Sunday, September 16, 2007

Salem's Trials

In the history class I'm presently taking we recently finished a book about the Salem witch trials entitled In the Devil's Snare. Several of the history folk in class didn't buy the author's thesis, nor did they enjoy her attempt to write in narrative rather than analytic form. Whether this disdain was due more to the author's skill or to the personal preferences of the others is a question I'll leave you to decide for yourself. In other words, you should pick the book up if you have any interest in Salem. If you don't, the read is still quite instructive on another level of interest, that of human nature and our relationship to the immaterial.

In our modern world most of us have a difficult time reconciling the immaterial or spiritual world with our own. So steeped are we in empirical science and agnostic secularism that we find intolerable or unimaginable the presence of "other-worldly" influence in our every day lives.

Of course, one significant reason for this apprehension could be considered more broadly legitimate. Human beings have a responsibility to uphold the law and protect each other from harms that come out of our depraved nature. The government is given the authority to wield the sword and it is also given the responsibility for upholding justice. But the difficulty is that human beings only have their reasoning powers and a limited amount of knowledge with which to judge any given circumstances. Doesn't the imposition of immaterial considerations make it impossible for us to judge the material actions and circumstances that occur?

I would argue that the situation is much more dire than this question admits. In fact, without a fixed standard for knowledge, a theory of epistemology that does not change, we cannot even be sure that the material world which we evaluate and judge is really something we know at all. Though the immaterial world is not visible and though we have no methods or tools by which we can measure its presence or influence, does it automatically follow that it does not exist or has no, or less influence upon the material world? Affirmative answers to this question have already presupposed the absence of immaterial influence, though no empiricism can prove it so. They say it cannot be falsified and is therefore irrelevant: it is like trying to prove that unicorns exist or do not exist. But what they fail to recognize is that they cannot prove that their empirical methods arrive at true statements about the world, that is, statements that cannot be falsified. The best science is still a guess from a limited amount of examples using estimates of measurement. The fact that their work is thorough, the fact that useful information and practices come out of their work, and the fact that so many people accept these probabilities as true does not negate the fact that history shows that science changes its mind about every fifty to one hundred years since Copernicus, Newton, Einstein and so on into the future.

Science cannot answer satisfactorily any questions about the immaterial world. This is not to say that scientific methods do not provide useful, indeed very useful, information and practices for the benefit of human society and nature at large. However, science does not have any claims that can be validated with certainty, nor does it take a serious interest in anything that is not measurable by natural instruments or means. One cannot measure, for example, the extent to which the Holy Spirit works to heal our bodies when we pray and ask for healing. Unbelieving scientists that dismiss such questions as absurd or unfalsifiable reveal their presuppositions that refuse to account for the immaterial. But science is still full of unexplainable mysteries, and the paradigms by which science advances its conclusions are subject to radical change, moment to moment. In short, most of science is the creation of the human intellect developed from the partial conclusions of inductive experimentation. Useful, but not certain, and certainly not certain to the extent that modern scientists and most Americans seem to espouse.

Still, Christianity, with its robust theories of the spiritual world and the interaction of angels, demons, Satan, and the Holy Spirit presents us with a history of strange and bazaar conclusions as well as methods of understanding. Salem's mixed population of Puritans and others in the midst of a frontier that faced them with famine and disease, friendly and hostile native americans, internal divisions, and strange occurrences had its own strange methods and conclusions for what went on in late 17th century New England. Those Christian rationalists, with whom I might be lumped, have difficulty unpacking the events of Salem, and especially the reasons why learned and unlearned alike found veracity in the claims of such young girls's claims of victimage.

But one can see where deviation from Scripture, its principles, and those conclusions which can be reasonably deduced; combined with the emotions of fear, anxiety, and so on can lead even the most rational of men and women into error. When the most trying circumstances come, we are still best served to cast all of our thought and will upon the Truth of Scripture, pleading with God's Spirit for illumination as to what we are to think and do. There is no other foundation of knowledge that is certain, and no other word that is more meet for faith and living.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Schleiermacher and Hermeneutics

I just finished Frederick Schleiermacher's Hermeneutics and Criticism and decided that it would be good to post a few of my observations.

Schleiermacher is a big name in the history of hermeneutics and is often cited as one of the frontrunners in what is sometimes referred to as scientific hermeneutics. Prior to scientific hermeneutics and the disciplines of higher and lower criticism the Christian Orthodox approach to interpreting Scripture (from Augustine through the Protestant Reformation and up to today) follows the principle of faith leading to understanding. That is, the fundamental presupposition of the interpreter in approaching the text is to assume its divine inspiration, including its unity of meaning and absence of contradictions. This has commonly been referred to as a hermeneutics of faith. Schleiermacher departs from this approach and follows what is called the hermeneutics of suspicion, which assumes a critical stance in approaching the act of interpretation. While critical approaches have made orthodoxy more sensitive to historical, textual and psychological considerations, on the whole the hermeneutics of suspicion has led to posit an authority that is prior to and therefore higher than the authority of Scripture.

One can clearly see the effects of a departure from the presupposition of faith to understanding in Schleiermacher's work. He makes an admirable effort at an exhaustive, comprehensive, and careful consideration of those principles and methods necessary for understanding the meaning of any text, and the Bible in particular. However, because he approaches with a critical assumption, several difficulties and inconsistencies arise in his approach.

One of his principles of interpretation is called divination, or divining, which attempts to put oneself in the thoughts of the original writer. This process is obviously subjective, psychological, and without a general principle of operation. He labels it an art rather than a technique, the former being approximate and probable at best whereas the latter is deductive and certain. It is, of course, vital for the interpreter to seek an understanding of the author's own thought in seeking to understand his meaning, but under this principle Schleiermacher would seek in include the whole of the writer's being in history--his general history and his internal emotion and will. He rightly recognizes the impossibility of unearthing these details, but he nonetheless emphasizes the effort.

This effort is partly caused by an insufficient understanding of the inspiration of Scripture by the Holy Spirit. Schleiermacher picks on certain views of inspirations that regard it as over and against the author's human intellect and will, but the orthodox doctrine of inspiration does not fit this characterization. Rather it recognizes the writer's full and unhindered use of his intellect, will, including any emotional states in the construction of his thought and the transmission of it into writing. God's meticulous Sovereignty includes the ordaining of secondary causes as means of orchestrating His Will in the individual lives and actions of human beings. Was it not God's Sovereign design that Moses be drawn from the water and educated by the best Egyptian teachers in language, history, etc.? Was it not God's Sovereignty that saw Joseph through every circumstance, including the false accusations of Potiphar's wife in order that he might find his way into the graces of Pharaoh? Certainly the hardening of Pharaoh's heart was accomplished by those external and internal circumstances that shapes Pharaoh's character into the resolute and stubborn quality it revealed itself to be. The Holy Spirit spoke through the personalities and intellectual capabilities of the authors of Scriptures so that God's own meaning was identical with their own, and that without what many have claimed as the "flaws" of being human. In my human frailty I may not recognize every implication of any proposition of Scripture, and it was not required of every writer that they know exhaustively each implication either. But that they would understand the meaning of their particular propositions to the extent to which they were true and non-contradictory with the larger whole does not require that we assume they would make mistakes, errors, or otherwise and we have the testimony of Scripture that the Holy Spirit provided the words where they were lacking.

The incomplete acceptance of inspiration leads Schleiermacher to delve into human psychology in order to unearth what is erroneous or accurate, or what was the particular meaning to the particular audience without acknowledgment (in my estimation) of the unity of Scripture. No one can deny the difficulty of rightly interpreting the logical connections between Old and New, or between Paul and Peter, for example. However, tracing these comparisons is possible by the use of logic when one assumes a unity of the whole of Scripture. This task is impossible when one seeks the subjective mind of the individual authors against each other. This is where criticism has sliced the Scriptures into various competing and contradictory pieces. Schleiermacher himself opposes the historical knowledge of Paul (in quoting a passage in Isaiah as Isaiah's own) to the modern higher criticism of his own age. Thus, the authority is shifted from Scripture to whatever standards of method (be they scientific, historiographic, philosophic, etc.) are presently acceptable to the sensibilities of men.

Though I am sure that they would disagree with me, those who dogmatically rely upon historical-grammatical interpretation alone without also consulting the overarching unity of Scripture fall prey to the same unpinning error that Schleiermacher is making, namely, the opposition of the human element of the writers and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Scriptures constitute a logical whole because God's mind is without contradiction. Application of a grammatical-historical approach without any acceptance of inspiration leads to the piecemeal derivations of liberal theology such as the documentary theories of the German higher critics. Those who retain inspiration but rely upon the grammatical-historical method alone seek to harmonize the unity of Scripture as God's Word while retaining the liberal assumption of fundamental dichotomies brought about by historical and cultural change. But this assumption is not warranted by Scripture itself, since the authors of the N.T. not only quote the O.T. for its prophetic validity, but appeal to it as the sole authority for those Jews and Gentiles whom they proclaimed the Gospel of Christ toward with conviction. Dispensational hermeneutics treat all N.T. use of the O.T. as prophetic fulfillment, prophetic promise, or applications of the moral law. But presuppositions of dichotomy drive this approach, just as the historical-critical presuppositions guided a figure like Schleiermacher.

Does it not seem more properly basic to recognize that God's message, like His mind, would be given as a pristine and comprehensible unity? How else could the N.T. writers appeal to the authority of the law and the prophets not only for daily living, but for the very doctrines that articulate the purpose of God in relating to humanity, what the Reformation theologians recognized as the overarching form of covenant. Covenant theology does not deny presuppositions in its approach to Scripture, for to do so would be to deny the possibility of rational thought. As creatures who have not been made with exhaustive knowledge, there is no other way to proceed to build a system of understanding without beginning with unprovable first principles. Methods of interpretation, like any system, require unprovable first principles. For instance, the principle assumption that meaning is transferable from one individual to another cannot be proven from epistemologically basic ground. If the orthodox Christian seeks to derive principles of interpretation for Scripture he must first ask how it is that Scripture understands itself to be? That requires one to treat the entire set of 66 books as a single unity, or otherwise find some principle, some starting point outside of Scripture. The coherence of the Old and New testaments (there was no division of old and new in terms of how the disciples of Jesus spoke about the writings and the authority of the written Scriptures. All distinctions of old and new were regarding the administration of God's grace--that is, the relationship of the believer (Jew or Gentile) to the Law in light of the revealed Christ) rests upon the principle that they are all the Word of God, which requires us to examine the nature of God to know in what way He communicates. Eternal decrees in the mind of God make little sense when we cut the continuity of Scripture into dichotomous portions. When the eternal nature of God and His message are subordinated to the limitations of created time we risk reading the human into the divine, rather than reading the human through the eternal Word of the Divine.

But I digress. :-D

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction

I just finished reading Flynn's introduction to Existentialism. Although he mainly focused on Sartre, he discussed Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Camus, De Beauvoir, Marceau, Merleau-Ponty, and a few others. This is the second of the Cambridge "Very Short Introductions" I have read and they provide a very helpful and (so far as I can tell) representative outline of the subject matter.

What is interesting to me about Existentialism is its contradictory poles of direction. One important result of Existential thought is the pervasive nihilism resulting from the inevitability of a fractured existence. But, the existential response to nihilism is not abandonment to it, but something of an "embrace," which accept the inevitability of existence while at the same time asserting the conscious choosing or willing to be what one is determined to be. Kierkegaard's "single individual" and Nietzsche's "ubermench" are examples of the will to be what "I" choose to be in the face of all other inevitabilities. Kierkegaard in particular felt the inevitability of what he called "Divine Governance" and because of its overwhelming presence in his mind he forsook marriage to his beloved as well as a quiet life pursuing a small parish pastorate.

But where Kierkegaard would emphasize a "better" way, many existential thinkers simply argue for the "different" way. Nietzsche denied absolute morality and thought that the true individual was free to choose whatever morality that individual saw fitting in response to the loss of any absolute directive. One would suspect anarchy to be the common denominator of such thinking, but existential thinking would deny this conclusion, because whatever common morality it might recognize at all must include the maximum freedom of choosing for each individual. Oppressive moralities would supposedly contradict this ideal construction and thereby be invalidated by existential sentiment.

So it would seem, on the face of it (and indeed, I think, at the bottom as well), that existentialism does not escape the necessity of positing absolutes when pressed to choose for themselves what ideal they would advocate under their philosophical title. And if they would deny this title it would still seem inevitable for them to choose an absolute. But perhaps the inevitability of such choosing it part of the pervasive nihilism ascribed to existence and though we are all to blame for "absolutizing" whatever morality we choose in the choosing of it over and against another choice, it is the existentialist who can push through the anguish of contradiction and the angst of guilt in asserting oneself over the other because at least the existentialist can recognize the seriousness of the situation and feel sorry for it.

But if my characterization seems too much like caricature, I can soften the blow by saying that I have much more yet to read before I can conscientiously come to any conclusions, tentative or otherwise. I do tend to pick on philosophies of life that assert, indeed hail contradictions as paradox, as mystery, or as the inescapable reality of human thinking. What would deny the necessity of clarity on deep questions of meaning and what would impugn certitude as prideful arrogance, while remaining certain of certitude's uncertainty as well as the pride of those who assert certitude as a thing to be desired, what would lead its followers into faith in the freedom to choose with conviction from a cesspool of arbitrariness deserves a bit of cheerful retort once in awhile, don't you think?