Wednesday, February 13, 2013

In Defense of Critical Hermeneutics

"Fish Mosaic" by Charlsie Kelly
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines hermeneutic as “a method or principle of interpretation.” It follows then that Biblical hermeneutics is a method or principle of interpreting the Bible. This goes beyond (but includes) personal study of scripture for spiritual growth and guidance. Biblical hermeneutics involves a scholarly plan for interpreting scripture in such a way as to extract present day truths from an ancient text while being faithful to the text. That sounds hard because it is hard.
The truth is that anyone who has spent time in the scripture has practiced hermeneutics, though they might not have known that is what they were doing. Anyone who opens a Bible and studies scripture for understanding and guidance interprets, in some way, what they find there. The primary reason for reading scripture is applying scripture to our lives in an effort to live as God would have us live. The best source we have for learning about God is the Bible. But the Bible was written book by book over thousands of years, thousands of years ago.
There is the rub, there is our dilemma. How do we take a collection of books written by an ancient people, who lived in a world we can never fully understand, and apply it to our lives? Better still, how do we take this collection of books and communicate the deep and profound meanings in the stories we find there to people different from ourselves? I suggest we take a critical approach, understanding our limitations and being honest about the assumptions and biases we bring to our reading of the text. This approach is called Critical Hermeneutics.
Critical Hermeneutics requires we have a socio-historical understanding of the culture in which the text was written. Just as we have biases and assumptions today, the people that wrote the Biblical stories and the people they were originally written for had biases and assumptions as well. They were also influenced by the political, social, economic, and geographic environments in which they lived, just as we are.By understanding the context in which the text was written we can come closer to understanding what God was saying in that time. We then listen for what we hear God saying to us through the text today and test the truth of what we hear by comparing it to what we believe God was saying in the past.
But why, why go to all this trouble? Because, if we do not, if we simply draw a straight line from the ancient text to today’s culture, we run the risk of serious Biblical misinterpretation. If our intent in studying scripture is to know God and to grow closer to God then we must be as accurate as we possibly can when we interpret scripture. We must also be open to the possibility, or probability, that our understanding of scripture will change as our life circumstances change and as our understanding of the socio-historical setting in which the text was written changes.
Allowing scripture to be dynamic, to be alive and changing, goes against our very nature as modern people living in twenty-first century western culture. Our culture demands exact answers, absolute truths. We expect black or white, yes or no, right or wrong answers, not multi-layered, multi-colored, multi-cultural understandings; especially when we are talking about God.
Bazinga! There is a great Biblical lesson, right there in the tension we experience between what we want from the scriptures and what we get from the scriptures. Interpreting scripture is not easy. Following Jesus is not easy. Serving others, loving our neighbors, and being the church in mission is not easy. We like to think that a homogeneous culture is a perfect culture, a culture where everyone thinks the same way, looks the same way, and knows God in the same way. But that is not what scripture tells us and that is not what God has given us. And thank God for that!
We are called to take this multi-layered, multi-colored, multi-cultural world we live in and create community. Given all of our differences, creating such a community can only be done by God and through God. It is often said that people do not care what you know until they know that you care. I think we could alter that a bit and say that people will not care about God unless we can show them God cares about them.