"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Friday, November 9, 2012

A Hermeneutic of Love

A quick observation of Facebook on Election Night earlier this week revealed that people can be passionate about their point of view. Some very passionate, to the point of either insultingly disparaging the views of others, or being very hardened in their own point of view and covering their ears like a child singing “la la la la” to drown out the sound of others trying to speak.

People can be quite ungracious to others. Arguing for a particular point of view is often preferred to dialogue. Teaching and correcting others' wrong opinions are preferred to listening, seeking understanding, engaging others with curiosity. Not always…but it sure seems a very common tendency.

I’m reminded of NT Wright’s thoughts on possessing a “hermeneutic of love”, which I share below. Wright is more explicity talking about how to read the Bible. But I think it’s pretty evident (and perhaps Wright's implicit meaning) in the passage below that you can substitute “text” with “person” or “political other” or “religious other.”

The principle applies to anything outside of you that might have something to say to you. When I encounter another, I might not be able to hear what such “texts” (people) are saying for a variety of reasons. Close-mindedness. Laziness. Arrogance. An undeveloped virtue of listening. Stubbornness. Assuming I don’t have my own “lenses” that affect how I interpret the world and an inability to use “double-vision” and see something both from my own and another’s vantage points.

Here’s what Wright says, in The New Testament and the People of God. Some of it might seem irrelevant to you, though you may find a few nuggets in there regarding what it means to respect the other, learn from the other, be willing to be changed by encountering the other...

 “In love, at least in the idea of agape as we find it in some parts of the New Testament, the lover affirms the reality and the otherness of the beloved. Love does not seek to collapse the beloved into terms of itself; and even though it may speak of losing itself in the beloved, such a loss always turns out to be a true finding. In the familiar paradox, one becomes fully oneself when losing oneself to another. In the fact of love, in short, both parties are simultaneously affirmed.

When applied to reading texts, this means that the text can be listened to on its own terms, without being reduced to the scale of what the reader can or cannot understand at the moment. If it is puzzling, the good reader will pay it the compliment of struggling to understand it, of living with it and continuing to listen. But however close the reader gets to understanding the text, the reading will still be peculiarly that reader’s reading: the subjective is never lost, nor is it necessary or desirable that it should be.

At this level, ‘love’ will mean ‘attention’: the readiness to let the other be the other, the willingness to grow and change in oneself in relation to the other. When we apply this principle to all three stages of the reading process– the relation of readers to texts, of texts to their authors, and beyond that to the realities they purport to describe– it affirms both that the text does have a particular viewpoint from which every thing is seen, and at the same time that the reader’s reading is not mere ‘neutral observation’.

Second, we can affirm both that the text has a certain life of its own, and that the author had intentions of which we can in principle gain at least some knowledge. Third, we can affirm both that the actions or objects described may well be, in principle, actions and objects in the public world, and that the author was looking at them from a particular, and perhaps distorting, point of view. At each level we need to say both-and, not just either-or.

Each stage of this process becomes a conversation, in which misunderstanding is likely, perhaps even inevitable, but in which, through patient listening, real understanding...is actually possible and to describe it as (a) hermeneutic of love (is) the only sort of theory which will do justice to the complex nature of texts in general, of history in general, and of the gospels in particular. Armed with this, we will be able to face the questions and challenges of reading the New Testament with some hope of making sense of it all.”

N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (London: Augsburg Fortress
Publishers, 1992), 64.

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