‘curb your enthusiasm’ – Revoicing as an experiment in emotive hermeneutics, an appraisal

image: Dante Meets Beatrice at Ponte Santa Trinita by Henry Holiday (1883) 

Longform essay : read time 17.5 min


 

Empathy and emoting it has become the highest virtue. That’s a big reason so many are confused about orientation or eros. How so?

 

In Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche, bemoaned that “Christianity gave Eros poison to drink; he [Eros] did not die of it, certainly, but degenerated to Vice.” Nietzsche had a point. There is a corner in all religions bent on asceticism. Yet, in this critique – using his hermeneutic – Nietzsche ignores that the main tool used by Eros was a weapon. Eros himself was often in the service of vice. That Cupid had arrows was not incidental to the ancients. That love can itself be war is accentuated by Aphrodite, the boy god’s mother, directing her son’s arrows with fierce intention. Seneca described Eros as “This winged god [who] rules ruthlessly throughout the earth and inflames Jove himself, wounded with unquenched fires.”

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Nietzsche did have a good eye for the self-righteous errors he saw in Christianity of his day. However, he overlooked the vice in Eros itself. For Nietzsche, this way of interpreting the world was not so much about giving notice to omissions. This way of seeing for him brought out his own inversion of virtue and vice. Thus, he said many things like this: “It is inhuman to bless when one is being cursed.” Without a clear distinction of these two, vice and virtue, there will be a muddle in the middle. Even the god Hermes was known to be a bit of trickster. Despite this vice, some of Hermes’ chief tasks were to be a messenger and to set boundaries. Thus, hermeneutics.

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Revoice 2018 is an occasion to revisit how we moderns do, how we should do hermeneutics and of special interest to Theology Delish, how we can best do hermeneutics of Scripture. A lot has been written from all sides before the conference and it looks like a lot of comment will continue afterward. I’ll leave the quarterbacking to others. I’m not in the PCA, so the wider question of hermeneutics – whether in St. Louis or elsewhere – is an opportunity to revisit a major pitfall in how the Church has been doing hermeneutics lately.

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There are other pitfalls in hermeneutics into which the Church in modernity has fallen into. This is a big one and it has been frequently deployed long before July 2018.

 

– doing hermeneutics by emoting –

Emoting is the new hermeneutic. It has been for several decades. If we dig underneath how Evangelicalism has arrived at many of its recent shifts, we would see a highly developed method of emoting to conclusions from feelings. “I feel that…” is how our culture is accustomed to expressing truth. Even when we say “I think that…” we are still quite often in the mode of emoting. We have lost the habit and skills of reasoning from first principles. More about those in a moment.

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So are feelings unimportant? No. We are sentient beings so in this critique I offer no reason to dismiss feelings. Some critics of Revoice are dismissive of feelings or send feelings off to solitary confinement. That negative approach is one which fails to lead to good solutions in the long run. Have you heard some theologians talk and do you wonder if they have any feelings? If the Church is going to return to its first principles then we need a formal relation of heart and head. God made us to feel, yes, but God made us to think and reason.

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Theological reasoning which attempts to reason by emoting is en vogue. This hermeneutical pitfall in modern Christianity means its theologians and it leaders feel they can make truth claims from, to and through feelings. Yet, doing theology by feelings is not theology.

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In fact, truths comes from Truth. And as a good consequence freedom comes from truth. The motto veritas liberabit vos (the truth will free you, see John 8:32) cannot be made more authentic by preceding it with Senito Ergo Sum (I feel, therefore I am).

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When it comes to interpreting Scripture the use of our feelings to arrive at truth places us in the zone of “private interpretation.” The apostle Peter reminded his audience that this zone is a place we should not want to go. “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things” (2 Peter 1:20 niv). During Collins talk at Revoice he offered an almost poetic plea to take up his “aesthetic orientation” thesis. It was his “I’m tired” soliloquy. It’s hard for the audience to not be sympathetic to this sort of emoting. But that isn’t theology and it isn’t a sound hermeneutic.

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This approach to doing theology and to working out a hermeneutic of Scripture has in it the echo of John Milton’s often repeated quote from Paradise Lost:

“the mind is its own place…”

 

The Church in modernity is forgetting that truths comes from Truth. Feelings come and feelings go. If we want authenticity, then we can’t author it. We find it. We find it from its Author. Truth and its Author have its own place. The idea that you can author you own authenticity is a fad of personal psychology.

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Referring to Milton again, who wrote of a “…fierce desire, Among our other torments not the least, Still unfulfill’d with pain of longing pines” (John Milton, IV.505-11), even though these words are from Satan, we can decline toward that kind of feeling too. It leaves a person feeling “unfulfilled” and since he is unmoored from first principles he continues emoting about being tired, which is another way of saying “unfulfilled.” Doing theology by emoting has less to do with “aesthetics” than it does with appetite.

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The attraction to interpreting Scripture and doing theology by emoting is that a person or group may have a strong sense that they are doing some good. No doubt they can do some good. It’s not good that anyone should persist in his negative feelings alone. If prolonged that is a trial. They need help from others. Yet, because such a great emphasis has been given by the modern Church on emoting many in the Church have been also persuaded that emoting is how to find the true Self.

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Here’s another problem. When you embrace one erroneous method of interpretation that leaves you open other error or damaging results. The negative consequence, perhaps unintended, is that by doing theology emotively Revoice places it love for true doctrine and the historic life of the Church into a liminal space. By liminal we mean ambiguation. Emotive hermeneutics by its very nature dwells in ambiguity or worse yet in the equivocations which propel ambiguity farther and farther away from home, the historic teaching of the Church.

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But ambiguation is trendy. We see this in the political arena. We see it in many branches of academia, not all, but especially those that rely on literature or the arts which are basically the interpretation of an interpretation, the humanities. Jordan Peterson has helpfully shown a bright light on this emotive hermeneutic in the secular realm in which its proponents have been radicalized. This also can lead into a politicization, even in our churches. I’m not a prophet, but post-Revoice 2018 will likely see a series of “social justice” styled moves throughout the PCA and its hierarchy.

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Jacques Derrida said, “Deconstruction is justice.” For modern man, his philosophy, his religion (if he has any) and the culture around him, this announcement is gospel. It’s good news to modern man that anything can be a target for “deconstruction.” So as this relates to Revoice, the ancient concept of Eros is deconstructed to not mean “sexual desire,” but whatever they feel it needs to be. The New Testament never uses the noun eros and positively places emphasis on agape and other forms of selfless love.  Yet, a Side B approach to eros is to either invert it or deconstruct it such that it comes out of oven looking more like agape. But eros isn’t agape. Nietzsche tried.

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In the recent CT article Collins said: “We’re just trying to make space for people for whom the language they use is meaningful, in terms of how they are trying to reconcile their gender and sexuality with their faith.” Do you see the “deconstruction” in this? Their gender. Their faith. The Church in modernity has so deconstructed the Faith into their faith that it (the Faith) is unreconcilable to the long arc of Christianity.

Empathy is now the highest virtue. Consider how that ideas has been canonized in the culture.

see this https://www.resource-project.org/en/

Now it’s in our churches too.

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Collins excoriates Freudian influences on  Christianity. Well and good, but then he goes on to re-baptize neo-Freudianism into his own pov, which has in it the elements of Carl Roger’s person-centered psychotherapy. IOW, your “aesthetic orientation” is “inbuilt” and therefore you must live forward from that in the context in which you find yourself. You can see from this me-centered psychology how easily it is for Revoice to do their “aesthetic orientation,” as they say, “in Historic Christian Tradition” despite the contradiction.

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Revoicing life, revoicing reality or revoicing first principles emotively (me-centered orientation, me interpreting me) puts the emoters in an in-between state. The liminal state. That is a “safe zone” if you want to avoid Truth. In the liminal place a person is not going to be called to report his findings (ie., emoting) according to first principles. Those first principles are not needed if “deconstruction is justice.”

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The move away from Historic Christian Tradition happens in a series of step, but it looks like a straight line –

1) emote – the self interpreting the self primarily through itself

2) deconstruct those “historic” ideas that conflict with this emotive hermeneutic

3) which results in a collection of ambiguities

4) and thus in the new “space” (liminal space) the emoter can reconstruct reality in his own image and call it whatever he/she wants or use old terms and labels (like eros or “historic Christian tradition”) filled with their new emotive meanings.

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The farther they move away from first principles the further they move into the habits and patterns of ambiguation. C. S. Lewis warned about this in The Abolition of Man.

 

“It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.”

 

.– loving the Truth –

What then is the conclusion to the matter? The lesson we can learn from Revoice 2018 and from other such experiments in emotive hermeneutics is that doing theology by emoting is not theology. Does this mean that when in search of Truth we will be forever afflicted to blandness or cold principles? That is what the emotivists might want us to think – that plain truths are boring. Sure, Truth can be boring if in seeking it you mostly want yourself. That is what the emotivists do. In the Henry Holiday’s painting above we see Dante looking longingly at Beatrice. The image is symbolic of unrequited desire or to use Milton’s words, “…fierce desire, Among our other torments not the least, Still unfulfill’d with pain of longing pines.” In the emotive way of looking at the world the boundaries are fuzzy or fluid..

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Calvin is most often associated with the hermeneutic method of Sensus Literalis.(literary sense, not “wooden literalism”). Less known is that Calvin also championed as a sister discipline to Sensus Literatlis what is called Brevitas et Facilitas (brevity and simplicity). In his Commentary on Romans (1540), John Calvin made note of the importance of conciseness in interpretation. Here is a nugget from Calvin in praise of Brevitas et Facilitas:

 

“…we both thought that the chief excellency of an expounder consists in lucid brevity. And, indeed, since it is almost his only work to lay open the mind of the writer whom he undertakes to explain, the degree in which he leads away his readers from it, in that degree he goes astray from his purpose, and in a manner wanders from his own boundaries.”

 

How can Brevitas et Facilitas help the Church in modernity’s tendency to revoice (deconstruct & reconstruct) the Truth even with good intentions toward justice? In seeking from the start to go for an explanation of Truth that will be one of brevity and simplicity Calvin gives us a method of discovery and delivery that inclines toward a straightforward hermeneutic. You see, when we decide up front what we will say about the Truth must be said with brevity and simplicity, then the impulse to emote with many words and decline toward rambling, feelings-oriented-interpretations will pass into oblivion. If we seek to know the Truth as it is written in God’s Word with brevity and simplicity, then there will little no room left for giving emotive hermeneutics the steering wheel of the Church’s life and doctrine.

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That would be a good thing. The Church can still do justice. The Church can still enthusiastically live in the joy of God’s truths as revealed in Holy Scripture. But the Church by not doing emotive hermeneutics will be set free to live in the Truth (and not a false copy of it which would resemble its feelings more than the Truth).

 

Thus, veritas liberabit vos (the truth will free you) and having been set free in this way you will be “free indeed” and not in the service of fake truth (filtered through emotive hermeneutics).

 

“There is no worse screen to block out the light of the Spirit than confidence in our own intelligence.” John Calvin

 

image credit: Dante and Beatrice