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Essays on Biblical Interpretation by Paul Ricoeur

Paul Ricoeur was Professor of Philosophy and Theology in the Faculty of Arts at Paris-Nanterre, then was the successor to Paul Tillich at the University of Chicago. This book was published in 1980 by Fortress Press. It was prepared for Religion-Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.

Introduction by Lewis S. Mudge

"Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again."1

So wrote Paul Ricoeur toward the end of The Symbolism of Evil (1960). This longing is shared today by the many for whom historical-critical method remains indispensable, but at the same time insufficient to bring us to a "post-critical moment" of openness to the biblical summons. Is there an intellectually responsible way through the critical sands, always shifting, sometimes abrasive, to an oasis where bedrock, with its springs of water for the spirit, once again appears?


Ricoeur’s commitments, associations, perspective, and program combine to make us turn to him with hope. "Listener to the Christian message,"2 occasional preacher,3 dialoguer with biblical scholars, theologians, and specialists in the history of religions,4 Ricoeur is above all a philosopher committed to constructing as comprehensive a theory as possible of the interpretation of texts.5 A thoroughly modern man (if not, indeed, a neo-Enlightenment figure) in his determination to think "within the autonomy of responsible thought,"6 Ricoeur finds it nonetheless consistent to maintain that reflection which seeks, beyond mere calculation, to "situate [us] better in being,"7 must arise from the mythical, narrative, prophetic, poetic, apocalyptic, and other sorts of texts in which human beings have avowed their encounter both with evil and with the gracious grounds of hope.

Ricoeur’s work approximates positions often seen as poles apart. With biblical "conservatives" he shares reverence for the sense of the given text, the "last" text.8 He is not concerned to draw inferences from the text to its underlying history, to the circumstances of writing, to the spiritual state of the authors, or even to the existential encounter between Jesus and his followers.9 Indeed, Ricoeur, in his own way, takes the New Testament for what it claims to be: "testimony"10 to the transforming power of the Resurrection. Moreover, all the literary genres of the Bible, not just certain passages of special theological import, are media for this "revelation."11

On the other hand, Ricoeur attracts "liberals." With them, he opposes every form of "dogmatic mythology,"12 political or ecclesiastical authoritarianism, intellectual obscurantism or false consciousness. Moreover, he shares the liberal concern that interpreters of the Bible should be in dialogue with all that has gone on in "the great romance of culture"13 and all that is happening in contemporary experience, in Ricoeur’s hands interpretation is always confronted with the perspective of "counter disciplines": physiology, psychoanalysis sociology, anthropology, linguistics, the history of philosophy. 14 The sense of the text is taken seriously in the midst of other constructions of the human condition that enter into dialogue with it.

In this writer, then, we have a combination of elements which could be fruitful in assisting a critical, yet post-critical, biblical theology into being. But the expectations we bring to Ricoeur’s work must not betray us into holding him responsible for matters outside his professional vocation. Ricoeur’s chosen task is not the exposition of the Bible within the community of faith. It is, rather, the rational clarification of human existence in the world. The famous "wager" to which Ricoeur has given currency is a philosophical wager that, following "the indication of symbolic thought," "I shall have a better understanding of man and of the bond between the being of man and the being of all beings." And, he continues "I bet at the same time that my wager will be restored to me in the power of reflection, in the element of coherent discourse."15 Yet biblical texts play an indispensable role in this philosophical program. They, above all, provide the "indication" out of which Ricoeur’s thought comes.

We must not expect, however, that reading Ricoeur will be an experience comparable, say, to reading Paul Tillich. Tillich the theologian addressed himself directly to problems of faith. Moreover, he often did this in a way accessible to the general reader, or at least to the student of religion or theology. Ricoeur, particularly of late, has written mainly about philosophical problems for the philosophically trained. His contributions to biblical hermeneutics must be extracted from these sometimes difficult writings. The difficulties of Ricoeur’s writing stem from his single-minded pursuit, with appropriate terminology, of whatever intellectual issue is at hand, often beginning somewhere near the middle of the argument. Seldom does he pause to take stock, or to explain his overall perspective. Often his essays and lectures traverse a field of complex allusion. Woe to the reader who does not at first recognize the set of concerns packed into such a phrase as a post-Hegelian interpretation of Kant." He or she will not be told: at least not outright, although the context will help. The field of reference which is Ricoeur’s intellectual habitation ranges over the whole history of Western philosophy. Perhaps the most commonly mentioned names are Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger, Spinoza, Gabriel Marcel and Karl Jaspers are not far behind. One meets some theologically famous names, too: Rudolf Bultmann Karl Barth, Gerhard von Rad, Jurgen Moltmann, and others.

The theologically concerned reader of Ricoeur will be helped if he or she can see some paths through the philosophical thickets, some relations between the different Ricoeurian ideas, some connections with familiar intellectual landmarks. This essay is designed to assist. In the work of this uncompromising thinker, who is also in his own way a believer, we may find important clues to unraveling the conundrums of contemporary consciousness, and particularly to understanding how people today may be "called again" by texts which, to their surprise, summon them to reckon with realities whose existence they had forgotten.


We are deaf to the Word today. Why? The root of the problem, for Ricoeur, lies in a general loss of sensitivity to symbolic language in modern Western civilization. We construe the world in terms of the Cartesian dichotomy between the self as sovereign consciousness on the one hand, and an objectivized, manipulable nature on the other. We conceive ourselves as authors of our own meaning and being, set in the midst of a world there for us to interrogate, manipulate, and control. We make language our instrument in this project in a way that sees artful equivocation, richness of meaning, or metaphysical range as a liability to be overcome rather than a gift to be treasured. We dismiss realms of meaning beyond the literal either as confusion to be cleared up by the logician or as emotional embellishment to be kept in check. It is hard for us to see scriptural language, full as it is of figure, metaphor, vision, and myth, as having to do with reality.

What lies behind this literalism? Not merely the need of science and technology for precise terminology. The language of empirical inquiry has its indispensable place. Behind our deafness to biblical language, rather, lies the fear that such language alienates us from our hard-won modern autonomy and freedom. Ricoeur repeatedly refers to a triad of writers, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, who have taught us to suspect that religious language may not mean what it appears to say at all: that it may be a coded version of something else of which we would prefer not to be aware. The problems we have with the mythological vehicle of the scriptural message, with the cultural distance between ourselves and the biblical texts, are relatively surmountable in comparison with the fear, before we even begin to "translate" scriptural language into modern terms, that there may be nothing behind it but the ideologizing of the class status of its authors, the resentment felt by losers in a power struggle, the outcome of oedipal conflicts in persons whose desires are repressed by cultural prohibitions. And even if scriptural language is somehow exempt from such suspicious reductionisms, we suspect our own hidden motives for cleaving to it. Details of the Marxian, Nietzschian, and Freudian criticisms have since been revised, and even discredited, on economic, anthropological, or psychological grounds. But in their basic thrust and convergence, these thinkers have become part of our culture. They still accuse us and all transcendence-language users, of "false consciousness." Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud continue to have power for us indeed, because they are instigators of a positive affirmation of the human which we are bound, if we are honest, to respect. In different ways they seek to overcome the domination-submission-alienation syndrome of which religious language in the past has been a vehicle. In this they both anticipate and echo Feuerbach, who taught that we, by articulating our consciousness in religious language, are in fact emptying our human substance into an illusory absolute. Theologically, we should call this idolatry. Hence we are bound to agree that any new articulation of faith must pass through and beyond the "hermeneutics of suspicion," not slide around it.

But how is this to be done? There are many contemporary forms of protest against unidimensional interpretations of the human, against the insistence that all properly cognitive discourse must reflect a univocal subject-object Cartesian mentality. Many of these forms of protest are theories of the interpretation of the signs human beings produce in the business of being human: poems, dreams fantasies myths, works of art, patterns of culture, and so on. The trouble is that there are today so many conflicting theories of the interpretation of human signs that we do not know where to begin. The debate about the symbolic dimension of expression, about the relation between literal and figurative uses of language, is an academic battleground. The realm of language, Ricoeur writes,

"is an area today where all philosophical investigations cut across one another. . . Language is the common meeting ground of Wittgenstein’s investigations, the English linguistic philosophy, the phenomenology that stems from Husserl, Heidegger’s investigations, the works of the Bultmannian school and other schools of New Testament exegesis, the works of comparative history of religion and of anthropology concerning myth, ritual, and belief — and finally, psychoanalysis."16

We live in a time in which there are many different realms of hermeneutical discourse isolated from each other, a "conflict of interpretations" of human expression no one of which can grasp the human condition as a whole. Thus Ricoeur must not only seek, through his own hermeneutic, to open our ears to the scriptural call. He must work out his theory of interpretation in dialogue with a hundred others. He must search for something like a "unified field theory" of the explication and understanding of texts.

An early program for his attempt to do this appears in the final chapter of The Symbolism of Evil. Ricoeur there proposes a philosophical analysis of symbolic and metaphoric language intended to help us reach a "second naivete" before such texts.17 The latter phrase, which Ricoeur has made famous, suggests that the "first naivete," an unquestioned dwelling in a world of symbol, which presumably came naturally to men and women in one-possibility cultures to which the symbols in question were indigenous, is no longer possible for us. But we may approximate that state — of course with a difference.

"For the second immediacy that we seek and the second naivete that we await are no longer accessible to us anywhere else than in a hermeneutics; we can believe only by interpreting. It is the "modern" mode of belief in symbols, an expression of the distress of modernity and a remedy for that distress."18

How can philosophy help? In two ways. First, the philosopher, so to speak, follows the believer through, trying to model conceptually what is involved in staking one’s life on the message. "The philosopher adopts provisionally the motivations and intentions of the believing soul. He does not ‘feel’ them in their first naivete; he re-feels them in a neutralized mode, in the mode of ‘as if’. . .It is in this sense that phenomenology is a reenactment in sympathetic imagination."19

Then, secondly, the philosopher tries to account conceptually for the lived possibility of the believer’s symbolic world. In The Symbolism of Evil this endeavor takes the form of a "transcendental deduction" of symbols in the Kantian sense. Transcendental deduction "consists in justifying a concept by showing that it makes possible the construction of a domain of objectivity."20 The philosopher tries to show that the symbol is in fact a reality detector, that it enables us to discern a human possibility that could not be discerned in any other way. "In fact, the symbol, used as a means of detecting and deciphering human reality, will have been verified by its power to raise up, to illuminate, to give order to that region of human experience. . ."21

It is instructive to compare this project with that of Bultmann who in Ricoeur’s view does not take the expressive power of scriptural language, with all its mythological content, seriously. Bultmann the philosopher argues, jumps directly from the kerygma stated in the barest terms, "that God has drawn near to us in Christ," to faith understood equally starkly as the surrender of my self-will that I may stand radically before God.22 This leap ignores the question of how the actual language of the Bible – in its various literary forms — conveys content, sense, meaning, to

which we respond.

Bultmann defines myth as the application of subject-object language to realms where it does not belong. He thereby capitulates conceptually to the Cartesian perspective instead of asking what myth is in its own nature. His own statement, "God has acted," Bultmann maintains, is not itself mythological That is, it is not inappropriately "objectifying" in the way much biblical language is. But then, having reduced the fullness of biblical discourse to bare kerygma Bultmann feels no need to ask how the actual language of the Bible functions as a vehicle of meaning. The sheer statement that "God has acted" in this or that event is, for Bultmann, not subject to historical or hermeneutical inquiry, because such language does not convey meaning to faith in and through what it says. Rather it derives meaning from my radical response in faith to it. I do not apprehend a sense, a content, independent of my response. There is thus no concern on Bultmann’s part about how the language of the gospel refers to transcendent reality. His exposition jumps over the question of how biblical language conveys sense.23

Bultmann has been betrayed into this refusal to deal with biblical language, Ricoeur thinks, in part by a misreading of the modern situation. It is not the case that our familiarity with technology and science renders us incapable of responding to myth. It is not the case that we must reduce myth to some modern, nonmythological conceptuality such as Heideggerian existentialism (which, after all, escapes neither Marxist, Nietzschian, and Freudian suspicion nor the contemporary conflict of interpretations) in order to be grasped by what it is saying. On the contrary, we desperately need the "fullness of language," the whole range of scriptural expression, to find ourselves. Myth’s literal function must be suspended, but its symbolic function must be affirmed.

If anything, Ricoeur’s position is closer to Karl Barth’s. It is not the mythological vehicle of the gospel message that prevents us from hearing. It is the message itself that we cannot hear, because our linguistic impoverishment has deprived us of the possibility of articulating such realities as radical evil or grace-empowered hope. Symbolic, metaphorical, mythological language gives us the capacity to bring experiences of a certain kind to awareness, thereby creating the basis for reflective reasoning. Without the Word which comes to us from beyond ourselves, we cannot know the realities which Word conveys. Ricoeur denies the notion of an independently existing conceptuality in us, ready to receive the message once it is demythologized, which plays so large a part in Bultmann’s thought. We need the texts of Scripture to activate the questions, to generate the experience, in us. As he puts it,

". . .to preach is not to capitulate before the believable and unbelievable of modern man, but to struggle with the presuppositions of his culture, in order to restore this interval of interrogation in which the question can have meaning. If we consider the problem of secularization no longer only as the end of mythology and the religious era . . . but as an estrangement from the kerygmatic situation itself, then the whole problem of myth will from this point of view become immediately changed."24


We must now examine more closely the perspective in which Ricoeur carries on his project of opening the way for the text of Scripture to restore the "interval of interrogation" in which the question of faith can be heard. In the philosopher’s own words, his thought, early and late, has led him to "a permanent mistrust of the pretensions of the subject in posing itself as the foundation of its own meaning. The reflective philosophy to which I appeal is at the outset opposed to any philosophy of the Cartesian type based on the transparency of the ego itself, and to all philosophy of the Fichtean type based on the self-positing of that ego. Today this mistrust is reinforced by the conviction that the understanding of the self is always indirect and proceeds from the interpretation of signs given outside me in culture and history and from the appropriation of the meaning of these signs. I would now dare to say that, in the coming to understanding of signs inscribed in texts, the meaning rules and gives me a self. In short, the self of self-understanding is a gift of understanding itself and of the invitation from the meaning inscribed in the text."25

This passage repays careful reflection. A recent expositor has called the perspective set forth here and elsewhere a "hermeneutic phenomenology."26 In what sense, first, is Ricoeur’s thought a "phenomenology"? And second, in what way is this phenomenology "hermeneutic"?

Ricoeur has been both translator and critical expositor of the writer generally credited with founding modern phenomenology,Edmund Husserl.27 He represents a particular form of phenomenological movement which brings him into dialogue with thinkers such as Gabriel Marcel, Karl Jaspers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger and others. Phenomenological philosophies have in common a procedure clearly palpable in the above quotation: an approach to reality through the structure of consciousness, through the way we constitute every object in the act of consciousness directed toward it. Consciousness is not locked up in itself. The content of consciousness always consists of "intentions," that is, it is always consciousness of something. We approach the world through the reality the world has in consciousness. In order to understand how this takes place, we must "think away" all the assumptions we have derived, let us say, from the method of the natural sciences, about what is or is not "real," and attend to the way consciousness "constitutes" a world of distinct essences, of this and that, out of the manifold impressions given in awareness. And when we ask how our world takes shape we are at the same time asking how the self takes shape. The phenomenological method, although it begins on Cartesian ground, questions Descartes’s dichotomy between the self as inquirer and manipulator and the world as object to be studied and manipulated. The self takes shape in its way of giving shape to the world which appears in consciousness.

Such a method can obviously be applied to phenomena of any kind, and can investigate any sort of self- or world-constituting activity. Maurice Merleau-Ponty applied the method to the problem of perception, wrestling with the complexities arising from the fact that we are embodied consciousness: we perceive and constitute the world through an instrument that is also a part of the givenness of that world. Ricoeur, in Freedom and Nature,28 adapted the phenomenological method to an inquiry into the will. The philosopher thereby announced a theme that has run in various ways through all his subsequent work. The choice of will as subject matter has been providential for Ricoeur’s dialogue with theologians and biblical scholars, for this question opens up that with which the ancient Hebrews were concerned, in contradistinction to the Greek preoccupation with knowledge. Out of concern for the will one reaches not only the whole range of existential issues, but also those questions which arise from human involvement on the one hand with evil, and on the other hand with hope.

But what makes Ricoeur’s use of the phenomenological method "hermeneutic"? It has already begun to be so incipiently in the author’s explorations of will. Ricoeur thinks away naive, subject-object oriented, assumptions about willing, to explore the way both "self" and "world" are constituted in acts of decision, action, and consent. Over against the phenomenon of willing is something we call nature: the realm from which the phenomenon of consciousness arises, a realm which can be studied by various objective, i.e., nonphenomenological sciences valid and useful within their own spheres of discourse. Biology, physiology, sociology, and psychology all study the phenomenon of willing in objectivizing ways. There is, Don Ihde argues,29 an implicit hermeneutic here. Ricoeur is saying that we "read" our limits in the objectivities we meet, by consulting the signs that are generated as these givens of the human situation are explored by "counter-disciplines." Such disciplines limit the disciplines of phenomenology, and are themselves limited by the phenomenological.

This "reading" of the meaning of my consciousness by reference to objective accounts of that consciousness sets up a relation which Ricoeur calls "diagnostic," a designation which rests on a reversed medical analogy. The doctor supplements his objective observations by my accounts of how I feel. But in daily life, my consciousness is illumined and given symbolic form by systems of discourse which deal objectively with what I experience. The most striking example is my own birth. I have no memory of that experience, thus I can hardly constitute it phenomenologically, but I have made my birth a part of my consciousness by internalizing what I have been told about it. So it is that the perspectives and vocabularies of the empirical sciences may illuminate my understanding of the world I constitute in consciousness, just as I, by inquiry into my world-constituting intentionalities, may disclose some of the implicit phenomenologies these sciences contain.

Here, it seems, are the conceptual roots of Ricoeur’s conviction, expressed in the quotation at the head of this section, "that the understanding of the self is always indirect and proceeds from the interpretation of signs given outside me in culture and history and from the appropriation of the meaning of these signs." It is fundamental to any adequate understanding of Ricoeur to note that his phenomenology is so constructed as to be open to the "signs" generated by "counter-disciplines," and indeed to read the meaning of human existence "on" a world full of such expressions generated by the natural and social sciences, as well as in the history of culture. Ricoeur’s approach, then, to disciplines such as the history of religions (as represented by his friend Mircea Eliade and others), psychoanalysis (with particular reference to Freud), linguistics (de Saussure, Jakobson), and anthropology (Levi-Strauss and various other structuralists) is set within this diagnostic relationship. The "signs" through which we constitute our being arise in realms of discourse which can and must be studied objectively to see how such "signs" work. Hence Ricoeur’s conversation with the "counter-disciplines" is ultimately controlled by his phenomenological concern with respect to the authentic figures of the will, a concern which deserves also to be called existential.

The nature of Ricoeur’s existentialism will be seen more clearly if it is contrasted with Heidegger’s. While Ricoeur believes that I situate myself in being by appropriating its "signs" in texts such as those also studied by counter-disciplines, Heidegger takes a short cut. The latter defines our being as that being which asks the question of being, as the being which has its being in understanding. Ricoeur comments,

"One does not enter [Heidegger’sj ontology of understanding little by little; one does not reach it by degrees, deepening the methodological requirements of exegesis, history, or psychoanalysis: one is transported there by a sudden reversal of the question. Instead of asking: On what condition can a knowing subject understand a text or history? One asks: What kind of being is it whose being consists of understanding? The hermeneutic problem thus becomes a problem of the analytic of this being, Dasein, which exists through understanding."30

By contrast, Ricoeur takes the long route. He proceeds by way of the hermeneutical "detour." Repeatedly in his writings he has recourse to a formulation derived from Jean Nabert:

"Reflection is the appropriation of our effort to exist and our desire to be, through the works which bear witness to that effort and desire."31

And again:

"The ultimate root of our problem lies in this primitive connection between the act of existing and the signs we deploy in our works; reflection must become interpretation because I cannot grasp the act of existing except in signs scattered in the world. That is why a reflective philosophy must include the results, methods, and presuppositions of all the sciences that try to decipher and interpret the signs of man." 32

There is a further dimension to this hermeneutical turn. Something about this "effort to exist and desire to be" forces us to have recourse to the symbols. The "self-positing ego" ends in futility because in our being there is a structural "disproportion" which makes us fallible, and, in the end, involves us inevitably in "fault." Here we have a perspective that challenges traditional phenomenology deeply. In Fallible Man33 Ricoeur argues that our desires — for possessions, for power, for honor — overrun the limits of our finitude. Happiness is the presence to human activity of the end which will fulfill it. But there is never any proportion between desire and its ends. When will I have enough? When will my authority be sufficiently established? When will I be sufficiently appreciated?

"Human life is in danger of forgetting or of losing its goal by reason of the indeterminate character of the threefold demand where the self searches for itself; and the strange thing sometimes happens that the more our action becomes precise and even technical, the more its goals become remote and elusive."34

Hence I am subject to a "self-infinitization" in which 1 may lose myself. I can only articulate this experience symbolically.

In The Symbolism of Evil, Ricoeur traces this avowal from the primitive symbol of "stain," through the incorporation of symbols into narratives we call myths, and into a dialogue among great cycles of myths. He finds that the Adamic myth recapitulates and synthesizes many of the themes of other myths, and thus functions as the most fully adequate imaginative expression of what is involved in our implication with evil. The myth enables us to say what our conceptual equipment cannot say. On the one hand, we know evil acts as our own: they are expressions of our freedom. Yet at the same time we experience evil as something already present in our finite situation in nature and history. The dialectic of freedom and nature is repeated. Only a work of the imagination can reconcile, and enable us to grasp, this antinomy. The philosopher is thus given, for further reflection, what he or she cannot arrive at by reflection alone: the notion of "the servile will," the will that uses its freedom to abdicate freedom, being both responsible and not responsible for the outcome.35 Experience is read not directly but through its figurative expression.

But not all symbols function at the conscious level. Ricoeur interprets Freudian psychoanalysis as a hermeneutic discipline in its own right, a hermeneutic which suggests that certain symbolic forms conceal from everyday consciousness more than they reveal. Yet, through interpretation, these forms may be made to disclose repressed aspects of our being. Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy details the psychoanalytical critique of the pretensions of the cogito. Symbols, especially those derived from the reconstruction of dreams, are the forms in which primitive experience, opaque desire, come to expression. As Ricoeur writes of this work,

"It is with Freud and Philosophy that I broke away from the illusions of consciousness as the blind spot of reflection. The case of the symbolism of evil is not an exception, one tributary of the gloomy experience of evil. All reflection is mediated, there is no immediate self-consciousness. The first truth, I said, that of the ‘I think, I am,’ remains as abstract and empty as it is invincible; it has to be ‘mediated’ by the ideas, actions, works, institutions and monuments that objectify it. It is in these objects, in the widest sense of the word, that the Ego must lose and find itself. We can say, in a somewhat paradoxical sense, that a philosophy of reflection is not a philosophy of consciousness if by consciousness we mean immediate self-consciousness."36

But, if this is so, Ricoeur can counter Freud’s "hermeneutic of suspicion’’ with a "hermeneutic of belief." The philosopher demythologizes the naturalism of Freud’s model of the unconscious, and finds in the resulting language field a ground for the reintroduction of Hegel’s idea of "spirit." Just as there can be, through interpretation of symbol, an inquiry back toward the origins of consciousness, so there can be in the figures of language, of the intersubjective, of culture, a forward movement of humanity toward its limits. We can have eschatological, as well as primordial symbols.

In this procedure there is the same decentering, even "dispossession," of reflective immediacy we have previously observed: a demand that we must make a "detour" through the symbolic world. If we do this, learning from Hegel, we will discover that the world of the symbolic is expressive of humanity’s relation to being. Myth contains more than philosophy can comprehend. In the end, certain privileged myths may speak to my broken condition. "I describe this new dimension as a call," Ricoeur writes, "a kerygma a word addressed to me . . . To believe it is to listen to the call, but to hear the call we must interpret the message."37


With this haunting quotation, we are ready to see what Ricoeur does with biblical texts. But we must approach this subject with a reflection on what is involved when the interpretation of texts is carried on in the context of a philosophy which leaves the ego chastened, dispossessed. From the start, Ricoeur rejects the assumption that to understand a text is to understand the intention of the author, or, alternatively, to grasp the text’s meaning as it was grasped by the first hearers or readers who shared the author’s cultural situation. This view, worked out in the nineteenth century by such writers as Schleiermacher and Dilthey, Ricoeur calls "Romanticist hermeneutics." He is opposed to it on the grounds that it fails to account for the difference between acts of consciousness and written texts.38

Reading a written document is different from being part of a living dialogue. Even in dialogue we can never, except by inference, penetrate the interiority of other persons. But there is at least a common situation, a common cultural context.

When discourse assumes written form, however, it begins a new career. The meanings of written discourse are no longer bound, if they ever were, to the intentions of authors or the apprehensions of first readers. Written communications have a logical, as opposed to a psychological or existential, sense. "Sense" is not a mental event, but an ideality capable of actualization in an infinite series of mental events. Here the philosopher is following the Husserl of the Logical Investigations, as well as the logic of Frege, in an anti-historicist trend which favors "the objectivity of meaning in general." As Ricoeur puts it, unmistakably,

"Not the intention of the author, which is supposed to be hidden behind the text; not the historical situation common to the author and his original readers; not the expectations or feelings of these original readers; not even their understanding of themselves as historical and cultural phenomena. What has to be appropriated is the meaning of the text itself, conceived in a dynamic way as the direction of thought opened up by the text."39

But, as the end of this quotation shows, Ricoeur does not intend simply to oppose "Romanticist hermeneutics" with a theory as one-sided in the other direction turning on a purely objectivizing approach to the text and the data it contains. Whereas in Schleiermacher and Dilthey "interpretation" means Verstehen understood as a kind of empathy with the writer, Ricoeur is in search of a theory of interpretation in which "understanding" seeks help in objective "explanation" and returns deepened and enlarged. Indeed this dialectic, worked out in the context of Ricoeur’s general theory of discourse in Interpretation Theory, underlies what the philosopher now tells us about understanding biblical texts.

In developing his ideas Ricoeur has a habit at first disconcerting but in the end helpful: he constantly reoccupies familiar ground with new conceptualizations and terminologies. Throughout what follows we see again and again the fundamental notion of a "divestment" or "dispossession" of the sovereign self and a search for signs through which to "appropriate the effort to exist and desire to be." The total self-implication of the subject in such signs is now called "testimony." Testimony generates forms of discourse which can be called revelatory. "Revelatory" discourse is "poesis" which we, given the needed critical judgment, can receive and live out as "testimony" in turn.40 We will try to show that this dialectic, carried out over generations, closely corresponds in the retrospective mode to Ricoeur’s account of Gerhard von Rad’s "tradition history" and, looking forward, to the philosopher’s understanding of Jurgen Moltmann’s "theology of hope."

Let us follow each step of this dialectic in turn. What, first, is the nature of the process which produces a text which claims to be a revelatory witness to truth? What, secondly, goes on as we today try to judge whether, and in what way, such a text fulfills its claims? And, finally, what happens when we receive such texts as the Word to us, making the testimony of the text our own? In tackling the questions this way we must, as always, make connections. We must elicit from Ricoeur’s writings an order of presentation not explicit there but nevertheless justified by the structure of his argument.

Testimony in the Making.

First, then, how does a revelatory text come to be? At first sight, this question seems to violate Ricoeur’s stringent prohibition against looking behind the written document to some process of consciousness. It is clear that the philosopher will allow no inference from text to author’s personal inwardness. For the text to be taken as testimony, as relevatory, judgment must be made about objective characteristics, above all what Ricoeur calls in Interpretation Theory its "self reference," its claims to represent an "I" or a "we" engaged in a certain past "event of discourse."41 All discourse is articulated as event, and understood as meaning. In the initial moment, there is a dialectic between the event and the meaning. Afterward the event is surpassed by the meaning. As Ricoeur says, "The experience as experienced, as lived, remains private, but its sense, its meaning, becomes public."42 Yet, "We are able to give a nonpsychological, because purely semantic, definition of the utterer’s meaning. No mental entity need be hypothesized or hypostasized. The utterance meaning points back toward the utterer’s meaning thanks to the self-reference of discourse to itself as an event."43

We can say, then, that in elucidating how biblical discourse comes to be as "testimony" we are not psychologizing but interpreting the text’s self-reference. What then does the claim of biblical discourse to be "testimony" mean? It claims to be discourse in which, in a moment of total unity between event and meaning, an individual or community has found its "effort to exist and desire to be" interpreted to the point of total dispossession or divestment of the claims of the self. Every attempt of the self to be a source of meaning in its own right has yielded before the question, "Who is God?" And the event or combination of events in which this has happened has been interpreted as a "trace" of the Absolute at this historical moment. The event of testimony is set down in discourse which claims, by its own self-reference, to be of this character.

It is important to see that no individual or community comes to the moment in which the event and meaning are fused in witness without some existing symbolic tradition with which to express the meaning of this fusion. Indeed we may say that, even within the period of production of the biblical documents, the lived juncture of event and meaning repeatedly evaporates. Event and meaning must then be reconnected through recourse to mediating meanings. ". . . It is always possible," Ricoeur writes, "to mediate the relation of meaning and event by another meaning which plays the role of interpretation with regard to their very relation."44 Charles Sanders Pierce furnishes Ricoeur a model of this triadic relation. Every relation between a sign and an object, Pierce says, can be explained by means of a sign which plays the role of interpretant with regard to their relation. An open chain of interpretants is thus possible. The manifestation of the absolute in persons and acts may be indefinitely mediated by means of meanings borrowed from tradition, a process which in turn generates new tradition.

This quiet philosophical account inadequately conveys the passion with which Scripture itself bears witness to the interpretative process. For the issue is always, "God or an idol?" The adjudication of this question in Scripture often takes the form of a rhetorical trial, in which the prophet calls upon the true witnesses to come forward. Ricoeur is particularly fond of Isaiah 43:8-13.

"Let them bring their witnesses to justify them, and let them hear and say, It is true. ‘You are my witnesses,’ says the Lord, ‘and my servants whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am He.’"(9b-10a).

And, of course, the ultimate testimony is understood to be the total engagement of a life, as in the case of the New Testament understanding of Jesus as faithful witness, variously portrayed in the different Gospels, and of the witness of the primitive community to him. The entire ministry of Jesus is portrayed as a trial, culminating in the trial before Pilate which is, especially in the Fourth Gospel, only an episode in the great cosmic trial of truth, an immense contest between God and the "prince of this world."

In all this, Scripture makes metaphors of the process by which the sacred text itself takes form. The interpretative process is a life or death matter for the faith community. The process, which clothes every juncture of event and meaning with means for an articulation which will faithfully transmit the meaning, closely corresponds to Gerhard von Rad’s account of the rise of historical consciousness in "tradition-history." Ricoeur’s interest focuses on the "intellectual activity which presided over this elaboration of traditions and led to what we now call Scripture."45 This intellectual activity generates "history" in at least three senses. First, it joins diverse traditions of testimony (the Abraham, Jacob, and later Joseph cycles, for example) to the original core of Deuteronomy 26:5b-6b, thus creating a saga celebrating the historical founding action of Yahweh. Second, the theological work needed to do this is itself a historical process which illuminates the sense in which the founding traditions are apprehended as historical. In its own way, indeed, this theological work involves a certain critical awareness: "sources are juxtaposed, schisms maintained, and contradictions exposed.. . ."46 "The tradition corrects itself through additions, and these additions themselves constitute a theological dialectic."47 And third, it is through this work of reinterpreting its own traditions that Israel as a community develops a historical consciousness, thereby becoming a historical reality, if it is true, as critical scholarship suggests, that Israel did not exist as a unified entity until the amphictyonic period after the settlement of Canaan, then we can say that "by elaborating this history as a living tradition, Israel projected itself into the past as a single people, to whom occurred, as to an indivisible totality, the deliverance from Egypt, the revelation on Sinai, the wandering in the desert, the gift of the Promised Land."48 Israel’s identity as a people is "inseparable from an endless search for a meaning to history and in history."49

The third approach to historicity generated by Israel’s intellectual activity is, of course, the stage of the interpretation of tradition: its critical (sometimes prophetically critical) reworking which is precisely what keeps the community going. We can thus graft onto Israel’s traditioning the critical process by which that tradition is reinterpreted as a living testimony that produces the New Testament, and in which the New Testament is in turn interpreted in the life of the Church.

For Ricoeur "the Christian fact is itself understood by effecting a mutation of meaning inside the ancient Scripture."50 The kerygma is a rereading of the Old Testament. Furthermore, "the kerygma, by this detour through the reinterpretation of an ancient Scripture, enters into a network of intelligibility . . . Jesus Christ himself, exegesis and exegete of Scripture, is manifested as logos in opening the understanding of the Scriptures."51 But secondly, and already within the New Testament, a correspondence is effected between "the interpretation of the Book and the interpretation of life."52 "Saint Paul creates this second modality of Christian hermeneutics when he invites the hearer of the word to decipher the movement of his own existence in the light of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ."53 In this way scriptural understanding is related to the community’s "total understanding of existence and reality." And finally, we see that the process just described produces a text which itself must be interpreted. This third stage of interpretation takes up into itself the preceding stages, with the additional problem generated by modern historical consciousness, that we must distinguish "what can be understood and received as word of God, and what is heard as human speaking."54 In this modern perspective we discover that what we have to interpret is the testimony not for the most part of eyewitnesses and followers of Jesus in the days of his flesh, but "the witness of the apostolic community. We are related to the object of its faith through the confession of its faith."55

The Critical Moment.

With this observation we find ourselves in the midst of the second question raised by Ricoeur’s philosophy of testimony. On the one hand, we modern interpreters of Scripture may see ourselves as part of the traditioning process at work from the start. Event and meaning are constantly re-fused by the introduction of interpretative categories which reactivate previously unused strands of tradition, categories which must withstand the prophetic-cosmic "trial" to determine whether God is speaking through them. But is the cultural problem the same for us as it was for the ancients? Is there not a different kind of historical distance between ourselves and the events on which the original testimonies were based? Ricoeur, in his interpretation of von Rad, fastens on the German scholar’s insistence that understanding Scripture today is a matter of "recreating the intellectual activity born of this historical faith."56 Is the "intellectual activity" of the modern critic anything like that of the prophets of old, or of those who recorded the great trial of truth between Pilate and Jesus? Or, let us put the matter still more pointedly. In The Historian and the Believer,57 Van A. Harvey uses the metaphor of judicial proceedings to illuminate the different relationships between evidence, warrants, and conclusions involved in the "field-encompassing" discipline practiced by the modern scientific historian. Is there any relationship between this critical discipline and the theological trial of truth which distinguishes true and false testimony for the modern reader of the Bible?

This extremely difficult question may not find a direct answer in Ricoeur. The philosopher’s procedure is not to confront the text with the question whether it bears testimony to "what really happened" in the modern sense, but rather to ask what the text means by its assertions about the testimony it bears. He wishes to ask how Scripture witnesses in its various literary genres. Does prophecy work the same way as narrative? Does a wisdom saying witness in the same way as a hymn, or miracle story, or parable? The question posed to us, the issue at our trial of truth, is whether we are confronted to the point of divestment of self by the claims of Scripture, rather than simply informed by schemas of the meaning of "revelation" derived from our culture, or from various forms of ecclesiastical authority. The phenomenological procedure of thinking away extraneous reality-claims is of course palpable here. But in Scripture we confront a counter-reality-claim which demands that we reappropriate our "effort to exist and desire to be" in terms which propel us into a new world of "freedom in the light of hope."

How does this happen? We come to the text with some kind of preengagement. In some sense we hear a call, but we cannot hear it authentically because we have forgotten the very questions around which the biblical text turns. I would conjecture that this preengagement constitutes our lived form of "first naivete." Never, as modern human beings, can we experience the one-possibility consciousness of a primitive or archaic culture in which myth quite simply is the received construction of the world. Our "first naivete" is surely the condition of being in some sense "called," but unable to distinguish the authentic message from the reality-apprehensions of our culture or from the dogmatic and ecclesiastical framework in which we hear it.

Thus, as Ricoeur develops the importance of critical explanation of the text, it is not to destroy faith but to open the way for it. If one of the motives of the nineteenth-century historical-critical scholars was to free the Bible from dogmatic ecclesiastical interpretations, Ricoeur in turn seeks to free the Bible from culture- bound, subjectivizing interpretations as well as from fundamentalist, objectivizing interpretations by asking us to listen carefully to what biblical discourse testifies. We have no alternative today to working through criticism toward a second naivete because the first naivete available to us in our culture is so deeply idolatrous.

It is not difficult to follow the writer in his rejection of the understanding opaque and authoritarian" understanding of revelation associated with ecclesiastical authority and theological dogmatism.58 Such understandings lead to the mistaken idea that there are propositions which count as "revealed truths." Ricoeur does not question the importance of systematic theology, but the real action, for him, comes in dialogue between the philosopher and "the believer who is informed by the exegete." When we begin to examine the array of different sorts of texts found in the Bible, we discover that one type, prophetic discourse, provides the model of "inspiration" by the voice of Yahweh, on which the traditional dogmatic view of revelation has been constructed. But there are many other genres of biblical discourse: narrative discourse, prescriptive discourse, wisdom discourse, and hymnic discourse among them. We must develop an understanding of the Word which takes into account the ways in which all these literary forms convey sense to our self-reflection. In this larger context the idea of revelation as a voice speaking behind the voice of the prophet is too narrow. It separates the prophetic mode from its narrative context, tends to tie prophecy to the still more ancient genre of the oracle, and hence to the idea of an unveiling of the future. This chain of reasoning, in turn, leads to an idea of revelation which concentrates on the notion of a disclosure of "God’s plan" for the end of history. Revelation, in short, is reduced to "the dimensions of a divination applied to ‘the end of time.’"59

Ricoeur, in contrast, stresses the variety of sorts of content which may be called revelatory because they are the literary products of various interpretings of the tradition in testimony. In interpreting the Bible we must stick close "to those modalities of discourse that are most originary within the language of a community of faith,"60 without neutralizing the variety in order to extract a theological content. What the testimony is is modulated by the form of discourse in which it is expressed. It is not "inspiration" in the sense of a psychologized version of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit that makes Scripture revelatory, but rather "the force of what is said." Hence the use of critical study for the recovery of the revelatory power of testimony is a matter of close attention to how the various genres work: to what they do say and what they do not say, and therefore to the great variety of human situations in which testimony has been borne.

One generalization is possible. The sense in which all these forms of discourse may be said to be revelatory turns on what Ricoeur calls their "poetic function." Building upon his understanding that written texts can burst the world of the author, and indeed that of the reader as well, and upon his understanding that different genres accomplish this in different ways, Ricoeur comes to his understanding of "the world of the text" or, in other citations, "the world in front of the text," by which he means "the. . . world intended beyond the text as its reference."61 This referential function differs from the referential function of ordinary language or of scientific discourse. If by the latter we mean the description of familiar objects of perception or of the objects which science defines by its methods of observation and measurement, then the reference of poetic language projects "ahead" of itself a world in which the reader is invited to dwell, thus finding a more authentic situation in being. Ricoeur writes,

"My deepest conviction is that poetic language alone restores to us that participation in or belonging-to an order of things which precedes our capacity to oppose ourselves to things taken as objects opposed to a subject. Hence the function of poetic discourse is to bring about this emergence of a depth-structure of belonging-to amid the ruins of descriptive discourse."62

But is it not an abuse of language to call such a function revelatory? Ricoeur answers no. The poetic function of biblical language suspends the criteria of falsification and verification to manifest "a proposed world, a world I may inhabit and wherein I can project my own most possibilities."63 We see this by giving primacy to what is said in all the variety of biblical literature. Instead of beginning with an image derived from prophetic discourse, that of another voice behind the prophet’s voice, and extending it by analogy to narration, prescriptive saying, wisdom literature, hymnic compositions, and so on, we are delivered from psychologizing interpretations of revelation to a sensitivity to the sense of the text, to the world-reference it opens up before it.

To see the text as revelatory poesis is to understand that it "makes sense" by projecting a reference as a possibility for me.

Ricoeur has studied this revelatory poesis in special detail in the gospel parables. His exposition is a particularly good illustration of his use of a linguistic discipline, in this case the theory of metaphor, to show concretely how a certain literary genre "projects a world." A parable, Ricoeur tells us, is a metaphorical process in narrative form. A parabolic metaphor, in the strangeness of its plot, institutes a shock which redescribes reality, and opens for us a new way of seeing and being. The Kingdom of God is like "what happens" in the story. What happens, despite its everyday setting and circumstances, is "odd." More, it is "extravagant." This form of metaphorical process opens an otherwise matter-of-fact situation to an open range of interpretations and to the possibility of new commitments.

Fully to consider the applicability of the theory of metaphor for this purpose would require more space than is available here. The reader may consult the treatment of parables, proclamatory sayings and proverbial formulae in Semeia IV (1975). Here the referential power of the text, in the sense that it opens a "world in front of it" which we may inhabit, is likened to the power of the "model" in the natural sciences. A "model" in this sense is a heuristic device, an instrument for the redescription of reality, which breaks up an inadequate interpretation of the world and opens the way to a new, more adequate, interpretation. We are helped to see things otherwise by changing the language we use. Similarly, a metaphor is a heuristic fiction, an instrument for the redescription of lived experience that permits us to see new connections in things, or, as Ricoeur says elsewhere, to "decode" the traces of God’s presence in history.

For more on this subject we should look at Ricoeur’s large recent volume, The Rule of Metaphor64 in which his theory is radicalized to place metaphor at the root of all linguistic disclosure of being. Suffice it to say that the parables, particularly when they are seen in their "intersignifications" with the gospel proverbs, miracle stories, and eschatological sayings, and even more when they and these other genres are connected with the passion narrative in an intertextuality, illustrate what Ricoeur means by a poesis that is revelatory. Far from mounting a reductive argument, that what we used to call revelation is "only poetry," Ricoeur ties revelation to all the text says, and even more, to, what it does in us as it is read.

The Post-Critical Moment.

And so we come full circle: from our initial naive fascination with texts in which testimony is preserved in poesis, through the critical disciplines which help us overcome idolatry and dogmatism, to the post-critical moment when we ourselves begin to testify in a divestiture of consciousness, which implicates our lives in the world "in front of" the text. We earlier asked if our "intellectual activity" in doing this is anything like the "intellectual activity" of the ancient authors as seen in von Rad’s tradition-historical hypothesis. The differences are obvious. But so are some similarities. Just as the prophetic reformulation of Israel’s earlier traditions generates a form of historical awareness, so our critique of the pretensions of consciousness in the critical study of texts gives us historical sense. Ricoeur speaks of the "distanciation without which we would never become conscious of belonging to a world, a culture, a tradition. It is the critical moment, originally bound to the consciousness of belonging-to, that confers its properly historical character on this consciousness. For even a tradition only becomes such under the condition of a distance that distinguishes the belonging-to proper to a human being from the simple inclusion of a thing as part of a whole."65

The standpoint of contemporary historiography gives precedence to one of the illusions of consciousness, that the perspective of our own historical moment must be autonomous. But to receive the biblical text as testimony is to "dismantle" this fortress, "and to restore a historical dimension to studies otherwise purely literary." Testimony "introduces the dimension of historical contingency which is lacking in the concept of the world of the text, which is deliberately nonhistorical or transhistorical. It throws itself therefore against one fundamental characteristic of the idea of autonomy; namely, not making the internal itinerary of consciousness depend on external events."66

At the very least, however, our modern task needs new tools. Our continuation of the "intellectual activity" of the prophets and of the early church, responding to the suspicion of a Marx, a Nietzsche, or a Freud, takes us through the "speculative Good Friday" which declares that the God of the transcendental illusion, the God of "dogmatic mythology" is indeed dead. To participate in the history of testimony we must convert our naive faith through criticism into the register of hope.

A salient example of the author’s self-implication in the history of biblical testimony through use of modern critical procedures occurs in his essay "Freedom in the Light of Hope."67 This essay is centrally important because it ties the theme of freedom, so basic to Ricoeur’s early studies of the will, directly to the imagery of hope contained in and inspired by the Resurrection texts. The strands of thought leading to this essay are thus both philosophical and hermeneutical.

The analysis of freedom implicit in Ricoeur’s early phenomenology of the will, just because it is carried out in awareness not only of the many possible objectivizing counter-methods but also of all the contradictions in the long and by no means concluded history of philosophical inquiry, is limited by the notion of a total meaning which is thought but not known. This is the philosophical category of hope. But not only is the philosophical idea of freedom full of antinomies: the lived experience of freedom contains a basic contradiction. Evil is an invention of freedom which abdicates freedom. Thus, in some of his early essays, Ricoeur is already giving this philosophical hope a hermeneutical turn, referring to it as "the Last Day," which, in its original context in the Hebrew Scriptures, is a symbol of the hope of the community of faith for fulfilled righteousness and justice.

"Freedom in the Light of Hope," then, explores how humanity’s self-sufficient effort to achieve autonomy is challenged, even "divested" of its credentials and conceptual clothing, by the powerful imagery of Resurrection, when this is received as a poesis which bodies forth testimony. We are, precisely, delivered into a modern form of tradition-historical awareness by this confrontation.

"For my part," Ricoeur begins, "I have been very taken with — I should say, won over by — the eschatological interpretation that Jurgen Moltmann gives to the Christian kerygma in his work The Theology of Hope. 68 We will argue, indeed, that what von Rad is for Ricoeur with respect to the theology of Israel’s traditions looking back toward the accounts of origin, Jurgen Moltmann is for Ricoeur in the gathering of Jewish and Christian traditions looking forward to "the Last Day." Moltmann sees the Resurrection kerygma not as referring to a completed foundation event in the past, not as symbolizing an existential state to which we can aspire in the present, but as set "entirely within the framework of the Jewish theology of the promise."69 Once this kerygma is disentangled from Hellenistic epiphany religion, we see that "the Resurrection, interpreted within a theology of promise, is not an event which closes, by fulfilling the promise, but an event which opens, because it adds to the promise by confirming it."70 The principal meaning of the Resurrection is that "the God of the promise, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, has approached, has been revealed as He who is coming for all."71 This Resurrection symbolism gives us a content for hope, which otherwise remains simply a regulative idea of reason in the Kantian sense. The phenomenology of freedom can now be further worked out "in the light of" an interpretation of the Resurrection texts, which give us something more, and something different, from what we find in the Adamic myths.

Here is our entry into the history of the interpretation of the traditions of the people of God as von Rad understands that process. The Resurrection passages control the entire New Testament, and the New Testament, in turn, is an interpretation of the traditions of Israel. We become part of that history of interpretation by submitting our own "effort to exist and desire to be," which is nothing other than our thrust toward the realization of freedom, to the hope projected by the Resurrection stories. Here, above all, we are invited to live in the world which the texts project "in front of" them. "What is freedom in the light of hope? I will answer in one word: it is the meaning of my existence in the light of the Resurrection, that is, as reinstated in the movement which we have called the future of the Resurrection of the Christ."72

But now a dialectic arises between this "kerygmatic nucleus" and elements in our experience which are, inevitably, also subject to interpretation by the familiar Ricoeurian "counter-disciplines." In this context, Ricoeur mentions the realms of psychology, ethics, and politics. Psychologically, the power of hope encounters us by opening up the imagination. "Freedom in the light of hope, expressed in psychological terms, is nothing else than this creative imagination of the possible."73 Ricoeur contrasts this eschatological opening of imagination to the tendency of existential interpretations of Scripture to stress an "instantaneousness of the present decision at the expense of the temporal historical, communitarian and cosmic aspects contained in the hope of the Resurrection."74

Ethically and politically, we move beyond what the Law imposes to what the promise proposes. We are called to a mission which is "inseparable from the deciphering of the signs of the new creation."75 We are here still further from the existential interpretation. "A freedom open to new creation is in fact less centered on subjectivity, on personal authenticity, than on social and political justice; it calls for a reconciliation which itself demands to be inscribed in the recapitulation of all things."76

Reading these words, we wonder how directly Ricoeur believes that he can move from the Resurrection kerygma to the determinate concrete actions. There is no doubt of the direction of his commitments. In a recent work he has described "the principal function of religious discourse" as being "to establish through the Gospel a life lived for others, and to anticipate, ethically and politically, a liberated humanity."77 And, he continues, "I too am ready to speak of the Gospel as a project of a liberated humanity and to develop the political implications of this project."78 But still, Ricoeur refuses to identify the "kerygmatic center" of freedom with social and political action. This "kerygmatic center" is the "in spite of" and the "how much more" with which we "decipher the signs of the resurrection under the contrary appearance of death."79 We must ‘‘decipher" this "economy" of freedom "in work and in leisure, in politics and in universal history," thus giving communitarian, historical, and political expression to the hope projected by the Resurrection texts, without allowing the hope to be reduced to that expression.

"What I am saying is that the properly religious moment of all discourse, is the ‘still more’ that it insinuates everywhere, intensifying every project in the same manner, including the political project. Political discourse therefore is no less oriented, disoriented, and reoriented than any other form of discourse; and the specific way in which it is oriented and disoriented is that it becomes the place for the insertion of an impossible demand, a demand that we can validly interpret in utopian terms, meaning by this a quest that cannot be exhausted by any program of action. Paradox then does not strike praxis any less than it does theoria, political praxis any less than the praxis of private morality. It just prevents us from converting religious discourse entirely into political discourse — for the same reasons that it forbids its conversion into moral discourse, even if this morality is elevated to the dignity of proverbial wisdom."80

Thus the threat of the text to "decenter" the self and its aspirations, to strip us of our desire for power, possession, and honor, applies even to political and religious enterprises we enter because we believe the Gospel calls us to. The fact of evil threatens all our achievements, including pious ones, insofar as they are expressed through "fraudulent totalizations" of our being. As Ricoeur says, "the true malice of man appears only in the state and in the church, as institutions of gathering together, of recapitulation, of totalization."81 In the end, the gospel is not an action program but an "impossible demand," for which the perspective of "freedom in the light of hope" is the only valid frame of reference.


"The symbol gives rise to thought." The "approximation" of the New Testament message in a conceptual framework is the final step in its interpretation. For Ricoeur, this is a philosophical task, and hence "within the autonomy of responsible thought."82 The biblical message presents a new starting-point for thinking and exerts a continually reforming pressure upon it. But yet thinking, once it begins, is autonomous. If the philosopher is "converted," he is converted "within philosophy and to philosophy according to its internal exigencies."83 Ricoeur thus is saying that thinking to which the biblical message gives rise must make its own way in the intellectual world. It must function "within the limits of a reason alone." At the same time, this does not mean that the philosopher who also happens to be a Christian may dispense with the biblical text. Thought, autonomous on its own account, must constantly seek to "approximate" the message in fresh ways. What it is as a constituting of the world of experience must be intelligible to all, whether accepted by all or not.

What is the theological use of this philosophical quest? Its purpose is not primarily apologetic. Rather, Ricoeur is trying to be sure that the gospel message everywhere has the same sense. The concrete possibility of "freedom in the light of hope" rests on our ability to specify the "innovation of meaning" given us in Scripture as reliably the same innovation in all circumstances and vicissitudes. The innovation begins as "a-logical." It begins as an irruption into a closed order and seems a-logical not only in relation to this order, but also because it represents a cognitive excess. "But if this novelty did not make us think, then hope, like faith, would be a cry, a flash without a sequel."84 Ricoeur is saying that we cannot distinguish authentic "freedom in the light of hope" from the utopias that are merely ecstatic projections of the thinking of this or that time or place unless the novelty of this kerygma is "made explicit by an indefinite repetition of signs," and "verified in the ‘seriousness’ of an interpretation. . ." The kerygma is to be grafted onto "real [historical] tendencies;"85 deciphering the signs of the Resurrection wherever they are, we must find the form of conceptual universality given by the kerygma’s content. As Ricoeur says ,"It is necessary . . . that the Resurrection deploy its own logic . . ."86

The conceptual framework in which this is worked out, described as "a post-Hegelian Kantianism," will be more understandable to the technically equipped philosopher than to the student primarily interested in biblical hermeneutics. But it is worthwhile to sketch the main elements. Let us begin by noting what Ricoeur finds to his liking in Hegel, and then go on to show how Hegel must be corrected by Kant.

As Ricoeur puts it, "The positive and permanent value of Hegel’s phenomenology of religion is to have attempted to trace the stages through which religious ‘representations’ point toward their speculative achievement."87 The progress of the figurative toward the conceptual is actually the progress through the history of culture of the figurative expressions of desire. Hegel is concerned not with the ethics of duty in the abstract, but with the confrontation of will with will, with the adjudication of rights in concrete communities, the family, the economy, the state. Ricoeur willingly calls Hegel’s philosophy the philosophy of the will. "Its greatness derives from the diversity of problems that it traverses and resolves: union of desire and culture, of psychology and politics, of the subjective and the universal."88 Ricoeur’s concern to find a transcendental deduction of freedom in the light of hope "cannot but be in dialogue" with Hegel, so close is Hegel’s thought to being an account of the conceptualization of hope and freedom in process of realization.

The problem with Hegel’s thought is that the fullness of life, of conflict, of culture, out of which the imaginative representations of the will come, is progressively swallowed up until only the concept survives. Moreover, the concept emerges when the living forms of life that led up to it have ceased to be living. Philosophy always "arrives too late" to preach "what the world ought to be like." It records "gray in gray" forms of life that have become old.

It is here that Ricoeur must abandon Hegel and seek help in Kant. Hegel’s understanding of the forward progress of the will through the history of culture is richer than Kant’s, but it leads to a notion of the completion of the will in "absolute knowledge," a metaphysical abstraction which Hegel’s critics, Ricoeur among them, find pretentious and impossible. Kant puts a limit on our ability to "complete" our conceptual knowledge of what is involved either in human knowing or human striving. For Kant, the role of religious symbols and representations is imaginatively to represent the limit beyond which the demand of conceptual knowledge for completeness cannot pass.

For Kant we can think beyond the world of objects, but we cannot know that which is unconditioned by the object world. To suppose that we can know the realm of the unconditioned is, as we have seen, what Kant calls the "transcendental illusion." But in the practical realm of our willing and doing — the realm of society and culture — we experience a demand for completeness of meaning. This demand is a moral pressure that human nature should be fulfilled, that human effort should be capable of attaining the good, and that the attainment of this good should be accompanied by happiness. The problem is that if we try to think out what this means, we run into impossible conflict between our concepts of the good and the actual circumstances of appetite, desire, political and personal compromise, and the like. If our redescriptions of the world of everyday life under the sign of the Resurrection have helped to fuel this desire for goodness and happiness in this life, if they have helped us formulate, with Kant, the notion of a human society understood as a "Kingdom of ends" (in which each human being, including oneself, is treated as an end in him or herself), we find that the effort to realize such hopes requires us to "postulate’’ realities which we cannot "know": freedom, immortality, God. Precisely this moral pressure to go beyond the limits of objective knowledge calls for a reintroduction of symbol.

Biblical symbols, then, serve to limit, but also to break open, our reasoning process. It is "the task of hermeneutics to disentangle from the ‘world’ of the texts their implicit ‘project’ for existence, their indirect ‘proposition’ of new modes of being. . .Hermeneutics has finished its job when it has opened the eyes and the ears, i.e., when it has displayed before our imagination the figures of our authentic existence."89 Thus Ricoeur proffers "a transcendental inquiry into the imagination of Hope." In Kant, a transcendental inquiry asks what formal conditions must be satisfied for us to have a realm of objectivity such as, for example, the realm of objective relationships described in Newtonian physics. Since Heidegger, the notion of a transcendental inquiry has been broadened: how, we now ask, is a certain way of seeing and acting in the world possible? Ricoeur seems to be suggesting that the figures of hope function in the interpersonal world somewhat as Kant’s categories of substance, causality, and so on, function in the interobject world.

There is a difference, of course. While the Kantian categories are pure concepts, the figures of hope correspond most closely to Kant’s "schemas" which serve as a bridge between empirical objects and the concepts under which these objects are subsumed. The schema is not simply an image, but a product of the imagination. I reach toward the concept of substance, for example, through the notion of the permanence of the real in time. Kant calls this a "representation of a general procedure of the imagination by which a concept receives its image."90 This notion of the "productive imagination" which reaches toward concept is further developed by Kant in his treatment of "aesthetic ideas" in The Critique of Judgment. In Ricoeur’s words,

"At the moment of accounting for the aesthetic productions of genius, Kant invokes that power of the imagination ‘to present’ (Darstellung) those ideas of reason for which we have no concept. By means of such representation the imagination ‘occasions much thought (viel zu denken). . .’ Historical testimony has the same structure and the same function. It, too, is a ‘presentation’ of what for reflection remains an idea, namely the idea of a letting go wherein we affirm an order exempt from that servitude from which finite existence cannot deliver itself."91

Ricoeur wants to give this "transcendental inquiry into the imagination of hope" an autonomy that it does not have in Kant, just as he wishes to move ethics, the question of the will, to center stage as the realm of realization of our relationship to being. Hence ontology, of a kind, enters through the question, "What may we hope?" The imagination functions transcendentally to give us a world in which certain fulfillments of our being are possible. The fact of evil threatens this fulfillment because evil is expressed in our lives as "fraudulent totalization" of our being. Under these circumstances, the conditions for the "regeneration" of the will cannot be deduced from the formal condition of Freedom."92 And, for the same reason, "the narratives and symbols which ‘represent’ the victory of the Good Principle over the Evil Principle are nor expendable."93 That is, if our being is to be fulfilled, not in fraudulent totalization but out of what Ricoeur early in his career called its "originary affirmation," symbols of "regeneration" must be at work in the "productive imagination."

For, as Ricoeur points out, in the Dialectics in Kant’s Second Critique we find the question of the "full or complete" object of the will. This involves "the reconciliation of freedom and nature, i.e., the achievement of Man as a whole."94 Precisely, that is, the question that began to open up in his early work. How can we speak of an authentic actualization of freedom unless we can articulate in productive imagination the content of the hope underlying such freedom? Such an ideal, presumably would be a counterpart of the articulation of self-abdicating freedom, the "servile will." It would be an articulation of the symbols and metaphors of humanity as regenerate and fulfilled.

This articulation has begun, but only barely, in Ricoeur’s treatment of the texts of the Resurrection. Are we to expect that the long-awaited Poetics of the Will will complete the needed "symbolic of regeneration?" The direction of Ricoeur’s work to date suggests that it could. So Ricoeur may fulfill the promise implicit in his early recognition that we hope for "a recreation of language. We, citizens of postmodernity, "wish to be called again."



1. Paul Ricoeur, La Symbolique du mal (Paris: Aubier, 1960). The Symbolism of Evil, Emerson Buchanan, trans. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), p. 349.

2. See the preface to the first edition of Paul Ricoeur, Histoire et verite (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1955). History and Truth, Charles A. Kelbley, trans. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1965), p. 5.

3. Ricoeur has preached from time to time in the Rockefeller Chapel of the University of Chicago, and elsewhere. Among his published sermons are "You Are the Salt of the Earth," in Political and Social Essays by Paul Ricoeur, David Stewart and Joseph Bien, eds. (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1974), pp. 105-24, and "Listening to the Parables of Jesus," in The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur Charles E. Reagan and David Stewart, eds. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), pp. 239ff. Ricoeur was the preacher at the eucharistic service uniting Protestants and Roman Catholics in the midst of the uprising of workers and students in Paris on June 2, 1968. His sermon, as summarized in Christianisme social (Nos. 7-10, 1968), may be found in translation in Lewis S. Mudge, The Crumbling Walls (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970), pp. 30-33.

4. Ricoeur has recently been colleague and collaborator, in particular, with Norman Perrin, David Tracy, Mircea Eliade, and others, at the University of Chicago.

5. See Loretta Dornisch, "Symbolic Systems and the Interpretation of Scripture: An Introduction to the Work of Paul Ricoeur," Semeia IV (1975): 17f.

6. See "Freedom in the Light of Hope," below, p. 156.

7. The Symbolism of Evil, p. 356.

8. Ricoeur, "Biblical Hermeneutics," Semeia, IV (1975): 29.

9. E.g., Paul Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1976), p. 92.

10. See "Toward a Hermeneutic of the Idea of Revelation," below, pp. 105ff., and "The Hermeneutics of Testimony," below, passim.

11. "Toward a Hermeneutic of the Idea of Revelation," below, pp. 73ff., 99ff.

12. See "The Hermeneutics of Symbols: I," Dennis Savage, trans., in Paul Ricoeur, The Conflict of Interpretations: Essays on Hermeneutics, Don Ihde, ed. (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1974), p. 299.

13. Quoted in the Editor’s Introduction, The Conflict of Interpretations, p. xxii.

14. See Paul Ricoeur, Freedom and Nature: The Voluntary and the Involuntary, Erazim V. Kohak, trans. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1966) and The Conflict of Interpretations, passim.

15. The Symbolism of Evil, p.355.

16. Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), p. 3.

17. The Symbolism of Evil, p. 351.

18. Ibid., p. 352.

19. Ibid., p. 19.

20. Ibid., p. 355.

21. Ibid., p. 355.

22. See "Preface to Bultmann," below, p. 65.

23. Ibid., pp. 65-66.

24. Paul Ricoeur, "The Language of Faith," in The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur, p. 227.

25. Paul Ricoeur, Preface to Don Ihde, Hermeneutic Phenomenology: The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1971), p. xv.

26. Ihde, pp. 4ff.

27. Ricoeur began the study of Husserl’s work while a prisoner of war in Germany in World War II, subsequently publishing a number of translations and studies in French. Some of these have been gathered in English in the volume, Husserl. An Analysis of His Phenomenology, Edward G. Ballard and Lester E. Embree, trans. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1967).

28. See note 14, above.

29. So Ihde, pp. 26ff.

30. "Existence and Hermeneutics," in The Conflict of Interpretations, p. 6.

31. Freud and Philosophy, p. 46.

32. Ibid., p. 46.

33. Paul Ricoeur, Fallible Man, Charles Kelbley, trans. (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1965).

34. Paul Ricoeur, "The Antinomy of Human Reality," in The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur, p. 33.

35. The Symbolism of Evil, pp. 151ff., et passim.

36. "Toward a Hermeneutic of the Idea of Revelation,’’ below, p. 106.

37. Freud and Philosophy, p. 525.

38. Interpretation Theory, passim.

39. Ibid., p. 92.

40. See "Toward a Hermeneutic of the Idea of Revelation," below, passim.

41. Interpretation Theory, pp. 8ff.

42. Ibid., p. 16.

43. Ibid., p. 13.

44. "The I-Iermeneutics of Testimony," below, pp. 110ff.

45. "Structure and Hermeneutics," in The Conflict of Interpretations, p. 45.

46. Ibid., p. 46.

47. Ibid., p. 46.

48. Ibid., p. 46.

49. Ibid., p. 46.

50. "Preface to Bultmann," below, p. 50.

51. Ibid., pp. 51-52.

52. Ibid., P. 52.

53. Ibid., p. 52.

54. Ibid., p. 56.

55. Ibid., p. 56.

56. "Structure and Hermeneutics," in The Conflict of Interpretations, p. 45, Ricoeur’s italics.

57. Van A. Harvey, The Historian and the Believer (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1966).

58. "Toward a Hermeneutic of the Idea of Revelation," below, pp. 73-74.

59. Ibid., p. 77.

60. Ibid., p. 90.

61. Ibid., p. 100.

62. Ibid., p. 101.

63. Ibid., p. 102.

64. Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, Robert Czerny with Kathleen McLaughlin and John Costello, S. J., trans. (Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1977).

65. "Toward a Hermeneutic of the Idea of Revelation," below, p.107.

66. Ibid., p. 109.

67. "Freedom in the Light of Hope," below, pp. 155ff.

68. Ibid., p. 157.

69. Ibid., p. 159.

70. Ibid., p. 159.

71. Ibid., p. 159.

72. Ibid., pp. 159-60.

73. Ibid., p. 161.

74. Ibid., p. 160.

75. Ibid., p. 162.

76. Ibid., p. 162.

77. Paul Ricoeur, "The Specificity of Religious Language," Semeia IV (1975): 127.

78. Ibid., p. 127.

79. "Freedom in the Light of Hope," below, p. 164.

80. "The Specificity of Religious Language," p. 127.

81. "Freedom in the Light of Hope," below, p. 180.

82. Ibid., p. 156.

83. Ibid., p. 157.

84. Ibid., p. 165.

85. Ibid., p. 165.

86. Ibid., p. 166.

87. "The Specificity of Religious Language," p. 140.

88. "Freedom in the Light of Hope," below, p. 168.

89. "The Specificity of Religious Language," p. 144.

90. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, Max Muller, trans. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1927), pp. 11Sf.

91. "Toward a Hermeneutic of the Idea of Revelation," below, p. 116.

92. "The Specificity of Religious Language," p. 145.

93. Ibid., p. 145.

94. Ibid., p. 145.

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