Monday, November 20, 2017

Violence On All Sides

by Dean Dettloff

Ferguson, 2014

This September in St. Louis, police arrested well over 100 people during protests that lasted for several days. Demonstrators were responding to the acquittal of Jason Stockley, a white man who shot and killed Anthony Lamar Smith, a 24-year-old black man, as a member of the St. Louis Police Department in 2011. The killing came at the end of a chase during which Stockley was recorded by a dashcam saying he was “going to kill this motherfucker, don’t you know it,” referring to Smith. Stockley claimed to find a gun in Smith’s car; the gun was found to have no DNA evidence showing Smith had ever touched it, though it did have Stockley’s DNA.

Before the verdict was released, the SLPD was already preparing for a confrontation, remembering the events of the nearby Ferguson revolt three years earlier in response to the killing of Michael Brown by white Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson. A year after that, the Justice Department found the Ferguson Police Department was glaringly racist, based on a lengthy investigation that revealed that despite Ferguson’s black community making up two thirds of the population, they made up 93% of arrests there. Unsurprisingly, many in St. Louis found Stockley’s acquittal to be one more in a series of mishandled cases involving the death of black people in Missouri at the hands of white police officers.

Protests started peacefully but escalated when police agitated the crowds in the evening. Social media circulated the usual protest scenes, with a video of an older woman being trampled by St. Louis officers in riot gear emerging as an especially troubling and viral moment. And in response to the usual protest scenes, the usual protest reactions began to emerge, too.

Archbishop of St. Louis Robert Carlson condemned the violence in a press release saying, “While acknowledging the hurt and anger, we must not fuel the fires of hatred and division… Reject the false and empty hope that violence will solve problems. Violence only creates more violence.” The statement summarizes what has become a default position for many Americans, Catholic or otherwise: the onus is on the protesters to keep calm, and while the rage that erupts is understandable, that rage needs to be reined in. Violence begets violence, not change.

The response seems reasonable enough, especially in a country that saw the political and spiritual witness of Martin Luther King Jr. It also seems reasonable coming from Archbishop Carlson, a representative of a church whose spiritual leader, Pope Francis, has been a vocal promoter of nonviolence around the world, even delivering a message on the 50th Day of Peace entitled “Nonviolence: a Style of Politics for Peace.

Yet reasonable as it might seem, we should ask whether or not general condemnations of violence obscure more than they reveal about what happens on-the-ground in situations like the one in St. Louis. In the first place, exactly what we mean by “violence” is usually left undefined and assumed, though criticisms of protest violence often revolve around either the destruction of property or potential bodily harm.

We should ask whether or not general condemnations of violence obscure more than they reveal about what happens on-the-ground in situations like the one in St. Louis.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Judgment, Religion, and Modernity in The Keepers

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This post is part of our "popular mythology" series, investigating the intersections of religion and popular culture.

By: Kiegan Irish

Recently I found myself thoroughly wrapped up with a new documentary series called The Keepers. The series is interesting for a number of reasons. It seems to be a continuation of the trend in 'true crime' documentaries that has had such widespread appeal lately. The Keepers is extremely well shot, edited, and researched, especially given the quality of some of the offerings in this genre. It is also profoundly disturbing. It deals explicitly with sexual violence, and some of the interviews where the cases are described in detail are difficult to watch. That being said, I think that the series raises some important issues about the relations between guilt and judgment as well as religion and modernity, and handles them in a unique and thoughtful fashion.

The story of the series revolves around two women who had been students at a Catholic girl's school in Baltimore in the late 1960s. During their time at the school, a young and beloved nun was brutally murdered. The police investigation carried out at the time came up with nothing and the case was eventually abandoned. Years later, in their retirement, the case still haunts the two women and other students of the school and members of the community. They band together and attempt to seek all the information they can, regarding the murder. During their investigation, they uncover connections to a sinister conspiracy.

The real story then, we're told, is not the murder itself, but the cover up. The murder of the nun called Sister Kathy in '69 was committed precisely because she had threatened to report the abuse.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

If you do not forgive… III

by Henk Hart

Original text John 20:21-23 Greek New Testament (SBLGNT)

21 εἶπεν οὖν αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς πάλιν· Εἰρήνη ὑμῖν· καθὼς ἀπέσταλκέν με ὁ πατήρ, κἀγὼ πέμπω ὑμᾶς. 22 καὶ τοῦτο εἰπὼν ἐνεφύσησεν καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς· Λάβετε πνεῦμα ἅγιον· 23 ἄν τινων ἀφῆτε τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἀφέωνται αὐτοῖς·
ἄν τινων κρατῆτε κεκράτηνται.
Reading the text once again

The 10 references to the same gospel I surveyed last week suggest that 20:23b from that very gospel may not offer support for church discipline. In a 2012 report of the West Coast Presbyterian Pastors Conference, Eugene Peterson, translator of The Message, said about this difficulty that “this verse always bothered him.” So he translated it in The Message as: “If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?” In material for the Lectionary Mat Skinner wrote: “Failure to bear witness, Jesus warns, will result in the opposite: a world … left unable to grasp the knowledge of God. .... Jesus is not … granting the church a unique spiritual authority. He is simply reporting that a church that does not bear witness to Christ … leaves itself unable to play a role in delivering people from all that keeps them from experiencing the fullness that Jesus offers.”

The problem can perhaps be addressed by reading the text differently. Peterson leans that way in responding to 20:23b by exclaiming: And then what! He seems to imply that leaving people unforgiven creates an intolerable situation. So does Skinner. If they are right, we can take 23b to mean: and so forgive, never leave people unforgiven. Had 23a read: "When people are hungry, feed them," 23b would have been immediately clear: "if you don’t feed them, they remain hungry.” So: when you forgive sins they will be forgiven, lest people will continue as they are. Never fail to forgive. John’s great commission is: Forgive.

John 20:23b now urges us always to forgive, following the tenor of the gospel, in line with Paul's canon of the new creation (end of Galatians 6). John’s interpretation of Pentecost is the inbreathing of a new Adam who, as in Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3, following Jesus in love, is filled with all the fulness of God. I read these kinds of texts as giving us a new interpretation of humanity made in God’s image. The fulness of God’s self-revelation in Exodus 34:6-7a now no longer needs to be completed with vs 7b. In Jesus the fulness of God’s love covers all iniquity. As in John 3:17-18a "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned….”

Forging a new tradition

But John 3:18b says: "whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son….” And vs 36: "whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.” How can I maintain my different reading in the face of these clear condemnations? I respond that these condemnations are not part of the church’s mission. They are not God's intent in Jesus. The church is not called to condemn, but to be a means of grace. The gospel simply asserts the meaning of living outside the life-giving forces of love. All the more reason to read 20:23b as I propose.

Our world cries out for love and the gospel focuses on love as the core of the church. To practise love, we must overcome a centuries old tradition about reading a text. That’s been done before, also in connection with sin. We seem constitutionally inclined to respond to transgression, trespass, disobedience in just one way: punishment. So the post-resurrection church believes it must practice discipline to remain true and reads John as commanding this.

A reading of Scripture about our nature can be based on a mistake. In Reformed theology Augustine’s teaching of original sin was once very influential. Today we know his doctrine represented his misreading of Romans 5:12. Is it possible that we also misread John 20:23b? Are we free to work at a new tradition?

Restitution for abused victims

It is difficult to abandon an established tradition without the strengths of a new one. Breaking new ground often misses the mark again and again. Failure can tempt a return to Egypt. Entering a phase of the Reformation without church discipline will meet with resistance. But if the church is to become the special institution where love has no barriers, these hurdles must be taken.

What will a church do when acceptance of abusers seems to leave the abused without healing? Abused people, especially by clergy in a position of power in the church, rightfully look for restitution. Can they trust the church to restore them if the perpetrator is not punished? These questions easily arise from thinking in terms of a punitive model. But an institution devoted to extend God’s love to all is called to bring healing to those broken by the transgressions of others as well as to those others.

We have learned from the “truth and reconciliation” (t&r) process that restorative involvement of both sides of a bloody collision of norms and practices holds out promise for healing and reconciliation, serious shortcomings notwithstanding.* That process was adopted by secular states. It could therefore recommend itself even more to churches for development as a faith oriented process that moves beyond punishment. Punishment can indeed give a victim some satisfaction, but it does not restore. The strategies of t&r were forged in the crucible of seeking restoration after cruel political conflicts. Their path often resulted in truly moving results.

T&R looks for 'restorative justice’ rather than adversarial and retributive justice. It aims to heal by uncovering what really happened, finding truth and exposing lies, and making room for mourning, forgiveness and healing. Following this way churches can forego punishment and at the same time do justice to both abuser and abused. This provides a more Christlike way to read John 20:23b and a way to deal with transgression that incarnates love.

*Desmond Tutu’s Assessment: Despite these challenges and limitations, the TRC was internationally regarded as successful and showed the importance of public participation in such processes, including the initial decision-making process leading up to the establishment of a truth commission. The hearings of the TRC attracted global attention, as it was the first commission to hold public hearings in which both victims and perpetrators were heard. While amnesties are generally considered inconsistent with international law, the South African TRC provided some basis for considering conditional amnesties as a useful compromise, particularly if they help to secure perpetrator confessions.The South African TRC represented a major departure from the approach taken at the Nürnberg trials. It was hailed as an innovative model for building peace and justice and for holding accountable those guilty of human rights violations. At the same time, it laid the foundation for building reconciliation among all South Africans. Many other countries dealing with postconflict issues have instituted similar methodologies for such commissions, although not always with the same mandate. The South African TRC has provided the world with another tool in the struggle against impunity and the search for justice and peace.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

If you do not forgive… II

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by Henk Hart

Original text John 20:21-23 Greek New Testament (SBLGNT)

21 εἶπεν οὖν αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς πάλιν· Εἰρήνη ὑμῖν· καθὼς ἀπέσταλκέν με ὁ πατήρ, κἀγὼ πέμπω ὑμᾶς. 22 καὶ τοῦτο εἰπὼν ἐνεφύσησεν καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς· Λάβετε πνεῦμα ἅγιον· 23 ἄν τινων ἀφῆτε τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἀφέωνται αὐτοῖς·
ἄν τινων κρατῆτε κεκράτηνται.

Problems with the current reading of John 20:23b

When the disciples are commissioned Jesus tells them that if they do not forgive someone’s sins, these sins are not forgiven. (John 20:23b) In this context a disturbing question arises: are we reading this right? Forgiving is one of the meanings of the new life. Paul ends Galatians 6, in which he tells us to bear one another’s burden if someone has sinned, by saying “what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule.” How could that include leaving people in their sins?

If indeed the last chapters of John are intended to explain what resurrection means, is there no immediate tension in reading 20:23b both as evidence of the resurrection and also as a mandate not to forgive someone’s sins?

I do not believe, given the context of the entire Gospel, such a reading is necessary and I hope to show that the problem is not one of poor translation. It is possible to simply read 23b as it stands and find it emphasizing new life. But first: is John's gospel consistent with retaining someone's transgressions as part of the meaning of resurrection?

Ten grounds for considering a different reading

*In the Prologue to his gospel John refers to the Word Incarnate as full of grace and truth (vs 17). He links us to Exodus 34:6-7a, the astounding self-revelation of God as forgiving and full of mercy, without a link to vs 7b. In the Old Testament this usually means that the reference intentionally does not include God’s resolve to punish iniquity (7b). In John, only the forgiving and merciful God becomes incarnate.

*John points to Jesus (vs 29) as the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. He refers to God’s inclusive, cosmic love. Calvin’s exuberant reading of 20:23a as an unconditional pardon raises no expectation of limits on God's cosmic love. Nothing here points to reading this same Jesus as later commanding us to retain the sins of some.

*The miracle at the wedding in Cana (John 3) focuses Jesus’ mission on the restoration of joy as the basis for the disciples’ trust. So one would not expect John later to undermine this trust by involving the disciples in declaring some sin unforgivable.

*John 3:16 characterizes Jesus's mission as, again, an expression of God's love for the cosmos. Had Nicodemus been present at the commissioning in John 20, would he not have been surprised hearing vs 23b as a limit on God’s love?

*In John 8:3-11, Jesus tells a woman caught in adultery that he does not condemn her. He also does not assure that her sins are forgiven. Instead he tells her no longer to live in sin. And while he does, he is writing in the sand with his finger, just as the 10 commandments were written with God’s finger. But this time he may have written his new commandment: enter the life of love.

*The new commandment is made explicit in John 13:34, 15:12, 17 without any hint of leaving room for intentionally not forgiving sins. Jesus’s followers are to love one another as Jesus loved them. And Jesus loved them as God loved Jesus.

*In John 's post resurrection stories I read resurrection to mean darkness is overcome by love. He does not say the empty grave tells us Jesus is risen (John 20:4-10). Instead he tells stories that begin in darkness and give way to new life, to love, to forgiveness, all telling us that in Jesus a new creation starts.

*The first evidence of resurrection is the restoration of Eve in the commissioning of Mary to “go and tell” the disciples (John 20:17). She, a woman, is the first to be commissioned as messenger of good news. The Word that was in the beginning and brought us grace and truth incarnate has begun the work of resurrection, of making all things new. Leaving people in their sins does not fit in this commission

*The commissioning of the disciples (John 20:20-23) follows a clear path to new life. First the disciples are told to continue Jesus’ very mission: as the Father has sent me. Jesus then breathed on them to give them the Spirit. The Greek text leaves little doubt that this breathing was like God’s breathing life into Adam. Then they are commanded to forgive and reminded that without forgiveness people remain in their sins. I will say more about how I read forgiving in this third step of the commissioning. In this sequence resurrection can hardly include leaving people in their sins.

*In John 21:15ff the commissioning of Peter takes the place of forgiving him. I will retell this dramatic story in my own words to bring out the subtleties that translations do not reveal. Peter is asked three times whether he loves Jesus and three times he responds by saying Jesus knows. There is never a straight: Yes, I do. The first time Jesus asked: Do you fully love me more than the others? Peter responds: You know we are true friends. The second time Jesus leaves off the more than the others. Peter do you fully love me? Peter: You know we are true friends. The third time, which upsets Peter, Jesus comes down to his level: Are we really friends? Peter: You know everything, you know we truly are friends. Each of the three times Jesus commissions Peter to look after Jesus’ followers and then explains how this will lead to a hard life. Did Peter “get it,” we might ask? Was he renewed? At the end of the conversation Peter sees his close friend John and asks Jesus: And what about him? Jesus gently rebukes him: That’s for me to know. Peter’s renewal is really a sad story. But Jesus does not say he doesn’t forgive Peter. Nor does he discipline him.

Peter's story, more than anything else, make clear to me that in Jesus, full of grace and truth, we know only the God of mercy and forgiveness in Exodus 34:6-7a. God as known in Exodus 34:7b, who does not overlook iniquity, is nowhere in sight. So what is John saying in 20:23b? I will go there next week.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

If you do not forgive… I

by Henk Hart

Original text John 20:21-23 Greek New Testament (SBLGNT)

21 εἶπεν οὖν αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς πάλιν· Εἰρήνη ὑμῖν· καθὼς ἀπέσταλκέν με ὁ πατήρ, κἀγὼ πέμπω ὑμᾶς. 22 καὶ τοῦτο εἰπὼν ἐνεφύσησεν καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς· Λάβετε πνεῦμα ἅγιον· 23 ἄν τινων ἀφῆτε τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἀφέωνται αὐτοῖς·
ἄν τινων κρατῆτε κεκράτηνται.


In most of my weekly blogs since October last year, love has been a persistent theme: God’s love, our love, love as the fabric of creation, love whose redemptive force is irresistible. That theme led me to plead for removing discipline as a mark of the true church, replacing it with love as a way of celebrating 500 years of Reformation. I tried to make this concrete in terms of a church that would eliminate condemnation from its witness. I intended this elimination to apply specifically to the organized church, because it is unworkable for the rest of society, for example for the secular state. Most cultures respond to transgression with punishment. Recently newspapers reported that US chiefs of police are not convinced of the wisdom of relying "only on jail and prison,” which they see as "simply ineffective….” Laudable as that sentiment may be, it is unrelated to dealing with transgressors in love.

So in a context of long having to live with brokenness and discipline, my plea concerned a re-formation of the church as a sanctuary, as a place where without exception all live by grace alone, as a place that wipes away all darkness and allows even worst offenders to breathe freely, as a New Testament version of the Old Testament’s City of Refuge, as a place where no one is ever refused communion.

Some of my readers felt uneasy about this. They were concerned that, for example, victims of abuse by church leaders might never find healing for their wounds if the perpetrators would not face the consequences of their destructive behaviour. In this blog and others to follow I hope to address this legitimate and important concern. But I do not intend to diminish my plea for boundless love for all, also for perpetrators of abuse. However, in my view such love needs a path to genuine healing for victims and a call for perpetrators to participate in that healing. I hope that the process known as "truth and reconciliation" can help us forge a path for the church to walk that will allow abuser and abused to experience a fulness of redemption.

I rely on Bible texts in making this plea. So what follows is a matter of reading sacred texts. Therefore the issue of reliable and responsible reading is very much in play. The more so when my reading—both in terms of what it claims a text says and of how we must respond to it—for the most part deviates from how the church has for centuries read and responded to a specific text. The most significant basis for the maintenance of discipline I take to be John 20:23b. It will, I hope, also become a basis for relentless forgiving. To that end I will offer and defend a different reading.

The church and John 20:21-23

Commentaries on John's story of Jesus appearing to the disciples the first evening after the resurrection seem to agree that this is John's version of Matthew's Great Commission and of Pentecost early in Acts. So John 20:21-23 packs two monumental Gospel events into very few words.

John Calvin’s commentary provides a powerful interpretation of vs. 23, which in the NIV reads: ”If you forgive anyone's sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” The first part, Calvin says (my emphases), is nothing less than “the sum of the Gospel….” We learn here about God’s “unconditional pardon of sins…,” accomplished by “not imputing….” them. Salvation is “the forgiveness of sins through free grace.

His interpretation of the second part is also powerful, but not very comforting. This part has been added, he says, “to terrify the despisers of this Gospel” who will hereby know “that they will not escape punishment….” Calvin adds that in this way the apostles “have been armed with vengeance against all the ungodly…."

In this setting it is understandable that the churches of the Reformation wanted to make sure that the faithful practice of discipline would be a mark of the true church. Verse 23b has been a key element in providing a solid Scriptural foundation for how the church deals with transgression in both the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions. Still, there are wide ranging discussions about 23b, especially among preachers and pastors, who deal with this text not in abstraction, but in their practice with parishioners and councils.

The discussions are often nuanced and wide ranging and many make a connection between what Jesus says and what has been near-formulaic in the Jewish tradition, namely that leaders of the people are authorized to declare with legal force how actions may be set free from condemnation or may be subject to condemnation. Jesus used their technical language of binding and loosing, forbidding and permitting. So in the eyes of many, Jesus intends to authorize the church not to forgive some.

Nevertheless, a persistent minority questions this reading and in some cases provides a different translation. The week after next I will introduce a different way of reading this text, but first I will suggest why some interpreters wonder how likely it is that Jesus, as part of the Spirit-inspired great commission, bids the church to sometimes show no mercy.

My reading of John 20 and 21 assumes that these chapters are devoted to illustrate what John means by resurrection. Very remarkably, the empty grave has little to say in his story. Peter and John entered it, saw that it was empty, believed what the women had said they had found, made no connection with Scripture, and went home. John's truth of resurrection becomes apparent in stories that follow, such as Mary’s commission, the commissioning of the disciples, Peter’s being forgiven and commissioned. These stories suggest to some interpreters that John 20:23 has perhaps been misunderstood. Next week I hope to show that there are good grounds in the gospel itself to join these interpreters in their second thoughts.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Reading John 3:16 Responsibly II

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by Henk Hart

Greek Manuscript of the New Testament

In this blog and the preceding I share my reading of John 3:16 in the context of John’s gospel and against the background of Psalm 121, the psalm that celebrates the Creator as Helper and thus throws light on the opening verses of John's gospel. Bible reading exposes us to a message, so I have shaped my reading as a meditation with a message. So this is in every way a subjective reading, but I hope also a responsible reading. One of many possible responsible readings.

Reading John 3:16 Responsibly II

Though God’s love for the world is cosmic, it is not for that reason impersonal. That becomes clear when John tells us the story of Nicodemus, who came to see Jesus by night. Why not? If in Jesus God is our helper, coming and going by day and by night, why not come by night?
"Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’”
Nicodemus didn't quite know whether he was coming or going. Surely Jesus had a powerful connection to God. But his father was Joseph and he came from Nazareth. Better not make a fool of yourself. Go talk to him when no one else can see your coming or going, talk to the light in the darkness. But if God so loved the world, why come to the light at night? Well, maybe you do. It's in our night that we need light.

Jesus has a conversation with Nicodemus: "‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’“ The cosmic kingdom tied in with personal conversion. "Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?'" Do you not understand God is love? Do you not remember Moses and the serpent? Let me tell you, "... just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." Nicodemus knew about lifting up our eyes. When looking for help, lift up your eyes to the hills. When a snake has bitten you in the desert, lift up your eyes to the Man of God who lifts high the very snake that bit you—trust what God is doing in that man and you will be healed. Trust now, says Jesus, your Helper-made-flesh and lifted up on a cross. You will be given your life as surely as the water was made into wine. A savior has come to the world, recognizable by his birth in a crib, a sign for humble shepherds (Luke 2:12). He humbled himself (Philippians 2:8) on a cross, that all who lift up their eyes may live.

John explains: "For God so loved the world!" Our entry into every mystery is the love of God. God creates in love, God redeems in love. And, as John tells the story of Jesus washing the disciples' feet, Jesus says there is no love greater than laying down your life in love. That's love divine all loves excelling. And as an explanation for the incarnation it is at once an invitation. If we want to be disciples, if our feet have been washed, then we are called to trust our invitation to image the God who loves the world. Will we? ... lay down our lives, wash feet, live as vessels in which Jesus changed the water of misery into wine of joy? Will we drink his cup? Do we hear the language of Lent?

Our invitation to embody God's love in Christ is crucial to the presence of God's redeeming love in the world. God invites us to be the Eve of God's Adam, bride of Christ, Jesus' helper. Without a body of Christ, God's love in Christ remains invisible in our world. We are, says Paul, "ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us....” (II Corinthians 5:20). We are invited to love as God loves, to give ourselves in love as Jesus loved. In so following Jesus we, like him, will be filled with God's fullness (Ephesians 3:19).

When our love images God's love in Christ we will love like the Samaritan and we will love the thief on the cross. God’s redeeming love will be visible in our love. Christ, the second Adam, will have a helper, his body, his Eve, his bride.

Our help is in the name... for God so loved,

Our help is in the name of Adam's maker...for God so loved,

Our help is in the name of the giver of Eve, ...for God so loved,

Our help is in name of the Word, ...for God so loved.

The Word in the flesh was alone, for we knew him not!

God calls the church to help, ...for God so loved.

Jesus bids us take up our cross, that we may inherit his glory, provided we suffer with him (Romans 8:17).

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

Image: P. Bodmer II, Papyrus 66 (Gregory-Aland) in the public domain. Used from wikipedia.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Reading John 3:16 Responsibly I

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by Henk Hart

Greek Manuscript of the New Testament

In this blog and the next I share my reading of John 3:16 in the context of John’s gospel and against the background of Psalm 121, the psalm that celebrates the Creator as Helper and thus throws light on the opening verses of John's gospel. Bible reading exposes us to a message, so I have shaped my reading as a meditation with a message. So this is in every way a subjective reading, but I hope also a responsible reading. One of many possible responsible readings.

Reading John 3:16 Responsibly I

"For God so loved the world...." John 3:16. Likely the best known verse in the Bible. Or the most ill treated verse, torn from the gospel as a naked fragment brazenly broadcast on bulky billboards. Let’s take it off the billboard and place it in the context of John's gospel and the setting of Psalm 121. Will we recognize it there?

Psalm 121, with its moving language for God as helper, deliverer, rescuer, savior, has a strong relation to both Lent and historical Christian worship. For the great celebration of the exodus from slavery, Passover, Israel's primal event of deliverance, pilgrims sang songs of ascent, climbing Mount Zion while singing. Psalm 121, one of these 15 songs of ascent, celebrates the creator God as helper:
"I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth."
For ages Christian worship started with these very words: "Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.”

For God so loved the world. God’s love is cosmic.

During their Lenten pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples would sing these words. For God so loved the world—

God, the maker of heaven and earth. God almighty.

God as our helper first appears in the creation story, when God realizes that Adam is alone and needs help. The creator is savior from the very beginning, a helper for the helpless Adam, our helper.[1]

For God so loved the world.

It was an arch confession for Israel to sing: "Our help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth." This God protects us from all danger, whether we are coming or going, by day or by night:
"The sun shall not strike you by day,
       nor the moon by night. ...
The Lord will keep
       your going out and your coming in...."
God Almighty, maker of all that is made, so loved the world. How sensible that John begins his gospel of redeeming love with the Word of God through whom all things were made:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. ... All things came into being through him, ... What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”[2] John tells Good News starting with God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, our helper.

For God so loved the world.

But listen: "He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him."

What is this? Is John writing about the Jews? Not likely. Recognizing God's presence is not a Jewish but a human challenge. When we read this today we need to hear its echo in Romans: God is visible in all of creation, but human foolishness makes us blind. So when love for the world makes God appear in our flesh, that's a problem. Suppose Hillary Clinton became pregnant (don't laugh, remember Sarah!) and became convinced her baby would be Immanu-el, God with us? Hillary's baby? If that's a problem, why isn’t Jesus a problem? He came from Nazareth, son of carpenter Joseph and his wife Mary. Why would anyone recognize the maker of heaven and earth in a wood worker's child? Would we? Is that how God helps? Whether we're coming or going, by day or by night?

John helps with a story. If we do not recognize Jesus as creator, have we not heard of the wedding in Cana? Where the wine ran out? Great need for help, a wedding without wine. God's creation is for celebration, cosmic joy. In Cana there is only water, six huge vats for washing off the world's misery, six vats for ritual cleansing. Then the Word, through whom all things were made, present in the flesh (for God so loved the world), speaks to these vats. And the party can go on: there is wine. John tells this story of glory as the miracle of miracles.[3] Now the disciples realize this Word-of-God come-in-the-flesh deserves their trust, the way you trust God, whether you're coming or going, by day or by night. The wedding goes on with wine, for God so loved the world.[4]


[1] The Hebrew word for the helper God makes for Adam, ezer, is not used often in the Bible and when it is, it (mostly) refers to God as helper.

[2] The packed and charged language John uses is open to different readings. Reading a number of translations helps to get the depth of these words. Here I have used the New Revised Standard Version.

[3] The Greek has various ways of saying “first.” One of those is “arch” as in archangel or archbishop, which is the word John uses. So given Jesus as the Word of creation, I read John as saying: this was the arch sign, the sign of signs, the original sign, the sign that names all signs, the sign that says: I make all things new. God’s love made manifest in the Word incarnate is cosmic in scope, too much for a billboard.

[4] Next week, on the first day of Lent, I continue this reading of John 3:16 with a look at the story of Nicodemus coming to visit Jesus at night.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

Image: P. Bodmer II, Papyrus 66 (Gregory-Aland) in the public domain. Used from wikipedia.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Reading Sacred Texts Reliably IV

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by Henk Hart

Reading Responsibly

When we characterize readings as responsibilities, we can continue to assess them as valid or invalid, so long as we realize that the validity just is not objective, in the sense of bypassing subjective responsibility. Readings by authors such as Tom Wright, Richard Hays, Walter Brueggeman, or Phyllis Trible are often regarded as authoritative and compelling, but different readings are not for that reason rejected. And once we have accepted the need to read responsibly, we will also come to see that there are no pre-given norms for what is responsible. As our subjectivity evolves, so will our responsibility. Reading texts always requires critical responsibility, vigilance, guarding against closing the text. We need to articulate our responsibilities self-critically and become self-conscious about and articulate our assumptions: what is the Bible, who is God, what is a responsible reading, etc.

Scripture plausibly gives us indications that this self-critical engagement of our subjectivity was known, exercised, and accepted in the communities in which the texts arose. I have mentioned examples in earlier blogs. The development in thinking about eunuchs in Deuteronomy, via Isaiah 56, to Acts 8 is helpful. So is Peter’s acceptance of dealing with non-Jews in Acts 9 or the early church’s leaders recommending, in Acts 15, that the Greek church find its own way in the Spirit. Jeremiah 7, too, arguably reads previous texts critically in terms of their spiritual depth. So I take it that Scripture itself encourages us to be more self-critical, for example, in reading Romans 1 or insisting on the predominantly male language for God.

Responsible text reading requires readers and the recipients of their readings to rely to a large degree on trust. Once it has become accepted that objectivity and guarantees are illusory, believers can no longer rely on a single authoritative and true meaning taught by church councils. We all need to learn how to recognize and trust responsible readings. Such trust makes us vulnerable. For that reason the marks of our responsibility need to be made as clear as possible, especially where readings are controversial or create victims. Whoever accepts a reading, bears responsibility for that acceptance. We cannot responsibly pass off our reading as the objective truth or say we had to submit to councils.

Trusting responsible readings in part means trusting that we ourselves have acted responsibly in our reading. Such trust becomes real in our preparedness to embody the guidance the text provides. A crucial test of responsible reading is what happens in our lives as a result of reading the sacred texts. Failure to act on the text, leaving it as merely grasped in our heads, assented to, and perhaps discussed, fails to trust the text. For the text is intended as guide for our lives. Failure to embody its meaning is a form of failing to read the text properly. People may fear the vulnerability this trust bring along, especially when it undermines structures of power and authority that bypass responsibility. They may feel safer in submitting to these structures or feel more responsible in maintaining them. But is there safety in accepting a power which absolves us from responsibility? Or do we then abdicate our responsibility in favour of a false sense of security?

If reading is to be responsible; if, in addition, objectivity is an impossible ideal which easily entraps us in distortions, and if, as well, responsibility itself has no objectively fixed meaning, we would be helped by an indication in Scripture that this kind of reading honors Scripture itself. I think such help is available. In Acts 15, as mentioned above, the council of Jerusalem gives Greek Christians exactly the kind of responsibility I have argued for, namely to interpret for themselves what they take God to be asking of them, without the benefit of an objective reading of a revered text. In Ephesians 1:23 we see the church living in love characterized as the fullness of God. If we combine Acts 15 and Ephesians 1:23, we get a sense of a church that comes in many shapes, and of an invitation to let that plurality come through in deciding, with the Spirit’s help, how to read our own situation in the light of Scripture. The role of a critic in this situation is to show how a reading has not been responsible, more than showing how a reading is wrong. If readings differ from ours, but seem responsible, respect for the leading of the Spirit seems an appropriate response.

A reading can still be widely compelling and acquire authority. If widespread peer adjudication supports one reading over others, that will speak in its favor. In the reading of confessional texts a superior reading will always be possible, because readings of these texts are by their very nature offered to others for their critical reception. A hermeneutics of trust depends on our ability to recognize people’s honesty, integrity, and competence, as well as on our trust of truth and reality. Hence such a hermeneutic requires respectful vigilance toward our own readings and those of others. Hermeneutics of responsibility means giving up text readings as an exercise of power and authority which is manipulatively controlling, which does not acknowledge in practice the integrity of other responsible readers who come with a different result.

In the end, we are better off respecting the subjectivity of text readings. With access to highly reliable ancient manuscripts, with a plethora of contemporary translations in many languages and from different perspectives, with ever increasing numbers of commentaries using the latest information from Bible scholarship, and with much relevant information available via Google, most serious readers have direct access to sources that help them become informed about how reliable a translation or interpretation is likely to be. Trusting a reading as reliable requires a decision on our part, usually made in a communal setting. Most of us will be capable to nourish such trust and to use it responsibly. That makes reading Scripture what it should always be, an act of faith, based on diligence in understanding what we read.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

Image: Rembrandt, The Baptism of the Eunuch, 1626, in the public domain. Used from wikipedia.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Reading Sacred Texts Reliably III

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by Henk Hart

Responsible readings

I begin this segment with sharing (if you wish) the most fascinating difference in interpretation known to me. It concerns a concert by Glen Gould conducted by Leonard Bernstein at Carnegie Hall in New York, playing a Brahms piano concerto. Below is a video of Bernstein’s speech to the audience before the concert (you can skip the concert), and here is Bernstein’s later recollection of the event. They vividly illustrate the enrichment and excitement of interpretations when they go beyond objectivity.

If objective readings have too many problems, is there an alternative? I propose to substitute “responsible” for “objective.” Some may protest that “responsible readings” suffers from different interpretations of responsibility, putting it in the same boat as objectivity. However, different responsible readings would be normal, while objective readings aim to eliminate alternatives. Objective readings lean toward just one right reading, making a variety of readings problematic. But a responsible reading of a sacred text is like a responsible rendition of a piece of music. No one would suggest that there’s just one way to perform Brahms’s piano concerto. The only reason we have such suggestions in relation to the Bible is the tradition that the Bible gives us theology, that is, a systematic account of Biblical teaching. But the Bible as theology undermines reading it as, for example, narrative, which has many more levels of meaning than a scholarly account.

The legitimacy of a number of responsible readings is not, however, compatible with arbitrary readings. Bernstein rejected as well as admired Gould’s interpretation of Brahms. But no valid reading of Isaiah 40 can claim that Isaiah’s promise to those who hope in God –that they will run and not grow weary–is prophetic advice to joggers. Responsible readings acknowledge a reading’s subjectivity. But responsible subjectivity is not the subjectivity of the autonomous rational subject. Responsibility belongs to the responsible and accountable subject. Bernstein regarded Gould as outrageous as well as responsible. Responsible reading excludes arbitrary subjectivism or relativism. Responsible readings, for example, assume a vast fund of shared meaning in translations, concordances, commentaries, dictionaries, and lexica. Within any responsible reading community of people in conversation about the same text, much is already settled beyond dispute. Large areas of agreement exist even between different traditions. Since such agreement is never cast in stone, it would be misleading to refer to it as objective. But it usually functions that way. Further, arbitrariness is precluded by the existence of a basic text which serves as shared orientation in discussing different meanings. Brahms’s concerto does have a score and not just any rendition will be satisfactory. A valid reading must be open to criticism and is subject to acceptance of that reading by competent readers of the same text in the same community. The meaning of texts is not unrestrained, but only not restrained to one and the same meaning.

A helpful analogy for reading texts as a relationship between text and reader may be hearing sounds. Sounds are relationships between physical waves and eardrums. Without eardrums no sounds. Air currents pass through trees whether heard or not. But a wind howls only to hearers. Textual meanings are similar. They are neither inherent in the text by itself, nor made up by the interpreter. Rather, they are relationships between interpreters and texts. Just as people can describe what they hear very differently, so can people describe what they interpret very differently. If texts in this way are outcomes of subjectivities, their meanings cannot be simply objective.

The relationship between text and reader develops over time. Themes and meanings grow. Sacred texts are intertextual. Earlier texts re-occur in later ones, translated, transformed, and developed. The Bible shows movement: Israel’s God first dwells in tents and resists living in a temple. Later the temple becomes a dwelling place after all, but is abandoned in favor of human embodiment still later. The process of development continues in our own lives. All of this makes for legitimately different readings that can all be responsible though it does not eliminate the real possibility of irresponsible readings.

Central metaphors also contribute to multiple meanings. We cannot read texts without the relative weighting of certain meanings. When different communities have weighted different themes, for example, God’s sovereignty in Calvinism or human freedom among Lutherans, we can expect significant differences in reading important texts. Traditions with different central metaphors will have different slants on many of their significant readings, because shifts in central metaphors have a kaleidoscopic effect. When in the reading of a text primacy is given to certain themes, these primacies will pass on their coloring to other texts. All this is very much a matter of subjective interpretation. The Bible itself does not select and recommend its own choice of metaphors as central.

When we talk about responsible reading, we have no objective definition of responsibility. Responsibility will be defined in an ongoing way in the developing practices of a community, say a scholarly community, a community of faith, or some other community. By participating in the reading of the community we discover what it accepts as responsible and whether we are able to function within those confines. Examples of this abound. Virtually all Christian communities today consider themselves responsible in worshipping with women who are hatless and have short hair. But specific texts could be read and have been read to forbid this. Churches are still (re-)reading Scripture on the role of LGBT people in the church. These are not so much examples of past interpretations having been wrong, but more of seeing our responsibility vis a vis these texts differently than in the past. The “sin lists” in the New Testament are obviously local and historical. Their authority is limited for us today. That we accept this is demonstrated in our lives.

At the same time we see churches selectively using Biblical sin lists to single out some currently disapproved behavior. Churches often do not accept their contemporary responsibility in reading texts like Romans 1 with respect to controversial discussions. They would not easily read the Bible as open to (gender) inclusive language for God. These churches simply say that the texts are clear and that, however much we might want to have it differently, Scripture does not allow a different reading. Perhaps it is fair to say that people in the pew can in this way be bullied by higher councils. A shift here from objective readings to responsible readings would change the discussion, because it would introduce the legitimate possibility of different readings that could all be responsible, thus placing the so-called objective reading in a more vulnerable position.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

Image: Rembrandt, The Baptism of the Eunuch, 1626, in the public domain. Used from wikipedia.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Reading Sacred Texts Reliably II

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by Henk Hart

Delusions of Objectivity

“Objective” as term of approval means more than: job well done. In that case, conflicting explanations could all be objective. Instead, “objective” minimally means: this is the meaning of the text, to dispute this is wrong. So why hope for objective textual meaning? Perhaps because it may remove some of our responsibility. If a text objectively means such and so, even if some don’t like this meaning, we can say: sorry, there’s little we can do, this is just what it means. It’s like opening our eyes and seeing the moon. There’s little we can do except close our eyes again. Even then, saying “Look, the moon!” is a subjective behavior. Objectively, so to speak, saying you see the moon is subjective. Objectivity, as characteristic of what a subject does, is never without subjectivity. This certainly is true in giving a reading of what reading is. Already the text we read is a subjectivity. Reading is also always a subjectivity. So a reading of reading deeply immerses us in subjectivity. Views of reading that claim objectivity are nevertheless subjective views of objectivity. They are not necessarily subjectivistic, but if their subjectivity is not acknowledged, subjectivism seems unavoidable.

The degree to which all of this applies to reading the Bible emerges in the comparison of reading the phone book and reading the Bible. These differ radically, not just in degree. We bring our contemporary lives and hopes for redemptive redirection to reading the Bible in ways we seldom if ever do to the phone book. Many contemporary issues at stake for us in reading the Bible (real and subjective concerns) are explicit in its text. And when we bring abortion or homosexuality to the Bible, they become part of its meaning. Who can read Joshua today without struggling with a God who appears to command genocide? The more objective we claim to be in these situations, the more we ignore contemporary subjectivities.

The Bible is inconceivable without human responsibility, both in its being written and in its being read, which becomes part of what is written. A sacred text, like a blotter, soaks up meanings we have read in it. When we back off from this responsibility and claim readings as objective as seeing the moon, we close off discussion and hide our responsibility for what happens to LGBT people or abortion as a consequence of reading the Bible. Once we claim objective meanings, we risk abuse of power by those who read the text without admitting subjective responsibility. Officially sanctioned readings easily prop up regimes of power and authorized readings facilitate violence to an open text by hiding the responsibility of those in power. They take away the responsibility of others for reading and interpreting the text anew.

The notion of a closed canon has these dangers and lends itself to barring access to the Spirit of the open text. Authorized readings can function as though they were God’s own infallible reading of an infallible text. Our subjective responsibility is then effectively denied and the nature of reading distorted. To read the Bible as fundamentally referring to God as a male person may seem objective. But to regard this reading as the Bible’s own is a reading which not only does not occur in the Bible, but hides an agenda-driven reading captive to a contemporary male subjectivity. To avoid this we need to acknowledge human subjectivity in all the meanings and readings of the text.

Claims about objective text readings support the illusion of there being, ideally, just one true reading which, once uncovered, is beyond change. People may fantasize that God would so read the text. Given the role of human responsibility in reading, however, no significant reading of a sacred text can ever be objective in that way. Significant readings facilitate reading the Bible to address us here and now by articulating a relationship between reader and text, rather than a meaning the text has in and by itself. Even if a community of readers accepts a single reading, that community is usually too small and its reading too short-lived to allow us to speak of real objective meaning. We have authorized translations, but no authorized readings of these translations. And the translations are themselves, of course, readings, interpretations. Any particular reading would be improperly used as a norm for other readings that challenge the so-called normative reading. At most we have a tradition of reading so shaping a faith tradition that it can become difficult to distinguish its reading from the text being so read.

If a church decides to speak authoritatively about a teaching of Scripture, and if reading Scripture is a relationship, the church needs to acknowledge its responsibility in what it is saying, which is probably not simply what Scripture in fact teaches, but more likely what that church, having read Scripture in faith, has decided needs to be said. The church’s decision to speak at all may well be a consequence of the experience that Scripture is far from clear on a decisive point and that clarity is now needed.

A responsible church acknowledges that different readings are legitimate. Our common and accepted practices in reading Scripture demonstrate that we routinely consider the text multi-interpretable. We expect a scholar’s reading of a text to differ from a preacher’s sermon on that text. A Jewish commentator is likely to comment on a story by telling another one. Christians generally do it differently. Even when we think only of preaching on a text, it would be remarkable to hear two sermons on the same text that were virtually identical. Or think of tracing the readings of certain texts throughout history. Among them may be readings that were once authoritative in our own tradition but that have been superceded by other readings.

If we take just one step away from reading a specific text to look at defining what the whole Bible’s authority is, the problem of objectivity becomes quite visible. Accounts of Biblical authority have a long history. At any given time there can be more than one account. What sense would it make to proclaim one of them as objective? Such accounts at best formulate one community’s understanding of a matter which in the Bible itself is never explicitly treated. So when we speak of a Reformed understanding of Biblical authority, this would be better regarded as a humble admission of the limitations of a tradition than as an advertisement of the one true understanding. Yet this need not discourage us from embracing a limited tradition as enriching.

Can the original manuscripts lay claim to objectivity? Since we do not have original manuscripts, we can at best appeal to copies that are, in the judgment of official church councils and competent scholars, as authentic as we can now hope to have. We do not expect better versions to become available and we allow them to settle disputes without questioning their authenticity. But they are not objective.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

Image: Rembrandt, The Baptism of the Eunuch, 1626, in the public domain. Used from wikipedia.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Reading Sacred Texts Reliably I

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by Henk Hart

"Do you understand what you are reading?"

Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, Acts 8:26-40.

Objective readings

Reading sacred texts reliably does not, I think, require “objective” reading. For some people objectively reading sacred texts is important because see their lives depending on how we read the Bible. Objective reading for them may be a reading untainted by agendas. They may read a text like Romans 1 as simple and unproblematic. The text straightforwardly says what it says, so just read what it says. I maintain that such objective readings do not exist because they are impossible, given what texts and readings are. Instead, perhaps our best word for a reliable reading would be a “responsible” reading.

What would constitute an objective reading? “Objective” has many meanings. Probably no one objectively knows the objective meaning of objectivity. We use “objective” as an evaluative comment on how reliable we judge our knowledge to be. Such evaluation is the act of an agent, a subject. It is, therefore, a subjectivity. And if an objective evaluation of objectivity seems impossible, if by “objective” we mean the absence of subjectivity, this would seem to make an objective reading of a text impossible.

Here are three quick examples of “objectivity” and of some problems that attend them. (1) Sometimes “objective” means the accurate presentation of an inviolable or undeniable reality. An objectively true statement then makes a claim which any normal and competent observer will accept. Say: “sugar tastes sweet.” That seems obvious enough. Nevertheless, could “Trump is incompetent” be objective in this sense? Can some U.S. voters legitimately claim Trump’s competence as an objective reality? That depends on who is a normal and competent observer, as well as on what counts as competence in this case. (2) “Objective” sometimes refers to independence from subjectivity. But we don’t use “objective” to qualify something that is independent from us. Rather, “objective” qualifies what we (subjects) claim about something. How, then, is such a (subject-made, i.e., subjective) claim objective? Do objective claims provide iron-clad guarantees, or are they merely made without bias or prejudice? (3) Academics often think objectivity is the hallmark of science. But scientific claims are not necessarily without our interest. Climate scientists on both sides often have an agenda.

Claims about objectivity are especially made when objectivity is disputed, as in the case of claiming Trump’s competence. We press objectivity when others are skeptical regarding our claims. Once a claim is accepted as “objective,” we’re often no longer interested in that objectivity. Objectivity seems more important when we don’t have it than when we do.

Since “objective” has such a variety of conflicting and disputed meanings, claims will likely be regarded as objective by a community within the boundaries of some theory of objectivity accepted by that community. But that acceptance is a subjectivity. Reformed theologians might tell Lutherans that the Reformed reading of “law” in the gospels is objective and that therefore Lutherans are mistaken. However, such objectivity appears mostly to Reformed readers, which is just what people wish to avoid by appealing to objectivity.

If objectivity varies like this within theories and communities, its limited territory and multiple uses could undermine its significance as objectivity. Yet this is precisely the difficulty when we consider objective readings of texts in the context of legitimately multiple readings. It is difficult to deny multiple readings. Text readings have histories. Meanings come and go, or simultaneously differ from confessional community to confessional community. Is there, for example, one among the several views of the atonement that is objectively taught in Scripture?

If objectivity is primarily characteristic of some claim about reality, more than of that reality itself, that objectivity is then a characteristic of human behavior and, therefore, of a subjectivity. In the reading of texts this is so to a pronounced degree. Not only is reading a subjectivity, but texts are products of a subjectivity as well. So what might objectivity mean in this context? It seems to have much potential for misleading us. The text is not likely able to fully contain, as an objectification, all of the subjective meaning that belongs to it. There is too much subjectivity in the background. Moreover, this subjectivity is in development and bears traces of individual difference. In addition, written texts have no intonations and facial expressions. Texts as objectifications of subjectivities at best objectify these subjectivities only partially. They leave us responsible for subjectively assessing the role of the (traces of) unobjectified subjectivity.

In significant disputes about a sacred text’s meaning the original manuscripts will play an important role. But they do not count as objective as distinguished from subjective translations.

Texts such as phonebooks make it easier to consider objective readings, because they nearly fully objectify all of their subjective meaning. If I’ve forgotten my glasses and ask for help finding someone’s number, I need not mistrust the information I receive. Even if I get the wrong person by dialing the number I’m given, we’ll be able to discover whether I misdialed or my friend misread.

However, the Bible isn’t like a phonebook. Indeed, we’re not surprised that ever since Darwin we’ve had much trouble discovering what it means to read the first chapters of Genesis. There’s no obvious way to tell who has the “real” or “true” meaning. The Bible doesn’t help out here. It may give us reason to say that reading the Bible is important in the Bible itself, but Biblical texts do not tell us how to regard them as texts. Our account to ourselves of what the Bible is, is a subjective account by its very nature.

There may be some objectivity in small dimensions of the text. Since the Greek verb form for “read” in John 5:39 can be either imperative or indicative, can we tell objectively which it is? That seems like identifying the black key on a piano between “a" and “b." Is it an "a sharp" or a "b flat"? Only with the note in a scale can we tell. Can we also tell whether John commands us to read the text (read the Scriptures!), as we once thought, or whether, as we now think, he disapprovingly notes that we read it (you read the Scriptures) inappropriately? A subjective theology of inspiration will influence us here. Furthermore, even if we could objectively ascertain what each single word in a text means precisely, the text as such is not known simply by knowing the meaning of each word. When we move from textual fragments to entire psalms, or narratives, or letters, objectivity is just not in view. Is it believable that someone wrote the definitive commentary on Romans? That seems unthinkable, even in principle.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

Image: Rembrandt, The Baptism of the Eunuch, 1626, in the public domain. Used from wikipedia.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Linguistic Intuition and the Possibility of Judgment

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by Julia Rosalinda de Boer

I think 2017 is a fantastic year to be a grammarian.

“Why, Julia, would 2017 be a fantastic year to be a grammarian? Don’t you know that instruction in ancient languages is at an all time low, that many adults struggle to locate the predicate in a sentence, and English enjoys a smug, linguistic superiority? Why, why is it a good time for grammar?”

Thank you, conveniently-place Rhetorical Other; I’ll tell you. It is true that the wider communal appreciation for the grammatical arts appears to have fallen, a trend which is in no way indicative of the overall health of linguistic philosophy as an actual discipline. Linguistics is finding such good health within our beloved Philosophy that occasionally a fellow student or a philosopher I am reading will figuratively or literally roll their eyes backwards into their skull when a language lover interjects to point out that everything, after all, comes back to language. It seems to me that philosophy is still reeling from the linguistic turn, with the realization that if “constitutive language theory” is correct and grammar is not a mere affective phenomenon which can be perfected through pain, language precedes even thought itself and cannot be passed aside in any hearty philosophical consideration.

If I speak in idealistic terms about the current state of linguistic philosophy, it is because I see it as brimming with possibility. We’ve had this linguistic turn, our own copernican revolution, and structuralism is starting to lose its iron clad grasp. It’s not that I am not convinced of Saussure, Lévi-Strauss or Chomsky’s attempts to analyze the underlying form of language; in fact I am a linguist by first training. Rather, I see the tension that arises when we claim the sign is completely arbitrary. These are discussions still ongoing in the academy today. The fact is, we are creatures of meaning, and we imbue meaning into the words that we use and signs that we employ. Of course there are underlying structures of language, and these can tell us more about a human’s capacity for communication, but there must be a balance between saying the sign is sometimes arbitrary, on one hand, and on the other, acknowledging that because we are creatures who seek to add or uncover meaning we must account for intuition in some manner (consider onomatopoeias and similar words where meaning is encoded in the lexical stem). This is why constitutive language theory (language as preceding and indeed enabling thought at all) is so significant: by saying that language is primary to everything, including thought, language can be analyzed for the way in which it does structure our thought, while still permitting it to be an instinctual practice, where language is almost our primary sense.

Speaking of senses, philosophers of hermeneutics (Richard Kearney and Brian Treanor’s volume, Carnal Hermeneutics, springs to mind) are beginning to lament the valuing of sight and sound above the senses of taste and touch. This is an incredibly important critique, and a problem that can only be solved, in my opinion, with constitutive language theory. There has been, and will be, a privileging of language, because it is primary. But in some ways, being aware that it is primary, allows us to “shelve it” and move on. I do not mean “shelve it” to be a negative valencing, but rather to mean that since language is now conceived of some outer shell of linguistic sensitivity which makes thought and sensation possible, we do not need to worry about language superseding other sensations, but understand them in relation to one another (i.e. How does grammar shape our conceptions of touch and sensual experience, and vice versa). Not to sound too normative, but to each its own place, and good riddance. Perhaps you will find I have not actually opened space for such hermeneutics of taste and touch because I’ve primarily justified them in terms of language. I admit, it’s a vicious circle. Mea culpa, but also, meum gaudium.

Language is not logical. It does not simply exist to say something true about our reality. It is not a picture of how things are. Sure, it can be used to speak of things which may be logical, true, or real, but we do not speak only in declarative sentences, nor do we only name things. We also use language to communicate possibility and desire, emotions so often at odds with how things are in reality. In this regard, our definition of what language accomplishes expands, and resists the account given by logical positivists. Truly, knowing that linguistic sensitivity comes first and cannot be or should not be treated as only an a posteriori experience means that we have given up whipping our school children for their “poor” English (or Latin as the case may be) and have instead started to value differences in speech as distinct epistemological possibility. I’m optimistic that we will see a greater valuing of diverse grammar, both in our native tongue and foreign languages.

So what is the point in learning good grammar in light of these things? My estimation is that this linguistic turn allows the possibility of reconciliation with the speculative framings of language from earlier on in our shared cultural heritage; that of the ancients and medievals. Our speech or internal dialogue is not a phenomena which develop when we interact with the world, but rather the mechanism by which we are able to interact with the world at all. And that is an insight which is by no means absent from ancient and medieval thought, something that I recognize when reading Anselm on the two types of rightness/truth demonstrated by language, or read the speculative Modistae as they comment on the ways in which language has helped us paint what is at times a very accurate picture of the life around us. It is always difficult to know how to evaluate linguistic theory before Wittgenstein’s turn, but reading philosophers under the “old system” try to account for the instinct of language is the way that I have begun to bridge this vast difference in paradigms. What they saw keenly is that we are linguistic beings, made to interact with each other and with God, by and through language. Such a spirit supersedes any theory of linguistic philosophy.

My life of faith has called be to ask a new question: how do we, knowing what we now know about the a priori nature of a human’s capacity for language, now reintroduce value into grammar? What constitutes good grammar when correctness is no longer the goal? My Christian life constantly causes me to ask how my grammar, to even the most fiddly, minute detail, can be used to honour God and promote love. It is the calling of a Christian to begin the process of discerning, and this having identified instinct or intuition as the tie between these two accounts of human linguistically, I’ve grown to think that an aesthetic apparatus of judgment might be extremely appropriate. An aesthetic discussion of syntax and morphology might eliminate some of the problems raised by various camps of linguists and linguistic philosophers by providing an analysis which takes into account both beauty and effectiveness. I have more questions than answers at this point, which makes 2017 a fantastic year to be a grammarian.

Julia de Boer is a Latinist and linguist by training, who began a Master’s at ICS when she had too many questions about the interactions between faith and human capacity for language. Her thesis work is still ongoing, but projected to include liturgy, invented languages, and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Zygmunt Bauman Leaves Behind Tools and Hopes

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by Dean Dettloff

Zygmunt Bauman, November 19, 1925 - January 9, 2017
It is nothing short of ominous that Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, that prescient sage of our contemporary, liquid lives, should die in January 2017, when the spirits of fear and resentment are busy reanimating what many took to be the corpses of a more solid modernity. Writing late into 2016, at the age of 91, Bauman leaves behind not only a legacy of conceptual handles and cultural observations, but also a set of hopes, fears, and determinate advice for those of us gazing into a troubled horizon. We would do well, therefore, not just to remember Bauman, but to recall his most recent observations (some of which are linked in the following text) and take them as a relay baton from the previous century into the next.

Famous for his identification of what he called “liquid modernity,” Bauman tried to articulate the anxieties produced by the rapid social and technological changes of the twentieth- and twenty-first-centuries. According to Bauman, ours is a society marked by ebbs and flows, more conditioned by the flux of time than the boundaries of space. What used to bind us together no longer holds. Bauman is not nostalgic here, for he recognizes that many of these older forms of solidity, like ideologies of blood and soil, were rightly melted away. At the same time, however, it is unclear how to build any new sense of trustworthy, solid ways of stabilizing ourselves, of dropping anchor, leaving us adrift on tumultuous tides. Caught between the solidity of earlier ideologies and an unclear future, Bauman calls our present time an “interregnum,” tarrying between the devil and the deep blue sea.

For the last several years of his life in this interregnum, Bauman turned his research and commentary to issues of reaction, migration, and the need for a new solidarity. Having the ground shift beneath our feet makes us scared. So scared, in fact, that Bauman, a leftist thinker, updated the previous identification of the “proletariat” with an exploration of what he calls the “precariat,” united, paradoxically, by a common experience of individual suffering. Bauman does not thereby deny social inequalities, but rather shows how they mutate, bringing out the pervasive affects and effects resulting from the precarious position of people beholden to the flows of networks like global labor markets.

According to Bauman, this is what makes the present refugee crisis so difficult, for the refugees represent what the precariat fears might happen to them. Just recently many of the refugees streaming into Europe were educated persons, with families, jobs, housing—and now their lives are even more precarious than those of the precariat itself. Instead of welcoming the stranger, precarians refuse the stranger as a symbol of their own fears, and they respond by making enemies and forming phobic collectives.

The picture Bauman paints of contemporary liquid life is troubling. But Bauman is not content only to articulate the problem. Among a variety of recommendations he makes throughout his work, perhaps the most common is his call for dialogue in an effort to create new forms of solidarity. True dialogue, Bauman suggests, is not simply talking with people, but intentionally talking with others who are different. In this effort, Bauman suggests Pope Francis as a model, one who thinks about those on the margins of a globalized society and who reaches out to others of alternative perspectives. In an interview with Vatican Insider, Bauman, who was not a Catholic but who was himself known for dialoguing with people of other positions, said, “I am in awe of everything Francis is doing; I believe his pontificate gives not just the Catholic Church but the entire humanity a chance.”

What will happen in the coming years as we continue to be tossed about the waves of uncertainty and precarity remains to be seen. Bauman's forthcoming book, due out this year, is entitled Retrotopia, promising to analyze the growing popularity of visions of the past as a response to the problems of the present (e.g. promises to make America great again). As far as Bauman is concerned, however, creating new forms of solidarity with others through open dialogue is the only way in which we will retool our communities for an unclear future. With Bauman's passing, we have indeed lost one of our best navigators. But out on this open water, if we are willing to speak with each other, perhaps we might cobble together some kind of life raft after all.

Dean Dettloff is a Junior Member at the Institute for Christian Studies. His doctoral research deals with the intersections of media, politics, and religion.

Image used from Narodowy Instytut Audiowizualny, flickr.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

No Idle Claim III

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by Henk Hart

Scrub Hare, photo by Henk Hart
The ruminant hare of Leviticus 6:11 was unclean. Today we can enjoy it as a delicacy.
The third blog on Scripture ends the series with a brief presentation of how I think we can meaningfully read the Bible today.
Each religion will uniquely approach its sacred writings, Christianity is no exception. So how would my two preceding blogs relate to the Bible? New Testament theologian N.T. Wright has used the metaphor of a play in three acts for how the Bible, seen from a Christian perspective, unfolds the Spirit’s guidance on the human journey. Act one, the Old Testament, tells us the initial story of people living with God’s hopes and expectations. In act two, the New Testament, Jesus and the early church focus on the deepest spiritual core of act one. In their vision the living Spirit in the Torah could be followed beyond the law of Moses. For them Torah, as living source for the fullness of God’s grace, called for a life firmly rooted in love, free from specific rules and regulations experienced as permanent law. The third act would be written by the church in the freedom of the Spirit, seeking a constantly renewed and renewing embodiment of love in acts of grace and compassion shaped for their time.

The church seems to have been tempted to close the Biblical canon and to treat the NT as a definitive guide for the ages, not only in its spirit, but also in its actual rules. Over the centuries some of these rules have often not been followed, such as those about head covering, long hair, or the place of women, because they no longer fit later times. But there has been scant appreciation for the character of all NT rules as time bound. NT rules are then read as exempt from the NT’s own prohibition of new laws.

The gospel of John is helpful in this regard, because it shows the dynamics of following the NT’s Spirit when we adapt its letter to our times. In 5:39 Jesus points out that the Scriptures as guide to life must be read as bearing witness to him. So when in 1:14 John refers to the Word Incarnate as full of grace and truth, he tells us that in Jesus we experience the presence of God’s emeth and chesed. Focused on Jesus and guided by the Spirit the Bible becomes book of forgiving and life giving love. All its deepest spiritual intuitions serve to generate this love. Hence the importance of 8:11 where Jesus embodies the forgiving God. He does not condemn an adulterous woman as the law requires, but writes a new commandment of love. When John (14:6) talks about Jesus as way to God, he has in mind a spiritual dynamic rather than a new set of rules.

In the discourses of the upper room, 14-16, Jesus explains that following him after his death is made possible by the spirit of truth (i.e., of chesed and emeth), who will unfold for us the way to God as lived by Jesus. The Jesus to whom the Torah bore witness is the same Jesus made known to us by or in the Spirit. In Acts 10 and 11 Luke portrays the change from Torah as a specific law to following the Jesus of love: a radical move that engendered serious struggle among Christians. Peter, in a dream he accepts as coming from the Spirit, trusts that diet rules of the Torah are no longer the language of the Spirit for following Jesus.

The NT does not erase the Torah, but frees the Spirit’s arch blessings from being captured in a timeless specific tradition. The Spirit of the Torah and the Spirit of Jesus do not differ. Being “in Christ” is not different from loving God with all our being (Deuteronomy 6:5). But Paul ceaselessly teaches that freedom in the Spirit prohibits slavery to any rule bound tradition. Our lives are to be lived “in Christ,” or in God or in the Spirit. At the same time, he teaches concrete ways for the Spirit to lead people on their way. These actual NT paths of the Spirit belong to their own time. The Spirit of Old and New Testament remains God’s and Jesus’ Spirit. That Spirit lived in these Scriptures to show the way to love and life and will always remain recognizable in the actual rules of these Scriptures as spiritual footprints of old. But living “in the Spirit” today will ever require forging new paths to make the Spirit recognizable in our own time. And, as Leonard Cohen might say, what’s written in the Scriptures is not an idle claim.

Even the Old Testament unmistakably distinguished the Spirit of Torah from the letter of the law. Jeremiah (7:21-23) virtually denied that God had ever commanded the sacrificial instructions that people mistook for the heart of Torah. Isaiah (56:3-5) foresees that the spirit of Torah will one day set aside the prohibition that kept eunuchs out of the temple (Deut. 23:1).

When the apostles teach us to follow a “spirit” and not a law, they still set out actual paths of the Spirit for their time. These NT paths are footprints of the Spirit that we follow to make rules for our own time. 1Corinthians 7 is a clear and extensive example of how an apostle can struggle with a contemporary issue.  Paul wants to help Corinthians with guidelines for marriage. Being single, he has no experience and the Old Testament has few insights he can lean on. So, flexibly, he makes a concession that is not a command (6), gives a command he considers the Lord’s (10), makes rules that are his and not the Lord’s (12), lays down his own rule for all churches (17), offers his personal judgments as a reliable person (25), and presents his view as one who has the Spirit of God (40). Paul’s mature New Testament confidence in his own judgments as a follower of the Spirit sets out the heart of living with the Scriptures in the Spirit in our own times. They teach us to follow Jesus, whose Spirit leads us along paths of love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.