Prescient words

June 3, 2011 • 8:23 am

Jabez T. Sunderland (1842-1896) was an American Unitarian minister, and a remarkably sane one.  An alert reader sent me this passage from a book he wrote in 1893: The Bible, its Origin, Growth, and Character, and its Place Among the Other Sacred Books of the World. (p. 12)


The best sentence here is this: “That which really belongs to the mind of the reader is attributed to that of the writer.”  That’s theology in a nutshell.

24 thoughts on “Prescient words

  1. I meant “in a nutshell” but I suppose the typo version is also correct. By eventually making bare the mechanism(s) of meaning via contorted PoMo analysis, the extreme of Reader as Writer finally made it clear how much negotiation really goes on in a meaning transaction. What theology has not done, however, is own up to its own machinery. The fact that there are fields of “Apologetics” should make it clear how bankrupt the whole thing is.

    1. I don’t think post-modernism fits that characterization very well.
      Where theology tries to adapt reality to its own needs, post-modernism tries to obscure, confuse and obfuscate it: it’s lazy where theology is wrong.

      1. Post-modernism is wrong when it argues that both religion and science are belief systems and social constructs (relativism).

          1. Social constructs, such as religions, juridical systems, etc. are linked to local cultures, and therefore differ in different regions of the world. You have many religions, legal systems, etc., but you cannot say that of science (except is some “soft” sciences, such as economy or psychology).

    2. The fact that there are fields of “Apologetics” should make it clear how bankrupt the whole thing is.

      Exactly what I’ve always felt!

  2. I think this

    “Hence we find that one of the most wide-spread and continuous struggles of the race has been that which it has made to escape from the bondage of the past and the outgrown, which the rule of its so-called “infallible” sacred books has always imposed upon it.”

    is a fitting reply to “Religion has always been with us therefore we still need it” miscalculation.

  3. “Faith” is a commitment one makes to an idea: you’re supposed to keep finding out how true it is. This is taken as a test of one’s loyalty; theologically speaking, it usually turns into a test of one’s ingenuity. Ok, how can I make this work? Because it’s not wrong. It can’t be wrong. Only I can be wrong — which means that I’ve misinterpreted somehow. Not that I’m actually … you know …. wrong.

    What gets me is that intelligent people seem to think that they ought to get some sort of ethical credit for their “struggle” to stand so loyally and bravely by their commitment. No. No credit. They are not only struggling against accepting the truth, they’re actually struggling against their own conscience.

  4. “The best sentence here is this: ‘That which really belongs to the mind of the reader is attributed to that of the writer.’ That’s theology in a nutshell.”

    The word for that process is eisegesis. In a wonderful irony, it’s pronounces “I see Jesus.”

    1. What a wonderful word — and, as you say, ironic.

      “It can be argued that the many recent attempts to delineate an historical Jesus, one whose portrait can be drawn convincingly as ‘a marginal Jew’ (John P. Meier), ‘a Mediterranean peasant’ (John Dominic Crossan), a Galilean hasid (Geza Vermes), a Zealotlike revolutionary (S.G.F. Brandon, Robt. Eisenmann), a folk magician (Morton Smith), shaman (S.L.Davies, Gaetano Salomone), a Qumran Essene (Barbara Thiering), or a Cynic-like sage (Gerald Downing, Burton Mack) are themselves so many attempts to historicize the mythic-seeming figure of Jesus who meets us in the Gospels. Each book attempts to show that the story looks a good deal less fanciful if one re-explains it in immanent historical-cultural terms.” (Robt. Price)

      Or, the story looks a good deal less fanciful if one re-explains it by assuming Jesus is one’s own role-model.

      1. Thank you for the quote. A search for it took me to what looks like a wonderful debunking essay of Price’s titled “Of Myth and Men”.

  5. Unitarians (or apparently, formally, Unitarian Universalists) seemed to me to be a pretty sane bunch, based on one encounter. My first scientific mentor was involved with them, and at his memorial service this past January I was a bit leery of what might be in store. But listening closely I didn’t hear a single ‘God’, ‘Jesus’ or ‘heaven’ mentioned in the service or after. Just one ‘Lord’ in a slave-era spiritual. They seemed to be pretty much a social organization, and since this was in Maine, there’s probably plenty of room for that.

    I sorta wondered if UUs had always been like that, and this suggests that they have.

  6. Ken Ham and Jack van Impe would probably give a great amen to the statement that “the natural and simple meaning of the words is set aside.” Their schtick is a “simple” reading of Genesis = young earth, etc., and thus they don’t have to even bother with science!! 🙂

  7. An interesting book! Here’s a passage that will be of interest to regulars here:

    “Almost every scientific theory that comes into existence is found to conflict in some point or other with the theological notions which an unscientific past has handed down. But the theologians are ever on the alert; and war is at once declared against the scientific intruder. All good men are summoned to the defense of the Bible. The conflict rages fiercely, and shows no sign of abatement until it is seen that the scientists are getting the day, when lo! it soon begins to be discovered by the theologians that, after all, the new theory is harmless, indeed, there is no discrepancy between it and Scripture. The discrepancy that had been supposed to exist grew out of a wrong Scripture interpretation. In fact, instead of the two being in conflict, the scientific theory is really taught in the Bible” (Origin and Growth of the Bible, p. 14).

    It’s hard to believe that this was written in 1893…

    1. Ah, that’s great!

      As to “written in 1893”–don’t you think there have always been people who could cut through the crap like this?

Leave a Reply