Interpretation, part I

A question was raised concerning the position I took in my last post on the PC (USA), the PUP report and postmodernism. The commenter basically asked how I would support the positions I took using Biblical texts as my basis for interpretation. I thought his question was valid; however, I thought it would be better answered in a post rather than a reply to his comment. What I see in his question is larger than Biblical support for a particular position. Instead I interpret his comment as a question regarding sources of insight when making theological claims. I want to broaden his question a bit for several reasons.

First, to choose particular passages to support a particular point of view is to walk a thin line between support and proof-texting (proof-texting is when you pick a verse out of the Bible to support a particular position or rationale; one example concerns what preachers did to support slavery before the civil war). Second, no one creates a theological position from Biblical objectivity. That is, no one goes into an examination of the Bible without prejudices, experiences, thoughts or feelings. Whenever we endeavor to interpret a text, we bring with us a slew of baggage that colors our perceptions. A modern point of view believes that we can divorce ourselves from this baggage and come to a meta-understanding (an interpretation that is good for everyone) of a particular text.

There are several fallacies with this point of view of Biblical interpretation. First, it assumes that there is only one interpretation to a particular passage. Second, it assumes that we can find that one interpretation. Third, it assumes that any bias we might have can be put aside in the interest of the greater good. Finally, it assumes that interpretations cannot change throughout the years.

What this leaves me with is an understanding that no matter how I interpret a passage, there will be as many objections as there are people reading my interpretation. Therefore, what I can do is be aware of my biases and make them a part of the interpretive process so that people can understand both how and why I interpret a particular passage in a particular way. The locating of myself in my social, cultural and historical positions doesn't make my interpretation correct, it just makes it more honest with regard to the experiences I have had in life.

Therefore, let me begin with acknowledging who and where I am to begin fleshing out how I come to my interpretive conclusions. I am a thirty-something white male who was raised in an upper middle class home and continues to live in an upper middle class setting. I have extensive education in clinical social work and am an ordained Presbyterian minister. I consider myself to be a left-leaning moderate who tries to balance social responsibility with personal responsibility. I have worked as a minister, youth director, Christian educator, and psychotherapist. Currently, I am a full-time doctoral student (as if that wasn't evident by all of the garbage in the previous paragraphs) who is studying the relationship between religion and psychology.

My interpretive schema is informed by several criteria. First and foremost, I believe that God is all-loving, but not all-powerful as it is currently defined. I believe that God's power lies in God's ability to fully and completely offer loving alternatives to the decisions human beings make; human beings have complete free-will and can choose not to follow God's alternatives thereby leading to disobedience and the promulgation of evil in this world. Second, I believe that the Bible has a meta-message of relationship, and is ultimately concerned with revealing the ways in which people have encountered God and attempted to reconcile events that have occurred in the world.

I do not believe in the truth of the words, but instead believe in the truth of the experiences and the truth of a God who acts in history in a variety of ways. I do not believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, but I believe in the movement of the Spirit during its writing and copying. I consider myself to adhere to a historical critical method of interpretation that seeks to remember the context but also acknowledge the similarities that surround our situations.

Finally, I believe in the immanence of God, that God is with us, around us, and active in the world. God does not stand outside of reality and is instead a part of the human struggle to find meaning and hope in a world that we have all too often chosen to destroy. God loves, God struggles, God hopes, God cares and God suffers with each of us as we attempt to discover and attend to God's pull in our lives.

My interpretations attempt to take into account ideas of tradition, experience, reason, culture, society and relationships. They are the interpretations of a pastoral theologian, care-giver and counselor who ultimately believes that Christianity, at its best, functions as a reconciling ethos of the individual to God, self and all neighbors.

Now that I have located myself, my next post will deal with particular passages that speak to my position regarding the PUP report.

(Looking back over this post, I must also say that I have truly adopted the doctoral lifestyle and way of thinking. I have heard it said that the true test of whether one is a doctoral student or not is the ability to, when encountering a piece of dog crap on the sidewalk, write ten pages about its relevance and necessity)

grace and peace...



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