Theology, Hermeneutics, and Imagination

03.01.01 | Denver Journal, Old Testament, Vaughn Thompson | by Garrett Green

    A review of Garrett Green's, "Theology, Hermeneutics, and Imagination: The Crisis of Interpretation at the End of Modernity," by Vaughn Thompson.

    Green, Garrett. Theology, Hermeneutics, and Imagination: The Crisis of Interpretation at the End of Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 229 pp. $59.99 paperback. ISBN 0-521-65048-8.

    Since the later half of the twentieth century, sociologists of knowledge and many philosophers have become increasingly aware of the socially constructed nature of reality and the necessity to interpret that reality. With this in mind, theologians and Christian philosophers have had to wrestle with the distinctly Christian construal of reality and how it may interpret the world. As a contributor to this conversation, Garrett Green offers an important discussion of this reality construction using the rubric of the religious imagination.

    Green, author of Imagining God (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), has been doing studies on the religious imagination since the early eighties and this recent work represents his most mature reflections on the topic to date. Originally this material was presented as the 1998 Cadbury Lectures at the University of Birmingham in England under the title "The Faithful Imagination: Theological Hermeneutics in an Age of Suspicion."

    Green begins his discussion with a brief introduction to theological hermeneutics and places his discussion in the context of more postmodern and nonfoundationalist assumptions about theology and the nature of reality. For modern(ist) philosophers, religion was associated with a false consciousness that was to be differentiated from reality. Imagination was associated with fiction and therefore dismissed. But with the postmodern turn, recent philosophy of science has deprivileged this "fact-fiction" dichotomy. Philosophers of science like Paul Feyerabend and Thomas Kuhn have demonstrated the theory-ladenness of all "facts" and have opened up the way for the religious imagination to be taken just as seriously as more scientific imagination.

    Having placed his discussion in the context postmodernity, Green provides a historical survey to show how the Enlightenment changed the rules on how we know God. His key figures include Kant, Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Barth, and Derrida. Beginning with Immanuel Kant, he discusses what he calls the "positivity" of the Gospel and how scandalous it was to the Enlightenment mind. Borrowing from Hegel, Green understands the "positivity" of Christian orthodoxy as the "teachings grounded not on universal reason but rather on an arbitrary appeal to the authority of specific historical figures and occurrences." In the context of the Enlightenment, thinkers like Kant sought to accommodate religion to appeals to universal and natural laws available to all humanity through reason (hence the development of a natural theology). But in doing so, Green argues, Kant and his followers gave up all of the particularities of Christian faith that constitute it.

    Following his discussion of Kant, Green turns his attention to a contemporary of Kant's, Johann Georg Hamann. What is unique about Hamann is his historical location in 18th century Germany at the heart of the Enlightenment. Hamann critiques Kant on his rejection of the "positivity" of the Christian gospel and emphasizes the linguistic and cultural commitments that shape our experience. Green shows how the thinking of this 18th century thinker prefigures many of the 20th century critics of the Enlightenment. Turning his attention to Kuhn's discussion of paradigms in science, Green argues that the Kant-Hamann dispute provides a good example of the competing "paradigms" of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought.

    Green then proceeds to revisit the thinking of Ludwig Feuerbach. Green argues that Feuerbach should be added to Ricoeur's now classic list of the "Masters of Suspicion" (Marx, Freud, & Nietzsche) for his influence on those thinkers and for his own suspicion of religion. For Feuerbach, religion is a projection of the imagination and remains mutually exclusive to "reality." Thus Feuerbach treats religion with suspicion. Green shows how Feuerbach's suspicion towards the religious imagination is really rooted in his Enlightenment assumptions. "Because religion is produced by imagination… it cannot be true" (italics his). In light of the recent insights from the Philosophy of Science and the Social Sciences on the theory ladenness of all our knowledge, Green affirms Feuerbach's assertion that religion is imaginative but is more "reluctant than Feuerbach to preface 'imagination' with 'mere'." Green will not affirm that imagination is any less a valuable form of reasoning than other modes of knowing.

    After Feuerbach, Green finds none other than the work of Nietzsche to illuminate the importance of the Christian construction of God in Christ. He uses Nietzsche, "that arch-foe of Christianity," to highlight the important questions and subjects of Christian theology. Nietzsche legitimately takes the content of Christian faith seriously and agrees with Christians, "If God is dead, it makes all the difference in the world." Nietzsche will have no part in the liberal relativizing of Jesus and he goes on to paint a picture of culture without God. Green argues that Nietzsche understood the scandal of the cross of Christ (more than much of Christianity) and was indeed scandalized by its particularities. Focusing on Nietzsche's virtues of power (the natural, reality, & health) Green contrasts them with a hermeneutics of the cross that is seemingly unnatural, fictional (not of this 'real' world), and one of self- denial.

    For Green, Nietzsche is important because he points out legitimate weaknesses in some Christian theology. Green shows how Nietzsche's critique remains valid so long as theology seeks to "accommodate its message to the sensibilities of the prevailing secular culture." Apologetically, Green advocates "an apologetics of the cross" that takes seriously one's opponent and refuses to resist. Green suggests that such nonresistance is "utter faith in the power of God, that power that appears as weakness in this world."

    Moving his way through historical survey, Green then turns his attention to the postmodern era to look at two unlikely bedfellows - Karl Barth and Jacques Derrida. Green compares the two to suggest that much in Barth's theology of the Word and non-metaphysical theological language maintains affinities with Derrida's semiotics and differance. Where Derrida asserts the priority of the sign, Barth affirms the priority of the Word that continually points to God. But Derrida's sign always points to another sign in a constant deferral of presence. Barth, from the perspective of theology, will assert the inability of language to present the reality of God. In continuing his comparison Green will equate Jesus Christ, the Word, as a sign that is subject to all of the uncertainties of other signs. For to do otherwise, Green argues, "would amount to semiotic docetism."

    Green has thus taken us on a trip through history to show how the religious imagination was discounted during the era of philosophical Modernity and dichotomized with reality (Kant, Feuerbach, & Nietzsche). With the emergence of Postmodernity, Green has suggested a possible way to recapture the imagination for Christian theology in the work of Hamann & Karl Barth (whose secular counterpart may be seen in Derrida). A recapturing of the Christian imagination thus implies a recapturing of biblical hermeneutics. With indebtedness to Hans Frei and Karl Barth, Green puts forth his most explicit hermeneutical posture to date. For Green, interpretation is always open. Taking his cues from Frei, Green reverses the order of modern interpretation to suggest that the Bible interprets us and gives us a paradigm for our interpretation of the world. Green speaks most explicitly from a theological perspective when he suggests "from the standpoint of scripture, the hermeneutic imperative is not simply a matter of exegetical method but a fundamental insight into the nature of the world and our relation to it." It follows, for Green, that interpretation is a continuous enterprise that involves all of one's life. Indeed, he advocates an embodied interpretation of Scripture that is lived out. This interpretive move for Green ultimately will constitute the faithful imagination.

    Green has certainly given the Church a gift as he seeks to interact biblically and theologically with a postmodern culture. For some readers, Green will trade too much to postmodernity in his non-foundationalist posture. But ultimately he reminds us that our faith is mediated through imagination and interpretation of Scripture and it rests on no other foundation except that which was laid in Christ Jesus.

    Vaughn Thompson
    Denver Seminary
    March 2001

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