Monday, 25 August 2014

Liberating Critical Realism

I was recently rereading José Porfirio Miranda's Marx and the Bible: A Critique of the Philosophy of Oppression (alas, exclusively in translation, as I have not the capacity to read the Spanish original). Written in 1971 it remains a still-remarkable book, truly one of the great classics of 20th-century biblical scholarship, Catholic or otherwise. It is frequently overlooked by interpreters probably for a number of reasons: the author lived his entire career in his native Mexico, and thus outside of the mainstream of professional academia; the author was sympathetic to Marxism, and this during the height of the Cold War; the author was a Jesuit who made no effort to sound like the neo-Bultmannianism and implicit liberal to neo-orthodox Protestantism then-regnant within biblical studies; the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's explicit condemnation of liberation theology's Marxist sympathies in 1984 rendered this work suspect even in the eyes of many Catholic interpreters and theologians. Nonetheless, Marx and the Bible is in fact not really Marxist at all, but in fact profoundly resonant with Catholic social teaching, especially as that was crystallizing in the post-Vatican II era; indeed, to read the work now, in the papacy of Pope Francis, the first Holy Father to have worked his entire ecclesiastical career following the Council and incidentally also the first to himself be a Jesuit, is to read something that could come straight from the Curia. The interaction with Marxism reflects the reality that in 1971 it was the case that Marxist thinkers and activists had done more work to evaluate and critique the modern philosophy of oppression than any other group, other than perhaps anarchists and feminists (of course to this we would now add such more recent movements as queer theory, critical race theory, etc.).

The above is something of a digression, and away from my primary interest in this post, which is a curious passage on page 36 of Miranda's work.
[S]ome day we will have to give up completely the very common idea that to interpret the Bible is a matter of the mind of the interpreter, since the scripture has various "meanings" and each adopts the one which "moves" him most or suits him beset. Such a belief has been promulgated by conservatives to prevent the Bible from revealing its own subversive message. Without recourse to this belief, how could the West, a civilization of injustice, continue to say that Bible is its sacred book? Once we have established the possibility of different meanings, each as acceptable as any other, then the Scripture cannot challenge the West. If one of these "meanings" were capable of doing so, nothing obliges us to take it seriously.
When I first read this passage some years ago I thought it somewhat preposterous. Are not conservatives precisely the ones who rail against interpretative plurality whereas liberals those who embrace it? Yet it stuck with me, and in time it became the key to integrating two aspects of myself, namely on the one hand my strong sympathies toward liberation theology (especially in its Latin American iteration) and conviction that it tends to do better justice to the biblical text than its competitors, and on the other my critical-realist hermeneutics.

For the longest time I saw these as at best unrelated and, if related at all, incompatible. The breakthrough that allowed me to overcome this impasse was the recognition that this incompatibility was the result of a conceptual error on my part, namely the idea that there is such a thing as a distinctively liberation-theological hermeneutics. I realized that in fact there is not, or at least should be not. Rather, there is a process of knowing common to all domains of inquiry--what Lonergan calls a "generalized empirical method," the basis of which is to successively be attentive, be intelligent, and be reasonable--which, if employed properly, thoroughly, and reflectively in the study of Holy Scripture, will result in interpretations remarkably like on to those common in Latin American liberation theology. Critical realism provides the proper method for knowing scripture, and liberation theology one of the clearest articulations of what will result from pursuing such method.

Put otherwise, contrary to conservative rhetoric that supposes that one can only come to "socialist" or "liberal" positions (somehow in this rhetoric "socialism" and "liberalism" are synonyms, an idea that borders upon the absolutely and incredibly absurd) by ignoring the biblical text I have discovered that the opposite is generally the case: only by disregarding the Scriptures' clarion calls to justice and mercy can conservatives remain conservatives. And they can do this only by reading scripture poorly, a poverty that surely results from ideological blinders. Critical realist hermeneutics, aggressively pursued, will serve as a powerful corrective to these blinders.

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