“The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.”
One particularly difficult to swallow part of my life as an Evangelical Christian was the dissemination of information related to dissension within a community of believers, as well as the whole of Christianity. The story is simple and played out every day in countless churches around the world: my belief related to what is written in the Bible is right and your belief is not. What is meant is even more important than what is said. What is meant is this: I understand what God meant to a greater degree than you, and I was given, by God and the Holy Spirit, a greater clarity of information than you.
Now that is over simplifying it I realize. Rather than point out the obvious, lets entertain this idea for a moment and tease up some additional information. It is believed that the Holy Spirit (or really as it is found in context, the Holy spirit) is the source of correct understanding in a community. If you are deeply connected to the “Spirit”, you are able to know what is real and what is not.
Easy enough it would seem. So if you are a Christian you have the Holy Spirit telling you what is right and what is not. You have your power of intellect available to help you learn and your Spirit to help you discern between right and wrong. But how can there then be dissension in a community if all ideas and beliefs are directed from God as a source??
The common answer is that some people are simply misled, or Satan is leading them astray. Really, it seems, they just seem to have missed the point in it all. They are wrong because they missed something or have a crossed connection to the Divine. That’s not us, though! We (I) HAVE the answer. Sounds a bit like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, where all animals are created equal but pigs were created MORE equal.
Aside from the lack of humility associated with this claim, there are major philosophical and theological problems that arise from the idea of some having the truth while others have some of the truth. Some congregations, such as that of Fred Phelps, simply rectify this issue by stating that only they are the true elect while all others are simply the lost. Some just view the other as wrong but still part of the elect or true believers.
This is a lot like four painters each visiting the house of a client in preparation for an upcoming job. Each painter independently speaks with the owner and discusses the color the owner wants used. The owner discusses a variety of colors for each room, but each painter hears just the color they like most. Later that day all four painters meet up to buy their paint and are shocked when each pulls a different color off the shelf. An argument breaks out between the four as they each attempt to convince the other three of their incorrect views on the upcoming job.
Now I am not (necessarily) advocating a view that all beliefs regarding a subject are correct. What I will advocate is that if there is dissension brought about from the understanding of a message, the issue becomes not who is correct but rather why the difference of opinion has occurred in the first place.
This is a major point that is not, I believe, discussed openly in Evangelical circles. I like to blame this dissension on the shift from dialectic to debate in Western dialogue. This answer is only a partial truth, however.
Let’s take a moment to read dissension for what it can tell us. Dissention, a difference of opinion, in this instance, means that the beliefs of two groups are lacking agreement on their beliefs. Two individuals can simply look at the same passage and read two different meanings. What does this mean? The point of reference must then be different. The two groups are out of phase with each other because their source is different. Let me spell this out: the source of information for Evangelical Christianity is not in fact the Bible, but rather the diverse backgrounds from which each reader is beginning the reading, which is then applied to a dialogue of belief. You start with your belief and then apply it to the text.
Dissention is also a unifying factor. Much like communities of the past unifying over geographical location, a common background leading to belief will unite a group into a common system of articulated understanding. A group in phase with each other will interpret a passage with common meaning. This commonality will then be interpreted as part of a larger narrative. If more than a few have a common belief it is rationalized as being in harmony with the divine.
The text of Christianity is not in fact the Bible in each congregants hand but rather the system of beliefs brought to the reading of the Bible. We do not read the Bible, we read ourselves into a broader narrative containing all aspects of our past and culture. In this sense, and given the diversity of situations in which we have to draw from as individuals, how can we expect any two people to agree completely on anything? We cannot. And this is the issue that must be addressed.
Christianity must read dissension as part of their narrative, rather than it being a battle between right and wrong. What Christianity doesn’t realize is that the message of love preached is not the message received by those not intimately involved with a specific denomination.