restricted access Toward a Postmodern Christian Historical Hermeneutic
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Toward a Postmodern Christian Historical Hermeneutic

Hermeneutics as the study of interpretation theory has been understood in many different ways and applied to many different practices. One article can cover only a small portion of a vast subject: our concern here is with the relationship between living religious traditions and their task of engaging in an ongoing way with the wider cultures to whose historical formation they have made significant contributions.1 This article, written by a historian, presumes the general inadequacy of Enlightenment and modern understandings of history, and turns to the question of what should replace these to foster Christian engagement in the future.2 It asks what one’s hermeneutics, so far as they apply to the interpretation of history, would look like if we significantly abandoned Enlightenment categories, but did not simply return to premodern ideas. As is often the case, in order to overcome problems that arose in modernity, this article returns to developments that existed before the modern period, but were not at that time fully explored. The goal is to rethink our past, to the end of addressing our present.

First an overview. I will restrict myself to the West, but a good deal of recent writing on such things as “Global systems theory” suggests [End Page 77] that things were not that different elsewhere.3 Around the world, most people used some form of cosmological framework (“Fire, Water, Earth, and Sky”) into which they placed whatever more localized story they had to tell. About 700 b.c., the Greek Hesiod presented history as descending from or beginning with the gods: the title of one of his works, Theogony, which narrates the story of how the cosmos took form, bringing this down to the creation of humans and human history, can be translated “The Descent of the Gods.” By the time of Thucydides (c. 460–c. 404 b.c.), the larger cosmological framework could be dispensed with in favor of an essentially political interpretive or “this-worldly” framework. How much one lived in “the time of the gods” or in “the time of man” varied from writer to writer and culture to culture, and, where the Western Enlightenment has little penetrated, some have continued “a life among the gods” to the present.4

In a book of enduring significance, Karl Löwith stressed that, though the strong tendency of nineteenth-century thought was to label such interpretive frameworks “philosophies of history,” they were generally more theological than philosophical in nature.5 Christopher Dawson went a step further, and suggested that the Christian view of history not be called a “philosophy of history” at all, but a “theology of history.”6 In any case, from the beginning cosmologies were used to frame historical narratives, and, outside the Jewish and Christian traditions, without much attention to what hermeneutically speaking was involved in so doing. Thucydides, for instance, did not prove that history of its very nature should be a political narrative, but assumed this. It was his “faith,” or what passed as faith in an apparently secularized writer. One might say that he wanted to provide a story-line for his time, and though he could see from the evidence that the history of the Peloponnesian war could provide one, he could not find in this evidence that a narrative political frame is intrinsically better than Hesiod’s old god-oriented line. Thucydides’s approach could show the utility of seeing history as centrally about politics, but it could not show that the political was a more important category [End Page 78] for understanding than, say, the economical. In the writings of Thucydides, the idea that history is essentially political is something brought to the historical record rather than something rising from it. Among ancient thinkers, he was not alone in making such an assumption: no ancient really recognized that the historical framework he used was more assumed than philosophically grounded.

Greater clarity concerning such issues emerged when Christianity came to center stage. Christianity, following Judaism, saw history as the great events performed by God in time. Its frame was explicitly theological, based on trust in God’s revelation about...