Why what’s clear to you isn’t so clear to me (part 1)

After reading dozens of books, writing hundreds of blog posts, engaging in thousands of conversations both online and off, and touring Hellbound? through two dozen cities across North America, you’ll have to forgive me if I’m somewhat pessimistic about our ability to engage in constructive theological dialogue. All too often what starts out as a potentially fruitful conversation ends in a grudging detente with both parties walking away muttering something about the moral defectiveness of the other. “If only they weren’t so (fill in the blank), they would see my position on this issue is correct.” You can only go around the Mulberry Bush like this so many times before wondering, “What’s the point?”

And yet, minds do change all the time. I have certainly experienced radical shifts of opinion on a variety of issues over the years. And the concept of metanoia, a.k.a. “repentance” or “a change of mind” is at the heart of Christianity. As the Apostle Paul tells us, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2). But how does this transformation process actually happen? And–barring a miraculous encounter with the risen Christ that strikes us blind–why are we so reluctant to surrender our views?

This question has become somewhat of an obsession for me ever since I worked on the documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. As I plunged into the often vicious debate over evolution, I couldn’t help but wonder how so many intelligent, educated, well meaning people could look at exactly the same data and come away with such drastically different conclusions. And when we fail to convert someone else to our point of view, rather than question the validity of our ideas, why are we so quick to sequester our opponents in one of the categories outlined in the following statement by Richard Dawkins:

It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).

Over the years, I’ve taken several runs at trying to answer this question, to no avail. But recently I took a different tack and began mapping out all of the variables I could think of that are involved in the belief-formation process. Specifically, I was trying to figure out if there is any way to minimize or eliminate the subjective nature of belief-formation. We all tend to think that we hold a trump card of sorts–a theory of inspiration, Church authority, firsthand, experience or a piece of irrefutable, objective data that cannot be denied in good conscience. However, this exercise has made me increasingly skeptical that such a thing exists.

Of course, this raises the specter of whether we can truly know anything for certain. I think we can, but perhaps not in the way we are prone to think. Over the next several blog posts, I’m going to share a little bit of this work-in-progress. While I don’t intend it as my own version of an irrefutable trump card, this exercise has been a tremendously fruitful experience for me (aided in no small part by an iPad app called Grafio). I hope it will also help you understand why theological debates can become so contentious and suggest how we can move beyond such pointless disputes into more fruitful dialogue.

So let’s get started…

Whenever we approach an object of study, such as the Bible, most of us have a fairly simplistic notion of how we encounter it, which looks something like the illustration below (you can click on the illustrations to make them larger):

I can’t tell you how many times people have based their disagreement with me on the “fact” that something is so “plain and simple” in the Bible. Seeing as we tend to experience our moral beliefs as moral facts, when someone disagrees with our reading of the text, it’s only natural to resort to the epithets described by Richard Dawkins. We attribute the source of the debate to some sort of moral, psychological or even spiritual defect in our opponent. Why else would our opponent disagree with the “clear teaching of Scripture”?

But this notion is mistaken, because as philosopher of religion Thomas Talbott says, “We don’t read the Bible the way it is, we read it the way we are.” In other words, none of us encounters the Bible–or any text or piece of data–in an objective, unbiased way. We all interpret it through a complex set of filters that I’ll call an “Interpretive Principle.”

So when two people argue about what a particular biblical passage means, the dispute isn’t necessarily the product of a moral, psychological or spiritual deficiency on the part of one or both parties (although it very well could be). It’s more likely a clash between competing Interpretive Principles.But what informs these Interpretive Principles, and why are they so different? We can break these influences down into three main categories: Tradition, Reason and Experience.

For the sake of discussion, I will define these terms as follows:

  • Tradition: The established body of beliefs held by the Church or a particular branch of the Church
  • Reason: Philosophical or theological arguments
  • Experience: Firsthand observation of facts or events

This is where things start to get complicated, because even though we can all agree that Tradition, Reason and Experience play a role in belief-formation, few of us encounter these influences in exactly the same way, leading to the questions in the diagram below:

  • Which Tradition–Catholic? Orthodox? Anglican? Some other Protestant tradition?
  • Which philosophical or theological arguments do we find most persuasive?
  • And which experiences appear to be more valid than others–is there any way to resolve such disputes?So when we get into a theological debate, rather than a clash between persons or Interpretive Principles, the actual flashpoint could be any and all of the above.

As you can see, by this point the real locus of dispute is a long way from the text itself. But this is only the first of many ways in which such discussions can become convoluted. In part two of this series, I’ll drop a few more flies into the ointment and show why such discussions can quickly go from bad to worse.

About Kevin Miller

Kevin Miller is an award-winning screenwriter, director and producer who has applied his craft to numerous documentaries, feature films and shorts. Recent projects include "The Chicken Manure Incident," "Hellbound?," "Drop Gun," "No Saints for Sinners," "spOILed," "Sex+Money," "With God On Our Side," "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," "After..." and the upcoming biopic "The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton." In addition to his work in film, Kevin has written, co-written and edited over 45 books. He lives in Kimberley, BC, Canada with his wife and four children.

  • http://andhup.wordpress.com/ Leslie

    Thank you, Kevin! Looking forward to the subsequent pieces in the series and the discussions that result.

  • Christopher

    Great article Kevin.

    My two cents. Our views are how we make sense of the world and we reject changing our views too quick because this can seemingly throw our world in chaos.

    • Sarah

      Just an addition to what Christopher said – I think also that people frequently take challenges to their worldview as attacks, and often don’t perceive those “attacks” as “to my worldview”, but “to me”. It can become personal alarmingly quickly.

      To some people, saying “I don’t believe in evolution” or “I don’t believe in intelligent design” or “I don’t believe in homosexual marriage” (or indeed, “I do believe in homosexual marriage”) is not perceived as “This is what I believe” but “What you believe in is wrong, stupid, insane or wicked” and furthermore, “You are wrong, stupid, insane or wicked”.

      Regarding Dawkins, I think his assumption (ignoring any and all evidence to the contrary) that people who believe in God, or really anything he doesn’t believe in, are ” ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked)” tends, in my experience, to endear him to people who already think the same way he does, and provoke emotions from the rolling of eyes to outright hatred. Given the stated aim of at least one of his books is to turn religious people into atheists, I often wonder at his techniques. :-/

      • Sarah

        “and provoke emotions from the rolling of eyes to outright hatred”

        There should be “in others” at the end of that sentence. Oops!

  • J. Thomas Bridges

    I would have to strongly disagree with your philosophy of language/hermeneutics. Though I would agree that many of the factors you touch on do affect an interpretation of the text, they do not make it impossible to derive the original meaning of the text. I would refer you to a book by Thomas Howe on the Objectivity in Biblical Interpretation. Many of the problems you point out do shape the way a layperson may read the Bible, but this is a lack of education of the individual rather than any deep inability of humans to read what author’s write and understand it. If your view of interpretation were ubiquitous, applying to all interactions with texts, then how could I be very confident in understanding this blog post, or how could you think you understand these comments.

    • http://www.journeyintotheson.com/ Cindy Skillman

      Thomas, you said: “If your view of interpretation were ubiquitous, applying to all interactions with texts, then how could I be very confident in understanding this blog post, or how could you think you understand these comments.”

      Excellent point. And the thing is? You can’t be confident of either of those understandings. Plain writing makes it more likely that people will understand what you’re trying to express, but ask any newlyweds whether they find it a simple thing to express their ideas to one another effectively. Communication is no simple thing. Jesus is a master communicator, but we forget that He was speaking to an ancient middle-eastern society at our own peril. Unless we understand something of the culture, beliefs current at His time, even the inside jokes of the people group, not to mention accepted speaking style and literary style, forms, poetry, and more, we cannot hope to correctly interpret His parables. They are brilliant, but they are not easy — not for us.

      The most important “tool” we have for interpretation is not some man-made system of hermeneutics (helpful though that can be), but the indwelling Holy Spirit and a practiced ability to hear and listen to and heed His still small voice.

  • Stewart jones

    Looking forward to the rest of the series thank you.

  • Ric Saenz

    Miller claims that “We don’t read the Bible the way it is, we read it the way we are”. He calls this the Interpretive principle. But does he give a reason to think it’s true? I don’t doubt that some of our biblical interpretations are mediated by our biases, but why think that ALL OF OUR INTERPRETATIONS ARE MEDIATED IN THIS WAY? It seems clear to me that we do read the Bible without biases. Why think otherwise?

  • Karen

    I find it interesting that you made no mention of the Holy Spirit in your piece. It is the Holy Spirit that enlightenes us and gives us a spirit of wisdom and revelation. (Eph 1:17-18). Romans 8:26-27 says that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us when we don’t know how to pray. Maybe we should be praying and doing more and discussing less.

    Jesus answered Satan’s temptations with scripture. We should be studying and memorizing the Word in order to resist temptation. Maybe the temptation for christians is to split hairs on scripture in discussion rather than carrying out the Great Commission. We build our house on the Rock when we are doers of the word and not only hearers.

  • rvs

    God created perspectives, a multiverse of perspectives, one might say. Perhaps agreement is not the point; hermeneutics channeled through/born out of the uniqueness of the individual brings unique insights that are both glorious and inconsistent with other unique insights. Yes, it’s true, I’m heading in the direction of the pesky ancient proverb that goes something like this: “sometimes the opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth.” Aristotle the pagan invented the law of contradiction; such a law does not exist in Scripture, thank goodness.

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  • http://www.kappellomedia.com katherine

    The problem is that when you try to study a “passage” and everyone is just having a free for all what they think and there is no real study of context, history, theological precepts and parameters you end up with a mess and Protestant, where you have a million separate groups and no cohesion. Without a solid pre-ordained set of parameters for the Bible, for the faith to be studied and context, it will be a constant mish mash that makes no sense and only frustrates in the spiritual journey and that’s where I found Protestantism to be a problem, to many paths and interpretations, not conducive.

    • Kevin Miller

      I hope you see that what I’m addressing here goes way beyond the problem of a Protestant “free for all.” Clashes between various traditions–Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic–are merely part of the mix.

  • http://www.journeyintotheson.com/ Cindy Skillman

    Kevin, great post! Looking forward to future installments.
    I’ve discovered this principle in myself. it’s so very easy to read my own ideas back into scripture — especially if I’m not paying attention. Add to that the fact that translators can hardly help translating in view of their own world views (all translations are paraphrases to a point; even the “literal” ones). It makes the help of the Holy Spirit paramount to an understanding of scripture.
    That’s not the end of it, though. Sometimes the Holy Spirit will say (as He did to a friend of mine) “That’s not right.” concerning (gasp!!!) a “clear reading” of scripture. Turns out that on further investigation my friend learned that mistranslation added to cultural considerations gave a very different meaning to the passage he was confused about.
    Hearing from the Spirit is subjective; reading printed words is objective. It seems reasonable to me that we both listen to the spirit and consider the text while also researching the culture and other things (unnoticed reference to OT passages within a NT passage, for example) that might affect the true meaning of God’s word.

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  • Mike Treat

    Thanks Kevin for this post. I’m very late to this party so this response may not be seen or appreciated but, heck, it will, if nothing else, clarify the issue in my own mind. It appears to me that the folks that took issue with this blog seem to operate from the fundamental position that scripture is inerrant, 100% inspired, and complete. If you see scripture that way, I can kind of see how you might also conclude that some “perfect” interpretation can be found and that all well-meaning, sincere, informed Christians could (or should) share that same interpretation. With that view, you can easily rationalize separating yourself from those that have failed to discern/accept/share your interpretation. I see this to be a cornerstone of divisiveness within Christianity. Obviously, this view of scripture is a choice, and further more, a faith position. The Biblical writings *could* be inerrant, 100% inspired, and complete but it doesn’t *have* to be. The fundamental truths of the Christian story *could* be true irrespective of whether the Biblical writings are inerrant, 100% inspired, and complete. Personally, I suspect the Biblical writings aren’t inerrant, aren’t 100% inspired, and certainly aren’t a “complete” record of the mind of God (how silly to think it could be, after all). This view of scripture doesn’t minimize in the least my appreciation for the work of the cross and the meaning of the resurrection. In fact, I have come to appreciate the Christian story all the more for knowing that this beautiful story of redemption comes through loud and clear in spite of the fact that the Biblical writings are likely a hodge podge of human remembrances produced by fallible humans with various degrees of accuracy, inspiration, objectivity, and completeness. For me, the only faith worth having is the faith I have in God. Putting my faith in a collection of historical writings pales in comparison. I see this unnecessary commitment to inerrancy and literalism (and the requirement that others share that same view) as a significant contributor to the vast difference of opinions seen amongst well-meaning, reasonably informed, sincere Christians.

    • Kevin Miller

      Thanks, Mike. Seen and appreciated. :) I think you’re spot on here.

  • Neil Fix

    Hi Karen-i’ve just read this. I can see one very good reason why he might have not mentioned the Holy Spirit here, and that is that he is talking about the things that can divide, rather than the One who unites.
    I think you are right in saying we should maybe be praying more; but sometimes discussing is doing. Discussions will go on anyway, with or without us; and sometimes we may be the only who can speak what God wants to say in a certain situation-and we are likely to do it more often as we pray more.