Sunday, May 1, 2011

Radical hermeneutics

I'm feeling kind of religious this Sunday morning, wanting to go to church but just cannot find one compatible with my postmetaphysical "beliefs." Which led me to realize, yet again, that this virtual online monastery/seminary (i.e., IPS Forum) is as close as I get to going to church so I might as well share where my religious impulse led this morning. The following reminds me of some of the discussions of late in the Big Stories thread, the differences between religious (or spiritual) and scientific cosmological stories, and how sometimes their mix just leads to a muddle (but not necessarily). Anywho, here is my Sunday Sermon by Saint Caputo from the brief essay "Radical Hermeneutics." (Btw, one can read his book Radical Hermeneutics (IUP, 1987) for free at this Scribd link, from which I'll draw further sermons with or without commentary, depending on how the Holy Spirit (aka daemon) moves me.)


"By "radical hermeneutics" I mean a theory of radical interpretation, and by radical interpretation I mean that interpretation goes all the way down, that there are no uninterpreted facts of the matter that settle silently at the bottom that can be unearthed by patiently peeling away the layers of interpretation. To say that interpretation matters all the way down is not to say that "anything goes;" it is simply to recognize that we are not God. The charge of "relativism" thrown up against theories of radical interpretation is a confusion and an obfuscation. "Relativism" is a red herring used by the God-and-apple-piety crowd; it does service for thinking when the discussion gets too complicated.

When it is rightly framed the debate about interpretation matters is not between "relativism" and "objective truth" but between conditional and unconditional understanding. True understanding is never unconditional, but always a matter of finding the right conditions under which understanding can take place-like possessing the complex preconditions involved in understanding an ancient language and a long gone historical context. Understanding is always interpreting, and to interpret means to locate and acknowledge the relevant presuppositions. Absolutely unconditional understanding means understanding under no conditions. Just so: Under no condition is this possible: we are not hardwired to assume an absolute standpoint. We are not omniscient eternal beings outside every context. We are not God, but what Soren Kierkegaard liked to call "poor existing individuals," people who pull on their pants one leg at a time. Understanding always has a point of view, otherwise it has no point and it has no view.

The radicals who attacked the World Trade Center, for example, were not radicals of the sort I am describing, but exactly the opposite. They had among other things swallowed a bad line about how to read, about how to understand what one reads, and about what it means to say that a text is sacred. The latter is a complicated business. It involves getting to know what the conditions were under which the text was written, what has changed since then, and above all sorting out what is human and what is divine in the text-what has the ring of God about it and what has the ring of men (sic!). Killing in the name of God, killing because God is on your side, is the human-all too human-part of these texts, which has to be sorted out from the divine side.

The Bible itself warns us that idolatry is one of the most fundamental perversions of the God relationship: confusing a golden calf with the living God, confusing humankind made in the image of God with a God made in the image of humankind, confusing our politics, our preferences, our institutions, our hierarchies, our power-plays, our religion, our gender, our egos, or our science with God. That's idolatry. If hermeneuticists could be said to have a religious view of life, interpretation would constitute a powerful and systematic critique of idolatry. Two potential idols to worry about are science and religion, both of which are humanly constructed interpretations, one of the world, the other of the relationship between the world and God.  When physicists explain the world in terms of the principles of a mathematical science, that's an interpretation. When the unknown authors of the opening pages of Genesis carved out highly Mesopotamian myths about the genesis of the kosmos, that was an interpretation as well, but it was not a theory. It was an imaginative and poetic act of affirming God's lordship over things, but it was not a testable mathematical theory. They were both interpretations, but only one was a theory. Neither was an uninterpreted fact of the matter. The overarching point in any debate between science and religion is to get one level or layer of interpretation out of the way of the other so that each one can get a clean shot at doing what it does, the one imagining our relation to God in poetico-religious categories, the other calculating (with no little imagination) the way the world runs in mathematical categories. They don't conflict because they don't compete and they don't compete because their interpretative schemas don't play on the same plane.

The problem in scientific interpretation is figuring out what is good science without being too rigidly rule bound, lest you dismiss groundbreaking discoveries as mere anomalies. The problem in religious interpretation is figuring out what is divine and what is human, what is a human construction and what is from God. The solution to these problems is not available in some overarching formula that covers everything. But the precondition to finding a solution is to keep in mind that interpretation goes all the way down, so that the notion of absolute scientific truth or absolute religious truth, as if physicists were but the mouthpiece of nature, or religious people were but the mouthpiece of God, makes no sense."


  1. More sermon, from Chapter 8, "Toward a postmetaphysical rationality" p. 211:

    "Heidegger said that the play is at once the "deepest" for structures are but inscribed upon the flux and the "highest"for joining in the play is a free, productive release, the highest and best wisdom, the last and best stand one can make (SG 188). The one god that Nietzsche could tolerate was one that laughed and danced, and some of Heidegger's best pages have to do with the play of the fourfold and with finding a God before whom one can sing and dance. The difficulty, however, is that the world places little confidence in the play of things and a great deal of reliance on constraints, authority, and institutional structures, and that is why we are overrun with creeds and criteria, rules of life and rules of method. The fact is that the advocates of free play meet resistance at every step. They are suspected of anarchism, nihilism, of intellectual, social, and moral irresponsibility. Those who would dance and play before their God have constantly to dodge the theological bullets aimed their way by the defenders of the true faith. The free play of the faculties is checked by the demand for aesthetic standards. No matter how much or how well we are counseled to enjoy the play, there are always those who are threatened by such emancipation and who insist on knowing what the "criteria" are for determining exactly what that is."

  2. Edward,
    Two items:

    1) I want to congratulate you on changing the name to "Enactivism." It is a good step outside of the standard ossified dialogue of the Integral Province and something I am working on for a new post to my own blog.

    2) I am gratified by Caputo's placement of Science and Religion (a.k.a. Spirituality) on two different planes. But I suspect few will comprehend because both seem to provide sustenance for the mind in equal proportions...the cognitive dissonance between the two authorities is difficult to handle for those sensitive to their duties before their own individual authorities.

    So I would like to put forth an analogue: I was recently asked: What do you prefer, Food or Sex? Most people put both those into the venue of Sensuality and then try to escape. But within that venue it is obvious that the two exist on different planes. One does not tuck into a gourmet meal while making love, or vice-versa. But why should anyone be called on to make a preferential hierarchy between Science and Spirituality any more than between Sex and Food. It is stupid and exceptionally messy to Integrate the latter two. It is supremely anticlimactic to mediate between the two of them as luminaries and guides and coaches are all racing into the culturo/spiritual breaches so as to save us all. So without exception: you do one and then the other and then the other and then the other...

  3. Also see Stephen Jay Gould's essay on nonoverlapping magisteria.* He, like Caputo, sees that they have different validity criteria. Caputo affirms religion is apprehended through myth-poetic means while Gould agrees it requires metaphor and allegory.


  4. While Gould acknowledges that they have different validity criteria and methods of apprehension he nonetheless also knows that

    "This resolution might remain all neat and clean if the nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA) of science and religion were separated by an extensive no man's land. But, in fact, the two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border. Many of our deepest questions call upon aspects of both for different parts of a full answer—and the sorting of legitimate domains can become quite complex and difficult."

    Not only do these two domains bump up against each other, there are certain ideas or memes that permeate through all of the different methodological boundaries, certain big stories that make coherent sense of them all. For example the article by Sellars* kela referenced in the Big Stories thread notes that while there certainly is NOMA for specific diciplines nevertheless philosophy's job is to “understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” That it, how we might create broad, orienting generalizations and/or narratives about how the big picture coheres.

    For example, one such generalizing meme that cut across all disciplines was what is often referred to as postmodernism. The idea that there is no fixed center, no absolute, pre-given reality, runs through science to literature to religion, i.e. postmetaphysics. Postmetaphysics is not limited to any specific genre but is one of those overall cohering big pictures necessary to generate meaning. Contrary to popular kennlingist belief, pomo is not about total fragmentation and blind relativism, for it too has its own big picture story about how big pictures operate, albeit one that is non-metaphysical. So while there is no doubt some pomo relativists caught in a performative contradiction that there is no big story while advancing one, the better pomosexuals like Derrida and Caputo espouse no such nonsense.



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