Toward an Integral Hermeneutic: Growth-Oriented

The first post in this series introduced four characteristics I think are vital for a hermeneutical approach ‘after postmodernism’: It must be growth-oriented, holistic, integrating, and inclusive of complexity. This post will focus on the first of these characteristics.

I’ve written a lot already in this space about growth and why I think it’s important as a indicator for good theology  (see especially here, here, here, and here). But, is it an appropriate hermeneutical lens? And if so, how might it work as a guiding hermeneutical principle? To answer the first question, I’d like to take another look at two of my favorite passages of Scripture, Psalm 1 (which I’ve already discussed in my post on sin), and Ephesians 4 (which I first mentioned in Religion that Works).

Psalm 1 sets before the worshipper two paths, the way of the “blessed,” which is compared to a healthy, thriving fruit tree, and the path of the “wicked,” which is compared to, essentially, tumbleweed — dry, malnourished, and blown away by the wind. It’s a stirring juxtaposition of images and it’s no accident that this is the poem selected to front the collection of hymns we know as the book of Psalms. As a general rule, beginnings and endings of collections are selected intentionally, chosen to set the tone and lasting sentiment of the collection respectively. (For example, the Anglican Church of Canada’s Common Praise hymnbook starts with “Holy, Holy, Holy” and ends with “Remember, O Lord, Your Faithfulness and Love,” certainly appropriate and deliberate choices.) And so, we were meant to approach the Psalms, which have been the heart of the worship of the Jewish Temple and synagogue and Christian Church alike for well over two thousand years now, with Psalm 1 setting the tone. Its lens is the classic Wisdom theme of what it means to live well. And its chosen image to describe that theme is growth. So then, there is biblical precedent for using growth as an interpretive guide to our Scriptures.

For its part, Ephesians 4 contains one of the fullest explorations in the New Testament of the implications of the Christian life. After a discussion of the markers of unity and diversity within the community of faith, the passage shifts to the purpose of the whole divine dispensation of the incarnation of the Son of God and the descent of the Holy Spirit. In typical Pauline fashion, the answer comes out in a word salad that requires a lot of unpacking, but the point in the end is that we are to grow up into the full maturity of the true humanity of which Christ is both the prototype and perfect completion. To the Christian mind and heart, Jesus is the perfect — complete, whole — human person. And certainly, from the Gospel stories, we see Jesus as a mature adult human in the best senses of those words: he is generous, joyful, assertive, humble, loving, knows who he is, and on and on. He lives out the fruit of the Spirit wholly. He embodies all of the VIA character strengths that researchers in positive psychology have developed as an attempted set of universal markers of human wellbeing. He embodies the upper reaches of human growth in all the lines of development proposed by developmental psychologists. (Indeed, there is an ancient Christian belief that Jesus was incarnated, born into humanity, so that he could fill and bless every season and stage of human life with his divine life.) He represents a complete person — and not just from a Christian perspective that understands this on faith, a priori.

But this wholeness and completeness is offered to us too. The language Paul uses here in Ephesians 4.11-16 is filled with metaphors of growth: equipping, edifying, arriving, becoming, being perfected, maturing, growing up, and increasing. So, for Paul at least, the whole point of the Christian life is to grow up into maturity, to become by grace all that Christ is by nature. While we will all manifest this growth in different ways and bear different fruit according to the gifts we’ve been given and vocation to which we’ve been called, all this is in service of our primary vocation, which is to grow up to the perfection that Jesus represents.

Some might bristle at the seamless movement in the last paragraphs from spiritual growth to psychological growth. And indeed, many Christians have questioned — if not rejected outright — the value of psychology to the spiritual life. While I think it’s always important to examine our sources with a questioning eye, I reject the notion that these two disciplines are disconnected. As the Jesuit writer Wilkie Au, rightly insists: “Truth is a seamless garment and … authentic religion and authentic psychology, each in its own way, shed light on the truth of the human condition. Truth has nothing to fear from itself” (By Way of the Heart, 5). And again:

Those who take Christian faith seriously should not denigrate human growth as something merely secular, something unrelated to religious maturity. Because the glory of God, as St. Irenaeus reminds us, is the person fully alive, our vocation as human beings entail a commandment to continuous human growth. Human life is a gift from the creator, who couples the gift of life with a call — a call to us to be co-creators, freely fashioning our lives into something beautiful for God” (19).

Amen! Amen! Amen!

Returning specifically to hermeneutics, while I have tried here to justify using growth as an interpretive lens, the point of this isn’t to use growth as a kind of Procrustean bed upon which to stretch and distort the Scriptures to suit our purposes. Rather, it is to provide us with some guiding questions with which we might approach the Scriptures, questions like ‘In what way (if any) does this passage call us to mature?’ or ‘What stages of growth are on display in this passage?’ Such questions can help focus our interpretation of the Scriptures on the ultimate aims of our faith.  If a text does not provide ready answers to such growth-oriented questions — and it very well may not — this can prompt us to ask what role it did play for those who compiled the Scriptures, and how that motivation might connect with ours. For example, a story in the Hebrew Bible might be there to help form community identity, a fact that can prompt helpful reflection on the role community life plays in promoting or hindering growth and the way our own growth or stagnation in turn impacts community life, since cultures too grow and develop over time.

Example: 1 Kings 19

Let’s now look at how this might guide our reflections on a famous story from the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s meeting with Elijah on the mountain.

As part of a long conflict between followers of the god known as YHWH and those of the god Ba’al, the prophet Elijah has just humiliated the priests of Ba’al in a grand spectacle. Despite this resounding victory, Elijah is forced to flee into the mountains to escape punishment from Queen Jezebel. One night, while Elijah is resting in a cave, YHWH asks him “What are you doing here?” Elijah answers as many of us would in such a moment, complaining that he has done what he was supposed to do as YHWH’s prophet, but that the people won’t listen to him and now he’s the only one left and they’re trying to kill him too. YHWH then tells Elijah that He will meet him on the face of the mountain. Suddenly there is a mighty wind that shatters the stone around him, but YHWH did not meet Elijah in the wind. Then there was an earthquake, but YHWH did not meet Elijah in the earthquake. Then there was a fire, but YHWH did not meet Elijah in the earthquake. At last, Elijah is left in silence, and it is in that silence that YHWH meets Elijah. He asks him again, “What are you doing here?” And Elijah offers the same response as before. Then YHWH gives him very specific instructions for what he should do next. The story ends with Elijah heading back down from the mountain.

So how might using growth as an interpretive guide help us to understand this passage? What sticks out to me is that Elijah is called to grow up in his understanding of God. He is used to serving God in grand gestures — he’s just literally called down fire from heaven before the story begins — and is used to God responding in kind, with angels feeding him and promises of face-to-face meetings. So it’s interesting that God does not appear to him in any of the (literally) earth-shattering phenomena which Elijah experiences, but in the silence after them. I think there is a real lesson for Elijah in this because the instructions that God gives him are similarly quiet and mundane: Go here, anoint so-and-so to be king, then go there, and make so-and-so prophet in your place. The encounter in the mountain is an object lesson for Elijah: Serving God isn’t about the grand gestures Elijah was accustomed to, but about doing what needs to be done in the here-and-now. Elijah is being called to mature out of an understanding of God that sees everything in terms of a “My god can beat up your god” power play and into something more personal, more human, and more real.

The next post in this series will look at what a holistic and multisperspectival hermeneutical approach might look like.

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