You Are Not Neutral

Tell me honestly, when you grab your trusty, well-thumbed Bible, do you ever think of how distant it is from you? It’s easy to forget that your handy, bound book is the product of thousands of years of work by hundreds of thousands of people. It’s all too simple to forget that between Jesus preaching on the Mount and your eyes seeing his red words are the hands, voices, and minds of storytellers, authors, copyists, translators, even more translators, editors, and finally you. And then we haven’t even mentioned the distance in time and place between first-century Galilee and twenty-first century wherever you are!


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/11607
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The term positionality is new to me…but the idea is not lol seems like implicit bias. Which I agree, we all have and it’s impossible to do away completely with it. For this reason it’s even more important to take the Bible at its word. Even when it goes against My positional viewpoint.

I like the example the author uses about race, I, as a non African American, may view the BLM movement as an exaggeration because I’m not black. But at the same time, an African American may view a situation that wasn’t racially motivated as completely racist because of their positional viewpoint.

It’s only by complete surrender to the Holy Spirit and accepting Gods leading that we have any hope of understanding the scriptures accurately. And even then, we must stay together in the essential doctrines, and give room for the non essential ones. God help us in this striving!

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What does it mean, and how does that work with our physiology of the brain? Likewise, how do you know if that’s the case?

All if these platitudes seem to be oversimplification blanket thrown right onto all of the problems described in the article, with a solution that’s never really explained and dismisses any further issues with actually understanding full meaning of words spoken.

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Great article, thanks for that.

The concept of positionality reminds me of the way that (pure) mathematics works. Before a mathematician draws any kind of conclusions, he writes down a list of assumptions. Then he explores where these assumptions lead to by applying rational arguments. The mathematician does not ask you to ‘believe’ in the initial assumptions, he just wants to understand their implications. This way you can have very fruitful discussions between people that do not even share a single belief.

It would be great to see this way of thinking prevail in adventist theology. At first it looks like positional thinking is pushing subjectivism, but just the opposite is the case. Clarifying initial assumptions objectifies a theological debate, just as it does in mathematics.

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I didn’t mean to dismiss the article…it’s a very interesting subject. my point was that if we take it to its logical conclusion we’d never be able to know or agree on much because how do you know if your conclusion was the correct one or if you arrived at it based on your positionality? And since each persons positionality is unique, we’ll hopelessly doomed to never agreeing.

As far as how “it works” honestly I don’t know. When Jesus promised the disciples the Spirit, one of the things He told them was “when the Spirit comes He will guide you into all truth”. He didn’t explain how He would do that exactly. And they didn’t question well exactly how will this happen? But once they were United in prayer and focused on the mission, the Spirit did His work. Now I realize they continued to not agree on every last point. However, as a whole the Bible says they were of one heart. And all the divisions they had before were mostly gone.

How does the Spirit speak to us is a mystery to me. But I know that Jesus’ promise is sure, the Spirit guides us. He guided Peter to understand the gentiles were not unclean, He guided Paul to realize Jesus was the messiah, He made the disciples hearts burn within them on the road to Emma us, and He convicted the Ethiopian that Phillip was right in his teaching of scriptures.

My point is, if we get too lost in “you only interpret scripture the way you do because of your bias (positionality) we lose the supernatural work promised thorough the Spirit. We can continually be guided into truth only as we accept where He leads us.

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The question is not merely about knowing how it works. Since if you admittedly don’t understand how it works, why would you assume that whatever scope of “it works” must be the result of the cause that you attribute it to?

That becomes the biggest issue with conversations such as this. It doesn’t get resolved by pointing to the stories in the Bible and saying, “See how it worked out here?”, because there doesn’t seem to be an ontological difference between people seeing and parsing religious literature, and people learning and discussing anything else.

So, if one sprinkles Holy Spirit on it for self-validation, saying that you have to trust the process, it doesn’t seem a very reliable way of understanding anything.

And if we merely attribute the process of correct and cohesive understanding to Holy Spirit, then we merely labeling that process as Holy Spirit… which would likely be the case for people 2000 years ago, who didn’t understand details that we do. So they had to describe these woth conceptual metaphors that linked ideal causal references of something they didn’t understand, to something they aspired as an ideal, but also didn’t understand.

People trying to unsuccessfully reify these metaphors in 2022 by admitting that they don’t know what it is exactly they are saying, seems to be a dead end problem for any religious discourse in the future.

Yes, you cited central beliefs of the early church, Jesus was the promised crucified and risen messiah and lord, Gentiles were to be admitted into and treated equally within the people of God based on their faith in/allegiance to Jesus as messiah, and apart from circumcision and Torah observance. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus and the eunuch’s response to Phillip’s teaching were also both centered on Jesus. This all seems to indicate that truth, according to what Jesus was saying in the fourth gospel, centers on a person. It’s in line with the stated purpose of the fourth gospel, “This is written so that you may believe that Jesus is the messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

This does not guarantee the idea that we would agree on all issues because we all are led by the Spirit, or because we all believe in Jesus. Romans 14-15, 1 Cor. 9, and indeed the balance of the NT reveals a movement of the Spirit that brought together vastly different people and people groups, who certainly did not see eye to eye on all matters. “Truth” for some was not for others on such issues. The solution wasn’t for continual calls for people to pray more so that they would be convinced of the “truth” on these things. That often seems to come from those who are convinced of their own insight and spiritual pedigree over others. The answer was that they were called on such issues to, “Accept one another as God in Christ accepts you.” Accept and welcome each other with your differences. Allow each other freedom of conscience and practice on such issues. Allow for the fact that knowledge, and claims of truth often puff up, but love builds up. Allow for the fact that now we see through a glass but dimly…all of us.

Maybe that makes the greatest truth the admission that we don’t have truth sown up, that we are limited creatures, with partial vision, even with the leading of the Spirit…maybe precisely because of the Spirit’s work. That would lead us to a place of humility, where genuine love, support, and care for one another can flourish.

Maybe, it is this type of love that really is the greatest truth of all.

Frank

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Great article, Tom! Thank you! Much to ponder. What first comes to my mind when I read your question about positionality in Adventism is that when you ascribe a prophetic office to someone, as Adventists traditionally do to EGW, and charge that office ideologically, you run the risk of codifying interpretations from the past. Much of our positionality is intertwined with EGW’s views or with our (cultural etc.) past and present perceptions of her views. Add our cultural, political, gender presuppositions to that and you have glasses with which you read the text. I do.

Will I be honest to admit that some/many/(?) of my and our Bible interpretations are rather based on my and our preconceived ideas than on sound exegesis? On the other hand, God chose to speak through these creative interpretations in the past and sometimes still in the future. What then is the necessary requirement to hear God speak through the biblical pages if there is such a thing as a necessary requirement? Positionality doesn’t seem to hinder God from speaking to us.

I love to hear about different perspectives and perceptions; I think this is the clue to an even more complex listening.

I cannot wait to read the next of your columns.

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The Holy Spirit is God’s Breath of Life, is it not? We breathe the Holy Wind – the moment-by-moment inspiration and expiration of O2 and CO2 keeping us alive to ponder, consider, question, test, and reason things through from multiple causes to probable ultimate conclusions. Is this not the way in which the Holy Spirit is promised by Jesus to lead us into “All Truth?” He commanded us to have open minds – to ask open mind/open heart questions. Ask, and you will receive, knock, and it will be opened to you. Come now, and let us reason together, says the Lord. Test (question, evaluate, judge) all things.

Hello, since it seems like you’re stating that people 2000 years ago attributed what they could not explain to the Holy Spirit, I have a sincere question: do you believe in the Holy Spirit?

Correct me if I’m wrong but it seems like you’re stating or implying that the scriptures can be understood solely by utilizing critical research methods without any place for supernatural assistance.

Hello Frank, perhaps I wasn’t clear enough in my original post. But I did mention that we must give room for differences of viewpoints on non essential points of doctrine. I agree that even with the Spirit we will never agree on every issue…and we don’t have to!

If we’re committed to the unity and mission of the church then the church will be United though we don’t agree on every point. Giving this room for conscience is definitely a sign that we’re maturing and growing in the Spirit.

My main point though was that there are limits to this idea and the”truth” can be know enough from scripture. If we just view everyone’s beliefs as “their truth” based upon their positionality, we may loose sight that the Truth can be known, and we can be confident of that. Yes we should be humble enough to know we don’t know everything or are correct in every matter. But Paul was sure salvation was thru Jesus alone, John was sure if we confess we’re forgiven, James was sure that faith without works is dead etc etc….point being there is “truth” and it can be known regardless of my positionality but to get there we need supernatural help! God’s help through the Spirit. Blessings to you brother

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Paul and James/the Jerusalem church differed on the continued role of Torah in the life of the church, particularly for Gentiles. Paul went further than the Jerusalem council in how he applied what it said to his ongoing work throughout the empire. James pressured Paul into taking vows at the temple to prove he wasn’t teaching against it or the Torah…though in some senses he really was.

The early church didn’t see eye to eye on everything. Sometimes on seemingly major issues. It begs the question, what is truth? Pilate had it standing before him. How we work that out in every day life can vary.

Knowing truth is more than lock step agreement on a set of fundamental beliefs. In the history of Christianity, there have been major divisions over all kinds of doctrinal issues. The church has divided over it innumerable times. Yet, all claim to have the truth. Adventism being one of the latest to claim such.

All I’m saying is that we may need to adjust our ideas of what is truth.

Frank

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I believe that we reified a metaphor for a process into an entity. Do I believe in a process that was abstractly labeled as Holy Spirit? Yes. Do I believe in the concept of Holy Spirit you have as a vacuous dogma about incomprehensible “supernatural” “person” that’s you have to attribute to all of the proper understanding? No.

I’m saying that your brain works and understands through critical research methods, and not by means of any ascribed supernatural assistance.

If you believe otherwise, then you are talking about something you don’t understand, and thus it’s called ignorance. You are explaining a concept you are ignorant about. That doesn’t lead to knowledge and understanding.

Thanks for being clear. I guess This boils down to: is there a God. Not as you put it, the reification of ideas and concepts, but an actual supreme being. Because if the God of the Bible exists, then yea I am ignorant of how He works because, by definition, He is infinite in knowledge and I am so limited in mine.

If you don’t mind continuing this conversation, You mentioned that ignorance does not lead to knowledge and understanding. My question is: why do you study the Scriptures?

I study for the knowledge I gain and wisdom of its principles because it leads to a better life. But I also study for that certain connection with God that I can’t find anywhere else. I do believe that when I sit down and read, it is not just my brain and my critical reasoning that is being nourished, there is a relationship that is formed that I cant explain with a being Who exists that I’ve never seen, but Who undeniably has transformed my life.

And if we’re just studying the Bible for the natural aspect of “knowledge” , then it’s just like any other book, we’re missing its true intention we’re missing it’s true power. If all we have is what we can see, touch, explain, we’re hopeless…

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Which God of the Bible? There’s a progression from polytheism to henotheism that bleeds through both scriptural composition and archaeological and theological narrative in that region.

You seem to assume that Caananite to Christian and Roman progression of religious philosophy maintained same theological continuum. It didn’t. It was an evolution of God as a concept that went from localized tribal patronage of pantheon of family… which actually reflects human development unsurprisingly. And as these tribes merged through alliance and conquest, so did their religious ideals and understandings that became synthesis of God and his sons. Then eventually just single God with many names and functions, and then back to a God with a son and some other spiritual entity that got factored in as a divine family again that integrated a pantheon of saints and merged in holidays to resemble some localized aspects of conquered religions.

That progression of theological mergers aren’t unique in history of religion and unsurprisingly reflect human development.

So, there’s nothing wrong with Biblical account of that specific process, especially since it’s the “winning religion” in your era in which you pick up and assume that whatever it describes must be so… but if you look behind the scenes of how you arrived with these narratives, you’ll understand that it’s more like watching a superhero epic with special effects to amplify certain moral ideals.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that either, but you are talking about yourself more than you do about God… which if you actually read what you wrote … is what you end up doing the most. You are describing yourself. You are describing your behavior. You are not describing God.

Same with Biblical narrative. Living in Western culture and reading the Bible is a bit like praising the employee manual in Corporation that your family worked traditionally, and now you do to. Yes, there are exceptions of cross-cultural transition, but these are exceptions that prove the rule and not undermine it. These are generally people who find their own cultural context less coherent and desirable.

Transcendent God would be above and beyond all of that, yet what we generally have is a collection of culture-centric ideals and denouncing other ideals that don’t jive with that context.

So, which God are you talking about? And why would it be found in culture that claims themselves to be special?

I believed it as a kid, and subsequently a college student on the way to a Seminary. But the more you care to learn, the more it becomes obvious that God of the Bible is a mere shrine to the people that structured it as a composite of their preferences… which is why churches today the way these are.

These don’t care to transcend their own cultures and step outside and examine their ideals and presuppositions in broader context. They are locked and imprisoned by their own orthodoxy and blind to anything other than it… only care to look at their own reflection and comment on wonderful beauty of it. There’s no transcendence in any of that IMHO.

A very insightful article, Tom. Just as I would expect. The article explains how we aren’t neutral when we read the Bible. All is well and good until we add God in the mix and then all logic is gone. We use our positionality to push our understanding on others or control their actions by calling our positionality “The Will of God” or by saying that the Holy Spirit has led us to that understanding.
The Bible is one of the most interesting books to study. But I’m of the opinion that God isn’t stupid or cruel. If there are important things, He is going to make them plain and obvious to everyone and not hide the truth so that only some of the readers will be able to understand. God isn’t going to play favorites and only allow Adventists to correctly understand what is written in God’s name.

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Positionality is not a problem. Certainty is.

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I would agree and not agree. Traditionally this may be the case. In contemporary western culture, I would say that this is anything but. We live in a highly syncretistic world, where the bible is regarded as anything but the owner’s manual. Hence, if one experiences a conversion and begins to read the bible, and has their faith generated and nourished through such, that would be considered as highly out of step with contemporary culture and practice, if not more so than embracing Buddhism, mysticism, or any blending of spiritual practices de rigueur…an exception being the American bible belt.

Western culture may have a long tradition of biblical and Christian association. Contemporary culture and practice largely do not. Embracing Christ and faith in God through him is deemed foolishness and just as foreign as embracing some form of syncretistic spirituality, by the majority.

Where have we heard that before?

Frank

You are illustrating the point of this article as much as the churches…you are not neutral. What Yoyito is adding to the mix is the implied question…have you yourself experienced the life changing power of Christ and his Spirit? Did the bible and the gospel ever have any part in that for you? If so, why has that become insufficient? If not, then how can you even critique what Yoyito is saying on such experiential grounds?

Frank

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It became pretty clear to me that you didn’t believe in God, so if I described Him, would it have made any difference to you? Would you have taken my description of the God you don’t believe in seriously? I really don’t think you would have…so I spoke about how I know or how I’m convinced He exists, what I get from scripture that I can’t find anywhere else, the overwhelming peace that is only found in the God you do not believe in. since this goes back to how we started the conversation, “how does this work?” I was describing how it works for me.

So, if you don’t believe in Jehova, if you don’t believe in the Holy Spirit, if you believe we (or specifically me) is just creating a Being in my imagination to explain a process we/I don’t understand, I guess there’s not much else to say. But I’ll be praying God leads you back to believing in Him. Your pursuit of knowledge and understanding apart from it leading to a relationship between you and God…misses the whole point of knowledge.

Love is more than the chemical reactions and physical attachments we form. It’s a principle that exists beyond us. We cannot explain it away from merely scientific/critical research. God is the same…the Bible is the same. It’s so deep, and abiding, He’s so real and near, He is indescribably amazing…im sorry you don’t find that when you’ve read the Bible.

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