Jun 22, 2011

Hermeneutics, and the problem of possible viable positions

If you look at the Bible hermeneutics debate in the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies (as my students are doing at the moment), you see that there are two questions, or two parts of one question. The debate mostly centered on just the one, but it should be broken down into parts as the hermeneutics question, as it played out and got answered in early 20th century American Christianity, really did have two parts.

Make it:
A. Is the historical-critical method of reading right?
B. Is the historical-method compatible with orthodox Christianity?

The fight was mostly re: B, but A was there nonetheless. That's not as true today.
Today there's more of a worked out idea about literal reading of the Bible, as a hermeneutic that's an anti-hermeneutic hermeneutic, and the variety of methods used in academia has diversified. Today, the question concerning Christianity and hermeneutic is mostly phrased as a question of the legitimacy of "literalism" as a reading method, with that method, or non-method method, taken as either only possible one for Christians or even as somehow functionally equivalent of Christianity.

That's not how it was in the 1920s, though. There the debates seem to have mostly centered around the second part, i.e., B above.

If you look at, e.g., W.B. Riley's "The Faith of the Fundamentalist," he says Christians can have "no sympathy whatever for the weasel method of sucking the meaning out of words and then presenting the empty shell." He attributes the "weasel method" to "modernists in general," and declares: "although modernism still calls itself Christian, it has nothing in common with the faith."

He goes on in that vein -- "Fundamentalism is forever the antithesis to modernist critical theology. It is made of another and an opposing school." -- but most of his vehemence is directed at the second part of the question. He accepts, for example, that non-Christians will read the Bible with such a method, though only in order to dismiss it and make it meaningless, not to understand it, say, in its historical context. He doesn't even dispute the method as such, really, except to say it can't be reconciled with the Christian faith and the doctrines that have been "forever settled in heaven."

Once the issue is delineated into two questions, though, we see the possible positions one could take with regards to the controversy.

Make it:
Position 1 (the fundamentalist): no to A, no to B.
Position 2 (the modernist Christian): yes to A, yes to B.
Position 3 (the modernist): yes to A, no to B.

The fact that positions 1 and 3 agree on B has worked out in interesting ways in American culture. It's worked to give that position a good bit of weight, with a lot of people assuming that the answer to question B has to be no, making it so there's an experience of something like a majority consensus on the irreconcilability of Higher Criticism reading methods and orthodox Christianity. This has made position 2 seem to many an irregular, exotic position, even when held be those who have more than a bit of a right to pronounce what is or is not a traditional Christian view.

Position 2 seems weird (which is to say, a minority position), and that weirdness or exoticness itself is taken as evidence that it cannot be orthodox, cannot be "real" Christianity. It doesn't match what most people "know" Christianity is, and it's a minority position in the culture today, so it's taken as irregular Christianity, heterodox at best.

This has resulted in the situation where, in practice, position 2 is taken by most people, those who hold it and those who hold positions 1 or 3, as being modified a bit from my original formulation, so that it's yes to A and sort of to B.

Or: The historical-critical method of reading is right and it is compatible with orthodox Christianity.

Call it position 2b.

What's interesting though is that for many, even the modified position 2b is experienced as impossible to hold. Obviously there are and were professional promoters of positions 1 and 3 who work really hard on this moment of agreement and attempt to exclude the middle, constantly arguing that one must either accept Higher Criticism and it's reading methods or reject Christianity or the other way around, framing things so that those are understood to be the only two options.

And there are, in fact, people who have felt forced to answer no to question A solely because they believed the only possible answer to question B was also no. They didn't say no to question A -- is this method right -- because of anything having to do with that question, but because it seemed to necessarily fall out of their answer to the second part (which is where the debate was mostly centered). This is also true in reverse. There are those who've taken position 3 for no other reason than that they couldn't find a way to say yes to B, yes, modern hermeneutics is compatible with orthodox Christian faith.

I'd say a lot, but that's speculation on my part.

What's interesting to me, here, is not the validity of the positions, but the viability. It seems to me that position 2 is valid -- not in that it's right, necessarily, but it's logically possible and makes sense as a position -- but it has been experienced as unviable. It has been phenomenologically impossible for some as a position.

You also see, when the positions are mapped out like that, positions 1,2,3, that there's another possible position. There's an additional possible combination of answers to the two questions or two parts of a question of Bible hermeneutics in the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies. That is, one could possible take position 4: no to A, yes to B: i.e., The historical-critical method is not the right way to read, but it is compatible with orthodox Christianity.

BUT -- so far as I know, no one took this position in the period. There was no side of the debate that was position 4, no major argument making the case that against the reading method and, at the same time, holding that the rightness or wrongness of the method was irrelevant to orthodox Christianity.

That seems peculiar to me. It's a perfectly valid possible position. Logically it makes sense as a position. Yet, historically, it doesn't actually appear to have been an available one.

We might ask, of course, why anyone would have wanted to take position 4. What good does that position do? That question itself makes the point, though, that it's not a matter here of the validity of the position but the viability. It doesn't seem to have been possible in actual history, in the lived reality of those social contexts and those public debates, to be phenomenological possible. Even if it's a possible position in theory -- and, look, it is. We can pretty easily imagine how such an argument might go, how it would make sense, how it would be logically quite valid, etc. We can even conceive of how it could be true. What's apparently impossible, though, or at least appears to have been so in that historical period, would be for anyone to have actually held that position.

There just wasn't access to such an idea in such a way that the theoretical position, position 4, was ever actualized. There wasn't space enough for it to have been viable, however valid it might have been.
Debates like these -- then and now -- often get totally deadlocked. The dichotomous either-or frame gets so firmly fixed that it becomes difficult even to just think through implications and possibilities, what various answers to the stated question could be and the different implications those answers could have. Often, it seems like there are only two sides, both insisting that only two sides are possible, both shouting CHOOSE!

It’s worth thinking, I think, about the other possible positions. It’s worth asking, are there other logically valid positions? We can break the deadlock for ourselves, in our thinking, if nothing else.

It may turn out it’s not actually possible for us to hold those positions. Maybe we can conceive of them, but they can’t be lived in our actual social context, just aren’t viable in our culture. Maybe they’re not actually possible positions in the world. We are, after all, each trapped in our contextualization.