There was a time when many believed they could know truth without any partiality. That is, our modern mind believed that all essential truths were attainable in a purely objective manner. Whether it was in the field of science, religion, or else, there was a sense of infallible certainty in our knowledge.
Now those days are gone! And thankfully so, I might add!
French philosopher Jacques Derrida, writing as a postmodern deconstructionist, injected some needed humility to our modern mind. [Side Bar #1: I have only begun learning about the thought of Derrida, so I may be way off in my understanding of his point discussed here.] Derrida rejects the idea that we can know truth in a purely objective sense. Hence his famous line, “There is nothing outside the text” (Of Grammatology, p. 158).
Derrida’s point isn’t to say that we are only left a vague relativism, as though we can know nothing and that every claim of knowledge we make is just as true as all other claims. Rather, the point is that “interpretation is an inescapable part of being human and experiencing the world” (Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, p. 38). In other words, we are always interpreting within the life we seek to know and understand.
Now if we can remember this as we read the Bible!
We live nearly two-thousand years and many cultures apart from the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. Yet we believe the story of Jesus and believe he is the Son of God, who reigns as Lord. We believe because of the testimony of those first disciples who learned from Jesus, followed him to Jerusalem (even though they eventually denied knowing him), and saw him appear with their own eyes in his resurrected body. [Side Bar #2: N.T. Wright observes that in a span of one-hundred years, from AD 25 to AD 125, history emerged from absolutely no hint of a Christian movement to a movement large enough and significant enough that a pagan philosopher named Aristides regarded Christians as a fourth human race among the Barbarians, Greeks, and Jews (The New Testament and the People of God, p. 359). This is one reason why I believe that faith in Jesus Christ is a reasonable belief.] We also believe those disciples went around telling others their testimony, teaching what it meant for the way people should now live, writing about it to communities of people who became part of this Jesus movement, and that eventually some of their testimony, teachings, and writings were collected into a canon of scripture called the New Testament. Add to that the Old Testament and we have what we call the Bible, as a written testimony of how God is at work redeeming people in Jesus Christ and restoring his creation to be new creation.
Now almost two-milleniums and many cultures removed, we read the Bible but not as pure objective readers. We read with lenses, as people standing within a text. For some reading this blog, we share the same text. We belong to a Church of Christ and we’ve grown up in America, neither of which are bad but they both do provide particular lenses that shade how we read and understand (= interpret) the Bible.
Now how about a little humility!
This is one reason why we need to engage with other Christians outside of our own church tribe and national heritage. [Side Bar #3: I don’t like denominationalism, as I do not believe it is what Jesus intended for his church but it is the reality we live and it will never change so long as every denomination isolates itself as a sect believing they are the only true Christians.] Not a one of us nor the church tradition we are part of has a perfect understanding of the Bible and the Christian history (= tradition) it belongs too. Consequently, our practice of the Christian faith is never perfect which also means there isn’t any such thing as a perfectly restored church or group of churches.
We are right on some things and we are wrong on some things. Anyone who thinks they understand and abide perfectly by the teaching of scripture has forgotten the admonition of Paul to have “sober judgment” (cf. Rom 12:3). So we only stand to gain, to receive many rich blessings from God, by engaging with our fellow Christians of other church tribes. We can pray for them just as they can pray for us and we can teach them something just as they can teach us something. For we all must come to the table as seekers, who share a common confession that Jesus Christ is Lord, learning together that we may participate as the one body of Christ on mission with God.