Thursday, January 26, 2017

Reading Sacred Texts Reliably I

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.

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