The way in: how we got to be who we are

by Steve Kindle

I'm Right coverThe history of philosophy has been aptly summed up thus: “No matter what is considered the ultimate in metaphysical understanding today, tomorrow it will be replaced by another received as the ultimate in metaphysical understanding.” The same can be said for how the Bible has been interpreted throughout the centuries. I ask you, when was the last time you heard a sermon detailing truth derived from the allegorical method of interpretation? Could we say never?

I recently led a seminar on the four Gospels. You can be sure I didn’t follow Irenaeus’s lead (the leader of the church in France circa 70 CE) who declared that, “There actually are only four authentic gospels. And this is obviously true because there are four corners of the universe and there are four principal winds, and therefore there can be only four gospels that are authentic.” Somehow that logic escapes me, yet it was obvious to Irenaeus.

Psalm 19:4b-6 states, In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun, 5which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy. 6Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat.

Before the Copernican revolution was finally accepted as “the way things are,” biblical interpreters were excused for taking this passage literally. Today, however, few, if any, would want to make a geocentric case. I cite these examples because as worldviews change, so does the manner in which the Bible is interpreted. It could be no other way, as how we look at the world informs how we interpret the Bible.

Being born into the world is like moving into a fully furnished house that was completely designed, decorated, and landscaped with no input from you. No thought was given to your taste, interests, preferences, needs or desires. You had no say whatsoever in any regard to your new abode. Our individual part of the world is like that. We had no choice as to our country of origin, language, form of government, even our religion. All of these preceded us in our world. The child’s whine that “It’s not fair!” is our first recognition of this reality. No, the world is not set up with us in mind.

The world we inhabit presents itself to us as the “givens,” the things we take for granted, the things that “just are the way they are.” I doubt you worry too much that the sun may not rise tomorrow, or that the laws of aerodynamics may change mid-flight. Most of us reading this are well situated in our Newtonian universe.

Generally speaking, we seldom give much thought to how we live, or why we do the things we do, or why things are the way they are. We accept our “houses” as they are presented to us and generally don’t object to much that is there. We easily accommodate the world around us, and this has been true from the beginning of human life. Whether this is good or bad is beside the point. It’s the way it is. This only becomes a problem when we fail to recognize that we are not self-made, that our opinions, sense of the real, values, and even mores are preconditioned in us. It is virtually impossible for us to completely step out of ourselves and examine our a prioris. And, failing to do so, we truly believe we are able to read the Bible without any encumbrances whatsoever, that we understand what we are reading as though it came from an angel from heaven. With Irenaeus, it’s just so obvious!

It needs to be stated very forcefully and unequivocally that NO ONE looks at the world totally objectively. Although our “world houses” are all arranged differently, we all inhabit one. That means that all of us share one thing in common: our worlds, of necessity, will be seen differently. We cannot escape this; it is part of the human condition. This is one of the major reasons we see the Bible differently, and why those differences are often incomprehensible from another point of view.

I believe that confidence in one’s opinions increases in direct proportion to the lack of perception of the forces that make us who we are. Conversely, as we become more alert to these forces, we find agreement of our views by others less important than the relationships formed themselves, that truth is found in grace more than in (elusive) absolutes, and that humility before the text opens more widows to heaven than any interpretive scheme. The answer to our differences is found in valuing the person more than needing to devalue that person’s opinions. But this is only possible if we don’t think of ourselves (and our opinions) more highly than we ought.

Tomorrow’s post: “The Way Out: Finding Our Way Home”