Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Hermeneutic of suspicion...

Hermeneutic is a nice big word you learn at seminary.  Since you paid so much for that education and the Church has invested not a small sum in you, it is nice to draw on that vocabulary from time to time.  It is not such a hard word, really.  The dictionary calls it the study of the methodological principles of interpretation such we might use for of the Bible although not exclusive to Scripture.  An easier way of defining it is the way we see and understand something.

For a long time, maybe a couple of hundred years, Scripture has been approached more and more from the vantage point of a hermeneutic of suspicion.  That is, instead of accepting at face value the words and meaning from Scripture, or using Scripture to explain itself, the interpreter approaches the Bible with deep suspicion about its veracity, accuracy, and historicity.  In other words, it is not telling the truth, it is not factual, and it does not report actual events in time.  It does not matter whether we agree on this, this is the standard approach of historical criticism and it is the fruit of those who distinguished between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of Scripture.  This is what gave birth to the quest for the historical Jesus -- necessary because it was presumed that Jesus could not be known accurately from the Scriptures themselves.

Even conservative Christian churches have not been immune from the effects of this hermeneutic of suspicion.  We fought a battle in our own Missouri Synod over whether this was a benign tool that could be used by those who disagreed with its presumption or whether this methodology was so fraught with problems as to render its use impossible.  Though the battle was "won" over forty years ago, the war wages on both inside and outside our church body.  This is not because our seminaries still actively teach this hermeneutic but rather because the world around us is so steeped in suspicion toward Scripture and its truthfulness, accuracy, and historicity.

This is not simply limited to an approach to Scripture.  We have employed this hermeneutic of suspicion on all levels of our life and discourse.  I was listening to people speak about the recall movement of Gov. Walker in Wisconsin and it was clear from the get go that the people debating did not agree on even basic facts (statistics from supposedly neutral sources, for example).  In other words, their suspicion was not simply toward the opposing view but toward everyone and everything that was said.  How can people come together when even basic and incontrovertible facts are rejected as untruthful or slanted?

In the Church this has surely been a primary ingredient in the worship wars between so-called "contemporary" worship forms and music and those labelled "traditional."  It has also had a great deal of impact upon the debate between the "creative" and "missional" types who think outside the box and those who look more like the Church has looked and do more what the Church has done in the past.  It does not matter which side you are on (and you know from reading this blog which side I am on), the point is we are deeply suspicious of each other and can hardly agree on the meaning of the terminology so that our conversation is hindered from the get go.  We do not trust what our "opponents" say and we do not believe their motives are noble (on both sides).  It would seem to me that this is perhaps the most glaring problem of the proposed koinonia project of conversation and discussion in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

My point in writing this is that we are bearing the fruit of a way of looking at things in which we believe nothing is as it seems.  We will never begin to bridge the divides or even speak honestly about those divides as long as we are so deeply suspicious of one another, of truth, of institutions, and of life.  We have learned from the anti-historical folks to disbelieve the very things of which we can be certain.  It is not simply a religious problem.   It is a profound dilemma facing the Church and its witness, the divisions within Christendom, and Christian people.  It is a crippling malady for political conversation and governing.  We must at some point confront and address what this hermeneutic of suspicion has done to us and to our life together (in and outside the Church).  

Is everyone lying to promote their own agenda?  Is it always wrong to promote your point of view or influence the outcome based on your point of view?  Is the one who disagrees with you always wrong?  Is the one who disagrees with you always moved by nefarious motives?  Is there danger behind every issue and is that danger urgent?  

I am not the one with the answers.  I am just as guilty as anyone of my own suspicious nature and cynicism.  But I hope that we can at some point learn a new hermeneutic for the old hermeneutic of suspicion has born nothing but poisoned fruit -- within the Church and for our life together as a society of people.


Rich Kauzlarich said...

Pr. Peters: Thank you for this wisdom. I'm too willing to accuse others of this behavior when I am equally as guilty of always being suspicious of their motives. I like your connection to the secular world as well.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that, in C.S. Lewis' "Screwtape Letters," the demons use the same "hermeneutic of suspicion" to question God's ability truly to love humanity, assuming He must have some hidden agenda-albeit unknown to them. The result is a complete rejection of that Love. Just shows how far our suspicions will go when left unchecked. Thank God for His Holy Spirit and the Means of Grace!

Anonymous said...

Suspicion isn't all bad. We should be suspicious of innovations. The new idea bears the burden of proof. Do those who look out at what is being done by someone else somewhere else approach their ideas with the same suspicion as their own brothers among their own confession who use all the materials and forms that have met the biblical standards for doctrine and practice?

So, if someone among us looks at Pr. Peters and what he is doing with more suspicion than they look at Rick Warren's teaching and methods, well then I am suspicious of their discernment.

Anonymous said...

"So, if someone among us looks at Pr. Peters and what he is doing with more suspicion than they look at Rick Warren's teaching and methods, well then I am suspicious of their discernment."

Suspicion -- act or instance of suspecting something wrong without proof or on slight evidence: mistrust. A state of mental uneasiness and uncertainty: doubt. A slightly detectable amount: trace.

Suspicion leads to dismissal and discounting of other's positions, opinions, and beliefs with little or nothing to back up one's mistrust and/or doubt. It is very difficult to get anything done, to make any progress in such a climate because both sides already have one foot out the door before a meeting ever starts. When the parties do get into the room, they simply talk past each other, much like one of the talking heads political news shows. In such a climate, each party seeks arguments and/or evidence that only enhance or support their position and tear the other side down. There is no real intent or attempt to have a meaningful debate of the merit of the issues.

It sure makes life together in a common confession awfully difficult in such an environment.

Joshua Dembicki said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joshua Dembicki said...

You wrote: "That is, instead of accepting at face value the words and meaning from Scripture, or using Scripture to explain itself, the interpreter approaches the Bible with deep suspicion about its veracity, accuracy, and historicity."

If this is the application of the hermeneutic of suspicion, then yes, it seems an ominous thing indeed. Yet, applied differently, hermeneutical suspicion is an important thing to bring to the work of Scriptural exegesis and constructive theology.

The thing that is held in suspicion is not the Bible, and it is not the Bible's veracity, accuracy, or historicity which is ultimately held in suspicion. A healthily applied hermeneutical suspicion holds the biases, presuppositions, theology and worldview of the reader under suspicion. In fact, a hermeneutic of suspicion is best applied as a measure of intentionality undertaken by a reader to move the reader closer to taking the Scriptures at face value.

My reading of Scripture is always subjective. Contemporary social sciences help me to understand this about myself; I am largely influenced by my culture and social location. There are biases and presuppositions that I will bring to the text when I read it. And, as evident by the diversity of theological positions in the larger Church, there are more ways than one to interpret the text. The hermeneutic of suspicion is intended to call my socially and culturally informed biases into question, not the text itself.