The full meaning of the Biblical words was not disclosed once and for all. Every hour another aspect is unveiled. (GSM, p. 273)
The meaning of the Bible is not a given. Heschel states “Revelation is not vicarious thinking;” that is, revelation and its meaning do not come to us pre-assembled. Revelation is not a “substitute” for our thinking abilities. (GSM, p. 273) This isn’t to say that revelation can and must be reduced to that which is rational. Reason has its limits. Revelation is not inherently rational, nor is it intended to be understood with only our natural faculties. Revelation is meant to be interpreted through means that are often supernatural, namely through faith. Heschel writes that the prophets did not speak to deliver a timeless, monolithic, and conclusive message, the meaning of which is inhospitable to the changes of time and culture.
And because the Word was in the beginning, so was hermeneutics, or, interpretation. Words are just noises that we make or scribbles on a page unless we first attach meaning to them and after that interpret them as a whole. Words require interpretation. Interpretation is the art of turning words into thoughts, beliefs, and actions. That interpretation is a primal event and undertaking is the assertion that Richard Kearney puts forward throughout his own philosophical project. This also seems to be the reasoning of Abraham Heschel when he refers to the Torah, the word of God revealed through the prophets, as a “call for continuous understanding.” (GSM, 273) What I am interested in doing is looking at how Heschel’s “continuous understanding” and Kearney’s hermeneutics affect how we understand the biblical text (or any sacred text for that matter).
In a three-part CBC Ideas interview featuring Kearney discussing his book The God Who May Be, and his overall interpretation of religion, Kearney begins with the statement from which I derive the title of this post.
In the beginning is [hermeneia], interpretation in the beginning is the Word. Not a stone. Not a certitude. Not a God you can put in a bottle and bring out every so often on festive occasions to prove that you’ve got the absolute truth and nobody else has…and as we know words are dialogical and you’ve got to listen and to respond.
Interpretation is perhaps one of the most primitive human acts. Before there was written and spoken language, there were symbols. Communication was through imagery and gestures. Progressively communication could be accomplished through utterances and more specific symbols. But in each situation, meaning had to be created in order for there to be any sort of coherent communication to take place. Of course, this meaning was not perfect and thus interpretations could vary. Whatever the case, interpretation became necessary. Communication became possible only through interpretation. And it remains that way today. You will read these posts and will interpret them. You are engaging in hermeneutics.
A section from a paper I currently working on. It is still in the works, so keep in mind my thoughts are incomplete on this.
Kearney’s third chapter subtitle, “After Auschwitz who can say God?” gives us a more concrete vantage point from which to look at Kearney’s interest in the question of speaking of God. Jewish scholar and rabbi Eugene Borowitz observes that while Christianity wrestled with the philosophical pronouncement of the death of God in the 20th century, Judaism was not phased by this realization that “empiricist-oriented philosophers found it difficult to speak meaningfully about a nonempirical God.” However, while Judaism seemed to avert the questions posed by the death of God philosophers and theologians, the Holocaust became the foremost challenge to Jewish thought. Emil Fackenheim saw the Holocaust as a veritable “radical rupture in history––and that among things ruptured may be not just this or that way of philosophical or theological thinking but thought itself.” Fackenheim expands his theory of rupture by stating it is not merely a rupture of a particular religion or ethnicity, i.e. Judaism and the Jewish people, but of the very rupture of what it means to be human. Borowitz adds that the Holocaust “radically throws into doubt the Jewish people’s very Covenant with God and the way of life it authorizes––and by extension it also threatens the covenant between God and all humankind, the children of Noah.”
This being human is a guesthouse;
Every morning a new arrival.
The hermeneutic that I have adopted for interpreting and understanding the world I live can be summed up in Richard Kearney’s word anatheism. It informs my thinking, directs my language, creates new ideas, and is slowly emerging into the daily praxis of my life. I first stumbled upon Kearney’s work on anatheism last December while doing some transcription work for a professor at my university. Though I’ve been immersed in the often overly abstract world of academic theology, I had the worst time trying to understand what was being said in the conversation that I was transcribing. Canadian philosopher and public intellectual Charles Taylor and Boston College professor of philosophy Richard Kearney were having a nice three-hour chat about Kearney’s latest work entitled Anatheism: Returning to God after God (surprise!). I struggled quite a bit with the philosophical language that the two were using. But 28 hours later, which is how long it took me to get a pretty accurate transcription, I had a fairly basic picture of Kearney’s ideas. As a side note, I had no idea transcription work would be so intensive. But I literally spent more than a fully day listening to the lecture, over, and over, and over, and over.
You cannot be a man of faith unless you know how to doubt. You cannot believe in God unless you are capable of questioning the authority of prejudice, even though that prejudice may seem to be religious. Faith is not blind conformity to a prejudice–a ‘pre-judgement’. It is a decision, a judgment that is fully and deliberately taken in the light of a truth that cannot be proven. It is not merely the acceptance of a decision that has been made by somebody else. (105)
Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
The Free Decision to Believe
Happily, during my time in Glenstal [Abbey], as later in Benedictine and Ignatian ashrams in India, the atheist too was a welcome stranger. How could one authentically choose theism if one was not familiar with the alternative of atheism? Or the agnostic space between? Indeed, in my first Christian doctrine classes at Glenstal I remember how liberated I felt when the monks had us read cogent arguments against the existence of God–by Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Russell–before any talk of why God might exist! Atheism was not only tolerated, it was considered indispensable to any wager of faith. (xii)
I like to think of this book as a small intellectual agora where theists and atheists might engage in reasonable if robust debate, acknowledging the possibility of what I call an anatheist space where the free decision to believe or not believe is not just tolerated but cherished. If anatheism signals the possibility of God after God, it is because it allows for the alternative option of its impossibility. (xiv)
Kearney only mentions Merton in passing in Anatheism as an exemplar of interreligious dialogue. But I am beginning to see some significant points of contact between Merton and Kearney that would be valuable to the development of the anatheist hermeneutic.