Reader-Idol-Text: Recovering the Ethical Through Interpretation

Hence there is hermeneutics in the Christian order because the kerygma is the rereading of an ancient Scripture. It is noteworthy that orthodoxy has resisted with all its force the currents, from Marcion to Gnosticism, which wanted to cut the Gospel from its hermeneutic bond to the Old Testament. Why? Would it not have been simpler to proclaim the event in its unity and thus to deliver it from the ambiguities of the Old Testament interpretation? … By entering in this way into a historical connection, the event enters also into an intelligible liaison. …  Jesus Christ himself, exegesis and exegete of Scripture, is manifested as logos in opening the understanding of the Scriptures.

Paul Ricoeur
“Preface to Bultmann” (1968)

Hermeneutics can be defined as the art and theory of understanding, of interpretation, of reading and handling texts. Bringing multiple disciplines to bear, biblical hermeneutics

raises biblical and theological questions. It raises philosophical questions about how we come to understand, and the basis on which understanding is possible. It involves literary questions about types of texts and processes of reading. It includes social, critical, or sociological questions about how vested interests, sometimes of class, race, gender, or prior belief, may influence how we read. It draws on theories of communication and sometimes general linguistics because it explores the whole process of communicating content or effect to readers or to a community (Anthony C. Thiselton, Hermeneutics: An Introduction, 2009).

Importantly, the Way is itself already an interpretation. As Paul Ricoeur reminds us, Christ(ianity) is a rereading of the Old Testament: Jesus is both an exegesis of the Old Testament and an exegete of it. As Lewis Mudge points out in his introduction to Ricoeur’s Essays on Biblical Interpretation (1980), the interpretation of the text of scripture is secondarily corresponded to the interpretation of life, as in Paul’s reading of his own apostolic existence in light of Jesus’ suffering (for example, in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7). This very process produces its own text (e.g., the majority of the NT canon, as we’ve received it) which itself must be interpreted, introducing the problem of distinguishing the “word of God” from “human speaking,” as Ricoeur phrases it; we have in this third text, for the most part, neither an in-the-moment eyewitness nor prophetic epiphany nor autobiographical account of Jesus and his work, but rather the testimony of an early church (“the apostolic community”) lately removed from that Life and that Work, but removed nonetheless. It is this distance that precipitates interpretation, the work of understanding, as has been shown variously and at length by a number of foundational theorists and philosophers. (And where there is interpretation, there is already at least an implicit theory of it, a set of assumptions.) Christian existence, then, is necessarily hermeneutical, interpreting these multilayered and polyvalent texts-upon-texts as a definitive activity.

The abolishment of language

All this talk of texts, of divine and human speaking, may well prompt the question: Is not all scripture the word of God?

I intend to address this question in a roundabout way, first by considering how it appears as a symptom of anxiety.

Such a question may arise reflexively, albeit from good faith, not from a close reading of scripture, as we shall see, but from a supervening text: the text of ecclesial tradition. The authority not of scripture but of what the church has always taught is based in a second-order interpretation. Alone, this would not necessarily be reason to object. The already-polytextual, hermeneutical necessity of the Christian ethos perhaps primes any ecclesial discourse for such a move. But what makes it insidious is that it touts itself as being able to escape hermeneutics, even language, altogether.

My argument, then, is something like this: The impulse to closure enables the ecclesia to make a sort of textual substitute. It exchanges the linguistic text of the Bible for what is thought to be a non-linguistic text so as to protect itself against the perils of language and to better establish a means of control over both textual and social meaning. Such closure has effects on what I call the ethos of the ecclesia: the dialectic of human action within discourse.

The impulse to escape language is rooted precisely in the recognition, however unconscious, of the very problem of language: namely, that meaning is not ultimately decidable. Language is defined simultaneously by fundamental lack (in its negative, differential character) and by supplement or superabundance (in its capacity to signify indefinitely). Foundationally, Jacques Derrida expresses this dynamic in the word diffèrance (a coinage that plays on the French words for “differ” and “defer”). Hermeneutics, I submit, is properly both a recognition of these properties of language and a commitment to doing the work which understanding entails.

There is a deeply set anxiety that undergirds the impulse to escape language, as Gnosticism attempted in antiquity, for example, and as a certain fundamentalism attempts today: an epistemic anxiety rooted in the undecidability of language but expressing itself (at least in my experience) in the form of worries about faith-certainty and unity in the ecclesia. Both these expressions are variations on the defense mechanism which reaches for closure, which is what the what-the-church-has-always-taught trope is ultimately about: the ability to close the sign and control meaning; for meaning is rightly understood as a field of power exerting constraints upon human activity.

Why do I speak of recovering the ethical through interpretation? If ethos refers to human action within discourse, then the ecclesial hermeneutic must represent the principal site of examination, for the way the ecclesia interprets the biblical (or, as the case may be, the supra-biblical) text and so interprets life is by necessity bound up in the circle of its habitus. Each e/affects the other, and therefore each e/affects human action within Christian discourse. There is no final escape from language, not least for a religion bound to a text of texts.

To work my way toward a more specific discussion, I will take up an account of interest to me which sits as somewhat analogous to my own experience. Writing for Christian Century, Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of teaching a Bible survey course at Piedmont College. She considers her students’ relationship to the biblical text as primarily informed by the interpreters in their lives:

Their knowledge of what is in [the Bible] comes from their parents, their preachers and their Bible study leaders. … There is no one thing that can be said about all of these interpreters, except that they all have more power than the text (“Caution: Bible class in session: Falling toward a deeper life of faith,” November 6, 2002).

She goes on to describe the moment when the students are challenged to let go of their hermeneutic prejudices, the interpretations they’ve received from others, and genuinely (re)engage with the biblical text:

When I ask students to read what is actually on the page, most see what they have been taught to see. … They are either going to hang on to their interpretations and do whatever they have to do to make the text fit, or else they are going to let the text lead them to expand their interpretations.

This is itself a moment of crisis, of decision. One must embrace the problem of language, of meaning, to become suspicious of the concealed forces in the reader and in the text and in the reading event in order to reclaim the text. But there is an external threat:

The danger arises partly because many of [the students] come from communities that censure nonconformity. If they begin asking the wrong kinds of questions at church, they may find themselves at the center of quite a lot of pastoral concern (if they are lucky) or shunned (if they are not). If they persist, some may even find themselves estranged from their own families.

Here is one site where the hermeneutical meets the ethical.

While we are talking about what can and cannot be spoken in ecclesial discourse, I might point out that the biblical text is not the only text in play when it comes to the cloud of secondary interpretations that may interdict an authentic reading of scripture. Ideology, ressentiment and unconscious desire exert great force upon the reading ecclesia, inflected at least in entanglements with conservative media messaging, slow-burning outrage over “political correctness” and the perceived degeneration of [white] American power (manifesting, at times, in racism and xenophobia, among other things). All these things can make their way into one’s interpretations in one form or another; eventually, the presuppositions represented by these multifarious anxieties threaten to become conflated with the biblical text.

My argument is aimed at the situation in which the question of hermeneutics is not allowed to be raised (even though there is always necessarily a hermeneutic at work). It can become doxa that the meaning of scripture is not mediated so much by language (which must be interpreted) as by the holy spirit (which ostensibly bypasses interpretation). To suggest that the Bible is in fact linguistic, and thus subject to nuance, difference, even irresolvable contradiction, is to meet resistance. It renders the doxa heterodox: by suggesting différance, it shows itself as difference .

The reason for resistance, it seems to me, comes again from anxiety over faith-certainty and ecclesial unity. As it turns out, both of these expressions fixate upon the activity of reading scripture because they are generated by a fear centered precisely upon the decentering dynamics of language, conscious or not.

If the Bible is linguistic, then we must reckon with it as such, with all the possibilities of (il)literacy, (mis)apprehension and (mis)interpretation that entails. This is obviously a threat to faith-certainty if one identifies faith with unquestioning obedience to pastoral and traditional authority (that is, to what the church has always taught) and with a certain holdover from the Reformed Protestant tradition in the certitudo salutis, a consequence of a strong predestination thesis. But this seems to me an impoverished view of faith, one that ignores the practical dialectic of belief and uncertainty. The biblical text itself contains many examples of people questioning their experience and wielding doubt to approach truth, of which David, Solomon and Thomas are only a few notable ones.

Admitting that the Bible is linguistic also admits that its meaning can be undecidable and unclear, even polysemic, subject to diverse interpretations and thus making the ecclesia susceptible to disunity. Rather than interrogate the concept of unity itself, it is more expeditious for the ecclesia to accept the prima facie reading of unity as conformity to a consensus (or, negatively, as the absence of disagreement), which both produces and reproduces structures of authority and tradition that I have argued interdict authentic reading. Unsurprisingly, such a situation results in a culture which polices nonconformity in a variety of overt and subtle ways. A predilection with “unity” masks an anxiety over its opposite. But diversity is not the same as disunity, where unity, as Paul writes, is in something other than merely ourselves: there is one body, one holy spirit, one hope, one faith, one baptism, one God—not one final opinion, or as it were, many questions but only ever one answer (see Ephesians 4:1-6; cf. Romans 12:4-5; 1 Corinthians 10:17; 12:12, 14, 20). To this end, I tend to reject the narrow reading of such decontextualized passages as Philippians 2:2 (exhorting the church to be of “one mind”) that sees its denotation as primarily the absence of dissent or disagreement. This reductionist reading effectively suppresses discourse to such an impoverished level that fellowship among brethren is reduced to mere commonplaces, innocuous nothings and gentle referrals to the pastor for difficult questions. The phatic function of language predominates, and Sabbath greetings and questions about one’s week become probes for testing appropriate responses. The reality is that there is already (and always has been) a diversity of views in the ecclesia and, when pressed, it’s certain that the average member will admit this is the case.

The (non)hermeneutics of obedience

Let me return to the question from before: Is not all scripture the word of God? Now that we have glimpsed the motivation behind the question and its fundamental tensions, I will now try to sketch the hermeneutical premises upon which it rests.

While the ecclesia from (and toward) which I speak has claimed at various times to ascribe to a certain flavor of biblical literalism, the inability to actually raise the question of hermeneutics means that interpretation in actual practice can often be inconsistent, even contradictory. However, I believe we can talk about an emergent ecclesial hermeneutic insofar as it inevitably makes two paradigmatic textual reductions: the first reduces the text to the applicable (that is, to normative propositions) and the second reduces the text to a single voice (that is, the univocality of God).

Under such closure, the Bible becomes, as it were, an “open-shut book”. It is said to “interpret itself” while simultaneously remaining somehow inaccessible/inscrutable to those outside because it is not supposed to be linguistic. The Bible is fundamentally sufficient as a source of useful knowledge and, seemingly, all other knowledges, however far removed from the biblical purview, must be qualified by it. In effect, however, this approach actually devalues the Bible as a text insofar as its contents must have the potential to be “applied” in the sense of “practiced.”

The touchstone of this hermeneutic schema is the oft-cited 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. (NKJV)

The reduction to applicability zeroes in on the words “profitable” and “equipped,” glossing the textual context of the passage (instruction to an ordained leader), the specificity of scripture’s applicability (doctrine, reproof, correction, moral instruction), and the context for what is applied (good works). As the preceding verse shows, Paul’s argument is that scripture is the primary tool for growing “wise for salvation through faith” (v. 15), whereas the scheme of applicability often inflates the Bible to contain, in effect, all anyone would ever need (with all the ambiguity that sentence conveniently affords). Transforming the Bible into a self-help book of the John Maxwell variety, such a schema becomes its own text that interdicts the authentic reading of the biblical one. Of course, the self-help aura is subservient to the more direct consequence of a hermeneutic of applicability, which is that the Bible exists not to be interpreted but to be obeyed. I will return to that theme shortly.

Connecting the reduction to applicability to the reduction to univocity is the catchphrase “The Bible interprets itself.” This proposition derives from and reinforces the idea of the Bible’s radical sufficiency, disqualifying secondary sources and most biblical scholarship as a superfluous endeavor simply prompted by lack of revelation. While the NT kerygma is an interpretation of the OT and while the Bible does demonstrate intertextuality, the idea that any verse can be used to interpret any other is disingenuous and requires that the whole Bible be leveled to a single discourse. It is disingenuous because in claiming that it is the Bible itself doing the interpreting, it masks the fact that it is actually the reader doing the interpreting. Interpretation is thus nonsensically posited as doing away with the need for itself.

The reduction to univocity zeroes in on the phrase “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God” to collapse the text’s heteroglossic and polyphonic richness into a homoglossic, monophonic unity. The proposition would seem to reify the English New King James translation of the verse while ignoring that the meaning of the Greek is in fact rather undecidable. Robert K. Johnson rightly notes that “while Scripture asserts its own inspiration, it nowhere is explicit regarding the result of that inspiration” (Evangelicals at an Impasse: Biblical Authority in Practice, 1979). Jeremy Myers, while not offering, in my view, a compelling alternative translation, has neatly outlined various translations of the line ranging from “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (NKJ) to “all Scripture is God-breathed” (NIV) to “every inspired scripture is profitable [etc.]” (NEB). These translations are at odds, presenting a distinct hermeneutical problem. But besides this, the reduction to a single discourse denies the historical and textual reality of the Bible.

The reduction of the biblical text to a single discourse is precisely the move Ricoeur criticizes in his essay “Toward a Hermeneutic of the Idea of Revelation.” In that essay, he analyzes the OT text into various discourses which dominate within specific biblical texts and genres. These discourses modulate meaning and entail differing forms of revelation. The biblical discourse par excellence is the prophetic discourse, which is characterized by a double authorship of speech and writing:

It seems legitimate to begin by taking prophetic discourse as our basic axis of inquiry. Indeed, this is the discourse which declares itself to be pronounced in the name of…, and exegetes have rightly pointed out the importance of its introductory formula: ‘The word of Yahweh came to me, saying, “Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem,…”’ (Jer. 2:1). Here is the original nucleus of the traditional idea of revelation. The prophet presents himself as not speaking in his own name, but in the name of another, in the name of Yahweh. So here the idea of revelation appears as identified with the idea of a double author of speech and writing. Revelation is the speech of another behind the speech of the prophet.

Well and good. But the idea that all biblical verses are equally God’s speech reflects the reduction of all biblical discourses to the prophetic. Ricoeur points out the problems in such a reduction:

When extended to all the other forms of biblical discourse we are going to consider, [the prophetic] concept of revelation, taken as a synonym for revelation in general, leads to the idea of scripture as dictated, as something whispered in someone’s ear. The idea of revelation is then confused with the idea of a double author of sacred texts, and any access to a less subjective [i.e., idiosyncratic] manner of understanding revelation is prematurely cut off. In turn, the very idea of inspiration, as arising from meditation on the Holy Spirit, is deprived of the enrichment it might receive from those forms of discourse which are less easily interpreted in terms of a voice behind a voice or of a double author of scripture.

Collapsing the Bible to the prophetic form of discourse does not make sense, for example, when accounting for the collagic and multi-generic composition of the Bible. Are we to say that God spoke to the Bible’s editors and redactors as he did to the prophets? This is nonsensical and unnecessary.

Of course, such a move does not simply stand on grounds of aesthetic impoverishment, for then we could dismiss it by saying “So be it, we do not ask the Bible to be beautiful, only true.” But the textual richness of the Bible is not merely an aesthetic judgment; it is an index of the Bible’s linguistic facticity. Univocalizing the Bible under the pretext of “inspiration” (a word whose meaning is far from self-evident) unduly reduces the heteroglossia of the biblical collection of texts, its multi-discursive, multi-generic, multilingual, multifunctional apparatus, its rich variety of form and style, its many-voiced authorship (and editorship), subject matter, and its plural perspectives, seeking in effect to erase textual and semiotic contradiction or interpretive difficulty by brute force rather than by nuance and rigor. In a certain sense, the Bible as a collection and arrangement of heterogeneous discourses is reminiscent of the novel. Mikhail Bakhtin’s characterization of the textual atmosphere of the novel, through which discourses, words and signs diffuse and refract, is usefully reminiscent of Ricoeur’s idea of discursive modulation:

The linguistic significance of a given utterance is understood against the background of language, while its actual meaning is understood against the background of other concrete utterances on the same theme, a background made up of contradictory opinions, points of view and value judgments—that is, precisely that background that, as we see, complicates the path of any word toward its object (“Discourse in the Novel,” 1935).

As with the novel, the meaning(s) of the text cannot be separated from these backgrounds of langue and parole which inform it/them. Consequently, in pointing out the multiform discourses of the biblical text (e.g., narration, prophecy, legislative texts, wisdom saying, hymns, supplications, and thanksgiving), Ricoeur cautions against appealing to a second-order authority in order to reduce that richness into a flat object, for in so doing it may produce the appearance of a closed sign, but in reality it does damage to the text:

The mistaken assumption here would be to take these forms of discourse as simple literary genres which ought to be neutralized so that we can extract their theological content. … To uproot this prejudice we must convince ourselves that the literary genres of the Bible do not constitute a rhetorical facade which it would be possible to pull down in order to reveal some thought content that is indifferent to its literary vehicle.

Literary critic Harold Bloom has criticized evangelicals, particularly of the Southern Baptist tradition, for a similar (a)hermeneutical move. He quips, for example, that the univocal account of the biblical text is not so much Christian (or Jewish) as it is Muslim, for it is the Koran which, at least in paradigm, “gives us one voice only, the voice of God himself, who speaks the entire text aloud to his Messenger, Muhammad.” Bloom’s critique of biblical literalism is particularly apt in its account of the neo-fundamentalist impulse (an impulse he compares to ancient Gnosticism) to escape the fabric of language altogether:

Their inerrant Bible, [lay people] are assured, was not so much written by God or by inspired prophets, as it was created by God. Creationism, I am now convinced, is only secondarily directed against the ghost of Charles Darwin. It is directed instead against all those who might deny that the Bible is a vast, solid object… Neo-Fundamentalists want a densely substantial inerrancy, a truth beyond language, beyond ambiguity, beyond any possibility of refutation (The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation, 1992).

Bloom’s hyperbole touches on the psychological underpinnings of this textual ideology, under which the Bible’s meaning(s) is/are simply not allowed to be problematic, incomprehensible, confusing or undecidable. It is as if it says, “If God inspired the entire Bible, then not only would he have given us all we could ever need, but he ought to have made what he gave us comprehensible.” Of course, if the Bible were a “vast, solid object,” an object as perfect, as without flaw or lacunae as God himself, then there would be no need to interpret it (or so the reasoning would seem to go). But of course this is not the case, nor is the idea consistently even believed, in practice. For example, on the one hand, the unequal discursive landscape of the linguistic Bible may be acknowledged when it is held that one cannot establish doctrine from a parable; but on the other hand, a cited psalm or a proverb will then be attributed with the words “God says.” As becomes clearer, the decision of whether to recognize the linguistic and discursive character of the biblical text has implications on what it can be made to mean.

To resolve the Bible’s difficulty, the text might therefore submitted to a de facto meta-canonization, the effect of which is that a strikingly small proportion of the Bible is ever cited. This selectivity produces a meta-canon of comprehensible or applicable scripture and presents it as the Bible, devaluing or leaving aside texts and questions about them that are not “applicable” or that do not represent “a salvation issue,” and ignoring difficult texts. This reductive frame would render the Bible automatically non-contradictory and obvious even as it ironically affirms the Bible’s linguistic character in the very act of its exclusion.

My own contention is that faith in the Bible’s authority need not resort to such drastic measures. The Bible is a text—rather, a collection of texts—written and redacted by human beings. That fact need not require God to have literally breathed his breath upon the paper or whispered into the writer’s ear; God could just as easily have fabricated the entire canon himself and rained it down like manna from the sky, wrapped in brown paper with a self-addressed sealed envelope, but instead the word was written by many hands in a plurality of times, languages, voices, and genres, and by a plurality of authors, editors, and redactors for a variety of purposes, employing multiple rhetorics, fulfilling multiple functions, under a variety of restraints. For all this canonical problematicity, is it really implausible that God’s methods of inspiration would vary from simple direct transmission? Projecting the prophetic discourse onto the entire Bible constrains one’s understanding of the Bible and of God in order that both may conform to the limits of one’s faith and imagination.

Following Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jacques Derrida, Bruce Ellis Benson provides a useful insight in a brief poststructuralist account of the biblical reading event. All texts—perhaps particularly the biblical texts?—have a history, a fabric of constructive and destructive prejudices that the reader brings to bear in the event of reading, which become “so intimately connected to the texts themselves that there can be no clear distinction between text and interpretation history.” Hermeneutics understands precisely how a text is, in this sense, living: “Rather than their being merely an expression of an author’s thought, texts are mutually constituted by author and reader,” Benson writes; by implication, then,

[e]xplicating a text requires a willingness to play with it, a willingness to hear what it has to say with open ears. While we all come to texts with our prejudices, engaging a text in a genuine dialogue means that those prejudices are put into question (“Text messages: Gadamer, Derrida and how we read,” Christian Century, March 22, 2005).

But under the conditions of the pseudo-hermeneutic model we’ve been discussing, I must wonder: Is there a point at which it is no longer possible to read the Bible? When “Bible study” has become a practice of finding always in the text what one is supposed to find, does the reading event ever actually take place? It is said that the holy spirit opens understanding of the scriptures; but could it be that one actually quenches the spirit through over-encumbered reading?


I believe we must reckon with the idea that there are idols in our midst, between us and the text. We must recognize when we have made a new text in an image more to our liking/likeness. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes that

Either I determine the place in which I will find God, or I allow God to determine the place where he will be found. If it is I who say where God will be, I will always find then a God who somehow corresponds to me, is agreeable to me, fits in with my nature (Meditating on the Word, 1986. Quoted in Thiselton, 2009).

Where we can be said to “find” God is always already in the text.

Ricoeur reflects that while symbols give rise to thought, “they are also the birth of idols,” which is why hermeneutics must endeavor to destroy the idols of prejudice informed by ideology, will and desire in order to retrieve and listen to the symbol, indeed, the text itself.

The sacred—defined by separation or otherness—is for Ricoeur an arena of meanings in combat, an area of ambiguity:

The sacred can be the sign of that which does not belong to us [i.e., to our physical experience], the sign of the Wholly Other; it can also be a sphere of separate objects within our human world of culture and alongside the sphere of the profane. … The ambiguity is inevitable: for if the Wholly Other draws near, it does so in the signs of the sacred; but symbols soon turn into idols (Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, 1970).

We can see that the Wholly Other is God, and the signs of the sacred may be compared to the biblical text through which we approach and are approached by God as the Wholly Other. Ricoeur is right in demonstrating that one can make the symbol, which points beyond itself to the Other, into an idol, a substitute for the Wholly Other, thanks to its accessibility, its existence as metonymic to our familiar sphere of culture (in this way, the metonym becomes a metaphor). To demonstrate his point more forcefully, Ricoeur refers us to the words of the prophet Isaiah, in which we watch the wood carver who has cut down a cedar, a cypress or an oak:

Half of it he burns in the fire; over the half he eats flesh, he roasts meat and is satisfied; also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol; and he falls down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for thou art my god!” They know not, nor do they understand. (Isaiah 44:16-18 as it appears in Freud and Philosophy).

The idol is a substitute intended to provide the illusion of direct access, “a reification of the horizon into a thing, the fall of the sign into a supernatural and supracultural object,” as Ricoeur puts it. What it masks is the fundamental gap between reader and text, between the infinite and the finite. Ricoeur says that “the critique of idols remains the condition of the conquest of symbols.” The latter cannot be achieved without the former. “Thus the idols must die,” he concludes, “so that symbols may live.”

Otherwise, the ecclesia does not read the Bible in order to retrieve symbols but to defend against language, even against thought, in favor of reminding the reader of what the church has always taught: ecclesial discourse is intended to prevent deviation from the status quo (on the level of the ethical), rather than find meaning in the text. The effort to avoid the Bible as language and to stay as close as possible to the traditional ethos reveals, in practice, a synthesis of the dual reductions of applicability and univocity. For if every word of the Bible is God’s, and if the Bible exists to be applied, then the discourse transforms the Bible (or at least its meta-canon) into a series of prescriptions or obligations; in other words, the purpose of interpretation is to facilitate unquestioning obedience. Bible reading becomes not an exercise in inquiry or dialogue but submission to ubiquitous moral prescription, always in principle if not in letter. The text is thus confirmed to be already beyond contemplation, beyond contradiction, beyond discussion: the text exists only to be obeyed or to enhance our manner of obedience. A hermeneutic of obedience naturally supports the discourse which governs a culture of conformity. We see thus how the sphere of human action within discourse is (re)produced through interpretation.

The liquidation of idols

In order to apprehend the ethical, we must begin with the question of interpretation, which is what I’ve tried to do thus far. Having raised the question of hermeneutics, it becomes plain that the work must begin with the idols in our way. Ricoeur sees in the situation of language what I see in the situation of the Bible as language, namely a double invitation, a double task:

on the one hand, purify discourse of its excrescences, liquidate the idols, go from drunkenness to sobriety, realize our state of poverty once and for all; on the other hand, use the most “nihilistic,” destructive, iconoclastic movement so as to let speak what once, what each time, was said, when meaning appeared anew, when meaning was at its fullest. Hermeneutics seems to me to be animated by this double motivation: willingness to suspect, willingness to listen; vow of rigor, vow of obedience.

By nihilistic, destructive, iconoclastic movement, Ricoeur refers (with some irony, I think) to the “school of suspicion” inaugurated independently by Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. Taken together, we find in their work a common suspicion of consciousness as primarily “false” or interdicted by illusions generated by the interplay of instinct, culture and material conditions. “These three masters of suspicion are not to be misunderstood, however, as three masters of skepticism,” Ricoeur says, for

all three clear the horizon for a more authentic word, for a new reign of Truth, not only by means of a “destructive” critique, but by the invention of an art of interpreting. … All three begin with suspicion concerning the illusions of consciousness, and then proceed to employ the stratagem of deciphering; all three, however, far from being detractors of “consciousness,” aim at extending it.

Thus Ricoeur argues that this hermeneutical suspicion is necessary before we can remove the idols of our second-order interpretations and vested interests and recover meaning in the sacred, comparing the journey to “the lesson of Spinoza: one first finds himself a slave, he understands his slavery, he rediscovers himself free within understood necessity.”

This last point importantly raises the question of what exactly is to be done with our idols. Let us consider the verbs Ricoeur uses to refer to what hermeneutics “does” to idols:

  • liquidate (p. 27)
  • do away with
  • destroy (p. 54)
  • encounter (p. 162)
  • “expressed in…the death of idols” (p. 275)
    • cf. “the idols must die” (p. 531)
  • critique (p. 276; 543)
  • bring to light (p. 280)
  • unmask
  • separate (from symbols; p. 551)

We may group these verbs, these concepts, thusly:

Removal (permanent?)
[make to] die
[put to] death

Removal (impermanent?)
do away with

bring to light

Two observations can immediately be made about these lists, such as I’ve made them. There are, on the one hand, two categories: those actions by which hermeneutics removes idols, and those by which it does not remove them. This begs the question of whether removal is possible, or always possible. Does one remove idols or retain them? Does one destroy an idol permanently? Does one separate idol from symbol in a move that could either eliminate or simply sideline it? Or does one merely bring an idol to light without removing it?

A second observation is that “liquidate” appears in all three lists and therefore in both categories of removal and non-removal, as I’ve arranged them. The English word “liquidate” carries two senses: the first meaning to clear away or to make clear, to set in order, and the second meaning to wipe out, to kill violently. Thus it would seem to pertain to removal and to non-removal. This ambiguity works in our favor when we consider the nature of the idols themselves; and in any case, removal in the form of destruction and non-removal in the form of unmasking or critique both require suspicion.

Our first step may be to recognize the self, that is, false consciousness: our vested interests, whether they derive from trauma, class, race, gender or prior belief. The idols we can be sure to exist are the ones that derive from our own false consciousness. Secondly, we may recognize, insofar as we are socially constructed subjects, that these idols exist in others with whom we interact and in the structures within which we move (e.g., the ecclesia, the community, neoliberal capitalism). These idols get in between us and the text, indeed, they in turn constitute the text or even become the text. It is here where hermeneutics is committed to the negative movement of disillusion, of de(con)struction. Crucially, I believe, we must accept that “there is nothing outside the text” (Derrida’s phrase is “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte.”) We cannot simply escape our material conditions within capitalist hegemony, and thus cannot simply escape ideology. Likewise, insofar as it constitutes a fundamental cultural (and even religious) substructure, we cannot simply escape the ressentiment into which we have been entrained and which appeals to our will to power. As psychological beings, we certainly cannot escape unconscious desire and its pluriform manifestations. Importantly, to recognize false consciousness is to recognize both the idol and our conditions of necessity, the conditions of existence which bind and limit us as human beings. Some idols are susceptible of destruction. Others arise from necessity; they may come and go, but we will never be simply rid of the conditions for their possibility. As in Spinoza’s program, freedom is possible even within these constraints; if there is freedom, it must be within these constraints. But the way forward requires hermeneutics, an art of interpretation. Suspicion must make way for understanding, for the retrieval of meaning.

The way forward is through affirming interpretation over against the idolatry and illusion of direct access; it is through affirming the ambiguity of language and of being over against the [illusory] abolition of language and the equivocation of textuality.

To embrace the feeling of absolute certainty without interpretation is to give in to illusion while blinding oneself to the unexamined interpretation one nevertheless already practices. On the other hand, to relinquish this feeling is to embrace the ambiguity that necessarily accompanies the facing both of language and of the sacred, as Ricoeur has shown. This movement requires courage, which Paul Tillich reminds us is a requirement of genuine faith:

An act of faith is an act of a finite being who is grasped by and turned to the infinite. It is a finite act with all the limitations of a finite act, and it is an act in which the infinite participates beyond the limitations of a finite act. Faith is certain in so far as it is an experience of the holy. But faith is uncertain in so far as the infinite to which it is related is received by a finite being. This element of uncertainty in faith cannot be removed, it must be accepted. And the element in faith which accepts this is courage (Dynamics of Faith, 2001).

Hermeneutics too requires courage. An acceptance of necessity. Just as the ambiguity of the sacred, insofar as it is distantiated from us, can produce the faith of idolatry as well as true faith, we have seen that same ambiguity create the possibility both of idolatrous and of liquidated meaning. But as in faith, so too, I believe, in the hermeneutic enterprise there is the possibility of occasional failure; both are dynamic. Ricoeur writes that the task of distinguishing between “the faith of religion—faith in the Wholly Other which draws near—and belief in the religious object, which becomes another object of our culture and thus a part of our own sphere [i.e., an idol],” is a never-ending task. It is never-ending because we are human and therefore subject to the invisible dynamics of ideology, will and desire that constantly threaten to (re)produce the idol, the illusion that the horizon is a thing you can grasp rather than the far edge of a gap that can only ever be approached.

We must liquidate the idols.

Excursus: The need for counter-interdiction

How shall we go about the liquidation of idols and the retrieval of meaning?

I hesitate to propose any unitary sort of program. But there are three courses of action which I have found useful in my own experience thus far. These are not to be taken as steps in any kind of order; for my own part, I have undertaken these more or less at the same time.

(Re)encounter language. An acquaintance with the study of language and of meaning prepares the way for a more rigorous reading of all texts. Curiosity about how meaning is (re)produced is an essential ingredient of the hermeneutical endeavor. Semiotics and hermeneutics as related disciplines explore the meaning, function and interpretation of language as a socially embedded and socially constituted/constitutive apparatus.

(Re)encounter false consciousness. “Human nature” has long been a fixation of Christianity, and it is beyond question in the ecclesial discourse that human nature is a constant barrier to righteousness and understanding. But this nature, such as it is, often represents a mere form without content. If the ecclesia acknowledges the working of concealed forces within human psychology and sociology, it still has not acknowledged the great amount of work the sciences and the humanities have done to interrogate those very forces and find content within the forms of their outward manifestations. It is no accident, to me, that Ricoeur’s “school of suspicion” encompasses the critique of the three concealed social forces par excellence, ideology, will to power, and unconscious desire. At times, the ecclesial discourse already takes these subjects up obliquely without actually looking at them squarely. If one can overcome one’s prejudices, the critical study of these three forces embodied in the disciplines of critical theory, philosophy, and psychology (and associated with Marx, Nietzsche and Freud as founders of discursivity, to use Foucault’s term) can add valuable and I believe vital insight to one’s self-examination, one’s understanding of the world and its interpenetration with the ecclesia, and one’s reading of texts.

(Re)encounter the text. Having upset one’s assumptions about language, about oneself and about human nature, I believe it is necessary also to upset one’s understanding of the Bible as text. One way to do this is to (re)encounter the Bible as literary. There are several good literary introductions to the Bible on the market. Additionally, it will be helpful to interrogate the Bible in translation. I have found Robert Alter’s translation of the OT with commentary useful in providing a fresh look at the Bible as text as well as offering insights into the problems inherent in biblical translation. Any scholarly translation should be useful insofar as it will be aware of the problems of language and translation and may provide insights into the text that a “popular” or “religious” translation may not. One further means of (re)encountering the biblical text is engaging with biblical scholarship, particularly interpretive scholarship. Narrative, sociology and ideology criticism as well as feminist hermeneutics (which is properly interdisciplinary) comprise a few potentially profitable areas of biblical research and interpretation whose questions and insights can serve to stir one’s thinking and refocus the reader upon the text itself.

Importantly, I believe that the retrieval of hermeneutics, the endeavor to liquidate idols and recover the text, requires a counter-interdiction, an irruption from the outside. In short, we need help. Identifying problematic movements of thought (or non-thought) is only the first step to removing them. Addressing them means finding a counterforce to upset, challenge and critique them.

Jesus speaks to this need in another metaphor made of wood:

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye (Matthew 7:3-5).

The passage speaks precisely of judgment, hence, interpretation. The reading eye is interdicted by a wooden idol, a log, which escapes the notice of the subject. Indeed, the log has in a sense become an active member to the reading eye, otherwise Jesus would not call this person a hypocrite. It is by virtue of this obstruction that the subject sees and interprets the way that it does; for it is not that the log obscures all sight, but as a symbol it informs sight (i.e., interpretation). But it would be incorrect to read this fiction as arguing that the subject can simply, with determined effort, self-correct in such cases. This ignores the implicit third character in the fiction, the second voice; for it is Jesus who in the first place sees the log in the subject’s eye and calls out the interpreter’s hypocrisy. Without it, as we have seen, the subject would go on in its preexistent hermeneutic without noticing, or wishing to notice. The significant operation in the scenario is precisely the voice of Jesus, the voice of the Other which calls the reading subject to reexamination, who can see the log as well as the speck.

The fiction is a case study of the intersection of hermeneutics and ethics. It demonstrates the need for the voice of another, a counter-interdiction, in order to retrieve the hermeneutical, and so at last to retrieve the ethical.



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