Critique of Reza Aslan’s View of Biblical Interpretation
Reza is a pretty smart scholar, but I don’t think he gets this right. Specifically Reza says:
“This fact also forbids me from devaluing a person’s interpretation no matter how wrongheaded, unhistorical or irrational it may be”
I think this has a ring of truth to it….but I think if you dig deeper, it creates problems. I would suggest this problem arises for three or more reasons:
For instance, all academia has disagreements, but we don’t throw our hands up in the air to say that the controversy is unresolvable or that all answers are equally true. History, psychology, political science, economics, philosophy, ethics, and even the sciences have these challenges. In fact, we can still find valid interpretations of literature, movies, and art, arguably the most subjective of the academic branches.
This kind of relativistic approach would suggest that all academia is one nebulous sameness in terms of true-ness, credibility, and quality. Excellence in any discipline would be positively dissolved if we applied this writ large in academia.
In the context of the question that means that mainstream Christian scholars like NT Wright and Tim Keller can properly critique cults, and various other misguided interpretations.
Moreover, the concrete example of the Fruits of the Spirit in Galatians provides a general direction for an individual to follow:
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
Further, Jesus’ parables have a limited core range of interpretations. Service, forgiveness, love, forgiveness and other virtues are not only the soil out of which they grow and arise, but also the purpose toward which these parables point to.
And, thematic issues as well as the the constellation of verses around an issue serve to check aberrant or misguided interpretations. That is Jesus and the overall themes of the Bible serve as a check on dubious interpretations. Core story elements provide a reflection of our own stories–that help provide a means of looking in the mirror at our options between right and wrong, just and unjust, love and hate, and folly and wisdom.
Our own Constitution has multiple interpretations who sit on a nine member bench, not to mention hundreds of opinions printed in University based Law Journals. Are these all useless exercises because multiple interpretations are possible? There is no shortage of legal opinion on any core legal topic available on Lexis-Nexus or your local university law library. People are more than willing to share what they believe to be the truth on Constitutional issues–and provide rational reasons for those interpretations. However, not all reason are equally compelling, credible, or true.
Our district judges entire jobs are about interpreting complex legal documents and rendering decisions and hopefully render decisions that are both true to the text as well as the interests of justice and the public.
Interpretation and inference is with us in multiple fields of daily live as well–including daily decision making. For instance, if we followed this in our daily lives–marketing campaigns, products, and relationships would be ceased immediately, because all inferences about the interpretation of reality or interpretation of the future would cease in their tracks. However, this would have a corrosive effect on human rationality, truth seeking, survival, and ultimately relationships and innovation.
Finally, I’m confused how different interpretations of the Quran would call all religious texts into question. Those disagreements may be challenging to suss out, but can’t imagine that any true scholar of the Quran would say that the verdict is a 50/50 split on all interpretive questions. That would be like a tie for all the games in football in given season, which is absurd or at least seems so from my perspective.
So lets be clear, no clear answer or the answers are complex and nuanced does not mean all answers are equally valid. Because such a stance means that all academia and indeed life is an exercise in futility because all answers are potentially equally valid. When you look at any broad generalization like this assertion with concrete examples it tends to fall apart when it takes on the details of real life and human existence, which at times seem to present uncertainty–do have available answers.
Moreover, this relativistic or hyper-tolerance approach to the interpretation of the Bible and Quran seems like a dead end. It leaves us with no real response when people attempt to insert values 180 degrees in the opposite direction of the text in slavery, hate, or violence to serve their own political or ideological ends. Respect yes. But relativism no. We certainly don’t have to throw up our hand or act as if all interpretations are equally valid or credible in terms of the core question of the human experience are concerned. Sure there are questions that are hard to resolve, but that’s where thematic interpretation and community interpretation come to play.
And there is a place in the Christian text where God meets us where we are. God knows our heart. And the Holy Spirit can provide guidance on such issues if we have open hearts which are pointed toward God.
And don’t get me wrong, there are mysteries, but we don’t let the mysteries of life confuse what is clear language around Kindness, Goodness, and Love. And these are operationally defined, modeled, and demonstrated in the life of Jesus in a very real and concrete way.
Its certainly possible that I’ve misinterpreted what Mr. Aslan was saying or trying to convey, however I did my best to be honest to his words and intent. And to the extent I may have missed that mark, I am sorry.
If you would like to carry on a correspondence about the ideas contained above, I would be glad to do so over Quora or email.
Finally, I have dealt with similar issues here and unpacked the issue of Biblical interpretation more specifically more directly and concretely: