Three months ago: It’s my first semester at HDS and I’m completing an assignment for Theories and Methods in the Study of Religion, the one required class for all incoming HDS students. Each week before lecture we have to submit an online response to that week’s reading, which for this week is Friedrich Schleiermacher’s On Religion. Schleiermacher was an 18th century theologian sometimes seen as the father of liberal Protestant Christianity. On Religion is his apology for religion, which he seeks to dissociate from doctrine, ritual, practice, traditions or mythology. For Schleiermacher, religion is defined in experiential terms, as something that a believer feels or “intuits.” I thought this was a bunch of baloney. Here’s an excerpt from my online response:
My main issue with Schleiermacher is that his first two chapters are mostly vague, repetitive and rambling descriptions of his amorphous concept of religion, but as soon as he tries to ground his perspective in a particular example–for example when he says that Judaism is defunct and Christianity’s original intuition is “more glorious, more sublime…and extending farther over the whole universe” (113)–he reveals his giant bias: that his own, liberal, protestant Christianity is conveniently the best for intuiting religion. His arguments then lose all credit as any kind of lens for understanding religion from anything but a Christian, liberal, European perspective.
I had completely written off Schleiermacher. What was there to learn from someone with such a blatant, self-serving bias? And that was the day Professor Amy Hollywood introduced the hermeneutic of suspicion and the hermeneutic of generosity.
By the time I got to lecture the next day, I had completely written off Schleiermacher. What was there to learn from someone with such a blatant, self-serving bias? And that was the day Professor Amy Hollywood introduced the hermeneutic of suspicion and the hermeneutic of generosity.
In a nutshell, the hermeneutic of suspicion calls scholars to interrogate the authors and texts they encounter. Questioning an author’s bias, historical time period, cultural background, or the validity of their arguments all fall into this category. It’s an important paradigm and one that I was fully entrenched in during my undergraduate years. In fact, my undergraduate studies were conducted almost entirely through this critical prism. I was trained to think that my job as a scholar was to deconstruct every text presented to me. My work was done only after I had determined the author’s agenda, come up with counter examples–no matter how obscure–disproving their points, and deconstructed their points to pieces. I could then dismiss the entirety of their work as merely their personal bias.
But Professor Hollywood insisted that in addition to being critical, we also need to employ the hermeneutic of generosity; instead of only reading against the author, we also need to read alongside them. As the term implies, we ought to be charitable with the text we read, try as best we can to embody the author’s place, and occasionally look past certain biases, or at least temporarily sideline them, in order to fully grasp the arguments in play. Often it’s only from this generous standpoint that we’re able to fully appreciate what a text or author has to offer.
Deconstructing a text with the hermeneutic of suspicion is a critical component of a scholar’s work. But as I realized that day in Hollywood’s class, employing it without tempering it with generosity is ultimately futile. First, despite the insistence by some that true scholarship is objective, everyone has a bias. If we were to dismiss every biased work, there would be nothing to read. But more importantly, if scholarship is solely about deconstructing a text, then we never truly appreciate what a particular author has to offer, the implications of their arguments, or how their theories map onto our own experiences of the world.
Professor Hollywood insisted that in addition to being critical, we also need to employ the hermeneutic of generosity; instead of only reading against the author, we also need to read alongside them.
When it came to Schleiermacher, my eagerness to pinpoint his bias and then dismiss him meant that I didn’t give his theories any credence. I soon realized my folly during Professor Hollywood’s lecture. She pointed out that not only is Schleiermacher’s work critical in understanding the development of liberal Christianity in Europe and the US, but, even more importantly, it is readily applicable to our contemporary world. In the modern West, many people call themselves “spiritual, but not religious,” meaning they maintain some personal, typically felt, experience of the divine, but don’t subscribe to particular rituals, doctrines, hierarchies, texts, or other structures that the modern West associates with religion. Few realize that, far from a modern take on spirituality, this thread has been running through Protestant Christianity for centuries, and that way back in 1799 Schleiermacher was already making this distinction and prioritizing one’s personal, felt, divine encounters as the really real. I was ready to throw Schleiermacher away without realizing that his work offers an important critique of how religion and spirituality are understood in the contemporary world.
This has been perhaps the greatest lesson from my first semester at HDS because it has changed how I read texts in all of my classes. Now I try to keep a balance between these two hermeneutics, always challenging myself to not only read against but with an author. In this way I’m already getting more out of these amazing texts than I ever did before.