I was stuck in my car...
a few days ago listening to Roberts Confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Much of the dialogue wasn't really dialogue. Several of the Senators never even got around to asking legitimate questions. They used their allotted 30 minutes to make a political statement or to promote an allied political agenda. Some of the questions asked of Roberts (who is a very skilled communicator) were motivated by the politics of specific issues like abortion, civil rights, etc. Regardless of the question, one theme repetitively appeared, the claim of objectivity.
When pushed on these emotional, political issues, Judge Roberts rightly claimed that he would examine any issue within the context of a specific case brought before the court. He was also very wise to point out that previous briefs that he had written on many of these same issues had a context. His briefs were written while providing legal advice to the administration that employed him. The political needs, interests, and perspectives of that administration (I think the Reagan Admin.) created a distinct historical context for these opinions.
Despite this obvious sensitivity to context, Roberts often appealed to "objectivity" as a shield to the specter of an "activist legacy," the fear that his personal opinions and experiences would affect his judiciary work. His well-spoken metaphors of objectivity (often comparing himself to a umpire that enforces acknowledged rules rather than a "player" in the game) were met with relief and affirmation even by would-be opponents to his nomination. Such is the strength of the myth of objectivity in our culture, one of the dangerous legacies of the modern world.
But of course, Roberts' personal experiences and beliefs will shape his judgments during his term on the highest court! To do so is to be human and to act honestly with integrity. A Roberts term on the Supreme Court will be affected by many cultural contexts. His interaction with his colleagues and their posture (which includes all of their own experiences and perspectives!) will be one critical context. The political climate of our nation will dictate the issues that reach this court. Obviously, the Constitution of the United States — to use Roberts' metaphor, the rule book — will be part of a critical interpretive context. This is resoundingly true because the Constitution must be interpreted as this great historical document encounters the new issues and questions brought forth by history. It is a text - a proclamation of great values written in a specific (and past) historical context.
For example, the "right to bear arms" certainly does not mean the freedom for private citizens to procure biological weapons! Or does it? This proclamation must be interpreted in light of the historical context of the framers (What freedom, right, and specific acts were they protecting in their time?) and the contemporary contexts where weapons have been developed that potentially go far beyond the needs of self-protection and can threaten the lives of whole populations. Or is the Bill of Rights to be read literally always - protecting the right to bear any weapon. Even to interpret it this literally demands a personal opinion on the value, or the lack thereof in this case, of historical contexts.
Why do I care...?
The postmodern world has opened our eyes to the impact of our many contexts on the truth we perceive. Acting with integrity now typically implies a great sensitivity to the personal stories that shape our perceptions rather than pretending that these personal stories do not exist or that they have no measurable impact on our lives and decisions.
Embracing this reality has tremendous implications on how we read Sacred text, encounter the traditions of those who have followed Jesus throughout the ages, and how we enter the lives of others who have different stories.
For example, I am just finishing a marvelous book by Brian Walsh entitled Colossians Remixed. In his introduction, he explains why some dismiss and even fear the Scriptures. Referring to a conversation with a friend who has, after long reflection, has become a theist but still claims no interest in the Bible, Walsh writes:
William responds to Biblical texts with a deeply set hermeneutic of suspicion. And he has good reason for his suspicion. This text has been used — in his experience and throughout much of Christian history — as a repressive book of absolutes that silenced all questioning. Indeed the Bible seems to be a text suffused with certainty. And if there is one thing that William and his generation are certain of, it is that there is no certainty. Certainty needs to be abandoned because it claims too much for any human perspective.
Walsh continues on, quoting philosopher John Caputo, on the damages done in human culture by claims of objectivity and certainty by persons in power:
The modernist pretense to have objectively grasped a total reality invariably results in a totalitarian social practice. Failing to recognize that human knowledge is always constructed in particular historical contexts, "total systems" are invariably achieved "only at the cost of violence, by repressing what doesn't fit and erasing the memory of those who have questioned it."
What does it mean...?
This is certainly not an attack on truth. Truth and reality certainly exist. As do values that shape our lives and human societies. But, of course, as servants of truth and meaning, we operate in a world of subjective impressions and perceptions. Being open to this reality, we are driven to community and relationship knowing that our knowledge is incomplete and that our perceptions need to be balanced by the experiences of others. In this process of community formation, many certainties are not only allowed but are resoundingly endorsed with the voices of so many. My certainty in the existence of a loving, redemptive, personal God because of this process - that this same God has touched the stories of so many that I love and respect.
Such an understanding releases the Bible from its captivity as a book of a-cultural directives and a-historical prescriptions. The Bible William and so many others fear can become a sacred text that encounters human dramas and contexts with grace and eternal meaning.
By the way, I have little doubt that Judge Roberts also understand the importance of context in interpretation. But sadly, our current context that idolizes certainties and bows to the myth of objectivity forces him to speak as if it were true.