Pondering the Hermeneutic of Suspicion

I know! I apologize for using one of those rather haughty theological words: Hermeneutic!  I also know that many DO in fact know what the word means. But just in case you don’t let’s define. Fundamentally a “hermeneutic”  is an interpretive key, a way of seeing and understanding the world.

So what do I mean when I speak of a “hermeneutic of suspicion?” Well, consider the times in which we live. Most people  are suspicious of just about everything and everyone! It is a common and usual worldview that politicians lie, the Government is lying, big business is lying, advertisers are lying, the Church is lying. It is presumed that cover-ups are common and, even if there is not outright lying most people and organizations are just acting out of selfish motives and self-serving agendas. If their motives are not selfish they are otherwise bad motives: Liberal! Conservative! Bigoted! Homophobe! Hater! Infidel! Socialist! Selfish Capitalist! Reactionary! Well, you get the point. Everyone is simply dismissed because they  have an ”agenda” and this agenda is somehow less than pure, fair or neutral.

You may well think that some or much of what is said abouve is true. But in pondering this all-pervasive “hermeneutic of suspicion” I wonder if there do not have to be some limits to its application and conclusions. Is “everyone” really lying or just acting out of a less than pure agenda? Is it always wrong to have an agenda? Is self interest always a bad thing? Is it always wrong for groups to seek to influence the national discussion even if that influence serves their interest and worldview? Clearly lying is wrong and there is such a thing as lying but is everything I call lying really lying?

I don’t have simple answers to these questions and PLEASE understand I am not some moral relativist who is simply asking for everything to be murky and gray. But our culture is really overheated at the moment with suspicion. There is a pervasive presumption of the worst in terms of motives, sincerity and the like. It is getting harder and harder to have any kind of a conversation at all about issues without the names and the labels sallying forth and the impugning of motives. I don’t have a simple formula to come up with the right balance between a healthy skepticism and pathological suspicion but I would like to propose a few benchmarks toward a better balance.

1. Everyone DOES have an agenda and that is OK. It’s not wrong to have a worldview and to seek to influence others to that way of thinking. The very word “agenda” is intended as pejorative but it need not be. The problem seems to come up when everyone is defensive about having and “agenda.” Since that is somehow supposed to be “wrong”  we start to do unhealthy things. We often try to hide our truest agenda and paper it over with less than sincere descriptions of what we think and what we want. We start to talk in code and engage in political correctness, jargon and other circumlocutions that are not always true or at least frank. We become less transparent and this fuels suspicion. If we can just accept that we all have agendas and that’s fine, then we become more frank and honest, and suspicion recedes. In terms of full disclosure let me share my agenda: I am a Roman Catholic Christian and I believe everything that the Church teaches in matters of faith and morals. I believe Jesus Christ Founded the Catholic Church, that it is the one true Church. It is my desire that everyone on this planet become Roman Catholic and thus embrace the fullness of the faith given by Jesus Christ and revealed through the Apostles. Clear enough? That’s my agenda.

2. Self interest is not always bad– I do a lot of organizing work in the neighborhood working with the Washington Interfaith Network, a local chapter of the Industrial Areas Foundation. One of our key principles is to help people identify their interests and then act upon them. If they want more affordable housing, great! Then let’s work to find others who have a similar interest and build power around that shared interest. Self interest can be a powerful motivator toward great ends. Instead of being suspicious and cynical that people have self interest in mind, what if we just accepted that this is the universal human condition and used it to engage people for good ends? It’s not wrong to care about myself. I really ought to get my needs met and that also helps others because I am less of a burden on them. If ALL we care about is our self that is a problem. But most people instinctively understand that their self interest is linked to the good of others too. My life is more secure and stable if there is a healthy, strong and vibrant neighborhood. So I can be engaged around my own interests to work for a just and healthy world. The fact that I get something out it does make my motives somehow impure. But the hermeneutic of suspicion demands “pure” motives and unrealistically defines pure as completely selfless. What if we just stopped all that and accepted that people act on what interests them and that it isn’t necessarily bad. Accepting this makes us less suspicious and cynical.

3. Faith and Trust in the Church are an essential balance to the hermeneutic of suspicion– While it is true that we have to be sober that live in a world where lies are told and where motives are not always pure, it is also true that we have to refuse radical suspicion and cynicism. There IS truth, and there are those who do speak and teach the truth. We must find and seek those harbors of the truth and build and lower our anchor there. For Catholics, the harbor of the truth is the Church. Scripture describes the Church as the Pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15).  One of the great tragedies of the hermeneutic of suspicion is that many Catholics have adopted this attitude  toward the Church.  Yes, there is sin and even corruption in the Church, but despite that the Church has never failed to hand on the authentic truth of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ does speak through his Church. I emphatically trust that fact. I believe and profess all that the Catholic Church believes, teaches and proclaims to have been revealed by God. I can do no other. This is my faith. I trust God and believe that he speaks through the Catholic Church despite whatever human weakness is evident in the Church. God can write straight with crooked lines and he can teach infallibly even despite human weakness in the Church.  Without a harbor of truth the hermeneutic of suspicion can and will overwhelm us. We will mistrust everyone and everything and have no real way to sort out all the conflicting claims and counterclaims. Without faith and trust both in God and in the Church I am lost, adrift on a sea of suspicion and cynicism and the hermeneutic of suspicion overwhelms me. This is sadly true today of so many who are cut off from the truth thinking they can trust no one. In them the hermeneutic of suspicion has its most devastating effect. The lack of trust locks them into a tiny world, dominated by suspicion and doubt. Only the gift of faith and trust can diminish such deep suspicion.  With faith we can measure all things by God’s truth and know what is true from what is false. We have a measuring rod to judge what is true and thus we need not flee to suspicion.

This video fits with my agenda! 😉

10 Replies to “Pondering the Hermeneutic of Suspicion”

  1. See, I think a little healthy suspicion of the Church is wise, and necessary. The sex abuse crisis is not too far away in my memory let me rest assured that those in power in the Church are always doing and professing what is the will of God. So, no, blind trust in the Church is dangerous, becuase as you say, it is run by humans.

    However, I do agree with you that there has to be a faith that it is the Church founded by Christ to be His witness in the world. As frustrated, angry and betrayed that I can get with the Church, I am always comforted by the fact that it is without a doubt a better witness to the Christian faith now than it was a century ago, and even better than the century before that. And I can’t help but wonder if these positive changes aren’t slighty influenced by a less docile faithful 🙂

    So simple trust in the Church is something that I can not do in good conscience. But without a doubt I trust that God is leading the Church (and me) to do His will. And faith that He will get us there is something I think even the most cynical among us can agree on.

    1. Yes I think some distinctions are helpful. I beleive and profess all that the Catholic Church believes teaches and professes to be revelaed by God. Now that does not mean that there aren’t some areas where we should be able to debate. Pastoral practice and pastoral priorities are not dogma per se. So how the bishops handled the sex abuse crisis is very open to debate and deserves a lot of negative assessment. I agree thus that the Catholic faithful are right to interact and call for accountability.

      But as to revealed doctrine I have no doubts by God’s grace that the Catholic Church teaches rightly and in these matters docility is essential for us. The word “docile” is from the Latin word docile, meaning “teachable” Hence docility does not mean that we are pushovers or simply engaging in what you call “blind trust.” But the bottom line is that there IS objective truth and that truth is taught by the Catholic Church.

      So my question for you Dennis is this: Is there anyone or anything, other than you yourself, which is an objective source for truth? You seem to have articulated well the Protestant point of view wherein your measure of truth is whatever God guides you to. If the Church happens to agree with you fine but in the end it is you who are the determiner of what is true, not the Church. Protestants like to critique that we Catholics have a Pope. They of course claim to be free of a pope or any man telling them what to do. But in fact they DO have a pope, their pope is in the mirror. If no one is pope everyone is pope. Protestants like to respond that Scripture is the measure. Only problem is that THEY themselves are the official interpreter of scripture and so it seem to me we’re back to square one. If scripture is the source but no one can officially interpret that scripture then, in the end, the Protestant himself is the official interpreter, is his own magisterium and pope.

      So my question is not meant to be flippant. It is an authentic question, how are you not simply your own magisterium or pope? Here too, I refer not to pastoral practices or pastoral priorities, which are open for debate, but I refer to revealed doctrine. If you simply mean that the faithful should be less docile in matters of pastoral practice or priorites, fine, I think those things are open for deabte. But if you mean we should not have simple faith in doctrine then my question to you stands. What, other than you yourself, is the standard for truth?

  2. We humans were created with a built-in agenda: survival. We fear death. We suspect death is a bad thing. With the resurrection from the dead that our Lord acquired for us, we can relax and take it easier. We can go beyond our natural agenda to survive and think and act more nobly, with caritas and veritas. We can be children of God.

  3. “But our culture is really overheated at the moment with suspicion. There is a pervasive presumption of the worst in terms of motives, sincerity and the like. It is getting harder and harder to have any kind of a conversation at all about issues without the names and the labels sallying forth and the impugning of motives.”

    This has been true since the late 1960s but has become much worse in recent years. Viet Nam and Watergate are a source and nowdays, the internet seems to breed it. And tremendous social harm has resulted from it.

    While I see the destruction from this I don’t have the answer on how to reverse it.

    One action that I believe would help is greater personal participation. WIN/IAF work well because it is based on direct participation. People trust social organs they are involved with.

    When the laity is uninolved in parish and church life, parents uninvolved in school/PTA matters, workers not attending union meetings, citizens not particpating in civic groups or ward Party committees, these institutions suffer. Both leaders and the rank and file share the blame for the sad state we are in.

    1. Yes, I am sure it really heated up in the late 1960s into the 70s too. I think you’re right that involvement and directly engaging leaders helps to dispell some of the suspiciou and cynicism.

  4. When at social group outings an ‘agenda’ would imply the Christian trying to convert the pagan. One way of getting around this is not to preach but to ‘worship the Lord in spirit and truth’. Truth without spirit is not worth much and will get a Catholic nowhere in trying to convey his message. Everyone has an agenda, and when the belief originating from that agenda becomes evident it is then that the gospel message is relayed. The non-believer then accepts or rejects the truth, it will ‘set them free’ or they will remain bound to their desires.

  5. Thanks you for this website.
    There exists the following websites:
    1. Papal Encyclicals (or) Papal Encyclicals Online
    2. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10415a.htm. and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modernism_(Roman_Catholicism) or simply Wikipedia Modernism /Roman Catholicism
    This from 10 Reasons Why Modernist Christianity Will Die Posted on New Advent 24 Nov.2009

    My Thanks to you all for giving me ‘much more’ than a ‘hint’. Catholic, I believe means much more than ‘universal’, which does not contain even the idea of ‘unity’, but as a concept can help us understand.

  6. From my view, here in India, one issue for Americans is “everything has to add up”. It is probably the gretaness of the democracy. Religion has to synch with politics, politics with social life, social life with children’s education, the education goes back to politics and religion.

    Here, politics is for the few in power and for those who deal with them. Likewise social life — at home I am a Catholic, 95% of my friends are Hindus – there are limits on how much of a social life or religion I can share with them. I will send my kid to school – but for politics, religion and social life, I will never trust her shool to takce care of it. I will be involved every step of the way.

    Some people think Indians cannot be trusted because we do not have fixed opinions, but are willing to have many ‘personalities’. But we do not spend any time trying to synch everything with everything else.

    Just my two bits on suspicion being a spice of life and how to keep it aside and get on with it.

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