Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Hermeneutics of the Golden Rule

In class a couple weeks ago I said something about being "loving" historians. We were talking about the Pharisees, whose rather one-sided portrayal in the Gospels leads many Christians to view them as uniformly bad: They are the hypocrites who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel. They are the legalists. Preoccupied with the letter of the law, they lost touch with its spirit. Committed to piety and establishing their own righteousness they went home condemned by God. And so on.

If we want to approach the Pharisees historically, as real people, we have to acknowledge that they would not have regarded themselves as hypocrites. "Loving" history will seek to recover a view of the Pharisees that made sense to them. I suggested that the Pharisees, like most Second Temple Jews, would have regarded the Torah as God's gift, and their obedience as a response to God's gracious covenant with them. Along with most other Jews, they would have agreed that “the yoke of the commandments, and the yoke of the kingdom of heaven were not burdens but opportunities for the service of God” (Shaye Cohen, From The Maccabees To The Mishnah [Louisville: WJK, 2005], 70). 

But then, spurred on by this post, I got to thinking: Since love covers over a multitude of sins, what about the distortions that "love" brings? According to Albert Schweitzer, the greatest studies of the historical Jesus "are written with hate." While love believes all things, hate suspects all things, and it is suspicion that is the historian's stock-in-trade. Is it possible or good to write a "loving" history of Stalin or Hitler?  Does a hermeneutics of love preclude value judgements? Must we affirm with E.P. Sanders that, at the end of the day, first century Jews--high priests and Pharisees included--were really nice liberal protestants in disguise? (I exaggerate for effect.)

No, for at its best the practice of history is a game of the imagination in which scholars try to construct models that make the best sense of all the available data. Whether motivated by love or hate, our hypotheses can be brought up short by the evidence. One might object that neither "love" nor "hate" is relevant to the study of history since it doesn't matter how we feel, it matters only that we are fair. I agree.

But I am defining love as the golden rule: Especially in the case of religious traditions other than our own, we should depict the object of our study in terms with which its adherents would agree, just as we would like others to present our own views as we would defend them ourselves.


Dustin Resch said...

Really interesting David. I've found a similar line of thought in Barth's hermeneutics, both of Scripture and other historical documents. For Barth, we approach the authors of these texts in "love" and in "the forgiveness of sins." Check out Church Dogmatics I/2, 465 and also his wonderful introduction to the Theology of the 19th Century.

Eric said...

David, could I ask a question here? I of course totally agree that we have to understand other religious traditions entirely on their own terms, to describe so well that an adherent could say, "Yes, that's it - you understand me." But surely we must do more than that? A history of the Third Reich, as much as it might want to understand the ideology on its own terms, would also, at some point, have to stand back and condemn it.

And doesn't Jesus' own interpretation of the Pharisees count as some of the evidence that we have to take into account? I'm sure if we could get in a time machine and go watch the Pharisees, they would come off as very nice, sincere, upstanding, admirable people. But isn't that just the point - Jesus is exposing the facade, showing us what we could never see on our own - that that kind of "obedience" is really, at root, just a kind of defiance toward God? "This people honors me with their lips . . ."

Not trying to go for your jugular here - and not really disagreeing with your principle. Just wondering if more doesn't need to be said. Thanks for the great post!

d. miller said...

Thanks for the Barth reference, Dustin. One more reason to buy the church dogmatics!

Thanks for sparing my jugular, Eric. I resonate pretty strongly with the way you apply Jesus' statements about the Pharisees to "us." My overarching concern is similar: I think that typical Christian judgement of the Pharisees as wholly hypocritical others is a convenient way to avoid the contemporary challenging implications of what Jesus said.

More does need to be said, but I decided the first post was already long enough, and even more urgent marking calls for my attention.

Eric said...

That makes sense. Can't say everything in one post!

And, of course, the extent to which I distance myself from the Pharisees - they're over there, evil, while I'm over here - is the extent to which I show how similar I am to them.