Monday, March 02, 2009

A dangerous question

The serpent said to the woman, 'Did God say, "You shall not eat of any tree of the garden"?' (Genesis 3.1b)

"What is the real evil in this question? It is not that it is asked at all. Is it that the false answer is contained within it, that within it is attacked the basic attitude of the creature towards the Creator. Man is expected to be judge of God's word instead of simply hearing and doing it. This is accomplished as follows. On the basis of an idea, a principle, some previously gained knowledge about God, man is now to judge God's concrete Word. When man proceeds against the concrete Word of God with the weapon of a principle, with an idea of God, he is in the right from the first, he becomes God's master, he has left the path of obedience, he has withdrawn from God's addressing him."

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, Chapter Three.

Which ideas of God are we in danger of using to escape from his concrete word to us in Christ?

Could it be the (thoroughly biblical) notion that "God is love" (1 John 4.8, 16), which we fill with our conception of love, rather than allowing God in Christ to define it ("this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and gave his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins" - 1 John 4.10)? Or could it be a notion that God must be just and so we demand that he conform to our standards of justice?

Could it be that God is mystery, and so can not speak a word to us that we might understand? Or could it be that God reveals himself and so everything about him must be clear, any hint of mystery must be banished through rational exegesis?

What do you think?


Aric Clark said...

Perhaps I am misunderstanding, but I think that the only thing evil or dangerous here is that someone would think it was evil or dangerous to ask questions or come to the Word of God with principles. Even the principle that we ought to be in a position of obedience waiting to be addressed by the Word of God is a "principle" of interpretation. There is no reading without pre-existent philosophical undergirding. Indeed, it is essential, otherwise you might get ANYTHING from the text. Certain principles are crucial and DO come before any "word" that we might imagine we are hearing. We cannot have an empty concept of love, which we wait on God in Christ to fill. Love already has content which is cultural and linguistic and indubitably varies among times and places, but nevertheless is no blank slate.

byron smith said...

Thanks for your thoughtful response, Aric. Notice that Bonhoeffer carefully says that asking questions is not wrong. It is the assumption in the question that humanity is to stand in judgement upon the Word of God that is the problem. Of course we come to the Word with our assumptions. But do we allow these assumptions to be shaped by what we find there? What we find will, of course, be influenced by our assumptions, but these are not a closed circle (or ought not to be) and so we can be struck by a genuine encounter that confronts us. We do not only see our own reflection; the word we hear is not simply an echo of our own thoughts.

Aric Clark said...

I agree that, through faith, the Word of God is more than an echo of our own thoughts and possibilities for genuine encounter exist, though I am deeply skeptical of ascribing any kind of agency to the texts of scripture. Nevertheless the possibility that they might serve as a genuine vehicle for the voice of the Holy Spirit is there. In encountering the Holy Spirit I think it is safe to say that our assumptions can (and will) be changed, whether we were intitially "open" to it or not.

However, I disagree that it is a problem for humanity to stand in judgement upon the Word of God. How can we not? How do we even decide if we are in fact encountering the Word of God? What is the objective criterion? We must, in fact, have some principles for determining what is and what isn't of God. Such principles are able to be amended, but it remains true that we use some means of determining for ourselves whether what we are hearing is true or not and to what degree.

gbroughto said...

Whilst sympathetic to Aric's concerns, given that too much listening to God's word is based on unexamined assumptions, I have come to the conclusion (after a fair bit of time studying "speech" in the Scriptures) that God's word is always the first, originating speech and that human speech is always responsive to a prior word.

I have come to this conclusion not exclusively for theological reasons, it is also after careful consideration of philosophers of dialogue (particularly Buber, Levinas and Ricoeur) and philosophical hermeneutics (particularly Gadamer and Habermas).

My conclusions actually reinforce some of what both Aric and Byron affirm - namely the importance of the question. In fact, the question may be one of the more essential dimensions of a human being's responsive speech, as questions themselves necessarily presuppose a word (or, I guess a speaking being) to address.

Added to this is the irreducible 'freedom' of the responsive word of humans to God (or each other)