On John Hobbins On The Bible And Gadamer

At Ancient Hebrew Poetry, John has an interesting post on Gadamer’s hermeneutics as applied to the Bible. Over the years I’ve read some Gadamer but not all that much. Although perhaps more lucid than some, Gadamer’s work is in a philosophical tradition that I find nearly incomprehensible. From my point of view writers in that tradition aren’t even wrong (or right) – just nearly incomprehensible. That said, there is something to be learned from a philosopher like Gadamer and John does a good job in spelling it out in the interest of biblical hermeneutics. Before you go on, please read John’s post.
Welcome back. The hermeneutical approach that John praises has one major thing going for it. In large measure, it avoids a common species of use-mention error that dominates much biblical hermeneutics. But I would be rather surprised that Gadamer (or his mentor Heidegger) would have thought “openness to the other” applies to the Biblical tradition in any way that it doesn’t apply to any other literary tradition; nor does John claim that it does. In fact, John tells us, “A text, at least not a biblical text or any other traditional text, is not an end but a means.” Gadamer’s hermeneutics are as easy (or as difficult) to apply to Gilgamesh, The Iliad, Beowulf, Huckleberry Finn or the latest edition of the Onion – traditional texts all. I mention the Onion not to be frivolous but to be inclusive (and maybe a little frivolous). To me all this is to the good.
But like anything else, should Gadamer’s hermeneutics be applied to one literary tradition to the exclusion of or in preference to another, it becomes an instrument of dogma rather than openness. Again, John is not necessarily claiming exclusivity or preference of application. In fact, John may only be claiming that we should read the Bible exactly the same way we would read Gilgamesh, The Iliad, Beowulf, Huckleberry Finn or the latest edition of the Onion. He just takes his examples from the literary tradition he knows best. With that I have no quarrel.
But I do worry about one thing that John says. “One may read the text canonically, as constituting you and calling you, with scripture interpreting scripture in light of a rule of faith and a larger tradition.” He says this in the context of a list of approved approaches to the reading of any traditional text but obviously here, if he doesn’t mean the biblical tradition exclusively, he does mean some literature taken in a special way to inform faith – scripture. It is exactly here that the descent into use-mention fallacy begins. Once I choose or inherit the view that one literary tradition is “scripture” and applies to me or my clan in some special way, I am “open” to it a way that I think intellectually dangerous. I am now open to the use-mention fallacies that Gadamer’s approach, on my limited understanding, avoids. I am also, to a greater or lesser extent, closed to finding meaning in Gilgamesh, The Iliad, Beowulf, Huckleberry Finn or the latest edition of the Onion.

One thought on “On John Hobbins On The Bible And Gadamer”

  1. Hi Duane,
    I see your point about texts that constitute and “call” their readers into existence. They are dangerous. They create “true believers” – in the sense of Eric Hoffer; you might remember that according to Hoffer the greatest perps of evil, but also of good, have been true believers.
    It makes sense to warn people about texts that wish to persuade and shape one’s identity, texts which promote, furthermore, a particular instance of ethnogenesis.
    Biblical texts are dangerous in the above senses (not always; Qohelet and Job are not).
    Many other texts are just as dangerous: the declaration of independence; the constitution. One might rightfully claim that a nation cannot survive well without allowing some texts to have a normative function (dogma).
    I wonder if you are really (1) against the writing and reading of texts for identity-creating purposes. Perhaps you are simply (2) against *the Bible* serving, or continuing to serve, that function.
    Here’s the thing. I serve a community that reads the Bible canonically. I find it refreshing that there are people who hold to (2). Bring it on. But I find (1) to be a naive and self-defeating position.
    It is so 1960s to think that the world would be a better place if there were no dogmas, just openness, where people just made love, not war. Where we would just get high and imagine – imagine there’s no countries. It isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for. And no religion too. Imagine all the people living life in peace.
    More than 40 years later, it’s clear that constitutions and true believers and countries and religion and things to kill or die for, and also live for, are not going away anytime soon.
    If that is the case, our purpose ought to be that of finding ways to build openness into dogma, and dogma into openness, rather than playing them off against each other.
    My two denarii, nothing more.

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