Monday, March 14, 2005

A Hermeneutical Forum

One of the most important elements of being a student of the future is being able to grasp lessons history teaches us. Westerners have now created a culture in which the past does not matter, and we live from day to day -- making it up as we go along. Futurist Stephen Bertman wrote several years ago that "a technological culture... inevitably severs its people from the past, depriving them of historical and spiritual perspective" (Stephen Bertman, Hyperculture: Westport, CT, 1998, page 24). We see that all around us.

Those of us who stand in the great tradition of catholic and historic Christianity stand on the shoulders of our past, drawing from its lessons and its spiritual perspective, but that is not so with all Christians. As a historic Christian I believe that the manner in which we should read and understand Scripture is within the continuum of interpretation that began at the very beginning, but others hold a different perception of both the place of Scripture in our faith, and the way that we use words to understand it.

Finding, as I do, the deconstructionist mentality (which is the extreme end of the alternative, but highly influential) both shallow and trivial, a narcissistic outworking of the self-centered radical individualism of 21st Century western society, I am clearly at odds with those who constantly repeat the mantra that there are other ways to understand the biblical text. As I have said before, I have reached a point of exasperation with those who say, "Well, that's your way of interpreting the Bible," but who then do not come up with a disciplined interpretation of their own, and neither do they have a theologically and hermeneutically consistent alternative to offer.

It is my belief that having backed away from a disciplined scholarship of the text, those seeking to revise what we understand to be the Christian faith and its ethical implications, have totally failed to present a viable, solid, and consistent alternative. When in discussion with them there is a game of bait and switch going on, in which they change the subject when they find themselves being cornered by the fluidity of their own hermeneutical presuppositions.

Last week I heard on the radio a revisionist in the field of sexuality presenting as proven facts notions that have no scientific evidence to back them up. On Saturday I heard it said by an intelligent person that you can be "orthodox" and believe almost whatever you like -- thus evacuating the word orthodox of its fundamental meaning. It would appear that there is a "campaign" within our culture to fly in the face of facts and language in order to assert something that is up for debate as being totally true and, therefore, beyond debate and should be applied within our world.

This is all helped in the church by the fact that those are orthodox avoid entering the discussion, or merely offer soundbites from the sidelines, while leaving questionable notions intellectually unchallenged. Some years ago I was in California with the rector of a wealthy liberal congregation, and I suggested that one of the things we needed was a gathering at which the various hermeneutics that have arisen to challenge traditional hermeneutics, could meet together with those of us who hold one of a variety of historical hermeneutics and test our ideas against one another. I makes this suggestion again, this time in a wider forum -- we need such a setting.

I am not a scholar, but I am perfectly happy to test my reading of the text, following in the footsteps of Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Karl Barth, and scores of active scholars, in a forum where more contemporary understandings of the text share the floor. I believe that such a gathering is vital, because those who claim orthodoxy need to check their interpretative presuppositions against those they perceive to have erred, as much as the innovationists need to be able to make a solid and consistent attempt to make a case for their own approach toward interpretation.

I am not necessarily saying that such a gathering would change a lot of minds, but it would reveal the weaknesses and inconsistencies of every side of this vital argument that is taking place. If something like this was funded and sponsored by a cross-section, say, Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry and Regent College, Vancouver, and Episcopal Divinity School and Union Theological Seminary, New York, then perhaps there would be a good chance for outcomes to be taken seriously.

This issue of hermeneutic needs to be engaged rather than continuing to be a weapon we use against each other.


Craig Goodrich said...

I am not necessarily saying that such a gathering would change a lot of minds, but it would reveal the weaknesses and inconsistencies of every side of this vital argument that is taking place.

The weaknesses and inconsistencies of the revisionist side are blatantly obvious and are discussed in detail all over the Web for anyone who cares to look and can apply rational thought processes.

The real problem is that so few care to look, and even fewer think seriously and rigorously about the issues.

Chesterton famously commented that someone who does not believe in God will believe anything. That's what we're dealing with. Not only would nobody's mind be changed, the revisionist side would not even understand the question. This is what e.g. Fr. Radner means when he says,

"Something basic is going on here in this way of thinking by which political grievances are assumed to be equivalent to theological imperatives. I am not sure of its ground, but the method represents a category mistake of enormous proportions." (

This sloppiness of thought is widespread in contemporary American culture, not just in theology. Notice how relatively few Americans take advanced degrees in, say, physics or engineering. Notice how any reference to history gets blank looks.

We're a ME, NOW culture. Nothing else matters but my immediate gratification. We've become a society of disposable razors, disposable TVs, disposable cars, disposable computers, disposable music and art, disposable sexual relationships, and disposable theology.

So I understand the reason for your proposal, but it strikes me as pointless. It's far too late, and the only ones who would pay any attention to the debate would be those of us who already understand the issue. And we've all been there, done that, over and over and over and over and ...


Richard Kew said...

Good point.