369. what we talk about when we talk about God (part 3)
So believe it or not, this monster post was supposed to be just the introduction to what I really wanted to talk about (belief in God-as-love… see the previous post in the series). But then the introduction kept ballooning and now this post is over 2,000 words long. My bad.
In this post, I’m basically describing a new (to me) way of reading the Bible – one that emphasizes love and relationship rather than morals. It can get a bit technical and/or tedious at some points – feel free to skim over those bits – but try to make it to the end because the post ends with a surprising, provocative little kicker.
As always, would love to hear your thoughts/ comments/cries-of-heresy in the comments.
I want to geek out for a bit and talk about hermeneutics – the study of how we interpret and/or read texts. Most people have what I’m going to call a transparent hermeneutic, that is to say, most people read unaware of how they are reading/interpreting whatever is in front of them (novel, newspaper, tweet, billboard, etc.). However, in the past couple hundred years or so, philosophers and linguists have thought and written a lot about what happens as we read. They’ve taken a very close, very careful look at what happens in that space between the text (words on the page or screen) and the reader. What they found is that this space is immense (if not infinite).
(They also say that there’s an immense space between the author and the text, but I won’t go into that here.)
Think about the current debate about gay marriage. People who are for gay marriage approach biblical texts that talk about homosexuality differently than those who are against gay marriage. They often read the same passages but come away from them with vastly different interpretations and that’s because they’re both applying a different hermeneutic to the Bible. So perhaps the next question is, which is the correct one? Well, that’s where things start to get really complicated. Because here’s the thing.
There is no one, right hermeneutic (singular). There’s only hermeneutics (plural).
The French philosopher, Derrida is famous for saying, “there is nothing outside the text.” One way of understanding this phrase is to say that there is no singular, overarching meaning that exists outside (apart from) the text. Every reading of any given text is an interpretation and each interpretation is influenced by the hermeneutic the reader brings to the text. There is no such thing as a neutral, unbiased reading because every reader (even those who are striving to be critically aware of how they are reading) brings their unique selves (their gender, class, ethnicity, their histories and experiences) to what they’re reading. Derrida’s work eventually became systematized in what’s become known as deconstruction – a way of analyzing texts that seeks to pay attention to the many factors that go into any and all interpretations of them.
Some critics of deconstruction say that it leads to meaninglessness or nihilism. If there is no one right way to understand what has been written, then doesn’t that mean that meaning is impossible? Not really.
Think of wine tasters. Twenty different people (even twenty different professional sommeliers) taste one bottle of wine. Each of them comes away with a different description (interpretation) of the wine. They might even come away with completely contradictory conclusions about the quality of the wine, but that doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as wine or taste or that the palates of the tasters are unreliable. All it means is that tasting wine is a complex experience (which is part of what makes it so great) and any description of that experience will be subjective. There is no one, universal taste descriptor for a bottle of wine. And so, you might say, there is nothing outside the wine.
Now let’s go back to the discussion about gay marriage. Some read the Bible with what I’ll call a hermeneutic of morals – they read the Bible primarily as a text about right and wrong behavior. Thus, when they come across a passage like Romans 1:26-27, that talks about homosexuality as sin, a light goes off in their head and they automatically think, oh, Paul says homosexual behavior is wrong, therefore it’s sin, and that’s that.
Now this seems like a straightforward way to read the Bible, but something odd happens when they come to other verses that talk about right and wrong. Let’s take 1 Corinthians 11:5 where Paul says that women shouldn’t leave their heads uncovered when praying. Now this seems to be another clear, moral teaching from the Bible, but even the most conservative, hardline churches don’t require women in attendance to wear head coverings – they don’t read this passage in the same straightforward way they do the Romans text. So what’s happening?
Well most of these churches would say that they have a nuanced moral hermeneutic – one that leaves room for cultural exceptions. They would say that there was something about women in the Corinthian church culture to whom Paul was writing that made head covering problematic and so that’s why he gave them that instruction; however, we no longer live in a culture where that is a problem so we don’t have to abide by that rule today. But then you ask them about applying that same cultural, hermeneutical nuance to the Romans passage, and you find that they either have yet another nuanced stance or that the nuance doesn’t apply.
And I want to suggest that when you start seeing these kinds of hermeneutical gymnastics happening, you might want to question the system at play. Again, I’m not suggesting that there’s such a thing as a perfect system of interpretation – every way of reading an ancient text like the Bible will require some level of contextual, historical reworking – but I do want to point out how and why one might begin to question any given hermeneutical approach. If you see a lot of hermeneutical shifting and dancing when the passage at hand changes, you might want to question whether the hermeneutic is a consistent one, or at least question the reasons why different approaches are taken (and who gets to decide).
As for me and my hermeneutic, I would like to suggest that
- if, as stated earlier, God is love,
- and if the Bible is a text whose primary purpose is to speak about that God,
- then perhaps we should approach the Bible with a hermeneutic of love.
But don’t just take my word for it. Take a look at Matthew 22:36-40 (TNIV).
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
I want to suggest that based on this passage, the primary message of the Bible is love. Therefore, love of God and neighbor should be the beginning point of all Christian hermeneutics.
I also want to suggest that the commandments aren’t just about developing an abstract, individualistic sense or feeling of love. The love that’s spoken of in those two commandments is love in the context of relationship – love of God and love of neighbor. In my previous post in this series, I wrote that love is not a thing in and of itself. One can’t just decide to love on one’s own, because love is always something that happens in relationship.
Put all this together and we get a picture of God as primarily concerned with love in the context of relationships. This suggests that the overarching point of the Bible is to help us to both know God as loving and relational and to help us live in loving relationship with our neighbors.
Earlier in this post, I said that people who have a hermeneutic of morals apply one nuanced approach when reading a passage like Romans 1:26-27 (which they read as saying that the practice of homosexuality is wrong regardless of cultural context) but apply a different nuanced approach to a verse like 1 Corinthians 11:5 which says that women should pray with their heads covered (they would say that this verse only applies to the historical situation in the first century church of Corinth).
Now if we approach these texts with a hermeneutic of love, I don’t think we need to do this kind of interpretational dancing – we can use the same hermeneutic (sans nuance) to both passages. Whereas the moral reading applies a historical context onto one passage and not the other, I would say that a hermeneutic of (relational) love requires us to always take the historical context into account. Every commandment has to be read in the context in which it was given.
A hermeneutic of love doesn’t interpret the Bible beginning with the question, “what’s right or wrong here,” it begins with the question, “what does this passage have to say about love in relationship?”
With both the Romans passage and the 1 Corinthians passage, I would suggest that there was something about the practice of homosexuality in Greek culture and women praying without their heads covered in Corinth that had something to do (in those historical contexts) with getting in the way of loving relationships. The point of both passages is not about right or wrong behavior per se, it’s about the breaking of loving relationship. What we need to pay attention to is not what’s right or wrong, but what’s breaking relationship.
In the case of the Romans passage, I would argue that a hermeneutic of love would read that passage not as a condemnation of all homosexual acts, rather, it condemns “unnatural” (v. 26) and “shameful” (v. 27) acts – it just so happens that in this case, Paul is speaking of homosexuals acting shamefully and unnaturally, but heterosexuals can also behave shamefully and unnaturally.
Now the exact nature of what was shameful or unnatural isn’t specified, but read with a hermeneutic of love/relationship, I think they can be understood as relationship-breaking acts. Stated more plainly, I would argue that Paul here is talking about casual or promiscuous sex as shameful and unnatural. Read in the context of what the rest of the Bible says about it, sex is designed as the pinnacle of a loving, committed relationship. Casual, meaningless sex (regardless of who’s participating in it – straight or gay) is shameful and unnatural because it perverts the purpose of sex.
The gay marriage debate is not about this kind of shameful, unnatural casual sex. Same-sex couples are wanting the exact opposite of that – they desperately want to enter into committed, loving relationships and I say more power to them! Any barriers we (the church, society, government, etc.) place between people who want to enter into loving relationship with one another is what’s shameful and unnatural. It’s also sinful.
And yeah, I realize that that’s a radically different approach to the Bible than most people are familiar with (or maybe not, it’s certainly a new approach for me). And as I’ve stated repeatedly, I’m not saying that this way is the one right way to read the Bible, but I do think that reading the Bible through the eyes of love helps harmonize formerly conflicting passages. It’s certainly reawakened me to the possibilities of the biblical text – it’s come alive to me in a way that the moral reading I was raised with never did.
A few last things:
- This hermeneutic of love is something I’ve come to in part through reading Peter Rollins, and partly as I’ve begun to study something called process theology.
- I’ll have lots more to say about process theology (and Peter Rollins) in future posts. Stay tuned!
- If anyone has suggestions on other theologians who talk about this sort of relational hermeneutic, please let me know – I’m really wanting to explore this way of reading.
- Lastly, as a reward for making it all the way through this lumbering post, I give you this completely unrelated, but hilariously-feel-good video (be sure to click on the closed caption [cc] to get the translation):