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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Semi-Random Musings (4)

Dr. Jordan Peterson likes to say the Bible is “hyperlinked”, by which he means something along these lines: that the earlier writings inform the later ones, and the later writings explain the earlier ones. Despite having been written by numerous different authors, it’s one great connected web of spiritual information.

Without giving away everything IC and I expect to discuss this Friday, we’re taking a similar position on the subject of daily Bible reading: it takes all of God’s word to interpret any given portion of it accurately. Bits and pieces here and there will not get the job done.

Other Christians take a different view.

For instance, the writer of the blog post IC and I plan to discuss favors the Psalms and the Gospels while suggesting Christians not bother much with the Pentateuch, Old Testament history and the Minor Prophets. That sort of ‘stratification’ of God’s word sets readers up to fail miserably at understanding it.

For instance, just try to grasp the intended meaning of Psalm 46 in isolation from the rest of the Bible. Such passages are virtually impossible to interpret if we turn off the Holy Spirit’s “hyperlinks”. Consider this:
  • Without the prophecy of Zechariah, the psalmists’ assertion that “we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea” is just a neat poetic metaphor.
  • Without Ezekiel, the statement that “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High” is robbed of its potential for literal fulfillment.
  • Without the book of Revelation, good luck fully grasping the import of the words, “Come, behold the works of the Lord, how he has brought desolations on the earth.” You’ve only got what one might well consider hyperbole.
  • Without Isaiah, the declaration that “He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire” might as well be an overdramatic description of a bad day at the office. The only reason to recognize it as unambiguously apocalyptic is … the rest of your Bible.
But it gets worse:
  • Try to talk meaningfully about the phrase “the Lord of hosts” in verse 11 without ever having consulted the books of Exodus, Joshua and 1 Samuel, where it was coined. Good luck with that.
  • What does the expression “the God of Jacob” signify? Try comprehending that without the historical account in Genesis and the repeated references throughout the Minor Prophets. Your understanding will be at best a matter of personal opinion rather than the product of revelation.
The Christian who comes to passages of scripture like Psalm 46 determined to get something from them to strengthen her for the day without ever having glanced at the rest of the Bible ends up with essentially “God is our refuge and strength”. That might be good news during a trying day at home with the kids — and it’s certainly true — but it’s not really the primary reason for which the passage was written.

And we’ve never even asked the obvious question raised by the very first line of the psalm: who’s meant by “our”?

That matters a wee tad.

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Speaking of Professor Peterson, I’m getting just the tiniest bit tired of watching him bob and weave on YouTube when asked, “Do you believe in God?”

Peterson says he dislikes the question’s ambiguity and frets about its complexity. It requires, he says, that the questioner first find out whether he and his questionee agree on their definitions of the words “you”, “believe” and “God”. Most times, kicking up the intellectual dust around the subject of agreed-upon definitions allows Peterson to glide on to the next subject without having stopped to inquire either what the questioner means by these three words or explaining what he personally understands by them. Mission accomplished.

Hey, it’s really not that complicated. It’s possible to be way too clever for one’s own good, and perhaps this is one of those times.

I’m all for nailing down terms so that our conversations with one another have meaning, but I don’t think interacting on the subject of belief in God has to be so overwhelming a task that we shy away from it. Endless inquiries about the meaning of words can be a subtle form of obstructing the truth rather than genuine attempts to work through the complexities of communicating about abstractions.

That’s the beauty of the common man, if I may say so. He quickly recognizes evasion as evasion rather than being impressed by verbal sleight-of-hand.

Since the 1830s, Western legal systems have functioned more-or-less effectively on the basis of the Reasonable Person Test, which simply asks what the man on the street might be expected to do in any given situation; how the average guy would read it. So just for fun, let’s just apply the Reasonable Person Test to the question with which Dr. Peterson so struggles. What would Average Joe or Average Jane mean by it?

Suddenly it’s not so complicated, is it? I think we all know the answer. Let’s leave aside defining the word “you”, because Joe and Jane don’t stop to work their way through Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” in order to figure out what they means by words like “me” and “you”. Such things are obvious to them, and that’s not because they’re deliberately anti-intellectual.

Though we may express it in slightly different ways, when most of us dullards ask “Do you believe in God?” we are simply curious about one thing: Do you order your daily life in expectation that you will one day be called to account for it by a Higher Power of some sort? At least 80% of the time, I’m convinced, that’s all most of us are wondering.

That simple question can be answered in a single word, and I bet everyone knows their own answer to it right now.

The implications, of course, are pointed and very personal. You are either getting steamed at being asked such a question, or else you are perfectly at peace. In many cases, the intellect has to play smoke-and-mirrors to protect the stricken conscience, giving rise to evasions like evolutionary theory, post-modernism and other popular forms of bafflegab. And, hey, once you can answer the question to your own satisfaction, it may even be amusing to consider the mythological, psychological or existential questions the other 20% of the world might be asking when they pose such a question, or to bat around the difference between intellectual assent and saving faith. Feel free to go to it.

But that one question is what really matters.

As the risen Lord said to Saul of Tarsus, “ ’Tis hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”

Always has been. Always will be.

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