When fresh out of high school, I attended a very conservative Baptist seminary in Little Rock, Arkansas for one year. There I learned of the term “hermeneutics” for the first time, having it presented to me as interpreting the Bible with the right frame of reference. I now see that the problem I had with this seminary, and my brief effort at the ministry, was this notion of a “right frame of reference” as I now see it meant merely to “use the Bible to impose your world-view on others,” because you, and only you, knew what “right” was.
One basic precept of a more mature hermeneutics is the realization that one brings a frame of reference to anything and all things in life and that if this is not understood one will do great injustice to everything, and certainly holy writ. Understanding that one is putting a “frame of reference” on the table is recognizing that there is a subjective dimension to one’s experience of life and that this subjectivity does not permit one to be objective about anything.
Grasp of this wisdom is more than an intellectual endeavor. Coming to recognize the subjective dimension of one’s life is to cognitively and emotionally experience being alive in human form, subject to all the delights and limitations of this “fallen” state. And when one brings his attention to any literature, especially holy writ, one must approach it with more humility than I was capable of in the Little Rock seminary and more than was even permissible there.
Hermeneutics derives from the Greek mythical figure Hermes whose many responsibilities included boundaries and transitions. One dimension of the story is that property boundaries were determined by the posting of an “herm” on one side of the property, the “herm” being a pole with a man’s head upon it. This herm was very important and commanded great respect. Anyone who failed to respect the herm, and cross the boundary represented by the herm, or anyone who defaced or even pushed the herm was guilty of a capital offense. This myth recognized the establishment of boundaries, or definitions, in the birth of the Greek language and was a beautiful way of emphasizing the integrity of words, their ability to “capture” a subjective phenomena and give it verbal currency in the tribe.
BUT, Hermes was extraordinary in that he established the boundaries but, being also the god of transitions, could cross between them. He could “break” the boundaries of words, teaching us that with proper hermeneutics words can offer value and meaning when we are willing to enter the fluidity of the verbal field that is our reality. The myth teaches us how the poets do their magic, “breaking” the words and allowing their hidden riches to be apprehended by a willing and open heart.
Another dimension of his boundary fluidity was that he was the only god that could ascend to heaven and descent into hell, conveying messages between the two kingdoms. And he was the prankster god, creating mischief in his world much like talented poets can do. Poets “play” with language and allow the resulting breakage to evoke hidden riches.
Hermes demonstrated the need of nuance in language. Words must have integrity or they lose all meaning. But if their “integrity” is sacrosanct and no “mischief” can be applied to them, then they will become sterile and moribund. This myth conveys to us that words have value when they can be taken metaphorically, when “the word” is not “the thing,” which is the mistake that leads to biblical literalism. For example, in the literal world of linear thinking, the term “God” is mistaken for the subjective experience of God, an experience that lies beyond the grasp of any word.
But without doing the work of hermeneutics with holy writ, the book will become a rule book, mere dogma, and thus amenable to enslaving people to the agenda of a mindset that favors the powerful. To be more specific, “the way things are” in a tribe (aka “patriarchy”) will assert itself and the holy writ will cease to be deprived of the “Wholly Otherness,” (i.e. “God”} needed by all tribes to provide meaning to their life.
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