That’s a 25 cent word if there ever was one, something for college kids to show Mom and Dad to prove they got something for their money, something a grad student to lord it over others with in the commons. In philosophy it refers to a certain group of theories of interpretation, particularly those inspired by Hans-Georg Gadamer. In religion it refers to the methods for deciding how to interpret scripture. (Perhaps my favorite introductory book related to that question is the classic, On Interpretation and Criticism by August Boeckhâ€”readable and useful.)
Though the name hasn’t been used much, the question of hermeneutics has been a hot topic lately, particularly on Julie’s thread, “JMS Sunday School Lesson #6,” which has had 150 comments as I write thisâ€”I quiver in envy. One consequence of that lengthy and sometimes heated but rarely lighted discussion has been an argument about hermeneutics among the permabloggers. One result of our argument was a challenge: write something about how you interpret scripture! Okay, here it is, though too brief to be much more than a caricature. (For more, see “Scripture as Incarnation,” in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures 17-61, edited by Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center Brigham Young University, 2001.)
I think few who know me even a little would be surprised to discover that I have doubts about some things in scripture: I doubt that the flood covered the earth as a whole, I doubt that Jonah and Job are historical stories. I think Paul might not have written the book of Hebrews. I don’t think that Genesis 1-3 are relevant to the scientific question of the earth’s origins.
Indeed, I think that those who worry about the last of these have been tricked. Elsewhere I have argued that what usually are assumed to be literal readings of the scriptures are often not that. Instead, they are secularized readings disguised with religious trappings, secularized because they assume, with the secularists, that the Bible is a scientific document, even if a primitive one:
It is common to understand religious creation accounts as reflections on the origins of the cosmos, answers to the question â€œwhy?â€? that are in some sense parallel to the scientific question why. That is a mistake. There may be cases in which myth [a technical term here that does not mean "false story"] functions as a kind of primitive science, but the biblical story of creation is not one of them. The additional creation accounts of LDS scripture, namely, the books of Moses and Abraham, and the temple ritual, are at least equally cases in which scripture cannot be understood as primitive science. The multiplicity of accounts and the differences between them make that difficult, if not impossible. Of course, secularists are not the only ones to assume that the Bible story of creation is a case of primitive science. Some religious people also make that assumption, especially those who consider themselves literalists. Ironically, when people argue for creation science or for what is usually called a literal reading of the Bible, they are agreeing with the secular understanding of things. They use a framework taken from secularism, with its necessity that explanation have a scientific form, to try to understand the Bible. Using that secular framework, when faced with the project of making scripture and science answer the same questions, some give up scripture entirely and others metaphorize it. Still others, those who call themselves scriptural literalists, keep scripture and insist that its account can be brought within the secular myth, though of course they would not say that is what they are doing. But each of these three groups do essentially the same thing, they begin from a secular understanding of scripture and use that secular understanding as the form of their understanding. [. . . These people] disagree about what conclusions that leads one to, but they agree that the secular myth of explanation is the one that must be used for understanding.
Obviously, from a certain point of view, I’m a “liberal.” However, when it comes to deciding how to read scripture and how to teach it, I think that my doubts and suspicions are simply irrelevant. It isn’t those in my classes aren’t smart enough to understand them or to think for themselves about the topic. It isn’t that I feel uncomfortable if people disagree with me. It is that I think that my liberality is irrelevant.
I accept canonized scriptures as that, as canonized: they are authoritative for Latter-day Saints. And, as I understand Church procedure, that means that they have been offered to the body of the Church and accepted as authoritative for us. Not all that has been revealed is canonical. Not all that is canonical has been revealed. What is not now canonical could become so. What is now canonical could cease to be so. Nevertheless, to accept a text as canonical is to accept it as an authority for the Church as long as it is canonical. That is perhaps the most important point in my approach to teaching, accepting the scriptures as canonical, so when I teach a lesson I assume that the scriptures are true as written or at least should be read that way. I don’t read scripture to decide whether Jonah existed. My doubts that he did are irrelevant. I don’t read scripture to decide whether the flood was local or universal. Whatever my suspicions about that, I don’t ultimately care.
I don’t care because I think that those questions are not central to what scripture teachesâ€”though reading scripture without my quibbles may be important to understanding what it does teach. I read scripture to learn what the Lord has to say to me about my relation to him and to other human beings. Understanding that probably requires taking them at face value and setting my scholarly and historical questions aside.
It hasn’t been unusual for me to discover that I learn a great deal about what the scriptures teach when I open myself to them in a variety of ways, including scholarly ones. Other ways of thinking about scripture often help me have new eyes through which to see the scriptures. However, when it comes to teaching the scriptures, I think it is important that I return to the scriptures as canon. Whatever insights I have had about scripture are given place and meaning by the canonical status of scripture.
That does not mean merely repeating the same-old-same-old. Neither does it mean finding some way to shock those in my class. It means finding ways for us to learn, together, from the scriptures. There are lots of methods for doing that. Boeckh suggests some, teacher trainer classes may suggest some, I learned a great deal about doing so by studying literature as an undergraduate. If the canon is my guide for teaching, then I have something by which to judge what to consider and how to fit it in.
Christian Y. Cardall recently described my attitude toward scripture this way: “He would rather leave questions unanswered than presume to dismiss any canonized text and there seems to be querying, even respectful probing; but then simply listening, sometimes, perhaps often, for answers that do not come; but in no case does there seem to be an impatient need to force resolutions.” I took Christian’s description as a great compliment. It is certainly how I hope to read and teach scripture.
[Warning: If you want to debate me or others about my suspicions, this isn't the place to do it. Go some place else, preferably to some other blog. Though I think that T&Sers are often too quick to delete, I'm going to join them this time: in addition to the usual things that get deleted, I'll delete anything that I take to be off topic or merely argumentative.]