Sunday, November 25, 2012

A questionable hermeneutic

There was a Senior chapel talk the Friday before Thanksgiving break.

It was a fine talk by a fine young woman with a sensitive conscience. She worried that she was not the kind of Christian she believed God and Jesus wanted her to be. She thought about how her life was shaped by faith and how faith guided her choices. I think that’s what she was saying. I was distracted by her hermeneutic – combined with what I had just heard in a debate over the ability of Christian theology to guide thinking about sustainability.

Her hermeneutic was a common one for students at our college. It begins with the assumption that every word in the bible, in its various translations (though more often than not in either the Authorized Version or one of its conservative iterations such as the NIV), is pure word of God, and every word of the bible is “scripture” and “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness.”

In this hermeneutic the Christian scriptures are a rich mine filled with nuggets of wisdom that can and should be drawn up to solve problems, end debate and close minds. “God said it, I believe it, that settles it for me” is the simplistic version of an evangelical hermeneutic adopted by many of our students, and probably not a few of our faculty.

Given the zeitgeist of fundamental apocalypticism that is not uncommon in many Kansas, Texas, Nebraska churches, that quote mining hermeneutic is sometimes combined with a view of creation that sees creation as coming to a sudden and catastrophic end.

That point of view had been demonstrated in Argumentation class that same Friday. Debating the issue of the sufficiency of Christian faith for developing a sustainable view of human interaction with creation, the negative argued that God was going to do away with the earth sooner or later and therefore there was no need to develop a theological affirmation of sustainability. Even sadder: the Affirmative, having opportunity to refute, didn’t even confront the bad theology.

We offer no challenge to this impoverishing hermeneutic. We don’t challenge our students to see the Christian scripture in historical context, to see scripture through a historical critical hermeneutic, to view it through a Christo-centric hermeneutic, or any sophisticated hermeneutic.

Our contemporary Lutheran understanding of Scripture gets almost no hearing anywhere on the campus. I certainly wouldn’t advocate that we attempt to proselytize for a Lutheran understanding of the Christian scriptures. I would advocate that we need to present that resource to students more directly, more fully and unapologetically. FCA and other evangelical groups who use a quote mining hermeneutic operate without any alternative understanding of the scriptures of Christendom. One of the reasons that kids use the interpretive tools offer by evangelical churches is that they aren’t offered anything else, anything more critical and in some sense more aware of the intellectual difficulties of being religious in our post-modern world.

Our spiritual challenges are partly non-academic. Developing as a faithful and thoughtful advocate of any religious position, (or of agnosticism or even atheism) is in some sense a personal journey and not an academic one. But it is also an academic journey.

The tools that have been developed for the critical study of the Judeo-Christian scriptures are not new. These are ideas and concepts that have been developed since the 1850’s, and are well known in the seminaries, even the most conservative evangelical seminaries. They are disparaged there while they are encouraged in the seminaries of the Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican and ELCA Lutheran churches.

I first encountered these tools in New Testament studies as a sophomore at Augustana College. They were enlightening and empowering. They enabled me to take a clearer look at the Bible. They gave me a terrific boost in an attempt to understand the world science was describing – even the world literature was describing – and the ancient texts that I felt were normative for my life. I don’t think the tools of contemporary scholarship would do anything less for our students. Somehow we need to make those tools more available to the student body if we are going to do something more than just create a warm fuzzy sense of spiritual development. I like warm fuzzy spiritually fulfilling objectives, but I don’t think that warm fuzzies alone are worthy of us as an institution of higher education.