Monday, May 5, 2014

What do you mean by...?

One of the first steps of a problem solving process is to be clear on meaning. If one were to say X is not working right or Y is acting funny, the specific meaning of “not working right” or “acting funny” must be separated and clarified. We separate to see if there is actually more than one issue being lumped together as if it were one, and we clarify to get the most specific meaning possible.

This requires a dynamic back and forth communication between the information source (the person with the problem) and the information gatherer (problem solver). A one-time static communication almost never works out well. This kind of thing was demonstrated very well by apologist Patrick Madrid in a Lighthouse Catholic Media CD using what appears to be a very straight forward and simple sentence. Consider the statement, “I didn’t say you stole the money.” It seems clear enough. What could possibly be misinterpreted about it?

  • Suppose we put the emphasis on the word “I” so we have “I didn’t say you stole the money”. This could mean that I am not accusing you, but someone else is.
  • Now put the emphasis on the word “you” and we have “I didn’t say YOU stole the money”. This could mean that I am not saying you did it, but I am saying someone else did.
  • Put the emphasis on the word “stole” and we have “I didn’t say you STOLE the money”. This could mean that I am not saying you stole it, but I am saying you did something else with it, like wasted it.
  • Put the emphasis on the word “money” and we have “I didn’t say you stole the MONEY”. This could mean that I am not saying you stole money, but I am saying you stole something else.
If you were not present to hear the emphasis on any particular word or to ask some clarifying questions, the true meaning of the statement would be lost. The same can be true of the statements found in the Bible. How do we know we have it right when we can’t go back in time and ask the author, “What do you mean by…?”

Consider a simple word like “believe” in the famous verse… “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:16). It goes on in verse 18… “Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” A verse from today's gospel is not as famous, but just as relevant.Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.’” (John 6:29).

So what does it mean to believe? It would seem that we need to be very clear about the precise meaning of this word. Is it just an intellectual or factual belief, like believing the earth is round or believing that two and two make four? James 2:19 says “You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble.” So if the demons can believe, should we believe the same way they do?
Other verses seem to clearly link our belief to what we do, like in James 2:20-26. These verses link what Abraham did, in offering up his son, to his belief in God (see also Romans 4:3 & Gal 3:6)

Sometimes it is helpful to think of opposites when trying to understand something. If we need to better understand the color white, it helps to study the color black. If we find out that black is the absence of visible light, it helps us to understand how white contains all the wavelengths of visible light at equal intensity. What would be the opposite of belief? Disbelief? John 3:36 suggests that disobedience is the opposite of belief, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God remains upon him.” Again, our belief seems to be linked to what we do, or don’t do, as opposed to merely agreeing to some concept intellectually.

This is not meant to be a biblical study on the concept of Christian Justification, but just an illustration of how static words on a page are subject to human interpretation. When our nation’s founding fathers wrote the Constitution, why did they bother to form a Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution? Did they not understand what they were writing? Did they not know how to express themselves? Could not future generations just read the words and understand what to believe and what to do in terms of governing a nation?

One can argue that the Bible is the living Word of God, not dead words on paper, and the true believer is guided by the Holy Spirit to the correct interpretation. In this case, all the disagreements among Christians and all the different denominations can be explained by people not listening to or misinterpreting the Holy Spirit. Of course this begs the question, who should I listen to if I cannot question the Holy Spirit directly? I’m afraid the answer in many cases becomes “Whoever agrees with me” and thus we make ourselves God. This is why Jesus founded a Church, not a book. We could all take a lesson in humility from an Ethiopian eunuch who lived long ago. He got it!

“Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and said, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone instructs me?’” (Acts 8:30-31)

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