Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Reading Sacred Texts Reliably IV

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.

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