On Imposing Categories

One problem that we have when we approach a text, especially one of ancient origin, is that we bring our own questions and possible answers to the discussion. Often we forget that our questions are not universal, and the ancient author may have never even considered those possibilities. This is not only limited to the ancient; in fact, we do it daily with people who are still alive. First, a few ancient examples, and then a brief assessment of a similar problem today.

An example that is obvious yet still important is that of the Bible. We so often come to the Bible with questions that are not within the scope of questions that Biblical authors sought to answer. A great example of this is to simply look at the first few chapters of the book of Genesis. The first verse famously states “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…,” and from this passage we infer many things. Some see this (and the following verses) as a clear teaching concerning the (relatively) young age of the earth. Others see it primarily as a sort of myth that teaches God’s creative powers but does not necessarily dictate the time-frame. This is certainly closer to what Moses is teaching. Moses was not arguing for a young earth because there was no such argument. If people believed in an earth that was significantly older then it was not a debate, especially among the Jewish readers for whom Genesis was written.

If you keep reading in Genesis, you reach the account of the creation of man and woman. This passage is widely used in discussions of gender roles in the Bible. Both sides argue that if we understand how Adam and Eve acted in a perfect garden, then we can understand what the original plan was and attempt to live up to that. This line of argument stands, though the problem is that Moses is not thinking in these categories at all. If he wanted to give us a treatise on gender roles, I am sure that he would have. While we can glean information concerning gender, the age of the earth, and other questions we may have, we must remember that Moses’ point was not to answer these, but rather tell the tale of God’s creative power and the beginning and foundation of God’s people.

Another clear ancient example is that of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The ‘way to do’ an ethical system today is to provide a way of interacting with ethical dilemmas. This method does not seem unfamiliar, and even those who have not studied ethics are familiar with some of the more famous issues. Do you lie to the Nazi to save the life of the Jew in your home, even though your system of beliefs says lying is wrong? Do you take the heart from a living man to give to a dying man, ending one life to save another?

Contemporary ethical theories often revolve around answering these and similar questions. Usually they are used to point out a principle. The person who lies values life over a personal moral sin (if they even see it as one), whereas the person who tells the truth believes integrity with words is their responsibility, and not the murder of the Jew (which they do not commit with their own hands). In the second example, almost no one would take the heart from a perfectly healthy patient to save a man who needs a heart transplant; something about that feels wrong to us, instinctively (a willing donation is a different matter). This shows that we would rather ‘choose’ between the two lives by inaction then by action. The issue gets more complicated when you talk about taking organs from a living, healthy man in order to save five men, but that is an issue for another post.

When we look at Aristotle’s system of ethics, however, we do not get these sort of moral dilemmas. He does not provide us with complex questions to which his system gives us answers. Aristotle’s system revolves around figuring out how to be a good person, not about how to act well in various situations. He arrives at the same sort of system, in that it primarily concerns ethics and morality. His methods are very different; we should not throw out his work because he does not answer our questions.

Our ‘ethical system’ category is one that does not fully overlap with Aristotle’s, but we should expand our views instead of writing off his. Likewise with Moses: we should seek to understand what Moses wants us to learn, rather than examining Genesis for the age of the earth.

We do this every day when interacting with people and ideas, though it is more subtle when cultures line up. I am less likely to impose a false category on one of the other writers here at Push of Pikes, for example, because we were all born in the same century, have all lived in America, and are all college educated. While there are certainly similarities between us all, we mustn’t forget that sometimes we have different categories. Each blogger here has his or her own specialties, and we will all approach any given subject differently.

Often this problem of imposing our categories onto other thinkers comes up when we are debating. Sometimes we dismiss people who do not feel a need to answer the questions we hold as vital. Any time that we find ourselves in debate, we should seek to understand the categories and thought-patterns of our ‘opponent.’ The more we understand their questions, the more we can communicate our own.

Christ Abide.

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