Monday, January 28th, 2013
By Tom Schwanda
Over the centuries we have tended to privilege oral and written texts by and about those whom we study. However, increasingly we recognize the importance of art and architecture and place and space as equally revealing texts. Regardless of the type of text we face a common challenge in reading wisely and well these records. This reminds us of the common task of interpretation. Recently, I was revisiting David Tracy’s summary of hermeneutical principles in his Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism (Crossroad, 1981, see especially chapter 3).
There he defines a classic text as something that is always in need of deeper interpretation because it possesses the ability to transform us and communicate new meaning. His four guidelines are: preunderstanding, that no one ever approaches a text objectively; provocation, which recognizes that texts can provoke, vex, challenge, and transform our reading; dialogical engagement with the text that is often reflective of the dynamic interaction between a conductor and a symphonic orchestra; and the company of readers, which indicates that no one reads or interprets a document in isolation. This may occur subconsciously or far more obviously as other colleagues confirm or challenge our readings and presentations, whether at our annual conferences or in peer review journals and the like.
While all of these are useful to historians I would like to reflect more fully on Tracy’s second point of provocation. He asserts that reading a classic text should in some way unsettle us. Provided we approach a text with a degree of openness it is impossible to read it and remain neutral. For example, in reading the spiritual writings of eighteenth–century Evangelicals some might bristle at the lingering Puritan influence of the Song of Songs that manifests itself in the devotional language of ravishment, sweetness and mystical transports to heaven. However, this provocation might not always produce resistance. Possibly, at times, it might transform our own perceptions and expand them in a positive way. In reading early Evangelical diaries and letters I recognize the strong sense of awe and wonder that characterize those men and women. Their view of God often seems more transcendent and sensitive to an appropriate holy fear than I find in myself.
Further Tracy’s second hermeneutical principle reinforces the self–implicating nature of Christian spirituality (For a helpful summary of this principle and key resources that introduce this in the field of Christian spirituality see Tom Schwanda, “’Hearts Sweetly Refreshed’: Puritan Spiritual Practices Then and Now.” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 3, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 30). Therefore we recognize it is impossible to engage any texts accurately and honestly and remain completely objective and unbiased. When I was first introduced to this principle I spoke of my reservations to an older historian. He strongly asserted that no one, regardless of impartiality, reads anything with total objectivity. Over the years I have become convinced of that reality.
How then can we read Benedict’s Rule and not be challenged by the temptations to pride and the struggle of humility which we face in the academy that he explores in chapter 7? Interestingly this is the longest chapter in the Rule. Or in reading Julian of Norwich’s vision of the hazelnut in which God responds to her query of what it means by declaring that God made the hazelnut, God loves the hazelnut, and God preserves the hazelnut. Does that not encourage us to reflect on the doctrine of providence and God’s care for us? Or how does the Puritan practice of heavenly meditation provoke our own consideration of the importance of heaven in relationship to all of our comforts and investments in this earthly life?
Recognizing the self–Implicating nature of church history also is present in every classroom. Students typically identify with certain writers while they express deep frustration with others. Many undergrads, in particular, find the austerity and ascetical practices of the desert tradition forbidding, especially in the affluent ease and wellbeing that they normally inhabit. But others students are strongly attracted to the identical saints and their counter–cultural writings. Indeed this is a very salient reminder that as we explore the writings of our discipline it is not enough to register mild resistance or even a stronger rejection or conversely a favorable acceptance. More appropriately what is to be invoked is the deeper impression of why a certain text vexes us or why another document, perhaps celebrated by others leaves us cold.
To illustrate this more personally I have been recently reading Susanna Anthony (1726–1791) for a research project on eighteenth–century Evangelical spirituality. Samuel Hopkins, a student of Jonathan Edwards and later Anthony’s pastor at the First Congregational Church, Newport, RI, collected her writings and published them as The Life and Character of Miss Susanna Anthony (1799). Mark Noll comments that, “the spiritual transports of Anthony’s life were reminiscent of similar experiences from mystical Christian women of the late middle ages” (The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys, 288). On the one hand, I struggle with Anthony’s debased view of self and frequent references to “worm theology.” Repeatedly she affirms her vileness and describes herself as a “worm of the dust.”
Nonetheless while I find an internal resistance to that there is the reality of my own sin, brokenness, and twisted motivations. Moreover on the other hand, Anthony is not stuck in a gloomy pit of despair because of what target=”_blank>“the great God–Man–Mediator” has done for her, uniting her in union with Christ. Responding to this her soul soars with gratitude of joyful love and adoration and contemplation of God. Amid her transport of joy she declares “while my whole soul is divinely ravished, with the infinite glories of thy nature, and the felicity of being so nearly united to Jesus the dear Mediator, it is enough.”
It is enough! Personally I am attracted to that type of affective piety and contemplative enjoyment of God. However, as I pay attention to Tracy’s hermeneutical principle of provocation I realize that which might first unsettle me, in case of Anthony’s worm theology, prepares me for a greater transformation of contemplation and transport of love and joy. Provocation can be very positive, especially as it guides and challenges our reading of classic texts. And perhaps it might just stretch us to be more attentive in our research and teaching.