Saturday, 29 July 2017

Some more thoughts on the interpretative process around The Father Is Greater Than I

LAST TIME RICOEUR was examined here on this blog we established three fundamentals:
  1. Hermeneutic task of discerning the apparent and hidden meanings
  2. Group persons are real agents, with memory, desires, goals, moral responsibility, etc. Personality is like a culture and vice versa.
  3. Hermeneutic understanding of oneself via understanding of other. On this third point I am reminded of the "wildly divergent" (Holmes) attempts of certain Trinitarian theorists to see their own vision of the Trinity as a blueprint for the church. Take John Zizioulas, for instance. He sees the Trinity this way, and yet sees the connections between the Members as fundamentally relational not ontological. What would Ricoeur suggest this reflects about him and his relationships between churches or within churches? Leonardo Boff is adamant: Zizioulas' proposals are far from relational, they are heavy and political:

[T]he trinitarian vision produces a vision of a church that is more communion than hierarchy, more service than power, more circular than pyramidal, more loving embrace than bending the knee before authority. 
(L. Boff, Trinity and Society, (Liberation and Theology, vol. 2), Tunbridge Wells: Burns & Oates, 1998, p154.)

The similarity in the goals between these two Trinitarian theologians seems to illustrate the point well. It would seem that the perception of the church and of God are indeed tightly bound up with who we are as persons and our personal history.

Moving onward today to p. 42 in Conflit des Interprétations, Ricoeur points out a certain insufficiency of the Cartesian "I think therefore I am". What's wrong with it? You have to start somewhere, don't you? The issue, for Ricoeur, is that you don't only start there, you stop there too. It is a deposited truth claim that can neither be verified or deduced: The cogito is not only a truth as vain as it is invincible; we must add, as well, it is like an empty space which has, from all time, been occupied by a false cogito. We have indeed learned from all the exegetic disciplines and from psychoanalysis in particular, that so-called immediate consciousness is first of all "false consciousness"... a philosophy of reflection must be just the opposite of a philosophy of a philosophy of consciousness...textual exegesis of consciousness collides with the initial "misinterpretation" of false consciousness. Moreover, since Schleiermacher, we know that hermeneutics is found wherever there was first misinterpretation

This is a long quote, but you'll see why we need all of it, please keep reading:

Thus reflection must be doubly indirect: first, because existence is evinced only in the documents of life, but also because consciousness is first false consciousness, and it is always necessary to rise by means of a corrective critique from misunderstanding to understanding.

Yes, you may have noticed that the translations are pretty good today - I have found an officially translated version of Conflits available here, p. 18, trans. Kathleen Mclaughlin).

I'm hoping readers are beginning to get the picture. Lots has been said in hermeneutics about how readers today might interpret a text (or misinterpret a text), how that interpreted meaning spirals back into a larger conceptual whole that is an integrated part of our being, modifying it, affirming it and preparing the person for the next interaction with that text. But since hermeneutics is associated with the contemporary task of interpreting important texts such as the Bible or the State Laws, it seems to have slipped our notice that this might well be a vital historical phenomenon as well. In fact, from all that we have seen of Ricoeur thus far, I would say it utterly confirms it, especially when we accept with List and Pettit (2011, 162-163) and Copp (1979) that we can correctly deduce "joint control" in a group via a mechanism of "multi-level causality", that the ecumenical decisions made were groupal and in response to opposing groupal misinterpretations.

So what you would do if you were an intelligent-but-stranded Amazonian who dug up an English Bible, somehow taught herself to read through it and read "the Father is greater than I", what a Unitarian might read when she reads "the Father is greater than I", and what a Trinitarian (Triune God Advocate) might read when she reads "the Father is greater than I" are three quite different processes, all of which contain groupal and multi-level components.

Let's take the Amazonian first. She has spent months, maybe years, trying to cypher this enormous book - not because she wants to waste her time, she has plenty of other tasks she would normally be doing to help maintain her tribe as specialised in fishing and preparing the tar needed to make fishing vessels. But time has been thrust upon her, and she is reading out of curiosity that is fed by the dream that she might one day be rescued and returned to her tribe to share her knowledge with her kinfolk. The fact that this extraordinary Jesus character even could have been considered as great as the creator god may simply add to her marvel of this historic man, and she may not gloss over it so quickly.

The Biblical Unitarian's core tenet, please excuse me Biblical Unitarians reading this and please feel free to correct me below, is that Jesus is not God since only the Father is God, and so when a member of this "tribe" comes across this Jesus statement, the thought flashes through her mind: What more evidence do you need?! She certainly is less likely to gloss over it, it will be actively affirming and feeding the self-knowledge of the reader in a profound way in preparation for subsequent readings. This is a particularly important process of integration of interpretation for the Biblical Unitarian, since, like with many small denominations, they represent a small minority, that sense of identity needs to be more carefully and intentionally hewn. Someone deciding to become a Catholic hardly need consider themselves too deeply with theology or church practice, but a thinly-spread minority group with a non-mainstream reading of the Christian texts, needs to have well-affirmed readers. Notice the potential for emotional reaction. That reaction is in line with the group's marginal status and potential for rejection. It is also a development within the Biblical Unitarian's interpretative matrix precisely because there exists a perceived misinterpretation (or "false consciousness"). Readers do well at this point to remember that we all belong to groups and that we as individuals are simply unable to fully bear the loads of our predecessors.

What about the Trinitarian coming to this passage? Well, I used to be a Triune-God advocate myself, as most readers know, and I also for a short time considered myself a Biblical Unitarian. Now I have run out of theological carparks to park my car, although I hope the Trinitarians might still find some space for me in their basement. My feeling is that Trinitarians probably read the text in the widest variety of ways. As Christians, we are free to read the text slowly, fast, for facts, for deep meditation, reading plans around a topic for a "biblical understanding" on a topic. We might put it to music or commit it to memory. As such, a single text to the human mind becomes a veritable plethora of meaning that cannot be reduced to any simple layer of meaning. It truly does dance and shape our sense of self. But what happens when the Triune God Advocate reads "The Father is Greater than I"? Such an apparently contravening statement to the idea of co-equality in the godhead might seem shocking, but as my exchange here with Sam Fornecker illustrates, there is no "feeling of tension" generated by this text that you might for Triune God Advocates - literally, none (I am still waiting for Sam to pick up the conversation there, I think he has left some of my questions in an unsatisfactory state of suspense). No feeling of tension in the face of such a "clear" text might leave the Unitarian at something of a loss for words. But the bigger interpretation is too deep, too historical, too liturgical, much brought forth in prayer and worship to be swept aside by a verse putting co-equality into question, as if for the first time. Generally speaking, the careful Trinitarian reader will simply keep reading. For any "difficult text", the general advice is almost invariably to "step back" from the text and try to get the bigger picture of what is going on here. However, and I mean no disrespect here, the majority of readers are not highly nuanced "Triune God Advocates". They are simply Christians reading through the popular gospel of John and looking for ways to deepen their faith and sense of connection with God. They may quite simply just keep reading, drinking in the depth of the outplaying of this threefold relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They may be imploring the Holy Spirit to now come powerfully into situation X, Y or Z in this amazing way that Jesus said we would do things, even more, with even more "greatness" than he did.

The Christian apologist, however, has a quite different reading process in mind. Like a great chess-player, he is trying to foresee his imaginary opponents' next moves and is not really in a deep interaction process of his own. Rather he or she is going through his armoury, checking the ammo stores are full, the key citation grenades pins are primed and the lie-guided missiles fully online... that's right, he's a warrior! A great fighter for the Church! I don't even want to probe his or her next steps on this verse. I tend to find some of their efforts a little sickening.

Notice not only the variety of these examples but their huge limitation. There are many, many more contemporary possibilities and nuances today, both individual and denominational (or groupal). Even if such an in-depth study were possible, it would be representative of the interpretative ranges operative today. That is why it is important for us to study the church fathers - and I intend to do some longer excursions on this blog in the future - in order to see how interpretation was operated in both "victorious" (orthodox) groups and, as far as it is possible to ascertain, the "unvictorious" groups.

To return, then, to the insufficiency of cogito, we see a disenfranchised uni-layered reading as both a non-starter and a non-finisher. It is nothing. But interpretation rises or rather arises out of a corrective movement by a victorious group of interpreters over misinterpreting opponents. What gives rise to that "victory"? That's a huge question I shan't attempt here, I simply mention it as it seems to a necessary one to ask in light of today's steps. Nonetheless, it is probably worth noting that the Triune Hub hypothesis suggests that in order for a stable religious bedrock to establish itself, it became increasingly clear as each off-kilter wave of teaching was refuted that this stability required co-centricity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, perhaps even more than the New Testament texts, in order to hold the New Testament texts. Every time the church went through a process of refutation, via apologists such as Irenaeus or Justin Marty, by ensuring the co-centricity of the Father, Son and Spirit, the church herself was constructing her own stability, her own "being" as the hermeneutic circle continued to turn, and so did the "WHOLE".

See also my post:


  1. Hi John,
    This idea: "the Triune Hub hypothesis suggests that in order for a stable religious bedrock to establish itself, it became increasingly clear as each off-kilter wave of teaching was refuted that this stability required co-centricity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, perhaps even more than the New Testament texts, in order to hold the New Testament texts"

    seems a lot like an hypothesis in search of a data set to support it. Imagine a binitarian hub and see if that doesn't more closely match the data.

    1. Thanks Richard - I believe that is precisely the shortfalling of the binitarian approach of Hurtado. It falls short on detailing how you shift from the religious *practice* to *religious focus* to *God*, and on how binitarian worship resulted in a triune God. It is the experiential reality of the collaborative kingdom articulated through an eschatological understanding of the starting of the end times through Christ's resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit that meant that a twofold baptism was unacceptable in the first century. I hope this better explains my point. Thanks for your question :)

  2. Ah, actually the sub-sentence: "perhaps even more than the New Testament texts, in order to hold the New Testament texts" isn't quite clear in its meaning. What do you mean by "hold the New Testament texts"? Then more to the point, why does the ultimate theological "stability" require a triune hub, or rather a trinitarian philosophy to sustain a conception which was "more than the New Testament texts" expressed?

  3. I think the radical shifts in Jewish worldviews for Christ followers I have attempted (to begin) to describe in my dialogue with Dale Tuggy. Did you manage to read that post?


Thanks very much for your feedback, really appreciate the interaction.