Sunday, October 17, 2010

BORG: Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Response, Part 4

This is the ninth post of a series on Reading the Bible for the First Time, by Marcus Borg.  The other posts can be found here:

In Chapter 3, Borg posits that a plurality of meaning exists for any given biblical text given its metaphorical nature.  Here I will explore why I disagree with his approach.  The reasons for multiplicity of meaning seem to be entirely founded on what associations a text brings forth for any given reader.  Borg acknowledges to some degree the historical context for meaning, which implicitly acknowledges the author, but there is very little emphasis on this. 

I think the starting point for thinking through this issue is that the author’s intention in some sense determines the meaning of a text (very few would disagree with this first point).  Thus, in writing what he did, the author intended something by it.  The reader, however, is a bystander to this intention to some degree or another, that is, he takes no creative role in the text in question.  If that’s true, then there must be at least some distinction made between meaning as based on the author and meaning as based on the reader.  It’s worth noting here that the word “meaning” has considerable semantic range.  The author’s “meaning” has a will or intent behind it in creating the text – we talk about what the author meant, whereas the reader’s “meaning” comes from the text entering his world or horizon and his realm of experience interacts with the text, thus creating significance for the reader.  The reader’s meaning can be similar to what one’s first car can mean, or a painting, or rainbows, or art deco.  This links to some significant experience or reference point on some level for the reader.  Of course, formally the text has significance for the author just that it’s restricted by the will or intent of the author at the time of creating it, and so it is significant in a different sense. 

The reader, however, does not have that inherent restriction since he’s not the creator but the receiver of what’s been created.  The text naturally “invokes” any number of significances to the reader based on the range of overlap between the text and its context and the experience or understanding of the reader.  The reader has to will to control these invoked significances (associations) if he cares to understand the intent of the author in the text.  The responsibility of the reader then is to restrict and/or bend the associations that are invoked within his whole experiential range to line up with the sector of the author’s world which informed his intent in the text.  In short, the reader aligns his own understanding as best as he can with the context of the text.

What happens frequently, however, is that the reader has any number of blinders on.  These can be natural ones like differences in the historical and cultural worlds of the reader and author.  But oftentimes, especially with “sacred” texts – texts of significant import in our lives, the reader has an agenda.  The reader can establish an important (to him/herself) connection/association between the text and experience/understanding apart from anything the author intended when there is no concern, will, or desire to keep the agenda in check.

Where we end up is the morality issue, stated in the last post, of whether or not the reader is concerned with what the author/creator of the text intended.  (That, in turn, leads to requiring faith/trust in the God who ultimately created his Word when it comes to understanding his word.)  Thus a moral hermeneutic is required to transcend part of the wall to understanding an author’s intent.

So, while it is true, as Borg states, that various parts of the bible have been read by Christians numerous ways at numerous times, the combination of historical cultural distance and lack of concern for the author’s intent is sufficient to explain the reason why.  The intent of the author still stands whether we choose to ignore it or not.  By not ignoring it, we can strive to merge our horizon of understanding with that of the author’s, and at least begin to understand and begin to understand sufficiently. 

This does not mean there is no need to find what the text means for us since we understand that the bible is no less from God than man.  But there is no reason to rely, as Borg does, on the reader to find the fullness of meaning in the bible.  Is there then, a plurality of meaning to be found in any given passage?  Only if intended by the author, whether God or man.

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