Our fundamental biology, assumptions and experiences, passed down through our families and environments, shape us more than we know. By identifying these influences, we can shape them.
In the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical the Sound of Music, 17 year old Rolf sings to his beloved 16 year old Liesl about her innocence as she makes the transition into adulthood. Rolf’s song, Sixteen Going on Seventeen, includes the line “your life, little girl, is an empty page, that men will want to write on.”
Though a charming sentiment, it is not really true. None of our lives are an empty page, ready to learn and experience anything that comes our way with complete accuracy and objectivity. We are each preconditioned by a host of factors to see and respond to life in a particular way:
1. Genetics – A man who is color blind can never experience certain colors. Though the colors exist he is unable to see them, and so a traffic light that is in fact red may be forever perceived by this man as gray. The same is true of hearing problems and other medical disorders such as limb agenesis.
2. Sex – Men and women experience the world differently because of their anatomical, biochemical and socio-behavioral makeup. When a woman alone meets a strange man her first thought is often of fear and a desire for security. When a man alone meets the same strange man he may barely notice him.
3. Race – Blacks, whites, Hispanics, Indians, Asians, and all other races treat each other and are treated by each other differently in different areas of the world and at different times in history. A Chinese man in America in the 1800s may have been considered stupid but the same man in America today may be considered smart. He may have considered himself superior as a man from the “Middle Kingdom” to the “white barbarians”.
4. Culture – Civilizations with a basis in Christianity, scientific progress and the rule of law have a very different set of assumptions than those with a basis in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or Judaism, and those in which there is little technological progress and power is the only law. Early nineteenth century Hindus saw sati, the practice of immolating a widow on the pyre of her dead husband, as a valid and even constructive practice. The British, who controlled most of India in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, saw it as evil. The difference was their culture.
5. Experiences – In the Sound of Music, Liesl lived in a secure wealthy home with six siblings and a famous father, but without her mother, who had died several years before. She never woke up hungry in the morning, went to a factory or farm to work 12 hours and earn a few schillings, and then trudged home again to a cold, dark room. Educational and cultural experiences and the willingness to learn from them are also important.
6. Language – Each language has characteristics which influence how people who use that language speak and even think. German is a harsh sounding language which loads up verbs at the end of sentences and takes a lot of words to express a thought. The Gideon’s German translation of the New Testament, for example, has 338 pages and the English New Testament translation of the New Testament has 220 pages (1).
It should be clear that as Liesl was not actually an empty page, neither are we. Each of us sees reality in a way which is shaped and colored by the factors above, almost as glasses shape and color what we see. If because of struggles and suffering our individual glasses are dark like sunglasses, we may see reality as dark and foreboding. If because of wealth and ease they are rosy we may see reality as warm and safe. When we encounter a new thing, such as a passage in the Bible, we understand the new thing in light of what we have seen before. This is called preunderstanding.
Preunderstanding affects our ability to understand anything we encounter because it limits the possibilities we are willing to consider. Consider a cherished American phrase in the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal”. What could this mean?
1. All men are created equal to each other, but women and children are not.
2. All men and women are created equal to each other, but children are not.
3. All human beings are created equal to all other human beings.
4. Whoever is created equal, they are all equal in physical and mental abilities.
5. Whoever is created equal, they are all equal in outcomes, including wealth, health, and whatever else the observer would like to measure.
6. Whoever is created equal, they are all equal in value before their Creator.
7. Whoever is created equal, they are all equal in value before the writers of the Declaration, who were representing the government.
8. Whoever is created equal, they are all equal in value before the people of the United States.
If Person A’s preunderstanding makes him or her value men over others, he or she may preferentially choose number one. If Person B has an atheistic preunderstanding, he or she will exclude number six out of hand. Just as our preunderstanding limits how we interpret the Declaration of Independence, it will also limit how we understand the Bible.
Preunderstanding can be good and bad; helpful and unhelpful. As a physician, I must have a great deal of biomedical preunderstanding if I hope to diagnose and treat my patients. We test preunderstandings to see if they are adequate and appropriate in various ways.
1. We compare them to facts. Sometimes our preunderstandings are simply wrong. Alchemists for centuries thought that earth, air, fire and water could make gold.
2. We evaluate them against other parts of Scripture. The wise men clearly did not show up at the manger on the same night as the shepherds, and deceased people do not become angels.
3. We expose them to other ideas and people with other preunderstandings, through education, travel and interaction with others, and evaluate them in the light of God’s word and His Spirit.
Preunderstandings can never be completely eliminated because just as we do not notice our glasses when wearing them, we also can never see all of the factors influencing how we understand reality. Education, a wide variety of experiences, and a willingness to experience and learn from other cultures can help us minimize our harmful preunderstandings. Simply being aware of how we see the world and being humble enough to admit that in some areas we may be wrong will help us overcome errors in our preunderstanding.
Presuppositions are assumptions that we bring into the thing we are trying to understand (2). They are usually conscious, as opposed to preunderstandings which are often subconscious. A Bible critic who presupposes that miracles cannot exist must necessarily interpret the miracles in the Bible as something else. Evangelicals typically presuppose that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, is a trustworthy guide to the work of God in human history, and is unified yet diverse (3).
As an American, my preunderstandings are those common to my culture. I tend to emphasize freedom and individual action over authority and communal action. It is difficult to understand how a man can be saved with his entire household (Acts 16:31-33) unless each member individually accepts Christ. It is really difficult to understand how the sin of Adam and Eve somehow condemns all of their descendents an sinful nature. Perhaps people from a more communal culture can understand that better. The American culture is also one that values progress, activity and accomplishment, and I am deeply affected by these values as well. A former pastor of mine, Mike, was traveling in Kenya with a missions group from our El Paso church. When meeting the hosting Kenyan pastor and his lay leaders, Mike introduced each man and told their occupation. The Kenyans were unimpressed. What they really wanted to know was how many children each man had. What a difference in culture!
1. The New Testament, Gideon’s International
2. Presupposition, Webster’s New World Dictionary, 2nd collegiate edition, 1984, Simon and Schuster, New York NY, 1984
3. Duvall JS, Hays JD, Grasping God’s Word, Zondervan 2nd ed, Grand Rapids MI, 2005, p95