Monday, August 11, 2008

Can the "text" be absolute?

Matthew wrote 1) A religion or superstition may or may not claim that its 'rites', including linguistic 'rites', correspond to some "absolute Truth" - but what kind of claim is this, or is its denial? It is surely a claim that is highly metaphysical and indeed perhaps itself of a kind of religious or superstitious character.

Mark responded to Matthews first point: Perhaps, But there is no denying that modern philosophers ranging from Leibniz to the early Wittenstein took quite seriously the notion that an ideal language could be constructed in which all and only true statements about the world could be uttered. Historically speaking, this effort seems rooted in quite common earlier beliefs about primordial words that when uttered by deity, priest or magician shape or reshape the world.

Matthew continued 2) The idea of a performative utterance may be used here.

Mark responded to Matthews second point: Indeed it can. The thesis that magical incantations are, in effect, performatives was explored in the 1980s by Harvard anthropologist Stanley Tambiah. This was one of three approaches I found interesting. The others were James Fernandez's thesis that rituals are extended metaphors and metaphors ways of moving pronouns around in cultural manifolds and Maurice Bloch's proposition that the formalization of ritual language is a way of asserting authority by limiting variation. In the case of the exorcism whose language I examined, I discovered, first, that most of what was said was, in fact, a protracted negotiation designed to establish the conditions under which the final "Begone" would be performative. But this was clearly only part of what was going on. Fernandez's thesis pointed to the ways in which the patient afflicted by demons, the demons, the scapegoat, and the Taoist magician performing the rite changed places as the rite proceeded. Bloch's argument about formality pointed to close analysis of the range of registers involved in the rite: from highly informal to rigidly formalized.

Lawrence comments: Mark, Leibniz to Wittgenstein isn’t as “modern” as one needs to get. Gadamer, deriving from Heidegger, R. G. Collingwood, Hayden White, and Anthony C. Thiselton are the writers I’m most familiar with on this subject. I have brought some of them up before in regard to political opinion. We bring our own private assumptions, or as Collingwood would say, our Constellations of presuppositions to any given subject. Thus, when we view a text, including a sacred text, we view it through the filter of our assumptions.

To counter this, the Judeo-Christian practices the dictum, “raise up a child in the ways of the Lord, and when he is old, he will not depart from them.” As a child grows and voices his childish opinion, it is corrected by his parent or teacher – no, no, son. Here’s the way to understand that. And if every child in a village is raised in this manner, the orthodoxy of religious belief would almost certainly remain intact. This has always remained a principle to be sought after in Christianity – at least conservative Christianity. There have been the Catholic schools which practiced this dictum, but the famous Scotch/Irish that were credited by King George III with the rebellion that became called the American Revolution, were taught by their Presbyterian pastors in this same way. The pastors were the only educated people these Scotch/Irish knew (until they began to move West and became Baptists). These pastors taught them theology and the Bible.

Perhaps this is still the ideal in conservative Presbyterian denominations, but it can never again be like it was in pre-Revolutionary times. Too many church members are educated. There are too may assumptions, too many constellations of presuppositions. The pastor may very well believe he has the truth on a given matter, but he cannot exalt his particular view above the views of all of the members in his congregation. Custom will not allow the members to disagree with him while he preaches, but later on he may hear the alternate views, and there is nothing, or very little, he can do about them.

There have been two strong positions in Conservative Presbyterian circles that pertain to this subject. On the one hand you have Gordon Clark, a professor of philosophy and a Presbyterian theologian who argued that we can know the Text, the Biblical Word, just as God knows it. This, to use Mark’s construction would mean that not only were true statements about the world and spiritual life uttered, but we, if we are Christian, can understand them precisely as God does.

On the other hand, there was another Conservative Presbyterian Theologian named Cornelius Van Til who argued that while God uttered the word in such a way that it was absolutely true, we could never understand the truth of it in the same way that God did, because his ways are higher than our ways. In other words, the Bible is absolutely true, and we can understand it in ways that are true, but we can never understand it quite as God does. Van Til more closely corresponds to the philosophers I site above. To some extent this lack of perfect understanding is due to the imperfection of human language. It is not capable of being self-authenticating. It can never stand on its own and perfectly mean the same thing to everyone who encounters it. Everyone brings his baggage of presuppositions and understands it in a different ways. Even if a pastor or theologian argues a certain number of Christians into a particular theological position, there will be others who take different views – and they will remain Christian in good standing.

There are Christian denominations which argue that the Bible means only one thing and that we can learn what that is by listening to the pastor, but that begs the question. Yes, if you accept a given person’s arguments then you can argue that there is but one meaning, and while that is a position you might hear from a Fundamentalist Preacher, I don’t think such a thing is being taught at any of the major Theological Seminaries.

Complicating, or perhaps simplifying all this for Christians is the teaching that the Holy Spirit “will guide us into all truth.” Actually, Jesus said that about his disciples and not all believers, but we are to follow the teachings of his disciples and the Holy Spirit is at work in us while this happens, we are taught, transforming us into the image of Jesus Christ – not that this ever happens absolutely, but it is the direction in which the Holy Spirit moves us, we who are Christians, with varying degrees of accomplishment.

So Christ, we who aren’t Fundamentalists believe, was content with the seemingly imprecise Word – even with the imprecise denominations that have risen in his name. He could and does work with them. And if some believer doesn’t get it quite right, well that’s okay as long as he is being moved in the right direction – a direction we observers may not be able to ascertain correctly – but in a rough way we know -- as Ann Coulter’s critics seem to know about her -- when a denomination goes “too far.” Yes, the People’s Temple seemed Christian in its early stages, but then it went “too far.” It went beyond the realm of Christianity.

Motives are all important. Is our heart seeking after the perfection of Jesus Christ? Or are we relying upon something else, perhaps ourselves as the final arbiter of the meaning of the Word?

Thus, the text may always seem imprecise, but as we study we see the direction. We get the idea, and are content.

Moving out of the realm of Theology, I have on many occasions argued with people about the meaning of some word or term. My interlocutors treated these words and terms as though they had “ultimate” meanings which they fully grasped. Furthermore, they insisted that everyone encountering these words and terms ought to grasp them in the same way they did. I have always opposed those views. If our goal is to understand the “parole,” that is, the language as spoken, then we must have a dialogue with the person who has spoken in order to approach understanding. I say “approach understanding,” because while we may be closer to understanding another person, say our spouse, than we do to understanding God, we shall probably fall far short of absolute success.

In theory, we OUGHT to leave more time and use more dialogue in seeking to understand each other. Of course we may believe that even if we invest this time and engage in dialogue we will remain in disagreement, but those are two different things: understanding is not the same things as agreement, and, I submit, we rarely, if ever, understand each other. Notice how quickly we jump to conclusions, conclusions that the other person says utterly misses the mark. I think of an occasion recently when I made such an assumption about something Mike said and he said I missed his beliefs by a long way. He caused me to think more seriously about the possibility that some seeming-Leftists might better be called Liberal-Realists.

But, it seems, few are interested in a dialogue that promotes this hypothetical greater understanding. “Transparency,” isn’t something everyone seeks. Perhaps no one seeks it completely, but it might be sought on particular points – maybe.

Lawrence Helm

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