There’s a word we often use in religious circles when dealing with the sacred texts we read and use, speak on and study. It is ‘hermeneutic’. Hermeneutics is a field of study in religion, philosophy and into the humanities. In its most pure form it deals with the interpretation of texts and the ways we read texts, words and develop meaning from them. We all have a ‘hermeneutic’ through which we read texts, whether religious or otherwise. The texts we ‘read’ may be the written word or words spoken or experienced and we interpret words, events and experience through the hermeneutic we bring to our lives.
I am aware that particular words, phrases and even subjects have particular effects on me – they push particular buttons and I react in predicatable ways when I hear or read them. I make sense of the world through the lens I apply to life and the world. Sometimes I am aware of this lens (or a multiplicity of lenses) and often I am not. I am not unusual in this because we all react in predictable ways to phrases, words or concepts based on the hermeneutic we bring and the lens through which we view and experience life.
These lenses and hermeneutics can be very powerful and cause us to see in ways that actually deny factuality or the evidence before our eyes. I suppose that I am constantly amazed when I encounter the deep Climate Change skeptics who deny anything associated with a changing climate based on human impact on the Earth’s ecology. The science of Climate Change and human involvement is conclusive, as far as the hundreds of scientists engaged in this field are concerned, yet some politicians continue to deny its reality based on 1-2 quite peripheral non-climate scientists who oppose it – it is political and ideological not scientific. Corporate leaders involved in particular industries with high vested interests in the status quo of energy production naturally deny the reality that their industries contribute to climate change or that there is no such thing. These are hermeneutics, lenses, that inform (and distort?) the way hear, see or experience the ‘texts’ of our lives.
There are many hermeneutics that influence the way we see and hear the texts of life and the world. The variety of lenses that help define our response to reality include gender, ethnicity, class, wealth and money, power, health and disability, poverty, experiences of inclusion or exclusion, abuse, and many of the experiences we have through our living. In addtion there are various ideologies – religious, political, philosophical and other – that impact how we read, hear and experience the various texts we encounter. When we hear stories in the news, for example, we will all respond in different ways. Some will be filled with compassion and want to help everyone and others will be more circumspect about what is possible. Some will not be moved at all by particular situations and people.
Last week I attended a very moving closing ceremony in Parklea Prison (or Correctional Centre, as it is officially called). It was the closing ceremony or worship of the Kairos Prison Ministry after their 4-day course with 25 prisoners who had signed up. The team shared God’s love with these men and gave them an experience of grace and love. They spoke about their lives and offered forgiveness for the guilt and shame they experience at what they have done – recognising that they are serving their time for the crimes committed. When some people hear stories about people going into prisons and sharing God’s love with prisoners they feel disgust and shake their heads with disbelief at why anyone would waste time and love on such people. Others are moved and some are interested and curious but uncertain. There are many responses to such a story from why bother to why do you do this to this is really good. There are many hermeneutics when we hear stories and our responses are often predetermined by the experiences or ideologies that have formed us and the lenses through which we see, hear and experience.
Personally I find that the life, teaching and stories of Jesus continue to challenge and confront the hermeneutic of my life. He psuhes some buttons and always invites me into a deeper way of engaging, thinking and being. Jesus’ wisdom and deep humanity invite me into deeper self-reflection to understand how the hermeneutic I bring distorts how I see or limits the way I angage another human being. Too often I see the things people say or do, things that push my buttons or frustrate me and distract me from seeing and experiencing the person who is deeper than their attitudes, appearance or actions. I suppose in similar manner, people see or hear me and react to things about me rather than see into the person beyond the words, actions or ideologies. It is interesting for me to tell people that I am a Uniting Church Minister and experience the reaction. Some go quiet and can’t wait to get away. Others are shocked but curious. Some are interested and others excited. People from other denominations have a suspicion that, probably correctly, assumes I am more progressive or liberal or what ever term they want to use. They become wary and their belief system becomes a barrier – I am probably the same in an opoosite way. I am wary of the very conservative or fundamentalist.
This week Jesus’ words (Mark 12:28-34) ring through the centuries and challenge me in a very deep way. In his world the particular hermeneutics were predominantly derived from religious laws and traditions or political power and ideology. He steered a way through ideology and power to embrace people as he encountered them, whoever they were. His teaching and life invited people into a new way that was grounded in love – not an insipid love but the tough, inclusive gracious way of God. When people held to their hermeneutics of legalistic interpetations of Scripture, Jesus challenged them with stories and actions of love. Is it right to obey a law that denies a hungry person food or to withhold healing from a person on the Sabbath? Is it right to uphold legalistic principles that deny life to people and keep them trapped in poverty? Is it life-giving to apply literalistic readings of Scriptures when they become exclusive and abusive? How do we respond to megalomaniacs who are in control of nations and empires and rule in violence and hatred?
Jesus’ way was one of love that looked into the hearts of people and saw the deep humanity that existed there, often contorted or twisted out of shape by life or the powers that dominated them or the ideologies forced upon them. The cultural expectations denied hope and life to many people and pushed everyone into moulds that failed them. Jesus offered freedom and life because he said we exist in God who holds everything together and gives life, even if we do not realise it and awaken to its rich wonder and joy.
In this story Jesus and a religious leader discuss that which is fundamental and they agree that loving God with everything we are and loving our neighbour as we love ourselves is the fundamental, foundational reality upon which all is built and grows. The loving of neighbour is the clear expression of how we love God and this is the hermeneutic Jesus wants us to apply to all of life. Love God; Love neighbour – as self!