Review of Lenguaje y Teología de la Palabra (Part 3) by Paul Ricouer

  1. Nombre y apellido del alumno Bert Amsing
  2. Fecha June 19, 2016
  3. Título del texto leído Paul Ricoeur

Lenguaje y Teología de la Palabra (Part III)

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

Paul Ricoeur, in his chapter “Lenguaje y Teología de la Palabra,” develops his view of the science and philosophy of language and its application to the biblical text.

  1. ¿Cuál es la idea central del autor?

Ricoeur’s central idea is that language is both a science and an art in the sense of bringing the contributions of philosophy and theology into an overall view of how language works.

  1. ¿De qué nos quiere convencer?

Ricoeur wants to convince us that a structural approach to the science of language needs to be balanced with a philosophy of language based on existential and phenomenological contributions as a prerequisite to approaching the biblical text and that this approach to language is supported by a theology of the word as discerned from the biblical text itself.

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

Paul Ricoeur, in his last chapter on the Language of Faith, makes a connection with our present topic when he states, “el último desafío tiene que ver entonces con lo que acabo de caracterizar como el centro mítico poético de la imaginación, que es al mismo tiempo el lugar de origen de la palabra y del hombre como palabra (p. 48).”  The atheism of modern culture may be a necessity rooted in our “maturity” as free agents who must create our own destiny but find ourselves both to be “originally good but radically evil.”  The affirmation of atheism may be true and necessary but it is not enough.  There must also be an affirmation of the possibility of a new being, a new existence, by remembering what it means to be truly human.  It is the past wisdom, the foundational texts, the origin of man that must speak a creative word into the imagination of modern man in order to awaken him to the possibilities of the future.
Ricoeur says, “mi propio confesión es que el hombre se instituye por la palabra, es decir, por un lenguaje que no es tanto hablado por el hombre, sino que es hablado al hombre (p. 48).”  In other words, the “creative word” spoken to modern man will remind him that he must root himself in the “mythic-poetic centre of the imagination” if he hopes to discover the possibility of what he could become by remembering what it means to be truly human.  “Para terminar diré que aquello que conforma nuestra respuesta a la apología de la necesidad y de la resignación, es la fe en que el hombre es instituido en el corazón de su potencia mítico-poética, por una palabra creadora (p. 48).”  He would even go so far as to reference the Good News as the source of that “creative word” which motivates us to become the kind of human beings that can balance our atheism with faith in the possibility of the human spirit to dominate our world within the bounds of a love for the individual which is what makes us truly human.  That is his question at the end of his section on the language of faith.  “¿Acaso la Buena Nueva no es la motivación de la posibilidad que tiene el hombre a través de una palabra creadora? (p. 48).”  This is the real introduction to our present chapter on Language and a Theology of the Word in which he brings the science, philosophy and theology of language (or the “word”) together into an integrated whole.
The problem is that Ricoeur is entirely at odds with the biblical text he uses as his ultimate source of motivation for a “creative word.”  His language sounds vaguely religious and indirectly true but, in fact, it is entirely in opposition to the biblical message and approach to hermeneutics.  Without forgetting his bias against the supernatural, his anti-historical presuppositions about the biblical text itself, his commitment to a philosophical anthropology based on existentialism and phenomenology, his celebration of a critique of religion and the biblical worldview resulting in the celebration of a “mature” rational humanity in charge of its own future, his optimistic positivism of man’s ability to overcome evil in the human heart and in society simply by remembering the importance of love for the individual as a way of becoming truly human and as an antidote to the necessary atheism of modern man, we must remember that all of this is in the background despite his religious sounding rhetoric.  The antidote to modern atheism is faith in man’s ability to rise above his own self-destructive tendencies by accessing the mythic-poetic center of his imagination through a creative word that is spoken to modern man from ancient times (through foundational texts such as the Bible) about what it truly means to be human.  Ricoeur strips the biblical text of its supernatural origins and character as the revelation of God about man’s condition and what God has done about it through the person and work of Jesus Christ and then he gives it an existential and phenomenological foundation through his philosophical anthropology and finally, with all supernatural truth stripped away and the remainder re-interpreted from his philosophical point of view, he then appeals to the Bible´s “creative word” about the virtue of love as being the answer/solution to all of modern man’s soul-less affirmation of his freedom and atheism.
This is a far cry from the biblical worldview which is necessarily supernatural/spiritual and which calls modern man to re-evaluate his own self-destructive behavior rooted in an ill-advised feedom from the-God-who-is-there.  Ricoeur’s project is doomed to failure because it lacks the power of a new reality created by God through the person and work of Jesus Christ on the cross.  Language has power but not “creative” power in the sense of “creating something out of nothing.”  And that is what mankind needs.  His situation is beyond remedy and he, himself, cannot defeat the evil within.  There is no residual good to build on, no mythic-poetic center of the imagination that has the power to overcome the fundamental selfishness of the human heart in rebellion against its creator/father.  In a difficult and dangerous world, only the temporal/eternal providence of a creator/father can provide the external context for the battle against the low-trust, survival mentality of the human ego.  Only the agape love of a new relationship with our creator/father restored through the person and work of Jesus Christ and guaranteed by the presence of the Holy Spirit can provide the internal context for the healing of the human heart in its brokenness and humility before the throne of God.  Yes, the virtue of love is the solution to evil (that isn´t anything new) but it must be a healing before it can be a battle,  it must be toward God before it can be toward man;  it must be created in reality before it can be “named” and “owned” and “lived out.”
To suggest, as Ricoeur does, that to value “love of neighbor” above power or possessions (tener, poder y valer), may, in fact, be a solution but he provides no source of “power” to overcome the evil in the human heart that will never prioritize love over power or possessions especially when the chips are down and push comes to shove.  We barely do it for the ones we love, and few are those who would claim that it is a virtue in their own lives much less a virtue directed towards those we consider our “enemies.”  We all know that (and have for centuries) but Ricoeur has an optimistic positivism that seems to think that “the mythic-poetic center of the imagination” has its own power through the use of language to create a new future for mankind on the brink of destruction.  It isn’t clear whether Ricoeur suffers more from an inadequate anthropology or a lack of humility about his own secular presuppositions as over and against the message of the biblical text as it stands.  But, as Jesus pointed out time and again,  the deaf cannot hear and the blind cannot see because they do not want to hear and they do not want to see.  In any event, this is the conceptual context of his attempts to create a theology of the word (which sounds biblical but is thoroughly secular).
Still, there may be some contributions to a biblical hermeneutic that Ricoeur can provide in his attempt to bring together the science, philosophy and theology of language (or the “word”).  To that end, let us explore some of Ricoeur´s thoughts about “language and a theology of the word.”
Ricoeur points out that there are multiple forms and usages for the word “word” especially within the biblical text.  We speak of the Word of God (with a capital “W”) and we consider Christianity to be all about understanding that spoken “Word,” which became flesh.  There is the preaching of the “Word” and the attempt by the exegete through the hermeneutical process to create a new “word” that is intelligible for our time.  Finally, it is all of these things together that allows us to “reconquistar y reafirmar la significación de la Palabra original que pone en movimiento esta continuidad de palabras (p. 143,144).”  But already here, in Ricoeur’s description of the different ways we use the word “palabra” in the bible and Christian community we find his particular interpretation imposed onto the biblical text.  Certainly we can agree that “en ese sentido, toda teología es una teología de la Palabra (p. 144)” but we have learnt to look deeper into what Ricoeur actually means by the words he uses.
In general, we can start with a critique of his interpretation of the biblical text using his own hermeneutical method.  He claims, as we saw in our last review, to respect the true and original meaning of the foundational texts but means by that, that the true and original meaning can only be discerned after stripping it of its supernatural cultural trappings and giving it a “pre-comprehensional foundation” rooted in his philosophical anthropology.  That is not the same thing as having respect for the foundational text and allowing its “creative word” speak into the situation of modern man.  To be specific, Ricoeur uses his general understanding of the biblical text and Christian linguistic context as his only recourse to understanding the form and content of this word “Palabra.”  He even breaks his own “minimal expectations” of the expectations of structuralism in the science of language which he goes on to discuss later on.
Here are some specific problems that betrays his bias against the supernatural and his anti-historical presuppositions about the biblical text.  First of all, although he talks about the word becoming flesh in Jesus Christ, he does not believe that “all of creation was created by the power of his word.”  It is a “word” without creative ex nihilo power that is totally “encerrado” in its linguistic expression.  Secondly, even when talking about the word-made-flesh in Jesus Christ, he describes it as “Dios como la Palabra en Cristo (p. 144),” which is to say that in the human person we name as Jesus Christ, God expresses his “Word.”  This is a far cry from the pre-existent, second person of the Trinity, emptying himself to become human and it is a typical doctrine of modern liberalism.  Never forget, that for Ricoeur, the supernatural does not exist.  God does not exist.  Jesus is not divine but merely a man who understood what it truly meant to be human through love of neighbor as a priority over power and possessions.  Perhaps, because of that very humanity, we could say that he was well-grounded in the mythic-poetic center of his imagination and from that place could speak (and live out) a “creative word” through his example and speech that must be rediscovered and reaffirmed by the exegete through the hermeneutical process and preached to modern man as a calling to not forget that love of the individual is the only way to be truly human and is the only antidote to modern atheism and when people respond to that calling to enter into a new existence based on the domination of the world through science and technology but limited by love rather than empowered by greed and manipulation, perhaps, then, we can overcome evil in the human heart and society.  Needless to say, this is not Christianity.  Finally, a word needs to be said about this “proceso de la palabra (p. 144),” by which he means “la conexión interna e íntima entre la Palabra de Dios, Dios como la Palabra en Cristo y la Palabra de la predicación primitiva y su actualización en la predicación moderna (p. 144).”
If we re-interpret Ricoeur’s re-interpretation of the biblical text and restore its supernatural nature and character and get rid of his philosophical anthropology (or at least analyze it according to and in subordination to the biblical text), this statement can become true, but we already knew this.  It isn’t any great revelation by Ricoeur.  God creates the world and mankind through the power of his word, man rebels against his authority, God intervenes in word and deed and commits that intervention/revelation to a written communication using human language and a historical/cultural/linguistic context, choosing a particular community in the Old Testament through which he could establish the theological/conceptual context of what man’s problem really is in relation to God and how God solves it through the person and work of Jesus Christ in his incarnation, teaching and ministry as well as through his death and resurrection, which the early Christians saw and heard with their own eyes and ears but committed also to written communication under the supernatural direction of the Holy Spirit and which the modern exegete, in humility and community, allowing the Scripture to interpret itself as much as possible, reaffirms the ancient message and creates a new method or medium for proclaiming it to modern man.
This “process of the Word” from ancient times to today, which covers the distance between ancient man and modern man despite their scientific worldviews (whether pre- or post-) is possible precisely because it is the Word of God made powerful by the supernatural care and intervention of God through his Holy Spirit within man and despite man.  It is also possible because both ancient and modern man suffer from the same ontological problem of separation from God despite his scientific worldview.  There is a basic “analogy” between ancient man and modern man (in all cultures and throughout all time).  The fact that our modern “materialistic success” in the fields of science and technology doesn’t change the fact that we are still radically evil and are in danger of self-destruction from the very success that we celebrate (whether through nuclear bombs, environmental breakdown or the threat of a customized, perhaps weaponized, super virus).  The arrogance of each age is basically the same and is obvious in the perennial dangers of evil as well as our longing for the solutions that the virtue of love can give us.  There is nothing new under the sun except the particular form of arrogance that each generation prides itself on.
In any event, this is the understanding of the concept of “Word” that we get from the biblical text.  If this is what Ricoeur means by “the process of the word” (which it is not), then we would agree.  We could even go further, as Ricoeur does, and point out that all language, not just the biblical text, finds its origin in the social/relational nature of God in Trinity and has been given expression in the creation of man “in the image of God.”  But man is not language any more than Jesus is only language.  Jesus is the “word-made-flesh” not because of his nature as the “creative language” of God but because of his relationship with his Father and the Holy Spirit.  Jesus said that it was his food and drink to do the will of the Father and that was expressed in his ministry, death and resurrection.  It was expressed in his loving obedience to his Father empowered by the Holy Spirit which came upon him at his baptism (not because of his divine nature).  What God intends, the Son speaks and acts upon in the power of the Spirit.  Jesus as the Word of God is the intention of God made real (in creation and providence), and made flesh (in the incarnation).  It is a spiritual relationship, not an ontological one, between the will of God and the empowered loving obedience of the Son.  It is not a necessary obedience rooted in ontology but rather a chosen obedience as the expression of love.  Jesus learnt obedience through his sufferings, the book of Hebrews tells us.  How can that be?  In perfect agreement/knowledge there is perfect acquiescence but in the cauldron of battle, where even what is perfectly good is taken away, Jesus must choose loving obedience over fellowship/agreement and allow God the Father to be in charge.  His intention, the will of God the Father must prevail even when (and especially when) the end is not entirely known from the beginning (as in the Garden of Eden) or the path is abhorrent to a sacred soul (as in the Garden of Gethsemane) that must bear the sins of the world upon the cross and have his Father’s face turned from him when it is that very face, that fellowship, that defines his very existence, even as a man.  Being the “Word” of God is a calling, a relationship, not simply a language, although language is necessary since we are social beings and our love in word and in deed, even in this dark and dangerous world, must reflect the agape love that exists in the relationship of the Godhead itself.  We only see a glimpse of this glory but it is enough to blind us with its power and illumination of our lost condition before our creator/father.  Ricoeur’s poverty lies in his secular concept of language, trying to transpose its power from the realm of science and technology to the realm of metaphysics and the human condition and failing.
Not only is man endowed with the gift of language (in all its glory and limited power) as a tool for social intercourse and developing knowledge in the domination of creation, there is also a “linguistic” effect of the fall from grace.  Creation, Fall and Babel reveal the nature of human language in the context of the rebellion.  Language, in deception and falsehood, was used in the Garden to thwart the will of God rather than to fulfill it.  This truth alone, which Ricoeur strips away with all of the other supernatural “myths” found in the biblical text that he doesn’t believe, this truth alone establishes that language in and of itself is not the issue.  It was the Devil, an angel already in rebellion against God who uses deception and manipulation to influence mankind to declare their emancipation from their creator/father (which Ricoeur celebrates).  It was his evil intention that was given expression in his words.  Evil is a relational concept that expresses a rupture between the intention of God and the loving obedience of man.  In fact, it was the doubt thrown upon the intentions of God towards mankind that the Devil expressed in his language.  First of all, doubt attacked the relationship of trust between man and God and then it gave room for desire to bloom independently of God’s will.  It was the intention of man to fulfill his own desires/intentions without reference to God that gave rise to sin and evil and, ultimately, death.  Yes, God had given man dominion over the earth but not without his supervision and involvement as their creator/father.  How many mistakes we could have avoided, how many problems we could have solved long since if we had his guidance and support.  God never wanted man to be a robot or an unthinking lap dog adoring his master.  He was to dominate the earth, explore the far reaches of creation, learn and create and develop within the relationship with their creator/father so that they could be guided and protected.  There is nothing wrong with desire and passion so long as it is grounded in love for God and neighbor (even Ricoeur would agree at least with the neighbor part).
The point of this brief development of “a theology of the word/language” in counterpoint to Ricoeur is to say that language is an expression of intention/desire/knowledge and results in action/praxis/comprehension.  The details of how that happens is interesting and helpful but doesn’t change the fact that language alone is of little value because it lacks the power of praxis (and our praxis does not have the power to create something out of nothing or to fix our ontological “brokenness” in our being or to bridge the moral/relational gap between God and man when mankind is the one who rebelled against his maker).  Yes, there is a “linguistic” effect from the fall in the sense that the intention/heart of man is now more guarded, more hidden even from himself (the blindness and deafness to our own arrogance, the celebration of what we should be ashamed of) as well as towards others.  Even God is hidden from us and his intentions toward us unknown unless he intervenes and reveals himself in word and deed.
But this is the fundamental problem of communication in a dark and dangerous world where mankind (including Ricoeur) wants to recreate paradise on earth without God in a Babel-building exercise that God is determined to interfere in and destroy.  The story of Babel (another “myth” without historical basis for Ricoeur but maintaining some of its power as a symbol of an existential truth about the human condition) reminds us that God has intensified the problem of communication between people precisely in order to slow down the march of evil throughout history.  Leaving aside whether or not all languages can be traced back to the approximate time of the original Babel, the meaning of Babel hasn’t changed.
Ricoeur (and others throughout the ages) may make a moral claim against a God who would curse his own creation, allow suffering and pain and death to be the natural result of the rebellion, throw mankind out of paradise, divide mankind through a multiplicity of languages thereby magnifying the problem of communication, bring judgment upon peoples and nations and exclusively choose only one person and miraculously create a nation ex nihilo from two people who were unable to have children because of their extreme old age, send his own people into exile as punishment for their sin and then, above all, condemn a holy man to a horrible death on a cross, not in the name of social justice, feeding the poor, solving the problems of the world or making life less dangerous and difficult but rather only and first of all to deal with evil in the human heart defined as sin/rebellion against God, even if it means sacrificing everything else upon the altar of that final, ultimate, primordial healing and reconciliation with a supernatural being that we aren’t even sure is there and aren’t even sure we would trust if he was there.  He seems to be too callous to our present sufferings in service to a higher calling that we aren’t even sure is true or that it will make much difference in our lives (especially as seen from the outside) even if it were true.
Yes, the Babel-builders will make their moral claims against God and against the church, but God has his own moral claims to make and they carry a special weight in light of the fact that most of our difficulty in this life comes from this evil within and our unwillingness to pay the ultimate price to prioritize the value of the individual (and God) over power and possessions.  In the end, we must realize that the earth belongs to the Lord and he will intervene when necessary, judge when necessary, punish when necessary, show mercy when necessary and do whatever is necessary, even to taking on the eternal punishment for sin upon his own shoulders if necessary (and it was) in order to solve the real problem that faces the human race whether ancient or modern.
In other words, language is both a gift and a curse depending on the intention of the human heart towards another and therefore carries content and calls others to consider joint action toward a common intention.  Man is not language but language is an expression (and not the only one or even the most important one) of the heart and intention of man.  Language is an expression of the relationship between one and another, rooted in intention and expressing itself in action.  Language does not have power independent of praxis any more than intention does.  When praxis is defined as obedience to intention, it can be expressed or not as the case may be.  Praxis is certainly empowered through joint intention and therefore would need language to express itself.  Some of the most important things in life, such as love and hope and significance and the existence of cognition, morality or self-awareness cannot be expressed in language completely but must include other ways of knowing on the level of intuition, experience or trust/faith.  If language is only a rational system of significance (as useful as that may be) it does not fully express the human heart any more than the language of science and technology fully reveals reality.
What Ricoeur does is transpose both the role of language and its relative power in the field of science and technology to the world of metaphysics and fails.  He fails because he doesn’t go deep enough into a theology of the word/language that the biblical text reveals.  By stripping away the supernatural, he is left with a powerless, secular concept of language that is imported from the field of science and technology into the field of metaphistics and is left wanting.  Why?  Because in the real world, it simply doesn’t work.  Evil is not overcome in the human heart or in society by language but by power.  In this case, the power of the agape love of God expressed on the cross and resulting in the resurrection.  In other words, we need to have love before we can express love which is what “attachment theory” teaches in terms of human intercourse and which is exactly the point of the Christian message in terms of the human-divine relationship.
There is much more to be said about the structuralist approach to the science of language and Ricoeur’s own attempt to marry the science of language to a philosophy of language based on his existential and phenomenological philosophical anthropology and his abortive attempt to apply it to the biblical text in order to reveal a “creative word” that would call modern man into a new faith in his own power to overcome the evil within.  But that project ultimately fails because Ricoeur does not allow the biblical message to speak for itself with its own supernatural interpretation of the human condition in terms of the human-divine relationship and the solution that God provides in Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit.

  1. ¿Qué aspectos no entendí?

Paul Ricoeur’s discussion on the elements of a structuralist approach to language is quite specific and needs a general understanding of the vocabulary and concepts in order to fully assimilate what he has to say.  More work needs to be done on linguistic analysis in general and structuralism as an approach to language in specific before any real analysis can be done as to whether it is helpful to the task of a biblical hermeneutic.

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

Ricoeur falls short of showing how this approach can be used effectively in a biblical hermeneutic.  He promises to apply his ideas to biblical theology and the key words that make up that approach to Scripture, but never gets around to anything more than some dubious general statements that have more to do with his existential and phenomenological approach to language than anything else.  Perhaps some of the comments on a structuralist approach to language would be helpful but even that was rather obvious and pedantic.  So, not much to go on in general.
Bert Amsing
Master’s Program – FIET