Liberalism, “Hermeneutics”, and Interpretive Solipsism

hermeneuticsRecently, Richard Beck wrote a post about the practice of Sola Scriptura, reading with a hermeneutic, and our emotional awareness of the process. He notes that everybody reads with a hermeneutic, a set of intepretive principles, biases, and presuppositions that guide our understanding of Scripture. For Beck, though, the mark of a fundamentalist is that they alone believe they don’t have a hermeneutic, even when they do. This is why it’s a fundamentalist move to say something like, “Well, the Bible clearly says”, or “I’m just reading the text, here”–as if things were really that simple. Beck says that this signals a striking lack of self-awareness.

For example, saying something like “this is the clear teaching of Scripture” is similar to saying “I’m not a racist.” Self-aware people would never say either one of those things.

Self-aware people would say things like “I don’t want to be a racist” or “I try not to be racist” or “I condemn racism.” But they would never say “I’m not a racist” because self-aware people know that they have blind spots. Self-aware people know they have unconscious baggage that is hard to notice or overcome.

And it’s the same with how self-aware people approach reading the bible. Self-aware people know that they are trying to read the bible in an unbiased fashion. Self-aware people work hard to let the bible speak clearly and it its own voice. But self-aware people know they have blind spots. They know that there is unconscious baggage affecting how they are reading the bible, baggage that they know must be biasing their readings and conclusions. Consequently, self-aware people would never, ever say “this is the clear teaching of Scripture.” Just like they’d never claim to be unbiased in any other area of life, racism being just one example.

I have to say, he’s got a point. I’ve seen this happen. Many fundamentalists operate as if they don’t have a hermeneutic and it’s naive and unhelpful, precisely because we want to be subservient to the Word of God, not our own blinders.What’s more, as a couple of my progressive friends noted, this sort of fundamentalism isn’t restricted to conservatives. There can be progressive “fundamentalisms” with a similar lack of self-awareness in reading the Scriptures.

That said, I did want to register a few comments, that, while not entirely contradictory, may offer some nuance.

First, the statement “the Bible clearly says…” may have more than one reference point. In other words, I think Beck has put it a bit strongly when he contends than no self-aware reader of Scripture would ever say, “The clear teaching of Scripture is…” or some statement along those lines. I suppose my question is, after study, after prayer, after wrestling, what should they say?

“The Scriptures unclearly say…” Well, obviously nobody wants to be stuck with that.

“My hermeneutic leads me to believe that…” That might seem initially more honest, but the problem is that we’re now in the position where it seems the hermeneutic, not the Scriptures are doing all the work. More on that later.

Instead, it seems entirely possible that someone who is quite aware of their perspective, hermeneutic, and so forth, might read, study, struggle, and arrive at the conclusion that, “The Scriptures clearly say…” To deny that possibility is to bind God’s capabilities as a speaker to our capabilities as interpreters and hearers. It’s to restrict our doctrine of revelation within the confines of our anthropology, rather than our theology.

In other words, for some, the statement “The Scriptures clearly say…” is uttered, not so much in relation to our abilities as a reader, or our lack of hermeneutic, but a statement about God’s ability as a speaker. In acknowledging finitude, sin, and the need for interpretive humility, we need to take care not to chain the Word of the Lord our God with human fetters.

Second, as a friend noted online, there’s a bit of fuzziness as to what we mean by “a hermeneutic.” For some, having a hermeneutic means something along the lines of “proper principles of interpretation” like considering grammar, historical context, literary principles, and so forth. For others, it’s a bit thicker, including theological presuppositions about the nature of the text and what it says. And, for some, it’s about the unavoidable ideological tilt and finitude we bring to our reading of the text. In other words, there are “hermeneutics” as clarifying lens helping us engage the text, and for others, it speaks more of the unavoidable distance and subjectivity of our encounter with it. It’s not entirely clear which Beck means in this post.

Which leads me to my third comment. Earlier this week, I joked online that, if Beck is right and a fundamentalist is someone who believes they don’t have a hermeneutic, then a Liberal is someone who only has a hermeneutic. In other words, there’s a danger to interpretation in both directions.

Opposite Beck’s fundamentalist, it’s possible to end up with the sort of self-absorbed, interpretive, solipsist who thinks it’s interpretation and “hermeneutics” all the way down, with no actual encounter with the sort of Text, or Voice, or Word, that can break through the fog. We run the risk of thinking all we can ever speak of is our differing hermeneutics and not the Text we’re both trying to read. We’re “self-aware” to the point that all we’re aware of is our Self, or Social Location, or Gender, or Community. At that point, our interpretive discussions just become a form of philosophy with Scriptural vocabulary.

I’ll close by quoting one of my favorite passages from Vanhoozer, which, while not exactly speaking to hermeneutics but God-talk more generally, charts a helpful middle-course:

Those who would be honest to God must strive to avoid both pride and sloth in their God-talk. Theological pride overestimates the adequacy of human language and thought; theological sloth underestimates the importance of responding to the provocations of God’s self-revelation. The one goes before destruction; the other pre-empts instruction. Yet it is hard to miss the recurring biblical theme that God wills to communicate and make himself known: “The word of the Lord came to . . .”; “the Lord said . . .”. Theology is ultimately irresponsible if it fails either to attend to what God says or to think about the nature of the one who addresses us.

–Kevin Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship, pg. xvi

Soli Deo Gloria 

On a Scale From Harold Camping to Augustine…(Or, Why I Don’t Like the “F”-Word)

snakes2I hate the f-word. Not the f-bomb, or even that other f-word you might be thinking of. No, instead I’m thinking of that other lovely term of abuse: ‘fundamentalist.’ Originally, the term simply referred to those on the conservative side of the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy in Evangelical Protestantism in the 1920s-1930s. These believers were the ones who affirmed things like the Incarnation, Christ’s atonement, the inerrancy of Scripture, the Resurrection, and Virginal conception of Christ–you know, the “Fundamentals.” Since then, it has morphed into a general catch-all label applied across various religions and possibly non-religious ideologies.

The first time I ran up against this reality was during office hours my sophomore year in college with my philosophy professor. I was sitting on her couch and proudly confessed to being a fundamentalist during our conversation on religion.  She looked at me quizzically and said, “Well, you don’t look like one.” By that she meant I was wearing blue jeans not made by my mom out on our farm.

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga goes into some lexical analysis demonstrating how nearly-useless the term has become especially in discussions regarding religion (pardon the playful-profanity):

“..we must first look into the use of this term ‘fundamentalist’. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ’son of a b#tch’, more exactly ’sonovab#tch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ’sumb#tch.’ When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumb#tch, would you fell obligated first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use); it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like ’stupid sumb#tch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumb#tch’?) than ’sumb#tch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ’stupid sumb#tch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’” —Warranted Christian Belief, pp. 244-245

Though Plantinga is a scholar, this is admittedly not a scholarly, sociological analysis. For a general observation on how the term is used in everyday discourse though, I think it’s spot-on. Depending on who uses the term, ‘fundamentalist’ can mean anything from Harold Camping/compound-out-in-Montana types to someone simply holding classic, Nicene Christianity–making it functionally useless.

I’m not sure I have any good word to replace it. Aside from the particular words to describe the beliefs in question, inevitably that new word will probably stretch and contract with usage, becoming similarly problematic as are terms like “liberal” and “conservative.” Relative statements inevitably need to be made. The problem is that my “liberal” might be your “moderate” depending on the scale you’re working with. Still, whenever I see someone or some belief labeled “fundamentalist”, unless I know the person or belief A, or the person B making the accusation, I am told almost nothing the belief in question, except that person B doesn’t agree with A because they find it idiotically-conservative.

All that to say, I don’t like the word much except for its historical, academic sense.

Soli Deo Gloria