The hermeneutics of faith

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In his Meditations René Descartes launched what is known as the Enlightenment project. This project aimed at basing all knowledge-claims on rational grounds that are universally acceptable to everybody. This project is characterised by two important features. First, it is exclusively a cognitive project. Descartes aspired to make some solid and lasting contribution to knowledge. Secondly it is a critical project. It aims at basing all knowledge claims on universally acceptable rational grounds and to eliminate claims that cannot be derived from such grounds. This project became characteristic of Enlightenment culture and gave rise to the flowering of scientific enquiry.

However, this project also became the mindset of the intellectual culture in the Enlightenment. The result was that the critical search for knowledge became paradigmatic for all thinking. In some way or other all questions in life were understood as cognitive questions. The central question in all thinking became: “How do you know?” in the critical sense of “On what grounds do you base your knowledge claims?”.

In the mindset of the Enlightenment, religious belief was often understood in purely cognitive terms. Like science, religion was aimed at providing us with knowledge about God, the world and ourselves. Religious beliefs were taken to be factual hypotheses, and the task of theology was to prove the truth of these hypotheses by showing that they are derived from universally acceptable rational grounds.

This was a serious misrepresentation of the nature of religious faith. Believers are not purely cognitive beings. They are beings who try to make sense of their lives and experience by interpreting these in terms of the heritage of faith handed down to them in a religious tradition. In this way faith is a hermeneutical rather than a cognitive phenomenon. It is not a kind of knowledge but a kind of interpretation of the things we know.

This paper explains the nature of this kind of interpretation in the light of G.K. Chesterton’s statement that “all good things look better when they look like gifts”. This statement illustrates three essential aspects of religious faith: 1. Faith is hermeneutical – good things are interpreted as gifts. 2. This interpretations requires a response: gifts call for gratitude. 3. Both the interpretation and the response entail assumptions about the nature of reality – gifts and gratitude assume the reality of a giver.

1. Hermeneutics. In order to live in this world we have to acquire knowledge about the facts regarding our lives and the world in which we live. It is the task of science to provide us with this knowledge in a critical and systematic manner. However, knowledge of the facts is not enough. We also need to determine what meaning or significance we are to bestow on the facts, and how we are to deal with them in our lives. Understanding the meaning of things requires an interpretation. Thus good things become meaningful when we interpret them as gifts. Religious believers bestow meaning on their lives and experience by looking on these with the eyes of faith. Their lives are meaningful because they are lived in communion with God. Human beings are valuable because God loves them. For believers life and the world become meaningful because of the many ways in which these are related to God.

This kind of interpretation takes place by means of metaphors. Metaphors are comparisons in which one thing is understood by comparing it to something else. The use of metaphorical comparisons is characteristic of all our thinking – in everyday life, in science and in religion. In religion such metaphors are aimed at bestowing meaning on things. We understand the meaning of something by comparing it with something else of which we already understand the meaning. Thus we understand the meaning of good things by comparing them with gifts. Believers understand the meaning of their relationship with God, the world and other people in terms of the heritage of metaphors, narratives (extended metaphors) and conceptual models (systematically developed metaphors) handed down to them in a religious tradition. This heritage provides believers with a comprehensive framework of interpretation in terms of which they make sense of their lives and experience. For Christians the Bible is the canonical source of metaphors and narratives, poems and teachings in terms of which they interpret their lives and experience meaningfully. Of course, not all people make sense of their lives in terms of the Christian tradition. Different religious traditions and secular views of life provide their adherents with different comprehensive frameworks in terms of which they bestow meaning on their lives and experience. In our secularised culture, looking on things with the eyes of faith does not always come naturally to us. It requires practice, and spirituality is the activity in which believers exercise themselves in the hermeneutics of faith.

2. Form of life. If we interpret our lives and experience of the world in terms of our faith, this requires a response in our lives and actions. To interpret good things as gifts requires the response of gratitude. Faith is therefore not merely a way of understanding, but also a way of life in accordance with the way of understanding. The hermeneutics of faith is therefore not merely intellectual but existential. It entails a way of life.

3. Assumptions. The hermeneutics of faith entails assumptions or presuppositions about the nature of reality. It is logically impossible to look on good things as gifts for which we are grateful without assuming the reality of a giver. Thus Chesterton can state that the worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank. The view that religious belief is not primarily cognitive but hermeneutical does not imply a non-realistic view which excludes truth claims about reality. However, these truth claims are very different from those of science. The truth claims of science regard the facts of our empirical experience. They need to be justified by the cognitive rationality of science. The truth claims of religion regard the assumptions that are constitutive for the religious understanding and the religious way of life. They stand or fall by the religious understanding for which they are constitutive. If the religious way of understanding should become obsolete and forgotten, then the assumptions that constitute it also become obsolete and forgotten. If we no longer look on good things as gifts, we no longer require the assumption of a giver.

It is important to distinguish three kinds of truth claims that could be constitutive for our religious understanding: empirical claims, claims about religious experience and metaphysical claims about God and our relationship with God.

Empirical claims are claims that could in principle be verified of falsified empirically. Strictly speaking, they are not religious claims. However, when we understand events in our own lives and in history in terms of our faith, we assume that these events really occurred. If it should appear that such claims are false, believers are obliged to reinterpret their way of understanding in a way that does not entail such false claims. If they fail to do so, their way of understanding will lose its credibility.

Claims about religious experience are claims about our religious interpretation of experience. As such they are not open to empirical testing. This does not mean that they are immune to criticism, but such criticism is internal to the comprehensive framework of interpretation of the tradition in which the believer stands. The truth claims of religious experience are therefore not irrational, but they are subject to the hermeneutical rationality of faith rather than the cognitive rationality of science.

Metaphysical truth claims about God are also not open to empirical testing, since God is not an observable object. Such claims cannot be derived from our empirical experience, but they can be derived for our religious interpretation of such experience, since they are constitutive for such interpretation. They stand or fall by the adequacy of the interpretation which has to be justified in terms of the hermeneutical rationality of faith.

4. Hermeneutical rationality. The religious interpretation of our experience of reality and the truth claims which are constitutive for this interpretation are relative to the comprehensive framework of interpretation of the religious tradition in which we stand. This does not mean that they are immune to criticism. However, such criticism is not aimed at the truth of propositions as in science, but at the viability of the framework of interpretation handed down in the tradition. Changes in the demands of life and in our knowledge of the empirical world in which we live demand a reinterpretation of the traditional framework in order to keep it viable to changing circumstance in our lives. Thus a religious tradition is a historical process with a Wirkungsgeschichte and as such is characterised by plurality and change. The heritage of faith needs to be constantly reinterpreted in order to keep it coherent and free from contradiction, relevant and adequate to the changing demands of life, credible and intelligible for contemporary society, and in recognisable continuity with the religious tradition. These criteria do not apply to the heritage of Christianity only, but to the frameworks of interpretation of all religions and views of life.

Keywords: cognitive rationality; constitutive assumptions; conversion;  Enlightenment project; forms of life; hermeneutical rationality; hermeneutics; metaphors; nature of faith; religious traditions; spirituality; the Bible; truth claims in religion

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Die hermeneutiek van die geloof

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