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Hermeneutics of Appreciation

February 28, 2010

I hear some scholars of religion oppose the hermeneutics of suspicion (which I obviously support) by appealing to a hermeneutics of appreciation. The idea is that we should teach our students (hermeneutics of appreciation is almost always linked to pedagogy) to appreciate a wide variety of cultures. Sometimes lurking behind this is the idea that teaching students to appreciate diversity will result in a greater degree of tolerance in the world (which is assumed to be an intrinsic value).

I want to say to these people (although I resist, and will continue to resist giving in to this desire until I gain more social capital in the academy), “Do you use a hermeneutics of appreciation when you read Mein Kampf, or the works of India’s RSS, or the writings of Osama bin Laden, or the stuff about idol worshipers in Deuteronomy?”

If the answer is yes (“of course I apply the hermeneutics of appreciation across the board!”), then forms of oppression or domination are thereby allowed to reproduce without challenge.

If the answer is no, then you’re applying your hermeneutic selectively, in ways that are uncritical, and in ways that probably reproduce the social order you desire (i.e., you probably employ a hermeneutics of appreciation when it comes to people you think deserve toleration, and you probably employ a hermeneutics of suspicion when it comes to people you think deserve critique).

If you are an exceptionalist (excepting some from critique but not others), are you putting your criteria of selection out there (which may render it subject to criticism), or are you making it invisible by leaving it unstated?

11 Comments leave one →
  1. fuzzytheory permalink
    February 28, 2010 9:32 pm


  2. Classical Liberal permalink
    February 28, 2010 10:35 pm

    Ditto fuzzytheory.

  3. March 1, 2010 5:30 am

    Do you read everything with a “hermeneutic of suspicion”? Like… would you read Gramsci with one?

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 1, 2010 8:27 am

    Sophia: Yes. I pretty regularly spot “mystification” or “reification” or whatever in thinkers I love, and I take them to task for it.

  5. tom c. permalink
    March 1, 2010 10:27 am

    In teaching Intro to World Religions, I more or less use a phenomenological approach to the study of religions. My reason for this is to teach students to hold off on evaluation of practices or truth-claims until they have developed a thick interpretation of the phenomena in question. I know, I know, there are lots of theoretical problems here: how to divide evaluation from interpretation, how do you know when you’ve got a thick enough interpretation to warrant evaluation — but in the context of the intro class, teaching students to learn to bracket their preconceptions and to look for the facts is a central objective of mine.

    This is not to endorse what you call the hermeneutics of appreciation, but holding off from my own critique of religions in the classroom helps me earn the trust of students who might otherwise not be willing to hold off from their own critiques before developing thick interpretations. I might well approach teaching differently were I teaching a graduate seminar…

  6. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 1, 2010 8:37 pm

    Thanks for your comment Tom. My first thought about what you suggest is that yes, of course, students should understand alien traditions with some depth before trying to subject them to criticism. But taking that view (which is mine as well) wouldn’t prevent one from moving from thick description to critique.

    My second thought is this: students will critique what they’re studying whether or not we permit them to offer criticism aloud in class. I would rather offer them a sophisticated frame for criticism than to leave out all considerations of criticism—to do that would be to completely give over critique to their unsophisticated frames. It is inevitable that they will criticize—why leave that process completely unguided?

    Third, to my knowledge no other academic discipline approaches their subject matter like this in intro courses. I internalized various forms of critique in undergraduate religion courses, sociology courses, English courses, astronomy courses, and so on. Do we have adequate justification for excepting ourselves?

    Fourth, and probably most importantly, thick description seems to me to require critique. There are divisions within communities (they are not monolithic) that cannot be understood without some sort of critical reflection. Feminist movements cannot be understood without a consideration of patriarchy—and as soon as that happens we’re into critique. Almost the entire field of modern biblical studies is premised upon the idea that it is not obvious what the Bible means, and it’s original meaning probably has little to do with the interpretation offered by contemporary communities. Understanding the meaning of the Bible in its original context gets off the ground with a critique of (or setting aside) contemporary interpretations. Then any reading of the Bible is going to immediately run into contradictions. We can ignore them or run over them without substantial comment, but doing so would certainly not count as “thick description.” When we come across contradictions, “thick description” involves understanding them, and understanding them requires critique.

    I’m interested to see what your thoughts are; I hope this is taken as a desire to engage—I don’t intend these comments to close down conversation.

  7. tom c. permalink
    March 2, 2010 2:24 pm

    Thanks for your reply, MFM; I appreciate the invitation to conversation. (I think in the past I may not have responded to a reply you made out of my inability to find again the exact thought I had been having. Perhaps this unclarity is due to my questionable habit of replying to blog postings over my first morning coffee…)

    In any case, here are some thoughts in response (now after lunch):

    (1) Agreed. In fact, I may have exaggerated the purity of my phenomenological approach. I introduce students to a variety of (simplified) theoretical approaches during the first two weeks of the semester, and then discuss the practical reasons for employing phenomenology. When students raise questions (almost inevitably) about religions as means of social control, I then amplify their questions by showing their connection to some of the theoretical approaches discussed at the beginning of the semester. Perhaps I could more accurately describe my intro-level pedagogy as centered in phenomenology but not solely phenomenological.

    (2) This is an interesting thought. I am inclined to agree with you here as well, although my concern would be that the class focus could shift to become more of a philosophy of religion/theory & methods course. Perhaps my (exaggerated) defense of phenomenology in the classroom stems from the bulk of my teaching experience being in intro-level courses.

    (3) I hope this doesn’t come off as too brusque, but I’m not sure scholars need justification to except themselves from neighboring disciplinary norms of pedagogy; although if a scholar is asked why use a particular method, I think that scholar should be able to provide good reasons. Presumably, courses in sociology of religion, religion and literature, or philosophy of religion should employ pedagogies that are recognizable to their parent disciplines. In any case, the parallel course to intro to sociology may well be something like intro to the study of religions, not intro to world religions (the latter of which may have idiosyncratic reasons for remaining in college catalogs — something I can’t well challenge given the power I have as an invisible adjunct).

    (4) You are surely right to observe that movements cannot be taught without reference to criticism (internal as well as external critique). I would certainly include examples of contesting the tradition in my portrayals of religions we are studying (traditions are, perhaps, constituted by how these contests work themselves out through history).

  8. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 5, 2010 1:52 pm

    It sounds like our positions on this are different by a matter of degree.

    You got me on #3: it was a weak objection. A better objection would have been: how can we justify a phenomenological approach in the first place?

    Thanks for your reply! Do you keep a blog of your own?

  9. tom c. permalink
    March 8, 2010 9:37 pm

    Sorry for the delay in responding — I’ve been rather distracted by conference proposals over the last few days.

    I don’t have a blog…at least, not yet. I have some scattered ideas for one, but I’ve not been able to shape them into anything I can imagine posting on frequently.

    As for the question on justifying a phenomenological approach, partly it is driven by the place of a world religions course in the curriculum of the college at which I teach. The course is supposed to give an overview of a variety of religious traditions (it’s pretty much stated like that), and it is the only religious studies course at the college; I interpret this objective as giving the students a rough literacy with some major facts about the religions we’re studying and the ability to temporarily suspend judgment for the purpose of developing that literacy. Now, a single course cannot really establish for students anything like religious literacy, but hopefully, it will give them some tools for thinking about religions that (one hopes) they will hold onto and use after the course. In this sense, my theoretical aims for the course are partly determined by what’s possible at the college (and what I can expect students to know — or not know — when they enter my classroom).

  10. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 10, 2010 10:22 am

    Hi Tom, I’m writing a post about religious literacy that is sort of in response to what you’ve written here.


  1. Religious Literacy and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion « Missives from Marx

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