June 18, 2010
Theological Hermeneutics and the Sea
Last summer and fall I was reading a lot about the theological interpretation of Scripture. And one of my recurring thoughts was that biblical scholars and theologians are of such different perspectives that it is difficult to see how we might bring them together. My own training is in biblical scholarship, so I think I have a good understanding of how my colleagues think and regard theologians. But in recent years I have been trying to read more in theology and come to a better understanding of how (systematic or doctrinal or dogmatic) theologians work.
Gazing out over my adopted home of Puget Sound, an analogy came to mind. And it was resurrected by a recent crossing of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. I hardly think its original, though I don’t recall coming across it. And it has its limitations. Here it is.
The surface of the sea is the text of Scripture. Biblical scholars are aquatic animals or scuba divers, who inhabit the waters beneath the surface. Maybe we should think of them as seals (they do come up for air and will rest just above the surface). They are familiar with the sea’s layers of life below the waves, its rocky and sandy bottoms, its valleys and mountains, its currents and temperature variations, the play of the light in depths and shallows, the sway of its kelp beds and the creatures that inhabit them, the wonders of life that never approach the surface, as well as its hazards and pleasures and ship wrecks. It’s another world down there, and many of its features are barely discernible from the shore or from a boat.
The theologian views this watery text from above, preferably from a high vantage point, and the view is quite different. The sunlight plays on the surface in ever changing beauty, by hour, day and season. The sea is framed by a context of plains and rivers and mountains and valleys, cities and port towns, all converging on its shores. And what matters to the theologian is this geographic context, and the patterns—night and day—on the surface of the sea, below which some general notion of its complexity is perceived but is not the focal point of interest. Like an artist, the theologian is interested in the play of the heavenly light on the surface of the water. Or like a fisherman, the theologian wishes to extract value—whether fish or crabs or oysters—from the sea. Or perhaps like a mariner, the theologian wants to ride the sea, from the mainland to island, taking advantage of its currents but always wondering at the cause of its ripples and whirls. When the sea grows confused, our theologian tosses out guesses at why. Is it just a colliding of wind and current? Or is it a bank? A kelp bed? A reef? These are things any seal or porpoise would know.
There are two different perspectives in operation here. Both have true things to say. But it is the same sea. How do we bring these two into conversation? What makes for the best (theological) reading of this sea? Something like this is the challenge of theological interpretation.
As I said, the analogy has limitations as well as room for improvement. But I think it gets at one dimension of theological interpretation and its tension with modern biblical studies.