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Going Naive: The Next Step In Re-Reading The Bible

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 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:

Paul Ricoeur

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.

  • I like the second naïveté because it is more vulnerable, more humble. It may not be as attractive to Christians as the second coming of angry apologetics, but I think it’s a better witness.

  • Max Chance

    Love this, Sean.
    I see that 3-act story you’re mentioning from Ricouer in a lots of graphic examples, some from the world of, ironically, entertainment… where one is permitted to say whatever they want, and where controversy tends to be courted. (Read: somehow, they’re more likely to be honest and direct, because there’s no reason not to be.)

    Bono is the first… singing “rejoice!” and “won’t you come back tomorrow” in his early stage, then entering his middle phase of “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” and “love is blindness” (in which he toys with the “dangerous idea” that God has died), then returns to his faith, world-weary, in all it’s “Beautiful Day” …singing love songs to “Grace.” “Magnificent” is based on the Magnificat, etc.

    Some see a similar arc in Dostoevsky (as someone way smarter than me suggests in the intro to Bros Karamazov!) He reportedly began with faith, then entered his adolescent-like Stage 2, rejecting it all (“The Idiot,” etc.), then returned with battle-scars for “The Brothers Karamazov.”

    Last example off the top of my head might be Spielberg. Early days have their “Close Encounters” and “Raiders” exuberance, then he makes “Schindler’s List,” “Amistad,” and “Saving Private Ryan,” and now he seems to have returned to something of a 2nd naivete (did anyone besides us see his two latest kids’ movies, “War Horse” or “Tintin”? Or “Indiana Jones” before that?).

    One can imagine many dissertations have been done on this… Moses. David. Peter. Paul… But the reality of the experience is anything but academic. It’s interesting to me to be with someone when they enter Phase 2, because they feel that abandonment from the church as they knew it. And they turn all bitter and fierce. And it’s the best thing that could happen- as long as they don’t stay there. To a person, they all describe a feeling of betrayal, and that they were “taught wrong” somehow. 🙂 …It reminds me of Paul arguing that it is not that the Law was flawed, but the sinful nature in us that was responsible for the weakness it produced. Seems like the growing that we each HAVE to do includes this critical process.

  • Peggy Lee

    Your comment, “God tells us the truth — the truth about who we are, whose we are and what life is about” articulates this in a way that brings clarity to what is meant by “the truth.” Thanks Sean! And thanks to Rochelle, for pointing FB-ers to your blog :-).

  • That is extremely profound, but I understand the three steps. This is a completely unique view of Bible study, and I need to work through the first naïveté, the critical questioning and the second naïveté. Thank you for explaining the process so well!

  • Kraig

    “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.”

    I really like what I think you mean in this entry, but I think an embrace of french philosophy has caused some confusion. The war of 1812 is not true, not in the literal sense. “There was a war in 1812” is literally true. Propositions – very roughly equivalent to the kinds of sentences that would make sense on a true/false test – are the objects of truth value; ie, only when used in reference to a proposition is the word “true” (or “false) used literally. We say things like, “My love is true” and “The Bible shows us the truth” and “Jesus is the Truth.” When we use the word “truth” like that, we are speaking metaphorically. (It is not an insult to say that someone is speaking metaphorically). Propositions are the bearers of truth-value and are the only things that can, literally speaking, be called true (or false).

    When you tell me, “Kraig, you are driving me up the wall,” the proposition you are asserting might well be true, even if the literal declarative sentence that comes out of your mouth is not true. We communicate like this all the time, and the Bible communicates like this as well. While it is far more complicated when reading scripture, there are lots of clear cut cases when we can know that certain propositions are being asserted. Either all of those propositions are true (in the non metaphorical sense) or they are not. I think they are, even though I don’t think such an opinion is necessary for discipleship.

    At least, that’s my take!

    • I think I think what you are saying is true…in some sense.


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