Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Interpretive Pluralism

I've been reading much lately about the limits of language to fully express truth, whether that truth is transcendent and spiritual or physical and scientific. You might recognize the phrase "limits of language" as postmodernism, for years anathema in religious circles.

But more and more theologians are affirming some of the validity in what's termed postmodern. From authors such as Shane Hipps, Mark Dricsoll, and Donald Miller at the popular level to academicians like James K. A. Smith and Barbara Brown Taylor, the message is the same: as finite beings, we can know most fully only our own view (and that incompletely). With everything else, it sure helps to have the community of faith, past and present, as we grapple with interpretation.

So what does that mean for revelation or Scripture? Here are a few answers to that question from some favorite authors:

"...whenever people aim to solve their conflicts with one another by turning to the Bible: defending the dried ink marks on the page becomes more vital than defending the neighbor. As a general rule, I would say that human beings never behave more badly toward one another than when they believe they are protecting God....I know that the Bible is a special kind of book, but I find it as seductive as any other. If I am not careful, I can begin to mistake the words on the page for the realities they describe. I can begin to love the dried ink marks on the page more than I love the encounters that gave rise to them. If I am not careful, I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place....Neither I nor anyone else knows how these stories will turn out, since at this point they involve more blood than ink. The whole purpose of the Bible, it seems to me, is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God's sake. For me, this willing conversion of ink back to blood is the full substance of faith."
--Barbara Brown Taylor
Her point, it seems, doesn't diminish the Word; rather it incarnates it.

Lauren Winner says: "I am much happier, much more comfortable, much more trusting, and much less terrified, when I know that it's me, the Holy Spirit, and 2000 years of church reading, arguing, teasing out, all together."

And finally from Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?, Smith distinguishes between interpretive pluralism and deep directional pluralism (which he still maintains is interpretation): "Wherever there is interpretation, there will be conflict of interpretation or at least differences of interpretation...a kind of pluralism and interpretive difference is inscribed into the very fabric of created finitude, such that we all see the same things but from different angles and locations....In both Eden and the eschaton, we find interpretive pluralism that is rooted in this plurality of perspectives. As a factor in the conditions of a good creation, this kind of pluralism is something we must embrace as good."

He goes on to say that the deep dircectional pluralism--in which we interpret what it means to be human and our place in the universe--is endemic to our post-fall condition, that is, we will and do have dichotomous answers. But nevertheless all is interpretation. No answer is objectively true, "acknowledging the interpretive status of the gospel should translate into a certain humility in our public theology. It should not, however, translate into skepticism about the truth of the Christian confession. If the interpretive status of the gospel rattles our confidence in its truth, this indicates that we remain haunted by the modern desire for objective certainty....rather [than] on the convictional power of the Holy Spirit (which isn't exactly objective)..." Smith, as well, hails the need for the community of faith to wrestle together toward truth.

No comments: