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Thursday, June 20, 2013

Genesis 1: How Should We Interpret It? --Part 5 --An Excursus on Scholarship and Listening to Those With Whom We Disagree

Fifth in a series on In the Beginning . . . We Misunderstood by Johnny V. Miller and John M. Soden. Click here for the first post.
Miller and Soden conclude Chapter 6 of In the Beginning . . . We Misunderstood with the following:
If the original edition of Genesis was presented to Israel after their exodus from Egypt, and if it was written in an early form of the Hebrew language to people who lived hundreds of years in Egyptian culture, then we should expect it to reflect a concept of the universe and a worldview different from ours. We should not assume, without examining the cultural context, that we understand figures of speech or allusions to common motifs, beliefs, and theological positions of their day. (p. 73)
Oh, boy! You know where this is going, don't you?

Miller and Soden are scholars. And when you hear scholars begin to talk about figures of speech, allusions, motifs, and theological positions, you just know they are going to reference some kinds of knowledge they believe they possess and from which they believe you can gain benefit . . . if only you will listen to them.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Genesis 1: How Should We Interpret It? --Part 4

Fourth in a series on In the Beginning . . . We Misunderstood by Johnny V. Miller and John M. Soden. Click here for the first post.
Miller and Soden ask dozens of trenchant questions that they believe might help us carefully come to a conclusion about how we should interpret Genesis 1 and 2. I would like to share just a few of those questions here.

What struck me as I read Chapter 6 in their book: Most of their questions are of a type I have heard no one else ask . . . much less answer.

Take a look:
  • Why would God choose to describe the beginning of the earth with these particular features: desolate, and deep, dark, and watery (Gen. 1:2)? Why are they significant?
  • How do you separate light from darkness? What was the state of things before light and darkness were separated?
  • Why does Scripture point out that God called the light "day" and the darkness "night”?
  • Why did God create light before he created the sun, moon, and stars? What does this mean and how can it be?
  • On the "second day," God separated "the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse" and made the "expanse" to go in between (Gen. 1:7-8). . . . Does this indicate that originally there was extra water somehow stored above the atmosphere in a sort of vapor canopy?
  • Is Moses giving some information that we need to correlate scientifically?
  • What does it mean that the waters are gathered into one place? If we look at our globe, how does the water only end up in one place?
  • Why does Genesis 1 suggest God spoke the animals into existence, but Genesis 2 says he made them from dust?
"On and on the questions go," say Miller and Soden. "Some seem easier and some harder. Some seem picky, while others seem intuitive. But are they either picky or intuitive?”

Implicit answer: No. They're neither picky nor intuitive. But, once raised, they really need to be addressed.

I think Miller and Soden ask these questions partially by way of caution, but also because, by asking these questions, they believe that, in some way, we might be led either away from answers that won't satisfy, or toward answers that will. If theirs were anything like the books I have read in the past, I would have found these questions rather heart-wrenching and hopeless: “Who is sufficient to answer such things?”

But considering that Miller and Soden asked the questions relatively early in their book suggested they might have some insights heretofore overlooked. I harbored a glimmer of hope that maybe, indeed, they would answer them. And, as I have suggested before, I was not disappointed. Not only did they answer these questions, but, to my mind, they answered in a manner that addressed deeper issues that had been bothering me on the edges of my consciousness: issues that no other authors I have read--young- or old-earth, concordant or non-concordant--have addressed.

But we'll begin to talk about those things next time!

Next post in this series.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Genesis 1: How Should We Interpret It? --Part 3

Third in a series on In the Beginning . . . We Misunderstood by Johnny V. Miller and John M. Soden. Click here for the first post.
Miller and Soden provide a wonderful, gentle "on-ramp" to their discussion of Genesis 1. They address a whole range of troublesome issues that have bothered many of us who have either participated in or, at least, observed the old-earth/young-earth debate. I commend their book to you. Don't rely on my summary of those portions of the book that most moved me! I am leaving out some significant treasures!

I want to get to the meat of their presentation, however. So I am skipping over a whole bunch of wonderful, thoughtful, well-expressed material that I expect you are likely to find helpful either in your own thinking or when talking with friends of almost any persuasion about creationism and/or the age of the earth.

First item at the heart of the Miller-Soden presentation (at least from my perspective): the distinction between literal and figurative speech and how difficult it is for us in the 21st century to distinguish literal from figurative and vice versa.
If we interpret literally passages that are not meant to be taken literally, then we are as inaccurate as if we interpreted figuratively a passage not meant to be taken figuratively. (p. 43)
The authors illustrate their reason for concern via a number of Old Testament references. But I would like to pick up their mode of "argument" in their discussion of Joshua 10:12-14.
It is clear that the event is miraculous and that God is fighting for Israel (v. 14),but the connection between the sun and moon and the hailstorm is not as clear. . . . One way of understanding the text is to interpret the references to the sun and moon as figurative in themselves, as representatives of the cosmic battle taking place, similar to what is recorded in Judges 5:20: "From the heaven the stars fought, from their courses they fought against Sisera." Or Habakkuk 3:11: "The sun and moon stood still in their place at the light of your arrows as they sped, at the flash of your glittering spear." If the references in Joshua 10 are figurative, understanding the text may be as simple as recognizing that the sun and moon were Canaanite deities, yet were under the command of Joshua. In Joshua 10:11 Baal is spectacularly shown to be impotent when Yahweh uses Baal's own weapons (the storm and the hail) to destroy more Canaanites than the Israelites' swords did. (pp. 45-46)
Obviously, none of this kind of interpretation comes naturally to those of us brought up in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. We aren't used to thinking of heavenly (or, should I say, astrophysical) objects (as we might describe them) as being deities. For us, they are, first and foremost and always, physical objects. Yet those who are familiar with biblical language will recognize that Miller and Soden are engaging in no manipulation of the text to suggest these rather "new" understandings. And despite our--i.e., modern Christians'--tendency to focus solely on the monotheistic declarations of the Bible (see for example,
  • Isaiah 43:10, 12--"'[Y]ou are my witnesses, O Israel!' says the LORD. . . . 'You have been chosen to know me, believe in me, and understand that I alone am God. There is no other God--there never has been, and there never will be. . . . I am the only God.'";
  • Isaiah 45:14--"He is the only God. There is no other.";
  • Isaiah 44:13, 15, 17-18, 24--"'[T]he wood-carver measures a block of wood and draws a pattern on it. He works with chisel and plane and carves it into a human figure. He gives it human beauty and puts it in a little shrine. . . . Then he uses part of the wood to make a fire. With it he warms himself and bakes his bread. Then . . . he takes the rest of it and makes himself a god to worship! He makes an idol and bows down in front of it! . . . He falls down in front of it, worshiping and praying to it. . . . Such stupidity and ignorance! Their eyes are closed, and they cannot see. Their minds are shut, and they cannot think.' . . . This is what the LORD says--your Redeemer and Creator: 'I am the LORD, who made all things. I alone stretched out the heavens'";
  • and so forth),
the Bible itself recognizes that there are other gods and that the people of Israel--not to mention the members of other nations--could easily decide to follow those other gods (see, for example,
  • Exodus 20:3--"You shall have no other gods before me";
  • Deuteronomy 6:13-14--"Fear the LORD your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name. Do not follow other gods";
  • Isaiah 43:10, 12--"'[Y]ou are my witnesses, O Israel!' says the LORD. . . . I predicted your rescue, then I saved you and proclaimed it to the world. No foreign god has ever done this.'";
  • etc.).
And many of these other gods were, indeed, what we now recognize as physical objects: the heavenly beings--sun, moon and stars; and things in the earthly realm. For example: most of the very things (in our mental matrix) that God used against the Egyptians as we read in Exodus 7ff--the Nile River, frogs, flies, and so forth--were gods, in their minds.

"Regardless of how we understand Joshua 10:12-14," Miller and Soden conclude,
it is not a scientific account. It may describe a miracle of nature or it may refer to a spiritual battle in which the gods of the Canaanites stand by and watch Yahweh win. . . . Regardless, we must see the figurative and theological aspects of this narrative (namely, God using the storm and fighting against the Canaanites with their own deities) or we will miss the point. The main issue of this passage emphasizes that God listened to the voice of man and fought for Israel, using the Canaanites' gods against them. (p. 46)
 . . . And so Miller and Soden turn to Genesis 1.
Genesis . . . was written more than 3,000 years ago, and it was written in Hebrew. To understand it fully, one must read it first in its original language and try to understand it in relation to its original author (Moses), in relation to its original readers (Israel recently released from slavery in Egypt), and in relation to the culture, worldview, and literary genre of the text. This is an issue in the debate on origins that is often--perhaps usually--ignored by Christians. For those who would ignore it, the meaning of the text is self-evident: "The real question involved in this debate is, Do we accept the plainest meaning of the Bible, or do we insist on a reinterpretation in light of the prevailing opinion of scientists?" The plainest meaning . . . is indeed what we want to find, but the issue is, the plainest meaning to whom? We must start with the plainest meaning to the original recipients. (p. 48)
Miller and Soden say there are a number of indicators in the text of Genesis 1-3 that "suggest it was meant to be understood by its original readers in a broadly figurative way" (p. 49).

  • That "the Hebrew text lacks the [definite] article 'the' on days 1 through 5. . . . It is only when we come to day 6 that the definite article is used" (p. 49). --If your English text speaks of "the first day," "the second day," "the third day," etc., it has added the definite object. The NASB, RSV and ASV are correct when they translate these as "one day," "a second day," "a third day," and so forth. Only when you hit the sixth day do you have the Hebrew speaking of the sixth day. (Interesting: NASB and ASV get that right. But RSV chooses to pretend that there is no definite object even then!)
  • "[H]aving evening and morning before the creation of the sun generates a problem for a strictly linear chronology. . . . In our scientific mind-set, the presence of darkness and light suggests that the earth was rotating on its axis. 'Evening and morning' are . . . clearly a function of the earth's rotation in relationship to the sun. The fact that Genesis 1 presents 'evening and morning' three days before the sun suggests that Genesis 1 may not be about literal days and literal stages of creation" (p. 52).
  • That "there is no stated end to the seventh day, God's Sabbath" (p. 52).
  • "Exodus 31:17 . . . is often cited as proof that the creation week was a literal seven-day week . . . "[for] in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed" (Exod. 31:16-17). The argument is that the human week is to reflect God's week. If it is a literal, seven-day week for people, it must have been a literal, seven-day week for God.

    "However, . . . [i]f all is to be taken literally, then it must be literally true that God became tired and was refreshed after his rest. . . . But was God literally weary? Had he become spent during the week of creation? No, . . . God is drawing an analogy here rather than an equation. If we do not understand God's 'rest' and 'refereshment' to be the same as man's should we expect God's 'days' to be the same?" (pp. 53-54).
  • That if we interpret Genesis 2 in its most natural (chronological) sense, then

    • "[I]t contradicts the order of creation in chapter 1." And,
    • "Furthermore, chapter 2 implies only one creative day. There is no reference to any other days and, in fact, the chapter begins with reference to a single day (Gen. 2:4 literally states, 'in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens')." (p. 55)

    The point is, Miller and Soden conclude,
    everyone who assumes the two accounts [in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2] are not contradictory but complementary will also argue that the author intended to give a non-chronological order in chapter 2 in order to make a theological point. . . . If chapter 2 is out of order for theological reasons, why must chapter 1 be in order chronologically? The only reason for this assumption is because it makes sense to us and because we have assumed that the enumerating of the days [in chapter 1] requires it. . . .

    [To summarize our point in another way,] one cannot take both Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 "literally" without creating contradictions between the creation accounts. This is a final clue from the passage itself that it is not meant to be taken literally, or as if it is [intended to convey] scientific information. (p. 56)
Here I have completely ignored the significant textual evidence and thoughtful discussion Miller and Soden bring concerning the points I have summarized above. Again, I urge you to read their book for the evidence. But I wanted to summarize their presentation. And I believe I have done that.

As Miller and Soden conclude chapter 4 in their book, they promise, "as we dig deeper, we will discover much more data showing us that the original audience would have heard [Genesis 1 and 2] much differently than we do and leading us in [a very different] direction [than most modern readers want to take it]" (p. 57).

I can assure you: They keep their promise!

Next post in this series found here.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Genesis 1: How Should We Interpret It? --Part 2

Second in a series on In the Beginning . . . We Misunderstood by Johnny V. Miller and John M. Soden. Click here for the first post.
Miller and Soden begin their book with personal statements of "where they are coming from." Both confess long time commitments to literalistic, young-earth creationist perspectives. As Miller put it, he was raised in fundamentalist churches "where the Bible reigned supreme--that is, our interpretation of the Bible reigned supreme. To question our interpretation of the Bible was equal to doubting God and proving you weren't really a Christian" (p. 18).

He struggled with his faith, but eventually gave his life to Jesus. Shortly after making this commitment, he ran into Henry Morris' and John Whitcomb's The Genesis Flood and he "began to believe that if you take Genesis one literally, then you also must take Genesis 2-5 literally, and putting these chapters together with a tight genealogy demands a young earth" (p. 19).

And so he believed and so he taught for many years. But then . . .

One day he came to the conclusion that "all my life I had been reading Genesis from the perspective of a modern person. I had read it through the lens of a historically sophisticated, scientifically influenced individual. I assumed that Genesis was written to answer the questions of origins that people are asking today" (pp. 20-21). Put another way, he had failed to ask--as most authors who debate the meaning of Genesis 1 fail to ask-- "What did Genesis mean to the original author and original readers?" (p. 21).

And that is the primary question that Miller and Soden both seek to answer: What is Genesis 1 intended to teach us? "Only after we see Genesis 1 . . . from the perspective of both its author (in this case, Moses) and its original readers will we have the right to apply it to modern discussions . . . about the age of the earth and the meaning of the days of creation" (p. 23).

You know--you just know--a shoe is about to drop. They're "setting us up" for something. Right? It's obvious.

But for what?

And whatever they are about to say--and you know (since their title, itself, tells you) the authors are going to offer less than gushing approval of their (obviously former) young-earth perspective: If "the perspective of a modern person" isn't good enough to understand what Genesis 1 is about, then what will the perspective of a person from three thousand years ago or more add to our understanding? And, perhaps more important: How can Miller and Soden possibly suggest they could discover what a person of three thousand years ago believed or thought?

Happily, the authors offer answers to these questions--gently, carefully, tentatively, with humility and grace.

Next post in this series found here.

The fuzzy edges of translation

I thought this was pertinent--by way of illustration--to some of the issues I am trying to deal with in this blog.

I ran across an article in the July 2013 Reader's Digest borrowed from an article in Mental Floss magazine by linguist Arika Okrent who, herself, borrowed from Found in Translation by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche. One short story in particular struck me as helpfully instructive of the need not only for care in translation, but for humble tentativity and resolute commitment to query a communicator's comments . . . especially if or when we sense "our own" interests or views are being threatened.

Rather than extend my introduction, let me "simply" tell the story.

If you're in your late 50s or older, you may recall a famous (or infamous) speech by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to Western ambassadors at a reception at the Polish embassy in Moscow on November 18, 1956. He said, in Russian, "Мы вас похороним." Literal translation: "We will bury you," or, even more literally, "We will dig you in."

The meaning was not lost on any of those who were present. It was clear to all that, as Okrent summarizes the story,  Khrushchev was making a threat "to bury the U.S. with a nuclear attack."

Was that his intended meaning?

Before we discuss some other statements Khrushchev made that use much the same phraseology, let me note what Okrent (Kelly and/or Zetzsche) say: "[T]he translation was a bit too literal. The sense of the Russian phrase was more that 'we will live to see you buried' or 'we will outlast you.'"

Ah! A circumlocution for, "We're going to live longer," or, "Our system is better," or, "We'll still be kickin' when your heart's no longer tickin'." Something like that.

Interesting idea.

Can we get any insight from the broader context of the speech?

Wikipedia offers some context. First, from the speech itself:
The actual verbal context was: "Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will [bury you]." 

The preceding sentence certainly seems to push in the direction of the Okrent/Kelly/Zetzsche interpretation. "History" to that point certainly wouldn't be "on [the Soviet Union's] side" to provide evidence that the Soviet Union would bury the United States with a nuclear attack.

But there is a broader historical context in which we may view that particular speech. Wikipedia goes on:

In his subsequent public speech Khrushchev declared: "[...] We must take a shovel and dig a deep grave, and bury colonialism as deep as we can."
There's that burial verbiage! And this time, we cannot interpret it as being passive, the way Okrent, Kelly and/or Zetzsche suggest.

But the context is broader than this, too:
Later, on August 24, 1963, Khrushchev remarked in his speech in Yugoslavia, "I once said, 'We will bury you,' and I got into trouble with it. Of course we will not bury you with a shovel. Your own working class will bury you," a reference to the Marxist saying, "The proletariat is the undertaker of capitalism," based on the concluding statement in Chapter 1 of the Communist Manifesto: "What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable." Khrushchev repeated this Marxist thesis at a meeting with journalists in the U.S. in September 1959.
So. We have the context of the immediate speech during the reception. We have another reference to much the same imagery and phraseology just hours later ("his subsequent public speech"). We have comments Khrushchev made to American journalists three years later, and, finally, a direct reference back to it from a speech  Khrushchev made six years later.

So what was his meaning?

Can we "even" take his 1963 reference as controlling? Is it possible he is "reinterpreting" his meaning, at least slightly, from 1956? (I.e., does he "up the ante" a bit by suggesting a greater instrumentality on the part of the Soviet Union than he intended in 1956 when he first made the comment?)

Clearly, there is a lot of burying going on. And, as Okrent/Kelly/Zetzsche comment, however we might interpret the phrase, it is "not exactly friendly." But taken one way it is quite a bit less threatening than if taken another. So which was it?

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Genesis 1: How Should We Interpret It? --Part 1

I have been looking forward to writing this post for some time. I can't remember how I discovered this book, but I find its "solution" to the question of how to interpret Genesis 1 extremely gratifying.

The book's title: In the Beginning . . . We Misunderstood . . . by Johnny V. Miller (former president of Colombia Bible College [which became Colombia International University during his tenure as president]) and John M. Soden (professor of Old Testament at Lancaster Bible College and Graduate School).

I have urged my acquaintances at Sonlight to incorporate this book into the Sonlight high school curriculum—and at least some of its basic insights and perspectives into earlier grades’ teaching notes. Hint: Miller and Soden take a strongly non-concordist view of Genesis 1-3.

As I wrote on this blog two years ago:
The concordist interpretations seek to show how modern scientific teaching is well in line with what the Bible teaches about creation and the early history of the world. ("See, if we reinterpret this word as meaning _______, and if we recognize that this word means _______ [etc.], then there is no conflict at all between science and Scripture!")
The non-concordist interpretations, by contrast, say, in essence, "Look, the biblical record in Genesis 1-11 has no relation to modern science or history. Don't even look for evidence that tries to tie the Bible's teachings in Genesis 1-11 to modern science or history. It doesn't. It 'teaches' everything obnoxious to modern science and history that the young-earthers claim . . . and more. Except . . ." . . . 
The non-concordists suggest various ways by which evangelicals ought to understand Genesis 1-11--ways that, they say, honor the Bible as God's inerrant, infallible Word (as per the standard evangelical statements of faith) while also containing statements or teachings that don't even come close to according with the truth of history and science as we know it. 
My view: In the Beginning . . . We Misunderstood is the first book on a generally POPULAR level that seeks to address the topic of Genesis 1-3 in a way that honors the legitimate intentions and concerns of both old- and young-earth creationists while also--and more importantly and fundamentally--seeking truly to honor the text of the Bible as written and the context in and for which it was written.

As  Miller and Soden note, the concordists on both side—the Ken Hams of the world on the young-earth side and the Hugh Rosses of the world on the old-earth side—all read into the text modern scientific “insights” that were never there in the first place . . . and, therefore, they try to make it say what it obviously doesn't say.

Meanwhile, however, all of the non-concordists I have read prior to Miller and Soden tend to note the problems with concordist interpretations [“so,” they conclude “therefore, we must adopt a non-concordist interpretation”], but/and, then, they immediately “get on” with “the science” of the age of the earth . . . and jettison any concern with or attempt, properly, to interpret the biblical text. I.e., they leave us with an open question as to what was the Bible meant to say? How should we interpret it?

Miller and Soden provide what I find to be a rather satisfying answer.

It is an answer that will shake up most fundamentalists’ and/or evangelicals’ perspectives on the Bible. But I believe Miller and Soden have gotten to the deepest roots of my discomfort with both the old- and young-earthers’ claims. . . . I sense they honor the text as written, the Bible as God's inerrant Word. They also leave modern science to do whatever it will do.

And in case you are wondering: they say, YES, the Bible--"even" Genesis 1-3--is authoritative. But/and it is authoritative and speaks authoritatively in a way that doesn't happen to have anything to do with the age of the earth or scientific evidence concerning the age of the earth.

--More in my next post . . . found here.

Friday, May 17, 2013

A New Faith Paradigm -- Part VI

After a five-month break, finally, I'm back . . .

Sixth in a series inspired by Kenton L. Sparks’ Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority & the Dark Side of Scripture.

First post here.


Sparks' Chapter 8, "Christian Epistemology: Broken Readers of Sacred Scripture," was, perhaps, for me, the most important and gratifying in the entire book.

Funny: I wrote a couple of papers about epistemology back when I was in high school. This stuff mattered to me. And it still matters. What do we know and how do we know it? Do we really know what we say we know?

At the time--and, honestly, since then--I never acquired the kind of vocabulary (much less gained familiarity with the concepts) that Sparks discusses. But as I read his chapter, I sensed he offered the most honest and humble--not to mention realistic--account of epistemology I have ever heard of. I found myself nodding in agreement throughout Chapter 8. But it wasn't merely that I found something to agree with. It was my sense that Sparks was expressing, in a very brief, tightly-reasoned space, what I have been groping towards for years.

If someone can help me improve upon what Sparks has offered, I will be delighted. But at this point, I find deep satisfaction in his advocacy--and, now, my concurrent advocacy, following Sparks--of the view he espouses.

Sparks opens his chapter with the following question [emphases mine]:
If . . . Scripture . . . is an adequate and useful book written from fallible human perspectives and includes diverse and sometimes conflicting viewpoints on the same subjects--and if we ourselves, as readers of Scripture, are in turn fallible readers, how can we know when our interpretations of Scripture are correct? And how can we be certain that we have arrived at the proper theological conclusions?
Answer, according to Sparks: We can't.

BUT . . .

And that "but" is huge.

Sparks explains five different approaches to epistemology, five different perspectives on knowledge. And when you get to the end of his explanations, I believe he offers us reason to believe that, even if we can't be--as he puts it--infallibly, incorrigibly, indubitably certain of the things we claim to know or believe, we can still be confident enough in what we know or believe to move forward--in life and in faith.

Five Different Perspectives on Knowledge

Tacit or “Simple” Realism

Basic perspective: Unstated, unexamined epistemology. As Sparks expresses it: this is where we start when we are infants. "All of us tacitly and unreflectively assume we have the capacity to know the world around us as it really is." (p. 74)

Reflective Realism

Basic perspective: "[H]uman perception and tradition provide a generally trustworthy understanding of reality. . . . [W]e should think critically about our grasp of reality." (p. 74; italics added)

Modern Realism

Basic perspective:
  • "[W]e can only know ‘the truth’ when we overcome human tradition by ‘rising above it,’ so to speak, in order to see the world ‘as it actually is.’" (p. 75)
  • "[B]y carefully interrogating and setting aside tradition, we can achieve an infallible, incorrigible, and indubitable grasp of the truth. . . . [O]n those points where we are very careful, we simply cannot be wrong." (pp. 75-76)
Sparks notes that "Modern Realism is still alive and well on the contemporary epistemic scene. It is especially prominent in everyday life and in some quarters of Christian Fundamentalism. . . . Paradoxically, the necessity for this theological move was engendered by Modernism itself, whose quest for indubitable, incorrigible certainty was adopted by Fundamentalists as the only appropriate basis" for confidence in the Gospel and/or assurance of salvation. (p. 76)

Postmodern Anti-Realism

Basic perspective:
  • “[K]nowledge only counts if you can demonstrate that it is incorrigibly certain.” (p. 78)
  • “[T]radition inevitably shapes us and . . . also blinds us to the truth. [Therefore,] it follows that human beings simply do not know the truth: we do not know reality as it is. What we mistakenly embrace as ‘reality’ is nothing other than invention." (p. 77)
  • "[W]e cannot overcome tradition and hence we cannot see 'reality.'" (p. 78)

Postmodern Practical Realism

Basic perspective:
  • "[W]e need not prove that we are right in order to have genuine knowledge. This is why young children . . . can have knowledge without proving it to themselves or others." (p. 79)
  • Cultural traditions do not necessarily--nor most of the time or primarily--blind us to the truth; rather, traditions are "right about the world (generally speaking) because, by [their] nature, tradition[s are] the product of humanity's successful engagement with a real world and real people." (p. 79; italics in the original)
  • Despite its generally positive outlook on tradition, Practical Realism believes that we ought to be "suspicious of tradition, since tradition is always warped and always wrong in some ways or others. . . . [T]his goes double for something like theology, where our goal is to describe God and his dealings with humanity." (p. 79)
  • "[T]radition can provide a useful and adequate grasp on . . . reality. The grasp is not on a toggle switch that is either right or wrong. Rather, it lies on a continuum between better and poor: it can be very good or very bad, . . . some cultural traditions [can] be 'better' or 'healthier' than others, . . . but [none will be] perfect." (p. 79)
  • Despite its imperfections, "[i]n the best cases, human knowledge is wholly adequate for the needs of our situation." (p. 79; italics in the original)
How is this possible?
  • "Practical Realism accounts for interpretive success in terms of analogy and metaphor." (p. 79) Thus, "in a satisfying conversation with a friend about my feelings and thoughts, the result will not be that my friend has at any point actually understood my thoughts and feelings as I understand them. Rather, my friends understanding will be similar or analogous to what I have tried to express, so that I feel understood in some way or other. . . . [M]y friend undoubtedly errs in some ways as he tries to understand me, and, make the issues clear, I will undoubtedly err in understanding myself." (pp. 79-80; italics in the original)
I don't know if this is why I was particularly drawn to Sparks' perspective, but knowing my own manner of thinking, in which I consistently look for analogies to explain what I am thinking, and having long believed that analogies are the best way to explain a subject, I imagine it is understandable why I so strongly embraced Sparks' comments about conversing with his friend.
And as for his last point, about erring even in understanding himself, I cannot help but give a hearty Amen: “Yes! That’s correct. I often don’t understand myself. I try to understand myself. I often interrogate myself. But, at root, I know I fail. I cannot fully, completely, ‘incorrigibly and indubitably’ determine my own motives. Or, to quote Jeremiah, ‘The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked; who can understand it?’ (Jeremiah 17:9) But that doesn’t mean I need to despair of ever understanding myself to a significant degree. . . .”

"In the final analysis," Sparks concludes, "the fundamental differences among Modernism, Anti-realism, and Practical Realism can be expressed with the commonly used metaphor of ‘capital T' versus 'small t' truth. Modernists believed that human beings can attain the 'Truth,' Antirealists maintain that 'Truth' does not exist, and Practical Realists believe that 'the Truth,' though it exists, is accessible to human beings only by analogies that yield partial, useful, 'small t' truths." (p. 81)

Sparks has several other insights that I found useful in this chapter.
  • "Practical Realism does believe that there are such things as 'right' and 'wrong,' 'correct' and 'incorrect,' 'certainty' and 'uncertainty,' 'knowledge' and 'ignorance.' But these words have different nuances for Practical Realists them for Modern Realists. 'Knowledge' means that we have an understanding of the world that is analogous to, but not identical with, the realities that we seek to understand. 'Correct' means that our judgment yields practical success rather than precise and perfect understanding. As for 'certainty,' Practical Realists regard this as the perception that 'We must be right.' The trick is that, while this perception is absolutely essential for our everyday hermeneutical engagements and generally serves us well in the practical sense, in the final analysis it does not yield capital T 'Truth' or guarantee that we are right. We can be both quite certain and quite wrong. . . ." (p. 82)
  • "Shared beliefs and opinions are actually adjacent overlapping concepts and perceptions." They are not identical. They cannot be identical.

    Sparks avoids going into great detail about the idea, but I think most of us can understand that no two human beings think exactly the same way. We have different experiences, different emotional predilections, different personalities; a taste or smell or color that excites one of us will create a negative response in another. (These observations are mine. However, I have no doubt Sparks would agree with my observations.)

    As a result of these differences in perspective and the way we think:
    Real differences are . . . inevitable and lead inexorably to the internal conflicts and disagreements that arise in human institutions and traditions. . . . [T]hese cultural limits are true, not only of me and you, but also of those who wrote the Bible. A case in point appears in 1 Cor 11:14-15, where the Apostle Paul incorrectly assumes that 'nature itself' proves that men should have short hair and women long hair. He did not realize that this inference was drawn through a cultural lens rather than incorrectly from the natural order. Errors of this sort are in direct to human judgment. Try as we may, we simply cannot avoid them. (pp. 84-85)
  • "If Practical Realism is a good description of how human beings actually conduct our lives, then we can anticipate that its basic contours are implied in many sources and places, including in biblical thought. And this is indeed the case. The Bible is introduced by an epistemic commentary. I refer to the Fall of humanity in Genesis. . . . Whatever insight the first couple gained from [their] pursuit [of knowledge] ( . . . 'knowing good and evil'), the result was not suited to them, nor did it entail all divine knowledge. So as we begin to read Scripture, it immediately steers us away from the idea that human beings can or should see the world as God sees it.

    "The author of the book of Job provides a fuller explication of this principle by deftly sketching out the profound contrast between divine and human knowledge. . . . As the story unfolds we learn that Job's theology is 'right' and that his friends were 'wrong.' . . . But the author's epistemic point runs much deeper, I think. For it is quite clear that Job was right only in comparison with his friends. . . .

    "We would more precisely say that Job and his friends were partly right and partly wrong, but in a way that made Job’s partial understanding of human suffering more complete and healthy and that of his friends. But in the end even Job repented, for in this biblical story about epistemology, only God gets everything right. . . ."


    "At best we find ourselves in Job's epistemic position. That is, perhaps we have a better understanding of things than someone else, but we never have it spot-on and, if pressed, must repent in dust and ashes. This is Christian Practical Realism in a nut shell: God has it perfectly right, while human beings are partially right and partially wrong, but in a way that admits some human perspectives are better or more adequate than others. . . . " (pp. 86-87)
  • "Scripture is beautiful and broken, and it is being read and studied in the church, and sometimes outside of the church, by beautiful and broken human beings. Nevertheless, Christians have theological and philosophical reasons to suppose that, when we read Scripture well, we are able to understand it. And as we understand it, we shall find that God's truth and beauty run deeper, and are more potent, than the brokenness that God is healing." (p. 88)
I would like to bring my commentary and observations about Sparks' book to a close at this point. However, before I sign off, I want to make two observations.
  • First, I sense I have hardly done Sparks justice by stopping at this point. It is in the chapters that follow this one that he explains the practical implications of the foundational work he has done in the first eight chapters.

    In Chapter 9, for example, he addresses the issue of the perspicuity of Scripture. (Is the Bible really understandable to anyone but a scholar?) –If you have paid attention to this post so far, I expect you ought to be able to make a reasonable and fair guess at Sparks' answer. Extremely oversimplified: Yes, it is understandable. But the less educated and less thoughtful one's reading, the more likely one is going to understand it less well. Similarly, of course, the scholar who approaches the Word with "all brains" and "no heart" is going to do a far less creditable job of interpreting the Bible than will he or she who reads it with both heart and mind (not to mention training and experience!)!

    Chapters 10 to 12 address the difficult fundamental questions that any honest evangelical or fundamentalist Christian must ask if we grant Sparks his thesis. In other words, if his thesis is correct and "Scripture speaks the truth through perceptive yet warped human horizons," and if the Bible is, as Sparks claims, "a diverse and broken book," then "how can we use it to weave a useful and coherent understanding of God and of his relationship with us? How can the Bible . . . serve as a primary source of our theological insight?”

    Then there is Chapter 13: "Validity and Biblical Interpretation" . . . in which Sparks demonstrates how we can use the insights of a Practical Realist epistemology in order to properly interpret Scripture in all its multi-voiced wisdom and beauty.

    And then, finally, a brief, not-quite-two-page afterword, "Final Thoughts."

    Sorry! I'm saying no more about the book's content. Read the book.
  • Before I completely leave this book, however, I wanted to comment a little about a matter--perhaps the matter--that has held me back from posting until this time.

    As I think about this new perspective on the Bible, and, especially, as I think about the way in which Sparks speaks of Practical Realism as the most--what I am calling--honest epistemology, I am bothered by the following thought. I am disturbed by the thought that, if we "buy" these views, we will not--I will not--follow in the footsteps of our "elder brothers and sisters" in the faith. Specifically, if this is how I believe (or, perhaps, rather, how I disbelieve), doesn't that mean I will not be willing to give my life for the Lord? Won't I be unwilling to become a martyr, if called upon to do so? Or, even--far short of giving up my life--doesn't it mean I will make few if any sacrifices for the faith--my faith? Doesn't it mean I will not (as I have found, already, I do not) boldly, "in season and out," seek opportunities to "share my faith" as I once did?

    And these thoughts bother me for numerous reasons.

    1) Because Jesus said, "He who is not willing to give up his life for my sake, will lose it" (Mt. 16:25). "For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels" (Mark 8:38).

    2) Because I used to be willing to knock on people's doors (when I was a minister of evangelism). I used to be quite bold. But now--for the last many years--I have found myself quite reticent to initiate conversations with non-believers about Jesus. (I am happy to discuss just about anything at any time if the subject is out on the floor for discussion. But I can't remember the last time I actually initiated a conversation with a non-believer about sin or salvation or new life in Jesus.)

    3) Because I find myself, more and more, "simply" less sure of myself, of my interpretations, and/or of my opinions than I used to be. --And isn't my attitude, my reticence, my lack of conviction, obviously different from people like St. Paul and St. John who could (and did) say things like, "we know that God, in his justice, will punish anyone who does such things" (Rom. 2:2); "we know how dearly God loves us" (Rom. 5:5); "we know we will . . . live with [Christ]" (Rom. 6:8); "we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28); "we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body" (2 Cor. 5:1); "we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for" (1 John 5:15); etc.

    The question that has been haunting me: Aren't all of these things partially a result of my faith having been shaken, my loss of stalwart assurance that I can understand the Bible and be absolutely sure of the capital-T TRUTH?

    . . . I have been meditating on this question--these questions--for weeks . . . maybe even months.

    So, I ask myself--and I place it before you now, publicly: Am I risking a greater loss of faith, a further erosion of confidence, by adopting a Practical Realist epistemology?

    My conclusion: No. Because the Practical Realist epistemology is, ultimately, the epistemology I have held as my own for as long back as I can remember. I couldn't have named my epistemology. I couldn't have summarized it as Sparks has. But, even during all those years I have been pursuing the Modern Realist epistemology of my spiritual forebears, the fact was, it was a pursuit. It was a hope, a dream. It was a desired conviction. A "faith statement" I was taught I had to hold if I was to hold onto my faith.

    But the truth is, I believe, that during all that time, I kept finding myself wondering in the back of my mind: "How does this work? Is this true? Has ________ [whoever the latest-and-greatest teacher was] really mastered [this particular text . . . let alone the whole counsel of God]?"

    And I realize that, although I am not likely to be the very first man to run out and get himself killed for the cause of Christ, if and when push comes to shove, by God's grace, I intend to stand for my convictions. And even though I am not likely to do any more knocking on neighbors' doors the way I once did, I do seek to speak carefully and thoughtfully and with consistent integrity of conviction if and when the opportunity arises (according to my best understanding of what an opportunity looks like). My "preaching," as it were, has changed, but it isn't as if I no longer (or will no longer) "preach."

    Finally, while I find myself far less sure of myself--or of my companions (or, should I say, of my companions' statements of faith and/or conviction)--than I once was (or, at least, than I once was willing to permit myself to believe or pretend to believe): I am not convinced it is a bad thing to admit, forthrightly: "I see your point. I understand the evidence you have garnered for your view. But I see there is evidence that points in a different direction as well."

    And so--as I was meditating just yesterday--I am thrown back on a statement of conviction first expressed by St. Paul and subsequently made into the centerpiece of one of the hymns of my youth: "I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed to Him against [i.e., until] that day."

    Ultimately, I say to myself, that is the bedrock of my faith.

    I find myself shaking and questioning. "Is that really You, God? Did You really say that? I mean, did you say what I think You said? Have I understood? Or . . . ????"

    And I believe that is an okay place to be. Indeed, it is probably a better place, a more open and honest and useful place than if I were to speak with undoubted conviction: "Yep! I heard Him! I know what He said! I've got that one covered. . . ."