Today I engaged in a discussion with someone online, as they shared their interactions around language and interpretation of language. I wanted to share my side of the conversation, as I feel like I spent a good amount of time and thought on it.
I present these snippets here with some trepidation, as many people probably don’t know about this side of me. However, this is a glimpse into who I am and I feel that I made my point well.
My first response:
Love this. In a past version of my life I got a Master’s degree in theology. A big part of that was learning how to read ancient texts. When you get past the typical Sunday morning armchair theology of the modern evangelical individual, you find that academia is rife with nuanced interpretations of scripture. Not to get too deep into religious things here, but in the academic study of the bible you need to look at the context in which it was written. For example, trying to read the story of creation in Genesis as a literal, historical, accounting falls apart when you understand the anthropological context in which it was written.
All this to say that understanding what people say needs to go hand in hand with who is saying it. The context and culture surrounding the words that people use needs to be taken into account when trying to understand someone. We do this naturally, everyday, with people close to us in our lives. However, their stories are often similar to our own, and it’s easier to understand. When we are confronted with someone who has a completely different background, culture, and history, than us we struggle to understand their words, even if they’re the same language. I see this more and more as I get older, and at the same time I need to check myself all the time on my own biases. If I want to understand what ‘the other’ is saying, I need to understand ‘the other’.
But as I type that, I even see how the use of the word other is loaded and could form the basis of a whole different path of unpacking.
Great stuff to keep thinking about. Thank you so much for sharing this!
This individual then asked me to unpack my thoughts on evangelicals, and made the statement that it seems like all evangelicals believe you’re either with them, or against them. They lamented some of the beauty of the mythos of Christianity, but saw it lost in the way it was lived out.
I responded thus:
Generally I try to avoid generalizations, especially in matters of religion, but, your statement is reasonably accurate. I’ll try to unpack this without writing a novel, but basically my religious journey started in evangelicalism, moved into more moderate mainstream Christianity (think Methodist or Lutheran), and then back to evangelicalism before I pushed the nuclear button and went full Roman Catholic. That might sound really odd, especially when you consider some of the crazy things various bishops say, but I found myself at a crossroads; it was either Catholicism or atheism. I found myself asking this question because I could no longer accept a faith that was so driven by adherence to a single historical text that it missed the bigger picture. In evangelicalism the gold standard is the bible, and the bible guides life. Tradition, history, culture… all of these things are either very, very secondary (at best) or shunned (at worst) in the evangelical worldview. If you want to know God, everything you need to know is in scripture.
Even when I was studying in an evangelical graduate school we were taught to put a critical eye towards scripture. We needed to understand the historical, and cultural, context that scripture was written within. It’s not a mistake that the New Testament was written in koine greek; a dialect(?) of greek that was distinct from classical greek. Koine greek was chosen because it was the language of commerce throughout the middle east and the mediterranean. It was the best vehicle to spread the word, which was the primary purpose of the apostles. When you understand that the apostles were trying to communicate a message to certain people, in a certain place, at a certain time, it changes how you read what they wrote. There are reason that many moral issues are not addressed in scripture; they simply never came up, or weren’t relevant. Therefore, we do a big disservice to the history of the text when we try to read our current context into what was written thousands of years ago.
I say all this because in Roman Catholicism scripture is held up against tradition in a balance that creates something that feels more ‘real’ to me. Scripture is still the primary source of knowledge about God, but it is interpreted in light of the 2000 years of tradition and history that have followed it. Modern evangelicalism is only a couple hundred years old, and has no deep tradition to draw upon. This is why in the Catholic church you get crazy stuff like saints who can fly, and pieces of flesh that never rot. These are artifacts of the tradition of the faith, from the time it lived and breathed, despite being silly and dumb by today’s standards.
The Catholic church in America (in particular) seems to want to align itself with the evangelical movement, but this is just a moment in time. I look at Pope Francis and see hope for a church of the future that will continue to grow with the society around it. My hope may be misplaced, but hope is what keeps many of us getting up every day. The church has been used as a weapon of war at times throughout history, almost as often as it has been used as a vehicle for peace and servitude. But, it’s also a faith that teaches that despite proclaiming that the way of faith is through Christ, as humans we can never limit the power of God, and others may come to salvation through another path. It’s a small tiny tidbit in the catechism, but it gives me hope. As I mentioned above… for me the other choice is rejection of it all and taking the path of the loving atheist.
Now, having typed all this I should add the disclaimer that I rarely go to mass, and I’m married to an atheist, and am pretty dang liberal politically. I often feel that evangelicalism is ruining the faith, precisely because of what you state about their view that the world is divided into those who are with God, and those who are against God. It hasn’t always been this way though, and history is littered with examples of amazing scientists who did what they did because of their desire to study God’s creation. Even Newton wrote hundreds of pages on theology in addition to his science. Yet, the evangelical church will have you believe that science is a myth, and that anyone who disagrees with scripture is a heathen.
That’s not the type of faith that I read in scripture, nor see in the lives of sacrificial people. I fully agree that it’s sad to see how much beauty has been co-opted by the desire to set ourselves up against another. I just hope that this current reactionary hatred eventually turns back to more rational and sane view of love and acceptance of others.
Hopefully, I got to what you were asking. Or maybe I just needed to vent a bit 🙂
The conversation is hopefully continuing, but I felt like this would be a good contribution to my writing journey today.