Revisionary Hermeneutics, the Death of the Bible, and Leaving God Out of It

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot over Marriage Equality and how it intersects with Christianity. I will be forever surprised by just how conservative my least reflective, default postures are. What follows offers something of my thoughts on hermeneutics from a post-confessional, a/theological standpoint as I try to detox from those conservo-gelical postures.

Let it be said, I don’t say everything that needs to be or should be said on Marriage Equality and the Bible etc. and I could be wrong. I would never want to presume my own correctness.

Question: Can you knowingly practice a revisionary hermeneutics? Can you honestly say these are the passages we will here, now, privilege and work from?

At once several reasons, each answering in the affirmative, occur to me, and I agree with them all:

  • Everybody is practicing a revisionary hermeneutics of some sort.
  • Serious theological problems present if you don’t.
  • Valid Christological and theological commitments beg it be practiced.

I find these to be good and interesting reasons, I like them – but I can’t help but sense a problem that lies deeper still. This problem is, for me, how the application so often functions to implicitly privilege the Christian narrative – as if it actually is some sort of window into ultimate reality or tells us something about the direction of history.

The underlying demand seems to will that we get the text to agree with us. It is felt the text must offer something that validates such a posture. Either in the form, as Tad DeLay notes in a comment on a recent post of his, of 1) exegetical work that helps assure your correctness (either for or against marriage equality), or 2) debate hermeneutics with a deity big enough to handle the conclusion (again, either for or against). Here is the privileging of narrative; and not just the narrative but God also – the narrative serves as a window by which one finds out what God wants to happen.

Now, it’s not like this is necessarily a problem/surprising, if you have some sort of confessionally inspired opinion about ultimate reality it makes sense that you might do this in some form or another (with ranging degrees of openness). However, I find this problematic because, speaking personally, I have become increasingly ambivalent toward concrete thoughts about ultimate reality and Christianity. The conservative believes they know ultimate reality and thus morality etc., while the progressive Christian often assumes an ultimate reality to give their hermeneutics power. The Christian narrative is asked to colour reality and thus sets the terms to a rather large degree. I find this largely untenable – that is, I find it a largely speculative affair.

I say this very aware that Christians who put in the exegetical work and take progressive stances etc. are fully aware of historical, Biblical criticism and exist beyond inerrantist positions etc. It’s here, of course, that revisionary hermeneutics are quite visible to, say: paint a picture of a God characterised by love and grace; or place the kin-dom of God at the centre of thought about Jesus; or give primacy to the prophetic emphasis on justice, peace, and mercy; and so on.

My problem is not that this be done. It should be done – these are wonderful creative sources. My issue is that a person makes this move because they think ultimate reality is actually described, in some way, by this narrative. Does it not follow that this narrative/hermeneutics should, in some way, despite its historicity and contingency, become a definitive description of world history?

In essence, the profound uncertainty that haunts material being gets papered over with the sense that God wants things to be this way. (Maybe a god does, but who knows?)

In this sense, I am quite sceptical of any approach to the Bible that sees it as being able to afford our decisions with some teleological significance, either through 1) telling us what to do, or 2) pointing us toward a rather inclusive and generous ultimate reality.

Neither of these seem interesting, neither ring as plausible, both appear afraid of the proper historical contingency that imbues a decision with power. In other words, both seem afraid of the possibility that we are lost, alone, and won’t be saved if we get things wrong. We are responsible. (What I think I’m trying to do is really let the Bible die, to follow Krista Dalton.)

As such, I can’t help but ask: Why not just cut out the middleman? Which is another way of saying, “Hey, I really don’t care about the Bible and what it says!” We should own the liberating trends of contemporary values and aim to radicalise and further them, for what they are. Why this need to have them owned by something else?

Of course, we may interestingly be read as embodying, culturally speaking, the full secularisation of Christian neighbour love etc. (following Vattimo) – but this is exactly because, in a properly historically contingent sense, this is our past. Surely we have enough distance from the narrative in numerous senses to say, “The values (i.e. marriage equality) we affirm now have independence, significance, and value of their own, not on the basis of their being historically rooted in the Christian narrative.”

This is not to say the Bible cannot be a creative resource for, or appreciated as the historical source of, these things. Of course it can, and of course it should. What I think I’m trying to get at is, the Bible is overrated. There is much in there that is wonderful, and there is much that isn’t. We should be willing to call bullshit on what doesn’t make sense any longer. Values like freedom, justice, equality, and love have meaning and power that may, genealogically speaking, have come from the text, but there will be much in there that problematises and contradicts them, and should rightly be ignored. We have to be willing insist on the significance they have in themselves. We have found ourselves with these values and aim to repeat them in our own way for what they are, not replicate what they once were – and certainly not because of the misbegotten notion that we’re sure ultimate reality bears their face (again, perhaps it does, but who knows?).

As such, following a revisionary hermeneutic we will make choices and paint a particular picture; but if the text were to be subsumed by a desire for some harmonious description of reality, ultimately or teleologically, the proper conclusion would be that such reality is utterly fractured and schizophrenic. In this sense, the Bible isn’t up to the job, and nor, of course, should it be expected to be.

What then do we do? Perhaps we need to fully appreciate who we are, how we got here, and realize that where we go is up to us. The text has formed us, and we form the text. The values we have, whatever and however conflicted their source, have life of their own in us – this, in fact, in its own way, may develop that conflict. Here we might affirm that we should not return to past forms of tribalism, oppression, heterosexism, misogyny and patriarchy, and racism and are faced with the responsibility to not fall victim to how they may be repeated.

Freedom, justice, beauty, love, each of these have gripped our imaginations and being; they have meant and done many things and will mean and do many more, but we decided that form, that meaning, and that effect as much as we’ve inherited them from others. It is this history and lineage that make meaning and effect. How we rearticulate them will not be justified by a source, or a book, or a god, but by those who make the meaning and feel and create the value. In this sense, marriage equality may be affirmed for interesting interpretive reasons but at every point we must say, this is a new situation that is quite unprecedented and at no point anticipated by the text or God; we affirm marriage equality as good and true in itself because of the reality we create with the values we possess, not because there are eternal or deeply historical principles to ground or found our conclusions. The text won’t save us or make this known (though it may be a creative resource full of life and power), and nor will God.