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  1. Nombre y apellido del alumno Bert Amsing
  2. Fecha June 18, 2016
  3. Título del texto leído Paul Ricoeur

La Crítica de la Religión y el Lenguaje de la Fe (Part II)

  1. ¿De qué trata el artículo o capítulo leído?

Paul Ricoeur, in his chapter “La Crítica de la Religión y el Lenguaje de la Fe” deals with his proposed hermeneutical method in two movements.  The first was a deconstructivstic critique of religion and the second was a reinterpretation of religious language.  We dealt with the first one in a previous review and will now turn to the second half of his discussion.

  1. ¿Cuál es la idea central del autor?

The central idea of this second part to the hermeneutical process of exegeting the biblical text is to find a language of faith that is comprehensible to modern man.

  1. ¿De qué nos quiere convencer?

Paul Ricoeur wants to convince us that his “pre-comprehension” of the human condition along existential and phenomenological lines provides the needed bridge for a language of faith that is understandable to modern man.

  1. ¿Cuáles son los puntos fuertes y los puntos débiles del texto?

Ricoeur begins this section with a question that gets at the heart of the modern problem with religion.  He says, ¿cómo transmitir a los demás y a nosotros mismos el sentido del querigma, de manera tal que se transforme en un discurso comprensible? (p. 30).”  This is the problem of communication and it is based on Ricoeur’s conviction that “en nuestra cultura encontramos infinidad de personas que no rechazan la fe simplemente por propia decisión sino que, para plantearlo correctamente, no pueden darse cuenta de “qué se trata” – y por lo tanto preguntan – qué quieren decir los términos “estar perdido o ser salvado” (p. 30).”

Since this issue is at the heart of Ricoeur’s entire approach, it deserves special attention right at the beginning.  The first thing to do is to clarify, in terms of Ricoeur’s own thinking, what he means by this “problem of communication (p. 30)” between religion and modern man.  As discussed in the previous review on the critique of religion, Ricoeur claims that the problem is much deeper that what he indicates here.  If it were really simply a question of “qué se trata” or what does it mean to “estar perdido” o “ser salvado,” the Bible is very clear and the answers are close at hand.  The real issue is not “comprensión” but “credibility” or acceptability (which Ricoeur deals with in more depth later on).  Modern man simply cannot accept the supernatural elements of the biblical text which it considers to be part of a pre-scientific worldview.  Ricoeur, himself, believes that these elements are nothing more than cultural trappings of the gospel and must be removed (demythologizing) to find the kerygma of the gospel so that it can be proclaimed without hindrance or misunderstanding to modern man who (in Ricoeur’s view) desperately needs to hear it.  But this is precisely the problem with Ricoeur’s entire approach and before we go any further, we must deal with the problem to which Ricoeur wants to provide a solution with his hermeneutical approach.

If the real issue is that modern man cannot accept a pre-scientific view of the world as expressed through the supernatural elements of the biblical text, that question ought to be dealt with directly.  Perhaps the question ought to be, first of all, whether or not the scientific, rational world view of modern man is correct (especially in terms of whether or not it totally or fully reveals reality).  Secondly, even if the conclusion is that a scientific worldview fully reveals reality and is therefore correct, the question still remains whether or not the biblical text itself considers the supernatural elements of the kerygma to be essential to its message or not.  And finally, to return to the critique of religion for a moment, the question is whether or not the modern critique of religion (as per the three masters of suspicion) is, in fact, a critique also of the biblical text and message and whether or not that critique is, in fact, correct or not.

To deal with the third question first (as the broadest context for the other two), the contention of this author is that a critique of religion is not the same thing as to critique the biblical text/message and that there is a “moral gap” (due to sin and evil in the human heart) between the indicative and the imperative of the biblical message that cannot be ignored.  Even further, the critique of religion of the three masters of suspicion (Marx, Freud and Nietzsche) cannot be understood apart from their own presuppositions about the historicity, veracity and validity of the biblical text and its message.  It isn’t just about their hermeneutical method (as Ricoeur claims) but about the presuppositions behind their (and Ricoeur’s) thinking.  The core elements of those presuppositions have to do with taking for granted the attacks of the 18th and 19th century on the historicity (and therefore veracity) of the biblical text as if the issue has already been decided (which it most certainly has not).

Although there is ample evidence for the historicity of the biblical text and message, the present author would agree that a rational, scientific approach to reality has won the day and that, therefore, the supernatural elements of the gospel message now bear “the onus of proof” in the modern mind.  But a number of things still must be saidFirst of all, the biblical message will always bear the onus of proof in a world in rebellion against their creator/father.  The “will to freedom” from divine authority is the default position of every heart and the gap can only be bridged from the side of divine love and mercy.  It is in the nature of faith that it has a foundation of evidence but cannot be finally proved with certainty except eschatologically.  We accept that basic truth which arises from the biblical message itself, which is a proclamation containing both an invitation as well as a warning to modern man.

Secondly, even though the biblical text reminds us that the onus of proof can only be fulfilled by the gift of faith, it is not a faith without evidence.  There is a growing body of thoughtful evidence in multiple fields of inquiry as to the historicity of the biblical stories and of the text itself in comparison with other historical events and texts.  In addition, solid scholarly work has been done by conservative scholars over the past two hundred years to counteract the arguments against the historicity of the biblical message.  Although the supernatural content of the biblical message seems to require a higher level of probability (or even certainty) for the historical veracity of its content, when it is compared to other historical inquiries of texts and events, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence to consider.  What needs to be remembered is that the historicity of the supernatural events essential to the biblical message are key to understanding its message.  It is a kerygma rooted in history.

Thirdly, Ricoeur’s own thought is already outmoded based on the scientific advances of the last thirty to fifty years which has brought the “supernatural” or “transcendent” back into modern thought.  This is true not only because of the relativity and subjectivity of modern thought but also because of the development of the Big Bang theory and it’s “final” scientific verification in the study of the background radiation of the universe.  Despite Stephen Hawking´s attempts to base the Big Bang theory in the “eternal necessity” of gravity, due to the scientific laws of physics, there is no way known to man to avoid the “singularity” of a creation ex nihilo.  Even Einstein could not admit, for personal rather than scientific reasons, that this intelligent and creative force which gave rise to the Big Bang of creation, was also personal (which would indicate a Western view of God as a transcendent being outside of our experience of space and time.  Even though mankind has no other experience of an intelligent and creative being that is not also personal, there is a reluctance in the heart of man to accept this scientific evidence.  In addition, this has given rise to a new attempt at natural theology in the Kalam Cosmological Argument as well as a more robust Teleological Argument for the existence of God based on intelligent design theory.  And more can be said, none of it conclusive but all of it part of a cumulative evidential argument that gives a strong foundation of probability (rather than certainty) to the supernatural elements of the gospel.  Modern man is not so closed off from the supernatural as Ricoeur supposes.

Fourthly,  post modern philosophy has already debunked the entire edifice of modern thought based on the object/subject dichotomy and has reached the pinnacle of modern subjectivity and post modern relativity.  Although this author would not agree with those conclusions, Ricoeur obviously does while at the same time providing a critique of religion based on modern presuppositions which have since been overturned.  This procedure would, at the very least, put his conclusions to the test.  He, himself, believes that, based on postmodern subjectivity and relativity, religion and philosophy have to do with mankind and Dasein rather than with any supernatural reality outside of man.  In other words, Ricoeur’s beliefs about religion (and the biblical text), namely, that it is about mankind and Dasein on the one hand and that it has nothing to do with a supernatural reality on the other hand, are imposed upon the text and form part of the pre-comprehension/presuppositions of the hermeneutical method.  This is in direct contradiction to Ricoeur’s own directive which is to respect the biblical text itself as the source of your presuppositions about how to read its message.

Finally, Ricoeur, himself, provides an interesting critique of modern rationalistic thought in order to provide a “espacio para creer” for modern man which is far more telling than his critique of religion.  If, on the one hand, we accept that institutionalized religion (and religious thought in general) suffers from “the moral gap” between the indicative of the biblical text and the imperative of living it out in society and if we accept, on the other hand, that the secular, scientific, rational worldview of modern man has been undermined philosophically and practically (no one believes any more that it fully reveals reality as Freud did in his time), then there is an “espacio para creer” for modern man that does not remove the supernatural element from the gospel message (which, according to the biblical text, is essential to the kerygma and not merely cultural trappings).

There is still a problem of credibility for modern man since a supernatural reality is still relatively foreign to the worldview of the modern age.  But that problem of credibility is directly connected to the proclamation of the kerygma that a real, objective supernatural being which we call God, not only exists but makes a claim on our allegiance and obedience, interprets our existence and gives identity, purpose, significance and therefore meaning to our lives.  Certainly, a proclamation of the importance of love for the individual as a reminder of our true humanity can be made without the supernatural elements of the gospel, as Ricoeur would claim, but it will lack the power to make any real changes in the heart of man and our joint existence in society (which is the goal after all, even according to Ricoeur).

To sum up this problem of communication between the modern mind and the religious mind, Ricoeur claims that the problem lies with religion based on the destruction/critique of the three masters of suspicion (Marx, Freud and Nietzsche).  But a closer look at Ricoeur’s (and the three masters of suspicion’s) presuppositions about the historicity of the biblical text, the supernatural essence of the biblical message and the distinction between religion and the biblical text (among other things) leads us to the conclusion that Ricoeur’s entire approach to the hermeneutical method is on uncertain ground.

At the very least, an Evangelical approach to hermeneutics can be presented where the problem lies not in the biblical text (even if it does lie in religion itself) but in mankind himself.  This is the true scandal of the cross that it exposes the will to freedom from divine authority as the fundamental desire of mankind and rejects the will to believe in a love restored.  The scandal of the cross (its necessity, manner and meaning) reveals the true interpretation of the human condition and our inability to deal with it on our own terms.  Only in the brokenness/destruction of our arrogance before God can our shame be turned into love at the foot of the cross.  Even so, this author recognizes that the gap cannot be closed without the “will to believe in a love restored” which is a gift of regeneration resulting in the three religious/relational virtues of faith, hope and love and expressing itself in peace and joy.  It is paradise restored through a restored relationship with the owner and creator of paradise.  There is no other way back to the garden and all the Babel building in the world will not change that.  There is no power in a faith without a supernatural reality outside of man rooted in the historical fact of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

If we want to talk about the “maturity” of man, let’s talk about a “maturity” in modern philosophy that concludes that there is no objective reality, no meaning, no morality, no foundation to rationality, no criteria for truth, no certainty of anything beyond our own subjective reality (which is also at question).  But rather than to celebrate this “maturity” or allow it to drive us to despair, let it be a goad (as reality/nature was always meant to be) to drive us back to the biblical text in humility to discover who we truly are.  This is the “maturity” of a prodigal who finds himself in the pig sty of life, wallowing in self-pity and impotence who is faced with the continuing arrogance of celebrating his poverty and “going it alone” or finding the humility to return to his father in confession and repentance.  That is a “maturity” that is worth pursuing and to that end, we can continue with Ricoeur´s discussion if for no other reason than to show its internal inconsistencies and ultimate poverty due to its inability to discover the real power of the gospel.

So, in order to continue with Ricoeur’s argument, we will have to allow him his presuppositions.  He begins by stating that “la distancia existente entre nuestra cultura y aquella en la que se halla inscripta la proclamación, el querigma (p. 30),” which he calls “una situación hecho.”  Of course, we would disagree as to what that distance consists of and whether the problem is on the side of mankind or on the side of the biblical text.  Ricoeur clearly believes that the problem is with the supernatural elements of the biblical text when he says, “no se trata de una distancia relativa a teorías teológicas muy elaboradas, sino que ya en el propio Evangelio observamos un cuadro cultural constituido por nociones y categorías extrañas a nuestra cultura (p. 30).”  And, of course, hermeneutics is all about overcoming this cultural distance.  In that sense, we would agree but point out that there are two elements to this distance.  One is the biblical text and the other is modern man.  Perhaps allowing the biblical text to provide a hermeneutic of modern man will teach us a clearer way to enter into a dialogue about the biblical proclamation as a destruction/critique of our commitment to rationalism (already in retreat) on the one hand, and our “will to freedom” at all costs on the other.  To say that the biblical text does not need a hermeneutic would not be correct, but if that hermeneutic is meant to overcome the distance between modern man and the biblical text, it must begin with a biblical anthropology (rather than a philosophical anthropology) and then, in humility, allow scripture to interpret itself within the interpreting/believing community where issues of historical context, linguistic analysis and cultural trappings can rightly be addressed.

Ricoeur even mentions Kierkegaard, who at the very least, reminds the exegete that he must “ser contemporáneos de Cristo (p. 30)” in the sense of “la adhesión individual a las raíces de la fé (p. 31).”  Whether or not Kierkegaard understood those “roots of the faith” as including the supernatural essence of the biblical message or not, what is clear is that Ricoeur does not.  In fact, he considers it to be a problem “del que no me ocuparé en este trabajo (p. 31).  Earlier, quoting Bultmann, he had made a distinction between the psychological (including the individual experience of faith of the exegete) and the methodological elements of the hermeneutical task, clearly aligning himself with the latter rather than the former.  He tries to separate the supernatural nature of biblical hermeneutics from the supernatural nature of the biblical text in order to find common ground with modern man.  It is a project doomed to failure.  He says that his goal is to “abordarlo en el plano de la comprensión del lenguaje, de la articulación del discurso cristiano (p. 31).”  The question is how to articulate a language of faith without first of all understanding the content of that faith and the answer is that you can’t.  Even Ricoeur implicitly accepts this truth since he must provide his own interpretation of the human condition along the lines of his philosophical anthropology in order to provide a pre-comprehension or context for understanding the preaching of the cross and its scandal for modern man.

Ricoeur then states that since this cultural distance rooted in the supernatural nature of a pre-scientific worldview is a fact (which it isn’t), then he would also like to categorize it as a “problem.”  He claims that there are two ways to deal with this problem.  Starting with the work of destruction/critique (through demystifying and demythologizing the traditional message), it allows us “la certeza de nuestra propia cultura mediante un discurso como el que sigue:  “nosotros, hombres modernos, tenemos hoy una cierta seguridad acerca de lo físico, lo histórico, de aquello que es verdadero y de lo que es falso, de aquello que se puede creer y de lo que no se puede creer (p. 31).”  If this sounds arrogant, it is and, even more, it isn’t true.  All efforts at “certainty” in questions of philosophy and theology have failed.  Ricoeur, himself, has admitted this himself but he would suggest that our age is characterized by technological and scientific advances in the practical application of science (ultimately based on a biblical worldview) that has created a certain level of certainty in practical, everyday matters that is easily transposed into matters of ultimate concern (i.e. metaphysics).  That transposition is the problem.  It is unwarranted and Ricoeur knows it and will go on to discuss this issue later on.  But right now, he claims that this is the legitimate conclusion to the first work of demystification and demythologization of the first half of his approach.  In fact , he says, “en otras palabras y remitiéndonos al análisis del tema precedente, lo creíble y lo increíble de nuestro tiempo, tendrá carácter normativo (p. 31 italics mine).”

Certainly he goes on to say “quisiera demostrar ahora por el contrario, que la tarea hermenéutica, de aquel que quiere interpretar, no consiste tan sólo en asumir lo “creíble y lo increíble” de su tiempo, sino también en cuestionarlo (p. 31).”  We will go on to see what he means by that in detail later on but, suffice it to say, that the first movement is not set aside by the second; which is to say that the “carácter normativo” of the first is not set aside by the “questioning” of the second.  This is true because Ricoeur already has, in his own pre-comprehension of his task, a bias against the supernatural in agreement with modern culture on the one side and an idea of how to question society (and thereby help it “remember” its true humanity) without resorting to the supernatural on the other side.  He is so excited by his proposal that he compares his approach to Kierkegaard by saying that “se abre ante nuestros ojos toda una manera distinta de hacernos contemporáneos del texto de antaño (p. 31).”  But this is done without the supernatural and by changing the object of our faith from the relational scandal of the cross to his interpretation of the human condition using his own form of philosophical anthropology.

His language is interesting but it is the form of religion without its power.  He claims that he is opening up an “espacio del discurso” donde la cuestión acerca de ser creado, de ser justificado o condenado, de ser aniquilado o glorificado pueda tener sentido como elemento previo de la fe (p. 31).”  Of course, there are two problems here.  The first is that there is a big difference between a space to dialogue/discuss and a space to believe.  The first does not create the second.  More than language is needed.  The second is that the content of this language of faith is essential and filling it with philosophical anthropology along existential and phenomenological lines is not the same thing as to fill it with the supernatural message of the gospel and the preaching of the cross.  The fact that it is more understandable to modern man does not mean that it is true to the biblical text.  And if you argue that Ricoeur does not respect the biblical text as having a supernatural element and therefore he is within his rights to fill that content or re-state that content in any way he pleases, the question still remains as to whether this proclamation of calling modern man to remember his basic humanity by focusing on the love for the individual in a society that increasingly objectifies people in terms of their performance or utility, actually works.  Is this a message with transforming power which will motivate people to sacrificially love the other even to the point of allowing themselves to be persecuted, thrown to the lions, become destitute, impoverished and socially outcast for the sake of the message as a testimony of its veracity and power in their lives?  The answer is no.

Ricoeur enters into his analysis of modern society by reminding us that “el problema de la distancia cultural no se reduce sólo al cambio del vehículo, sino que entraña también el olvido de la cuestión radical efectivamente vehiculizada por el lenguaje de antaño (p. 31).”  From this point onward, Ricoeur’s analysis is greeted with open arms.  He says, “ello significa dar batalla al olvido, es decir a nuestra propia alienación con referencia al contenido de la cuestión radical (p. 32).”  We may disagree as to what that radical question is and what the content of the answer is, but in any event, regardless of the answers given, the analysis of the alienation of modern society and its forgetfulness of what it means to be truly human is valuable.  He calls this change of direction a “des-construcción de las seguridades del hombre moderno (p. 32).”  You might even call this a “light” version of a hermeneutic of suspicion, which he calls “un tipo de duda que revertiremos sobre nosotros mismos, es decir sobre aquel que duda (p. 32).”  And in this very critique/doubt of the “certainties” of modern society, he will reveal the positive process of “la recolección de sentido (p. 32).”  That, of course, consists in his interpretation of the human condition along philosophical anthropology lines which would be acceptable to modern man.

Ricoeur begins his analysis of the secularization of modern man (which is found both in society and in mankind himself) by looking at two “rasgos fundamentales del proceso de secularización (p. 32).”  The first line of questioning is exactly what we have mentioned earlier, “la extensión de la “racionalidad” a todos los sectores y a todos los registros de la realidad (p. 32).”  There is less room for mystery and paradox in a culture where everything is a problem to be solved.  On the one hand, the transparency/understanding of things (through science and technology) has benefitted us greatly but on the other hand “lo psíquico y cósmico sagrado” has been pushed into the background.  Although that has radically changed in the last thirty years, there is still an appreciation of his analysis for those who still find themselves drawn to a secular humanistic worldview.  But Ricoeur doesn’t stop there and attempts to dig deeper with his second line of questioning.  He claims that the very process of secularization, seen as the rejection of the supernatural cultural trappings of religion, has brought mankind “a la madurez como un ser responsible de su destino (p. 32).”  This is something to be celebrated but it does bring about its own challenges because the objectification of nature through science in service to technology has transposed itself into “la praxis humana (p. 32).”  This process of objectifying/understanding/explaining everything in service to its pragmatic value has become a way of life.  Ricoeur says, “en este sentido, la técnica representa un nuevo régimen ontológico (p. 33).”  He mentions things like “el control de la natalidad,” and “la eutanasia” which have become possible to a degree never before imagined, but the exercise of this technology on the basis of a pragmatic utilitarianism is the danger.  He claims that “nacimiento y muerte son finalmente eliminados como eventos cargados de significado y como destino instructivo (p. 33).”

Of course, if you are a materialistic secular humanist, this won’t bother you but if you believe that human nature is the final frontier of human knowledge full of mystery and the “cósmico sagrado,” then you may want to leave room for a wider perspective.  At least in this, we would agree with Ricoeur.  He summarizes it this way.  He says, “es un problema de la existencia y en ese sentido es cuestionable.  Un hecho inmenso se transforma ahora en un gran problema (p. 33).”

Ricoeur now introduces the concept of “love for our neighbor” as the great solution to this problem (which may be true but not sufficient) by appealing to the Old Testament (which he earlier derided as “old and obsolete.”).  He says,

“Es un hecho inmensa porque no podemos soñar con el pasado ni lamentarlo.  Esas    nostalgías no tienen sentido.  En cierto modo, el destino del hombre consiste en dominar todas las cosas, incluida tal vez su misma vida.  Esta gran empresa de desacralización, de profanación del universo en sus aspectos cósmico, biológico, psíquico, se inscribe en la misma línea del tipo de destino que se anuncia desde el Antiguo Testamento.  Allí el hombre es llamado a señorear sobre los otros seres de la creación – así lo señalan el primer capítulo del Génesis y el Salmo 8 – mientras que tenga el amor al prójimo como limite y regla de todos los usos.  Propiamente hablando, no existe universo sagrado sino que por el contrario, el Antiguo Testamento proclama ya el profundo significado de la teología de la desacralización (p. 33,34).”

First of all, it needs to be said that “picking and choosing” what you want to use out of the Bible without understanding its context or believing in its fundamental, supernatural message, is a questionable hermeneutic.  Even granting Ricoeur’s presuppositions and bias against the supernatural, why does he attempt to use the authority and language of the biblical text to support his views.  Discussion of the virtue of love for your neighbor as a solution to modern problems abound outside of a discussion of any one religion or of any religion whatsoever.

Secondly, the biblical text is very clear that the “only” rule is not love for your neighbor but rather love for God (enter the supernatural) and then love for your neighbor (as defined and directed by God).  On these two hang all of the teaching of the Old and New Testament.  But the biblical message also demonstrates that we are not capable or motivated enough to accomplish this great virtue of love for God and man on our own or on the basis of law.  It must become a new way of living, a new ontology, a new mode of existence made possible by the grace of God through the cross of Christ enabling us to receive the presence of the Holy Spirit who inscribes the law of love on our hearts and both motivates and empowers us to fulfill that law in our homes and society.

Thirdly, Ricoeur equates the “domination/exploration/understanding” of creation (including ourselves) as a process of “desacralización,”  when, in fact, the biblical text says exactly the opposite.  It is under the authority of God that we, as his children, are called to exercise our “image of God” abilities to explore and dominate this creation that he has given us.  To reject the supernatural element of the biblical text on the basis of pre-conceived ideas is not hermeneutics of any kind.  Ricoeur equates science and technology with the secularization of society and, although they did go hand in hand, they were two different processes that do not have a clear cause and effect relationship.  Many early scientists were believers and many modern scientists continue to be believers.  Science has for many years been separated from questions of metaphysics and ultimate questions (other than in the area of cosmology).  Certainly there have also been many scientists who have rejected a supernatural/biblical worldview and credited their commitment to a scientific, materialistic worldview which has taken its place but that connection is not a necessary one as recent studies have shown and a rational, scientific approach to creation does not pre-suppose a materialistic or a secular worldview (in fact, quite often, the contrary).  Ricoeur, himself, is here making a plea for a less materialistic worldview and leaves open the possibility of a religious interpretation of life and the human condition (so long as it is based on his philosophical anthropology).

Ricoeur then gets to the heart of the issue when he says “en efecto, la desconcertante paradoja de esta gran conquista de la racionalidad y la responsabilidad consiste en que comprende al mismo tiempo el olvido de la cuestión referida al orígen, como también al sentido de nuestra vida (p. 34).”  Once again, true but only if this “olvido” is relational and supernatural in its object.  To define it as Ricoeur does is to rob it of its power.  To define it as the Bible does, is to infuse it with the power to transform lives.  We cannot forget our origins because it defines who we are and we cannot give up our quest for meaning because it is what keeps us able to love one another.  In that sense, the problems of origin and meaning come before the preaching of the cross (as Ricoeur defines it).  They are problems related “al ser y a la existencia (p. 34).”  This brings us to Ricoeur’s attempt to provide the content of the linguistic context or pre-comprehension that is so necessary to the process of hermeneutics (according to Ricoeur who follows Bultmann in this respect).

Ricoeur has three things to say about his interpretation of the human condition with regards to his tendency to forget the ultimate questions of origin and meaning as it relates to his being and existence in the world.  First of all, he introduces us to his philosophical anthropology as the basis for his description of humanity and the human condition.  He claims that “la predicación es responsable de reconstruir siempre ese prediscurso (p. 35).”  In that way, he subordinates the biblical text under his philosophical anthropology.  In particular, Ricoeur believes that philosophy must discuss the relationship between the objectification of creation (and other humans) and the manner, structure and meaning of our existence.  He is preparing a secular metaphysics from the point of view of existentialism and phenomonology.

He even goes so far as to re-interpret the biblical creation story which he finds confusing with all of its supernatural cultural trappings.  “Sin embargo, todo el relato cobra sentido si lo entendemos como la verdadera lectura teológica de una fenomenología de la percepción (p. 36).”  At least his intent is clear.  He claims that “aunque cosmológicamente esta construcción del relato esté superada, guarda toda su vigencia existencial (p. 37).”  It is about mankind, not about God as the creator of mankind, who appears in this world (by whatever means, which doesn’t matter at this point) “en cuyo centro el hombre es ubicado como el ser que debe decidir, optar y jugar su destino (p. 37).”  It is “el verdadero drama existencial (p. 37)” but it is exactly the opposite of the biblical message of creation.  It isn’t about mankind deciding his own future, which in biblical terms is what makes him lost and in need of salvation, but rather that he finds himself in a world created by a transcendent being who calls himself our father and bestows on us his “image” and reminds us that our relationship with him is central to our humanity; anything else is death.  It is the story of man exploring, enjoying and dominating a creation made especially for him and given as a gift on the day of his (and our) birthdays but always under his watchful eye and with the goal of discovering and enjoying his glory and our relationship.  That is the true existential drama.

But for Ricoeur, who has rejected all supernatural elements in the biblical text (and in life), he must find an existential drama based on man’s rejection of God and celebrate that loss of paradise and is now condemned to create his own Babel building projects which always fail because he doesn’t go deep enough into his philosophical anthropology to allow room for a theological anthropology based on a biblical text that is unaffected by his pre-comprehension and presuppositions.

This is the first step in his philosophical anthropology, which is to establish that a “filosofía de la existencia (p. 37),” which he defines as “la fenomenología,” means that “todo aquello que suscita este tipo de lectura primordial de nuestro “nacer-morir-existir-decidir-comunicarse con el otro”, en suma, todo aquello que restaura lo primitivo existencial, pertenece al dominio de la precomprensión (p. 37)” to which he adds “la comprensión del tiempo.”  Is it not strange to use the biblical text as the source for a discussion on the human condition but then claim that this makes up a “precomprensión” that we must have before we come to the hermeneutical task of interpreting the biblical text?  Once again, he uses the residual authority of the bible to justify his own philosophical anthropology without apology and without awareness of the travesty he has committed against his own hermeneutical aspirations.

Ricoeur now moves more specifically to his reinterpretation of the human condition based on his philosophical anthropology.  He calls it “una dirección distinta pero que también me parece acertada (p. 37).”  Apparently, the kerygma of the word of God can only provide an answer to the problem of human existence but there is no room (according to Ricoeur) for the bible to provide its own interpretation of the fundamental problem with mankind.  This is apparently because Ricoeur and, by extension, modern man will not accept the supernatural nature of such an interpretation.  Ricoeur insists that whatever answer is given, it must deal with mankind in his totality.  He says, “la pregunta sobre la humanidad vista como un todo y la meta de la aventura humana total sigue siendo legítima (p. 38).”  He claims that already in the church fathers, people like Tertullian and St. Augustine started to “encerrar un poco la visión de la salvación dentro de los estrechos límites del individuo aislado (p. 38).”

On the other hand, the encounter between theology and Marxism, in particular, has reopened the debate on the nature of evil and the extent of salvation in terms of our economic, political and cultural life.  It has redefined what it means to be lost and to be saved.  Ricoeur goes on to mention Kant and his analysis of the three great passions of human existence; namely “tener, poder y valer (p. 38).”  These are not merely three objects, or virtues or goals but three ways of existing in the world.  The concept of “tener” is related to our economic life.  The concept of “poder” is related to our political life and the concept of “valer” has to do with our cultural life and, in Ricouer’s thinking must be seen as having the priority as a context for the other two.  He says, “nos parece evidente entonces que, para formular la precomprensión que permita plantear la pregunta fundamental acerca del hombre y su destino, no habrá que ejercer la crítica sólo desde el plano político y económico sino también desde la perspectiva del hombre como portador e inventor de signos de cultura (p. 39).”

This second line of questioning, from a biblical perspective, needs to be answered.  On the one hand, the issue of dealing with the totality of life is a deeper issue than it first appears and needs to be discussed further.  On the other hand, the Kantian description of “tener, poder and valer” is interesting because Ricoeur takes it, celebrates it, prioritizes man as the bearer and inventor of meaning through culture by means of language without realizing that it is all this, without God, that is the source of all of man’s problems from a biblical perspective.  Without a relationship with God, our significance is tied up with material possessions and a concern with economics, our purpose is tied up with issues of politics and our value/identity is a self-created meaning ex nihilo.  All of this has been tried countless times before and have always ended in failure, both personally and socially, because the fundamental problem of evil in the heart of man has not yet been dealt with because its source has not been identified as having to do with that very thing Ricoeur celebrates – the will to freedom from divine authority at any cost.

But to return to the earlier issue about “salvation” having to do with all of life and not being restricted to the “isolated individual,” there is more to say.  First of all, there is a dialectical relationship between the goals and purposes of mankind in the world and God’s agenda.  There is a saying that reminds us that “Satan thinks like a man but God thinks of eternity.”  Yes, the source of evil is in the human heart and it is a result of a willful rejection of the loving authority of God in the life of man.  Yes, the restoration of man’s relationship with God takes priority over the restoration of systems and economics and politics simply because this world is in rebellion to God and have exercised their desire to “tener, poder y valer” in ways that were not healthy or loving.  Upon the occasional opportunity of a majority of Christians (or Deists) dominating a society (such as Rome, Holland – under Kuyper – or the United States), the ideals of love in human intercourse where sabotaged from within since the reality of sin and evil remains in us, even if we are committed to the kingdom of God.

The reason for this, according to the Bible, is that God himself has determined that this world has been “cursed” because of the rebellion of man and is therefore, ultimately, lost and must be destroyed before it can be re-created into a new heaven and a new earth.  This eschatological perspective provides a “dialectical distance” between the agenda of the church and that of the world.  From the biblical point of view, this world serves the purpose of calling people to repentance precisely because evil is allowed some room to maneuver so that mankind may look in the mirror of reality and despair of life outside of the paradise of God’s presence.  God is not interested in renovating the pig sty to make it more comfortable for the prodigal.  It needs to stink, and hurt, and fill mankind with despair so that they recognize that the evil is within and that they are the architects of their own destruction.  It is a theodicy rooted in the eschatological goals of God with mankind (c.f. the book of Revelation) and the world does not like it.  Whether it is the social justice of the liberal church or the revolutionary fervor of the Marxist liberation theologians, the cry of mankind is for relief when repentance is needed.  It is a severe mercy but a necessary one.  On the other hand, God, in his mercy, according to the biblical text, does intervene to stop evil in one instance and allow it in another but always with the goal of our ultimate salvation and eternal relationship with him in a new heaven and a new earth.

Most of all, God uses his people, his church, to intervene with grace in the lives of people and right at that point, something must be said.  The problem is that a world in rebellion against God makes a moral claim against his agenda and “theodicy” (the temporal management of evil to accomplish an eternal good) because they do not accept either his existence (and therefore rail against the church directly) or because they do not accept his diagnosis of the problem of the human heart or agree that human existence with its mixture of good and bad is the context for the creation of a new type of humanity that prioritizes their relationship with God regardless of the temporal benefits of that relationship.  Like Job, the ultimate question put before man is the question of evil and whether or not it drives them away from God or towards God.  That will reveal their heart in a way that nothing else will.  It is the question of every human heart for its lover.  Do you love me for the benefits or despite the benefits?  And since that is the very nature of the problem and the very nature of the salvation that we so desperately need, God maintains that open question as the context for the real “existential drama of mankind.”

It must also be said that an understanding of God’s “theodicy” and his commitment to turning temporal evil into ultimate and eternal good (which we all struggle with), does not excuse the church from the direct command of God to love our neighbor and to bring “light and salt” into the world.  As C.S. Lewis points out, God expects us to pursue the “simple” good (as defined by both reason and the biblical text) and do so sacrificially just as Jesus did while, at the same time, allowing God, and God alone, to exercise his right to turn evil into good and thereby accomplish the “complex” good.  In fact, God’s “complex” good depends on us accomplishing the “simple” good and therefore any failure in the imperative makes the indicative in the lives of more and more people more difficult to accomplish.  Even so, there exists a fundamental “dialectic” between what the world sees as their moral claim on God and what God sees as his moral claim on them.  The source and creator of evil is not God but mankind and they will have to live with their rebellion even as they celebrate it.

Finally, Ricoeur gives us his third point, after establishing that a philosophy of existence that deals with the totality of man’s existence on earth is what we need, he goes on to say that we also need an appropriate language in order to make that interpretation come alive.  After all “el hombre es lenguaje (p. 39),” and language gives life to ideas through its impact on human minds and motivation to act.  Ricoeur says, it is “en lenguaje que comprueban, describen y ordenan los hechos (p. 39).”  This is at the heart of the process of secularization which Ricoeur both celebrates and challenges.  This “ser-lenguaje (p. 40)” needs both an existential and historical vision and language which Ricoeur would call the language of faith (but which we would call “the language of a secular faith,” and Ricoeur would not disagree).  This language would fire the imagination and is rooted in an “analogy of being” (St. Augustine, St. Thomas) that all of mankind shares.  It is a language that would open up the possibilities of a new way of being human rooted in a love for the individual that reminds us of what it means to be truly human.  “En este sentido, la imaginación es el instrumento de una verdadera exploración ontológica y ella requiere a su vez el lenguaje de una conceptualidad justa (p. 40).”  This is the language of understanding, truly understanding who we are, why we are lost and how to save ourselves.

Jesus called it “the blind leading the blind,” but since Ricoeur doesn’t accept the supernatural interpretation of the human condition from the biblical text, it is difficult to know how to answer this great, utopian, optimism that exists in the new linguistic analysis as a hermeneutical tool in the hands of the modern philosopher to deal with the ultimate questions of life, such as the origins of man and the meaning of his existence.  Having debunked the speculative/classical side of philosophy in favor of linguistic analysis, while realizing that, even then, according to Heidegger, we are still ultimately faced with the question of metaphysics.  It is inescapable and Ricoeur proves it once again.  The problem is that Ricoeur has fallen, once again, into the positivism and optimism that was so much in favor a generation or two ago.  But here it is again in the guise of linguistic analysis as it is applied to questions of metaphysics.  There is some truth to the fact that life is defined and described by language but that is precisely the point.  It is both “defined” and “described” but in a world that has turned its back on the objective reality of life (at least among philosophers), language as “description” has fallen on hard times and all that is left is language as a way of “defining” life.  But why is this so?  It is because the human mind, in the process of objectifying, evaluating, exploring and harnessing the powers of this world in the area of science and technology has experienced over and over again the need for new language to “describe” and “define” what they were discovering.  Ricoeur, himself, warns us not to extend this rational exercise into every area of existence but does so himself, safe within his own certainty as a self-creator of meaning.  We would not try this in the field of science and technology.  It might blow up and kill us.  Reality has a way of doing that.  We are discoverers and secondary creators using the tools and materials that life has given us to work with.  We do not create reality with our language, even in the imagination of man.

But it is true that we can motivate man to action with our words but, even then, it is not simply the language that motivates but the reality that the language “describes” or “defines.”  Belief must be rooted in a shared reality that objectively exists or it loses its power to motivate.  The “ought” alone has never been enough,  nor is the self-generated will power of mankind, even in their own best interest good enough.  There are isolated cases of limited success but the fundamental evil of the human heart is that in a difficult and dangerous world we prioritize our own immediate felt needs even when we know that in the end it isn’t good for us.  That is our existential legacy and Ricoeur recognizes that truth but celebrates our “freedom to choose” even if it is a selfish or evil choice over the greater “slavery of love” which is the true freedom that mankind seeks.  When it comes to the question of existence, we are not God and we cannot create our salvation with mere words.  It is the “power” of God to act upon his “words” that created the world.  It was the power of the Holy Spirit of God, “hovering over the waters,” that put into action and gave life to the creative work of the “logos” or “intention” of God made incarnate in Jesus Christ.  Without that same Holy Spirit to give “power” to our words, language/religion/ideology is condemned by Jesus as “having the form of religion but denying its power.”  But that is, once again, a supernatural explanation based on the biblical text.

All of this brings Ricoeur to his redefinition of philosophy and its task as a hermeneutic of existence.  Given the need for a philosophical anthropology to interpret the human condition in all of its totality while celebrating the fundamental necessity for human freedom so that mankind can decide his own destiny, and recognizing man´s ability to assign value through culturally significant symbols and myths and thereby create meaning ex nihilo, there is a special place for philosophy in this grand project.  Still, Ricoeur starts by pointing out that there is “el problema de la filosofía como hermenéutica (p. 41).”  Rather than trying interpret existence through speculative/classical approaches to philosophical and natural theology to define such metaphysical mysteries as the existence of God, the freedom of the will or the immortality of the soul, “la tarea filosófica consistirá, a mi ver, en la elaboración de una teoría general de la interpretación, es decir, realizar a posteriori de Marx, Freud y Nietzsche la tarea que comenzara Schleiermacher y que fuera continuada por Dilthey.  Esto significa extender el problema exegético de la comprensión de textos, a la comprensión de todos los signos susceptibles de ser considerados como textos.  Se trata por lo tanto de lograr que la hermenéutica no se reduzca simplemente a la reflexión sobre las reglas de la exégesis, sino que se transforme en un exégesis generalizada (p. 41).”

It is worth quoting Ricoeur at length at this point since he is re-defining the task of philosophy in existential and phenomenological terms as the elaboration of a general theory of interpretation.  In general, it is a worthy task and would create much needed understanding about epistemology and how we know what we know.  Reformed Epistemology has already benefitted from this change of focus in philosophical circles.  But problems still remain since the assumption is that this general view of interpretation (on rational terms) would also be applied to the biblical text.  It assumes that the biblical text has already been demystified of its supernatural cultural trappings and therefore would be subject to the same general principles of interpretation as all other texts and symbols of meaning in human culture.  That is an interesting way for philosophy to slip in the back door of the house of metaphysics and make claims about ultimate issues that the world still sees as a necessary context for life.  Metaphysics matters and therefore cannot be ignored.

At the same time, many of these general principles of interpretation developed by this new focus of philosophy may have some benefit for biblical hermeneutics (which also is not limited to merely the rules of exegesis) but will have to be re-interpreted within the bounds of a supernatural understanding of the biblical text/message.  Within a supernatural context, linguistic analysis and even general rules of interpretation are welcome but there is a further problem.  The biblical text with its supernatural origin and nature also warns us that there are what is called the “noetic” effects of sin to deal with.  Our rebellion against God is like an addiction to freedom at any cost, and therefore carries with it a blindness and distortion of our thinking that is analogous to someone with an addiction.  Entire scholarly studies have been dedicated to unraveling the various elements of the effects of sin on our ability to think especially about ultimate issues but even our ability to know anything in general.  Without going into details, we can at least point out that modern philosophy has already pointed out many of these weaknesses which all need to be filtered through the supernatural revelation of God who interprets our human condition from the divine point of view.

Taking all of that into account, one can only wonder at Ricoeur’s positivism with regards to the hermeneutic of existence by means of a general theory of interpretation to answer the deepest questions of man’s existence in the hope that it will motivate modern man to find a better balance between the necessary objectifying of creation in order to understand it and harness its power for human good and doing so with a keen eye on the self-imposed limit of love for the individual (an existential value in opposition to power or possessions) as a way of remembering our true humanity.  If it sounds utopian, it is.  It ignores the power of sin and evil in the human heart and the almost impossible task of getting the majority to accept this moral value of the virtue of love as a higher priority than power or possessions.

Ricoeur defines two tasks as belonging to this new philosophical discipline.  The first has to do with “el trabajo de convalidación” and the second has to do with “una tarea de arbitraje (p. 41).”  What he means by “el trabajo de convalidación” is basically the justification of symbolic language as the vehicle for a language of faith (and all forms of thinking).  Without going into detail about Ricoeur’s proposal for the use of symbolic language, let it be said that even this proposal as applied to an understanding of metaphysical issues is faulty at best.  In one sense, all language is symbolic in the sense that it stands for something else; language “describes” and “defines” reality (or the appearance of reality, as Ricoeur would say).

But in another sense, all language is not symbolic in the same way.  The scientific method uses “symbolic” language in a particular way.  The historical method uses “symbolic” language in a related but different way.  The literary method uses “symbolic” language in a third way.  All of them integrated and even dependent on each other but with their own idiosyncrasies and unique applications.  The problem with Ricoeur’s use of symbolic language and poetic discourse as the foundation of the language of faith is that it is weighted down with pre-conceived bias against the supernatural and especially against the supernatural as breaking into and intervening in human history.

In addition, the concept of symbol as both hiding and revealing its meaning is true of all language but in different ways and to different degrees.  The language of faith based on the biblical text is not a Gnostic revelation that opens its meaning only to the philosophical initiate, but rather it uses the plain, pointed, everyday language of the marketplace while talking about extra-ordinary events which have broken in on human existence and calls us to action.  Certainly there are deeper levels to the mystery of God and his revelation, but his message is clear and his call is not obscure.  The language of everyday life is sufficient even for modern man.  Ricoeur uses this otherwise legitimate concept of symbolism as the main vehicle for a language of faith and a justification of his existentialist philosophical anthropology.  Using the categories of symbol as laid out by Freud, Ricoeur says, “lo que resulta significativo es que bajo los tres aspectos mencionados: onírico, cósmico o poético, el símbolo presenta la siguiente estructura semántica: a través de un primer sentido inmediato generalmente de carácter material y físico, se apunta hacia un sentido existencial (p. 42).”  This self-serving re-interpretation of the biblical message has no validation outside of Ricoeur’s own opinion nor does it provide any criteria of evaluation since Ricoeur denies the biblical text the respect all texts deserve to interpret themselves within their own historical/cultural and linguistic context, even when the message is hard to believe.

By redefining the two levels of meaning that are inherent in all symbolic language in terms of existentialism, he justifies his own philosophical anthropology in counter position to the supernatural/spiritual/biblical worldview.  In addition, Ricoeur claims that symbolic language does not have “una significación univoca,” but rather “significaciones multivocas (p. 43),” which are ultimately “inagotable.”  For Ricoeur this makes sense because he is not trying to discover meaning in a supernatural revelation from a God who is actually there, but rather using the biblical text as a vehicle to express multiple definitions and revelations about human existence that is available to serve the needs of mankind in various situations and cultures and throughout all time.  It is the relativism of the symbol without limits that is the very thing that should be celebrated as a useful tool in the hermeneutic of existence without God.

It is at this point that Ricoeur arrives at his concept of “precomprensión.”  He says, “de la misma manera, justificar y convalidar en el marco de su estructura semántica al lenguaje simbólico, consiste en mostrar cómo éste verbaliza y articula el dominio de la experiencia que pertenece a la precomprensión (p. 44).”  But it is important to keep in mind that language can be imprecise or even misleading on the one hand and yet be rich in meaning on the other.  With that in mind, Ricoeur claims that “la tarea de la hermenéutica entonces, consiste en luchar contra el olvido – al que nos refiriéramos antes – para retornar a los lenguajes ricos de sentido.  Sólo este tipo de lenguajes sobredeterminados que quieren decir más que lo que dicen, guardan una equivocidad de superficie y su sobredeterminación de sentido puede ser reveladora de un trasfondo existencial (p. 44).”  Although it is understandable why Ricoeur has chosen this path to a secular language of faith, it is nothing more than a Gnostic revelation in the hands of mankind in rebellion against the God who is the revealer of all truth and knowledge and meaning.

But now Ricoeur turns to the second task of his newly defined philosophy of hermeneutics which he calls “arbitraje.”  “Su objetivo – el que hasta ahora sólo hemos entrevisto – consiste en tomar conciencia acerca de la unidad profunda que existe entre destruir e interpretar (p. 44).”  This “arbitraje” is the bridge, the language of faith, that one needs to move from a critique of society/religion/mankind to a new understanding of the fundamental affirmation of the value of human beings.  Ricoeur uses the biblical language of “casting down idols” to describe the process and even quotes the prophet Isaiah and “la lucha contra los baales (p. 45).”  The problem is that even the Devil can quote scripture for his own ends and Ricoeur does the same.  He uses the teaching of the Bible within its supernatural/spiritual/biblical worldview and strips it of its meaning and replaces it with other idols which he claims is the very supernatural/spiritual/biblical worldview that he just quoted from.  Whereas the biblical text would call his secular agenda the “baal” of our modern age, Ricoeur calls the supernatural trappings of the person and work of God the “baal” of our modern age.  Whereas the bible deplores mankind´s ongoing decision to choose freedom over love as the heart of evil, Ricoeur celebrates that freedom as the “maturity” of modern man.

With the use of “myth” and “symbolic language,” Ricoeur proposes that philosophy create a general theory of interpretation along the lines of Kant´s Critique of Pure Reason or Critique of Practical Reason, as if it were something more basic, such as a Critique of Knowledge, and would include all areas of inquiry into the human condition and evaluate all types of hermeneutics on the basis of whether or not it meets the criteria of a general theory and method of hermeneutic and interpretation of human existence.  He says, “Frente a él, la modestia de la reflexión filosófica relacionada con el teólogo y el exégeta, consiste en señalar que es el exégeta quien nos enseña a descubrir qué cosa es leer un texto.  Si llegamos a comprender que la existencia humana en su totalidad es un texto que hay que leer, nos encontraremos en el umbral de aquella hermenéutica general por medio de la cual he intentado definir la tarea de la filosofía futura (p. 47).”  Philosophy, so understood, would become the foundation of all theology and exegesis and would define what is a proper hermeneutical  method without distinction for the supernatural origin of the revelation of God through the biblical text.

Finally, Ricoeur tries to address the “ateísmo fundamental de nuestra cultura contemporánea (p. 47).”  Addressing his three masters of suspicion and their effect on modern society, he reminds us that it wasn’t their suspicion of religion on the one hand, or their reductionism on the other that matters so much as their affirmation as free beings in a world that is theirs to dominate and control and which demands (or necessitates) an “amor del destino (p. 47),” which is to say a “love of determining his own future.”  In fact, Ricoeur suggests that there are three basic positive affirmations about mankind that we should celebrate according to the masters of suspicion.  “El hombre, dicen ellos, debe llegar a amar la necesidad – amor fati -, amar las cosas tal como ellas son y aceptar que su vida desaparece, que la realidad continúa, anónima y muda.  Esta es la afirmación atea de nuestra cultura (p. 47).”  Nothing more can be said except, “how sad!”

But Ricoeur is not done.  He, himself, cannot remain there in that despair.  He plants the question “¿cuál es el lugar y el origen de la posibilidad? (p. 48).”  From his point of view, he says, “esta es a mi ver la temática fundamental de la revelación y que consiste en un llamado a la “imaginación de lo posible” (p. 48).”  Although this sounds good, Ricoeur reveals what he really means by quoting Feuerbach, “el maestro común de todo ateísmo nos dice:  devolvamos al hombre lo que él ha dado a Dios y de esta forma, que el hombre vuelva a apropiarse de aquello que ha volcado sobre lo sagrado vaciándose a sí mismo (p. 48).”  Love does not empty you but, rather, fills you to overflowing but try telling that to someone who is single, likes being single and fears the “ball and chain” of marriage precisely because they have been damaged within and no longer have the capability to love unless someone else bridges the gap and loves them anyway.  That is the source of healing and power that modern man so desperately needs.  Ricoeur provides an interesting counterpoint in the discussion of the human condition and the solution that a secular world provides and the supernatural/spiritual/biblical worldview offers.

Ricoeur ends this section by stating that the ultimate question (to which he still doesn’t know the answer) is “¿qué es el hombre? (p. 48).”  He thinks it has something to do with language and the creative power of the imagination and refuses to stay in the resignation of modern atheism.  The good news is more than a possibility, it is an act of God in history that changes everything.  The problem is that it starts with humility and that is precisely what modern man lacks.

  1. ¿Qué aspectos no entendí?

Paul Ricoeur´s discussion of symbolic language and the mythic-poetic center of man as the creative engine of his imagination is interesting but when he applies it to the biblical text, it becomes largely useless.  More work needs to be done to understand this aspect of his thought.

  1. ¿Cómo se puede aplicar el contenido a la tarea hermenéutica?

Very little of his hermeneutical method is of any use to a biblical exegete in the Evangelical tradition.  This is a secular approach that denies the supernatural nature of revelation and therefore is limited in insight into the hermeneutical task.

Bert Amsing

Master’s Program – FIET