Monday, September 18, 2006

Confessions of a Conservative Seminarian: Removing Tradition -- Clarity of Original Intent or an Attempt to Rewrite Christianity?

This post by cseminarian rang bells with me. And I think there's another error being made by the professors he refers to: the assumption that merely by discarding preconceptions, you are automatically prepared to see the text as the ancients saw it. The perspective differences between the ancients and us make that questionable. It's difficult enough to master the art of accurately listening to someone whose background and perpective differs from your own when that person is a contemporary and can give you feedback. Doing that across the distance of history is even harder.

The best preparation I know of for this is to develop said art in the here and now. In my case, God blessed me in this by redeeming my pre-conversion addiction to Fantasy/SciFi novels. Somewhere along the line I switched from "suspension of disbelief" (an expression I find fascinating - does that imply that most of us see disbelief as normal?) to "letting the story tell its story in its own terms". I may disagree with those terms, I may even find those terms horrific, but I'll agree to understand the terms and background the story is based on, rather than insisting on shoehorning it into my own terms and background.

That attitude can be shifted to people. In listening to people you agree to hear what they're saying in terms of their own background, assumptions and goals rather than insisting on fitting their words into yours. You don't agree to find their viewpoint as valid, but you do agree to try to see what they're trying to say from their own perspective.

This isn't easy, and may require abilities that some people simply don't have(carrying multiple perspectives in your head at once and keeping them straight isn't something everyone can do). But for those of us that can acquire it, this is a remarkably useful skill, profitable in a multitude of different areas. I at times wonder if you see this reflected in the introduction to the Psalms:
for attaining wisdom and discipline;
for understanding words of insight;
for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life,
doing what is right and just and fair;
for giving prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the young --
let the wise listen and add to their learning
and let the discerning get guidance --
for understanding proverbs and parables,
the sayings and riddles of the wise. (Pr 1:2-6 NIV)

If nothing else, this skill is invaluable if you end up involved in any way with counselling.

I can't give step-by-step instructions on learning this (because I didn't learn it that way), but Rule 1 is that miscommunication is extraordinarily easy, and can't be cured by precision of speech (as valuable as that is). You have to learn to spot the small clues that tell you that what you're hearing isn't what the speaker is trying to say, and let that alert you to check for background, assumption, perspective or terminological differences between you and the speaker, or to just plain ask for correction. Other than that, ask God to teach you and dive in. You'll make plenty of mistakes, but you'll learn from them. Along the way, you'll also get a much clearer idea of where your own particular perspective comes from (how can you contrast your perspective and the speaker's if you don't know where you're coming from?). You'll get a feel for how ordinary people communicate (which is often quite different from how scholars communicate). You'll learn to combine precision of concept with the imprecise way people often use words. And you'll figure out that sometimes you'll just have to admit you don't know, and wait for what it takes to give you clarity.

And you'll be much better prepared to read across those historical distances and actualy have a stab at getting what the ancients would have gotten out of it(not to mention following what the writer was getting at).


Anonymous said...

Hey, Oloryn,

Excellent post. There's not a lot I can add to your rationale for listening and seeking understanding.

I've been "haunting" the threads at Shepherd's Pulpit over the holidays, and I'm gradually disengaging from the rancor: mine and theirs.

I could be self-deceived, but I have sought genuine dialogue in those threads. I did find good dialogue with a fellow named Scott, but for the most part . . . well, I can't help but be reminded by the proverb, "A fool blurts out his folly."

The order in Proverbs seems to be (in ascending order) 1) knowledge, 2) insight, 3) understanding and 4)wisdom. If anyone deserves to be listened to instead of "barked at," it should be our fellow Christians. Of course, this listening is a dignity we should extend to everyone.

The power of life death resides in the tongue. The tongue can bring healing.

But before we can bring life and healing, we have to *listen* in order to know a person's true malady.

And the malady is probably NOT a question of being wrong on this or that issue or doctrine. Most people need to be valued, listened to, accepted, and loved.

There's plenty of criticism and vitriol to go around for everyone.

But there I go, pontificating again! I just want to give a Yea and Amen to you.

Oloryn said...

But before we can bring life and healing, we have to *listen* in order to know a person's true malady.

Jesus said "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free". It's long seemed to me to be a corallary of that that if you're cavalier about the truth about someone else's background, viewpoint, or motivations (a malady common to those who don't listen well), you may be disqualifying yourself as a vessel to bring freedom to that person.