Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Hermeneutics of Passion

At the SBL Annual Meeting this past few days, I encountered phrases like "hermeneutics of welcome" and "hermeneutics of sympathy" pitched against the "hermeneutics of suspicion" other scholars supposedly hold. The thing is, no one ever names the people who hold a hermeneutics of suspicion -- probably because the charge wouldn't stick.

A word of explanation. A few decades ago Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza described a hermeneutics of suspicion as one feminist strategy for engaging the Bible (among others). She meant that feminist readers may safely assume the biblical authors downplayed the contributions of women. A hermeneutics of suspicion, then, looks for signs of women's agency and history where it's not emphasized. I've oversimplified things, but a hermeneutics of suspicion, properly speaking, is primarily a creative strategy -- not a destructive one.

Apparently some people (and I'm not naming them out of charity) feel a need to defend the Bible from its supposed attackers. They invoke "hermeneutics of welcome" or "hermeneutics of sympathy" to suggest that they're open to biblical truth -- while those who differ from them employ the more hostile "hermeneutics of suspicion." It's a specious argument, cowardly even, because it suggests that only one mode of interpretation really values the Bible.

The real truth is, relatively few interpreters set out to find negative things to say. Many more of us, however, find ourselves passionately engaged with scripture -- to the point that the Bible continually surprises us. Sometimes it says things we wish it wouldn't. Sometimes it confronts us with questions we'd never thought to ask. Sometimes signs of hope, grace, and correction leap from the page and into our hearts. Rather than a hermeneutics of suspicion, let's call this a hermeneutics of passion (copyright right here). What about it?

"Passion" in its truest sense means the capacity to be acted upon. I don't mean primarily the passion of desire, often eroticized (more below), but the passion of wild openness to the encounter of the text. I'm talking about a deep engagement, one in which we readers make ourselves vulnerable to the encounter. I'm talking about the possibility that we cannot predetermine interpretive outcomes. I'm talking about passion.

And yes, I'm talking about the passion of desire, eroticize it if you will. We come to the Bible from a lack, a deficit, a need. We come from a world that keeps selling us petty things all glittered up. Music overproduced. Food overportioned. Bodies over-Photoshopped. We lust for something that calls us beyond ourselves, a reality that fills us truly, a set of relationships that lead to transformation. We read passionately.

So... my resolution for today. When someone dismisses another interpretation with the "hermeneutics of suspicion" label, I'm gonna call them out as they cowards they are. It's a hermeneutics of passion, people!


Carolyn Sharp said...

What an amazing term: "hermeneutics of passion"! It gives me, a Christian ideological critic with feminist and postcolonial interests, a conceptual orientation that is not as 'cold'-sounding (or faux- objective) as ESF's famous "hermeneutics of suspicion," a term whose influence I appreciate but which never sat entirely right with me. Passion: wild opennness, indeed -- and eager desire for connection, and holy curiosity about knowing the beloved in every dimension (that is, knowing the text), and insistent love that will not allow conflict or mystery to impede relationship. Potential drawbacks to the term would be related to our current culture's flaws, not the classical history of "passion": folks might hear solipsistic or narcissistic self-interest veiled in the term (as with "crime of passion," a crime that has nothing to do with love and everything to do with acting out one's egoistic desire with no attentiveness to actual consequences for others). Or they might read "passion" as many media in North America would want, viz., aggressively sexualized, hyper-fetishistic focus on genital sexuality -- rather than the broader and deeper understanding of eros and of libidinal energy that has long been available to us via Hellenistic culture and (via Carter Heyward's _Touching Our Strength_) second-wave feminism. "Hermeneutics of passion": I shall start to use the term, always crediting it as yours, Greg! Thank you.

bimshire68 said... if creating "hermeneutics of sympathy" is "cowardly" [your word, not mind], then how is "hermeneutics of passion" brave.

Coming from a people who were turned into forced and migrant labor because of what "the Bible says," I --who am very passionate about the text--am not about to abandon "hermeneutics of suspicion."

But that's just me.

Greg Carey said...

You're welcome to your hermeneutics of suspicion. One if often well founded, though that's not my orientation.

But I think you misread my post. I didn't call a hermeneutics of sympathy cowardly. What's cowardly is accusing those who read differently of a hermeneutics of suspicion, as if they had nefarious motives.

Matt Skinner said...

Your explanation of your soon-to-be-copyrighted term, Greg, is really important. The capacity to be acted upon, the wild openness to an encounter, the acknowledgment of a lack or a deficit--these are crucial things that leave room for suspicion and even sympathy to also be present. But they are also things that demand that we don't walk away from an encounter with a text (along with, perhaps, encounters with a text's history of interpretation and with the God to which a text might bear witness whether well or feebly) without being changed, without experiencing some sort of connection, or without having our outlook on reality brought to the fore and sometimes rearranged

I've sometimes used Genesis 32, where Jacob wrestles by the Jabbok, as a kind of metaphor for such an engagement with scripture. We might really grapple with a text, maybe even a really nasty text that deserves to be held down and given a noogie or two, but we do so in the expectation (the demand, really) that we leave the encounter with a blessing. I'm not saying we always walk--or limp--away from such an encounter feeling affirmed or pleased with our cleverness. The blessing can take a variety of forms. But the underlying motivation of the interpretive enterprise is that something will happen to us--that we will encounter God, either in the text, behind the text, in spite of the text, etc. To do so is to receive some kind of a blessing, even if it might knock us out of joint.

If what you're looking for is a hermeneutic that may very well include suspicion, sympathy, or other dispositions but nevertheless reaches toward an encounter with life, God, the self, the other, etc., then count me in. Of course, those who employ various "hemrmeneutics of [insert term here]" are often seeking the same thing you describe, but your language may have the potential better to point to the reason why many of us even bother with the Bible in the first place.

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