Guest post by Adam Braun – who you would know better by his screen-name handle @bultmanniac
This is a follow up to the “There is a difference between Progressive and Liberal” response to Roger Olson.
“We have at our disposal no pneuma which is not bound to the word.”- Bultmann
I’ve heard it before. “I was doing such-and-such and worried about my finances, and all of a sudden I heard a word from the Lord, ‘Everything will be ok. Go check the mailbox.’” And of course, everything was ok, because $x was there, and why tell the story otherwise.
I find an affinity between the anecdote above and Olson’s question, “Do they begin with and recognize the authority of special revelation?” In both, there is an underlying assertion that revelation from God is somehow pure, unmistakable, meaningful understanding given by God and received by a human agent. Revelation needs no interpretation.
But this is a misunderstanding of how humans interpret. This is complicated to explain, so I will focus on just one moment in the process: let’s call it, ‘the hermeneutical moment’–a moment that barely exists in time, but nevertheless happens.
Insofar as revelation from God enters the semantic domain, it must be interpreted. If God writes words on the tablet of your heart, or if God brands meaning on your backside, it doesn’t matter. For there is a moment, however brief, [cue Ennio Morricone] where the interpreter stands face-to-face with the cold, empty signifiers and systems of signs where there is no God, no pneuma, no interpretive community, and the interpreter must make sense of the text. The interpreter must imagine the “possibilities of human existence,” and attempt to reproduce meaning. That’s right, the interpreter never receives meaning, but is as much a producer of meaning as the author is.
When the word from God comes, “Everything will be ok. Go check the mailbox,” the interpreter is producing meaning about personal finances, about a check in a mailbox, all while receiving this ‘special revelation.’ Yet, there is nothing in the linguistic revelation to prove that meaning, for all we know a neighbor’s car may have nicked the mailbox.
The second the human forgets or is unaware of the hermeneutical moment with respect to revelation, is the precise instant where you and yours are the possessors of that ‘special revelation.’ And this gets no one closer to the truth, but is the beginning of lines in the sands, which eventually become walls as high as the heavens. And then, the important part of recognizing “the authority of special revelation,” is not the revelation itself, but rather its authority.
When we fail to recognize the hermeneutical moment and its absurd task, we risk unnecessary lines and walls, and set ourselves on the path to a dangerous tribalism*– where we organize ourselves by decisions we don’t know we’ve made, then have those decisions define our identities.
On the other hand, recognizing the hermeneutical moment, sets us free to encounter the revelation and enter into discourse about its relationship to the possibilities of human existence. It also reminds us of the distance between us and other truths external to us. Perhaps then, the revelation is most meaningful because it puts us into new spaces of discourse for encountering an other.
*Tribalism is neutral and certainly not pejorative as in the “primitive” nature of tribes.