Thursday, September 17, 2009

Relativism lurks on the street corners.

I used to work a street corner in downtown Tacoma a couple years ago. One night I got slapped in the face on what was an otherwise peaceful evening. To quickly clarify, my job on the street corner was to valet-park cars for a 4-star restaurant. And the slap was a metaphorical slap, delivered in the form of relativistic philosophy.

What exactly was the slap, you ask? Well, let me explain. You see, valets tend to have a lot of time standing around at work, and I got into an interesting conversation with the lady I worked alongside that particular night. She had been part of an evangelical church at one time, she informed me, but she stopped going because the leaders at the church kept telling her that her interpretations of the Bible were wrong, and they acted like they had the right interpretation figured out. For example, this lady was a vegetarian, and had been her whole life, because she didn’t want animals to die on her account. So when she read the ten commandments and saw, “Thou shalt not kill,” she took that to apply to all living creatures, not just humans. She was insulted that the teachers at her church would be so close-minded as to say her interpretation was wrong, when the teachers’ views were just their own interpretations anyway.

As a seminary student who had already completed two classes with Dr. Willsey, the Yoda of hermeneutics in the Pacific Northwest, I felt pretty prepared to give a good explanation to her. I pointed out that in other parts of Moses’ writings, we see that all animals were created by God’s spoken word, but humans were fashioned specially in God’s image. After the flood, God made a covenant with Noah that permitted humans to eat animals as food, but warned that anyone who killed another person would be killed by another person. In addition, the people of Israel were expressly instructed to kill some animals as sacrifices in other parts of the Law. While this doesn’t say that being vegetarian is necessarily bad, the command not to kill can’t accurately be applied to animals as well as humans. After I finished my careful exposition, my coworker looked at me, smiled sweetly, and said, “That’s just your interpretation.”

I was dumbfounded. Thankfully, a customer called for us to get a car at that moment, so my lack of words wasn’t as noticeable. I went home that night turning the conversation over in my mind, with my figurative cheek figuratively smarting. I knew something was seriously wrong with what she had said, but I didn’t know how to answer without making dogmatic assertions that just further proved her point. I’ve done a little thinking and discussing since then on how to answer the great postmodern skeptic’s catch-all phrase, “That’s just your interpretation.”

I realized that some fundamental flaws are associated with this statement. First, “interpretation” is used in such a way that the word “misinterpretation” would become extinct if we all followed this definition. Doesn’t it seem that, if anyone knew what an author meant by what they said, the most likely person would be the author? So if we find other statements from the author that help us to understand the statement in question, an interpretation that takes these into account should be given more weight. Claiming to have a more accurate interpretation may get me labeled as arrogant, because I am ruling out other people’s interpretations. But if we rule out the author’s explanation of his or her own meaning in favor of our own interpretations, isn’t that arrogant as well? Try this simple test: interrupt your best friend or significant other when they are talking, tell them that you know what they mean and explain an idea in your head that’s loosely related, but very different. Then, if they try to explain themselves further, rudely ignore them by saying that you rinterpretation is right for you and they can’t tell you it’s wrong. Interpreting when an author is not present to speak up and clarify is obviously more difficult, but let’s give merit to what they have said in writing, not completely ignore it and pretend that won’t affect our understanding of their message.

I’m not arguing for absolute certainty, I’m just saying there’s a limit to the range of interpretations that are valid. In many cases we don’t know for certain which interpretation is completely accurate, but we do know that some are definitely better than others. Take a math equation for an example. You can take the same numbers and arrange them in a lot of different ways, performing different operations on them. As long as we agree on the values of numbers and follow rules like the order of operations, we can get to an answer in a variety of different ways.


But if a math student misunderstood a problem and changed the symbols around, they could use the same numbers to get to a very different answer.


“Checking our math” on interpretations is a good thing. In a variety of interpretations, each person can help spot the others’ “miscalculations” or misappropriated symbols. But, please, if someone tells you 2(4)=24, don’t just smile and tell them that they are entitled to their opinion. That’s the kind of stuff that will make computers, airplanes, and financial markets crash. Put the interpretation together how you want within the range of merit and validity, but don’t be so arrogant as to defy reality when someone points out the problems with your approach.

Am I too late? Perhaps postmodernism is too far past for this to be relevant. The fact that we can label and describe a way of thinking may well mean that it has past its prime, at least in academic trends (even if the label is rather non-descriptive). Even though the evangelical world is still enthralled with the terms and it makes us feel cutting edge to add “post-“ to the beginning of our cultural descriptors, we may see ths issues pass off the scene just as we’re developing some really good answers for them. But the ideas will still have impact on people for years to come, whether through acceptance or reaction.

Using logic and words to refute the claim that logic and words are meaningless may seem like an exercise in futility. A truly consistent relativist would reject it. But the reality is, there aren’t truly consistent relativists. Skepticism of knowledge and meaning is limited to a couple of categories – literature and religion - and most people who use our phrase in question are just repeating something they heard, and haven’t really thought through its implications. For example, try questioning whether evolutionary theory or global warming science are credible, and see how relativistic your skeptic becomes. In reality we have to make decisions about how we will behave and function, and when we make most of those decisions, we don’t do it with the mindset that any path is as good as any other, but we weigh how the options will affect our circumstances, finances, emotions, future, etc. While none of us can predict or control the future, yet we look for a warranted belief that the course of action we are choosing will have desirable outcomes. And this is what we are looking for in evaluating interpretations of a text. We want to eliminate misinterpretations as invalid, not even giving them the dignity of the title “interpretation” or placing them within the range of validity. And we want to look at the warrants of the other interpretations, knowing full well that there may be a couple with virtually equal levels of warrant, which we can never decide between with certainty. But that doesn’t mean they’re equal to all others.

Do we have the proper interpretation of Scripture locked in a dogmatic box? No. But do we have grammatical, literary, historical and cultural evidence that places our interpretations within a range of validity? I certainly hope so. If there are no warrants, be like Hus, Wycliffe, or Luther and question authority. If there aren’t, quit locking up your own mind without any warrant.


Anonymous said...

congratulations nate. you have just become my featured blogger on my next post. love this!!!

faithbornfromdoubt said...

Good job Nate. It's always difficult to answer these people, not because you feel especially stumped by the genius of their answers but because their philosophy is so extremely obnoxious and refuses to acknowledge the relevancy of any view but their own. It sucks when they can just say to anything you say, "That's just your interpretation."

Your illustration of interrupting a loved one is genius because it gets right at the heart of one the primary motivating factors for people of her stripe. She wants to be heard and she wants her opinion to be respected and valued. Your illustration shows how her own philosophy, if consistently applied, is actually the exact opposite of what she wants. She is refusing to hear and accept the intended message of the author by forcing her own viewpoint upon his writings. But she wants her viewpoint to be heard and respected. You exploit the inconsistency in a way that is obvious and easy to understand.