Subjectivity, Text, Interpretation, and Faith

This is a letter I wrote to someone dear to me after s/he asked about my faith, with only a little editing. Edits will be inside brackets.


“Hey [person who is dear to me]

Thanks for opening up what I think can be a fruitful dialogue. I’m composing this for you as well as for me so I can put down some thoughts […].

The subject line [‘Subjectivity, Text, Interpretation, Faith’] shows in an abstract way how I think we arrive at faith. Children are not born religious or really anything. The faith that they accumulate or don’t comes from life experience. Subjectivity in my model includes all that goes into making a person: habits, decisions, mistakes, parents, thoughts, relationships, abuse/acceptance, bodies, societies, communities, wars, money, education, livelihood, hobbies, etc. I wouldn’t say any one of these things are necessarily more important than any other [after further reflection, I find some of those elements far more influential than others] in self-formation; selves are an amalgam of things that become more or less stable over time.

We bring all (or sometimes only parts depending on how integrated we are as persons) of ourselves to the texts that we read. Based on our experiences we can reject or accept things in texts rather quickly. At other times there are texts that give one pause, particularly if they are eloquent, beautiful, jarring, peculiar, or any combination of these things. If I read a headline, I bring a political bent, previous thinking, as well as openness to the text at hand. More often than not it goes out of my mind by the next day because of the nature of that genre of text. Texts such as the Bible, which contain rich layers of genre and human interest, I […] give more time to.

When I told you today that I hadn’t really touched a Bible that much in a while, unless for class, [it] is because I have spent a lot of time […] ruminating over various passages. Some of these textual interactions have been with me since I was a boy: humans are special (image of God; even if I am probably more of an agnostic now, this value has continued to develop in me even after I left tradition), we are built for community and owe to our communities (brother’s keeper, not good for [hu]man[s] to be alone; the owing of ourselves to our communities is a more recent development), redemption (not so much in an orthodox understanding, but in a narrative sense, I have experienced redemption after Sarah’s and my relationship became better). Things that have moved me beyond reconciliation with evangelicalism (if one assumes inerrancy an integral part of that label): patriarchy as divinely ordained[…], death penalties for trivial things (blasphemy, sorcery, men having sex with men [note the lack of the same standard for women!- original brackets], Sabbath breaking [technically one is to be cut off from the people, but that’s essentially a death sentence in that context- original brackets]), proclivity to war, authoritarianism, embeddedness in monarchy and empire, the concept of messianism, the injustice of [substitutionary] atonement theory, racism/ethnocentrism, slavery, and choosing ambiguities of faith over certainties of reason (particularly when the two are in conflict).

On interpretation, I see it as organically springing from our persons as described above. We can be trained in various interpretive models–the more traditional ones that involve history, language, syntax, and sociology–or more avant guard [hehe, avant-garde] ones like feminist, queer, post-colonial, ideological/Marxist, reader-response, deconstruction, economic, and African-American (this could probably fit entirely under post-colonial approaches). The more avant guard [again, avant-garde] ones call into question the traditional historical-critical approach that understood there to be one inherent meaning per text. Scholars such as Dale Martin have demonstrated that when two scholars beholden to the same historical-critical methods approached one text, they arrived at diametrically opposed conclusions.

Probably where I fit in interpretation is synthetic. I think we have to make use of the building blocks of history, language, and syntax (kind of the historical-critical school in a nutshell) but texts tend not to just sit there as “fully interpreted” if we stop at “this verb means this in such and such tense when followed by the definite article in Hebrew and when used by the leader of a family household.” If that’s what it meant for such a person, what, if anything, has that to do with me? That question involves what I call the gap. There is a vast chasm between ancient literature and myself, of time, language, and culture. I can fill in some of that, but inevitably I fill in with tools from my training, my community, and my life experience. This is why there’s no such thing as a commentary on the Bible without an author. There simply is no such thing as a biblical interpretation without human subjectivity involved. At all. Some are uncomfortable with this. When I came to this realization, it was preposterously disconcerting, especially since I was raised with the idea that the Bible is the only authoritative rule for faith and practice. If that’s the case, we’re screwed. Tons of traditions agree on the idea of inerrancy, but then claim that they have the right interpretation in the bag, regardless of how much diversity of opinion there ends up being.

If God/Jesus/Spirit ruled as a physical personage, we would know who the right and wrong were, for then they could settle the dispute! They’re [the trinity] conspicuously silent when I really need them to come through. We could have real loyalists and real rebels. As we have it, we have a lot of people grasping at straws about the unseen and then holding people accountable based on that unseen thing that some apparently have access to[,] but [which] I don’t to corroborate it. I get along quite well with people even if they accept this. It gets hard when it gets political[,] though [,] for then the innocuous belief becomes a concrete political option that makes or breaks communities.

From my religious studies training, I was exposed to the debate between idealism and materialism. All religions have elements of both: you’d call one theology and one ethics, or the immaterial and material. Because of where I’m at, I focus on the material. If the Bible says, “If a man lays with a man as with a woman, that is an abomination,” (it says something similar to this in Leviticus; I’m just going from memory) and in the other form of that passage it adds the death penalty, I’m going to stop and think a bit before I do something [about the] concrete passage. Even if we account for genre and time, that is still present in the inerrant text. If two men happen to pork each other, and they aren’t doing it in public or to children, I see no reason why they should be stoned, particularly since passages like this one give no reason for the ruling other than “God said” or a sacred text said so. Such arguments from authority simply don’t do anything for me anymore. If there is not a rational basis and God is perfect, that [text] couldn’t have been spoken by God, for then it would be associating irrationality or tyranny with God.

This is getting long. Suffice it to say, I have access to God/Jesus/Spirit solely through a text and the person of Monte I bring to that text. The ONLY thing that would change that would be if they were to speak for themselves. Short of that, we are all gods […] since we end up being the final arbiter of which texts we find authoritative and which ones we don’t.

Love you. Thanks for speaking with me about this and for letting me speak candidly with you.

Even though some of the statements above are put pretty bluntly, or maybe as if I am hardened to change, that is not the case. I am open to dialogue. Challenge me on things. Question me. Ask what my narrative has to do with my interpretation. Ask for clarification. Provide difference of opinion. And defend it.

Again, love you

Just How Biased Are You?, or Let’s Play a Game

I was going through a discussion forum today, and came across this list of cognitive biases. According to that list, there are 170 types of biases spread across three categories. Granted, this number is semi-inflated. Some items are



represented more than once, and not all of them could be called biases. But I went through the first 25 items, under the “Decision-making, belief, and behavioral biases” category, from the ambiguity effect to essentialism. I did this to see how many of biases I have had in the past or still have.

This exercise then prompted me to consider how these biases affect my stances on things religious and philosophical. When I go through the arguments for and against the existence of god, consider a religious experience, or evaluate other religions than my own, are there certain barriers in my mind that preclude a fair case? Here are some examples from my turn in the game:

  • Ambiguity effect– yes; now, since I am not absolutely sure god exists, or what is in the bible is god’s revelation to humanity, or that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of god, but I am sure I exist, I am absolutely more prone to use myself as the measuring stick to order my life than an external matrix I am unsure about
  • Attentional bias– yes; I have been a victim of something, and I can’t really attribute it to one thing. For example, in politics, or at least the kind I’m used to, only two positions are offered for public discourse, yes/or no on an issue. It’s a limiter on other possibilities, and then I find myself suffering from this bias in some areas of life and in others not. E.g., I know there are more theistic possibilities than mere “God exists: yes or no”; religion/philosophy runs along a continuum from strong atheism on one hand to strong theism on the other. In between are all kinds of options, like agnosticism, deism, pantheism, polytheism, monotheism, panentheism, etc. But then when it comes to contemporary political issues, I sometimes find myself narrowly focused: “Guns: yes or no” and no nuance.
  • Backfire effect– oh yah. My first read of Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian
    Source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

    Source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

    had the opposite effect than persuasion on me 🙂 Even some of his good arguments only reinforced what I saw as true.
  • Bias blind spot– haha, yes; when I first encountered rationalism in philosophy, I really ran with it. I took up the assumption I could remove all biases when looking at an argument, having pure objectivity. Too bad I didn’t understand the concepts of conditioning, context, place, and just the fact that no one is immune to bias.
  • Confirmation bias– I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t do this. I’m sure they exist somewhere. Using myself as an example (this may be egocentrism, but I’m trying to be concrete), when I’d look over my life to note my tendencies, I would note particular episodes (like telling my mom when I was 10 that the bible was just stories invented by men) as indicative of my whole life. This obviously isn’t the case, since I also had episodes in life (which I’d conveniently forget when doing this exercise) where I was quite confident in the veracity of the Christian Scriptures.
  • Contrast effect– yes; as pertains to body image, I remember when I was in great shape. Then I would see another guy who was bigger and more ripped than me and would feel not in shape. But just because another guy was 8% body fat and had 10 more pounds of lean muscle did not mean my 10% body fat self was a chub.
  • Empathy gap– Yup. When I was studying to go into ministry, I assumed everyone should be doing what I was doing: reading about theology, biblical studies, church history, because that’s what Christians do, right? I didn’t understand different personality types, different time capacities. I thought my future church parishioners should go through the curriculum I went through, and with the same rigor, not realizing family, work, and other commitments they would have that I didn’t have at the time I was a single college student barely working 10 hours a week.
  • Essentialism– Oh yes. This one’s big and I think a lot of people play this game. For example, I saw the Christianity I grew up with as the true, authentic version. As I came to reject it, I believed I was rejecting Christianity. But as one of my friends pointed out (and something I should have remembered- dern you biases!), there are many branches on the Christian trunk. A mere perusal through the table of contents of Livingston’s Modern Christian Thought, here and here, shows a choir of voices singing sometimes strident harmonies, but the same song (though many in the same choir question others’ true membership). Essentialism tries to get at what is essential for one to be X, say human. A featherless biped which has the capacities of reason, relationship, and self-consciousness. What of the quadriplegic? What of those in a coma? Are these any less human than “normal folk?” or do essentials always fail, since the aberrations are still considered of the same kind, but we lack in language what we need to nail down what constitutes essence?

So out of these possible biases I played with, I’ve had or still have 9, have been unaffected by 8, and am unsure about 8, either because they were presented horrendously in Wikipedia, or I just won’t get them unless I plan on spending more time on them than I feel like doing. All in all, it was neat to see how fallible I am, and how I feel comfortable with that fact now. How do you fare in the bias game?