Your Certainty Does Not Warrant Truth

A hermeneutic is a method of interpreting texts, ideas, and events: it is the guiding principle(s) by which a person interprets what is heard, read, and encountered. Every person has a hermeneutic, a person-specific grid through which she or he views whatever occurs in life, whether one is the town drunk or the tenured professor of an ivy league university. Perspective always has been, is now, and always will be king; and our various perspectives are guided by our particular hermeneutic.

Whether or not people realize this fact, this truth cannot be denied: Perspective is king. Perspective rules every aspect of our lives. Another closely related reality is the following phrase an English college professor taught me: Everything is rhetoric. From how we dress, to how we style our hair, our respective attitudes, the car we drive, the translation of Bible we read (or refuse to read), what books we read (or refuse to read), what movies we like (and dislike), what music we like (and dislike), what we eat, our occupation -- everything is rhetoric: it "speaks" to our core values and beliefs.

We cannot escape our perspective. We have a perspective (an opinion, a view) on every subject that can be named; and our various perspectives are shaped, molded, and formed by our cultural understanding, values, limited knowledge, upbringing and even our individual personalities. If I had grown up in Poland or Brazil or South Africa, for example, my worldview and perspective would, today, be very different. This includes my Christian perspective, respecting God, Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit, church government, Scripture (hermeneutics, apologetics), as well as politics, social justice issues, social or cultural rights, social class perspectives, epistemology (how and why one knows what one knows), cultural views of women and minorities, including homosexuals, bisexuals, transsexuals, etc., human rights, finances, and education.

Far too often, I think, many of us Westerners maintain a cognitive distortion known in layman's terms as "black or white." To some people, every aspect in life is either black or white, without any grey areas. The maxim of St Augustine, "In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity," is often overlooked or dismissed altogether because every single issue that can be named is either right or wrong, good or bad, biblical or non-biblical, black or white. 

Well, as St Augustine admits, in primary essentials of the Christian faith we should maintain unity. In theological essentials, such as the divinity of Christ, His atoning death, burial, resurrection, and return, there should be unanimity. We can rightly brand as "heresy" any concept which contradicts these non-negotiable essentials. However, even these beliefs are viewed through a hermeneutical grid -- that of belief in the Bible as God's word. But what about how the church should be governed? How can we maintain Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Congregational forms of church government and all read from the same Bible? How did this ecclesiological category become a grey area instead of a "biblical" black or white issue?

One of the most abused words among Western Christians, in my opinion, is the word "biblical." The word is used to promote one's beliefs as the only correct or orthodox set of ideas, relegating all contrary beliefs to being heterodox at best or heresy at worst. I know: I am a former abuser of the word. Just inform others that your view is the "biblical" view, or that your review of a book is weighed in light of all that is "biblical," and you have established for yourself orthodoxy par excellence! Your opponents are, clearly, "unbiblical." Pat yourself on the back, for you are, obviously, more righteous (albeit tragically self-righteous) than they, your opponents you objectify as victims of deception, and Jesus loves you more than He does them. Congratulations.

This perpetually-perceived "biblical" disposition, in my opinion, leads one to a certain deceptive self-righteousness, a gross hubris, and an embarrassing neglect at understanding how perspective is king, that everything is rhetoric, and that "all Bible reading is necessarily contextual."1 E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O'Brien, in their book, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, explain:
There is no purely objective biblical interpretation. This is not postmodern relativism. We believe truth is truth. But there's no way around the fact that our cultural and historical contexts supply us with habits of mind that lead us to read the Bible differently than Christians in other cultural and historical contexts.2 (emphasis added)
What Richards and O'Brien admit to is merely proper hermeneutics and an inevitable or realistic epistemology. Every single individual, whether religious or non-religious, has cultural-contextual presuppositions for the beliefs he or she maintains and defends. We neither form our beliefs out of thin air nor are we divorced from our cultural and social-specific contexts (including the family unit in which we were reared). None of us has a purely objective theology, ecclesiology, anthropology, sociology or politic -- not a single one of us.

By this one post, some may fear that I have embraced either postmodernism or liberalism. The reality, however, is that such people, either in part or entirely, misunderstand postmodernism and restrictively, conveniently, and subjectively qualify liberalism. What is liberalism, after all? Who is qualified to universally define liberalism? The same question can be asked regarding conservatism. What is conservative to one individual may be liberal to another. When we read terms such as "liberal," "conservative," "fundamentalist," "postmodern" -- used as rhetorical, derogatory labels for or by opponents -- we may rightly assume that both context and perspective are being either neglected or intentionally ignored for the sake of polemics.

Does this indicate that we cannot know truth -- absolute truth? Richards and O'Brien confess that "truth is truth," but even that statement has its own cultural context. (The statement is also known as defining a thing by itself.) Truth, for example, takes on another concept in an Eastern or Asian worldview. The "truth" or genuine fact of suffering can be denied as a phenomenon of the imagination in certain Eastern traditions. What is perceived as true in an Eastern culture may not mirror-image that of a Western culture. Jesus, in His Middle Eastern context, prays to His Father, "Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth." (John 17:17) Jesus also claims: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life." (John 14:6, emphasis added) Jesus not only claims to know absolute truth, which He names as God's word (John 17:17), but claims to be Truth incarnate.

But how do we know Jesus made this statement? How do we know that what we have is God's word to humanity? What do we mean by know?3 How much of our beliefs are faith-statements, or trust, and how much can we claim knowledge of absolute truth? If God is the only objective4 being in the universe, and only God can establish what is true in absolute terms, then can we maintain any better claim than a justified true belief? I fear that our Western arrogance has given us an unjustifiable license to make costlier claims to truth than our demonstrations to prove them can afford. Often we boast of absolute truths, but neglect the context of perspective and culture, and display a vanity and swagger of unpropitious proportions.

Regarding Rob Bell's book, What We Talk about When We Talk about God, he comments, in an interview, "We choose what we're going to believe; we're all choosing." (mark 30:15) I think he is right -- spot on! Apologist and philosopher James S. Spiegel agrees: "The human mind does not neutrally observe the world, gathering facts purely and simply without any preferences or predilections. On the contrary, what one believes about the world is always deeply impacted by one's values. People are inclined to believe what we want to be true."5 This concept occurred to me a few years ago in concert with studying epistemology and how we make choices.

Are any of us willing to admit that we hold to even one belief against our will and, hence, choice to believe it? Even a doctrine as terrifying as the traditional view of hell is held to by choice by those who defend the notion. Reality is that I could choose to believe in the traditional view of hell, a nuanced view of hell, or not to believe in hell at all. In spite of biblical references, or the experiences of people confessing to have visited hell and returned, I could still choose to believe that hell is a fictional place, or a psychological construct to control or manipulate people, or any number of other possibilities.

Responding to atheist Thomas Nagel's confession that he does not want the reality of our existence in this universe to include an all-powerful, sovereign God, Spiegel responds: "It is important to note that this is true for the theist as well. Most, if not all, believers want there to be a God. We do 'want the universe to be like that.' In fact, Sigmund Freud's famous dismissal of theistic belief as a wish projection turned on this very point."6 Believers in and followers of Christ also make choices according to their belief systems and values; and they, too, choose to believe certain aspects according to those values -- values, desires, and beliefs that were not predetermined by necessity that they should or, strictly, would be maintained.

Rob Bell, rightly noting that we choose our beliefs, continues: "And this idea of, 'Oh, no, you don't understand: I'm right [in all my beliefs] because I have just logically got the evidence in front of me' [seems bogus]. Funny, because lots of people have the same evidence and they don't see it." (mark 30:30) He rightly brings into the discussion the question of epistemology: how we know what we claim to know. By "know," however, we really mean "believe."

For too many people, their particular convictions amount to absolute truth. When asked how one might know that he or she is right with regard to knowledge, results vary, from circular reasoning to further unsubstantiated claims. Such people do not yet understand that their epistemology is directly related to their hermeneutics, and everyone has a hermeneutic -- a grid or guiding principle(s) by which they interpret reality, including texts -- from the wisest man who ever lived to the most uneducated among us. Simply suggesting, "Well the Bible teaches this or that" and then fill in the rest with proof-texts, is insufficient and negligent.

For example, my parents commented on Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman's changed views on same-sex marriage because of his discovery that his son is gay. I suggested to my parents that Portman has been affected by his relationship with his son, whom he loves very much, and that, most likely, accounts for the change. They responded, "Well the word of God doesn't change." Respectively, I responded, "No, God's word does not change; but people's interpretation of God's word may, indeed, change -- even drastically." This is inevitable.

Whatever our respective beliefs, we need to learn to be honest with ourselves and with others that, what we perceive to be the truth, others may not assume the same perception. This is due to various causes, primary and secondary causes, and we need not necessarily demonize someone else merely because they disagree with us. From my frame of reference, Jesus is absolute truth -- Truth Incarnate -- and we can discover his kingdom truths by studying His word. But even studying His word is no guarantee that one will conclude with complete orthodoxy, as should be obvious from any cursory glance at all of the opposing views among Christians, whose hearts and minds may be just as sincere as our own. We will gain, I think, credibility with others by being honest with how we know what we claim to know.

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1 E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O'Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2012), 12. 

2 Ibid.

3 Christians are often challenged by naturalists (evolutionists) to what degree we can claim knowledge of God or spiritual concepts by a scientific method. But such a demand for scientific knowledge cannot be demanded of theists since the viability of science itself cannot be demonstrated by the scientific method. Nor is the scientific method of knowledge any semblance of objectivity. The research of Thomas Kuhn into the history of science, from his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, writes James Spiegel, reveals that "not only is this popular view of science specious, but the notion that scientists are routinely objective in their research is quite mistaken. Using dozens of historical cases, Kuhn showed that researchers are often far from neutral when it comes to testing and evaluating results. Rather, they tend to hold tenaciously to their theories, even in spite of contradictory data." See James S. Spiegel, The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2010), 92-93.

4 One would think that, since no mortal is purely objective or omniscient, we would exhibit a bit more humility in assessing either the motives or the beliefs of another professing Christian, and I pray to consistently demonstrate such humility as I grow (I often fail in this area). Since this perspective is relatively new to me, I am still ironing out all of the wrinkles and hard-pressed creases of this weltanschauung. I have little doubt that there are other ideas, concepts and arguments regarding perspective, knowledge, and hermeneutics to which I am currently blind, or of which I am completely unaware. But I am enjoying the journey of learning. I also know my own track record: I often have to learn the hard way.

5 Spiegel, 13.

6 Ibid.