So You Wanna Read The Bible With Suspicion?

Meaning, Suspicion, Tradition, and Hope

Retrato del filósofo francés Michel Foucault

 

Usually, I travel around blogs on biblical studies from different perspectives, and when I do, I like to read (and hear, in my head) different voices. Yes, that’s right, when I read, I hear voices in my head, okay? I have come across quite frequently Bible scholars and Christian thinkers who just randomly go off on tangents about how wrong reading the Bible with a hermeneutic of suspicion is.

For many persons, the Scriptures themselves are the problem, and that’s fine, they can have their own opinions. For me, IMNSHO (in my not so humble opinion), the problems is our interpretations, our readings of its meaning that cause the most problems (for example, the Parable of the Talents is just one of those passages that is just, ugh never mind). For some strange reason or another, Christians who use this “hermeneutic of suspicion” are condemned. I think it has to do with people not liking their embedded theologies challenged, what they have been taught, the Sunday School answers. More specifically, those who retain this hermeneutic of suspicion, as cast as people without hope, people who are generally distrustful of others (and rightly so in my individual case), and too egg-headed for their own good. So the alternatives that are proposed are things like “a hermeneutic of trust” or love or whatever all while affirming critical engagement with the text over and against what they see as ideologically driven cynicism.

In other words, those with a hermeneutic of suspicion have nothing constructive to offer (this is my reading of these general criticisms). I take issue with this. First, and foremost, I continue to apply this suspicion, not out of my distrust for people or tradition (some traditions are good), but because of the Christian doctrine of human fallenness. One of the Niebuhr brothers rightly said the one doctrine Christians can prove is humanity’s sinfulness. Just take a look at history. Secondly, and most importantly, persons who are “driven” by suspicion/distrust of the text are inspired by hope. In Jonathan Tran’s Foucault And Theology, he quotes Michel Foucault on hope and suspicion:

“Despair and hopelessness are one thing, suspicion is another. And if you are suspicious, it is because, of course, you have a certain hope.”

I think this quote speaks volumes for persons of religious backgrounds and those who claim no religious affiliation, that critical readings of religious texts are drawn out of hopes. For some, a hope for a better world in the here and now, for others, the hope for conserving that which was from the past, and yet still others, a hope for the future. As Foucault would say, “power as relationship” is everywhere, and it is found in resistance. My hope is in the Risen Christ, who liberates all of humanity from the forces sin, death, and satan; therefore, as part of that hope, I know that there is a world beyond what John Calvin,Jacob Arminius, Adam Smith (the economist), and Karl Marx tell me. My particular hermeneutic of suspicion arises from not only my education, but first from being raised in the traditions of black churches: “The hermeneutics of suspicion and hope rises from the smoldering embers of the church of resistance. The black church uses a hermeneutics of suspicion because of the way Scripture has been used against African Americans in order to support racist policies.”

For more, read Stephen Breck Reid’s Endangered Reading: The African American Scholar Between Text and People (linked here, was working as of 8/6/2012)

What have you learned or heard about people who have a hermeneutic suspicion? Positive? Negative?

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11 thoughts on “So You Wanna Read The Bible With Suspicion?

  1. david driedger

    I would say that the vast majority of my preaching in the last two years has been informed heavily by ‘critical theory’ (which I am guessing share significant overlap with what you are referring to). I have come to see these models of interpretation as tremendous exploratory tools. I simply cannot imagine gaining the perspectives that I have on the text without this influence.
    I share similar sentiments when it comes to tradition. I don’t despise tradition and I think it is naive to think that we function without it. However, I also don’t think there is theological warrant to allow a particular tradition form hegemony over the movement of the Spirit. I can recall one online conversation when my conversation partner simply shut-down when the discussion went beyond the bounds of some Nicene formulation. When I pushed him on this the response was, “Well I’ll take my leave on the side of historical orthodoxy.” I mean, go ahead and take that side but to simply shut down conversation because something is over-reaching those boundaries strikes me as somehow malnourished.
    Conversely though, I am finding I need to deal with the process of actually starting to be convinced by some critical theorists. I just finished a decent stint reading in Nietzsche and while I was always partial to a non-essentialist model of morality I found myself more and more drawn into his overall project (well certain tendencies of his were never appealing). The same has been true of some materialist feminism. The question here is, to what extent can I simply take apart this theory for parts that suite my project and still actually do justice to the theory being put forward? In other words, at what point do I need to simply let a theory stand against Christianity? Of course, even here I can learn and be formed by the engagement.

    Reply
    1. RodtRDH Post author

      Hey David,

      I have learned that when critical theories seem to stand against Christianity, its sometimes appears they are the most compatible. After re-reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity book 4 last week, he says something along those same lines, that God works through nature, even works that are anti-Christian. My friend JK Gayle, he has a term called “rhetorical listening/reading” that could be helpful in this regard. We are not to baptize every theory under the sun, but perhaps listen/receive what the person is saying, and then critically reflect before acting. An example of this I did a while ago was with the notions of human bodies as bio-texts by womanist literary traditions. After reading and trying to understand what was being said, in light of things like Christian doctrines of scripture and Word Christologies, one could say that Jesus is a sacred biotext for Christianity. Of course, I am still working out that idea, but I think it fits and is appropriate.

      Reply
      1. david driedger

        Yes, no question there is much to learn in the engagement. My concern, or the realization I had, was to be sure I was not patronizing x or y theory but taken it seriously enough in how it might be dismantling my own logic or assumptions. And consider how accepting ‘part’ of the critique effects the whole. I find this particularly relevant in some of the transcendence/immanence conversations that go on over at places like AUFS.

        Reply
        1. RodtRDH Post author

          Yeah, this is true. I found once I came to grip with Foucault’s notion of “power in relations,” it fell upon me that it is a critique of even structuralist thinking we see in early forms of liberation theology. So, yes, it’s importance to read our sources, and not just about them.

          Reply
  2. Phil Snider

    I don’t think the problem with the hermeneutic of suspicion isn’t that it isn’t productive of good scholarship or even important perpsectives, but rather it can go deeper into dismissing the testimony of the text we’re reading altogether. Some critical theory is bracing to our reading of the Bible because of the different perspectives it yields, but it is possible to get to the point of dismisisng everything in the Bible altogether, substituting a more fashionable creduility for the pious credulity that such a hermeneutic rightly critisizes. That hermeneutic of suspicion cuts both ways- it should be employed on what we are saying as much as the object of what we’re discussing.

    I don’t think a concept of ‘hermeneutic of love’ need be uncritical (Augustine is the one who came up with the concept in the de doctrina), but rather that we begin with the assumption that our text means something that we believe in. We should test that meaning and we should consider other perspectives, but, ultimately, we find the Bible an authoritative text to which we return as we form our understanding about our faith. Where our suspicion should come (rightly) is on our interpretations as we test them to see which is faithful to the Bible as we understand it.

    Phil S

    Reply
    1. RodtRDH Post author

      Phil,

      Great points. I would say that really the only persons in academia I have encountered with a hermeneutic of suspicion who are bible scholars and who dismiss the Bible completely are those who do not identify as Christian, even theists. I do feel challenged and disciplined by my conversations with them, and I am open to their critique.

      I find Jesus himself authoritative first, and then trust the Bible second only because of him, and its testimony of him. I think it’s a dangerous assumption to see the Bible as an authority by itself, without it pointing to beyond itself, to the second member of the Trinity.

      Reply
  3. David

    I think there should be a ban on “hermeneutic of suspicion” talk until people go and read Paul Riceour on the topic to familiarize themselves with the topic and not all the hyper distillations floating around. It is as misunderstood an idea as Focault on power. Ultimately most people will be for it if it was presented better.

    Reply
  4. Phil Snider

    I agree that our allegiance is to Jesus, but I wonder whether one can separate the Bible from that. That is, isn’t one of the major ways we know about Jesus is because the Biblical writers wrote about Him. I agree the Bible is only authoritative only as so far as it points to God (the whole shooting match- Father, Son and Holy Ghost), but that is what it is trying to do. Cultural distortion do creep in, but that is the fact of the Incarnation. If God is going to come down and become human, he’s going to do it within a particular culture. Good critical reasoning should help us filter out the Biblical writers’ cultural distortions. Humility and criticial reasoning may even help us to filter out our own cultural distortions. In so far as the ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ helps, then it is useful.

    I’m a little with David on this in the sense that the ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ gets bandied around so much that it is hard to know quite what it means in a specific occurance. There’s good healthy trying and testing of a text or an idea and there’s pyrrhonism and polemical uses of this hermeneutic. The former is exemplary scholarship; the latter is worse than useless.

    Phil

    Reply
    1. RodtRDH Post author

      Phil,

      I would agree with what you have said. Especially about the Hermeneutic of Suspicion getting bandied around, and I am always willing to go deeper and read about where theories and phrases come from, just like I did with Foucault’s view of power (took a course on it a few yrs ago) among other things.

      I will say that there are persons who encounter Christ outside Scripture as well. I do believe that in the Gospel, Jesus said himself that he could be found in the poor, those in prison, in the homeless and hungry (Matthew 25). I definitely an advocate of the Incarnation, that’s why I love the Alexandrian Fathers so much. I am trying to prioritize Jesus first then scripture, as a counter to bibliolatry, that’s all.

      Reply
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