Quote of the Week

“I think the primary difficulty of allowing the Bible to shape reality is that reality is something that has to be interpreted to begin with. For the sake of all my materialist friends out there, yes, I believe there is a reality that is not constructed by language, but knowing that reality given the limitations of language is…I want to say impossible, but let’s settle for damn near impossible. When a kid first starts learning religious language, she will ask, “What does ‘saved’ mean?” At that point Christians want to believe they refer to a text to provide a definition. In fact, they refer to a text that is first an experience, and then an interpretation, and then an attempt to communicate, and is finally an attempt to understand the communication (which has been interpreted for us, by the way). Even if you believe God provided the experience and the interpretation and the communication, you can’t avoid the difficulty of interpreting events and trying to assign meaning based upon the lack of prior experience. (To argue that God is capable is no argument at all. Classic theists believe God is capable of doing many things he doesn’t do, like stop hunger.) When Moses finds a burning bush, he doesn’t access a database of prior burning bush experiences that interpret the event for him. When someone encounters God in some transcendent experience, they are without a database of experiences and vocabulary. We have to use the tools we’ve been given. That means we sift through the available texts looking for something that looks like what we’ve experienced. The vocabulary is preselected, and each word contains meanings and nuances that militate against an accurate portrayal of the actual events. We are creatures of metaphor. Language is dependent upon it.

The Bible doesn’t provide a communication that stands outside the rules of interpretation and meaning. In fact, the Bible is a product of people trying to interpret the meaning of events. What else is the New Testament if not an attempt to sort out the meaning of the resurrection? So, along comes a Jesus guy who says odd things about God and life. Everyone tries to impose their own understanding on the event, and yet, here we are arguing about it two millenia later. We take words from Scripture and we use them based on meanings we’ve been taught. There is no bank of information available to give meaning to words. Experience gives meaning to words, just as experience is part of any interpretation, and then we use words to explain experiences, but the words shape the meaning of the experience in ways we can’t control.

So, a community comes together and they say, “We are going to say x means x, and the words we will use to describe x are y and z. Our collective understanding of this experience is that we should talk about it using x, y, and z.” An outsider would rightly say, “But I didn’t experience x.” The community responds, “We know, but you have to experience that to understand y and z, and if you don’t experience it, then you need to trust us, on faith, that we are telling you the truth about x, y, and z.” So now the outside tries to experience something akin to the community-forming experience. If it’s similar, he will readily use x, y, and z to talk about it. If it’s not, he will look for other words, and if he uses those other words with the community, meaning will break down and eventually fellowship. So, if the outsider has a stubborn nature, he will say, well x is actually my experience of x. The other is false.” Or we could try saying that much can’t be known.” (The Parish)


4 thoughts on “Quote of the Week

  1. I think it is a human need to put a name on what we experience, which is a problem when what we experience is impossible for us to fully comprehend. Mystical and religious experiences are beyond our limited human understanding, but we try to describe them anyway because that’s what humans do, and then, once we have done so, we often make idols of that naming process. That’s where the process breaks down.

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