This post from Pete Rollins, a leading voice in emerging church thought, deserved to be quoted in full.
I recently went over to visit my friends in The Garden in Brighton and found myself in an interesting conversation with a guy who said, “I can understand why people who read the bible embrace fundamentalism”. When I asked “why” he said. “well, the bible can appear to support that position”.
I understood what he was saying but at the time I was reminded of a story in which the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe said in passing to Wittenstein, “I can understand why people once believed that the sun revolved around the earth”. In response Wittenstein said, “Why is that”? Anscombe looked up and replied, “Well, it looks like it does”. To which Wittenstein said, “yes, yes. But tell me, what would it look like if it was the other way around”?
The moral, of course, is that what we think the text really “says” depends not just on what we read but on the lens we use to interpret what we read. Fundamentalism is only a plausible way of reading religious texts when one accepts a scientific, foundational, common sense realist ontology. Which is, not insignificantly, the same lens employed by those popular writers today who reject the bible as a dangerous, deceptive, anti-Enlightenment, anti-scientific diatribe.
Now, unlike the scientific example of the sun, it is not possible to somehow “step outside” ones grounded interpretations of the text and make a rationally compelling claim concerning how it really should be understood. It would then seem that there is simply a conflict of interpretations that cannot be decided through the exclusive application of detached, disinterested Reason. However this does not mean that we are left without a rudder in an endless sea of interpretive possibilities (rather it is the very place where philosophical debate really gets going). For instance, one may still undermine the appropriateness of an interpretive method to faith, like the one used by Fundamentalists, by drawing out how its own application leads to the destruction, or diminishing, of its own position.