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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.


Paul Ricoeur's Reply to Lewis S. Mudge


Lewis S. Mudge attempts to provide the reader with a coherent overview of my writings. It is precisely this attempt which requires my heartily felt thanks, because I am unable to draw such a sketch on my own, both because I am always drawn forward by a new problem to wrestle with and because, when I happen to look backward to my work, I am more struck by the discontinuities of my wanderings than by the cumulative character of my work. I tend to see each work as a self-contained whole generated by a specific challenge and the next one as proceeding from the unresolved problems yielded as a residue by the preceding work. Thus The Symbolism of Evil proceeded from the inability of a "pure" phenomenology of will to give an account of "bad" will. Freud and Philosophy in turn was an attempt to meet the challenge of a hermeneutics of suspicion countering the hermeneutics of recollection naively applied to the set of traditional symbols relating to evil. Then in The Conflict of Interpretations. Essays on Hermeneutics I tried to enlarge the debate and to deal, in a non-eclectic, dialectical way, with the problems raised by a multidimensional hermeneutic. More recently The Rule of Metaphor tackled the two problems of the emergence of new meanings in language and of the referential claims raised by such nondescriptive languages as poetic discourse. In a sense these two problems were implicit at the very start of my inquiry into symbolic forms of discourse, but they could be acknowledged only as the outcome of the hermeneutical discussion. The residue of the solution advocated there is the complex problem of fiction and of productive imagination. I am now trying to approach this problem within the framework of an inquiry on narratives, which I kept bordering on in my study of metaphors understood as models for redescribing reality. Narratives, more than any other "language games," have this power of reshaping human experience at least along its temporal features.

It is at that point that I meet Lewis Mudge’s reorganization of the whole field no longer in terms of the succession of my works, but in terms of their inner structure as a whole. For that purpose Mudge brings to the forefront the category of testimony, which seems at first sight somewhat marginal in my writings. I found this interpretation very illuminating for my own self-understanding. By the way, I want to say that I was alerted to the philosophical as well as theological potentialities of this category not by theologians, but by a French philosopher whom I admire very much, Jean Nabert. For this philosopher, testimony, understood as the testimony of a life, is the equivalent of verification for any spiritual experience. By picking up this category, Mudge shows how some of the problems which I discussed at different times and within different frameworks may be regrouped in some few constellations.

The first of these constellations brings together the philosophical wager, which in The Symbolism of Evil leads me to underscore the centrality of the biblical account of the Fall among other myths or stories, and the kind of preunderstanding which provides orientation to the interpretation of any text. In this first sense the category of testimony rules the articulation between the religious scope of my work and its philosophical nucleus.

The second of these constellations encompasses my different approaches to the problem of the heterogeneity among the innumerable language games. This leading intuition forbids any attempt to make a system of such distinctive uses of language as science, poetry, ordinary discourse, psychoanalytic discourse, religious discourse, etc. The approach has to be a piecemeal one, along the lines of similarities and differences (as we do, Wittgenstein says, when we shift from one game to another). For the same reason, one has to resist any attempt to reduce religious language to ideology, to resentment, or to obsessive neurosis, as Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud asked us to do. Once more, according to Mudge, it is the testimony rendered to irreducible meanings which is the soul of the resistance to all reductive endeavors.

The third constellation gathers all the themes which can be put under the heading of a hermeneutical phenomenology, to follow Don Ihde’s terminology. I may say that I agree with the choice of this label, which does justice both to my allegiance to Husserl and Merleau-Ponty and to my later recognition of Heidegger and Gadamer. The ruling idea of this hermeneutical phenomenology is that if self-reflection is the goal, interpretation is the means. In other words, there is no direct way from myself to myself except through the roundabout way of the appropriation of the signs, works of art, and culture which have to be first explored by "counter-disciplines," as Lewis Mudge has it. I must confess that this necessity of a roundabout procedure for self-understanding provided me with a permanent excuse for adding detours to detours. Mudge is kind enough to discern behind this excuse the permanence of a twofold conviction: first, that reflection has to become interpretation, secondly, that interpretation in turn generates a new requirement that understanding become objective explanation. Once more, Mudge sees in the category of testimony the clue to this double dialectics. The self-reference of discourse to its own speaker, he shows, is the linguistic equivalent of testimony, understood as the trial of truth which is so prominent in the Fourth Gospel. "The interpretative process," he says, "is a life or death matter for the faith community." And he sees this ongoing process working at three levels, within the texts themselves understood as a depository of traditions, at the level of doxologies and theological Interpretations, at the level of the community which founds its own identity on this interpretative process. In that way the dialectic of testimony becomes a model for all similar dialectics which encompass the three moments of "naive" understanding, objective explanation, and appropriation. I agree entirely with the way in which Mudge interprets these stages of my Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning in terms of "testimony in the making," "critical moment," "post-critical moment."

As concerns more specifically the "critical moment," I agree also with Mudge that I have not yet clearly shown how the intellectual integrity embodied in biblical criticism can be encompassed in this dialectic of testimony without any sacrificium intellectus. This problem is the one with which Van A. Harvey comes to grips in The Historian and the Believer. "Is there any relationship," Mudge asks, "between the critical disciplines and the trial of truth which distinguishes true and false testimony for the reader of the Bible today? This extremely difficult question may not find a direct answer in Ricoeur." That’s true. I agree that adding a theory of structural reading to the method of historical criticism, as I am now trying to do with biblical narratives, provides only an incomplete answer. If the stories of the Old Testament are historylike, as Hans W. Frei says in The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics, the question of the referential claims of these stories remains unavoidable. The attempt to bracket reference and to keep sense, i.e., to raise only questions of meaning and to drop questions about historical reality, fails somewhere, because it runs against my main contention that even fictions are about a world. One of the ways out of this labyrinth would be to say that the world displayed by biblical stories and which shatters our ordinary beliefs about the "real" world, is not a historical world, a world of real events, but the world of the text. This kind of answer is similar to the one that a modern critic would give concerning the "world" displayed by an abstract painting. It depicts no object of the real world but it generates an emotional model which reshapes our whole world view. But the question returns of the relationship between this ontological aura of the work and its ethical perspectives, on the one hand, and the historical events which are at the same time depicted by those historylike stories, on the other hand. Have we then to say, about the Resurrection, that something happened, but that we have only the trace of the event in testimonies which are already interpretations? Then the notion of "something having happened" functions as a limiting idea, in the Kantian sense, an idea which reminds us that interpretations use only interpretations and that they are ultimately about that "which actually happened." But to give such elusive events the equally elusive status of the Kantian Ding an sich is a price that nobody wants to pay after Fichte’s and Hegel’s critique of the Ding an sich. The question remains open whether and to what extent the category of testimony may preserve the dialectic of sense and reference — i.e., of immanent meaning and of aboutness — without falling into any of the too well-known pitfalls. The status of historylike stories relies ultimately on the answer given to this vexing problem. I am now wrestling with the different alternatives which still remain open.

Lewis Mudge chose to end his paper with a discussion of "the role of conceptualization" in religious thinking. I greet this choice, because it helps me to connect with the possibility of that which McQuarrie called "God talk." Mudge is right, I think, in suggesting that a philosophy of the limit, in the Kantian sense — which would be the philosophical equivalent of a negative theology — does not exclude but requires a specific kind of symbol whose function would be "imaginatively to represent the limit beyond which the demand of conceptual knowledge for completeness cannot pass." Furthermore, as I suggested in my previous argument concerning such enigma-expressions as Kingdom of God or Son of Man, these symbols, in Mudge’s terms, "serve to limit, but also to break open our reasoning process." I still do think that a transcendental inquiry into the imagination of hope should be expanded into a symbol of regeneration and that this task defines the scope of a Poetics of the Will.

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