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The Text that Deconstructs our Control (if we let it)…

November 5, 2009


Copernican Revolution

Reading Beyond Liberalism & Fundamentalism:  How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda, Nancy Murphy.

Also thinking about redaction of the Hebrew Scriptures.  The evidence that exists within and beyond the canon of Scripture that the Pentateuch is composed of four main sources or documents that were edited together:  J, E, P, and D.  Each with a distinct vocabulary and theological perspective.

J: Yahwist

E:  Elohist

P:  Priestly

D:  Deuteronomy

This comes through early on in the two creation accounts.  In Genesis 1:27 people are created first.  The second creation account is not simply a reprise of the first, but differs from the first both in outline and in detail. 

Genesis 1:1-2:3, the first account, narrates the creation of a highly symmetrical world by a very powerful deity who creates through the word.  In this account, for example, man and woman are created together (1:27) after the creation of the land animals (1:25).  In contrast, the second account, in Gen. 2:4-3:24, suggests that man was created (2:7), then the animals (2:19), and then woman (2:21-22).  Its focus is on the creation of humanity, not of the entire physical world, and God anthropomorphically ‘forms’ various beings, rather than creating them with the word.  Thus, these are two distinct accounts, written by two authors, representing different worldviews about the nature of creation, humanity, and God.  —The New Oxford Annotated Bible:  New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha (3rd edition)

Old Testament:  Text in Context is providing a framework within which we can hold with an open hand the mystery of revelation and at the same time study the evidence of experience that informs our understandings of text.  Learning how the Bible came to be is an important task if we are to do justice to questions that emerge from the text.  Questions like…

1.  Where did Cain’s wife come from? 

2.  Who is Melchizedek?  (Gen. 14; Psalm 110; Hebrews)

3.  Why does Exodus differentiate between the treatment of male and female slaves, whereas Deuteronomy insists that they should both be treated similarly. 

I am a firm believer that critical questions are part and parcel of pursuit of truth.  Questions are not evidence of antagonism toward faith.  On the contrary, critical questions are put forth with the assumption that Truth fears no questions.  Questions are a movement toward God, away from illusions and false constructs.  Questions move us from blind certainty to open embrace of holy mystery. 

Why do we prefer not to face questions that emerge from the Text and Experience?  Perhaps because they may deconstruct the “system”…the faith construct which underpins everything about our life–from beliefs to outward practices.  We fear that if a question dislodges one of the pieces of our worldview, the whole structure will come crashing down.  Chaos.  So we limit the questions, so that we can stay in control of “the world” as we “know” it.  These are the stakes given foundationalist assumptions about truth. 

Murphy would say that it need not be so.  Murphy is working toward a holism that is able to hold mystery and paradox, being as communion, along with the knowledge that comes to us from examining the physical world.  Communion not with a system of truth, but with God who comes to us through language and matter, but is not fully contained in language and matter.

What comes after the critical questions…after deconstruction?  Nihilism or faith as mystery?  The answer to that question largely depends on the Community one organically connects with in the pursuit of knowledge (God).  Our knowledge always comes to us communally whether we admit it or not.  The Communal knowledge (see Sara Wenger Shenk for an Anabaptist take on this) will determine which questions are permissable and which ones are dangerous.  The Community will shape the reading of Text.  The Community we do or do not place ourselves within will determine whether we live isolated individual “truth” (abstract system) or a communal knowledge (which is inherently relational and holistic). 

Most modern readers do not acknowledge the communal dimension of reading the text.  Because Modernity has placed the individual at the center of the universe, and enlightenment assumptions about text have liberated each individual to be their own authority, the interpretations of individuals dictate the Communities they choose to be a part of.   Individuals think they are submitted to a Community of knowledge (a tradition), but if we pay close attention, we see that it is in fact individuals picking and choosing which Community upholds their individual presuppositions.  When the “wrong” kinds of language or interpretation of text enters that community, the individual will move on to some other community which preserves (for the moment) their sense of foundationalist truth. 

Other communities are predominantly bounded-set social groups which condition behavior through a prescribed engagement with Text which allows for a limited range of questions that may emerge from Experience or Reading.  The Communal knowledge is preserved by conformity to a Communal set of behaviors.  These bounded-set communities usually are not diverse.  Often, these communities represent a sociological set that one is born into and remains a part of for life (i.e. Amish…).  There are also economic factors that are at play within these bounded-set expressions of Communitas. 

So, who was Cain’s wife?  Which did God create first, animals or humans?  Is ancient Hebrew creation poetry which seeks to explain the mystery of origins inherently opposed to evidence presented by the physical sciences?  The answers to these questions (even the way we frame the questions) and a myriad of other questions will be determined by the Community we place ourselves within as we seek God, truth…knowledge.

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