Found essay from 1988, when I was immersed in the academic study of religion. This was not the only tool in the toolbox, of course, but it’s funny for me to see the way I thought about things from that perspective. It was during my first year of graduate school, and I always tried to find something of value in everything I read, always tried to rescue something from a text even if I disagreed with many of its points. I was struggling to situate my thoughts in a context that was still very strange to me. There are a couple of good bits but it’s hilarious how ungrounded this really was, and how I floundered with the idea of understanding itself. It’s also interesting the way I sidestepped the issues of gender, race, class, and even geography. Still, there’s something from that time that does live on in me. I was perhaps kinder then, and more curious.
Scientific methodology in the human sciences, including the study of religion, is shaped by a scientific ideal that excludes the observer from that which is observed. The use of objective methodological tools to analyze and control key texts places the interpreter above the realm of the examined. The participatory aspect of humanity and tradition is often not taken into account, and so a dead representation of the original meaning, wrenched from its rightful place, is transmitted in a rehashed form inappropriate to the experience of the time. Gadamer, in Truth and Method, outlines an ontological shift which seeks the reintegration of “belongingness” as a way to vitalize and reunify the truth obscured by the alienating “distanciation” of method.
“Effective-historical consciousness” allows us to recognize our present reality as part of a tradition that cannot be done away with. We cannot wish it away (although we may sometimes ignore it and assume an ivory-tower stance). We stand in a context in which we pose questions of a text that may have contributed to the context in which we are standing to ask the question. The sphere of understanding shown within texts from the past (or even of a different and contemporary community) has a different “horizon” from the one in which we are asking questions. Likewise, professors in an academic context provide the shape (to some extent) of the horizons of students and other colleagues. The interpreter, through a creative and responsible interpretation of texts, opens new horizons yet becomes part of a particular tradition.
A historical and reflexive consciousness is particularly appropriate for scholars who study religious and philosophical works, which have shaped the academic world in which we find ourselves. Individually, we play with academic traditions and we are played by them, but we must also find common ground to discuss the “something” called religion if we are to consider ourselves as composing a distinct discipline within a pluralistic society. An examination along the lines of methods and theories in the study of religion is one way to explore the ways discussion is currently proceeding.
In the study of religion, we consider important cultural texts, language captured by signs called words, wholly abstracted from a particular place and time and let loose on the world. If the text speaks in such a way as to expand the current horizons of the individual reader, it also speaks dialectically to and through the interpreter in the form of a dialogue of question and answer. The text may become (or may already be) part of a human tradition, and it may shape the questions and answers of the future in ways that were never intended by the author. Hermeneutics seeks to retain the unity of the original meaning while letting the text speak to the current constellations of meaning. The text has the possibility of becoming a hermeneutic event at any time, and–if it is published–for anyone who cares to read it. In addition, the text may have the power to shape the world view of a community.
Gadamer is often perceived as a conservative because his emphasis seems to assume the rightful authority of a present tradition. He is, after all, playing with and being played by his own context, which may be a privileged one. If the tradition of which Gadamer speaks must necessarily be limited to being for and about only a small portion of the human population (as critical theory would have it), then it is possible to see flaws in his philosophical-hermeneutical thought. However, if one applies Gadamer’s insights to Gadamer’s own work, it is possible to argue that his emphasis on a certain type of Western tradition (in which he lives, and must speak from) is not fundamental to his understanding of being and knowing. Rather, his hermeneutic approach is part of its own historical dialogue and opens the doors to a better understanding of our present consciousness.
In questioning institutional authority, one takes a stance against a certain type of prejudice as it is expressed by power, but to do so necessarily expresses another in relation to the opposed viewpoint. Gadamer may be a bit idealistic in presenting dialogue as a universal possibility–as though all sides would sit down amicably, discuss political ideology, agree on a plan of action, and peacefully change the world. However, one cannot criticize effectively without coming to a dialogic understanding of the claims being presented. To put this another way, you have to grok it somehow to be able to translate it at all into another context, even if it’s to critique the claim.
Without the language of experience expressed in the claims of the oppressed, critical theory could not exist. The interpreter of culture permits the subject matter to have its way, without losing a sense of hermeneutic validity. The claim of the text or artwork must be allowed to score its own points, and the interpreter tries to become as conscious as possible about how their own pre-understandings may be obscuring or cloaking their interpretation. Pulling in every kind of approach you can – existential, poetic, etymological, sociological – within and outside the text brings better questions to ask. Empathetic common ground, then interrogation. Gadamer does not go so far. He does reinscribe, so that his welcome is slightly cyborgian.
It is impossible to avoid the historical context; history and understanding proceed onwards and around–together. Gadamer’s reflective moment is in a continual dance with the historical one. Creativity and imagination are born of language that has its home in a particular place. Although Gadamer phenomenologically links authority, prejudice, and tradition, his elucidation of the interaction of these terms attempts to rehabilitate these terms from their negative connotations. Each individual voice–in becoming itself–decides what “authority” means before, through, and as one speaks in language in which we “articulate the experience of the world in so far as we are in agreement.”
The dismantling of barriers to understanding can be accomplished only through language based on hermeneutical experience. Social criticism and more importantly, cultural understanding, would only be supported by full and complete interpretations of key texts through an open (but careful) dialogue with them. Hermeneutic approaches encourage bridges of understanding in our pluralistic society by encouraging the voice of the alien, the voice of a stranger in our strange land, to become in some sense “at home.”
Situating human consciousness is a continuous dialogue that rests on an event of understanding that places the experience and the interpreter/participant within an interstructural world of language. The hermeneutical event is as much an ordeal as a subject for study. Religious thinkers and writers and artists deal with precisely these issues. The interpreter of art, culture, psychology, and religion must seek the self in the alien and become at home there, partaking of another worldview, which in turn informs a changed self, one that has reshaped its presuppositions, in order to begin to translate those claims into the continuing dialogue outside the self. This is the hermeneutical circle. Without a dialogue (language) based on both methodological approaches and grounds and subjects for discussion, no community of scholars could exist.
Careful attention to language is a way to create a keen understanding of this community. Whether it is specialized branch of academic study, or a global community, the group or individual projects possibilities for itself and reshapes its own presuppositions continually. For instance, memory as an idea has an history of its own. The concepts of remembering, forgetting, and recalling were formed in and into traditions of common use, they were not created in a cultural vacuum. Ideas, as expressed in words such as memory, fact, truth, God, and religion have histories which cannot be ignored if the words are to be employed. In addition to the history of ideas, the individual or group who “remembers” has to learn what it means to do so at roughly the same time as he/she/they are actually remembering. If the academic study of religion–in using memory as a tool, supposing facts to be self-evident, asserting truths, and describing previous and current ideas of humanity and God–forget the subject matter at hand in the manipulation of information, then the sometimes-present spirit of technocratic professionalism has played it pretty roughly. Without a sense of the history of ideas as well as the consciousness of historical dialogue, each scholar’s work can only become disconnected and airy, narcissistic and atemporal, leaving out too much of the lived experience and realities that can’t bow down to universal claims.
It is because scholars of religion must themselves wrestle with the “big” questions, (i.e., what it means to be human, how meaning and ultimate concerns are constructed and why) that they can be at all qualified to examine how others did and do so. Imagination and good scholarship, like a good poem, suppose a common ground, that of language as experience. When the history of the reception of ideas and their effects begins to obscure the claim of the idea, it is the scholar’s job to reconstruct what went wrong and present a new interpretation with the integrity appropriate to serious discussion.
The finitude of understanding is never overcome, but students of religion can re-perform or re-tell insights to give them better light. It is an art to learn to take a claim seriously and to restructure your presuppositions based on a recognition of the truth of that claim. It is not an art that is commonly taught, but it is an art indispensable to the study of religion. The opposition inherent in an exploration of the alien, especially as regards the normative claims made in religious texts, requires a way to create bonds that become productive and constructive of new meaning that better “speaks” to an audience that can be very culturally removed from an original text. Hermeneutic understanding does not stipulate the end of imaginative endeavors in the interest of consensus. Rather, it is a way to bring some measure of consensus of meaning into scholarship, despite its ever-incompleteness.
Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method
Paul Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Social Sciences