Some Quick Thoughts about Responding to Trumpian Exegesis

6DF67959-05AA-4218-B0F3-FD4E5734418EJeff Sessions and Sarah Sanders’ invocations of Scripture to justify separating children from parents has rightly provoked uproar in a number of Christian circles. This is a good thing. As far as I can tell, it’s awful exegesis (for a number of reasons), and it’s important for non-Christians to see a public demonstration that many Christians disagree about how to read the Bible.

The majority of responses on my timeline, however, have fallen into two types. The first claims that better catechesis—especially of orthodox doctrine—can prevent this kind of exegesis, and so the practices it is being used to legitimate. The second responds to Sanders and Sessions’ proof-texting with other proof-texts.

Both of these strike me as misguided. Regarding the first, it rests on a false inference: it is simply not that case that ‘right’ belief leads to ‘right’ action, or that ‘right’ action entails ‘right’ belief. Dropping the scare quotes, right theological belief has shown itself—perhaps counter intuitively—over history to be entirely compatible with, and sometimes tightly woven into, wrong practice. The idea that if we can get the theology right the rest will follow, doesn’t hold (c.f. Kathryn Tanner’s Politics of God for an actual argument on this front). And the idea that if a practice is wrong then the belief must be too is also, if perhaps counter-intuitively, false.

This is not because beliefs and actions are not tightly interwoven—they are, and any argument of a ‘life, not doctrine’ sort makes a dangerous error on this front. Nor is it because there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ beliefs, though I put those in scare-quotes because of how contested the criteria for rightness or wrongness of belief have been. It is because beliefs don’t guarantee their own content, either conceptually or practically. In specific instances, certain beliefs understood in certain ways rule out certain practices. But without denying this, there is an inherent indeterminacy in human concepts which allows for unpredictable permutations of belief. This in turn allows previously unconceptualized practice which cannot be predicted or prevented. In one sense, this an enormous blessing: there is a richness to the language of Christian doctrine which allows for flourishing and fruitfulness. But it is also a danger, insofar as the holding of those beliefs which are right can never entail the practice of right action—but not in such a way that any non-circular claim can be made that the beliefs themselves are therefore wrong.

I do think it is important to have a good sense of what Christian orthodoxy has been held to be, and as a believing Christian, I believe it is good to affirm the Trinity, the definition of Chalcedon, and the sovereignty of grace. These beliefs are also deeply interwoven with practice, and this interweaving can lead to something like the shadow of a good life. But none of these entail goodness or rule out evil. The same goes for theologically orthodox principles of Biblical interpretation. They are probably good to have—but if so, this is not because they can rule out false or evil exegesis. Sessions and Sanders themselves may be piss-poor exegetes; but it does not follow from this that someone reading Scripture through something like an orthodox hermeneutics could never arrive at the same conclusions.

The second is misguided because proof-texting never really proves much. The best it can be used for, as far as I can see, is to undermine another’s use of proof-texts by problematizing the idea that a single text can both represent and ground the meaning of the whole Scripture. This is why, as powerful as they are, pointing to texts which command the love of immigrants and cursing the makes of unjust laws don’t work; both sides read the same texts according to different ideas of love and justice, and the texts cannot themselves guarantee the significance of these terms. Or, to put it another way, both people think they have the love and justice spoken of in Scripture on their side.

I don’t really have much constructive to add, except to note that the business of Bible reading can be tricky. I’m trying to think through positivity hermeneutical thoughts, but right now my mind is in the critical stage. What I am sure of is that appealing both to right theology and contrary proof-texts only muddies the waters. The first assumes that right theology rules out false reading, the second relies on a unity of conceptualization which just isn’t there. It certainly is important to read Scripture well, and I do believe it is important to read it in a way that rules out state-separation of migrant children from their families. But I don’t think it can be done in these ways.

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