized that it simply becomes a religious book and not spiritual life itself. We want an open Bible with a fluid theology that is meaningful today and willing to correct itself when it becomes neither fluid nor meaningful. A Bible doctrine that is self-examining and not so hallowed less it loses this desired quality of keeping God's Word both open and fluid. And a readership that continues to examine itself is just as invaluable lest it misrepresents God, or denigrates God's Word by our own wayward religious convictions.

Hence, evangelicalism's historic orthodox roots have come to a tipping point of moving beyond its classical, medieval forms over the past 500 years, to today's millennial discussions of how hallowed church traditions might be expanded through a biblical interpretation that is both postmodern and post-evangelic in its theologic and philosophic structures. Older dogmatic and doctrinal church statements can become barriers to God's Word as much as helps. The trick is to understand just where and how to let go, or continue, these traditions. Traditions steeped in cultural conviction as much as in spiritual conviction.

As such, the church must learn how to expand God's Word away from unnecessary religious structures and towards necessary spiritual life. To do this it must invest a biblical hermeneutic (or interpretation) that will allow for expansion for today's times that is both postmodern and post-evangelic. It begins by asking the right questions about Scripture's epistemology. That is, how do we come to the Bible when we read it? Have we invested its holy pages with our own ways of knowing and being or are we allowing it to speak beyond ourselves and even beyond the biblical author's own cultural comportments and religious convictions?

This is what is meant by an anthropologic hermeneutic. It questions how we use the Bible for our own selfish purposes and relative convictions. It is also what is meant by a narratival hermeneutic that tells of the biblical story set in time and place, tradition and philosophy - both its own and our own. It is complex, but if done rightly remains open and fluid to all human traditions and cultural readings from time immemorial to eternity.

It allows God's Word to always speak through the human author - both past and present - without bogging down God's Words into our own words that are less holy or less good. It creates a way of knowing and being through Scripture that doesn't delimit, or debunk, Scripture as simply another ancient text gleaned from dusty ages past. Making of it a revered book, but nonetheless a book written by human authors centered in their own ancient philosophies of knowing in time and space. But it also makes of the Bible a spiritually challenging book to our own ideas about God and actions in this life we now live.

But then again, this is both the problem and the gift of language is it not? For language itself can be both ambiguous and timeless, or specific and bounded, by our reading of its lines. It goes back to the reader's own interpretive existential and societal background as primary influencers to how language - or communication - is intended or understood. Without a sufficient broadness of mind and heart any book or message can become bounded. But with a proper openness to mystery and willingness to unlearn and re-learn what we think we know about God and His Word, the Bible can be both our greatest friend and worst enemy. A help and an aide or a merciless master upon which our personal prejudices and dogmatisms breaks upon its pitiless shorelines.

Importantly, philosophy speaks from its own time-bound cultural epistemology. We all live by a philosophy whether we admit to it our not. It may be materialistic, secular, old-timey, or new. It can be described in a hundred different ways within a culture and yet still be the same rigorous philosophy held by all. Personal philosophies come in all shapes, sizes, and assortments, and are time-bound and event-dependent. A Jew living during Hitler's era will look at God and the bible differently from a Jew living in Christ's day. A Hindu Christian living in India will ask different questions than a Hindu Christian living in Christianized America. A Muslim living in Detroit will experience different freedoms (or restrictions) than his brother in Saudi Arabia.

Philosophies vary from people-group to people-group. From time and place. From event and circumstance. And in the 21st century - because of technology's global reach - personal and cultural philosophies have adapted yet again to reflect the human cultures of knowing and being. Today's philosophies will differ remarkably from the biblical ancient's philosophies in their day. Whether set in ancient Babylon, Israel, Greece, or Rome, from bronze-age to iron-age to early medieval times. But it is both the theologian's task as it is the philosopher's to insightfully read the culture, time, and event of their day to helpfully relate to mankind how we know what we know that gives to us our presence of being.

The world has come a long ways since its cultural Renaissance, church Reformation, and scientific Enlightenment periods (roughly, 1300-1900 AD). Its theologians and philosophers have steadily made observations upon these times. Some insightful - and many not so insightful - when observing religious, sociological, and political movements within communities, regions, and nations. Even so must we today learn to develop as good readers of God's Word, our times, and people, if we are to be fellow ambassadors of Christ speaking to God's heart for mankind.



Part 2
The Present-ness of the Bible


Much of last week I spent revisiting Radical Theology through an online study class held by John Caputo and Peter Rollins. Thus my absence on this blogsite. Specifically, we studied Theory After the Death of God beginning with Hegel and moving forward to Lacan, Derrida, and Zizek. So this online study was very philosophic and intentionally theologic (which is what attracted my attention).

Because of World War II, the question of the Death of God became a viable, relevant philosophic question based upon the Holocaust experience of European Jews and many disempowered minorities in both Germany and Russia. This theory is succinctly portrayed in the theologian Thomas Altizer's seminal treatises in the 1960s. At the time many identified Radical Theology with this idea however its expanded traditions were birthed many years earlier in Hegel and currently find its centeredness in more recent philosophers exploring "theory after the death of God."

In essence, Radical Theology is asking the question of knowing and being within the greater tradition of Continental Philosophy also begun in Hegel (thus Radical Theology's birthplace). The Death of God's philosophic movement is but a subset of Radical Theology and not its entirety. Much has taken place since then from the past 60 years of Altizer's arguments.

... As an aside, Process Theology was also being borne out of war, this time from World War I with the senseless death of its founder, Alfred Whitehead's soldier son. It too is firmly placed within the Continental Philosophic tradition while approaching the questions of knowing and being through a Christianized understanding of the world. Rather than observing the death of God in the world it was asking about the presence of God in the world. Ironically, two halves of the same coin. One philosophically worldly and the other natively biblical. But each asking how God was present with a world gone mad (insane) using Continental Philosophy as its departure point (sic, process theology v. radical theology).

Since this time I have come to see in each a strange movement both from, and to, God. In process theology this move appears to be towards a type of human existentialism become bereft of God who, though present, may be more "fate" or metaphor for "life itself" than "very God of very God". Thus my choice of keeping to a relational process theology that keeps the biblical God as its focus rather than replacing him with ourselves. Conversely, from Altizer's radical idea of God's death envisaged through humanity's histories of horrors and sin, to be succinctly summed up in God's "final death" on the Cross, it would be easy to say that God has abandoned our world. But Radical Theology has changed a lot since the 1960s and is now beginning to say that maybe God "consciousness" or "latency of image" yet remains.

For myself, I like to think of God's resurrection as not from this world but infinitely more into this world, as the primary interpretation. Thus, God has been resurrected into His creation as to form a new, more powerful insurrection within creation. So that what process theology saw as a divine partnership with the cosmos and humanity has become through radical theology a divine power into the cosmos and within humanity (rather than His consequential death). That is, humanity, and more specifically, the repentant church, has become uniquely empowered for redemption against the sin that lies everywhere present through a broken humanity. We are the hands and feet of God. We are the voice of God. We are the ministry of God to a broken world. Though we are not God we are empowered by God's Holy Spirit to be the Christ-bearers (or Christs) of this world. To say the least, this is the short version to both of these very complex theologic and philosophic traditions....

To a lay theologian such as myself it is too tempting a question to ask, especially if one might be able to integrate both the philosophic and theologic traditions together while exploring the idea of knowing and being. And so, using Continental Philosophy as a preferred starting point (for reasons I will explore immediately below), I wished to know more about Radical Theology and Process Theology (sic, see the separate sidebars on this website for further articles). Each are relational. Each deal with God and man. And each respect the Continental tradition.

What is Continental Philosophy and Why is it Important?

Now admittedly I do not understand a lot of this. I'm a theologian in training and not a philosopher by trade. I'm trying, but there's a lot of history to absorb that has occurred since Immanuel Kant (c. 1700s) and Friedrich Hegel's day (mid-1700s to early 1800s). But what has attracted me is the tone and tenor of Continental Philosophy's personal/sociological narratives (as opposed to Analytical Philosophy's logicisms and syllogisms - from which the church's systematization of God in doctrine and creed has largely been birthed):

Wikipedia: "Continental philosophy is a set of 19th- and 20th-century philosophical traditions from mainland Europe.[1][2] This sense of the term originated among English-speaking philosophers in the second half of the 20th century, who used it to refer to a range of thinkers and traditions outside the analytic movement. Continental philosophy includes the following movements: German idealism, phenomenology, existentialism (and its antecedents, such as the thought of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche), hermeneutics, structuralism, post-structuralismFrench feminism, psychoanalytic theory, and the critical theory of the Frankfurt School and related branches of Western Marxism.[3]" - Wikipedia

From this tradition I wanted a new way of knowing other than the Western analytic tradition I had grown up with. I wanted one that was narrative, existential, and could behold Millennial structures of knowing and being in a postmodern world. Thus the title description of this blog's website and the great effort it has been given to speaking God's Word into a post-Christian world. To do less, in my estimate, is to not help the church learn to break from its classic traditions of knowing to today's  newer, more radical, fomenting traditions of knowing.

Realizedly, Continental Philosophy in the Radical tradition percolates through Hegel, rather than the church's more favored philosopher Kant. It is an important distinction to make because from the Hegelian tradition is birthed an open system of philosophical thinking about God-and-man unlike Kant's closed system of thinking. And from this Hegelian tradition must be added important keynote philosopher's such as Rousseau, HusserlHeidegger, Bonhoeffer, Tillich, Lacan, Derrida, and Zizek.

Now certainly there can be things within each man's biography that may be disturbing, inscrutable, or dismaying. But show me a conservative or classical Christian theologian that doesn't have the same nasties in their own biographies (sic, Roger Olson's most recent treatise on this subject: Should a Theologian's Life Affect How We Regard His/Her's Theology?).

All-in-all this means is that there is a concerted effort in philosophy to re-ground "knowing" (or epistemology) outside of our boundary-laden Western culture that has become so use to the device of statement and argument while living dis-separate lives in presence and being (popularly known as our existential angst or despair, if you will).


This goes for the Scriptures too insofar as we might mimic its divine voice with an epistemology that is expansive and dynamic. One that might help today's theologian ask better questions of Scriptural revelation. Of the "why's and the wherefore's" of church's dogmas and doctrines. Of our incipient spiritual quest for groundedness and relevancy.

The Deficiencies of Philosophy

But insofar as the philosopher's word becomes the substitute for God's Word (or the theologian's word serves as the same whether liberal or conservative) then we've departed the essence of special revelation and have moved back into man's finite realm of knowledge. Albeit, perhaps a better grounding of knowledge than Thomas Aquinas' theology on Naturalistic Theology fully relying upon the neo-platonic traditions, but a knowledge that I must see running in parallel to Scripture's voice and not apart from it.

That is, God's Word must have the preeminence over man's word - thus saith the theologian part of me to my philosophical inner man! And yet, in my smugness and self-centeredness, I must learn to hear other words than mine own. Words that might break my words from myself in order to better hear God's words to myself. Ironic, isn't it? Thus the Christian's prayer for illumination and discernment which comes with a lifetime of learning and re-learning. Teaching and unteaching. Youthful zest and maturing wisdom.

That said, whether it is the "philosophical way of doing things or not," I as a Christianly-informed theologian do reserve the right to discover a biblical theology that can be both critiqued by philosophy as well as critique philosophy itself in a rightful manner devoid of duplicity. But one that will push along our understanding of biblical inspiration and doctrine without allowing it to usurp its prayers, narratives, teachings, and historic traditions.

That is, I find in both Continental Philosophy, Process Theology, and Radical Theology a helpful voice in re-hearing God's Word by observing what it does best: critiquing those who would critique Scripture while claiming God's voice as their own - when it might simply be their own voice and not God's they hear. And more so because it may provide an epistemology that might be more appropriate than the Kantian, Analytic tradition religiously (or astutely) observed in the Reformed Christian tradition as appropriated by the newer Christian movement known as Radical Orthodoxy (sic, Jamie K.A. Smith of Calvin College). A movement that wishes to safeguard the walls of Christiandom from its own internally arrived traditions of interpreting God's Word literally and dogmatically. Refusing self-examination and decrying all who would broach its closed doctrines and closed bible. Producing a closed faith with a closed God. Radical Orthodoxy is quite unlike Radical Theology. The former comes from the analytic, neo-Platonic tradition circumventing Kant in the process. While the latter comes from the Continental Philosophic tradition using Hegel as its philosophic divide (while appreciating Kant in the process). But again, all this has been spoken of in articles past. And, I suspect, it is to Radical Orthodoxy's newer traditions that the Reformed author and theologian Dru Johnson (sic, article below) hails from as he posits Radical Orthodoxy's supposedly superior insight into a pre-formed Christian epistemology. A way of knowing purported in name alone and not in a differentness to its presumed philosophical presuppositions.

Hence, Radically Orthodoxy's own postmodern, post-evangelic way of knowing and being harshly resonates with a conservative Christianity more centered on distinguishing what "is" and "is not" biblical. As a result, this latest movement to "recover the Biblical witness" has become problematic to the church's witness and problematic for our own picture of an Almighty God become limited by man's words and opinions, fiats and decrees. Too many popular theologians and preachers today are espousing a gospel that is foreign to God's heart and intent. They speak exclusion, hard-heartedness, and hard-headedness, in defense of the gospel they think they see and hear from God's Word. A gospel that has become quite foreign to itself and not the gospel as spoken through Christ Jesus our Lord. But this blog's pages have been filled with these observations too, and so there is no need to go any further into this subject either.

Voices Crying in the Wilderness of Man's "Knowing and Unknowing"

The better question for me today is the one asking in what way the Bible might be one of many bible-voices being spoken through God's laborer's in the harvest field. As one that is an expansive, or expanding, message to the many voices of the church sharing God's love, mercy, justice, and forgiveness in any number of ways within their communities and societies? Or by delimiting its words with our presumed doctrines, dogmas, prejudices, and bigotries? When seen in this light we see the Holy Spirit at once enlarging God's Word beyond its ancient pages that seem so lost to the deep distance of time and space, and requiring an expertise of illumination few seem to possess in training and background, spiritual discernment and liturgical practice.

At the last, the prophets of today's postmodern societies may be the "little voices" of bloggers speaking forth a departure from the Christianity they know - and wish to remake - into God's greater divine image unmade with human hands (as versus a boundary-driven, closed-ended church). If so, than its not the "general agreements of the church" that must be followed by God's children but perhaps the voices of those crying out from their own wildernesses of pain praying God's winnowing fires be spared His misled flocks following the secularized, or situationalized, voices of the church's undiscerning shepherds misleading their flocks.

These are strong words, but words that can only be spoken if heard by others, and embraced in a way that will question ourselves and our social-political motives driven by religious ideals and idols. The church is not here to protect itself, its God, its dogmatic borders, or its esteemed traditions. Everything that is ours is God's. He alone is the unprotected One who has come to us in the incarnated form of weakness and suffering. The Ruler of Creation as the persecuted and oppressed One of the nations. Who would reach out in love and forgiveness asking us to do the same to all men everywhere.

And it is to this God of the B/bible that we say, "Verily, Amen and Amen."

R.E. Slater
July 12, 2014
revised, July 13, 2014
revised November 25, 2014


Dru Johnson Interview: Biblical Knowing
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2014/07/12/dru-johnson-interview-biblical-knowing/

by Scot McKnight
July 12, 2014

David George Moore conducted the following interview. Dave blogs at www.twocities.org.

Dru Johnson is an assistant professor of biblical studies at The Kings College in New York City. The following interview revolves around his book, Biblical Knowing: a Scriptural Epistemology of Error.

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Moore: I know that Biblical Knowing is a rework of your doctoral work. Would you tell us a bit how you got interested in this study?

Johnson: Originally, I was going to do doctoral work in social psychology. I enjoyed research design, statistical analysis, and the way scientific constructs attempt to capture human behavior. In a sudden turn of events, I ended up going to seminary instead and read Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge in my first year on the advice of a fellow seminarian. As I read Polanyi, he was addressing all the things about science that I was most interested in, what philosophers call that the epistemology of science. Moreover, everything Polanyi said seemed intuitively correct to me, but none of it was ever discussed when I was studying psychology. I wondered, “Why had I never heard any of this before?”

Fast-forward seven years; I had completed an M.Div. at Covenant Theological Seminary and an M.A. in Analytic Philosophy at the University of Missouri—St. Louis. I had developed a profound love for Scripture and some philosophical training to boot, but I could not find anyone who was doing exegetical work on the epistemology in Scripture itself (for good reason, as it’s fraught with pitfalls). A mentor—Dr. Michael Williams at Covenant—challenged me to quit talking about my epistemology as if it were biblical and do the hard work of showing the epistemology in Scripture.

Moore: Can you give us a 50,000 foot view of your book’s big theme(s)?

Johnson: Biblical Knowing most basically pursues the question of the Scripture’s own view of knowledge: what does it mean to know well? Because I have been persistently un-persuaded by current theories of knowledge in analytic philosophy (the most popular type of philosophy in the Anglo-American world), I wanted to find the basic waypoints of knowing in Scripture and compare them to the work being done in philosophy.

What I found is unsurprising to most Christians: To know well means recognizing the authoritative voices whom God has authenticated to the community—in Scripture, this is usually Israel’s prophets—and then enacting the directions they prescribe. It’s similar to finding an authoritative golf coach (e.g., authenticated PGA golf pro), but then you also have to obey her instructions if you want to know how to drive a golf ball well. Failure to recognize the correct authorities or follow their instructions leads to erroneous knowing.

Moore: As Christians, we believe that the Bible and Jesus Christ are the two “special” means of God’s revelation to us. But even though the Bible is a major means in knowing God, does that assume we simply have to figure out what its words and propositions represent?

Johnson: If by “we,” you mean “the church” and not merely individuals figuring it out, then yes, in a way. It’s similar to the discussion of Torah. If you think the Torah is a list of rules, then you are just doing the math of life with the Torah’s legal calculus. However, if Torah is instructing us on how to see the world, then we have to embody its directions [in] the instructions of the prophets in order to see what is being shown to us. The chapter where I address propositions in philosophy (Chapter Seven “Broad Reality and Contemporary Philosophy”) shows them to be misplaced in the biblical scheme of knowing. I argue that propositions, which are something like “facts,” aren’t the thing to be known, but act as our conventional linguistic tools to help us know.

Embodying the guidance of Scripture disposes us to see what is otherwise unseen to us. Polanyi compares it to being able to read an X-ray. An X-ray contains no propositional “facts” in the sense that it cannot be true or false. Despite this, if you practice a certain way of looking at X-rays, under the guidance of an expert radiologist, you will be able to see something in an X-ray film that you would never see apart from embodying the radiologist’s directions.

Moore: We are subjects not objects. That does not mean we are doomed to subjectivism, but it does remind us, as your book does so well, that social connections are indispensable to how we know truth from error. Unpack that some more for us.

Johnson: This is why I think that scientific knowing makes such poignant points of contact with knowing in Scripture. On our own, subjectivism mires our knowledge in the foibles of relativism and whatever we can get out of the sobering effects of reality (e.g., pain, death, love, art, etc.). However, in order for scientific knowledge to be considered “scientific,” it must be practiced and habituated in a community of knowers who use language and theoretical models to basically ask, “Do you see what I see?” When a community gets together and says, we see something here through our shared practices in reality and our trust in each other, then it is considered “scientific” knowing. In Scripture, humanity is not left to figure things out on their own, but the community of Israel is called to collectively inspect reality according to how God has created and what he has done for Israel.

Two aspects of this process are essential. First, prophets are clearly authenticated to Israel and she must be guided by them. Second, reality must be allowed to intrude and shape Israel. The famines and wonders of God are external realities that Israel is meant to collectively see as intruding communiqués from God. Many of the prophets are caught chastising Israel because she only murmured about the awesomeness or difficulties of God’s acts, but like the Pharaoh of Exodus, didn’t see them a signs with transcendent meaning.

The biblical examples of knowing well includes communities that submit to proper guides (i.e., the prophets), embodies his/her instructions, and allows objective reality to shape their judgments. Importantly, God’s historical acts and prophetic directions are also considered to be part of that external reality that should be allowed to intrude upon and shape their judgments.

Moore: My own introduction to Polanyi came from reading Longing to Know by Esther Meek and Proper Confidence by Lesslie Newbigin. What benefit do these two books offer to Christians?

Johnson: I read Polanyi about a year before meeting Esther Meek. I quickly became friends with her and took a course on epistemology from her, where I was assigned Lesslie Newbigin. First, Esther has been a mentor and transformative influence in my life since my days at seminary. Second, she is an excellent communicator and has distilled some of the best thinking of Michael Polanyi into crystalic prose. I still am amazed at how she can translate Polanyi (and her doktorvater, Marjorie Grene) into writing that is so approachable. Both Polanyi and Grene were amazing minds and very dense reading, which requires re-reading to be understood. In fact, I often see Polanyi show up in the footnotes of authors who don’t really understand what Polanyi was doing with his tome Personal Knowing.

I recommend all of Esther’s books to almost everyone I meet. Her new book A Little Manual for Knowing is a perfect 100 page précis of her work on Polanyi and I highly recommend it! Murray Rae, Trevor Hart, and T.F. Torrance above all have sewn Polanyi’s thinking into their theology and popularized him along the way.

When I first read Lesslie Newbigin, I didn’t know enough Christian or World history to make all the connections that he was spinning together. I was a high school fail-out, a fairly new Christian, and a non-humanities and unread psychology major. Needless to say, seminary was an intellectual jolt for me. I’ve recently gone back and re-read Newbigin’s several times, and like a great novel or movie, I see more and more each time. Like Meek with Polanyi, Michael Goheen has been a very useful popularizer of Lesslie Newbigin. Overall, it is painful to see such transformative thinking as Polanyi, Grene, and Newbigin go unnoticed or misunderstood by most academic theologians, philosophers, and scientists today.

Moore: Many Christians make a radical distinction between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is what we “know” while wisdom is what we “do.” Interestingly, the book of Proverbs puts knowledge and wisdom in closer proximity. We are told that the wise person “increases in learning.” (Prov 1:5) It seems quite clear there is a limitation to how much we can do if our knowledge base is neglected. Speak to this important synergy of wisdom and knowledge.

Johnson: In a recently completed research project on ritual epistemology in Scripture, I tackle the knowledge/wisdom binary head on (Rite to Know, forthcoming). Hence, my thoughts have developed a bit more beyond what I constructed in Biblical Knowing, where I restricted myself to the aphoristic nature of wisdom literature such as Proverbs or Ecclesiastes.

Basically, Scripture sometimes conflates the terms knowing and wisdom together, and at other times they seem to be on a continuum. Either way, I believe the old construct that I learned in the church—”Knowledge is knowing what’s true, but wisdom is knowing what to do.”—is incorrect. Wisdom is not applying knowledge content to a real world problem. Wisdom, as developed in all of Scripture, is a skilled discernment that sees beyond the superficial circumstances. It is a transcendent vision, like the police officer who “knows” when someone is lying or a counselor who can see abuse patterns in a person’s past experience, even though the person never alluded to abuse. In a similar vein, the prophets were called “seers” before they picked up the name “prophet.”

In essence, Scripture’s depiction of wisdom acknowledges that everyone is looking at the same situation, image, or data, but some are skilled to discern what others cannot see—such as a hairline fracture or a collapsed lung in an X-ray. Hence, wisdom must be habituated and we must be guided to see what was there all along. I argue in my chapter on Mark’s Gospel that this is exactly what Jesus was attempting to do with his disciples, though it admittedly does not appear successful in Mark. He promised that the disciples would be able to see that going to the Gentiles, healing, teachings, suffering, and crucifixion are all part of the “mystery of the kingdom of God” (Mark 4:10–12). Everyone sees the same events, the same data, but the disciples need to be able to see how it all coheres to one big mystery.

Moore: You wisely remind us that we are “embodied” beings. Having flesh and blood is critical to how we know what we know, isn’t it?

Johnson: I hate to say this, but my entire next book (Rite to Know) is dedicated to ritual, philosophy of the body, and epistemology in Scripture. There, I make a strong case that not only are our bodies required for knowing, but that our sense of philosophical reason itself derives from our bodies. Hence, sacraments are not what we do because we have beliefs about them. Rather, rituals in Scripture are a means of forming us in order to dispose us to see what God is showing us. Again, I make the case that this is exactly what happens in scientific knowledge too—bodies, community ritual, guidance, logic, and more are strategically employed to make the scientific enterprise efficacious.


1 comment:

  1. Not sure if you got the last message, but the book addresses most of these issues in depth (with two more books forthcoming on ritual epistemology and a monograph on Torah and Gospel epistemology). Interviews are a great way to publicize a thesis, but a poor way to defend one. Email me if you would like to dialogue more about this.

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