Thinking We Understand Without Thinking

I was trying to see if I understand what the commenter meant by “love relationship.” As you know, the English word “love” has three or four Greek equivalents. – FB comment, Sunday, June 28, 2015


This morning I commented on this Roland Martin post –

“It trips me out how mainstream media is stunned to see what a Black homegoing service is like. I’m listening to @JoeNBC talk about Friday.”

I simply said –

“And it’s this failure to understand Black culture at a level deeper than hearsay, stereotypes, bad movie representations, and sound bites, which is a significant part of the problem.”

Of course, it’s nice if a few people “like” your comment, but I must have struck a chord, because I’ve had 46 likes so far today. I also had one disagreeing reply –

“I disagree! ‘Mainstream’ media is well aware of our culture and who we are; that is the problem!! Don’t assume they don’t understand us!”

I didn’t respond. Didn’t think it would be productive and also didn’t think it’d be appropriate in Roland’s thread.

However, I think the main stream media doesn’t get us of the darker persuasion. They imagine us against the prevailing dominant narrative and try to reconcile us to that narrative, but they don’t get us. – FB, Darren Joseph Elzie (used with permission)


Into each life, it is said, some rain must fall. Some people have bad horoscopes, others take tips on the stock market. McNamara created the TFX and the Edel. Churches possess the real world. But Indians have been cursed above all other people in history. Indians have anthropologists. . . .

The massive volume of useless knowledge produced by anthropologists attempting to capture real Indians in a network od theories has contribute substantially to the invisibility of Indian people today. After all, who can conceive of a food-gathering, berry-picking, semi-nomadic, fire-worshiping, high-plains-and-mountain-dwelling, horse-riding, canoe-toting, bead-using, pottery-making, ribbon-coveting, wickiup-sheltered people who began flourishing when Alfred Frump mentioned them in 1803 in his great wor n Indians entitled Our Feathered Friends as real?

Not even Indians can relate themselves to this type of creature who, to anthropologists, is the “real” Indian. Indian people began to eel that they are merely shadows of a mythical super-Indian. Many anthros spare no expence to reinforce this sense of inadequacy in order to further suppor their influence over Indian people. – Vine Deloria, Custer Died For Your Sins, pp.78, 81-82


A Minoan tablet with writing in script dubbed "Linear A". It is currently indecipherable, thought to be the semi-syllabic script of the ancient court and temple of the Minoans on Crete.

A Minoan tablet with writing in script dubbed “Linear A”. It is currently indecipherable, thought to be the semi-syllabic script of the ancient court and temple of the Minoans on Crete.

One of the great conceits of Western Civilization (such as it is) is that we understand. Since the ancient Greeks first started arguing whether the world was made up of fire or earth or water; since Heraclitus and Parmenides offered contrasts between the reality of constant change and the illusion of constant change; since Plato insisted ours is a world reflective of perfect, geometric forms while his pupil insisted that forms were real things that gave reality to indistinct matter; all of this, when rediscovered in the 10th and 11th centuries, offered the West a vision of itself as those who seek to understand.

The success of our varied attempts to understand the world, using a particular method that means knowledge has led to the sprouting of all sorts of ways to understand. Sociology, anthropology, psychology, political science all claim to observe “the scientific method” as their practitioners go about the grunt work of gathering data, testing hypotheses, creating theories, all with the goal of understanding how we live, how other societies live, how societies now dead and gone lived, and how the human “mind” – whatever that may or may not be – operates.

Biblical studies have been no less prone to the attractiveness of understanding. With the growth of philology, historical and linguistic tools were used to take fresh looks at the Biblical texts. As theologians and philosophers, following Schleiermacher, Feuerbach, Dilthey and others, discovered the necessity first of acknowledging the gap between these ancient texts and current reality, which necessitated a second move they called “hermeneutics” – interpretation in which text and current reality meet and inform one another – as a tool for “correct understanding” of what scholars increasingly understood to be opaque, often poorly edited, ancient texts. The spread of varieties of Biblical criticism has created rival schools of thought as how best to read, understand, and (most important) apply this understanding to our lives. It is more than a little bewildering.


Science is a great tool for getting at how the world works. In the 17th and 18th centuries, that success led people to misunderstand what was going on. Folks like Immanuel Kant (for example) thought that science was so successful because it arrived at truth. For a philosopher, that didn’t leave much space for what he was up to, which is why he wrote three extremely opaque, dense, partially unreadable volumes on what was left to philosophy to do. Truth was the province of the sciences; things like how we know, what are the good and beautiful, these more or less rest upon ways the mind interprets and understands (see that word again?) the world. Precisely because reason leaves the mind with what Kant called “antinomies” – contradictions due to the unfalsifiability of their premises – the best thing for philosophy to do was figure out how science gets at what’s really true.

All those words, all that valuable brain-time, and Kant never got that science works so well only because it is limited both in the questions it can ask and how successfully it can answer those questions. There’s nothing magical, certainly nothing metaphysically special about science. It’s just a tool, an extension of what human beings have been doing for tens of thousands of years to survive. Our survival depends upon our understanding the world. Once upon a time that meant figuring out an animal’s habitual movements, when bet to hunt, etc. Now, it’s about whether we can know both what an elementary particle’s position and spin are simultaneously (the answer continues to be no, by the way). Understanding is great. It also has its limits. The temptation to truth continues unabated.


When I was in Seminary, a good friend of mine and I were talking about the on-going AIDS epidemic. This was at a time when the death toll and infection rate continued to be staggering. He mentioned that there were troubles within the deaf gay community, partly ones of understanding, partly of trust, due to an inability to communicate properly as well as deaf person’s wariness regarding the hearing population. I sat and pondered not so much the ways these people continued to face obstacles in getting information that would protect them; rather I pondered that there was such a thing as a community of deaf gay folks who faced their own unique struggles distinct both from other deaf folk and other gay folk. My ignorance didn’t render such a community unreal; it just made me ignorant.

Seminary was a time I came to understand just how limited my understanding of the world really was. Reading James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation was, the first time, a trial. I found him and his work to be unnecessarily hostile; I found his tone confrontational rather than inviting. After all, I thought, he was writing in the wake of the reality of Martin Luther King, Jr.! It was only when I realized, with something like revelation, that I was being offered the opportunity to see the world through a set of eyes that weren’t blue, from a skin that wasn’t white, within a history filled with dehumanization and death at the hands of a system bent on violence that I understood Cone. From that moment, I realized I had to set to one side what I thought I knew about the world. I know more knew stuff about the world than I could waltz. All I had was my own fairly limited, extremely limited perspective. The work of Cone, of Gustavo Gutierrez, of Mary Daly, of historians like Henry Louis Gates, of sociologists like my own sociology of religion professor James Shopshire while providing new understandings, were even more a precious gift: the gift to see the world from different angles, places the light refracted in strange ways and lives were lived that were fully human yet so different I could only consider with awe the simple ability to exist within a larger framework bent on diminishing these people (and others like them) and their accomplishments.


One of the conceits of Biblical theology is that understanding the original languages of Scripture offer a unique understanding of the authors and their worlds. Contemporary understandings of language as historical artifacts rooted in real, historical communities hold as one of their theses that understanding another language – living or dead – offers an understanding of the society and culture that speaks or spoke it. A corollary, of course, is that “translation” is never a one-for-one match up between words in one language and words in another. Something as simple as “chair” in English does not have a correspondent across other human languages. Our word “chair” is embedded within a history of designations of particular pieces of furniture and their development; of skilled wood craft work; of distinct types of chairs and the uses to which they’re put. Knowing “chair” is “silla” in Spanish, “stuhl” in German, and “karekla” in Greek doesn’t offer readers the history of the word, how it relates to other words and other historical and cultural and social developments within those language-users. Believing that it does is one of the great misconceptions of our time, leading to all sorts of problems.

One of the best known, and over-used, bits of knowledge regarding the koine Greek of the New Testament is that the Greeks had three different words that correspond to the English word “love”. These are usually understood as “philia”, the kind of love that friends share; “agape”, or the selfless, self-giving love often demonstrated between persons with far deeper bonds; and, finally, “eros” usually considered as physical or sexual love. All this is true as far as it goes. I am quite sure philologists and specialists in Biblical language understand that these simple – and simplistic – equations hide all sorts of nuance and variety, that the words reflect no only distinct understandings rooted both in Greek thought as well as social practice but subtleties that are, by and large, opaque. Translation, we are often reminded, is interpretation, leaving the depth, the shadows shooting this way and that, of the original largely unseen and ungrasped.

We in early 21st century America face the daunting reality that our majority society and culture just doesn’t understand the variety of sub-cultures; we don’t understand how they see us, how they see the larger society, or even that they exist at all. We in the majority take for granted that whiteness, maleness, and religious Protestantism (both secularized and sacred) are the norm to which others “naturally” conform. When we discover this is not the case, the usual reaction is confusion. Why don’t women or black folk, our Native populations or the fast growing Latino population see the world the way do, or at least begin to conform to that way of understanding and living? Mutual mistrust and misunderstanding, fear and anger, and social and cultural acceptance of violence as a reaction to difference continue as barriers to working through our social pathologies.

With this being the case for people who work together, live side by side, worship together, do business with one another, I continue to wonder at how it is possible we believe it possible to understand a society buried under 2000 and more years of dirt and dust. How, for example, can we insist we understand the practices and relationships bound by words like “philia”, “agape”, and “eros”? How does that claim make these words meaningful for us – by far the more important question when appropriating Biblical texts?

At what point do we acknowledge that our understanding of other human societies, both contemporaneous and long in the past, is limited; that as much as we can learn about them, there will always be an opaqueness about them? When will we acknowledge, when it comes to reading and understanding and appropriating Biblical texts as sources for our current living, we should honor our ignorance as much as our understanding, remember the very real human lives hidden behind words whose fullness we will never understand? I mean, we living here in Rockford, IL refuse to understand the lives of folks who live a few miles away from us across the river; why do we think we understand the world of the authors of the Bible?


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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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