Thursday, March 23, 2006

"Liberals" and "Fundamentalists": Two Sides of the Same Coin?

I had planned to write a more "bloggy" post today, about the impending demise of my favorite little chocolate shop, Catherine's Belgian Chocolates. And while I still might write that post later, something else came up that I really had to write about.

I've finally finished the Taoist book that I have been plodding through for the last couple of weeks, and so I picked up a new (to me - it was written 13 years ago, so hardly counts as absolutely "new") book: Stanley Hauerwas' Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America.

Over the last couple of years I have gradually developed a respect and almost admiration for Hauerwas, a theological ethicist with the intellectual honesty to keep from being easily placed in any readily identifiable camp. I rarely read anything by him and wholly agree with it, but I also rarely read anything by him and immediately see where he's going to go. So often when you read an argumentative piece you can see the argument develop and predict with a reasonable degree of accuracy where its going to go. All you have to know if which "side" the writer is on, so you'll know what conclusions the author is likely to make. From there you can see which kinds of arguments best reach those conclusions, and then you can be sure that if the author is a good one then they'll use one of those arguments.

This is not always the case with Hauerwas. He is the best sort of independent thinker, not beholden to any "camps" as best as I can tell. Sure, he has certain beliefs which are to him fundamental, but he does not often manipulate the discussion to arrive at the obvious "truth" of his position. This is respect.

But what I respect a great deal more is his approach to theological writing. This approach can best be described as theology for the church, not the theologians. Theology, much like any other discipline, has its own jargon. That is to say, it has its own language, which makes sense only to those who have studied the language. As theological ideas are phrased in this unique language, they can be easily understood only by those who have spent a great deal of time working with that language. That is, most theological works can be read only by other theologians.

Since theologians are trained in the language of theology, and since their professional work depends on their mastery of that language, they are used to phrasing their best ideas in the language of theology. This means that while their theology might have profound implications for the practice of Christianity, it is not accessible to most Christians. While I am not a theologian, I have participated in this error.

I remember well the second sermon I ever gave. I was the youth minister at a moderate-sized United Methodist church on the south side of Louisville. But I was also a philosophy student. The congregation was comprised mostly of blue collar, hard working but not formally educated people. They were mechanics, truck drivers, dock workers, welders, etc. But, unaware of the needs of the congregation, in my sermon I fell back on my "native language" to communicate my thoughts. I argued (first mistake - building a formal argument instead of preaching a sermon) for the need to develop "an existentially meaningful concept of salvation."

The congregation was polite. They liked me. They liked the work that I was doing with their teenagers. They liked my energy, and they loved my wife. They thanked me for preaching such an "interesting" sermon. It was, they said, unlike anything they'd heard before. But, of course, while they didn't tell me this, most of them got absolutely nothing out of the sermon.

My pastor pulled me aside and told me the truth: most likely, he and I were the only people in the room who had heard of existentialism. He said that he loved the ideas in my sermon, and that my communication of them would work well in a university or seminary setting. But, he said, if I wanted to be a pastor I would have to learn how to understand my congregation. I would have to learn what their needs were, and I would have to learn how to communicate to them in such a way that could meet those needs.

Later, as a pastor, I saw the preaching aspect of my job as principally one of translation. That is, I took the theology which I encountered as a student, and tried to find a way to translate it into something meaningful to my congregation. Alas I wasn't a pastor long enough to do that as well as I would have liked.

Stanley Hauerwas laments that fundamental need for translation. Theology, he argues, should serve the church. That means that it should serve the needs of practicing Christians. A good test for a theological idea could be found in how it plays out in the pews. Theologians for too long have been writing for themselves and their peers, rather than their churches. While Hauerwas is an academic and a theologian, he often aims his work at the anonymous Christian in the pew. Of course, I think he often misses. And I doubt he would disagree. Trained as he is in theology, fluent as he is in the language of theology, his work - while more aimed at the average lay person than the work of his peers - still unavoidably falls into the language of theology. But at least he tries. At least he understands that if theology can not bring some meaning to the practice of the Christian faith, then it is basically without purpose.

So last night I started reading his aforementioned book, and at the very beginning I came across a passage that almost made me jump up and down:

Most North American Christians assume that they have a right, if not an obligation, to read the Bible. I challenge that assumption. No task is more important than for the church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America. Let us no longer give the Bible to all children when they enter the third grade or whenever their assumed rise to Christian maturity is marked, such as eighth-grade commencements. Let us rather tell them and their parents that they are possessed by habits far too corrupt to read the Bible on their own.

North American Christians are trained to believe that they are capable of reading the Bible without spiritual and moral transformation. They read the Bible not as Christians, not as people set apart, but as democratic citizens who think their "common sense" is sufficient for "understanding" the Scripture. They feel no need to stand under the authority of a truthful community to be told how to read. Instead they assume that they have the "religious experience" necessary to know what the Bible is about.

When I read this I immediately thought about the events which led to the end of my pastoral career. I had a tumultuous relationship with the woman who chaired what United Methodists call the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee (in most churches this is actually called the Staff-Parish Relations Committee, but in churches where the pastor is the entire staff that title makes little sense). That committee mediates between the church and the pastor. It is designed to facilitate communication, helping the pastor to understand what the church expects, and helping the church to understand what the pastor expects. It is a crucial committee, particularly if there is some point of contention between the two parties.

The woman who chaired this committee was a sincere and severe Christian, who re-converted to her childhood faith after a brush with death. She viewed that brush with death as God's way of waking her up to her own sinfulness, and reminded her of her mortal nature, and the fear of hell. I have no desire to pass any judgment on her faith, or the way in which she came to it. It worked for her. What, alas, did not work was her desire to impose that faith on everyone, and to see it preached from the pulpit of her church.

Like all individual Christians, she read the Bible in light of her religious experiences. As those experiences included a great deal of fear and judgment (in her case, as opposed to grace), she wanted that fearful judgment preached at all times. As those of you who've read this blog before well know, that is not my way.

She would call me during the week for two reasons:

1. To make me aware of some "complaints" which were going around the church, particularly from the "older people." These complaints were always vague and anonymous, giving the impression of dissatisfaction with my ministry, but not giving me anything constructive to work on. They were, I think, designed to make me feel fearful and inadequate, insecure in my position and abilities. If that is the case, they were very effective.

2. To debate me on the contents and interpretation of the Bible.

Hauerwas' passage from last night reminded me of those debates, which almost always ended with frustration. She would quote a passage from the King James, and tell me, essentially, that it "proved" I was wrong. I would argue with the merits of her translation, and explain how she took the passage out of its context to make it say what she wanted it to say. She would accuse me of trusting my "learning" (for her this was a derogatory term) more than God. We were at an impasse.

I once asked her how she decided that a particular passage meant what she thought it meant. She replied that when she read the scriptures she always asked God to send the Holy Spirit to her to "illuminate" the text. Thus the Holy Spirit told her what the passage meant. I said something like, "So, basically, you're saying that God told you what this passage means," To which she said, "Yes."

Well, who am I to argue with God? That was her point. God agreed with her, so if I disagreed with her, I disagreed with God.

One time I asked her, "Even if we agree (which we didn't) that God has perfectly revealed this to you; since you are an imperfect human, don't you think that it is possible that you have understood it imperfectly?"

She simply said, "No, I don't think that's possible."

What could I do? I hung up on her. That, of course, did not sit well with the congregation when she told them that their pastor rudely hung up on her while she was relaying their concerns.

This whole episode speaks to one of the many dangers of fundamentalism, a danger which Hauerwas' passage points out. Fundamentalists often read the Bible on their own - apart from the community of faith - and trust that their own religious experience - apart from the traditions of the larger community of faith and independent of the religious experiences of the many, many others who help comprise this body we call the Church universal - to interpret scripture for them.

But, according to Hauerwas, it does not just speak to the dangers of fundamentalism. It also serves as an indictment against liberalism. After all, Hauerwas argues, liberals, in trusting solely in the historical-critical method, also assume that the Bible can be read by an individual outside the community of faith; and that the individual, by this historical-critical method, can arrive at the definitive interpretation of the text.

If Hauerwas is right, then my nemesis and I were making equal and opposite errors. She overtly said that she had the interpretation, which was given to her by God. But by countering her claim with a historical and textual criticism I was also reading the Bible as an individual and arriving at a definitive interpretation.

Hauerwas argues that the Bible can only be read inside the community of faith, which in relationship with God interprets the text for that community. There is, he claims, no text which stands apart from interpretation. And there is no proper way for an individual outside the faithful community, or independent from the faithful community, to properly interpret the scriptures, as they are intended for the community of faith. The community, then, the Church, is the means by which and through which the text should be interpreted.

He then says this:

... I think that at least by calling attention to the communal presuppositions necessary for any account of the Christian use of Scripture, we can see how the debate between fundamentalists and biblical critics is really more a debate between friends who share many of the same assumptions. The most prominent shared assumption is that the interpretation of biblical texts is not a political process involving questions of power and authority. By priviledging the individual interpreter, who is thought capable of discerning the meaning of the text apart from the consideration of the good ends of community, fundamentalists and biblical critics make the Church incidental.

This reminds me of something which my ministry mentor tried to teach me, which alas I failed to learn. He said that I should not be afraid to stand behind the teaching of our denomination. On any point which would be controversial in a congregational setting, but which has been adopted by the denomination, I should say, rather that "I believe...", instead "the United Methodist Church teaches..."

Many of the problems I had with the only congregation I ever pastored came from their disagreements with the denomination. But, as pastor I stood behind my individual right to teach what convictions rather than my corporate duty to teach the positions of the denomination. I made the dispute one between me (as an individual) and them (as a congregation) rather than one between them (as an individual congregation) and the United Methodist Church.

So Hauerwas' position on this issue seems at least pastorally helpful. I'm not sure I'm entirely on board with it, though. I'm only two chapters in, but it will take some serious nuance for him to address via this principle the necessity of change within the community of faith. If the community is the primary interpreter of scripture, what checks can be placed on that community's interpretation? What mechanism for change can be brought in? And how do we mediate between communities in conflict?

Hauerwas may yet have sufficient answers for these questions, I just can't anticipate them. That's one of the things I most admire in his work.


Brian Cubbage said...

I'm eager to hear what Hauerwas-- and you-- have to teach us. I've never read any Hauerwas, but I've always had a soft spot for him ever since Lingua Franca (a now-defunct magazine that was once dubbed "People magazine for academics") did a cover story on him titled "America's Most Foul-Mouthed Theologian." Apparently he swears like a sailor (or at least used to back in 1997 or 1998, when the story was written). For some reason, I have the same reverence for people who constantly swear in the middle of otherwise polite conversation that little kids do.

On a more substantial issue, how does Hauerwas help us to define who exactly is a member of the community empowered to read and interpret the Bible? Do professed non-believers have literally nothing interesting to teach us about what the Bible says. On the face of it, I find that claim dubious. But I'm willing to let Hauerwas overcome my doubts.

Sandalstraps said...

His claim is more subtle than that. Historical-critical methods, he argues, have a great deal to teach us (and non-believers can use those methods as well as believers). The problem with them comes when they are the only lens through which scripture is interpreted, or when they lead us to say that a particular interpretation is the interpretation of a passage.

As best as I can tell from the little reading I've done (the introduction plus the first two chapters) he argues that interpreting the Bible within the community of faith leads to many different interpretations, all of which are valid and valuable, all of which are ways in which God speaks to a community of faith.

That does not mean that all possible interpretations of the Bible are valid. Interpreting it in light of both historical-critical methods and within the community of faith place some parameters on the interpretation fo scripture. I have not yet, however, gotten to where he lays out those limitations. I have also not seen him yet interpret any particular passage.

I think his main point is that the Bible is meant to speak to the community of faith, addressing the concerns of that community. As such, when one reads the Bible abstractly and as an individual instead of as part of a community with concrete concerns, one is necessarily misreading the Bible.

The frustrating thing about Hauerwas is that while he makes some inflammatory comments, his position is hard to pin down. He is simultaenously reckless with his words while so careful with his argument that you almost don't see what he's arguing for. He spends a great deal of time saying what he isn't saying.

Liam said...

This is interesting. I think it speaks to issues farther afield than Biblical interpretation, and he's dead on in seeing that kind of hyper-individualism as particularly American. Perhaps because I'm an academic and because of the people in power in this country right now, I especially bristle at the anti-elitism that refuses to give any repect to learning, intelligence, and preparation regarding a certain issue.

It is true, too, that the average "liberal" suffers from the same type of blindness to the forces that construct their worldview. They believe that they have formed their own opinions out of common sense and observation, not because they are receiving an intellectual tradition that dominates their discourse and are part of a society that creates a mode of perception. I myself am as liberal as they come, but being a historian I have been able to see that no one's ideas come from anything as simple as common sense or observation. We are just not that autonomous.

That's why I don't understand people who say, "I'm spiritual, but not religious." I respect them, but it doesn't make sense to me. We cannot pretend that we are not social beings, and if faith is to be relevant, it must have a social aspect to it.

Still, it's hard to know exactly how scripture is interpreted by "the community." As a Catholic, I am a part of an immense and extremely varied Church that has at the same time a rigid insitutional structure with a strict, non-democratic hierarchy. As I always say and will always say, the hierachy is not the only part of the church, and hence the community. So I guess interpreting scripture within the community means both knowing, understanding, and respecting what the Vatican and the bishops say about scripture and dialoguing with that -- though not being a slave to it. I should also know what other currents in the church say about it. As a church that includes the living and the dead, I should know what all past writers say about it. As a church that values an ecumenical effort, I should know what my brothers and sisters in other demoninations say about it. Then I will need to be an individual again.

Of course, that woman in your church was right to pray about it. Still, humility is vitally important. People who know exactly what God wants scare me.

The Scrivener said...

Fascinating post, a pleasure to read. I'll visit again in the future.

(Sounds almost like a restaurant review, I know. Apologies.)

Sandalstraps said...

I can handle a restaurant review, as long as it it a good one. No need to apologize. Thanks for dropping by.

PamBG said...

Excellent post. I was attracted by the title which I agree with in other ways but actually I think you took the ideas to a more helpful place.

I totally agree that preaching is about translating - and translating isn't always easy.

Sandalstraps said...


Thanks for dropping by, and for backing me up at Ben Witherington's blog.

Translation is the hardest job imaginable, and I wish you the best in your efforts to take what you have learned and are learning (learning never stops, does it?)and use it to inform the lives of the people you are called to serve.

Anonymous said...

Are you familiar with the work of G. C. Berkouwer? I did a Ph.D. based on Berkouwer's writings. It was later published as a book - 'The Problem of Polarization: An Approach based on the Writings of G. C. Berkouwer'. In April 2006, I started a Berkouwer blog - Also on the subject of reading the Bible, you may also be interested in my Bible Reading blogs - & (On all three of the blogs, in November 2006, I posted a full set of my Bible Reading Notes, covering the whole of Scripture). I hope these blogs will be of some interest to you.
Best Wishes for 2007.