We are going to take a break from our discussion of that debate between Pelagius and Augustine in order for me to refresh my memory by doing a bit of online research. Instead, we are going to return to our discussion of relevant social theory. If you understand that theoretical background from which I work, you will better understand my posts.
Let me preface this discussion by saying that I consider myself a theologian, a historian, a philosopher of sorts, and a social “scientist.” It is the role of social scientist that I want to talk about today. Most of you probably have a fairly “vulgar” understanding of what science is. The common understanding of science is heavily grounded in positivist philosophy. [Find link for this]. Positivist science sees the universe as some sort of giant machine with lots of gears and levers that runs according to immutable laws. Trouble is, we are discovering that the universe is not as lawful as we think. That’s because we humans are not all that lawful, although some of us (not me) try to be. Reality is totally neutral. It is neither lawful nor chaotic. It is neither good nor evil. It just is. “I am that I am.”
Trying to understand history, which is human behavior over a long period of time by a large number of people, as something lawful is an exercise in futility. Contrary positivist scientists who study human behavior, either group or individual, want us to believe, there are no hard and fast rules for how humans behave. Human beings are chaotic, capricious, and over the long haul, totally unpredictable. For something to be classified as an object of scientific study, by definition, it has to be predictable and repeatable. Human behavior is neither. Oh yes, on the surface actions may seem repeatable or even predictable, but how someone reacts to a certain set of circumstances is totally dependent on their “horizon of meaning.”
It is meaning that makes us human. We associate a meaning or a complex of meanings with everything that exists in the universe, with everything that occurs in the universe. This ability to assign meaning is what defines us as human. Evidence suggests that humans are the only species currently existing that can assign meaning to reality. There may have been other species in the past like our prehistoric ancestors that could assign meanings as well, although maybe not at the level that we do. Meaning is assigned through the use of language. Language is the medium of meaning. Language changes over time and from culture to culture. Even societies that use the same language, like the British and we Americans, do not share exactly the same meaning of the same words. Maybe the “dictionary” definition is the same in both societies, but because we are significantly diverse cultures, we understand things and interpret things a little bit differently.
It is the process of interpretation, of assigning words, that gives meaning. Even if we never vocalize those words, we hear them in our heads. One cannot think without language. Our thoughts are a form of our language. Without language our thoughts would be meaningless. We would not be able to explain or understand reality. It would all appear to be a meaningless, chaotic mess. But then, did I not just assign an explanatory meaning to a meaningless and chaotic universe? Yes I did. I did because I assigned words to the idea in my head. Trouble is, my words mean one thing to me, but their meaning to you will be somewhat different. That is because you and I have different life stories. It is our life stories that shape our language usage and our meaning. Contrary to what the fundamentalists like to claim, they nor anyone else has a literal understanding of the Bible or any other text. Literal understandings are not possible except for the person who originally wrote the text.
Most of us understand a text to be a collection of written words. However, a collection of spoken words is a text because it can be converted to written words. A collection of actions by a single individual is a text because it can be converted into written words. A collection of actions by a collection of individuals is a text because it can be converted to a written text. It is this ability to convert social action to a descriptive text that is the function of a social scientist. By describing those social actions we give them meaning. This is something we all do subconsciously. The difference is that a social scientist uses a theoretical framework that is far more sophisticated that anything normal human beings do. (Am I implying that social scientists are not normal? You betcha!)
When you examine a text, such as the Bible, you are the reader. When you observe the behavior of your children, you are the reader. When I think about everything I have read about Christian heresy and Christian theology and Christian history, I am the reader. When I write these posts, which are based on all the text I have read, I put my own meanings, interpretation, on what I have read. When you read this post, unless you are me, you assign your own meetings/interpretation to what I have written. Depending on the culture you grew up in, the culture you live in now, and your life story, you will interpret my words more or less differently than what I was thinking when I wrote these words. We all interpret texts, written or otherwise. None of us can ever understand the literal meaning of someone else’s text. I hope this makes sense. It is a very difficult concept to understand and to try and explain to others. I had several people who were much smarter than I am explain it to me, and yet, it still took me a while before I understood what they meant, more or less.
So please, no argument about my not understanding the literal meaning of any text, especially a biblical one. What you understand that text to say is not the literal meaning. What your pastor or priest says that text means is not the literal meaning. There is no literal meaning. We all interpret texts based on our horizon of meaning, which differs from individual to individual, more or less.