Knocking at the Door of Meaning

When Gary told me he had found Jesus, I thought, Yahoo! We’re rich! Then I found out it was something different- Jack Handy

Lately, I have been reflecting on the nature of grammar as it applies to our lives.  When it comes to sentences, I used to just go with my instincts and the complex nature of our compound constructions was often lost on me.  Yet, in my master’s work, I was forced into learning about subjects and objects and prepositions in sentences – things I had previously thought useless.  I have discovered the pleasure of good rhetoric.  Further, I learned the value of syntax in day to day existence.  You see, without syntax, there can be no sentence because the technical definition of a sentence demands that meaning be present within.
It may seem self-evident that meaning is important.  As with sentences, the search for meaning defines humanity.  Human beings are like a sailor in the crow’s nest – we stare unblinkingly into the abyss in search of meaning.  In particular, the generation I work with, those in their twenties, are trying to figure out who they are and what their purpose is.  They are Post-Moderns, the category of persons that has of late been accused of destroying truth along with other absolutes.  Yet the paradox is that this destruction lies in the wake of their ravenous search for meaning.  The previous generation was used to accepting such foundations and find their erosion disconcerting at the least.  The current generation is overly concerned with discovering things for themselves and discussing the relative value, and ambiguous nature of truth.

Yet ambiguity, which is often the substance of a good joke, is frequently used in good writing.  The Bible is a well-written book, whatever your opinion of its content.  Take for example 2 Corinthians 5:14a”The love of Christ urges us on because we are convinced that one has died for all…” The passage goes on to make a convincing case: that if a person believes Christ died for all then we wouldn’t be able to look at the people around us in the same way.  We would see them as people who Christ found worthwhile enough to die for. This change in perspective then, would, if we experienced it, change our behavior, the treatment we offer to the people around us.  The question, which leads us back to the subject of ambiguity, is a classic “what’s my motivation?!”

     The above chart outlines two ways to take the motivating phrase  “love of Christ.” If we take this as a subjective genitive, then, “Christ’s love for” us would be something that propels us forward.  Christ’s love for me is so great that I feel a need to respond appropriately, out of gratitude, to be less self-absorbed. However if we take “love of Christ” as an objective genitive then our “love of Christ” is something that impels us to love others, because we love him.  This works much in the same way I might voluntarily do the dishes- not because I find the experience enjoyable, but because I love my wife and realize that this is a way to express that love.  There is a Greek scholar named Wallace who would say that in this case we don’t have to choose.  While some disagree, he would call this a “plenary genitive,” it does “double duty,” if you will (Biblical Greek Beyond the Basics 118).  The phrase’s ambiguous use in this case implies a mutual relationship.  I might add that this could be called an adjectival use of the genitive, one which describes the type of love, i.e. Christ-like or Christ-ly love, which motivates us.
This is one of many examples where the Bible uses rhetorical ambiguity to allow for greater meaning.  Obviously, an excess of this could eventually obscure any and all meaning, and make communication impossible.  One can not move like a hummingbird from truth to truth without needing a place to call home.  A balance is required between the enjoyment of searching for answers and a willingness to accept that eventually one must make choices or all the possibilities you have collected become meaningless.  Yet, I am grateful for the gift of Post-Moderns, grateful for flexibility and a desire to seek out answers for ourselves, grateful for the search for meaning.  I believe that if we keep knocking, we may indeed get an answer.
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Justice for All

Here is an article written by Stanley Hauerwas on the subject of inherent human rights (http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2012/11/02/3624140.htm).  In it he critiques a Christian theologian who was arguing for a Biblical supported universal human rights theory:

(There is no theory with a universal appeal to Justice) Rather than a theory, God has called into the world a people capable of transgressing the borders of the nation-state to seek the welfare of the downtrodden.

What we need is not a theory of justice capable of universal application. Rather what we need is what we have. What we have is a people learning again to live in diaspora. And we are reminded that Israel’s political vocation took the form of a politics of diaspora through which she becomes a blessing to all people. Such a political vocation has been given to the church insofar as she has been joined to Israel’s Messiah, requiring her to be on pilgrimage to the ends of the world seeking reconciliation through the works of mercy. Such is the justice of God.

In light of recent culture-wars, it may surprise my non-Christian friends to learn that Christian theology actually has a highly developed sense of justice, fairness and equality.  The question at work in the above quote  is whether or not human beings are ontological possession of “unalienable rights,” whether by virtue of our being human we are inherently valuable to other humans.  The writers of the Declaration of Independence certainly believed that there was a God who endowed such things.  This is largely due to the language in Genesis 1, “in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them” (God’s image is somewhat anatomically vague).

Yet Christians are compelled by something other than meta-ethical philosophical theories.  We have been commanded to do Justice; “Justice” in this way takes on a verbal quality (most notably for the poor, widow, orphan, and alien: in short those on the margins of society).  “Justice” in the bible generally refers to God’s will for the world and those who are “Righteous” are those who are acting to bring the world into alignment with Gods will.  This is to say that Justice is not a static concept of “fairness” like we have in American courtrooms by a dynamic in-breaking force of the Kingdom of God who seeks to set all wrongs to Right.  Knowing God as such is “not a mere inner spirituality but a matter of transformation of value and resulting practical commitment” (Christopher Wright OT Ethics 267).

Universal Human Rights as such may not be “just” in a Christian understanding of the term.  Take for example persons with disabilities

much good has been done in the name of disability-rights for creating new opportunities as well as institutional space for the disabled. But such an understanding of justice is not sufficient if we listen to the disabled. They do not seek to be tolerated or even respected because they have rights. Rather they seek to share their lives with us and they want us to want to share our lives with them. In short they want us to be claimed and to claim one another in friendship. (same article above, bold mine)

People with disabilities very often are protected by those of us who are outraged by those who would mock or cheat or otherwise violate the fair treatment we would expect for people in general.  Yet, as Hauerwas points out, these people are uninterested in merely fair treatment, they want to love and be loved in community.  They want friendship.  This is one among many examples of the wisdom of people who are mentally handicapped but socially gifted.  The God of the Old and New Testament, the God of Christians, is not a God of who establishes abstract philosophical categories.  He values human beings, despite all their disabilities; thus, they are valuable.  The language of Genesis which tells us that Humans are made in the image of God is not a declaration of the inherent value of the human creature but rather a reminder of the esteem which the God of the universe has for your neighbor.  God’s love for the people around us- for the illegal immigrant, for the gay Starbucks barista, and for the Christian evangelical- is the foundation upon which are commanded to love one another as He has loved us (2 Cor 5:14ff, John 15).  This language goes far beyond the concept of human rights, it is a dynamic force which should move us with ever-greater sincerity into community with those around us.  Ultimately I think this is what our neighbors are instinctively after; I hope we will be able to be lights in the dehumanizing darkness around us.