Monday, December 10, 2007

If theologians disagree, how can we know our interpretation is right?

I'm going to post some more of the message I sent to my friend. He said:
I think part of my skepticism on objective morality comes from seeing all the different variations and disagreement that people have on what constitutes it, and observing no real methodology for verifying whose claims are right and whose are wrong; it seems all people can do is just insist more strongly that their morality is the correct one.
I'm going to save the bulk of my response for the next blog entry. I separated this out because it's sort of a different subject. It was part of my response, though.

What I wrote here is about how I handled a problem that I've heard a lot of Christians complain about. I thought somebody might find it useful.

I will admit, though, that broad disagreement sometimes does cause me to throw up my hands and say, "Nobody really knows." That's usually my first impression on subjects I haven't studied that much myself. I'm not saying you haven't studied morality that much, because I'm sure you have. I'm just talking about myself.

I remember when I first started getting interested in Christianity and theology. I looked at all the different denominations, and all the different interpretations of the Bible, and I thought it was hopeless for me to read the Bible and arrive at the truth--what it really means. I prayed that God would reveal the truth to me, but I didn't have any faith that God would answer that prayer because I figured most theologians had probably prayed the same thing, and yet they all disagreed with each other. Why should I be any different? The truth is, I experienced quite a bit of anxiety about it.

But the more I studied the Bible, the more I began to develope opinions that I thought were justified. I felt more strongly about some things than about other things, and there are still some things I have no opinion on. Since a lot of my views are based on what seem to me to be sound arguments, and those who disagree with me base their views on what seem to me to be bad arguments, I no longer have anxiety over the mere fact that a lot of people disagree. I readily admit that I could be wrong about some things, and I'm quite certain that I'm wrong on at least a few things, but I don't feel any anxiety about it just because there are what seem to me to be good reasons to think what I do.

I feel the same way about morality. While disagreements do sometimes cause me to be skeptical that anybody can really know the right thing to do in a situation, there are at least a few of what I think are clear case examples of moral wrong or moral right, and the mere fact that some people have disagreed with me doesn't shake my confidence in the least.


At 12/12/2007 3:53 PM , Blogger DagoodS said...


In the end, we can only rely upon our own opinion, to some extent. As much as I may try to be objective as possible, some arguments are persuasive to me; some are not.

How do you remove as much subjectivity as possible? I ask this because you state, “But the more I studied the Bible, the more I began to develope opinions that I thought were justified.”

But isn’t some of the study, and some of the development based upon preconceived notions? For example, if I consider the Gospels to be historical recordings—I am going to treat the notion of Matthew copying Mark in one regard. If, however, I consider Mark to be a fictional Greek play, I am going to treat Matthew copying Mark in a completely different manner. My preconceived notion of what Mark is will effect what arguments I find persuasive or not.

Perhaps the most common demonstration is inerrancy. A person who holds to inerrancy will view arguments for/against contradictions which biases and prejudices much different than the biases and prejudices of a person who does not hold to inerrancy. (Each will still have bias, of course, which will cause the strength of the arguments regarding contradictions to be weighed unequally.)

I am wondering how you try to remove this subjectivity within yourself.

And, as difficult as I find that to be in Bible study; I think it can even be worse when it comes to morality. Recently I was having a discussion about women’s clothing. A person who was raised in a strict Muslim environment, with hijab is going to have a much different morality regarding how women dress than a person who grew up along a European topless beach. Or an African.

At 12/14/2007 7:47 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

I think the biggest problem with bias is that we don't always know we have it. I'm not without bias, but I deal with it by trying to be honest with myself about it.

Ronald Nash wrote in his book, Faith and Reason that whether an idea is believable or not depends on our entire noetic structure (the sum total of all of our beliefs). If it conflicts with something we already believe, we'll treat it with skepticism. It take it that's what you're getting at, too, and I agree with you.

So all of our beliefs, together, create bias in us. I don't think bias is necessarily a bad thing.

At 12/16/2007 12:11 PM , Blogger DagoodS said...

I agree that bias is not bad. Nor is it good. It just is—part of being human.

My concern with bias is how it causes us to give weight to arguments. Sometimes (as you accurately point out) inadvertently. Our biases can cause us to give greater deference and weight to those arguments that support our position, and less weight to those that do not. The problem in doing so is we end up never changing our mind, because we are always (unknowingly) bolstering our own belief.

I am on the constant prowl for a way in which to determine I should change my mind on a position by granting equal weight to alternative positions. I always wonder how others do so.


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