Everybody Has an Agenda

Pure objectivity belongs to the perfections, eternality, and infinity of God alone -- this stemming from a Christian perspective. What this indicates for the rest of us, being finite ontologically (ontology referring to being or existence), is that every issue of our cognitive existence is viewed through a particular lens. To quote St Paul, our knowledge is partial (1 Cor. 13:9), and by "partial" he means partly, in frames, not in a contextualized whole. Our finiteness, as well as reality itself, requires this inevitability.

These conclusions entail what is known as epistemology and includes the reality of hermeneutics. Many today are unaware of either notions and, yet, they experience and exist within the framework of both every moment of every day. Epistemology is how one knows what one claims to know; and hermeneutics is the art and science of interpretation. Hermeneutics is not interpreting texts, or events, but the method one utilizes to interpret texts or events. So, to utter the words "God is love" (1 John 4:8) requires prior knowledge of what is indicated by "God," as well as a proper definition of "love."

One might ask, Which God? or, What is God? One might think that love is erotic or sexual in nature, or innocently romantic, or even familial (related to love for one's family). Introduce an individual to a particular God, such as the Christian Trinity, and that narrows our subject entirely. Properly contextualize God's love as self-sacrificial and that qualifying marker aids the hearer to understand that the love of the Christian God is self-sacrificial and not erotic or romantic. Too often we think and we speak or communicate with too many assumptions -- assumptions not shared by everyone else in the world.

Because none among us can be completely objective, i.e., understand properly what everyone else in the world is attempting to communicate, properly gauging the motives and intentions of everyone who is speaking or writing, we can embrace this reality and be transparent with ourselves and with each other. I think how I think (epistemically) because I have a certain perspective (hermeneutic). So do you. So does everyone in the world. We cannot escape the lens through which we view (interpret) all of reality (including texts, movies, events). I have an agenda. You have an agenda. Everyone in the world maintains an agenda at all times. We must embrace this conclusion as our only reality.


What happens when we think that we maintain purely objective motives (without a particular and intentioned agenda)? We allow ourselves to be deceived into thinking that our views are right in every respect, and that anyone who disagrees with us is wrong, and cannot be right in any sense whatsoever at any time. But of course we each maintain biases. Of course we are prejudicial. We must be both biased and prejudicial because we cannot be purely objective due to our finite nature and cognitive distortions. We can attempt to be objective, and may even succeed to some degree, but we cannot be purely objective. Why?

Stanley Fish, author of Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities, brilliantly underscores the reality that "disagreements cannot be resolved by reference to the facts, because the facts emerge only in the context of some point of view."1 Even so-called facts are viewed through a particular lens. This is tantamount to providing a monitor to oversee a certain party in order to keep said party accountable. The problem then becomes: Who is going to monitor the monitors; and who will monitor the monitors overseeing the monitors in charge of overseeing a certain party? There seems to be an infinite regress in play. So how can we actually know any reality at all?

Here is where transparency and humility take their cue. Christians have, for ages, insisted on their own interpretation of not only the Bible but even matters of socio-politico significance. Instead of placing blame, say to someone like Reformer Martin Luther, let us assume personal responsibility and confess that our own hubris plays the largest factor in disunity and hunger for power or authority both in the church and in society. Again, Stanley Fish informs us that what is at stake for us all in a disagreement is "the right to specify what the facts can hereafter be said to be. Disagreements are not settled by facts, but are the means by which the facts are settled."2 Disagreements are not even settled by context, since every context is interpreted by the same method(s) as we determine any notion, text or life-event, an inevitable presuppositional or a priori framework.

In other words, when we disagree with someone over a given issue, suspecting one's motives and some imagined hidden agenda, we quickly collect all the "facts" that support our view, and we lodge them as insurmountable weapons in our warfare of ideologies. Instead, what would benefit us all more is confessing why we believe what we believe, understanding that our opponent(s) cannot agree with us as long as he or she or they adhere to their respective hermeneutic (method of interpreting an issue). If we operate within this methodological realm, we can agree to disagree without hurting and sullying ourselves, and ultimately wounding others. The question Can we know truth? is complicated. In an honest philosophy we might suggest that what we can know is, better stated, merely a justified true belief.

Even this notion can be a bit complicated when we all take into account what is cause for justification and, yet, cannot agree upon what actually accounts for justification. Again, humility comes to our rescue, and disagreeing agreeably helps maintain peace. But let us not deceive ourselves. Of course I have an agenda. So do you. So does everyone else in the world. We must have an agenda. But as Christians we are called by God to love God first and then everyone else as ourselves. May God continue helping us to do so in all honesty and transparency.

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1 Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 338.

2 Ibid.

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.