Interpret Jesus

Recent debates and discursions have caused me to wonder how frequently and to what degree we interpret things how we want them to be (ideal) rather than how they ought to be (real).  No matter how varying our interpretations may be on the same thing, there is at least one common theme – they are charged by motive.  This is an obvious conclusion.  If there is no prompt, then there is no impetus for interpretation.  If not already obvious, it would eventually logically follow that we could all benefit from asking ourselves: “What is my motive as I interpret?”

This question is full of complexities, but not because interpretation is complex, but because we are complex.  Don’t we, after all, bring life to interpretation?  Are we not the artists of interpretation?  There are certainly a lot of external (e.g., cultural norms, peer pressure, etc…) and internal (e.g., personality, character, etc…) forces at play as we interpret.  Perhaps chiefly, our ego.  I wonder how much better off we’d be, along with others around us, if we sidelined our egos and other things that inhibit us from engaging in genuine intellectual honesty as we interpret.  I wonder how often and to what magnitude we interpret things as other than what they are actually.

All this prelude to highlight a perennial question: “Who was Jesus, and what is the significance of what He said and did?”  Somehow, someway,  for some reason, we sometimes decide it would be best to interpret Him how we wish rather than how we ought.  At times, perhaps too often, we take things out of context to serve our purposes, rather than letting our context serve the purpose.  Our interpretation of Jesus is no exception.  How many times do we take the sugarcoated Jesus with a cherry on top, but pass on lutefisk Jesus?  Why do we think we can take something that is homogeneous and segment into separate pieces?  Is that really objective thought?

The main thrust is this: Jesus’ story, taken as a whole, overwhelmingly affirms that He really thought He was God, and the fact He was crucified for blasphemy is further evidence of His claim.  There really is no mystery in essentially saying repeatedly, “Hey, I’m God.”  The intrigue is in the implications of what Jesus said and did.  We can interpret Jesus as we want, or we can interpret Jesus as we ought.  If we come to Jesus with a mindset of the latter, we will likely soon realize the few decisions we have regarding His identity, and how inconvenient and uncomfortable it is to follow Him – something we would probably not naturally wish to interpret.

– Terrence

*Origin of Discursion: Observing others, as well as myself, interpret what we want, rather than what we ought.

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “Interpret Jesus

  1. tom

    Hey Terrence –

    Interesting question – my wife and I were having a similar discussion tonight!

    I think the most interesting aspect of your essay lies in the footnote. How do you differentiate interpreting what you “want” versus what you “ought”? In other words, how can you tell the two apart? When do you know your interpretation is completely an “ought”? Could our “want” interpretation be more right sometimes? Could they both be right? Who decides what the “ought” of a particular passage should be? And what if their “ought” is really their “want”? As you can see, the interpretive exercise is fraught with complications!

    My own proclivities in this discussion lie with the postmodernists who, on their best days, dispense with the fallacy of our ability to truly know the “ought” of Scripture. Our best interpretive moments occur when we’re deeply entrenched in those “wants” yet allow the “wants” of the other to more fully form our own. We come to the text not as blank slates, but as people with our own stories, desires, wants, and political angles. And I think rather than shedding those for an objective interpretation, our burden is to name those for what they are, bring them into communication with those who differ, and hash out a collective meaning together. This was the work of ancient Jews (called midrash) and there’s something rich in the communal discovery of meaning. (Kind of like what’s happening on this site, don’t you think?!)

    Your insistence for genuine intellectual honesty is, I think, necessary. I would even add any interpretive exercise needs to have at its center genuine curiosity, as well. Without genuine curiosity we aren’t fully accepting the other.

    Alright – these are my late night musings on a beautiful summer night in Seattle.

  2. GCC

    This post raises all sorts of tangential issues (e.g. the origins of Christianity, what/who Christians really follow, history, reasons why people are “reinterpreting” Jesus, following precedent in use of scripture, biblical inerrancy/literalism, practical flaws inherent in Christianity, logic and God’s creation, etc.) But for once, I’m going to try to keep things on track.

    The key to this seems very clear: As humans, we are all fallible.

    We all have our motivations, etc. And Tom is right to point out that there’s not really a clear way to tell the difference between the “oughts” and “wants” in this situation. Our own infallibility is actually one of the reasons why I find it so important for houses of worship to include the reading of significant portions scripture as a regular part of their services. (That could actually be a post on its own!)

    It seems obvious to me that divinely inspired scripture is so deep and complex that it would be impossible for any single person to truly understand everything that is in it. (Much of this is lost in translation and flat deleted as scripture is bastardized into things like the Living Bible.) Furthermore, it has the capability to show us more on each new reading. It is for this reason that those who revere scripture should take it as their responsibility to have as many people as possible participate in the reading of their scriptures. You just never know what a new set of eyes might find. The reduction of scripture to any single “ought” interpretation seems to artificially limit scripture, and (if we assume that God is in scripture) even to force God into our image.

    For me the value is in approaching scripture with an eye and ear toward truth. We’ll study; we’ll learn; we’ll grow. We’ll understand things differently today than tomorrow. We’ll understand things differently than other people. (And, as Tom hinted at, this growth will then further change our interpretation of scripture.) But if we approach scripture honestly seeking truth, then we can be led there through a variety of interpretations, whether we see things we “want” to see or those things we “ought” to see.

    A final thought for now has to do with the Christian idea of the Holy Spirit as it guides people in their use of scripture. With that as a backdrop, it might be worth pausing before assuming another person’s interpretation of scripture is wrong. I don’t think any person is equipped to determine if another is or is not guided by God. As a result, a Christian who vehemently opposes any reasonable interpretation of scripture might run the risk of committing the unforgiveable sin.

  3. The best answer to the question “How do you differentiate interpreting what you ‘want’ versus what you ‘ought'” may be another question, a question already posed. What is your motive as you interpret? Within the context of something like midrash, and with the inclusion of intellectually honesty and genuine curiosity, I believe the result would be something more of an ought than a want. Deciphering an ought from a want requires the investment of many emotional, intellectual and spiritual resources (which is likely why it is rarely undertaken), but it isn’t impossible to tell the two apart when they are in conflict.

    This begets another question: what does it mean when an ought and a want are the same? Could it be that one is more significant that the other? Could it be that one should be given preference over the other? Did one come before the other? Did ought exist before your want? Is ought not independent of your want? Would it be beneficial to let one guide the other? Enter origin. Enter meaning. Enter purpose. Enter motive. Enter objectivity. Enter the need for intellectual honesty and genuine curiosity. Enter discursion and midrash.

    Of course, the question remains who determines ought? It is a fine question. One worthy of deep consideration. Wouldn’t it be the creator of a particular ought? Did not the creator define that particular ought? Did not the creator set the standard for what ought is and is not? Is it then any surprise that we’re incapable of proving with 100% certitude that our version of a particular ought is indeed the correct interpretation, but yet there is an ought to be had? Ironically, we insist, whether explicit or implicit, that things ought to be this way or that way. It is very apparent that we still find ought to be terribly relevant, so much so that we want it.

    Again, I would like to reiterate that the interpretive exercise is not fraught with complications and complexities because it is a difficult exercise (seems quite circular in reasoning), but because we as interpretive artists are full of complications and complexities. To say otherwise would be to dismiss the need for interpretation and place oneself as the creator and standard of a particular ought. And so, since we’re not the creator or the standard of the oughts being discursed at the moment, I think the better question is how do we attempt to determine the correct interpretations of a particular ought? And… after all this, the main question is still fully intact, even if only held together by the application of relativistic thought – that to interpretation, to each his own – who is this man Jesus, who calls Himself God?

  4. tom

    You lost me a little bit in your response here, Terrence, so let me see if I understand you. Would I be correct in saying you understand there to be a universal “ought” in the interpretative exercise? How do you see objectivity at play with interpretation? Is there an objective truth in Scripture we have an obligation to uncover through pure motivations?

    Let me ground this discussion practically to play with it a little more tacitly. I was thinking about this concept today in regards to a painting. If you ask an artist to tell you the meaning of their painting or sculpture, any true artist will deflect the question and ask you what you think it means. It’s not that the artist has a lack of voice or meaning in the painting, it’s that she recognizes that the work may not ultimately mean the same thing to you as it does to her. Thus we revisit the painting or sculpture not to ascertain some great truth, but to experience what that art has to offer us, to allow ourselves to be transformed by it. It’s not an exercise in relativism, but exploring a shared experience together.

    In a way I’m trying to get at a similar notion with interpretation of the biblical text (though when we speak of interpretation, how we interpret the biblical text says a great deal about how we interpret films, our world, other texts, etc). God has something important to say to us through Scripture, though the point (I think) isn’t to figure out what that ultimate Right, that ultimate “Ought” is for us. To do so reduces our exercise in faith to little more than an ethic. Rather, I think we derive meaning in the “discursion” as it were, in the “differance” as Derrida says. We derive meaning and coherence in the interpretive exercise when we bring all of who we are to bear on the interpretation.

    Let me say one more thing about motivations and I’ll wrap. One of the inherent dangers in this discussion of an ought/want in interpretation is the reality that the “ought” of an interpretation has historically done a shitload of damage in the church. Well-intentioned scholars, priests, thinkers, and laypeople had the best of intentions in their actions throughout history, passionately arguing for their correct interpretations of Scripture in our lives. But they have made tragic errors and justified things like slavery, the Crusades, and the excommunication of Copernicus because he challenged our long-held assumptions about what lay at the center of our universe.

    So I think my point is that like a couple thinkers I’m currently fond of (Peter Rollins and Derrida), perhaps we need to both believe our interpretations and passionately disbelieve them at the same time. Thinking there is an “ought” to which we aspire lulls good people into thinking that maybe we’re closer to “Truth” than we actually are.

    Alright, curious to hear where you go with this.

  5. Tom, thanks for the continuing discursion. In effort to better understand the framework from which you operate, I would appreciate your responses to the following questions. Do you think there is even a thing called ought? If so, how would you define ought? From where does ought come? Did ought exist before you and me, before humans? Does ought need our interpretation to exist? Ought we to do anything in particular, or just whatever we want?

    I think you may be putting the cart before the horse. You ask, “Would I be correct in in saying you understand there to be a universal ‘ought’ in the interpretive exercise?” In this question, I would liken “interpretive exercise” to the cart and “you” to the horse. Who drives what? Does the interpretive exercise drive complications and complexities to me, or do I drive complications and complexities to the interpretive exercise? Ought I to be a certain way? If so, doesn’t that color the interpretive exercise?

    This horse and cart analogy is actually working out better than initially planned. Let’s add a driver. Let’s call the driver God. Now, who drives what? Or, who ought to drive what? Obviously, the cart cannot drive the horse. Certainly, the horse could drive the cart. But, what if the horse gave the reigns to the driver? Would the horse not be steered a particular direction by the driver, in a certain way it ought to go? Or, is there no ought? Would the horse and cart be better off if the driver hitched the horse and cart, let go of the reigns and let the horse interpret the direction as it wants, with no regard to the direction of ought?

    Are there not certain parameters for accurate Biblical interpretation? Is a horse not a horse? You ask, “Is there an objective truth in Scripture we have an obligation to uncover through pure motivations?” Yes, we have a responsibility to do our best to tell and interpret history as it happened, not as we want it (thinking of historical revisionism, history of the victor, vision of the vanquished). Stories have set parameters of actuality and oughts, but that’s not to say that there cannot be periphery interpretations, subjective and objective, that reinforce other oughts and be beneficial, which could be a purpose and evidence of discursion in action.

    I nearly mentioned the Crusades and the forced baptism of the Latin Americans by the Spanish, but originally elected to pass. I will very briefly address such examples as they have now surfaced. Could it simply be that what these participants interpreted as oughts were really not oughts at all? How are you able to say that they ought not to have done such things? Could it be that you are subscribing to oughts? I think so. I hope so. In terms of enabling, as much as oughts open the door to injustices, oughts close the door to injustices. Citing examples such as these should reinforce the paramount importance of asking: what is my motive as I interpret; and who really is Jesus who calls Himself the Son of God?

    One more thing… why should we “believe our interpretations and passionately disbelieve them at the same time,” when we could instead believe what we believe until convinced otherwise? Would to subscribe to the former result in no conviction at all? After all, what do you really believe then? That you believe in your interpretation, or that you disbelieve in your interpretation? Which one is it? This specific micro-discursion reminds me of why The Discursionists set out in its preamble: “Really, a few of the only rules around here are to express what we think is right, and admit it when we’re wrong, because aside from ego, which is of little consequence, we all have every incentive to be corrected” (see About). How can you admit your belief to be wrong if you simultaneously believe something to be both right and wrong?

  6. blraatikka

    Tom– could you perhaps explain a little better the notion that we are to believe and disbelieve our interpretations at the same time? If true, is this indicative of no “ought,” or rather our human limitations in fully grasping an “ought”? And sometimes is it not as simple as God telling us to build an ark, and either we do or we don’t?

  7. tom

    Okay – some really interesting questions here, fellas. I suspect to truly honor the weight and breadth of what we’re talking about would require more than a few pints together. I find theology and philosophy to be a much easier discussion when I’ve been able to knock back a few in the process. But digital space presents us with some limitations in that regard, so I’ll drink by myself on this end and hope you’re with me in spirit. And by the way, I apologize at the outset for the absurd length. You all have asked so many good questions I felt like I needed to address them. I have many, many questions of my own, too, but for now I’ll simply respond to yours.

    As to your questions, Terrence, I actually don’t think we’re too far off from one another. Your insistence that we continually ponder our motives as we interpret is right on, and really all I could ask for from my faith community. What I’m wanting to prod you to consider a little more carefully, however, is the degree to which we can accurately “know” the “oughts” about which we’re speaking, and to be careful with how we handle what we think we “know.” As I said before, a fair amount of damage has been done in the name of Christ – and by good, good people who see their actions as honest to goodness, truthful interpretations of the sacred text.

    Aside from the historical references I mentioned, we have a large (and growing) population of evangelicalism today that supports the subjugation of women. Have they made this decision based on an interpretive “want”? I don’t know – maybe. If you ask them, they would say they have studied Scripture and though they deeply love women, are simply subscribing to an “ought” in the text, i.e. Paul says women shouldn’t be leaders in church, shouldn’t preach, should allow their men to be the spiritual heads of the households, etc. And yet I look at this form of faith as simply unjust and downright cruel for the ways it discounts the feminine voice, for the ways it unnecessarily silences the beauty of women, and therefore silences the voice of God. Who is ultimately right? Who is subscribing to the “ought” in this situation?

    Brandon, I’ll address your question about the seeming divide in belief and unbelief in a bit, but here’s where the “God says build an ark so I’ll build an ark” gets tricky for me. The complexity of interpretation lies – Terrence, you’ll likely hate this response – in both our humanity and hermeneutics itself. It’s both/and, and there’s no way around it. We can’t possibly know precisely what Paul (or God) meant unless we were there when he wrote to ask more probing questions of his writing and his life, to ask more questions which will, inevitably, beget more questions. The best we can do hold our conclusions loosely and always with humility, and always willing to accept the planks in our own eyes.

    The differences that exist today between communities who interpret Scripture to “oppress” women and communities like mine that (I sincerely hope) seek to give women a fuller presence in church life are complicated, too. We have different priorities in interpretation and have been informed theologically and philosophically in some very different ways. Again, who is right here? Who is closer to the “ought” of Scripture? It’s easy for me to say that it’s my position because I’m honoring voices who are traditionally oppressed, who represent the feminine and the mystery (and therefore God), but those on the other side have likely just as strong of a case, and therefore will just as forcefully feel they adhere to a Scriptural “ought.”

    (By the way, Wendell Berry always has some cautionary words for using our interpretations as “oughts”, and has written a provocative essay called “The Burden of the Gospels.” I highly recommend it: http://christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=1298)

    Therefore, I’m simply wanting to question our assumptions that we have pure abilities to decipher whether our interpretations are derived from “oughts” or “wants,” and in the process caution us against even desiring to mark out those places of feeling as though we confidently “know” what God wants from us. You will see the text far differently than a black woman, a Native American male, or even the white woman who sits on the other side of your cubicle wall. My trouble with marking out the “oughts” in a text is that they can pre-emptively silence the voice of the other if they don’t ostensibly fit into our paradigm of how a text should be properly read. And like the painting metaphor I used a few days ago, perhaps the text is meant to be encountered and interpreted similar to a work of art, rather than a strict, ethical rulebook. Does that make sense?

    One of the exercises we do with the hermeneutics class I teach each fall is to have students create a list of those “non-negotiables” of their faith. What is it that they see as foundational to their beliefs and therefore not to be questioned? We do this exercise in the context of a group and what we begin to realize as a class is that just about everything is negotiable. Everything is up for conversation. To simply state one’s non-negotiable in space is to offer it for negotiation, for conversation, for discursion. To hold tightly to a set of “oughts” – whatever those may be for you – is to pre-empt genuine conversation. And that’s really all that I’m after.

    There’s a great Jewish parable that I read recently. In it, two rabbis are arguing over a specific passage of the Torah, and they argue about it for over twenty years. Annoyed by the endless discussion God finally says, “I’ve had it with their arguing. I’m going to go down and tell them what this passage means.” So he leaves heaven to reveal to the rabbis just what the passage means and, in a rare moment of unity, the Rabbis look at one another and say to God, “What right do you have to come down and tell us what this passage means. You go back to heaven and let us argue about it.”

    I think this is a great story for a variety of reasons, not least of which it disturbs us from thinking that there is a “right answer” we must somehow wrap our minds around. Indeed, Christ was constantly running around the Mediterranean fucking-up the most dearly-held “oughts” of the Pharisees – and if anyone knew the “oughts” of the Torah, it was these guys. What this parable says to me more deeply, though, is that God isn’t a textbook of “oughts” to be mastered, but a living, breathing Other to be transformed by, to be encountered. And we will likely encounter God in the strangest of places, in the strangest of faces and, dare I say, the strangest of interpretations.

    So I think what I’m getting at is not a rejection of all “oughts,” (though it seems I do hold a looser place for those than you might, Terrence), but instead to simply ask, How do we know? And whose voice is left out when we hold to our oughts at the exclusion of something else? And perhaps more poignantly, what are the ways those “oughts” serve to constrict and confine the very God in whom we profess to believe?

    And this leads me to my final point regarding the seeming belief-unbelief split. (Again, my apologies for the length of this so far.)

    What I find brilliantly frustrating about the Biblical text is its demand for paradox, which is to say, the demands it makes on us to hold two competing visions simultaneously. The one philosophers often point to is the Abraham and Isaac near-sacrifice, and the disturbing request of a loving God who asks Abraham to sacrifice the very sign of God’s blessing. Now, as Kierkegaard rightly pointed out, we read this story without anxiety because we know the ending, we know how it turns out, and we allegorize it as a Christ-like parable to soothe the disruption it causes. But allowing ourselves to sit with the terrible demands of God brings us to confusion about God – at least, they bring me to confusion (and there is some evidence in the text that Abraham never speaks to God again, representing a pretty powerful relational separation between the two).

    Indeed, how am I to understand a God who asks Abraham to violate one of the very commandments God has decreed for all of humanity? And to violate that commandment for duty and worship of God? Kierkegaard says the only way this could be the case is that if God teleogically suspends the ethical – that is, God momentarily suspended his “ought” for this act of faithful worship from Abraham.

    Does this mean there are no “oughts”, then? After all, God had to violate something in order to make it a violation, correct? In some ways, I think I’m less concerned by whether there was an “ought” at all, and more aware that God so easily violated our conceptions of “normal” to prove a sick and twisted point with the forefather of our faith.

    So while I understand the call to hold belief and disbelief simultaneously seems crazy, I don’t think it is all that different than “believing until convinced otherwise.” The only difference is that I think we ought to be active atheists of our own beliefs, the active protagonists, as it were. Again, theology has a nasty habit of constraining God and confining God, and until we actively strip away some of the brush and debris of our faith – even those things we consider most fundamental – we run the risk of turning those “oughts” into an idol.

    Nietzsche once wrote that we should all be “asking questions with a hammer, and sometimes to hear as a reply that famous hollow sound that can only come from bloated entrails. What a delight…before whom just that which would remain silent must finally speak out.” I absolutely love this quote because he so beautifully articulates what it means to believe and disbelieve at the same time. To ask questions with a hammer is to flesh out those places where our beliefs are nothing but bloated, hollow entrails, where the “tin-tin” of hollow belief resides, and to do so in order that that which would remain silent can finally speak out. I do believe our “oughts” tend to silence God in some unfortunate ways, and definitely blind us to the more wild, unpredictable movements of God at work in our world.

    Therefore submitting to a stance of believing disbelief (or disbelieving belief, if you prefer) is my way of encouraging us to believe, but loosely. It’s not a matter of who is right or wrong – let’s dispense with the artificiality of that. I’m right and I’m wrong. You’re right and you’re wrong. On the same things. Let’s at least admit that up front and have honest dialogue about the text, knowing we can learn some profound things about God and the text from one another. The key to genuine interpretation, I believe, is a willingness to forsake all that we believe in order that we might one day actually find it.

    I’ve gone on far too long. Thanks for sticking with me.

  8. Tom, when you address to me, “What I’m wanting to prod you to consider a little more carefully, however, is the degree to which we can accurately ‘know’ the ‘oughts’ about which we’re speaking, and to be careful with how we handle what we think we ‘know,'” I cannot help but think that you are preaching to the choir. I know your comment is well intended, and valid for all, but perhaps you’ve projected the realization your students have as a result of the hermeneutics class exercise onto me. Or, perhaps I just find the reminder repetitious, as I believe I already question the degree to which we can “know” an “ought” with vigor, to which maybe I’ve not had the opportunity to demonstrate to you. At the very least, I want to make it very clear that I wish for the “oughts” I believe to be examined and analyzed individually.

    With all that hopefully behind us, and really intended for nothing other than providing further context and definition of my worldview, I’d gladly raise pints and discurse with you Tom. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again… I’ve always found you sharp minded. I know I’ve a lot to benefit from discursing with you. And… I agree, I don’t think we’re too far off from one another… to which I will soon address…

  9. blraatikka

    Tom– awesome! Thanks for your well-articulated thoughts. I was hoping you’d bring SK into it. In any event, I don’t have time to attempt a response now, but let me get back to this.

  10. Tom, it appears that we hold similar, if not identical, Biblical views regarding the treatment of women by men. This is actually a topic in which almost every Christian I know disagrees with me, which makes it a worthy subject of a future article – one I plan to write about. Nevertheless, it would be very important to note the cultural context of related Biblical texts. Just because something is an ought today, it doesn’t necessarily make it an ought tomorrow. Could it be that something we understand as an and/both is an and/both historically, but not presently? Even if it were an and/both today, I have no problem with that. This is not particularily the ought of which I generally speak.

    Subscribing to the belief that some things are either/or and oughts doesn’t preclude me from also subscribing to and/both beliefs. What I find particularly interesting, however, is that an either/or cannot be born out of an and/both, whereas an and/both can only be born out of an either/or. To say it another way, either/or makes and/both possible, and not vice versa. As a result, and/both works within the confines of either/or. Something must be either something or not something before it can possibly be “and something” or “both this something and that something.” And/both reinforces either/or, but it does not contradict.

    Perhaps a few examples will help bring clairty. First, I will provide an example of negation. If it is wrong to randomly and intentionally murder an innocent person, then one cannot say “and it is right to do so,” or “it is both right and wrong to do so.” Now, for an example example of affirmation. Consider the attributes of God. God must be either loving or not loving, either gracious or not gracious, before He can be or not be loving and gracious, and hence both. These examples are an attempt to demonstrate that the legitamacy of and/both is entirely dependent on either/or. It is either/or that makes and/both possible. The first example is an attempt to demonstrate that, at times, and/both is an illegitamate interpretation because of either/or. The second example is an attempt to demonstrate that, at times, and/both is a legitimate interpreation, but only because of the either/or that precedes it. Something is either this or that before it can be this and that, or both.

    On another note, holding oughts doesn’t necessarily preempt genuine conversation, it may in fact spur greater conversation, which appears to be the case here – genuine discursion. After all, I obviously believe that we ought to ask ourselves what our motives are as we interpret Scripture, and you Tom, clearly believe that there is a certain way we ought to interpret Scripture – topics of our already lengthy discursion. What would preempt genuine conversation, or discursion, is the lack of intellectual honesty and curiosity, the absence of humility, a closed mind, the rejection of being open to being convinced otherwise – not necessarily that one subscribes to oughts. This again reinforces the idea the interpretive exercise is complex and complicated because we are complex and complicated.

    Tom, this takes me to your comments regarding Jesus and the Pharisees and your final point regarding the seeming belief-unbelief split, with which I plan to soon interact. By the way… please never again apologize for the length of your discursion, I love it.

  11. Tom, thanks again for all of your thoughts. I’m quite glad you brought up Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees. The Pharisees are indeed a great example of errant interpretation and application charged by ulterior motives and wants, not oughts. Jesus’ correction of the Pharisees was actually a school in ought. Jesus challenged the Pharisees’ most dearly held oughts, at least in part, because He was exposing their oughts for what they were, which were wants. The Pharisees’ transgressions could only be transgressions if there were oughts to transgress against. So, as much as Jesus’ teachings to the Pharisees were ought nots, they were oughts. What oughts Jesus taught and embodied would you wish not to master? Wouldn’t genuine mastery be synonymous with genuine transformation? If we desire and work towards emulating Jesus, then wouldn’t we be taking steps away from leaving voices out, the exclusion of something else, constricting and confining the very God in whom we profess to believe? If there are no oughts surrounding Jesus, then how do we know what to emulate if we wish to emulate Him?

  12. The story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac is indeed disturbing and perplexing – obviously even more so for Abraham. I wonder if God really did, as you summarized Kierkegaard, “momentarily suspend His ‘ought’ for this act of faithful worship by Abraham,” or if He only seemingly appeared to do so. This would be a very important distinction. By God ultimately intervening and preventing the sacrifice of Isaac, I think there is more evidence that God seemingly appeared to suspend His ought than He actually suspended His ought. Of course, we may ask, why would God tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac if He already planned to provide Abraham with a ram in Isaac’s stead. No matter how much we may dislike this story and wrestle with the difficulty of it, it is important to remember that no oughts were violated. Perhaps surprisingly to Abraham and all of us, the ultimate outcome is that several oughts were reinforced.

    Tom, you said, “Theology has a nasty habit of constraining God and confining God.” I’m quite confident you would agree, correct me if I’m wrong, that the constraining and confining of God occurs in our worldview and way of life as a result of our inadequate theology, not that our inadequate theology really is constraining or confining God in any way. If this is the case, then doesn’t a more adequate theology liberate us to know God more as we ought than as we want? Wouldn’t theology then have at least equal opportunity to do good? Wouldn’t the risk of turning oughts into idols decrease as God increases in us? If God increases in us, wouldn’t we more accurately reflect God? We say things like God is love and that we ought to love each other. Wouldn’t that mean that if we more accurately reflect God and His love, that we then more accurately reflect ought?

  13. GCC

    T: I like your thoughts on the Binding of Isaac, especially the reminder (not that I think Tom forgot) that Isaac is never sacrificed. It seems like people see the story as more ghastly than it may have been because they want to, and thus leave that important detail out of their minds. And, when it comes to God suspending an “ought,” I would add that even if God had allowed Isaac to be killed, one could make the argument that God suspended no “oughts.” After all, isn’t the biggest “ought” there is to do the will of the Creator? If that is the big “ought” then it’s logically impossible for God to suspend it. Unless the action of God’s suspension of “ought” would some how be against God’s own will. And, of course, as Abraham was simply doing God’s will (and Abraham KNEW God), he was executing (no pun intended) “ought.”

    But about the Pharisees, I have to ask: which Pharisees?

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