Hi everyone! I’m K.C. McConnell, a current MTS student as well as a Graduate Assistant in the Office of Admissions here at HDS. Coming to graduate school, I never imagined that I would be able to participate in student-run clubs and organizations. I thought that most students in graduate school woke up, went to class, went home, and did not interact with their fellow classmates outside of informal gatherings. At HDS, I was pleasantly surprised. Not only does our school have dozens of student organizations, but many of our organizations are extremely active in life around campus.
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.
You know those kids in high school and college who did all their homework all the time, the ones who always had something to say in class discussion and had questions for the teacher every week? I was one of THOSE kids. I guess that’s not too shocking of a confession to come from a Harvard graduate student, but in hindsight I feel a little sheepish about those days. The most important thing I’ve learned in my time at HDS so far is how to prioritize and balance the things in my life, and homework just doesn’t always make it to the top of the list.
I will admit that I was very nervous about being asked to write about my experience of pluralism at HDS. My first thought was, “what do I have to offer to this? I’m Catholic; quick, grab a Muslim, a Pagan, a Humanist, anyone but me!” After thinking on what it is like to be a student here at HDS, I can say that it has been an immense time of growth for me. I have chanted with Buddhists, been silent with Quakers, high-fived over commonalities with Episcopalians and burst into tears of frustration over impassioned theological debates. Continue reading