As you probably know, Platinum members of the blog receive several additional perks — a quarterly webinar with me, a chance to provide a “guest post” for Platinum members only, and so on. After several of the guest posts have been posted, the Platinum members vote on one of them to be posted on the entire blog for all blog members to read.
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Here is the latest Platinum post winner, Frederick Ackun, who provides us with an unusually interesting set of reflections on issues related to faith, knowledge, and how to read the Bible — important matters for anyone interested in our blog.
Here is Frederick’s post. Enjoy!
In this post, I wish to share and elaborate a bit on some personal realizations I have made in my faith journey.
They are some of the main reasons why I am of the view that studying and acquiring knowledge about what we believe in is imperative. A faith system solely premised on theological presuppositions with no recourse to historical information can rub away context that would have otherwise provided a deeper appreciation of its narratives. The two keywords here are History and Theology; hence, it may be important to spell out a fundamental difference between these two terms in relation to the faith journey.
History is an attempt to reconstruct events in the past based on evidence and plausibilities. Theology, on the other hand, is interpreting history through one’s own beliefs and faith-based presuppositions. For example, a historian would provide a narrative that would piece together evidence and events from September 11, 2001 (9/11) by simply indicating that “there were series of attacks by the Wahhabi Terrorist Group Al Qaeda which resulted in the destruction of the World Trade Center Twin Towers, an attack on the Pentagon and a crash near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.”
A theological narrative, however, may include statements that cannot otherwise be verified or ascertained. For example, still concerning events of 9/11, a theologian may also narrate that it was the working of God to bring punishment to the American people for distancing themselves from him, a view that was held by some Christian faithful1. Theology may offer a hypothesis that cannot be tested with a secular instrument. Hence, we are therefore more likely to agree on evidence-based history than on theological thoughts.
It is interesting to note that, sometimes, the theological conclusions have little to do with the evidence and facts. All the same, we are completely at liberty to believe whatever we wish, but it is also equally important to come to knowledge through diligent study in the pursuit of truth, even and especially concerning matters of faith.
The approach I recommend is in no way to say that it is a better one than the rest of the approaches. I believe this approach will make one end up building a knowledgeable faith instead of an ignorant one. In the words of Prof John Dominic Crossan, “faith and fact, revelation, and reason, cannot contradict one another unless the human mind has misunderstood either or both”2. I believe that this statement was an attempt to juxtapose the worlds of History and Theology. Viewing Theology through a historical lens can enable us to correct many beliefs and interpretations, and to examine atrocities this world has suffered as a result of some religious faithful viewing the world only through a theological lens.
I will at this point share three observations I have made while devoting time to the study of the Bible and Ecclesiology (the origins of Christianity and its relation to Jesus) and what we find in our faith-world today:
- Most often, we read the Bible out of its Historical, Social, Cultural, and Literary contexts.
The Bible is a collection of different books, written by different authors who had different theological perspectives living at different periods (over 1000 years) and with different socio-political realities. It hardly presents as unified monolith in terms of its views, content, theology, and doctrine.
The Bible sometimes emphasizes the cultural and religious perspectives present at the time of writing. Sometimes, it is a borrowing of narratives that existed in the ancient world. Therefore, our understanding of the text may partly be due to how well we appreciate these various contexts. We are more likely to avoid misappropriating certain events and forcing them to be relevant in our lifetime if we are careful to note the cultural and societal mismatch.
It is also a book that employs different genres and diverse literary devices in its expressions, each of which needs to be understood in light of the writer’s time and cultural context.
Establishing these contexts may very well present to the reader of the Bible a good appreciation of the then-current political, geographical, social, and cultural worlds within which these stories exist.
- We then move on to read verses and chapters out of their biblical context.
Sometimes, readers pick and choose verses to emphasize their own thoughts and ideas. This leads to confirmation bias, or in a more technical sense ‘proof-texting’ – which may be defined as employing a verse to support one’s position or stance whiles ignoring background and contextual information. It presents bible verses in a stand-alone fashion. It occurs when biblical contexts are over-looked with no attention to how an event may have developed over earlier books or chapters or verses up to the particular verse(s) cited. ‘Cherry-picking’ across verses can be misleading if the reader or audience has no background knowledge of the biblical event.
- Idiosyncratic inclusions
After employing #1 and 2 (above), some readers then throw in their idiosyncratic views and make Biblical text mean something entirely different from what the authors of the Bible were intending to communicate. In this way, they come out with their own idealized theology.
I have also learnt that words only mean what they intend only when they are appreciated from the context within which they are expressed. When we lose context, words can be misappropriated to mean just about anything we want them to mean (both literally and metaphorically).
For readers of the Bible who come away with uncontextualized readings and interpretations, my only admonishment is that more can be learnt if the reading of scripture is rightly situated within its own historical, social, cultural, and political contexts. Much is waiting to be learnt in this approach. I, however, do not believe this should necessarily correlate to a loss or reduction in one’s faith. It should only align one on the trajectory of unbiased truths.
When we study scripture within its rightful context, new insights will be uncovered and if it calls for updating and or changing previous beliefs, then – why not? In any case, a careful study of some faith systems evidently portrays elements of evolution based on insights or what some may term ‘progressive revelation’.
I believe that even in our disagreements on the reading and interpretation of the text, we should always seize opportunities to acquire knowledge and learn.
Regardless of the field, I believe we should seek knowledge. Personally, the more I know, the humbler I become, because the more you know, the more you realize that there is to know. This realization naturally makes you a humble student in this school of life.
1 Christianity Today (2007, August 29). Jerry Falwell was right. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/august/24.55.html
2 John Dominic Crossan (2017). Who is Jesus? Answers to your questions about the historical Jesus. https://www.johndominiccrossan.com/Who%20Is%20Jesus.htm