Scriptural agnosticism

The most important thing that I learnt from David’s tragedy last year is how easy, natural, and often it is for us to over-estimate the reliability and truthfulness of our perception of a reality. What I mean is the mind-boggling experience of seeing people commenting on NTU without first-hand experience of it and, naturally, how they missed the mark most of the time. For example: (1) the difference in final year thesis system between Indonesia and NTU (in Indonesia, the student proposed the topic to his/her advisor; in NTU, they chose from a list of projects given by the school), (2) that usually the final year projects titles in the school of EEE sound really cool and grandiose but (3) usually as well the titles mean nothing in practice, i.e., that the project is actually simple enough and certainly not in the level of Nobel prize winner. Seriously.

Of course, I can’t completely blame them for these misunderstandings. It happened all the time in our everyday’s life. But, this experience left its marks (it’s like a personal epiphany) because the degree of discrepancy was so high between what I understood to be true and what the Indonesian medias were reporting at that time. The difference, of course, lies in the degree of familiarity to the immediate context of the event. Arguably I could identify with the whole event better than the Indonesian medias and private-investigators-and-heroes-wannabes. I was pretty much familiar with the spatial and social context of the event — School of EEE in NTU is basically the place where I belong to for these past seven years and counting (although it doesn’t mean that I am necessarily immune to inaccuracies and mistakes, either).

And this is where things start to be messy. What I want to highlight is even with a quite large degree of context-sharing between Indonesia and Singapore (common time milieu, proximity in space milieu, although perhaps not so much similarity in cultural and social milieu), we can misunderstand each other pretty badly. This case became a prime personal example of Thiselton’s “two horizons” in hermeneutics. You have the horizon/context of the case and you interpret it according to your horizon/context. What would happen if the two horizons mismatched with each other? Pretty much anything. And hence those outrageous theories and hypotheses put forward by various media and personalities. And that’s why immediately after the case I refrained from commenting too much when I read other news. I have learnt how much daily news could be removed from the reality. Reading news required us to put our trust in the journalists. And that actually it means that more often than not we know so little and yet we speak so much (although I think recently I have returned to my previous sotoy and seemed-to-know-all attitude).

And of course I would delve into the matter deeper. If we couldn’t even know properly about an event with such a high degree of context-sharing, can we then know genuinely when we read our Scriptures? We, the readers, are separated more than two millennia from the world of the authors, not to mention the magnitude of cultural difference between us and them. To assume that the way we think is basically the same with Paul’s is perhaps a bit naïve, and I am not discounting the commonality of the Holy Spirit between Paul and us. Indeed it is precisely the question. Can we really assume then that what we think the Scriptures mean about “the Holy Spirit” is indeed what the Scriptures mean about “the Holy Spirit”? Or are our understandings of Scriptures, in the end, only projections of our own thoughts and beliefs?

I do believe that we can understand the Scriptures genuinely, but I won’t say that it is assumed anymore. I won’t go down to the road of despair and cynicism where the probability of acquiring genuine Scriptural knowledge is nihil, but I do think there is a great need for historically-sensible and theologically-sensitive biblical studies. Does it promote elitism, then, since the authority of interpretation would lie solely in the hands of the biblical scholars (or, worse, pseudo-gnosticism, where we need to unearth the secrets of the Scriptures)? Indeed, it can, and that’s why I will summon Tom Wright’s criteria of double similarity and dissimilarity for help (originally used for historical Jesus studies). I believe that the church itself is a living interpretation of the Scriptures, and hence an advance in understanding of Scriptures must in some way identify with the current praxis of the church (similarity criterion) while at the same time criticizes and judges it (dissimilarity criterion). In that way the interpretation of Scriptures is traditional and progressive at the same time.


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