Hermeneutics. It’s an intimidating word. Many of us have never heard of it, let alone understand what it means. Which is interesting, considering we all have a hermeneutic we employ on a daily basis. Or, perhaps another way of saying it: a hermeneutic has us all and is manifested through us on a daily basis.
Basically, hermeneutics is the method or manner by which we interpret the world we inhabit. Texts, verbal communication, body language and all other forms of communicative interchanges are in need of interpretation as they flow between people, both the individual and community. The collection of explanations we come to – again, both on the individual and communal levels – expose our hermeneutical framework.
Moreover, hermeneutics is not a mere theory or an art, but encompasses the essence of our existence. The manner by which we interpret followed by the conclusions we espouse give us a trajectory by which we actually live out our day-to-day lives. The stories we tell, the symbols we make, the institutions we form, the communities we partake within all have to do with hermeneutics. Again, we might not always be – indeed, we are more often than not – making conscious decisions due to our hermeneutical orientation, but, nevertheless, we are making conclusions evidenced in our actions. There is not a moment that goes by where we are not interpreting. In many ways, it is the metaphorical water we swim in.
(This is a very diluted, non-specific view of hermeneutics. Please don’t think this is a blanket statement defining it at all. I am very aware of the immense complexity underlying this conversation.)
I have tried to take notice to how many people interpret the world around them. I come from a placed position, which informs, guides, and directs my hermeneutics. And so do you. The question is whether or not we are aware of it.
In today’s world, we have a host of hermeneutical methods vying for our devotion. Many of them are at odds with each other, of which violence – whether physical or not – is often used to help us make a decision as to where to place our allegiance. This has been called the plurality of our age and while certainly being true, is not necessarily an evil in itself as it is often described. Liberal/conservative, theist/atheist, postmodern/modern/post-postmodern, the list goes on describing polarities of interpretation.
However, it seems to me, that regardless of one’s (either individual or communal) interpretation, underneath much of this is a pervasive hermeneutics of suspicion. This isn’t a new thing or an unexamined thing, but again, many of us have fallen into lives bereft of self-reflection and are unaware of how much we have been interpretively persuaded. Lives that aren’t reflected upon tend to be spastic, disconnected, and atomized all the while being highly individualized. Much of this can be given to our tendencies toward suspicion.
Part of the problem is that excessive doubt prevents us from fully entering into the world, as Susan Felch states. Far too often doubt and suspicion go on unchecked flattening the world around us into an experience that is lacking diversity. Constant questioning and interrogating produce “modes of distance and distrust” leaving our vision muddy rather than clear.
I have seen this time and time again at both the individual level and the communal. Our current cultural mode of existence is nothing if it isn’t highly suspicious. We question everything. And I think this is a good thing. A healthy dose of suspicion is very needed. Questions are a staple of life; if you aren’t asking questions, you might need to ask why that is. Yet, when our suspicion transforms into cynicism we have a problem.
“In our desire to be critical we have simply become cynical.” (Norman Wirzba, Living the Sabbath, 136.) Contempt, bitterness, and division are the hallmarks of the cynical life. When our hermeneutics of suspicion jump into a hermeneutics of cynicism, nothing is good enough for us. We stay isolated in our own worlds, disparaging of the rest. In the communal form, this takes on the embodiment of autonomous cliques, cults, and factions separated from the world. Finger pointing, verbal violence, and general destruction become the norm for relating to those around and outside of us.
What I am afraid of – if it’s not too late in some cases – is that our need for deconstruction hasn’t allowed us to move into reconstruction.
Perhaps an antidote to this predicament would be to follow Susan Felch’s hermeneutics of delight. As a method of interpreting the world, it encourages us to ‘look up and around’ and to loosen the ‘constricted pathways of precept and rule'”. Delight is thus something that only comes about through the releasing our wanting to dominate and control.
When we practice the hermeneutics of delight, we will put ourselves into a more honest position as learners, not because we have forsaken all critical doubt but because we have opened ourselves to the mystery and grace of God and made ourselves available to share in, be responsible for, and enjoy the embodied love that creation itself is. – Norman Wirzba, Living the Sabbath, 137.
So, delight comes when we begin to see, experience, and live into the interconnectedness of life that only comes through mutuality. Yes, doubt can be there, but only in that is balanced by and rounded off by a seeking after mutual delight. It relishes in relationship and seeks the flourishing of all. Curiosity brings us into contact with others as we seek out the otherness of our world. Wirzba reminds us, “Delight follows from an affirmation of another’s God-given goodness” breaking us from our utilitarian quest to benefit ourselves above all through the powerful using of others and/or creation. As such, we are then inclined and allowed to be joyful in participating with the world around us. We enter into it not as skeptics seeking our own good, but as learners perpetuating further connection and relationship.
What I believe is needed is a turning to a hermeneutics of delight that affirms doubt and suspicion all the while being aware of its propensity for fragmentation. In an ecology of delight, we are pushed to recover the interdependence and interconnectedness of God’s creation. In a world plagued by division and rootlessness, a seeking after delight might be exactly what is needed.
Have you seen suspicion turn into hardened cynicism?
What does interconnectedness and interdependence look like in your context?
What is holding you back from delighting in the world?
I’d love to hear from you.