Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A bit of a quandary

Ok, now I've got my butt in a crack.

I still think it's useful to recognize that the Bible was written in premodern language by premodern people. In fact, I suspect that we're liable to get ourselves into lots of trouble if we don't make this distinction when we interpret. But I'm still a little bit dubious about how the premodern/modern lens will actually affect how we read the text.

Because Randy's mentioned Ephesians 6, let's use that as our first example. Maybe it will help if we start by pretending that we've just picked up some Ancient text and started reading it.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

OK, so the author starts talking about the devil and spiritual forces of evil, and immediately my brain starts sending up flares. "Danger!" it says. "Premodern language is being used here!" The author continues with his metaphor, recommending that his readers adopt defenses such as righteousness, truth, peace and faith against these supernatural attacks. Hugs, kisses, end of Ephesians, hooray.

Now how should I interpret this passage?

As a hair-splitting modern person, I think I should go about it by dividing the "truth" of the passage into two distinct parts. The first is the author's worldview, in which spiritual forces manipulate people and everyday events. The second is the author's statement, which is couched in the language of his worldview.

Now honestly, I'm very reluctant to try to evaluate the truth of a person's worldview. I can see some value to thinking of things in terms of spirits and spiritual realms, and it's not like empirical evidence can prove or disprove the existence of spirits. But the "spiritual realms" worldview is not my worldview. And so before I evaluate the point that the author is trying to make, I am obligated to translate it into language that is compatible with my worldview. In this case, I would be obligated to translate the author's supernatural language into something a little more helpful for my modern sensibilities; perhaps I would translate his "spiritual realms" language into a description of the shadowy regions of the human psyche.

As a result, I would then be able to get some benefit from the text: instead of trying to make myself believe that we are constantly manipulated by spirits, I can go ahead to what I think is the author's real point: that we should adopt virtues as means to produce goodness in ourselves, despite the ways in which we sometimes tend toward evil.

Put another way, I can treat the author's language about evil spirits as metaphor, and then try to apply or interpret the metaphor.

OK, great! So when I run into stuff about spirits manipulating the world, I'll just kind of gloss over that as a premodern metaphor, and try and translate the ideas into modern language.

God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.


Thanks a lot, Apostle John. Now what am I supposed to do with that?


Connor said...

Pretend that you are a premodern person for a minute and tell me what that verse from John is saying.

Matthew said...

I guess for a premodern (ancient?), the "God is spirit" part wouldn't be news; just an observation that gives support to the conclusion that God's worshippers must worship "in spirit and truth".

What it means to worship "in spirit and truth", though, is a mystery to me. Based on the context -- Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman -- I suspect that it has something to do with expanding orthodoxy to include people and ideas that had been excluded. But I don't know what that has to do with "spirit" or "truth".

How do you think a premodern person would read it?

Randy said...

Is it possible your worldview needs to be tweaked? The idea of a spiritual realm influencing our own is not beyond reason. Because I don't understand or can't explain something does not necessarily means it does not exist. I’m not one to buy into the spiritual warfare language that become so popular over the last few years but I do have to leave room for a spiritual realm that some how effects where I live. With out that possibility I’m real close to tossing God out the window and saying only what my senses can identify and understand is real.

scoots said...

The story has currents of both exclusivity and inclusivity running through it. I think it's reasonable to suspect that the premodern writer John did this intentionally, even if his premodern readers may have missed it.

The woman (apparently trying to distract Jesus from prying into her sketchy personal life) asks him where people are supposed to worship –– Can they worship where they live, or must they travel to Jerusalem?

Assuming that the woman's question was one people were really asking in the first century, the premodern reader would probably think, "Great! Jesus is finally going to settle the debate for us –– at last we'll know where good Jews are supposed to worship!"

Before he gets to his decidedly Christian conclusion, John's Jesus teases the reader just a bit, acknowledging that it is the Jews who truly know God and that "Salvation is from the Jews."

I would suspect that the premodern Jewish believer would be excited that Jesus was siding with him. "That settles it –– Jesus said that we're right, and that you have to come worship in Jerusalem." The premodern Gentile believer, meanwhile, probably thinks he's about to be told that he has to become Jewish.

Then Jesus, as he often does, reframes the question into the message he really wants to get across. "Sure," he says, "I may have answered your question. But the very fact that I'm talking to you means that that answer won't do anymore."

Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, has ushered in a new age where worship is not about where but only about how. We might get away with suggesting a word play in the passage: we don't worship in Jerusalem, we worship in Spirit and Truth.

Assuming that John was composing the passage as a literary unit, I'd suggest that "spirit" points towards the inclusivity of the passage, whereas "truth" points towards its exclusivity. Both of these are wrapped up in Jesus' status as Messiah. Worshipping in spirit means (at least) that physical location is no longer important, since we are to worship God where he is, namely everywhere. Worshipping in truth probably point back to Jesus' affirmation of salvation through the Jews, who know God.

I'm not sure if premodern readers would think of the literary logic of the passage the same way I do, but I bet they'd come out of it thinking something like, "Oh, so Jesus doesn't want us to worry about going to the right sanctuary. We're just supposed to worship the true God (the God of Israel), through him, wherever we are."

The key here (and the point of the whole story, I think) is that the salvation which comes from the Jews must be mediated through Israel's Messiah (4:25), and here we see him offering that salvation to outsiders.

This last part, where Jesus welcomes a huge crowd of non-Jews (probably to his disciples' dismay), was probably offensive or at least challenging to premodern Jewish believers. For premodern Gentile believers, it obviously was a striking affirmation of their inclusion in the Body of Christ.

Matthew said...

Randy said...
Is it possible your worldview needs to be tweaked?

I'm not sure how far it's possible to tweak one's worldview. Worldview is something that's ground into your psyche, and can't be changed at will.

But to clarify my position, it's not that I'm incapable of accepting the possibility of a "spiritual realm", it's that I have a hard time believing that beings that might exist in said realm regularly influence events in this one.

connor said...

"How do you think a premodern person would read it?"

First thought is that since God is spirit, he does not reside in a specific place, therefore you can worship him anywhere. Not so sure about the truth part so I'll just stick with scoots.

What seems to get me with these passages along with many others and discussions among Christians is that these words (spirit, spiritual, faith, etc.) seem to be meaningless. By meaningless, I'm saying that you can just throw them in anywhere and they will work. They lack anything that I can grab on to.

crystal said...

Check out st. Ignatius' discernment of spirits ... there are religious traditions that think the idea of spirits isn't just pre-modern :-)

Matthew said...

crystal said...
there are religious traditions that think the idea of spirits isn't just pre-modern

I guess that brings up a pertinent question: in talking about these spirits, are the biblical authors saying something literally true about how the world works ... something that should be interpreted the same way regardless of one's worldview?

I don't really think they are. Like Connor says, the word "spirit" doesn't seem to point to anything we have deep knowledge of. Instead, it seems to point to everything we *don't* have deep knowledge of. We may as well replace the word "spirit" with "something we can't predict or understand".

crystal said...

Matthew, I read an article today by David Hart, an eastern orthodox theologian, that on "theodicy" and which kind of speaks to your post a little. It's here if you get a chance to look at it.