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A Dangerous Word #2 – The Hermeneutical Circle

In a previous post, I began a conversation regarding reading scripture (The Bible)  and the process of deconstruction. This began for Rochelle and I several years ago through a confluence of personal and professional setbacks. Our inherited hermeneutic could not handle the weight of our experiences or the misguided, though well-intended, words and actions we received from fellow Christ-followers. So, we went on a journey that changed the way we read the Bible. We weren’t trying to read the Bible differently, we were just trying to make sense of the full witness of scripture and what we were experiencing.

It has been and continues to be a painful (at times) and beautiful quest.

The primary reason for the pain is that the pursuit of the God of scripture has often lead us to starkly different conclusions about who God is than the prefabricated views we were fed as children. A friend of mine, who has now come to read the Biblical text differently than he was taught, once said: “I wish my pursuit of Jesus did not put me at odds with the very people who taught me to pursue Jesus in the first place.” He lovingly meant that the process of deconstructing and rebuilding your approach to the Bible is difficult to understand by those who have chosen to ignore or abandon the process of deconstruction. For many in the church deconstruction and reconstruction can causes discord and consternation. Counterintuitively, the deconstructive process actually strengthens, beautifies and animates our faith to greater levels. The process is known as the “hermeneutical circle.”

French philosopher Paul Rocouer described the process like this.

The starting point is the First Naivete:

Here we accept the words and symbols of our text as truth without question. You’ve probably heard, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it…” or something like that. Platitudes like this have an air of faithfulness to them, but ultimately it’s both weak and inconsistent. It’s weak because it’s childish (which is different than childlike); accepting on face value whatever you’re told because an authority told you. It’s also weak because no one – ABSOLUTELY NO ONE – lives their life that way. On the major questions of life we do research, we ask questions, and go beneath the surface. The banality of flippant words concerning scripture – if actually believed and practiced – depicts Christians as people who do more investigation into buying a new car or computer than their Holy Book. When something is important, we probe it. To say we accept the Bible without question may make us sound faithful to scripture, but more accurately it reveals that we don’t care much about our sacred text. In essence we are saying that the Bible is not worth our time, attention and focused effort.

To say, “God said it, etc….” is not only weak, but inconsistent. As I highlighted in the previous post, none of us practice all the commands, injunctions and inferences in the Bible – that is, unless you’re practicing exchanging a Holy Kiss and measuring Christian maturity by speech ethics, as James, the brother of Jesus, does. All this simply means that faithful Bible readers cannot remain in the First Naivete. They cannot, if for no other reason than there is less faithfulness there than we imagine.

The second stage Ricouer proffers is the Critical Phase:

In this phase, the reader begins to question the text and embrace the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” During this phase, the reader questions everything. This is the tough part! Is Genesis 1-12 literal? For that matter are Job and Daniel? How do we justify the differences between archeology and the conquest of Canaan? On that note, how do we feel about God-commanded genocide in order to enter the Promised Land? And what about Documentary Hypothesis Theory and the Synoptic Problem? These questions and many others like them are the reason (1) so many in the church shelter inside the First Naivete, (2) formulate a disdain for science and history, (3) recoil from the world into Christian sub-culture, and hosts of other activities. In this phase, the easiest thing to do is give up and the streets are filled with people who have done just that. But the folks who make it through the critical phase emerge better for it.

The third and final stage for Ricouer is the Second Naivete:

At this stage, the reader does not abandon his or her questions and criticism, but s/he sees the text anew. We accept the Bible – and more importantly, Jesus – as Truth, even through the questions. Here the text isn’t true like the War of 1812 is true, but the text is true because it tells the truth. For instance, in the First Naivete, everything must be literally true because…well, it just has to be. But in the 2nd Naivete, the Bible tells us the truth. The truth about who we are, whose we are and what life is about. If all you get from scripture is a Holy Timeline of Events, you’ve missed the point! The story of the Good Samaritan isn’t true because you can check the police report from the road to Jerusalem from Jericho or hold the check-in slip from the motel; it is true because it tells the truth about who God is and what God calls us to do.

This is the second naivete. And for me, it is a much richer place to be.

  • carlos perez

    De-construction is so dangerous. As a post-modern therapist, you would think that deconstruction is a good thing! But, the consequences parrallel those of deconstructing scripture. As people begin to deconstruct their socially constructed realities, it becomes a painful process of unvailing truth. Or, “truth.” God becomes a God that we were not taught was to be – people (family members in particular) become people who we thought not to be. When this happens, a lot of things change. Yes, it is painful. But, it is necessary for growth – as a person, as a therapist, as a christian, as a preacher….on and on.

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  • This is a great post and describes some of the same shifts that occured in my thinking as it pertains to hermeneutics.

    Grace and Peace,

    K. Rex Butts

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