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September 8, 2006

Gadamer On Hermeneutics And The Christian Message

Possibly my all-time favourite theology quote, from Hans-Georg Gadamer’s work on aesthetics, The Relevance of the Beautiful, The Proclamation of the gospel message seems to me to be the foundation upon which all the different forms of religious speech and usage in the Christian tradition are defined. The public proclamation takes the form of the […]

Possibly my all-time favourite theology quote, from Hans-Georg Gadamer’s work on aesthetics, The Relevance of the Beautiful,

The Proclamation of the gospel message seems to me to be the foundation upon which all the different forms of religious speech and usage in the Christian tradition are defined. The public proclamation takes the form of the sermon. All forms of cultic speech in the Christian order of service, Catholic or in particular Protestant, ultimately serve the task of proclaiming the paradoxical message of faith. Here we meet in its most acute form, the difficulty that we mentioned above, of letting something be said to us. For the message we hear is an incredible one that does not build upon our natural understanding of death and immortality, nor upon salvation and redemption as the usual consolations of religion do. On the contrary, the Christian message represents a challenge that shatters all our natural expectations, for it does not correspond to our guiding ideas of reward and punishment or merit and blame. Flacius, the founder of protestant hermeneutics in Wittenburg, rightly showed, it seems to me, that the genuine task of hermeneutics arises from the peculiar nature of the Christian proclamation. All the strange features that we encounter in the Bible, the remoteness of the language, the grammar, the customs and so on, certainly require specialist knowledge in order to facilitate a better understanding of this alien text. But the real task of hermeneutics here is to overcome the fundamental strangeness and alien quality that lies in the Christian message itself, culminating in the idea that even faith is exclusively a gift of divine grace so that all our criteria and worth lose their significance. This is directed against any natural understanding of human nature. For this reason, because we are here solely concerned with this challenge of faith, it seems to me that all forms of religious speech that we encounter in Christianity represent aids to faith.

When I first read this quote, it was explosive. Not because it said anything I did not already know about the Christian message, the role of Scripture, communication or theology, but because it shifted and reconfigured their relationships. I saw more clearly that hermeneutics (here is the wiki for hermeneutics, if you are interested), was not just a specialised task related to the translation and communcation of ancient texts, but was actually central to the whole method of theology, of understanding the Christian faith.

Our capacity for interpretation is seen not just in how we handle texts, but how we perceive art, nature, music, film, people, culture, everything really. It plays a central role in processing religious speech. Our ability not just to make meaning of those forms, but to hear them on their own terms is what Gadamer means by “letting something be said to us.”

But of course, we are usually pretty lousy at letting things and people speak to us on their terms. We want to control the conversation, contain the message and steer the meaning. The problem is we often miss the detail that is hidden in the difference between what something or someone says and what we wish they were saying.

That same habit is why we find it hard to hear God – we are so acustomed to not really tuning into ideas on their own terms. God’s own terms are, as Gadamer says, “against any natural understanding.” What I realised from this quote is that developing our capacity to interpret art, music, film and culture, as well as religious speech, letting it say something to us on its own terms, is not just good in some abstract educational sense. Rather, it is good precisely because it trains us to hear God, to let God speak to us on God’s own terms.

[tags] Gadamer, Hermeneutics, Theological Method [/tags]

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