Theological Blind Spots: Paul Hiebert’s suggestion for an international hermeneutic

Paul HiebertYesterday I wrote about blind spots in our individual lives. It is difficult to see them and just as challenging to address them.

The same thing is true in our theology. We often have blind spots that are evident to others but hard for us to see ourselves. Many years ago, I came across Paul Hiebert’s suggestion that we need the input of many people to save us from theological blind spots. Hiebert envisions an international hermeneutical community, who helps one another read, interpret, and live out Scripture beyond our cultural and personal blind spots for walking with Christ. He writes:

The goal of theology is not simply to apply the gospel in the diverse contexts of human life. Theology’s nature also revolves around the goal to understand the unchanging nature of the gospel—the absolutes that transcend time and cultural pluralism. If theology is to become more than a Rorschach inkblot into which we project our own cultural prejudices, we need a standard against which to test our theologies. Here again we can apply principles used by the Anabaptists to test the orthodoxy of theologies. One principle is that the primary test is the Scripture itself—the divinely superintended record of God’s acts in history. Another principle is that humility and the willingness to be led by the Spirit are vital to the reading of Scripture. The final principle is that the hermeneutical community checks interpretations and seeks consensus.

Just as believers in a local church must test their interpretations of Scriptures with their community of believers, so the churches in different cultural and historical contexts must test their theologies with the international community of churches and the church down through the ages. The priesthood of believers must be exercised within a hermeneutical community.

As the church in a given sociocultural setting seeks to contextualize the gospel, it is keenly aware of the needs the gospel must address within its setting and the foreignness of Christian forms that have been introduced from without. It is often unaware, however, of its own cultural biases, which it projects into its understanding of the Scriptures. Believers in other cultures are generally more aware of these. Consequently, churches in specific cultural settings need the check of the international community of churches to test where theologies are too strongly influenced by cultural assumptions.

Ironically, this metatheological process, carried out on the international level, may lead us to what Western theologians have long sought—a growing consensus on theological absolutes. It may bring us closer to the formulation of a truly supracultural theology. But such a formulation must be an ongoing process; for as the world and its cultures change, so do the problems theology must address.

[From Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), 102-103.]

Can We See and Change Our Blind Spots?: three possibilities for growth

blind spot

One of the greatest challenges for all of us is the reality that we have blind spots in our lives. The concept of the blind spot is probably best known from driving a vehicle. Those of us who took driving classes probably remember the explanation of that space between your peripheral vision and the reflected images of your mirrors that you cannot see. Driver’s education teachers remind everyone to always check their blind spot before changing lanes or merging into traffic. It is relatively easy to resolve blind spots with a quick glance over your shoulder when driving, but much harder to resolve in our lives.

In the larger context of life, blind spots are those aspects of our approach to living, character, or thinking that we simply do not see. Unlike with driving, it is much harder to deal with the blind spots in our larger life context. Why? Because we do not see what we do not see. At least part of the reason for this is that we are too close to our own lives and experiences to see patterns, behaviors, thinking, or speaking that has become second-nature to us.  Because of this, we often discover our blind spots in one of three ways: 1) we smash into them; 2) we have a friend who is close to enough to point them out to us and help us change; or 3) we encounter a different way of thinking or being that confronts us with the need for dramatic change.

The first way of discovering our blind spots is perhaps the most challenging because it causes pain to us and others around us. This painful discovery may sometimes be relatively small, such as the person who realizes their lack of time-consciousness hurts their friendships. At other times it is devastating, such as the person whose serious character flaw causes the end of their marriage, their career, or their friendships. The Apostle Paul had an experience like this. His blinding encounter with the glorified Christ on the road to Damascus ironically opened his eyes to his theological blind spot about the nature of the Christ (see Acts 9:1-19). He was never the same after that painful realization. Like a child who discovers heat is real by putting their hand on a burner, however, we rarely forget our blind spots after encountering pain. It forces us to change whether we want to or not.

Thankfully, this is not the only way to discover our blind spots. We can also learn to see our blind spots through the careful intervention of friends who know us well. When a true friend sees us veering into our blind spots again and again, they will lovingly address that blind spot with us. A friend who loves us does not gloss over difficult things. This is why Scripture tells us: “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses” (Proverbs 27:6). This is, of course, different than a critic who forces their view of someone’s error upon them without the trust-filled context of friendship. That approach is more like another proverb that tells us “a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). To have a friend who gracefully brings a painful but good word about our blind spots paves the way to change. I still can point to various times when good friends—my wife, my roommates in college, an accountability partner, a ministry colleague—have spoken to my about blind spots. Their wisdom and grace helped me to see myself through their eyes; seeing what I could not see so I could grow.

Seeing through another’s eyes is a fitting description of a third way we can deal with our blind spots. We have all likely experienced the striking moment where a flash of insight came to us to about the way things are in the world. When that happens in relation to our own lives, it often shines light upon a blind spot in our lives that needs to be dealt with. This can happen when we hear a message or lecture, read a book, watch a movie, participate in an event, travel to another country, spend time with others unlike us, or participate in personality profiled or self-assessment. The flash of insight that comes through these experiences has the power to change us as our blind spots are illuminated. When I first traveled cross-culturally, I had a powerful revelation about how task-oriented I was in comparison with more relational cultures. While I still tend toward task-orientation, I am at least aware of that tendency, even if I struggle to operate in other ways. The Apostle Peter’s visionary encounter with God on the rooftop of Simon the Tanner is an example of this. This vision opened Peter to his blindness and prepared him for a radical new understanding of and approach to Gentile inclusion in the church (see Acts 10:9-48). The breakthrough brings insight of tendencies that provide the opportunity for change in relation to blind spots we have.

In my own experience, seeing and addressing my blind spots has often come through a combination of the three ways mentioned above. I have sometimes encountered an insight that quickly was paired with either the rebuke of a friend or the pain of smashing into my blind spots. Sometimes a friend’s gracious attempt to point out a blind spot was something I resisted until I read or experienced something that brought that to clarity. My own sense is that it is very difficult to see our blind spots. The moment we think we see them all is the moment we are probably most dangerously blind to something. I have found it sometimes shockingly easy to see others’ blind spots, but difficult to help them see it themselves. Sometimes, I have found that blind spots in others that I turn a critical eye toward often parallel a blind spot in my own life that I see later. Again and again, I return to the final verses of Psalm 139 as a helpful prayer for the revelation of blind spots in my own life:

Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
(Psalm 139:23-24)