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An e-mail exchange

So email exchanges are sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and sometimes just weird.  I’m not sure which the following falls under:

It all began with this email from Dr. Scott Sunquist, our Missiology Professor:

Gentlemen:
I ran across this atheist’s web site and found this page helpful.  What do you think?  I don’t do much in this area, so I was looking for some quick resources to help my students when I do a brief section on interpretation in the postmodern context.
Thanks,
SWS
http://www.friesian.com/hermenut.htm

Which prompted this reply from my friend Matt Bell:

This page strikes me as a highly usuable summary, although I suspect that the last three paragraphs (which actually interest me the most) may be too abstract for some students (probably only the anti-intellectual ones, actually, but that number is considerable).  Many people are not used to thinking about thinking and find the exercise painful or even silly, yet this is the critical move that leads to the demise of foundationalism and the rise of various post-critical approaches such as postmodern radical deconstruction and its still post-critical opponents including critical realism.  (BTW, I’ve found McGrath very helpful in clarifying realistic approaches, and suspect he may be slightly more accessible, although considerably more verbose, than the webpage below)
 
“Give the devil an inch…” Since I’ve been invited to provide input, and since the last three (immensely interesting) paragraphs are precisely at the point of an extended and friendly debate between Wallace and myself, I’ll go ahead and say more just about those three.  The following is likely only of interest to him, so SWS — don’t worry about following the thread below.  I include this as part of my reply to you only for your entertainment.
 
Brian, it strikes me that your allergy to the phrase “objective truth” and love of postmodern communication strategies qua Franke and McLaren, is precisely an example of confusion of ontological truth and meaning.  Contra this, and to respond to your critiques of my insistence upon using the phrase “objective truth”, I actually do reject on a certain level all subject-object distinctions.  On a certain level, though not the radical one embraced by eastern monisms, I do accept as valid the statement, “I am the wall” or, rather, “I and the wall and all reality are integrated.”  There is a necessary degree of correspondance between thought and reality, inasmuch as human thought is contingent on the merciful presence of the divine Logos upholding all reality including the reality which is me myself and my conscious existence.
 
We are consistent at this difference: Your saying yesterday, “Julian of Norwich is wierd” contra my finding her not wierd is a case in point.  Julian’s core mystic insight is her the-en-pan-sim, her turning on its head pan-en-the-isms yet simulteneously rejecting all deism.  God is in everything, though not everything is yet in God as that awaits the eschaton when God will be all-in-all through the submission of all things to Christ who is himself subject to God the Father.  The Logos is the presence upholding all reality, including the supposedly inner, hidden world of my own subjectivity (c.f. Psalm 139).  With respect to knowledge, thsi means that knowledge of the wall is mediated to me by the Logos:
 
Wall <——-> Logos <——-> Me
 
The same Logos that upholds (and therefore constrains) the existence of the wall also uphold and therefore sets bounds upon my existence in all its particulars, including my awareness of self and other.  Thus, a logocentric final reality serves as ontological grounds for a radical realism in which certainty may be an ontologically grounded mental state and not an arbitrary and hubristic human dream.  Put in the terms we used in lab: No, I can’t get at anything apart from my subjectivity.  It does not follow however that I cannot know and speak of the objective truth of something.  My statements of reality are partially subjective and therefore subjective, but per the subject-object union grounded in the Logos, they may also truly reflect my object and therefore referential to objective truth or truths.  I would argue that this is Torrance’s mystical view of knowing present behind his onto-relational ontology of reality, and his absolute demand for rejection of all dualism, even the basic one subscribed to by the author of the webpage regarding the dualism of subject and object.
 
Per eschatological realism and sin, however, you have a strong point.  Athanasius points out that the incarnation of the Logos was due precisely the falling away of creation from God.  Sin is the disintegration of being (c.f. 2 Pet. 1, esp. in the Greek where participation in the divine nature stands opposite the disintegration of the cosmic reality).  Since this is what sin is ontologically, objects may become distanced from their mutual point of unity and unification in the Logos.  Subjective knowers such as ourselves experience this as confusion, frustration, the inability to know or be certain.  We cannot know autonomously: When we try to do so, that is to know apart from the Logos in which knowledge is grounded, we discover only that we cannot know.  We are like the heretics of Dante’s city Dis, ever knowing less and less until the eschaton.  Opposite this, those who are being redeemed receive the knowledge of Him who called them (again, c.f. 2 Pet. 1) and so discover a reintegration with themselves and the whole of reality.  In the Logos we should expect all things to snap back into place.  It is vital in this picture, of course, to point out with Panenburg that the kingdom is not yet: We know in part and prophesy in part.  The Christian as such is called to truly but not absolutely know.  We can be certain, but we must leave room for uncertainty as well.
 
Enough drivel from me!
 
Your mutual admirer in Christ,
Matt

To which I replied:

Greetings,I will respond in brief to the article and then to my dear friend.I think the article is well-done.  Some students will find it incoherent and difficult to understand, but it’s brief enough and straight-forward enough to be well used.As to my dear friend:1) I am not a deconstructionist to the extent that Derrida was, but I think Derrida does have a point in what he says.  Writing does take on a life of its own, apart from the intent of the author.  I blogged about a recent event that illustrated this to me http://wallybarthman.blogspot.com/2005/12/derrida-was-right.html  In this case, the issue was independent of the author’s intent, did one reading of the text offer a platform that would justify a woman staying in an abuse relationship.  From my read – of course not.  From another persons’ read, yes, very much so.  So rather than some deconstructionists who say that all interpretations are just as valid as the next (though I’ve never met one who actually believes and practices this) I find myself in agreement with the author of this piece who argues that there is a reality which governs interpretations.  Here’s the case of the governance at work.  One cannot say that Barth instructs pastors to tell women who are being abused to remain in the abusive relationship.  However, one could say that a certain reading of Barth gives just this impression, and that is problematic in my view.  Barth probably did not intend to do that (I would hope) but it happened none the less, regardless of his intent.2) As to the non-existence of objective-truth.  I do not deny the objective existence of the world, the world is not that which I want it to be.  I can’t merely pretend that there aren’t walls and thereby walk through them.  However, and this is where perhaps you and I differ (and perhaps I fall victim to individualism) but I can’t make an objective statement (this statement was in no way objective) about anything – behind everything I say or do there is some motive. (I think we’re in agreement here, I’m just trying to fill poor Sunquist in on the drivel that has preceded this).  However, I cannot for the life of me get my head around your arguments about becoming one with the wall.  That aside, I am somewhat convinced by the arguments of social constructionists, especially when it comes to the concepts of “culture”, that we live in a world of our own creation.  The culture in which we live is a product of human creation and we do not stand outside our culture, we stand very much apart of it.  After reading both of Franke’s books I think he pushed the social constructionist agenda further than I want to (this is partially because my science background reminds me that rocks fall the same regardless of who is dropping or measuring them) but I see fundamental differences between the “objects” of scientific inquiry and the “objects” of theological inquiry.  As I wrote in an email last week, the problem with McGrath’s approach to scientific theology is the nature of the object of inquiry aren’t the same.  While his statement “that which is embedded in the universe is embodied in the person of Jesus Christ” is beautiful and almost poetic here’s the problem.  I can, right now, drop a rock and measure it, touch it, feel it, etc.  In science we can recreate the experiments which produce the evidence we examine.  In theology this isn’t so.  We cannot go back and watch creation, we cannot go back and live in the worlds that produced the biblical texts, or sit at the church councils.  Our “icons” by which we seek to understand God in a theological sense are of a different nature than those by which we can understand God’s creation.  This all circles back to deconstructionism.  It is far easier for me to examine the authorial intent of Dr. Sunquist because I can go ask him questions.  This doesn’t work in biblical studies however, we can’t ask the authors (in the same manner in which I can ask Dr. Sunquist) what their intent was.  Rather, we must ask the author to guide our understanding and interpretation.  So what happens when the community’s appropriation of a text doesn’t match what we understand the author’s intent to be?  (See blog post http://wallybarthman.blogspot.com/2005/11/tonight-at-northmont.html).  Am I then to disregard the interpretation of the community because it contradicts what the majority of commentators have said the author’s intent was?  Can the Holy Spirit appropriate texts in new ways that go beyond the author’s intent?  I would hope so!  But, there we’ve begun to slide down the deconstructionist slide because we are allowing the text to take on a life of its own.  Okay, that’s enough drivel from me.- Brian

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. January 13, 2006 at 11:08 am

    In your post you raise two issues:

    1) Responding to my claim that there is a real subject/object union in the person of the Logos, you simply plead incomprehension. My apologies 🙂 I was unclear with my statement regarding becoming or being one with the wall. Perhaps there will always be persons for whom mystical ways of speaking will make sense and others for whom they will not; but I’ll try this again: There are ways in which things can be united without being each other, hence unitary frameworks in which monism is escaped. This is obviously the case with a Christian dogmatics, in which the Father is neither the Son nor the Spirit, the Son is neither the Father nor the Spirit, the Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son, and yet the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God and there is only one God. Similarly but not identically in Christian marriage, if the biblical statements are to be taken ontologically rather than metaphorically, the two spouses are distinct at the levels of both personhood and being but one at the level of flesh. You are the physisist and so may correct me, but light is both particle and wave yet particles are not waves and waves are not particles — another unity with distinction — and if the uncertainty principle holds ontologically this is also true for all bodies with any velocity whatsoever. Other things could be added.

    Thus, I would also suggest a unity between subjects and objects in the real world in which the distinction between things are also retained, and this unity is mediated by the Logos in which all things cohere. I would also state that this unity has a realized and future aspect, such that we may now know in part only. Perhaps this is an abuse of the scriptures, reading them as informing epistemology when such was obviously not the principle interest of the apostles and prophets (except, perhaps, in II Peter?), but I find the model engaging nontheless.

    More directly to your second set of points, you mention the problem of interpreting texts in ways that invite the participation of the community, and set that opposite the originally intended sense. I’m running, so I won’t comment, except that this is a sticky point you bring up! I’ll have to give it some thought. Perhaps we could interrogate Dr.’s H., P., S., and G. about it for their doubtlessly distinct reflections!

    As always, enjoying our exchange immensely.

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