Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Are You Calling Me a Relativist?

I was with a group of Christians in Toronto this past weekend and I introduced them to a practice called, "Dwelling in the Word." I often describe this process as group lectio divina. It is a more passive approach to Scripture that refuses to turn the text into an "object" to dissect, and treats it more like a living voice that resonates throughout the perceptive abilities of practicing communities of faith. Phew, that's a mouthful.

Dwelling in the Word is not the only way to approach Scripture. Nor is it a refutation of more "objective" strategies seated in a certain expertise or competence in history and languages. It is an augmenting, a necessary one, that allows Scripture to shape a communal consciousness.

When I introduce this to a new group, I am not surprised to be challenged by someone who thinks this is simply a practice in shared ignorance, a way of making the Scriptures mean just anything. Everyone's interpretation is just as valid as another's. In short, I am susceptible to the charge of being a relativist. Gasp!

This past week, a very thoughtful participant contrasted this approach with that advocated by Fee and Stuart in their influential book on reading Scripture. They make the strong claim that Scripture cannot mean anything other than what the author intended. This kind of approach to Scripture would frown on a practice like Dwelling in the Word. They attempt to fix meaning in terms of the original context (one that we have to reconstruct from a massive historical distance, usually with considerable conjecture) and guarantee our access to this through an exacting process. Anything else, it is implied, is playing fast and loose with the text, leaving it open to abuse.

I simply don't agree with Fee and Stuart at several places (though I do use many of the reading strategies they advocate). The Bible itself reveals that texts can mean something other than what they originally meant. Biblical writers use and reuse texts in ways that change their meaning. In some instances, the very same text quoted in two different texts can mean very, very different things in their new context. In fact, I would argue that it is precisely a text's ability to speak across times in new ways that allows us to recognize it as sacred. All texts have a dynamic range of meanings, and this might be even more true for particularly powerful texts.

I also disagree with Fee and Stuart related to their implied confidence that localizing a text in relation to the intentions of the author can produce a single meaning. In other words, methodology (in this case, historical-critical) is often not strong enough to overcome the existing commitments of the readers of Scripture. In other words, it is not only possible but likely that two interpreters using exactly the same methodology will still produce two different readings of the text, much less its context.

This, however, does not leave us to the perilous pit of relativism, of all interpretations being equal, etc. Though a text can mean different things, it can't mean anything. And some interpretations are clearly more viable than others. Moreover, certain rigorous or critical readings of Scripture can shed enormous light and prove extremely fruitful in discerning better readings. So, however, can reading in a community. My big point here is that letting go of confidence in an exacting methodology does not leave us only with relativism.

I ran across this statement by a philosopher of science (Feyerabend) that I think says it well.

"The real issue is not between people who think one view is as good as another and people who do not. It is between those who think our culture, or intuitions, cannot be supported except conversationally, and people who still hope for other sorts of support."

In other words, the only option beyond a methodological positivism is not relativism. Those bogeymen simply aren't out there. The practice of Dwelling in the Word, alongside other approaches, is a commitment to the long conversation about the dynamic meaning of Scripture by a historical community of committed readers.

11 comments:

Brad said...

Yes sir. Amen and amen.

Kristi said...

In all of my experience with the practice of "Dwelling in the Word" as you proscribe, I have not heard new, insightful comments or understanding. I keep looking, but I keep seeing "pooled ignorance."

Mark Love said...

Thanks Kristi, for the feedback. You're not alone. Others don't see much benefit. Still, it's surprising to me that you have yet to hear an insightful comment. I've been doing it for 6 years now and I seldom participate when I don't hear something insightful and nearly always hear something new.

I'm also curious about what is meant by pooled ignorance. What counts here as real insight or valued knowledge? Ignorance about what? We're asking people to engage a text out of their experience of living a Christian life. Which begs the question, what makes for a competent reading of the text? Is it some expert knowledge about languages or history? These produces a certain competence in relation to the text. But surely an experienced life, a use of the texts over time in daily life, produces a certain kind of competence as well. People aren't ignorant about how the text intersects their life. And I'm thinking there is always some wisdom in that intersection.

Finally, I know that Dwelling in the Word is not everyone's cup of tea. Fortunately, its not the only way a congregation engages a text. My hunch is that there would be others who see little usefulness in ways that you appreciate the text. It's an ecology of the Word. And Dwelling does certain things that other approaches don't. It teaches us to listen. It forms a communal consciousness around certain texts. Everyone comments, which in my opinion, is essential for personal and congregational formation. It allows a text to take the active role in an encounter with the congregation. It tends to produce consistently "God-talk" among participants. Teaching the Bible often produces Bible talk. The focus is on the text. The intersection of text and experience often produces God-talk. That's very important to the spiritual vitality of a congregation.

So, thanks for participating even though it doesn't do it for you. And my hunch is that people have found your sharing very insightful.

Kristi said...

This does not at all describe what I've experienced: "And Dwelling does certain things that other approaches don't. It teaches us to listen. It forms a communal consciousness around certain texts. Everyone comments, which in my opinion, is essential for personal and congregational formation. It allows a text to take the active role in an encounter with the congregation. It tends to produce consistently "God-talk" among participants. Teaching the Bible often produces Bible talk. The focus is on the text. The intersection of text and experience often produces God-talk. That's very important to the spiritual vitality of a congregation."

Spur-of-the-moment commentary about anything derives its value from the wellspring of the source. Some of us are able to contribute insights after much consideration; rarely are we able to do so contemporaneously. Most of the commentary in our adult Bible classes, and all of the comments I've heard from "Dwelling in the Word" sessions, falls into the latter category. I term this "pooled ignorance" because it is people talking just because they are supposed to talk, not because they really have anything of value to offer.

Mark Love said...

Kristi

I guess I'll just have to say that my experience has been far different. And I doubt its because I'm hanging with a better crowd. I find that people in general have meaningful things to say on the tips of their tongues because they lead meaningful lives.

Kristi said...

I take your lack of response to my question to mean "no." May I just say, for better or worse, that there is a marked difference between traveling to promote a program and actual participation in it.

Mark Love said...

Kristi,

I seem to have missed the question. I read through your comments again and don't find a question. If I missed it, sorry.

Thanks for caring enough to engage.

ml

Kristi said...

Sorry for not getting back to you sooner, Mark. I thought you deleted my post in which I posed my question. Evidently it got lost in cyberspace, so to be fair:
My question was whether you had actually spent a year in the same passage with the same people on a regular basis. My point being that presenting this concept to different groups across the country is not the same as actually doing it yourself.

Mark Love said...

The answer, Kristi, is yes.

Micah said...

I'm coming late to the conversation, but I'm interested in this post. I don't have much time to write out more extensive thoughts. I just wanted to ask about your appeal to Paul Feyerabend:

Where did you get your quotation? I believe you misattributed that quotation. It is similar to a quotation of Richard Rorty in Consequences of Pragmatism. See this for this quote and a discussion of Rorty.

I don't think Rorty is very helpful in your claims to avoid relativism. He rejected the claim of relativism, but I believe many (most?) philosophers regard his views as implying relativism.

And, even if the quotation is from Feyerabend, Feyerabend is known as a relativist. Read p. 172f. in Alex Rosesnberg's Philosophy of Science: a contemporary introduction (2nd ed.) for comments on that. Also, check out the entry on Feyerabend on the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://plato.standford.edu).

Mark Love said...

Micah

Just saw your comment. I took the quote from Richard Bernstein, Beyond Relativism... He is rescuing Feyerabend and others from the charge of relativism. There is a difference, not often distinguished, between incommensurability and relativism. I know Feyerabend is not the most reputable source for many. But I like the quote, even if Bernstein attributes incorrectly.