“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens”—J.R.R. Tolkien
As philosophers move from perception to reality and critics circle around familiar questions about the Bible, the birth of Christ is a poignant interruption in history that undermines everything we thought we knew about reality.
The Changing Perception of Perception
In a New York Times article earlier this year—“Philosophy Returns to the Real World”—Crispin Sartwell traced a move from internal perception to external reality—from what we perceive to what is real; from what we believe to what is true.
Earlier philosophers believed what’s true or false is what authoritative interpretive communities approve. If important people said it was true, it was true; not because it was true but because important people said so.
But recently in post-post-modernism or “popomo“, a slew of thinkers across disciplines have challenged the old way of thinking and now believe that reality is not something we make, but something that exists independently.
Sartwell says the shift from perception to reality has been driven by three things—ecological, political and virtual.
Climate change is not a perception. It’s a reality.
ISIS, Donald Trump and the disparity between rich and poor are not a perception. They are a reality. Perception is a luxury too costly in the face of stark reality—”defenses of the urgent truth of justice, or of the importance of material economic conditions and the treatment of physical human bodies.“
Virtual reality is not reality. It’s a perception. We have lived so long in the unreal virtual world of social media and the internet, we now have “a yearning for the old-fashioned physical environment.”
The Unchanging Perception of Interpretation
In a Newsweek article earlier this year—”The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin”—Kurt Eichenwald started a firestorm by questioning the credibility of the Bible, its interpreters, its followers and its very relevance to contemporary thought.
“At best, we’ve all read a bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times,” he says. Later he quotes New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman who says, “There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.”
In essence, a biased selection of fictional material, corrupted by hundreds of years of erroneous copying, filled with glaring contradictions, pieced together by political manoeuvring is now what we call the Bible—perpetuated by the ignorant and the irrational to exploit the fears of the uninformed and the unknowing so their insatiable cravings for power can be satisfied.
It’s compelling rhetoric. But while there is legitimacy to the exploitation of the Bible by false teachers—something Jesus forewarned Himself—there is little truth to the historical unreliability of the Bible.
To its credit, Newsweek invited evangelical scholar Dr. Michael Brown to speak into the matter, who wrote a long but satisfying response.
The Difficult Task of Interpretation
It’s a popular perception-turned-reality that the Bible is so unreliable with so many possible interpretations, its meaning simply cannot be known.
Ironically, some critics who tout this view seem quite confident about their own interpretations of Paul as a sexist bigot or the Old Testament as outrageously homophobic.
If all Christian interpretations are merely perceptions to be dismissed then perhaps all critical interpretations are a perception to be dismissed as well. But this is simply unreasonable.
The Reality of Interpretation
That interpreting the Bible seems like a difficult task should be no surprise because interpretation is a difficult task.
Every discipline has information that needs to be discovered, arranged, analysed, interpreted and applied. It is no simple task but it is no impossible task either.
If we found something to be undesirable because it was difficult, we would never know anything about anything—history, politics, art, literature and even science.
The Key to Interpreting the Bible
Far from being sentimental mush, religious mumbo-jumbo, childish wishful thinking or mythological fantasy, the birth of Christ is a compelling case for optimism in a cynical world.
We do not have a category of knowledge to make sense of revelation. It is something wholly unprecedented and unexpected.
The birth of Christ is the audacious announcement that God has become a human being, fully participating in the human condition to rescue us from it—to turn the world right side up, one person at a time.
It is the good news that He is leading cosmic change through personal change—turning hearts to Himself by the power of His self-giving love; not by the feeble-though-effective religious motivations of fear, guilt and shame.
The birth of Christ is an invitation to see everything God’s way—a way that undermines everything we thought we knew about Him and everything we think we know about ourselves. It is an invitation to move from cynicism to hope, despair to joy and perception to reality.
I follow Christ, despite its social inconveniences, because Christianity makes the most sense of the human condition.
The birth of Christ is a sign that we are not alone in the universe, living in the light of a dying star, resigned to distracting ourselves with temporary pleasures, unwilling or unable to cope with the weight of cosmic despair as we spiral helplessly toward the darkness of the abyss.
The birth of Christ is a tear in the fabric of time. It is the assurance that our longings for greater things are not empty hopes to calm irrational fears or comforting projections to pacify cosmic anxieties.
It is the revelation of a reality we could always perceive but could not name, a dream we always had but could not realise, a world we always wanted but could not create.
The birth of Christ is perception, subverted; history, interrupted and reality, revealed. It is the key to interpreting the Bible. It is the key to interpreting everything.
Image Credit: Stephen Durham