Philosophers are really smart people, at least according to how a lot of people measure smartness. Most of us probably don’t know any philosophers personally. We know about them. We are influenced by them, though we’ve probably never seen them, even in photos. Most of the time, we hear about them from people who are slightly less smart than they are. However, those slightly-less-smart people are very important, because if it weren’t for them, none of us would even know about the really smart people, the philosophers.
OK, enough. What am I getting at? Well, I’ve been influenced, hopefully in a good way, by a French philosopher named Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005). But I would never have been touched by him without the help of others who have interpreted his thinking for me.
Those who know me, know that I am a great fan of the Bible. I’ve devoted large chunks of my life to study it and to teach it, and hopefully, even larger chunks to live it. It is in the area of my relationship with the Bible that Ricoeur’s philosophy has influenced me.
I’d like to share a quote, by someone who helped me understand Ricoeur. These words may not grab you like they grabbed me. But I hope they mean something to you, and especially that your own reading of the Scriptures will, in some way, be inspired or guided by them.
I’ll let the quote speak for itself, for the most part. Some brief context will suffice. However, I will say this much – if we in the Church could grasp a good portion of Ricoeur’s thought and heart in regard to reading our Bibles, we would be saved from so many of the petty issues that we are engrossed in today.
Lewis Mudge was a student and a friend of Paul Ricoeur. He was the editor of Ricouer’s Essays on Biblical Interpretation (Fortress Press, 1980). According to Mudge, Ricoeur had a heart for his readers and it was his mission to “open our ears to the scriptural call” (p.6). In his introduction to this book, Mudge writes expressively about the problem into which Ricoeur made this call:
“We are deaf to the Word today. Why? The root of the problem, for Ricoeur, lies in a general loss of sensitivity to symbolic language in modern Western civilization. We construe the world in terms of the Cartesian dichotomy between the self as sovereign consciousness on the one hand, and an objectivized, manipulable nature on the other. We conceive ourselves authors of our own meaning and being, set in the midst of a world there for us to interrogate, manipulate, and control. We make language our instrument in this project in a way that sees artful equivocation, richness of meaning, or metaphysical range as a liability to be overcome rather than a gift to be treasured. We dismiss realms of meaning beyond the literal either as confusion to be cleared up by the logician or as emotional embellishment to be kept in check. It is hard for us to see scriptural language, full as it is of figure, metaphor, vision, and myth, as having anything to do with reality” (p.4).
I know, that’s some pretty thick language. You can imagine, then, how thick the pure Ricoeur would be. But for me, this quote captures the heart of our desperate need to engage the Bible on its own terms and to allow its artistic beauty and truth to define our reality.