unseen tides

I was fortunate enough to have the author of one of the articles I referenced last weekend comment on my blog. It took me aback, particularly because prior to the message I had spent some time hunting down his curriculum vitae and had planned on contacting him later this week. Naturally, I responded with additional feedback of what I drew from his article, but also asked him a question I’ve slowly been developing over the past couple months.

And his response was excellent. Please allow me to share:

Me: “Hey, thanks for the comment on my blog! I was greatly surprised to see it, not only because I didn’t think my link would notify you, but because I had planned on emailing you later this week to show my appreciation for your article. It resonated with me immensely as the term ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ has been quite predominant in my own life over the past couple years, but hasn’t been something I’ve ever felt comfortable explaining or living out within my own church culture. As such, and if you don’t mind, I’ve got a quick question for you if you have the time:

As both a studied academic of biblical hermeneutics, and layperson of what I perceive to be a nondenominational (possibly evangelical?) church, what have you found to be best when interacting with evangelicals who have never encountered the subject of hermeneutics? In other words, how do you healthily apply your advanced education within the church setting when your understanding of Scripture typically gets you labeled as ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal,’ and thus not taken as seriously. I mean, you have personally been dubbed as, ‘straying from the message of Christianity and Church X’ for bringing up the challenges that appropriate hermeneutical studying demands…”

Professor Simmons: “It is nice to virtually ‘meet’ you.  I am very pleased to hear that others out there are wrestling with the same questions as I am and it is a pleasure to be in dialogue with you.  You ask a VERY difficult question and it is one that I am afraid I don’t really have a great highly intellectual answer to.  Nonetheless, I am happy to at least give you some insight from my own experience and perhaps it will be of some use to you.  So, a few things:

(1) It is important to know your audience.  The average evangelical church is not a university and so it is not appropriate to expect that the folks in the pews have read Gadamer, Ricoeur, or Derrida.  In fact, there are often times in church when I am quite happy not to be surrounded by people who do read such texts!!  That said, it is good to separate issues of hermeneutics that attend to ecclesial life from technical discussions of hermeneutics in postmodern philosophy.  So, I think that everyone in church at some point asks themselves whether the Bible is trustworthy.  Whether their pastor is someone who should demand their attention. What will happen to their non-Christian friends after death, etc. etc. etc.  In other words, everyone asks questions having to do with difficult matters of interpretation, community, and tradition.  That most people don’t know how to frame these questions very well doesn’t mean that they aren’t wrestling with them.  So, I rarely find it helpful within my church community to use the language that I use with my students and colleagues.  Be ok with trying to hear the questions behind the questions that people in your church ask.  Then, help them to see that there are those deeper questions that are worth thinking through.

(2) Given that audiences are different depending on one’s context, it is important to have different dialogical expectations depending on context, too.  What I mean by that is that you can’t expect realizations like ‘Ah, I guess I should be a postmodernist’ to be frequently proclaimed at the end of conversations with church people.  However, something like, ‘Hmm, so postmodernism doesn’t mean that there is absolutely no absolute truth?  That is interesting.’  Helping people to think a bit more intentionally about those urgent questions with which we all deal is an important accomplishment.  Thinking that we have the answers that they need to come to is usually just as problematic (and dangerous) as is the evangelical resistance to deep thought so frequently displayed in church.  It is CRUCIAL to take what one does seriously, but it is just as crucial not to take oneself seriously while doing it.  Most of the harm I worry about in evangelicalism is due to the epistemic arrogance with which they engage others with whom they disagree.  Displaying that arrogance in a postmodern/liberal/progressive direction is just as harmful to genuine dialogue.

(3) Following from my encouragement to speak different languages to different audiences (which is something St. Paul was quite keen on telling us), is the idea that philosophical positions can be rephrased internal to evangelical discourse.  So, for example, I often give talks in churches where I never mention postmodernism or hermeneutics, but talk a lot about the ‘noetic effects of sin’ – in other words, ‘we see through a glass darkly’ and ‘God’s God and you and I are not’, etc.  All of those are ways to say that we should be hermeneutically aware, but they broach that topic in a way that is not threatening to the norms and values already operative in the evangelical community.

Anyway, I really hope that this helps, even in some small way.  I wish you well as you keep working this out (with fear and trembling, no doubt) in your own life and internal to your own communities.  Let me know how things go.  Again, I struggle with this stuff every day and I fully expect that you will be able to help me as well…”

With a quick stroke of unexpected fortune (and spirit-filled revelation?), I find myself humbled and eager to pursue a relationship with the Church that I haven’t felt for quite some time. Oh, I’m overflowing right now. He was also gracious enough to leave the offer open for more conversation in the future. So perhaps this is only the beginning. Thank You, Lord.

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~ by Chris Kyle on January 6, 2012.

One Response to “unseen tides”

  1. That’s awesome man. Super awesome.

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