“Inspired by God” (part 3) – Dame Judy Dench, Phenomenological & Sunsets
TONGUE TWISTERS & SUNSETS
Not only is it nearly impossible to say Dame Judy Dench quickly, it is totally impossible not to try! How did you do?
I’ve been working on another: Phenomenon, Phenomena, Phenomenal, Phenomenology, Phenomenological! I almost never pronounce that final word correctly—even slowly, even once.
And yet I bet you speak phenomenologically every single day. A phenomenological description means simply this: describing things as they appear to us, rather than how we know they actually are. A common example is the “sunset.”
Sunsets are romantic. They also never actually occur—but they occur every day! Does the sun literally sink below the horizon? No, we know the earth is rotating and giving the appearance of a sunset to observers. But when we speak of sunsets, we are not showing our ignorance of elementary school science. We are using a phenomenological description.
On the other hand, maybe the person who originally coined the word “sunset” really did think the sun was revolving around the earth. Perhaps that was their worldview. We know better now, but even knowing the ancients “saw things differently,” I would hope we don’t negate the great truths they spoke via their ancient worldviews OR archaic descriptions. We haven’t even thought it necessary to expunge “sunset” from our own language.
All of this is important to our understanding of inspired Scripture. The Holy Spirit breathed truth through the authors of Scripture via both ancient worldviews and archaic descriptions. This does not make what they said untrue unless you force their descriptions to be read literally.
Note: they are not the problem. The Bible is not the problem. Their worldviews may be outdated and/or their language may by phenomenological, but that is not a problem until we squeeze their descriptions into a mold that demands we believe the sun actually revolves around the earth because “the Bible clearly says.”
Not that the church would ever be so daft. Oops. #Galileo.
CASE STUDY: DOES GOD CHANGE HIS MIND
Here’s an example: does God “change his mind?”
The Bible says God DOES change his mind: Exodus 32:12-14; 2 Samuel 24:16; Jeremiah 18:8-10; 26:13, 19; 42:10; Ezekiel 7:22; Jonah 3:9-10; 4:2; Amos 7:3-6
The Bible also says God DOESN’T change his mind: Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29; Isaiah 31:2; 2 Corinthians 1:19; James 1:17.
Does the Bible contradict itself? That is how it appears to me if I read those texts literally. If I forget to account for worldviews and phenomenology, I may insist dogmatically, “the Bible clearly says” God changes his mind and God does not change his mind. To me, that seems sloppy—it does not take language or the Bible very seriously.
The problem is easily addressed as the sunset dilemma. Sometimes the Scriptures speak ontologically, which refers to how God actually is in his being or nature. In God’s being, the Bible reveals this truth: the Holy Trinity of Love never changes. And other times, the authors are speaking phenomologically: that is, they describe how God appears to be acting from the human point of view. Some people say it like this: “Objectively speaking, God never changes. Subjectively speaking, God appears to change.”
I like to imagine a scientist and a romantic strolling together on the beach at sunset, each sharing their own perspective on the scientific wonder and breathtaking beauty of the flaming red star they see sinking into the ocean waves. There is no conflict, because they know they’re talking about the same phenomenon from two glorious points of view.
WHEN DOES IT MATTER? OUR RELATIONAL EXPERIENCES
Does this even matter? It matters greatly in real relationships. Someone may love us dearly but if we turn from them, we may think they don’t love us anymore. We may think they’re angry at us. We may want to avoid them, as Adam and Eve avoided God in Eden. We may think they’ve cut us off and disowned us, as the prodigal son did in Jesus’ parable. All because we turned away. Yet the One who loves us may have remained faithful, patient and loving toward us, longing for us to return, as the Father did in Jesus’ parable. And when we do turn and return, our own circumstances and experience may change so drastically that appears to us that the One who never left and never stopped loving us somehow changed.
That is, the change of circumstances through my change of orientation gives the appearance—indeed, the illusion, that what I did changed God’s mind and orientation toward me.
All of that matters a lot to our relationships, because we feel and act very differently to God if we think God has turned from us or is angry with us than if we know God is slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness and has never turned his face away or cut us out of the life of the Trinity.
This shouldn’t be news to anyone. Antony the Great, a Christian hermit from ancient Egypt (early 4thcentury), explained it carefully and clearly: “To say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.”
To those who can see, the sun appears to shine. For those who become blind, the sun appears to hide. They might say, “the sun ceased to shine.” And we would know they mean, “I can’t see the sun, even though it still shines, but it no longer appears to my eyes.” And hopefully, we would not feel obligated to correct them. “Well, actually…” With any emotional intelligence, we would allow for descriptive, subjective language.
It seems to me that neither the “biblical literalists” nor the “new atheists” are willing to allow biblical authors to speak phenomenologically about God without taking them literally. Both insist on the literal interpretation, one to defend inspiration and the other negate it. I would suggest they take a walk together down a beach at sunset.
Who knows: a little romance might inspire them.
It might even be phenomenal.