Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Reading Sacred Texts Reliably II

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.

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