From the ‘Words No One Knows’ File: A Homily on Hermeneutics

What’s your hermeneutic?

7:30 is a little early for words like that, I guess.

A hermeneutic is a method of teaching, and a lens of learning. It deals with the way we approach certain topics and the way we receive them.

Pope Benedict XVI spoke often about maintaining a “hermeneutic of continuity” in the Church, particularly in terms of the Church’s doctrine and theology. Truth, we know, does not change. It adapts, it develops, certain parts are emphasized at different times in history but the truth of a thing doesn’t change. Which is helpful when weighing new ideas or practices in the life of the Church; is this thing in continuity with the rest of the tradition? Does it fit?

As the humanist renaissance and the enlightenment came and went, and we found ourself firmly entrenched in modernism, the great thinkers began to call into question many of the West’s most deeply held beliefs on any number of issues, but especially on the issue of the existence and God and the role of the religion in societal life. This questioning found its climax in the thought of contemporary philosophers like Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. Marx called religion the “opiate of the masses”, used only to make people feel better in the face of economic hardship or oppression from the state. These philosophers and their contemporaries developed what has been called a “hermeneutic of suspicion.”

Hermeneutic of suspicion: don’t take anything for what it is until you know for sure it’s true, whatever “true” might mean. Something of this way of learning and receiving lives on even in us, the Christian faithful. There are little ways we all approach God and the Church with little bit of suspicion.

Is that really Jesus in the Eucharist? Will God really be enough for me? Is there really life after death? Does my suffering really have meaning?

Per se, there isn’t anything fundamentally wrong with a hermeneutic of suspicion. In fact, it can be helpful in spurring us on to learning more, investigating more thoroughly, and thus coming to understand a particular thing in a new and deeper way.

In many ways, the Judeo-Christian tradition, all through both testaments of scripture, seems to cater to this attitude. From the Pentateuch, to the histories, prophets, and wisdom literature, and then in the gospels and epistles of the New Testament, not one person is ever forced to believe anything. God is a God of proposition, not imposition. We are always utterly free, as I have said many times before, to accept or reject him and his work in our lives.

The basic message of the prophets: This is what the LORD will do; come and see what he has done.

The disciples in the gospel this morning ask a very simple question, probably more out of curiosity than suspicion: “Teacher, where are you staying?”

And, in typical, biblical fashion, Jesus responds: “come and see.”

That is always the invitation from Jesus. Come and see.

The challenge for us is to be more aware of the way we initially begin to think about things. Instead of saying, “that probably isn’t true,” ask, with Mary, “how can this be?” What if God’s not real or the bible is a lie or the Eucharist isn’t Jesus or I’m not on this earth for anything….yeah, but what if he is real or what if it’s true or what if it is Jesus or what if you’re here for something beautiful?

What if the one who promises me healing, life, peace, mercy, and joy will actually come through on those promises?

Jesus is cool with us letting him know our doubts and fears. But don’t be surprised when his response is no more thorough than, “come and see.” Then be ready as he gives you everything you need to go with him and see what it is he will do.