Babble, Bible and Babel
Over at Philocrites.com, the question of proper Scriptural interpretation, usually a low-priority item among most UUs, is demanding a rare audience. Brother P asks his preacher colleagues whether, when UU clergy preach thematically but invoke Scriptural texts, they must necessarily depend on the interpretive technique of eisegesis, which is deemed a big no-no in more Bible-centered denoms where the eternal fate of your soul may depend on correct understanding. Since I’m not a preacher colleague, I thought I’d take up the question here.
My answer, Brother P, is, “Depends. What’s your hermeneutic?”
First, some vocabulary for those to whom these technical terms are unintelligible babble. Exegesis is drawing the correct underlying meaning out of a passage from Scripture. Eisegesis, in contrast, is injecting a meaning into a passage of Scripture that is not authentically there. In traditional circles, it can be tantamount to the sin of taking the Lord’s name in vain: preaching one’s own prideful and fallen personal views, and falsely calling them the Word of God. Hermeneutics are the sets of interpretive rules that you use in exegesis in order to ascertain the correct meaning.
In the early days of the Reformation, the Protestant hermeneutic was simple: the Bible is the perfect, inerrant, and complete Word and Revelation of God, and the sole source of all spiritual truth. This early understanding is reflected, for example, in the 1629 covenant still in use at the First Church in Salem, Unitarian: “We do covenant with the Lord and one with another, and do bind ourselves together in the presence of God, to walk together in all His ways, according as He is pleased to reveal Himself to us in his blessed Word of truth [emphasis added].” Although our Salem brothers and sisters no longer adhere to this literal, inerrant hermeneutic, in some other corners of Protestantism it still survives today. It finds parallels in other religions, too – for example, the way Muslims read the Qur’an or Mormons the Book of Mormon. However, in the 18th and 19th centuries, a “critical school” of Bible scholarship (arising first in German universities) began to examine Biblical texts in the same way that literary critics and anthropologists examined other literature from older cultures, in the context of what else was known about the cultural norms and literary conventions of the time.
These scholars unlocked many meanings that were quite different from the superficially apparent meaning of words read in isolation in a later time and culture. Form-critical, historico-critical, and other new hermeneutical approaches became the standard for mainstream Biblical scholarship in the 19th and 20th centuries, and contributed to the rise of Fundamentalism in protest against these new insights.
Unitarians have always stood firmly in the critical hermeneutical camp. The sections of Channing’s 1819 Unitarian Christianity sermon demanding reason in reading the Bible come straight out of the German critical school. Most UUs today who read the Bible understand it to be a diverse collection of texts by independent human authors that were preserved for their continuing relevance to succeeding generations: a compendium of human witnesses to the history and variety of spiritual experiences of a particular people, rather than a single unified and universal revelation from on high. In the UU view, “revelation is not sealed”, and personal discernment is the paramount spiritual authority, so in our tradition the Bible (as well as other scripture and tradition) is properly used as a testimony offered by witnesses of the past to assist our own personal discernment, not as a superior authority to it. For those who come into UUism from a different hermeneutical tradition, this is an enormous difference, and one that is rarely examined or explained, at least not in enough depth to make it widely accepted and internalized. Thus, many UUs still read the Bible through the eyes of religious traditions that they have left behind. Moreover, in the UU hermeneutic some of these ancient witnesses may be so constrained to their own time and culture as to be not particularly relevant to our contemporary context, but that does not impair the timeless relevance of other witnesses whose apprehensions continue to speak to us. Contrary to the impression held by some UUs, to us it doesn't have to be either all true or else all useless.
The implication of all of this is that UU preachers do have somewhat more latitude than their colleagues in more traditional denoms, and legitimately so, in their ability to interpret and apply Biblical passages before crossing the dreaded line from exegesis into eisegesis. We are somewhat freer than adherents of other Scriptural traditions to accept or reject older witnesses, and to supplement them with our own. Yet I would argue that even for UUs the line between acceptable exegesis and unacceptable eisegesis still exists, and still matters. Our devotion to reason and truth should not allow us to attribute meaning to a passage where it was never intended. I would also argue that UU clergy can do a lot of effective thematic preaching from Scripture without violating a more conventional mainstream hermeneutic. The way to do this is merely to argue by analogy or extension from what the original textual authors authentically did say.
An example of this exegesis-by-extension approach is an “elevator speech” I developed a couple of years ago to defend the high UU regard for personal spiritual intuition and discernment. It’s in the form of a mini-sermon, drawing on lessons from the Old and New Testaments: Genesis 11 (the Tower of Babel) and Acts 2 (when the apostles spoke in a wide variety of unfamiliar foreign tongues to the many foreign strangers assembled at Pentecost). I argue that the Tower of Babel story is a legend representing (among other things) the idea that diversity in human understanding and perspective is not only God’s will but God’s doing, and that desiring a unified common understanding is a misdirected and prideful human aspiration. I argue that the Pentecost story about speaking in tongues is a legend representing not how religious ecstasy ought to reduce you to rapturous gibberish, and not how only one truth is spoken in only one voice, but how the Holy Spirit respects and reaches through our God-given differences and diversity to enlighten each of us according to our own individual ability to perceive and understand.
I’ve given this speech to an evangelical minister trained at Pepperdine and Fuller who thought it was an excellent exegesis. I’ve given it to a non-denominational fundamentalist who accused me right away of committing a particularly heinous eisegesis. And I’ve given it to UUs who stared at me blankly and asked, “Why does the Bible matter to us?” It’s those blank UUs, not the thoughtful Fuller alumni nor the condemning fundies, whom UU exegetes need to be most concerned about reaching.