In his monograph The Aims of Jesus (recommended by N.T. Wright in class), Ben Meyer attempts to address the tension that is contained with questions of faith and history as it pertains to the historical study of Jesus in the Gospels. In writing, he overviews the critical questions one must engage in in order to be able to maintain the “integrity of faith and reason.” In response to the first question that pertains to “the integrity of faith” he observes:
If the New Testament be taken to define normatively ‘the integrity of ‘faith, the question remains how to intepret the NEw Testament. To begin, we might differentiate in ‘knowledge’ between a final ‘phase of truth’ (intended by questions calling for ‘yes’ or ‘no’) and an anterior ‘phase of meaning’ (intended by all other questions, e.g. “What?” or “Why?”).1
One might redefine Meyer’s distinction between truth and meaning as a descriptive question of “What is being conveyed?” and a prescriptive question of “Should we accept this as true?” However, while the latter is more laden with certain values, particuarly of an epistemological variety, than the former, but the former is not excised of all value judgments. Nevertheless, there is a certain difference between description and prescription, or being meaning and truth, that if not separated prevents engaging with history on it’s own terms. If we do not distinguish the phases of our critical inquiry, then questions of meaning becoming controlled by highly value-laden assessments of truth. Put more simply, only in recognizing the separation of “phases” of analysis can we push against motivated interpretations that can alter interpretation of meaning to cohere with the positions we either want to affirm or push down. In this instance, “historical” inquiry becomes almost entirely reduced to simply a complex game we use to win or lose where no one controls the rules, where the way we play the game is defined by the precommitments we have already made and the rules are adjusted to fit the precommitments accordingly. The unquestioned mixture of meaning and truth in our analysis is a fertilizer for the straw we need to create men out of. While separation of phases doesn’t eradicate such potential, it certainly minimizes it and reduces it.
For instance, in addressing the question of sexuality in the Bible, modern socio-political trajectories can inculcate within us a need to define the Bible’s view of sexuality in certain, motivated ways, to then either defend or denounce it. Progressive views of sexuality may draw conclusions that Paul saw everyone as heterosexual to subtly denounce it since we all know that isn’t teh case now (while still retaining a respect for Paul in that he was mistaken). However, such an interpretation of Paul runs far past the evidence available; it smacks of a motivated reading. If, however, Paul’s understanding of flesh/’sarx’ and heart/’kardia’ could operate with the notion that some people may be attracted to those of the same gender, then the dissonance between Paul’s prohibitions and progressive views of sexuality becomes more stark; Paul can not be as easily respected while critiqued in this reading because he is not “ignorant.” Thereby, a motivated reading is more amenable to the resolution of dissonance between Biblical, or at least Pauline, views of sexuality. Separation of the questions of meaning and truth would prevent someone from projecting onto Paul a view that the evidence does not bear, while at the same time allowing for a rejection of the meaning as true. But this perspective takes courage for people who are both of Christian faith that wants to retain the SCriptures as normative and progressive sexuality that wants to uphold a different view of sexuality.
Alternatively, the presumptive way the Bible is read by conservative Christians as it pertains to sexuality also becomes problematic, as it is frequently assumed that because God created sex for between a male and a female, therefore God is all about martial fulfillment. Given the desires and urges that the majority of the population feel, both the general population and the Christian population more specifically, it is easy to read the Bible through the lens of making life about sexual reproduction. The question of conservative values for traditional marriage and children bleed through into the assessment of the meaning of the various parts of the Bible when it addresses sex, marriage, and reproduction; the Bible is read as a statement about the goodness of marriage that everyone should participate in (also, the Church gets reduced to a source ritual celebration of said acts of marriage and reproduction, that is wedding and baptism of children). Here, the failure to separate meaning and truth (or meaning and values, if one wants to be more post-modern), leads not to dissonance as within progressive sexuality, but the dissolution of dissonance by overlooking the value that Jesus and Paul assign to celibacy. Even when this awareness is brought up amongst conservative, evangelical churches, there is the tendency to suggest that celibacy is no better than marriage, when in fact Jesus and Paul both highlight it as a better option if one can live that lifestyle (speaking as someone who does not feel such a gift, I can be tempted to want to deemphasize the importance of celibacy myself). The reinforcement of ‘conservative’ values projects our sense of values and truth onto the meaning of the Biblical passages.
However, sexuality is not the only topic this applies to; it is simply the most salient in the present society that disagrees and fights over the merits and demerits of differing sexual norms. It applies more across the board to a broad variety of questions, such as the role of women in apostolic church and today. While Meyer’s work is principally aimed at understanding the historical Jesus as the Christ of faith, since his observations is a work engaged with the questions of history in general and since reading the Bible is an act of historical interpretation (unless one takes a strong post-modern stance that renders historical questions as unknowable therefore unnecessary), Meyer’s distinctions certainly bears upon how Christians can understand the documents to which we appeal to for faith and understand.