May 2009

I would speak if my tongue wasn’t cleaved to the bone

I touched you when the circle wouldn’t close-
when even the very flesh and nerves of your
body were absentee

I would take you into my arms if it wouldn’t paralyze you

All along our hands, in their weak clutch
the weight of my words wasn’t able to breech my teeth
and I apologized to you under my breath once I’d left

Introduction: Leibniz in Context

            Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was active in Germany shortly after Boehme introduced his illuminism, was contemporary with Emmanuel Swedenborg, and was prolific in an age steeped in spiritual enthusiasm, pietism, vitalism, and esoteric undercurrents. This essay will examine the influences upon Leibniz directed from esoteric and Kabbalistic traditions and the possible effects within his work’s formation.

            In this essay below, Leibniz is shown anecdotally to be situated in the esoteric traditions of his historical context and though inspection of his system reveals language and thought derived from Lurianic Kabbalistic and other ‘unapproved’ philosophic works, he was largely accepted in mainstream Western contexts though his sources were not. It remains to evaluate the argument advanced primarily by Allison Coudert whereby the process of Leibniz’s broad acceptance is established despite his unorthodox influences and how the view of Leibniz and his system has changed historically with the gleaning of new information and textual evidence. As Leibniz’s work and influence is popularly received as palatable to the rationalist Modernist tradition and is said to be “the last major philosopher to defend orthodox Christian doctrine in a systematic fashion”[1] he provides a portrait of how rigorous science and orthodox Christianity in his milieu was engaging the traditions which have in some contemporary instances been viewed as unorthodox. Whereas subsequent thinkers such as Foucher de Careil and Bertrand Russell would emphasize Leibniz’s stringently logical and rational system of thought, to the extent of disparaging esoteric influence, Coudert and others are stating that in Leibniz’s perspective, esotericism, science, and Christianity are not mutually exclusive.

            To establish Leibniz’s welcoming attitude and integration of Christian Cabalist ideas, which in turn had been interpreted from Lurianic Kabbalah, Coudert argues from two connected premises. First, upon investigating the process and development of Leibniz’s thought, one may ascertain that he continually was growing, changing, and clarifying his system. It is revealed that his evolution is pointed in the time of greatest interaction between he and Francis Mercury van Helmont, a contemporary Christian Cabalist. This duration of inspired exchange and glowing respect towards van Helmont was in fact several years after his publication of Discourse on Metaphysics in 1686. Secondly, his impressionable nature and ability to draw new conclusions and refine his thought bears investigating his personal life and van Helmont figures largely. Moreover, there are a number of points where Leibniz’s language and constructions show strong confluence with Kabbalah and esotericism though iterated within orthodox Christian and Modernist normativity. His respect for van Helmont are drawn from biographical notes including writing an admiring epitaph which credited him with resurrecting Pythagoras and Cabala, and their extensive communication. More pointedly, Anne Becco has effectively concluded that Leibniz ghostwrote his last book, an interpretation of Genesis titled Premeditate and Considerate Thoughts.                     


Leibniz’s Influences

            Mapping Leibniz’s influences is a complex one and not untouched with controversy and continued debate. Leibniz had stated that one influence upon him was the third century’s Greek philosopher Plotinus, whom he read in his formative years. Though his inheritance from Plotinus is not wholesale but rather conflicted, writing that he had left Plato’s clarity for ‘omens’, Catherine Wilson suggests that Leibniz is more philosophically akin to Plotinus than any other. Plotinus’ reception by Italian renaissance figures Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola established Neoplatonism as a bulwark of his thought within Europe through Giordano Bruno and others. Among Plotinus’ primary concepts that bear noting include his description of the One, which is primordial to the distinction of being and non-being and is whence from division and difference emanate. Plotinus’ development of the One is indebted in part to the Pythagorean school’s undifferentiated Monad. Though Plotinus was seen as corruptive of his forerunner Plato’s teachings, Plotinus’ themes will recur prominently in Leibniz.

Along with Plotinus, however, Plato, Proclus, and wider Platonic and Neoplatonic themes are evident and Donald Rutherford delineates three Platonic and Neoplatonic propositions that figure largely within Leibniz’ philosophy. Firstly, Leibniz maintained that there exists a schism between the real and the illusory; reason and the senses, spiritual unity and apparent material division. The sensory world of material objects is an illusion whose reality is contingent on the primacy of a spiritual reality which is a spectrum of soul-like substances. The physical senses can reveal only partially and errantly knowledge, but reason and especially mathematics can reveal the truth of the world. The truth of the spiritual reveals the world as ‘most perfect of possible worlds’ composed of mathematical harmony. The second theme is the rational mind that avails the accessibility of non-material reality. By Leibniz pictured the human mind, as gifted with reason, as sharing the ‘seeds’ of divinity he accepts the Neoplatonic teaching of divine innate ideas. These ideas include being, the One, and spiritual substance. While imperfect, these ‘seeds’ or Platonic ‘reminiscences’ understand and perceive reality as God does. These ideas exist as ‘emanations’ from the mind of God and, writes Leibniz, our minds are constructed to receive and synthesize these thoughts just as an eye does with light. Leibniz’s depiction of the mind he saw as cohering with divine illumination attributed to Augustine and stated that with proper rational investigation, we encounter not illusory or secondary objects but rather the divine mind and God alone is the object of knowledge. This leads to the third theme enumerated by Rutherford of Neoplatonism in Leibniz.  This is the process whereby a person’s rational attainment of truth in the mind of God is associated as a moral or religious realization. The piety exercised in this program involves benevolence and charity towards others however virtue is primarily the disinterested acceptance and celebration of the perfection of the world. The obverse of this is the training of an individual to view the evils and sufferings of the world as deceptive for they are composed in the perfect mind of God and God’s plan for the world.[2]

            The composition and nature of non-material reality was developed over his career and is most concisely stated in his work popularly known as Monadology, written at the behest of the Duke of Orleans’ counselor Nicolas Remond. The monad, writes Leibniz is a simple substance that exists in a non-composite unity and is uncreated and non-perishing. Infinitely small in size to the point of being unextended and non-spatial, they are immaterial and apart from the ‘natural order’ which they wholly permeate. They are ‘windowless’ in that they undergo no change or influence from exterior forces but contain in themselves the entirety of the universe. Many researchers have attributed the development of Leibniz’s monad to Giordano Bruno, the sixteenth century martyr of the Roman Inquistion. Bruno’s theory of the monad was largely appropriated by Leibniz including their characteristics of immaterial substance that yet generated physical force, each containing the divine spark, and comprising the world through their existence along a psychic spectrum of consciousness. Bruno’s interest in Neoplatonism, hermeticism and execution for the heresy of pantheism establish him as an auspicious source for Leibniz’s philosophy.

            Through Allison Coudert’s extensive research into the libraries of Hanover and Woldernbuttel she has been able to better establish Leibniz’s esoteric influences including Francis Mercury van Helmont (1614-1699), a fellow alchemist with whom Leibniz shared correspondence with concerning alchemical considerations between 1694 and 1698 and established a longer relationship that involved an even longer deep and mutual sharing of philosophical preoccupations. Their shared interest in opposing the Cartesian dualism of matter in a mechanistic/materialistic view of nature and consciousness and the mechanistic causality dualism affected upon nature drew their philosophical endeavors together with shared values in purview. Numerous scholars have hence placed both Leibniz and van Helmont within the scope of what has been called Renaissance Occultism which is characterized by a worldview that sees vitalism defining a complex universe undergirded by a unified harmony though the coherence of divine emanations. This shared worldview of Renaissance Occultism between Leibniz and van Helmont “served to explain how the one became the many or how spirit was gradually transformed into matter.”[3]



Lurianic Kabbalah

            Van Helmont also is credited with introducing Leibniz to Christian Knorr von Rosenroth, a Christian Kabalist whose Kabbala denudata outlines the analogical and mystical power of numbers and figures, the ontology of souls and the various spiritual hierarchies of demons and angels. Much of Leibniz’s previous biographers prior to Coudert had been tentative to explore the ramifications of Leibniz’s personal relationships and correspondences in an effort to first state that Leibniz’s philosophy was rigorously rational and to secondly exclude esotericism from being compatible with reason. That von Rosenroth was compiling Kabbalistic texts detailing the correspondences between the auspicious human body, or Microprosopus and Primordial Adam, the divine, and the universal system of meaning of Gematria and Temura at the time of their meeting in 1671 has been largely unexplored in relationship to Leibniz’s monads and quest for a universal language.

            To examine Leibniz’s philosophy as Coudert has, the connections of influences upon Leibniz from various ‘outside’ or esoteric traditions, opens insights into his difficult and dense system. One aspect of his philosophy which gains clarity through an esoteric lens is his explanation of materiality. While Leibniz wrestles with Cartesian dualism and within the vitalist theories of his day, he determines that materiality is not a substance in itself, but rather a phenomenon of his non-material monads. Against idealist interpretations, Leibniz constructs a pan-psychism that is nuanced through Kabbalistic understanding. Leibniz ghostwrites as van Helmont, “there are always parts asleep…yet to be roused and yet to be advanced to greater and better things…progress never comes to an end.”[4] Here he establishing the ‘sluggish monad’ the idea that matter is the effect of spirit which has a lower register of illumination and development.

            The insight of Kabbalistic influence allows following consequences from his sluggish or asleep monad an efficacious reading regarding his position that the present world is ‘the best of possible worlds’. The various levels of monads’ consciousness and their ability to awaken affords the position of a best possible world to also include corruption, ignorance, suffering, and occasions of malevolence without contradiction. This is facilitated and informed by the Kabbalistic idea of a continually improving world that requires spiritual endeavors of humanity to restore the world to its origins in the pure and perfected light of divine truth. This ‘restoration of the world’ is Kabbalistically understood as tikkun (in Hebrew, literally ‘repair’) whose premise is “that every created thing would eventually reach a state of perfection as a result of repeated transformations.”[5]

            Tikkun, or repair of the world, is established in Kabbalistic cosmology as necessary due to the emanations from the Absolute or Ein Sof seeking their return. As the esoteric teaching of Rabbi Isaac Luria details, the Ein Sof in its contraction or hiding of itself created a void which was filled by the Primordial Man or Adam Kadmon. This being, akin to Plutarch’s macroanthropos comprised the cosmos in human form and itself was constituted by the Sefirot. The Primordial Man’s energies were evidenced by flashes of light issuing from its body and these lights formed vessels (Kelim) that were intended to contain further emanations from the Ein Sof. However, before they could do so, the containers were shattered, dispelling the twenty two Hebrew letters into confusion, created distinctions and oppositional forces, and thus their sparks of divine illumination were subjected to darkness, ignorance, and degrees of distantiation from their origin. Through humanity’s action of bringing balance to opposites, righteous sexuality, confronting chaos and evil, and adherence to the 613 scriptural commandments, all creation is subject to a ‘raising of the sparks’ to spiritualize fallen matter and restore the dispersed sparks to their rightful divine harmony.[6] While Leibniz never stated in his published works that he agreed with van Helmont, von Rosenroth, and Lurianic Kabbalah that the cosmos would with certainty be restored to its pre-cataclysmic perfection, he retains a number of important correlations and knowledge of Lurianic Kabbalah gains insight to his positions. An example of this can be stated in the Lurianic statement that while the current state of the cosmos can be considered the worst of possible worlds, it is also the ‘best of possible worlds’ in that it avails connection with the Absolute in the work of tikkun.


Alchemy and Leibniz’s Treatment of Theodicy

            Leibniz’s theodicy serves as another example of light able to be shed on his system when esoteric traditions are not elided from his context and influences. Aside from the arguments of evil as being illusory in the sight of finite and ignorant humanity, evil as a vehicle for greater good, and being requisite to appreciate the good, Leibniz in On the Radical Origination of Things uses a rather esoteric understanding of evil to round out his theodicy. Here he appeals to language and sensibilities that are resonant with alchemical qualifications of evil through his arguing from the ‘germination of seeds’. In alchemical traditions, elements contained ‘seeds’ of potentiality which through suffering and the crucible of tribulation could be released to greater purification. Leibniz writes, “So a seed sown in the earth suffers before it bears fruit…So in physics the liquids which ferment slowly also are slower to settle, while those in which there is a stronger disturbance settle more promptly, throwing off impurities with greater force.”[7] The suffering faced by ‘seeds’ or sparks which effect their purification becomes expressed in Leibniz’s earlier philosophic works through his description of the transformation of human souls. Human spirits and animate beings are incapable of destruction, so that one’s death only reflects a transition of one’s spirit would only be perfected in another material body as it progressed onwards towards unification with God.

            Though Leibniz over his career developed his description of the spirit and unified and cohered identities, his early language is heavily reliant on alchemical philosophy. Leibniz turns to alchemy and adopts the term flos substantiae which is a unified essence that persists over transformations, and animates material bodies. Alchemists had spoke of the flos as a quintessence that was able to be discovered through refinement and when discovered revealed the true essence of a substance obscured by deceptive forms. Leibniz’s interest in establishing the coherence of identities centered in his desire to explain bodily resurrection and found the most adequate language through alchemical sciences. He writes, “We shall put off the body, it is true, but not entirely…in the same way as chemists are able to sublimate a body or mass, the defecated part alone remaining.”[8]

            Though Leibniz’s elaborations upon death and resurrection in his early work draw upon alchemical science, his explanation of animal and human birth writes Stuart Brown needed only to look within more condoned or orthodox venues for foundation. Stuart Brown writes that flos as rendered in German as Kern, or seed and ‘seminal principal’ had its own history in Christian metaphysics via Augustine and Jan Baptist van Helmont, father to Francis Mercury. Augustine had set out in his On The Trinity his belief that each corporeal being was endowed with and veiled a hidden seed created by God.[9] Leibniz’s ability to derive aspects of his philosophy from such wide sources that nevertheless share similarities, in this case the philosophy of ‘seeds, scintillas, and flos demonstrates the background of what can appear to be perennial philosophies that occur again and again and also the seemingly arbitrary distinctions of orthodox and public metaphysics and the esoteric.

            While throughout his career Leibniz largely distanced himself from alchemical sciences he evidenced a lasting interest and hope for its knowledge. Biographically, it remains that on his very deathbed he spent his last hours discussing the alchemical claims of Furtenbach transmuting iron into gold.[10] Tying this information to his early use of the alchemical terminology of kernels to describe his proto-monadology in 1671 creates a thread of consistent interest throughout his career.


Panpsychism vs. Vitalism

            Though a term he never employs, Leibniz’s monadology, along with the works of Baruch Spinoza, is largely credited with bringing the cosmology of panpsychism into major philosophical dialogue in the Modern era. It is necessary to clearly examine the distinction of his system from the vitalist and proto-vitalist beliefs that were developing concurrently in the sciences. Both as cosmological explanations share likenesses and can be located within Wouter Hanegraaf’s living nature as an identifying characteristic of esotericism. Both were born out of efforts to qualify or reinterpret the brute facticity of causal materialism, but differ in integral ways. A problem they sought to rectify was problem created by the Cartesian cogito interacting with its environs and its relationship to embodiment.

            Vitalism can be easily be taken to assert similar notions that of Leibniz and has similar affinities to Lurianic Kabbalah also. This is most directly pointed at by vitalism’s principle of the élan vital, or a substance’s quintessence. Vitalism has been popularized by conflating it with Henri Bergson’s description of natural change and evolution, though he explicitly distanced himself from vitalists in his 1907 publication Creative Evolution. As the will-to-life or vital force of animate beings, vitalism can recall the language of monadology, the élan vital can be spoken of as the ‘spark’ or ‘seed’ of life that gives a being its life and purest essence.

            However, vitalist cosmologies differ from the panpsychism that has been used to describe Leibniz’s monadology in a number of important aspects. First, at a very pragmatic level, vitalism was severely left daunted by progressively sophisticated microscopic technologies which unlocked the world of microorganisms and germs. On a broad general sense, vitalism and panpsychism represent two distinct solutions to materialism. Rather than ascribing to mind or consciousness to all, vitalism sides with emergent theories of mind. Emergent consciousness theories accepts brute physical entities and energies of atoms and quarks and states that only at certain levels of complexity does mind arise. This is at its base a physicalist position and mind, or life, is an ancillary by-product.[11]

            Panpsychism’s uniquely approaches dualism from an entirely different perspective from vitalism. Rather than a bottom-up configuration where materials converge into states that become recognizable as life or mind, panpsychism proposes a top-down model where all is at least permeated if not derived from pure mind, depending on the specific articulation of panpsychism, of which there are several. It also coheres all things into one common denominator rather than the often difficult to determine animate versus inanimate, for all material is an aspect of the mental state or awareness of the mentalistic monads comprising it. In these distinctions, one can see how Leibniz’s system varies from esoteric traditions which owed to vitalism, such as the animal magnetism of Mesmer who conceived fluidic energies as residing in and relating animate beings while still remaining within the scope of ‘living nature’.    


Concluding Remarks
Leibniz, a champion of reason and orthodox Christianity, challenges post-modernist conceptions of the limits of reason and the boundaries of hard versus speculative sciences. Returning to his depiction by Bertrand Russell and others as being rigidly stalwart to the cause of rationalist Modernism, one can affirm that while Leibniz does indeed fall within that frame, the presuppositions, methods, and influences of his work would in many cases today be considered outside the scope of rationalist philosophy. Through piecing together his biography including personal correspondences, and personal anecdotes, and reviewing his monadology and theodicy in light of the Lurianic Kabbalah he was exposed to via Francis Mercury van Helmont, Leibniz is revealed to be squarely situated in the corpus of Western esoteric traditions. His influence while remaining perhaps strongest in computational sciences, artificial languages, and his contributions to calculus, is opened to other reevaluations in light of his esoteric leanings. His desire to mediate peacefully between Protestant and Catholic parties and explain the universal truth pervading all the world’s religions reveal him as being more than just a scientist, but as also embodying the spiritual concern for a wisdom that would bind humanity together with meaning and divinity.             


[1] Daniel J. Cook “Leibniz on Enthusiasm” Leibniz, Mysticism and Religion Allison P. Coudert ed. (Boston: Kluwer. 1998), p. 108-9.

[2] Donald Rutherford “Leibniz and Mysticism” Leibniz, Mysticism and Religion Allison P. Coudert ed.    (Boston: Kluwer. 1998), pp. 25-28.

[3] Allison P. Coudert Leibniz and the Kabbalah (Boston: Kluwer. 1995), p. 50.

[4] Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz G.W. Leibniz: Discourse on Metaphysics and Other Essays D. Garber and R.         Ariew trs. And eds. (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Co. 1991), p. 48.

[5] Allison P. Coudert “Leibniz and the Kabbalah” Allison P. Coudert, Richard H. Popkin, Gordon M. Weiner eds. Leibniz, Mysticism and Religion (Boston: Kluwer. 1998), p. 56.

[6] “The Lurianic Kabbalah”

[7] Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz  Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: Philosophical Papers and Letters, vol. 2 L.                 Loemker, ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1956), p. 797-8.

[8] Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz System of Theology C.W. Russell trans. & ed. (London: Burns and Lambert.          1850), p. 164.

[9] Stuart Brown “Some Occult Influences” Leibniz, Mysticism and Religion Allison P. Coudert ed. (Boston:    Kluwer. 1998), p. 11.

[10] George MacDonald Ross Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: Critical Assessments. Vol IVPhilosophy of Mind, Freewill, Political Philosophy, and Influences R.S. Woolhouse ed. (New York: Routledge. 1994), p. 508.

[11] “Panspychism and the Scientific World View” Panpsychism Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy        accessed 05/12/2009

Perhaps my favorite TV ad of all time, Adam Berg’s short film Carousel, sponsored by Phillips.

            This essay will examine the hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur and Hans-Georg Gadamer, specifically their scriptural and religious application and discourse with theology. I will begin by examining Ricoeur, whose work more closely aligns with theological concerns and couches his hermeneutics in biblical underpinnings. I will then turn to Gadamer’s hermeneutics, which forgoes explicit religious discussion save for his critique of Rudolf Bultmann, as a point of comparison to shed light on the uniqueness of Ricoeur’s work. Ricoeur has earned his reputation in critical and hermeneutical studies as a mediator par excellence. Biographically, this disposition to negotiate between philosophers, ideologies, and finding the perceived strengths in each and positing an ethics within hermeneutics stressing pardon has been related to his experiences in a World War II prisoner camp. Dominating his mediating interest is Hans-Georg Gadamer, whose hermeneutics of tradition expands upon Heidegger’s explanation of returning to the cultural past in interest of uncovering more precise lines of question and availing new possibilities.          

           Paul Ricoeur’s Mediation of Gadamer and Habermas

            Ricoeur’s mode of negotiating through Gadamer and Habermas’ projects is reflective of his methodology and comportment. Instead of constructing a larger frame which would try to unify or conflate the two positions, for this would detract from the credit due to either’s strengths, Ricoeur proceeded by a path that pronounced the most advantageous claims from both. In terms of his work in Oneself as Another, where the other constitutes selfhood and identifying alterity forms self identity, Ricoeur opens a sight into either’s work which reveals that “the role of the other tradition is shown to lie within its own version of the interpretative dynamic.”[1]

            Briefly, the debate between Habermas and Gadamer that Ricoeur sought to mediate was created around Gadamer’s claim that hermeneutics reached the entire breadth of language and that language’s scope was universal in culture and meaning. Language discloses a world in human culture, meaning, and one’s being. Habermas refused to allow hermeneutics to encapsulate criticism, especially a hermeneutics of tradition which is obliged to the prejudices of one’s context. Habermas asserted that there is a meta-reflection he called ‘depth hermeneutics’ that was not bound to tradition and freed criticism. Ricoeur’s attempt then is to mediate tradition and Habermas’ Ideologiekritik first by stating that the interpreter both recovers tradition while also critically stands outside it. He writes that there has been a false dichotomy setting tradition as prior understanding and criticism as an ‘eschatology of freedom’ as oppositional.[2] Rather, he writes evoking biblical imagery, that an eschatological critical freedom is reliant on the continued recitation of the traditions of the past such as the Exodus and Jesus’ resurrection.

 Ricoeur’s ‘Strong’ Hermeneutics of Scripture

            Within Ricoeur’s large body of philosophical work he also wrote extensively on biblical hermeneutics, yet maintained that the distinction between theological hermeneutics and philosophy must be intact. Against Schleiermacher’s notion that biblical hermeneutics fall under the rubric of general hermeneutics, Ricoeur argued that not only is philosophy removed from theology, but so are biblical studies. The Bible stands the subject of not theology or philosophy, but a biblical hermeneutics which seeks to approach the Bible as a text on its own grounds. However, as we will examine further below, the scripture’s uniqueness requires a precise and specific hermeneutical evaluation with wider consequences than his sequestering of biblical hermeneutics may at first imply. 

            Ricoeur is located in what Nicholas H. Smith and others have called ‘strong hermeneutics’, a hermeneutical position that Smith finds Ricoeur sharing with Gadamer and having an affirmation of the possibility of interpretation. Principally, strong hermeneutics acts as a reaction against what Smith calls ‘Enlightenment fundamentalism’ which is constituted by the domination of the principles of scientifically repeatable and ‘objective’ validation. The precepts of Enlightenment fundamentalism assert that “beliefs merit rational acceptability to the degree to which they transcend their culture-specific content.”[3] It is here where Ricoeur and Gadamer will protest that culturally situated interpretation is the basis for, and only starting point for understanding. Ricoeur states that any evaluative framework begins in and operates within a subjective and biased point of view. Strong hermeneutics has the effect of deviating of the ‘objective’ and neutral parameters of reason towards establishing rationality within a negotiable and pluralist gradation of clarity within culturally afforded language habits and revealing truth as disclosure of an articulated world between interpretive subjects rather than a correspondence theory of subject to object.[4]

 Ricoeur’s Hermeneutical Theory

            Ricoeur separates the hermeneutical function towards text and spoken discourse by stating that the fundamental difference is a matter of written versus conscious acts; that is, the text’s meaning is met independently from the author’s intent. In spoken discourse, the common situation creates the opportunity for the referent to be clear. In text, however, the author’s intent and the meaning of the text deviate, reference becomes independent of the situation in which it originated and interpretation is undertaken without return or appeal to the author’s psychology. The object of appropriation is the world projected by the text rather than the interior life of the author as Schleiermacher and others may suggest. The two themes of anti-intentionalism and appropriating an immediate world by actional interpretation into one’s world, Ricoeur relates to directly to Heidegger’s work and finds them unavoidably coextensive. Ricoeur writes, “Heidegger rightly says…that what we understand first in a discourse is not another person, but a project…Only writing, in freeing itself, not only from its author, but from the narrowness of the dialogical situation, reveals this destination of discourse as projecting a world.”[5]

           Ricoeur’s theory of interpretation brings to hermeneutics not just an understanding of the text, but also an explanation. He distinguishes two elements in the process of engaging a text where first one establishes an interpretation and then must defend and set an argument for validity against conflicting interpretations. Although the author’s intention is opaque to the interpreter, one may make guesses that must be argued as warranted and more than arbitrary ventures of folly. While Ricoeur calls his method a “hermeneutics of suspicion”, and makes clear the difficulty of interpretation, he yet remains hopeful for the process. Ricoeur’s hermeneutical theory acts to navigate a path through suspicion and conflict that creates an interpretation avoidant of the dogmaticism that that would threaten to dehumanize the human sciences and yet steering from skepticism or dominance of critical doubt that would result in a quagmire of relativism that would question progress and hamper justice. While conclusions are drawn, the defense of one’s interpretational guess is one that remains open to narrative flexibility, the report and interpretation of others and qualifies as validation rather than verification. This bipartite process of ‘good guesses’ and validation allows for a balance between dogmatism and skepticism, Enlightenment Fundamentalism and relativism.

            Engaging a text is an invitation through it to a world of possibilities. While the possibilities laid forth remain subject to the process of validation and negotiated argument, the potential in any given text is vast. Given that any text is approached by a subject, the possibilities comprise a world where that individual might live and speak to the subject’s ‘most intimate possibilities’. Texts have the inherent power, says Ricoeur of speaking with an ‘ontological vehemence’ that transcends itself and points to a possible world that is foreign and challenging to the interpreter and their world. There is in text a ‘Being-demanding-to-be-said’ that exposes the interpreter to a knowledge and understanding resultant in an enlarged and transformed self through exposure to a world that they may ‘inhabit’ or create.

 The Principle of Poetics as the Foundation to Scriptural Analysis

            Integral to Ricoeur’s formation of hermeneutics and specifically its biblical application is his discussion of poetic language. The poetic and fictive nomenclature of text utilizes referents which act on two levels, the first being a literal sense which yet opens up to the second sense of inventive and creational metaphor. This second metaphorical level transcends the ordinary objects and environments of daily life and opens the way to a new life in a possible world. This world includes not only environs and objects that fill it, but more importantly, a new mode of human existence. For Ricoeur, religious language is poetic in that it is adept at proposals of new modes of human being that is brought upon by a dialectical interaction with the metaphorical level. This process is summarized in a tripartite movement of recognition of the meaning on its statement of ‘is’ which dialogically effects an ‘is not’ with synthesize into the poetic ‘is like’.

            Religious texts are thoroughly poetic, and in Ricoeur’s scope of interest, ‘religious text’ refers specifically to biblical text. The role biblical text plays in Ricoeur’s hermeneutics is unique-and through two distinctive elements, revelation and the naming of God, it shares the former characteristic with other poetic/metaphorical texts though he articulates its nature in religious terms. The poetic form is used in the general sense of Aristotelian poiesis meaning creational in general, but specifically in its revelatory function within the interpreter which bears new identity formation and being. The poetic when leveled at the individual forms a non-violent appeal in the ‘Being-demanding-to-be-said’ and directs the attention of the reader through the non-ostensive language their existence as ‘subjects’ as opposed to ‘objects’. The ‘is not’ of poetic metaphor is initially met as foreign and outside of one’s self an inapplicable to the interpreter’s life-world but in an act of revelation the text-world leaps in a confrontation with the reader creating an “awareness of authentic existence as what I “should be” but in actuality am not the mode of being concretely presented through the literal text and its metaphoric dimension signifies the ‘I’ in its authenticity.”[6] Ricoeur’s description of meaning, interpretation, and application in terms of revelation as a non-violent movement with what is not immediately within the self-identity critiques the Enlightenment fundamentalist depiction of reason as self-supporting and transparent unto itself. The central biblical example of this projection-ahead is in the naming of God; of which Ricoeur writes precedes an individual’s capacity and encroaches on the world of the possible.

            In Ricoeur’s evaluation of biblical texts, he states that it is the bible’s diverse collected texts’ act of naming God that makes unique religious text from other poetic forms of literature. The biblical texts present themselves as unique and as a problematic interpretational task due to the multiple genres in the canon including apocalyptic and wisdom literatures, hymns, legal codes, gospels, and narrative. Any privileging of a biblical text that would exclude other genres would short-circuit the polyphony intact in the whole. The polysemy of the God names in the biblical text are needed for Ricoeur writes that to one genre would radically narrow the revelatory potential of God through the text since God appears varyingly as either compassionate savior or wrathful; immanent and personal or transcendent and removed.
            In contradistinction to Levinas, Ricoeur will deny both that God speaks clearly through the text and that the canon bears a unity. Ricoeur’s biblical polyphony/semy has the effects of guarding the text against universalized or monolithic histories and theologies; and given the plurality of narratives creates a tension residing between “a double confession that only hope can hold together.”[7] This hope inhered in polyphony stands in opposition to the ‘demythologizing’ effort as identified by Ricoeur in Bultmann. The hope and vulnerability to the poetic movement of scripture undertakes the “task…to submit oneself to what the text says, to what it intends, and to what it means.”[8] The hopeful submission to text’s meaning labors in the two thresholds of “meaning” and then “signification”. Bultmann, Ricoeur writes, develops a plan whose exegetical decision moves too fast towards the theological and existential without properly addressing critically the text’s meaning. The critical engagement of the text in its ‘objective’ meaning offers a response to the perceived fideism in Bultmann and emphasizes the challenge and possibility within the scriptures. Ricoeur sides with the Fregian and Husserlian designation of meaning as ‘ideal’, that is occurring in the ‘non-world’ and outside the expectations or psychic reality of the interpreter.  

            A specific characteristic of narrative plurality that the biblical texts expose is a form of dialectic that concedes the inability to resolve all instances of contradiction. Ricoeur’s ‘broken dialectics’ is a practice of processing contradictory narratives without recourse to a resolution of systematic or universal settlement of interpretation. Despite Western thought being founded in logic and non-contradiction, life experiences present situations where paradox is unavoidable. Biblical texts exemplify this through the subject of theodicy. The problem of evil rather than being a subject of indifference by the irreconcilable structure of broken dialectics becomes the subject of continued struggle through charity and Ricoeur’s ethical frame of interpretation which is discussed in detail below.  

 Gadamer’s Hermeneutical Theory in Context

            Ricoeur negotiates a line between two hermeneutical approaches, one of which he associates with suspicion including Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud and the hermeneutics of affirmation wherein he locates Heidegger and Hans Georg Gadamer. Gadamer, whose academic formation was largely under Heidegger’s shadow in both Freiburg and Marburg, can be seen in large extent to elucidate on Heidegger’s themes of cultural situatedness and retrieval of cultural inheritances from the past; Heidegger’s Befindlichkeit and Wiederholung respectively. The hermeneutical appropriation of written texts is intimately involved in historical consciousness and the dialoging with text of another, past, temporal situation. Gadamer himself summarizes his project in this way: “to let what is alienated by the character of the written word of by the character of being distantiated by cultural or historical distances speak again.”[9] Though marked by a number of pivotal differentiated characteristics in approach, as already stated above, the hermeneutical variances and similarities of Ricoeur and Gadamer can create illuminating and resonating insights.

            Hermeneutics, by Gadamer’s view, is located in the reciprocal and necessarily bound relationship between thinking and speaking; thought and language. All understanding comes through, is availed and realized only through the Medium of language. Our understanding is not metalinguistic by which we may approach a ‘storeroom’ of language to then appropriate our concepts and constructions. More specifically, Gadamer states, the interpreter’s understanding participates in their particular language-field; presumably their language of origin or dominant language milieu. Thus an individual’s understanding and conceptual and interpretational stance is conditioned by their linguistic habits and world. Gadamer writes in Truth and Method, “No text and no book speaks if it does not speak the language that reaches the other person…Being that can be understood is language.”[10]

            Gadamer by his own reflection owes his hermeneutical starting place in part to the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt and Plato, yet he approaches each with nuance and negotiation. To Humboldt, he grants the pivotal hermeneutical insight that language is not an ancillary function or attribute for humanity to bring to their world, but one’s world is entirely contingent on the primacy of one’s language. While adhering to this, Gadamer will allow for language’s allowance for human freedom within that world; for along with Wittgenstein, Gadamer acknowledges the flexibility, organic growth, and fluidity over time. In Gadamer’s discussion of Plato’s Cratylus, he may appear at first to be dismissing both Hermogenes’ and Cratylus’ arguments; representing language as conventional and natural respectively. More succinctly, Gadamer negotiates between the two by granting that language is cultural convention, however it is handed down in a language-world via tradition that comes replete with concepts, habits, and is foundational to a common world. Thus, language is not available to arbitrary change and in terms of the common-use of language its elements of natural meaning and sustained conceptual schemes are upon which sociable worlds may be rendered.

            In forming his analysis of hermeneutics, Gadamer leveled a critique primarily upon the previous works of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Dilthey. Despite there being ongoing debate as to the degree that Gadamer properly understood the full range of Schleiermacher’s work, Gadamer’s critique gives insight to his project’s scope and intent. Schleiermacher’s assertion that the hermeneutical undertaking is completed by the ‘divinatory method’ by which the interpreter places themselves into the mind of the author is dismissed outright by Gadamer. To Schleiermacher’s high ideal of gaining an immediate comprehension of the author to the degree that the interpreter may understand the author better than they understand themselves, Gadamer will respond that the interpretive task “is not a matter of penetrating the spiritual activities of the author; it is simply a question of grasping the meaning, significance, and aim of what is transmitted to us”[11] while noting Schleiermacher’s insight towards the conclusion that a text indeed must retain its relation to the author’s life context. 

            Dilthey, speaking to the interest of history in the social sciences and hermeneutics advanced that beyond the particularities and contexts of history, there was an underlying, universal, and coherent history that undergirded the coherence of the text. To interpret is to step into the unified stream of history that is interwoven also with a historically connected psychic life. This highly psychologized frame is also reductionistic in that there is a presupposed monolithic stream of life and history that he asserts the interpreter may step into. Gadamer repudiates Dilthey’s idealistic suggestion that history is thoroughly intelligible to the individual in a monochromatic and universalized mode. Gadamer charges that stripping history of its multiplicity of voices hails to the Enlightenment ideal of uprooting uncertainty and diversity. 

Scriptural and Theological Appropriations of HGG

            Although Gadamer’s hermeneutical insights situate him among the foremost works on the subject, there has existed at times a perception that his influence has not by and large been applied within the sphere of biblical analysis. Richard S. Briggs suggests that this perception in part has occurred as Gadamer was so well digested in Thiselton’s The Two Horizons that his influence can be obscured or through the backdoor of specialized theological midwives. That Gadamer’s work would find a natural inclination for religious application is suggested by Gadamer himself when he stated that hermeneutics’ preferred texts were those of literary criticism, law, and theology. Along with Thiselton, Klaus Berger, Walter Wink, and Peter Stuhlmacher have given Gadamerian treatments to New Testamental scholarship. So too have David Tracy and Wolfhart Pannenberg applied Gadamer’s insights towards theology.

            Gadamer makes use of theological hermeneutics to aid him in his construction which fused hermeneutics and praxis. That application [Anwendung] was necessarily joined to understanding [Verstehen] acts as a foundational tenet in Gadamer and Richard J. Bernstein states that it is the focal tenet which draws his themes of tradition’s appropriation, temporal distancing, and the fusion of horizons. The application or appropriation of Anwendung is explicated by Gadamer as being the mediation between horizons and forms the allowing of something to be said to the interpreter which forms the understanding of the other held in dialogue. To support the woven relationship between understanding and application, Gadamer turns to theological hermeneutics. He finds that just as a legal injunction is not abstractly understood as residing in the past but is made valid only through its power to be exerted into the present via application, so too are religious pronouncements understood whereby their ‘saving effect’ is appropriated into the horizon of the interpreter. 

            Gadamer also personally fielded theological hermeneutics by his engagement of Rudolf Bultmann’s hermeneutics, which Gadamer critiqued primarily on grounds that Bultmann was invalidated by its predication of the question of God. This ‘question of God’ Gadamer regarded as an overly static ‘right’ question of God that may stubbornly fail to recognize itself as a inappropriate or mis-stated question. Also, though he claimed that biblical text was to be met with the same hermeneutical criteria as any other, Bultmann neglected that he was in fact approaching texts from the interpretive context of an avowed Christian. However, Gadamer and Bultmann do have points of contact in their hermeneutics and can to an extent be traced to the Heideggerian elements they integrated. The continuity both had adopted is related to Heidegger’s fore-structure of human being [Dasein] that keeps an existential openness to the being-with of culture and the availability to retrieve new possibilities from the past. Gadamer spoke in agreement with what he saw as Bultmann’s “openness to the horizon of inquiry…by the encounter with the word of God.”[12] To his detractors that would emphasize a caricature of Bultmann as he being overly monological or stubborn Bultmann in fact echoes Gadamer’s sense of Anwendung. Bultmann establishes this concisely when he writes that the hermeneutical focus is demonstrating the text as valid and powerful ‘word of address.’ It is apparent also that Gadamer’s reading of Bultmann is selective as to be negative when he obfuscates Bultmann’s own adherence to the same questioning dialectic championed by Gadamer when Bultmann writes, interpretation’s goal is “not to observe and confirm [the text], but as truly questioning it, as willing to learn from it.”[13] Gadamer, despite his critiques, finds overlapping congruence with Bultmann through their Heideggerian openness to change within the limits of a culturally shared world and by Bultmann’s sketches of the principles of dialogue and questioning the text which Gadamer would flesh out.

           Gadamer’s Theory as Dialectic

            Unlike Ricoeur, Gadamer speaks of the hermeneutical mode as being dialectic. Unlike Schleiermacher and Dilthey however, the dialogue does not include the author, but rather a dialectic of question and answer with the text; whereby questions are posed to both the text by the interpreter and vice versa. From the starting point of the interpreter’s prejudices [Vorurteile], the location that one is situated in by the fact of language, tradition, and handed down concepts, one begins a dialogue with the past through the text. Gadamer’s hermeneutic therefore is a dialogue [Gesprach] rather than a unidirectional interpretation of text. This development exposes the controlling attitude of Enlightenment constructions of historical events as objects which may be approached as though the interpreter is removed from history themselves. The situatedness of the individual in any context is first colored by the past’s effects and impacts upon the very situation the hermeneutical search begins from. Thus the text cannot be ‘dropped in’ upon, but rather must meet in a dialogical relationship where the inherent dynamics are recognized and neither the past nor present may be isolated or abstracted. 

            Gadamer’s Gesprach reveals that the traditions and agreed norms of the shared world act as their own partners of communication which may be likened unto the same relation that an interpreter may have with any given event or person. To facilitate the description of proper interaction and relationship with the text, Gadamer first denies it the mode of relation he views as the myth of objectivist or positivist methodology. This is a flattening out of history to abstract flashes of events where an I may approach a Thou of knowable objects. This Gadamer associates with the eighteenth century’s version of the scientific method, with the social sciences, and with David Hume. Gadamer also refuses the ‘I-Thou’ relation he associates the Schleiermacher where psychologism may answer any claim with a counter-claim; perpetuating conflicting interpretations that inculcate their arguments through a form of “self relatedness”. The interpreter, by placing themselves in a position to better know the author than they know themselves, act within an oppressive frame where the other “is co-opted and pre-empted”[14] which can culminate with the complete domination of the I over the other person or text. The resolution to avoiding these first two I-Thou relations is Gadamer’s mediation of past and present that without imposition on the other, reflects on the traditional prejudices [Vorurtuile] with a vulnerability that acknowledges that the ‘I’ must “accept things that are against myself.”[15] Moreoever, the I-Thou relationship is couched in terms of ethical responsibility rather than a rigid subject/object dichotomy.

            The dialectic of reciprocal inquiry results in a new content which transforms the tradition and the interpreter’s understanding of their world. This advent where the novel emerges [herauskommt] in a continual process of mutual querying is akin to the Socratic model. Truth is exposed through a refining of questions, but also through the narrowing of interrogative fields and the renegotiation of new more appropriate and productive paths of questioning. The process of Socratic dialogue is more fruitful to the uncovering of truth than the act of conclusively drawing assertions and by its perpetuity, plumbs that which the text has left unsaid-theoretically an infinite source of truth. Gadamer critiques Hegel for having a high esteem for the efficiency of statements. A statement [Aussage], by Gadamer’s estimation, delimits meaning to the said and distorts meaning through an attempt at concretized exactness. What emerges through the what the text says and does not say is a truth whose circumference is larger than the text itself and is in fact the entire language tradition, meaning the interpreter and their world. That Gadamer appears to be deferring conclusive and determinative conclusions has in turn received a number of critiquing assessments. 

           Gadamer’s Horizons

           The Gadamerian use of ‘horizon’ and ‘fusion of horizons’ in his hermeneutical discourse can be easily misunderstood, yet when clarified presents a useful inroad to understanding his project. Horizon in his sense is the larger context of meaning in which a particular presentation is set. The horizon is a never completed situated awareness that has a limited range of vision at any given time. The interpreter in the horizon of the present and the text in the horizon of the past relate in a hermeneutical circle which can be wrongly thought to be a circular track of question and answer where the horizons are discrete poles. Rather, the hermeneutical circle which describes the horizons relationship is “a contextually fulfilled circle, which joins the interpreter into a unity within a processual whole.”[16] Thus the horizons are always and intimately bound, and the dialogue occurs also in the sphere of shared context. Thus the horizons and the dialogue are comprised in a closed circuit of shared influence where the past which situates the present is changed when queried and in turn transforms again the context of the present. Neither horizon can be imagined as static or independent of the other. Bounded by the chain of tradition, the ‘fusion’ is cannot be mistaken for bringing together two dislocated phenomena, but is the correction and revision of the two horizons as related through dialogue. ‘Fusion’ stands as a process of adaptation and application, and not an overtaking, conflating or diminishment of either horizon. Rather, fusion stands as an alternative to objectivism and absolute knowledge.

            The hermeneutical circle also does not place priority with the interpreter. The dynamic influence and capacity to impact the other horizon retains a balance of control. The interpreter indeed must want something to be said that includes the foreign, the novel, the challenging, and further “allow oneself to be conducted by the [text].”[17] The text, as the past horizon, is not a neutral entity but speaks and questions the interpreter in an address that results in a shift in prejudices, understanding and a return to the text with what Gadamer calls the ‘reconstituted question’. The circularity of questioning means also that the present horizon is never fixed, but fluid in light of the address of each new interaction with the text. 

 A Brief Comparison of Ricoeur and Gadamer as a Concluding Remark

            Both state that application in one’s life context is integral and inerasable in the hermeneutical movement towards understanding. Unlike New Critics who would reign meaning to the world of the text, both agree that one must enact understanding in an application in their immediate context. Gadamer speaks of this as the joint need for application [Anwendung] and understanding [Verstehen]. Ricoeur will emphasize this in the process of self-expansion that celebrates the individual’s freedom as a subject. How this application differs, however, with Gadamer’s reciprocated interrogation of the text being mediated through tradition, whereas Ricoeur will say that the fusion of horizons remains in the text itself and projects understanding ahead of the interpreter who then ‘catches up’ through a change of self.

            Ricoeur complexifies Gadamer’s conception of present and past horizons. He does this by describing the three ‘worlds’ of the narrative and also how the horizons may be fused. Ricoeur states that there is a world ‘behind’ the text which means the world context of historical reference. Also there is the world ‘in’ the text, including its genre and literary structure. Lastly, there is the world ‘in front’ of the text which is the offering of possible worlds available to the interpreter.

            Gadamer’s critique of Schleiermacher’s imagining that one may know the author’s intent, motivation, and meaning better than the author themselves, and Dilthey’s corralling of historical voices under the umbrella Lebensphilosophie, which Gadamer claimed to be overly reductionistic and positivistic, represent Gadamer’s distancing himself from the psychologizing trends in some hermeneutics. The questioning dialogue with text that does not presuppose knowledge of the author’s inner life, motivation, and intent can be seen as roughly analogous to Ricoeur’s rejection of author intent being intelligible. So also in Gadamer’s critiques, does he participate in the stance shared by Ricoeur where conflicts of interpretation will continue, and multiplicities remain.

            Ricoeur and Gadamer share in an availability of their hermeneutics to ethical descriptions and applications. In Ricoeur’s “Reflections on a new Ethos for Europe”, he details five ethical actions of his hermeneutics, four of which have congruence with Gadamer’s project. The first is the ‘ethic of hospitality’ in which the interpreter nurtures a responsive demeanor in sympathy for others’ life narratives which is correlated to and descriptive of the attitude one brings to the second ethic of ‘narrative flexibility’. Narrative flexibility to Ricoeur means that there exists the possibility and need for intercultural translatability. The plurality of cultural narratives necessitates a de-emphasis of one’s own cultural narrative as being universal or able to imperialistically displace another’s. Richard Kearney writes that the overlap rather than diminishment or neglect of plural narratives recalls Gadamer’s fusion of horizons in that multiple consciousnesses may find common ground in a shared dynamic of greater meaning and reciprocate narratives that challenge each other.[18] The fluidity and mutual exchange of horizons is amenable to Ricoeur’s account of cultures as being recounted stories rather than being comprised of unchanging essences. Gadamer and Ricoeur agree that multiple cultures will always have access and diverging relations to the same past horizon in question. For Ricoeur it is ethically imperative that, in light of oppression and domination, there be a refusal to accept endless interpretive indeterminacy. Gadamer, like Ricoeur’s ethical determination of resolving conflicting interpretations agrees that in the multiplicity of these narratives interpretations are yet saved from slipping into abject relativism. Gadamer writes that while assimilations of the past horizon will be diverse, it “does not mean that every one represents only an imperfect understanding.”[19] Rather than a resolve to remain in cultural-historical relativism, Gadamer presents various cultures’ horizons as equally speculative and valid in that each is questioning the past laden with their own traditions and prejudices. Cultures can proceed to qualify their prejudices together through their own fusion of horizons.

            Narrative flexibility leads to Ricoeur’s third ethical implication of ‘narrative plurality’ which is the openness to recounting differently a particular event or text. Gadamer’s appeal to ‘bring the distant near’ is spoken to in Ricoeur description of plural cultures bringing before an individual narratives which are foreign and opaque. This plurality Ricoeur celebrates in his ethics may aid in a Gadamerian inquest of a text’s ‘unsaid’. The marginalized and erased voices of the oppressed may never appear in one’s horizon without being availed the horizons of additional cultures thus fulfilling Ricoeur’s insight that the “ability to recount the founding events of our history in different ways is reinforced by the exchange of cultural memories…[as well as founding events] of their ethnic minorities and their minority religious denominations.”[20]

            The fourth ethic of translation is ‘transfiguring the past’. Fundamentalism of any ideology, the opposing ideology of this ethic, is a kowtowing to prescribed and approved historiographies that has a tendency to move rigid retrievals of the past. The fundamentalism he evokes has a peculiar tendency to elide the unfulfilled past promises which requires the “crossing of memories and the exchange of narratives”[21] to recuperate the outstanding injustices to the dead and marginalized. Gadamer too, though critiqued by Ricoeur as being a traditionalist of the Romantic bent, decried the stagnancy or static condition of the present horizon. Without allegiance to tradition, Gadamer instead revealed that it was only through tradition that present transformation occurred and regarded there being a critical requirement to return to the past and revitalize and transform tradition.  

            The fifth and last ethic of ‘pardon’ does not have a rough equivalent, analogous statement, or agreeable application in Gadamer and sets Ricoeur in a unique ethical field. His ethic of pardon does not exempt justice, grant amnesty, or make allowances for easy forgetting but instead meets and fuses with justice. The ethic of justice converges with the abundance of charity that does not substitute for justice, but is the motivating drive to continue interpretation propelled by the previous four ethical implications. The ‘poetics of pardon’ are an ongoing and inexhaustible interpretive mode that does not flee from mourning yet does not entertain vengeance. It is the ethic which instills the interpreter with the ability to remain in hermeneutical task. It is perhaps here that Ricoeur’s uniqueness is best brought to light; by duty and responsibility to justice meeting the surplus of sympathy, compassion, and forgiveness speaking loudly to the biblical themes that punctuate his ethical hermeneutics of translation.


[1] Richard S. Briggs. “What Does Hermeneutics Have To Do With Biblical Interpretation?”   Heythrop Journal, Jan2006, Vol. 47 Issue 1, p55-74, 20p; DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-   2265.2006.00279.x; (AN 19215789), p. 64.

[2] Paul Ricoeur “Hermeneutics and the Critique of Ideology” The Hermeneutic Tradition from Ast to Ricoeur Gayle  L. Ormiston, Alan D. Schrift eds. (New York: SUNY Press. 1990), p. 332.

[3] Nicolas H. Smith Strong Hermeneutics: Contingency and Moral Identity (London: Routledge. 1997), p. 19.

[4] Nicolas H. Smith Strong Hermeneutics: Contingency and Moral Identity (London: Routledge. 1997), p. 21-22.

[5] Paul Ricoeur “The Model of the Text: Meaningful Action Considered as a Text” Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action, and Interpretation John B. Thompson ed.   (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1981), p. 202.


[6] David E Klemm The Hermeneutical Theory of Paul Ricoeur (East Brunswick: Associated University Press. 1983), p. 128.


[7] Paul Ricoeur “Towards a Hermeneutic of the Idea of Revelation” Harvard Theological Review 70, nos. 1-   2 (1977), p. 7.

[8] Paul Ricoeur Conflict of Interpretations ed. Don Ihde (Evanston: Northwestern University Press. 1974), p.  397.

[9] Hans-Georg Gadamer “Practical Philosophy as a Model of the Human Sciences” Research in  Phenomenology, Vol.9, p. 74-85.

[10] Hans-Georg Gadamer Truth and Method (Harrisburg: Continuum. 2004), p. 398, 470.

[11] Hans-Georg Gadamer The Problem of Historical Consciousness” Interpretive Social Science: A Reader  Paul Rabinow and William M. Sullivan eds. (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1979), p.  147.

[12] Hans-Georg Gadamer Truth and Method (Harrisburg: Continuum. 2004), p. 522.

[13] Rudolf Bultmann Faith and Understanding L.P. Smith trans. (London: SCM Press. 1969), p. 155.

[14] Hans-Georg Gadamer Truth and Method (Harrisburg: Continuum. 2004), p. 353.

[15] Hans-Georg Gadamer Truth and Method (Harrisburg: Continuum. 2004), p. 355.

[16] Hans-Georg Gadamer The Problem of Historical Consciousness” Interpretive Social Science: A Reader  Paul Rabinow and William M. Sullivan eds. (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1979), p.  108.

[17] Hans-Georg Gadamer Truth and Method (Harrisburg: Continuum. 2004), p. 360.

[18] Richard Kearney “Paul Ricoeur and the Hermeneutics of Translation” Research in Phenomenology, 2007, Vol. 37, p147-159, 13p; DOI: 10.1163/156916407X185610; (AN 25425603), p. 155.

[19] Hans-Georg Gadamer Truth and Method (Harrisburg: Continuum. 2004), p. 468.

[20] Paul Ricoeur “Reflections on a New Ethos for Europe” Paul Ricoeur The Hermeneutics of Action  Richard Kearney ed. (London: Sage. 1996), p. 9.

[21] Paul Ricoeur “Reflections on a New Ethos for Europe” Paul Ricoeur The Hermeneutics of Action Richard Kearney ed. (London: Sage. 1996), p. 9.

Postmodernity, as a complex matrix of social and cultural systems, has posed a number of complexing issues and challenges to world cultures, politics, and relationships. A challenge and opportunity that has arisen in many contemporary discourses in light of Postmodernity is interfaith dialogue and the relationships between various faith communities. The trends marked by the projects of Modernity’s failings have been aided through the language and critiques afforded through both Poststructuralism and Postcolonialism but there are yet opportunities often uncovered through these philosophical stances. Poststructuralism, in its questioning and critique of essences and technoscientific categories and assumptions has opened language, history, and methodologies of inquiry, to powerful subversions of normative power hierarchies. Postcolonialism, in its examination of cultural oppressions and social powers has created avenues for the marginalized and subaltern. However, in these projects there have been tendencies to overlook the influence of religious worldviews and the positive inroads towards furthering justice.
            Beyond merely evaluating the effects of religion and theology upon cultures in Postmodernity, there is opportunity to engage religion intentionally towards non-violence, justice, compassion, and sustainability. Interfaith dialogue and ecumenism are examples of employing religions and philosophies sympathetic to religion towards the values cited in Postmodernism. While dialogues and ecumenical councils are revealing results, there is still room for the encouragement of interfaith community building. This would be represented by undertaking mutual projects of political solidarity, environmental stewardship, and justice making.
            A posture that would progress the values and goals of deep and meaningful interfaith communities would be one of practicing egolessness as a discipline. This discipline may be called Kenotic Wisdom. While not adhering to historical Christian dogmas of Christ’s kenosis, this posture borrows its name to the intimations and meaning of the Christian use of the Greek kenosis meaning ‘empty’, or ‘self-emptying’. It carries the sense of humility, compassion, discarding political power, and ego dissipation towards unity with others, nature, and reality. Kenotic Wisdom as a discipline of interfaith community is used intentionally rather than Kenotic theology to welcome religiously empathetic skeptics, secularists, and atheists who may be averse to god language. Kenotic Wisdom primarily is founded in the reevaluation of ego and its Western associations. The isolative and discrete ego that is stable and essentialized which has been encouraged by the Cartesian cogito and implied in Western ontotheological tradition is what this essay’s Kenotic Wisdom seeks to counter. Through an evaluation of various religious expressions of Kenotic Wisdom and the practical effects of Kenotic Wisdom in community, this essay will establish how it is an avenue for Postmodern dialogue and community.
            Interfaith dialogue and community needs not assume any one stance or set of propositions. There are many ways to knit peoples together and there is no shortage of current religious expressions or yet-to-be created expressions that will guide towards these ends. However, Kenotic Wisdom appeals to a stream of thought which broadly may be referred to, as John Hick does, as ‘the impersonae of the Real’. Hick, in his description of the Impersonae uncovers the language of diverse religious traditions that speak to the truest sense of truth, divinity, Reality, or God as that which is void of distinction or division. Systems of strict monotheism or monism and philosophies such as Buddhism are shown to affirm that ‘this’ and ‘that’ are contradictory or illusory and that all simply ‘is’.[1] The Real is thus ineffable and is pointed to in the statement ‘the Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao’. As formless, it means that god is absent of characteristic, and only ‘no-thingness’ can point to what is meant. Above form, the impersonae is unblemished by the form of thought which are in reality only anthropomorphisms of the human mind extending and projecting themselves. In Lurianic Kabbalah, this can be said to be the Ein Sof which is not to be confused with the derivative God. It can be said to be ‘the matrix’ or womb of the world, the truth of the matter beyond existence or non-existence. Any knowledge or wisdom pointing towards the Real is already derivative and informed which necessitates the discipline of Kenosis to empty again. Sufism expresses this by stating ‘Allah is the ultimate negation’. 
            In contradistinction to the ‘impersonae’, Hick describes another expression of religion he calls the ‘personae’. This is the realm of names, where thought and form carve out titles such as God, Indra, Brahman, Buddha, or the ‘expressed Tao’. One example of this is in supernatural theism which portrays god as a personlike being who is exterior to oneself, removed from others and the world and having capacities of will and emotion. The personae reveals where culture and truth meet, for it places in the bounds of language, time, and social conventions the boundless. While framing the impersonae and personae in opposition, the latter can be misconstrued as being less valuable than the former. The personae however, can be shown to be a ‘shuttle’ or method and discipline just as valid as the formless impersonae. As embodied individuals it is also wholly natural and to be nonjudgmentally celebrated. It also is valuable in directing interfaith relating past dialogue and towards community. Interfaith dialogue as has been largely undertaken privileges the intellect and language. These containers of form if left only to dialogue restrict the ability to engage in the impersonae. However, when the discipline of Kenotic Wisdom is exercised in interfaith community, the impersonae is pointed towards in silence, labor, suffering, ecstasy, and the mundanity of everydayness.
            True compassion and justice making cannot exist outside of intimacy, vulnerability and shared lives in struggle. With experience of the impersonae of the Real found in community rather than just dialogue alone, the intellect and its trappings are avoided. The ancillary effects of dialogue and its appeal to the intellect include an academic jargon that speaks to the sufferings of the subaltern but because of its objective and removed position has greater potential to continue oppression. It also can devolve into polemics where argumentation and pragmaticism have inordinate presence. To the arguments steeped in cultural language and divisiveness, the Qur’an says, “God is our Lord and your Lord…There is no dispute between you and us. God will gather us all together.”[2]
            D.T. Suzuki writes of the triumph over human intellect that occurs in moments of experiencing the impersonae as that which would be missed in most interfaith dialogues. He writes that it is first irrational and that detached reason and philosophical musing give way to human desire, the will, and inexpressible aesthetic appeal. It also rises above polemics, argument, judgment and peacefully speaks to an intuition of oneself, nature, others and objects for their illusory sensate characteristics.[3] These human experiences must be facilitated beyond dialogue into realms of day-to-day living where art, play, sport, labor, and worship comingle. In shared living, various religions are able to overlap, interact in vulnerability in the face of limited resources without fear or judgment. They also have the power to reveal their own depth and richness of Kenotic Wisdom.
            Islam brings a long history of thought and practice that expresses the heart of Kenotic Wisdom. It brings in its most esoteric teachings a perspective where alterity is troubled and the individualized ego is annulled. The Sufis have said that Allah is the ultimate negation and egolessness is given as a deep and mystical truth to be experienced. The sense of Kenotic Wisdom in Islam, as in many religious traditions is at times esoteric and not immediately recognizable at its popular representations. In Islam, the triad of Islam, Iman, and Ihsan exhibits the difficult truth of kenosis. The first, Islam or religion (ilm), is the arena of doctrine and creed. This is where the five pillars of Islam including the confession of faith, alms giving, Hajj, fasting, and prayers is generally located. Secondly is the perspective of Iman, faith or belief. This speaks to the underlying and animating spirit of sincerity that infuses the pillars and teachings of Islam. Sufis will speak of the Tariqa meaning method or path being ‘narrow and dangerous’ but infinite. There are, it is said, as many paths as there are breaths. This implies that the inspirational moments of enlightenment may occur variously from moment to moment and draw an aspirant onward towards truth, occurring in any number of situations or faith traditions. Lastly, is the realm of Ihsan. This is where one meets the egoless nature of reality in an unveiling (mukashifa). In this realization, one rests in perpetual inspiration as one travels with and in God. Mystical truth surpasses limitations of time, language, and culture and God is never revealed the same way twice.
            In religion (ilm), or the first level of understanding, unbelief (kufr) is dictated by dogmatic belief. An unbeliever (kafir) is more easily determined by dogma and affiliation. This is appealing to the intellect and the level of poor interfaith exchanges. Many in the public sphere are never able to extend themselves beyond this level and literalism, polemics, and discord reign. In the second level, brute knowledge is replaced by mar’ifa or subtle interior knowledge and is inspired by faith. It leads beyond culturally decided moral codes to an examination of spiritual excellence. Unbelief in the second of the triad is seen as a veil, a partition or illusion that may or may not exist in any religious worldview. Lastly in Ihsan, there is no kufr or unbelief. There occurs an unveiling mukashifa which reveals the illusion of the veil itself. This truth is spoken to by the Prophet Muhammad when he said that everyone in truth is already submitted to God. Ihsan will affirm that each person’s center is in God and the individual who exists in this state enjoys being one with oneness, which is the truth that had always been.
            Kenotic Wisdom brings a level of humility that Modernity primarily does not allow to egoistic knowledge. Enlightenment confidence of the intellect’s capacity has in the West often carried over even into the knowledge of God and religion which has bred the privileging of some experiences and cultures over others. Within the Christian tradition, Pseudo-Dionysius offers a language to Kenotic Wisdom that counters the Positivist’s assurance of language and practical reason to lead to the knowledge of God. The fifth century Christian mystic and pseudonymous theologian is not unique in his theology of God in the Christian tradition when he states that God transcends the intellect. In the fourth century Gregory of Nyssa had said that God is “incapable of being grasped by any term, or any idea, or any other device of our apprehension…unthinkable, unutterable, above all expression in words.”[4] So too much later in the thirteenth century did Aquinas write, “the divine substance surpasses every form that our intellect reaches.”[5]        Pseudo-Dionysius, however, goes further on to articulate how an ego-emptying Christian theology also affirms widely diverse religious communities. He illuminates the tendency of Christian theology to give credence to the truth of God being transcendent of the intellect and language yet still hold some names or descriptions of God as more correct. There is a cultural and anthropocentric privileging that can occur when regal metaphors or images of light and splendor are more readily assigned to God. Pseudo-Dionysius will remind of the idolatrous tendencies that occur in these ‘proper’ metaphors of God. The negations of the privileged names of God are also to be negated; God both is and is not and the via negativa is confounded. Language and thought, which are necessarily culturally situated and finite heightens one’s humility of their cultural and religious traditions. Yet while traditions may be questioned, humanity is bereft of shared foundation with others and trapped in a solipsist world. Connectivity is shared in human experience of the absolute. Using Moses’ heirophany upon Mount Sinai as exemplary, he writes of the union Moses experiences there in the shrouded darkness. The ineffable experience that Moses experienced is open to and experienced by all and is marked by darkness and silence. Pseudo-Dionysius will also emphasize the availability of this experience to all through his respectful referencing of other traditions’ imagery and the use of everyday objects and situations rather than purely scriptural to explain his experiences. Within his system where cultures and their respective powers and privileges are questioned while the individual and their mutual but unshared experience of truth is given an egoless discipline is maintained.  
            Buddhism too is amenable to the themes raised above. The tenets consonant with Kenotic Wisdom that can avail interfaith dialogue and community are derived primarily from its strict nihilism. Nihilism has in many contexts been taken in a pejorative sense, however, the ‘no-thing’ that is asserted in Buddhism is without judgment or value connotation. It is an emptiness that is yet not vacuous for all is contained in it. Norms, while useful to the human experience, are ultimately swept away in nihilism. An individual’s ideals and priorities, which are often weapons of the ego are called to be reined in to where one may achieve thought without words, image, or judgment. In this state, one would simply be awake to the reality that phenomenon spring from. In this state of kenosis one’s ego is beyond being defenseless, it is dissolved.
            Buddhism offers an egoless perspective of religions that recalls Islamic language of many paths being valid vehicles of truth. Of doctrinal and creedal formulations, the Buddha used the imagery of a raft which would carry one over a river. The raft serves its function and its a practical matter with its intended results. However, says the Buddha, one does not then place the raft on one’s shoulders and carry it once they have reached the opposite shore. So also does it echo the illumination of Ihsan. Writes Heinrich Zimmer, “not the raft only, but the stream too, becomes void of reality for the one who has attained the other shore…Moreover, there is no Buddhism-no boat, sine there are neither shores nor waters between.”[6]
            Nihilism establishes the non-reality of Buddhism and has other effects. An individual who had viewed themselves and others in categories of ‘right and wrong’ are shown to be caught in an arbitrary trap of cultural contexts. Even if one makes a moral judgment made on the best criteria at their disposal, another ‘judge’ of expectation and value will be posited by the culture. For example, when a nation is at war, one may kill many innocents and be respected however, if they were to return home and kill a wicked man, they would be punished. At another level, the self is also revealed to be a culturally invented and conditioned phenomenon. One of the three seals of Dharma is the truth of non-self, or anatta. This is opposed to the imperishable and essential soul or atman of some philosophies. The non-self is spoken of as occurrences of changing phenomena both physical and psychical. An ego under the perspective of anatta will begin a process of deconstruction, a phenomenology of the appearances of self and trace back through the causes of its arising. Defenselessness and vulnerability are the outcomes of such a process. While it leads to a hermeneutics of suspicion towards one’s self, towards other beings, a hermeneutics of compassionate retrieval is encouraged since all are on their path towards truth and truth may be revealed in any guise. 
            The Modern era was marked by rampant colonialism, government overseen slavery, and the diminishment of peoples’ dignity throughout the world. Where it would be a mistake to say that these repugnant movements by world powers were the effects of religion, it can be said that some expressions of theologies were more accessible to their being misused. It can be seen that often the worldviews and philosophies that encourage egoism are those who are utilized for the ends of those who would oppress others and destroy their environment. One such example of a discipline exists in Christianity, but is opposed by another alongside it though they both can be found within the plurality of Biblical voices.
            Marcus J. Borg has called the two Biblical traditions Elite and Prophetic theologies. Elite theology lauds cultural norms of the Temple and its rigorous care by the approved familial caste of priests and the monarchical king. In this theology, geography, despotic rule and blessed bloodlines are granted nearly divine status. Hierarchies of power are concretized through the sanctifying of obedience and especially obedience to the king who is God’s representative on earth and spoken of as “God’s son”.[7]
            Elite theology is supported by partnering presuppositions and perspectives one of which being individualism. Out of interest to maintain hegemonic structures of the status quo, unity must be avoided. The many egoistic and individualistic categories of separation, including race, gender, class, nation, and religion also appeal to the interests of the elite. Pious and impious are segregated by culturally dictated boundaries, which sets individuals in a defensive stance against other foreign cultures and beliefs. Individualism is joined often by market and economic systems in contemporary societies which retains the theologies of the elite for wealth is amassed and withheld in grossly disproportionate levels with the richest one percent. Yet, Elite theology is self supporting and a theistic God is often credited with having blessed the rich and the poor are accused of unbelief. In such a system, whether in politics, dialogue, or community; egos are idolatrously obedient the class above and oppositional to those below.
            A critique of Elite theology exists within the same scriptures and is called by Borg the Prophetic. Instead of the individualized ego and economic greed being central, compassion is the primary tenet. The Hebrew prophets of this tradition spoke to the powers within the court and temple system in the spirit of compassion, justice, and unity with all people. Rather than the focus upon the male monarch as “God’s son”, the Prophetic tradition speaks to the poor as being “God’s people”. To aid the poor in a spirit of solidarity, the Prophetic does not rely on individualism but systems and structures. Central in this tradition, says Borg is the Jewish prophet Jesus who “rejected the sharp social boundaries of the established social order and challenged the institutions that legitimated it.”[8]
            Jesus’ role as social prophet whose message is one of relieving oppression and justice making has its own merit and impact of Kenotic Wisdom, and this has been taken even further by the theological imaginations of some including first century Christians. Burton L. Mack describes the development of the diverse early Christ myths and includes how one myth was taken from the surrounding culture and employed towards Jesus. The myth created was that Jesus was a heavenly ruler who declined his status to become empty of ego and power to serve his kingly subjects. This was the origin of the kenosis dogma in Christianity. At the time of its development, the wider culture had adopted the story of an ideal king who would by his own volition decline his power, albeit briefly, to be among the people. It was not uncommon for rulers of the time to enact this ritually, donning the garb of a slave and gracing the masses with their presence if only for a short and ritualized period.[9]
            Although this myth arose no doubt in part out of sympathy for the Prophetic rather than Elite model, it nevertheless supports the latter. It continues to allow a egoistic separation of God and individuals in its frame, where God is distant and removed and had to condescend to ‘live among’ humanity. It appeals to a monarchial model where God as Father sends “his son” in the type of the idealized self-humbling king. The monarchical trope has a number of consequences all of which can be seen to be antithetical to interfaith dialogue and community. Although a myth of kenosis implicitly supports the monarchical model, it is largely devoid of Kenotic Wisdom.
            The consequences are multiple, the first being towards human constructions of gender. The king motif supports masculinist powers and patriarchal societies. A gendered ‘chain of command’ is divinely sanctioned where a male god sends a male son into a culture dominated my males at the level of governance and family structure and in dealings of the home, society, and religion, women are deferred. The gendering of humanity as the ‘first difference’ makes women to be the ultimate other or symbol of alterity and from this essentialized category other systems of oppression fall into place based on color, physical ability, and class among others. What the Prophetic theology needs to achieve its vision is not only where kings, divine or otherwise, cease ascending after their humiliation but where there are no kings at all. Once instantiated, it would make easier the mystic’s vision of unity with all more tangible and able to effect political and social change. The Hindu’s insight of ‘thou art that’ would cover over all alterity and humanity would exchange not only dialogue but their lives in shared justice making and mutual labor.  
            A political arrangement that can avoid the pitfalls of monarchial worldviews influencing the civic arena is when Kenotic Wisdom is availed the opportunity to speak prophetically to political leaders. In Islam, this role has been historically fallen to the Ulama, or division of religious authority, composed of the learned and wise. Standing apart from the political fray, particularly in the Sunni tradition which emphasizes the division of political and religious power, the Ulama is able to see above short term solutions that may be influenced by greed, varying markets, and swinging public opinion. Above the self-concern of politicians whose self-interest can lead to nepotism, bribery, and fear-mongering for votes, the Ulama as a religious community of servants seeks to guide through timeless wisdom. One example of this dynamic interaction was during the seventh and eighth centuries when the Abbasid Caliphate, in attempts to consolidate influence amidst Shia and Persian schismatics,  claimed the Qur’an’s interpretation to be under their authority.
            Two examples of how Kenotic Wisdom has been active in public discourse has been in environmental sustainability and LGBTQ rights. In the literature genre known as ‘mirror for princes’, there is a long history of prophetic language which condemns the monarchical and egoistic use of and relation to the environment. The eleventh century Turko-Islamic mirror for princes Wisdom of Royal Glory, Kutadgu Bilig, creates a discourse of wisdom given to political leaders on many subjects including environmental sustainability. It states, “all are slaughtered equally in the beat…Your falcons let the flying things fly no more, your panthers and hounds no more let the walking thing walk. The father is left fatherless and alone, the mothered motherless and orphaned…Today it is our turn to dine at this table. How long do you suppose it will provide our sustenance?”[10] In a number of ways, the character of the prophetic ascetic Wide Awake speaks to the King the need to consider the future generations and how to humbly interact with the land and to be a caretaker of it.
            In many contemporary cultures, the Cartesian ego characterized by an essential nature and knowable to science has proven to not only be false, but oppressive. Together, with science and reason, prophetic voices are beginning to speak against the tyranny of philosophies which would place humanity into categories and hierarchies. This has been pronounced in the area of human ethics regarding sexuality, gender, desire, and relationships. Generally spoken of as LGBTQ rights, voices from many religious traditions have begun to break down the barriers of dogmas founded in religions or outdated science. With wisdom from Buddhism we can see humanity as ever changing and the ‘self’ as fluid, changing, and largely free from the strict dictates of any particular culture. From Islam we can look to the writings of Rumi to find the importance and primacy of love and the mystical connection between lovers that glories in the unity with each other and the Absolute. Regarding issues of how one interacts with the environment, or views love, a discipline that empties the ego is beneficial.    
            Kenotic Wisdom frees individuals from the isolations, oppressions, and social inheritances that accompany ego centric worldviews. With expressions found in philosophical sources and religions, it is a widely accessible discipline that can become the engine that drives interfaith dialogue and community. It takes seriously the social privileges and hierarchies that can explicitly or implicitly enshrined in cultures around the world and offers practical political, relational, and sustainable solutions. In an age where exclusivism has proven to often slide into intolerance, radicalism, and dehumanization Kenotic Wisdom stands to temper worldviews with what might be called dogma bleed, where constructions of the divine and metaphysical are seen as equally vehicles of truth and impediments. This is summarized in the sentiment of “the Tao is not the Tao that is named” which points to religious affirmations to be self annulling.


[1] John Hick An Interpretation of Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press. 1989), p. 252-278.

[2] Qur’an Ahmed Ali trans. (New York: Quality Paperback Book Club. 1992), p. 413.

[3] D.T. Suzuki “The Nature of Zen” Issues in Religion Second Edition Allie M. Frazier ed. (Belmont:                 Wadsworth. 1975), p. 192.

[4] Gregory of Nyssa “Against Eunomius” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series 2, Vol. V, Philip Schaff &     Henry Wace eds. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1956), p. 99.

[5] St. Thomas “In librum De Causis” Quoted in Aquinas by F.C. Coplestone (Harmondsworth: Penguin.            1955), pp. 131-2.

[6] Heinrich Zimmer “Buddhist Nirvana” Issues in Religion Second Edition Allie M. Frazier ed. (Belmont: Wadsworth. 1975), p. 237.

[7] Marcus J. Borg The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith (San Francisco: HarperCollins. 1997), p. 138.

[8] Marcus J. Borg The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith (San Francisco: HarperCollins. 1997), p. 142.

[9] Burton L. Mack Who Wrote the New Testament?The Making of the Christian Myth (San Francisco:  HarperCollins. 1995), p. 93.

[10] Yusuf Khass Hajib, Wisdom of Royal Glory (Kutadgu Bilig): A Turko-Islamic Mirror for Princes Robert Dankoff trans. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1983), p. 213-4.

            An examination of pop culture, using Gordon Lynch’s use of the term in his Understanding Theology and Pop Culture, as being a people’s “way of life” allows for an inspection of how cultural ‘texts’ are produced and their consumption. This approach is effective particularly with such expressions of culture that are so deeply enmeshed in every human activity that they are likely to go otherwise unnoticed, as can be the case with technoscience and religion in the contemporary American milieu. Much as cultural inspections into religion have necessarily expanded their scope and complexity due to new avenues of inquiry such as the substantive and functionalist views so too has conceptualizing technoscience been complexified through the work of such social theorists as Michel Foucault. Pop cultural articulations of religion and the technoscientific overlap and are mutually interdependent as they are outgrowths of the imagination, determine existential questioning, are both evolving organically, and share mythic resonances. As a largely overlooked and misunderstood phenomenon, technoscience and specifically information and communication technologies will be evaluated in regards to the reciprocal and co-occurring relationship to contemporary American religion.

            Technology is inherent element of every religion. Considered in its broadest sense, technology includes technique, craftwork, methodologies, implements, procedures, and cultural structures towards the achievement of goals. The productive or instrumental nature of technology is not limited to material ends, but can include cultural, psychological, or religious ends. Jay Newman writes, “a priest or lay religionist who prays for rain…is concerned with correct application of those techniques and skills that will make [their] world better.”[1] The techniques, structures, and methods of production employed by a culture can often remain latent, or taken as granted. Martin Heidegger referred to this condition of gainful apparatuses as ready-to-hand and as being largely ‘invisible’ until their malfunction. This ‘invisibility’ allows technology to grow within religion, dictate its parameters, and be integrated unquestionably into religious practice and theological endeavor. This essay will undertake to lift both religion and technoscience from pop culture for inspection on two points; first how information technology if accepted uncritically can become spiritualized and secondly how latent theological and ideological frames in a culture can be determined through the use and interpretation of technology.     

            Darwinistic evolution provides a model for the means and processes by which our environment takes shape, but has repeatedly been misappropriated religious agendas in the assertion that what is must necessarily be so. Some religionists see God revealed not only through nature but as though God directed nature to its current state and appearance by design and with purpose. Clothed in the quasi-scientific language of evolution, this perspective that is arguably deterministic and anthropocentric appeals to a desire to ameliorate tensions between faith and science. This use of Darwinistic evolution has been expanded to include not only the biological component of the environment but also the technological and spiritual by some and serving as illustrative is the work of Jennifer Cobb Kreisberg. Cobb Kreisberg owes much of her spiritualized vision of technological evolution to the work of Jesuit theologian and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who espoused a vision of an unfolding development of spiritual evolution guided by divinity towards an eschatological culmination into pure conscious spirit. Teilhard’s Law of Complexity/Consciousness detailed a development whereby brute materiality would be transformed unto higher levels of consciousness throughout the cosmos by ‘units’ of matter, life, thought, and ultimately spirit. Cobb Kreisberg understands Teilhard’s evolution as being witnessed within the progressing advancements of contemporary information technology.
            Cobb Kreisberg makes Teilhard a techno-prophet when she writes, “Teilhard saw the Net coming more than half a century before it arrived.”[2] In her article A Globe Clothing Itself with a Brain she writes that the mystic Jesuit’s vision of an evolutionary trek which the cosmos is caught in can be evidenced in information technology which enables communication to occur over vast distances. Teilhard’s publication of The Phenomenon of Man in 1955 describes a global membrane of information that begins to unify consciousness in a collective reified Mind (Greek ‘nous’) which he coined as the noosphere. John Perry Barlow, Founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation states, “The point of all evolution…is to create a collective organism of mind. With cyberspace, we are essentially hardwiring the noosphere.”[3]

            Such statements which marry technology to theology though not uncommon can pose serious threats to interpersonal relations and ethics by their propositions. A connotation of inevitability is evinced in such portrayals; a sense that irrespective of human choice and intention, and technological goals and access, a divinization of the world is occurring. Teilhard’s progression of geosphere, biosphere, noosphere which eventually terminates in the Omega Point, that is God, is in itself fraught with troublesome outcomes and when coupled with technoscience its dangers increase. First, there is a problem of telos: when the end and purpose are substantive to a phenomenon meaning and relation are interjected. Thereby, information technologies are synthesized into a causal chain whose ends are dictated from the start despite the lived experience of diverse bodily narratives. Secondly and related to the first, exists a totalizing effect that subsumes all narratives into a unified theory that assumes a metacultural standpoint that views at once the past, present, future in a harmonized schema. Another criticism of this view may be that it is a spiritually validated ‘might makes right’ argument. The sense connoted is that a tool such as the internet in its present form, which permeates so much of affluent American pop culture, must by its very significance in one iteration of popular ‘way of life’ be divinely consecrated. Lastly, in terms of theological conclusions that can be drawn, there is a deferral to the fullness of divinity in the present. The Ultimate is an ever postponed development that one must wait to occur within historical time. Like the release of an upgraded iPhone or the emergence of Internet 3.0, so too there is a ‘not-yet’ to the fullness of god.

In such broad uncritical celebrations of the internet and communications as representing the ‘expansion of consciousness’ one can detect the excited privileging of the primarily developed countries’ affluent whose consciousnesses comprise the internet presently. The neglect of consideration for whose class and social groups are represented in the ‘mind’ that is covering the globe acts as segue to the second point of appraising technoscience and religion: the latent theological and ideological can be inferred from pop cultural statements about technology. An article written in 2003 by Thomas Friedman for the New York Times serves as illustrative of how dense popular notions of technology can be. Citing that each day Google processes over 200 million searches, Friedman quotes Alan Cohen, a vice president of a Wi-Fi provider: “If I can operate Google, I can find anything…Which is why I say that Google, combined with Wi-Fi, is a little bit like God. God is wireless, God is everywhere and God sees and knows everything.”[4] The implication in statements such as this is that God is an infinite database which stores information and is neutral, passive, and without virtue. This is kin to the idea that proper judgments and wise actions can be better made if one has merely more information. There is here, as with Cobb Kreisberg a cultural gloss in that Google cannot and could never know that which is not in cyberspace. Statements made of Wi-Fi laptops enabling ‘the world to be at one’s fingertips’ limits the world to mean that which has been ‘uploaded’ to the exclusion of the technologically marginalized.

Friedman, unlike Cobb Kreisberg does not directly divinize communications technology but insinuates at the idea with his article Is Google God? While dazzled by the power of the internet, his enthusiasm towards technology is tempered by nationalistic anxiety couched in xenophobia. The specter of terrorism and fear saturates Friedman’s analysis of how technology has changed the world and this fear of the knowledgeable ‘other’ is what inspires one to at least appear ethical. This is a perverse and inverted retelling of Genesis’ ‘tree of knowledge’ myth. Whereas before it was God who guarded knowledge from humanity, it is now America who would desire to withhold knowledge. He writes that because of the internet, “people outside America will be able to build alliances more efficiently…and they will be able to reach out and touch us—whether with computer viruses or anthrax recipes downloaded from the Internet.”[5] This sentiment gathers the various ideas of colonialism’s ‘divide and conquer’ tactics, deception being necessary to maintain order, and that those who are ‘un-American’ are to be feared as violent. Outside of the imagery of a hallowed ‘tree of knowledge’ which will inevitably be despoiled by sinful usurpers, Friedman also tips his hat to the religious disposition of appearing good out of fear of retribution. It is an uncompassionate heart that finds its motivation for goodness in an ‘all seeing eye’ whether it is God, Santa Claus or the Internet in the hands of figments of our fearful imagination. Friedman writes that Americans should become conciliatory towards others because “info-tech, left to its own devices, will make it so much easier for small groups to build their own little island kingdoms. And their island kingdoms, which may not seem important or potent now, will be able to touch us more, not less.”[6] To answer the question of Friedman’s article, ‘is Google God?’, the answer would seem to be ‘yes’ if one’s god was feared gazing eye whose availability to others was to be withheld.

Cobb Kreisberg also sees fear as concomitant with technology and appeals also to the threat of terrorism. Writing Cybergrace before 9/11, she appeals to the memory of the speculative fears that surrounded 1996’s TWA flight 800 catastrophe. She quotes a New York Times article that appeared four days after the crash: “high technology may make a fine sword, but it is a flawed shield.”[7] Unlike Friedman, Cobb Kreisberg sees a religio-spiritual solution to the vulnerabilities of terrorism, sickness, social inequalities, and mortality through welcoming and nurturing transpersonal consciousness. She describes the choice of approaching technologies to further create incapable barriers and illusive shields or “work with technology to build a world of ongoing integration and spiritual evolution…Technology can serve as one of our greatest tools or our greatest hindrances.”[8]  

Technology and religion in their worst portrayals can be reduced to ‘methods of control’, frames of utility that ‘get results’. In religion, the caricature of religion as control is adduced from colonization programs from Church missions to conservative hegemonic power stabilization. Such stereotyped and simplistic sentiments are reactions to, and in part supported by, hierarchical theistic models. The transcendent God who is distant, all knowing, and directive was hinted at in Friedman’s article and can more easily play to top-down linear structures of power and oppressive, non-reciprocal control. “This is the God who knows all things, sees all things, and controls all things from [a] transcendent perch.”[9] This is a perspective that has faltered in theology as well as in positivist linear cause and effect mechanistic models. In spheres both religious and technological, interdependence, complexity, and mutual-feedback relationality are replacing Modernist worldviews. In technology, systems theories and cybernetics, and interdependence, can be used to express the newer view. In religion this has been expressed largely in the language of the Process philosophy founded by A.N. Whitehead. When Process thinking is applied to theology it expresses God at work in every event and being influenced by the free choices of systems of relationality in the universe. Cobb Kreisberg relates Process to the ‘swarm intelligence’ of an ant colony and also the ‘bottom up’ emergent programming of artificially intelligent technologies. In this light, it is much more difficult to parody religion or technology as oppressive methods of control, and much easier to view them as expressions of the desires of bodies in time relating in vulnerability.   

            Technology qualifies as a religion itself in both substance and function, and in some cases an uncritical pop cultural appropriation of what are perceived as authoritative lessons can lead to ethical dangers. Technoscience as a source of communitas and meaning-supplying myth is prevalent and growing in contemporary America but it has been criticized from some circles as being oppressive in its current manifestations. Feminisms have pointed to the masculine privileging that has been injected into technoscience since the Modernist period. Aside from the language, projects, presuppositions, and essentialized dualisms Feminists have contested in technoscience, there are problematic ‘lessons’ that some derive from its applications. David Downs’ article “Video Gaming for Academic Credit” documents a UC Berkeley business class based on the precepts of the online game StarCraft. By class creator and instructor Alan Feng’s telling, StarCraft, an online game of interplanetary warfare, is ‘definitely applicable to life’ and holds ‘vital life lessons.’[10] Those lessons and applications to life include viewing life as a ‘resource battle’ in the midst of a game where players are in a race to ‘totally annihilate’ another planet’s species. The class and the students who pack its lecture hall seem to take for granted that the rules of competition, scarcity models, and win-at-all-costs found in StarCraft are accurate pictures of the ‘real world’. If so, they may be neglecting that the game operates on a program of narrow parameters. The only ‘reality’ it, or other technologies can ‘represent’ is the program given them by a very small cadre of computer programmers. When individuals look for the governing rules and meanings of reality along narrowly confined frames without engaging the context those frames arise from and abstracted from a wealth of voices including the marginalized, their ‘reality’ will be in service to oppression; whether derived from technological or religious frames. 

            The pop cultural myths and interpretations of technology are not limited to esoteric business classes within academia but gain credence widely throughout the American imagination despite critical analyses that would discredit them. One such myth is that the internet draws people closer. This is often stated in the defense of social tools such as Facebook or stating that circles of influence and connectivity are both broadened and deepened through online interfaces. This response, while absolutely correct misses the sense of connectivity that critics are seeking. The social closeness that many people of faith are critiquing the internet as not yet providing is that which knits people together beyond class and race. Just as urbanization trends may open the residents of cities towards understanding and celebrating wider cultural expressions, this has not yet proven to ameliorate racism and classism.

            Exposure to and the awareness of other narratives does not necessarily lead to the ‘closeness’ that critics seek. It is an oft repeated statement that ‘the internet brings people together’ and while that is arguably so, what many from within religious traditions seek is a closeness that translates to solidarity and interpersonal intimacy. John Paul II wrote that solidarity is not a ‘shallow distress’ but “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good.”[11] While the internet has facilitated solidarity movements’ organization, and causes of social justice being able to gather strength, it is questionable as to whether the internet can cause these movements. It is also questionable whether full impacts of disparities regarding race and class can be fully grasped without bodies in contact and the first-hand experience of sharing in solidarity the weight of social oppressions.

            Another implication derived from technoscientific advances that bears dangers is that humanity has entered a new stage of evolution. This is a conclusion that has its own movement and ideology which is spoken of under the umbrella terms of ‘trans’ or ‘post’ humanism. Adherents of these perspectives state that humanity is on a directed evolutionary path that will preclude the current physiological and philosophical understandings of the human body and is necessary. This view has its extremists such as proponents Hans Moravec, Michael Dryer, and Warren McCulloch is summarized by N. Katherine Hayles: “Humans can either go gently into that good night, joining the dinosaurs as a species…or hang on for a while longer by becoming machines themselves.”[12] One must not however go to the extremes of these to begin to gain the sense that posthumanism or transhumanism are the newest ‘isms’ to establish power.

            There are those who are asking who is being left behind in humanity when some are charging forward into a ‘posthuman’ era. John P. Foley of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications writes of the ‘digital divide’ that is presently widening in many cultures whereby the unequal distribution and access to technologies has exacerbated poverty and exploitation. Though the internet’s egalitarian and decentralized structure, its absence in the lives of billions has played a divisive role. This technological divide is not limited to communication and information technologies: while many in America can expand their consciousness via the internet, more than 2.5 billion people do not have access to private or hygienic toilets[13] and lack of access to clean water is a still a leading worldwide killer. Foley and the Catholic Church understand the importance of first ensuring the benefit of all and advocate free internet access as a basic human right. The role of a deeper sense of human connectivity fostered both within and without religious traditions can continue to emphasize the connectivity of humanity in the face of those who would like to leave it behind.  

            The digital divide poses challenges to ethical, social, and religious considerations. While there are valuable efforts to close the gap such as the “One Laptop Per Child” initiative in whose mission statement states, “when children have access to [a laptop] they get engaged in their own education. They learn, share, create, and collaborate. They become connected to each other, to the world and to a brighter future.”[14] The intentions of such programs are no doubt not malicious. However, religious values of empathy and non-violence can be instructional to critically assess the amelioration of the digital divide. As with colonial machinations of the past which rationalized their actions as ‘improving primitive societies’, the closure of the digital divide must be directed by people’s un-coerced needs and wants.

             The need for intense and intentional reflection and critique for technology is always necessary but especially so for people of religious faith who identify as ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’. This is because as Jay Newman warns, “progress is normally a term strong in ‘emotive’ meaning but rather weak in ‘descriptive’ meaning.”[15] Progress and development are not synonymous with change and care must be taken in exegeting culture that the distinction is made. Progress requires a known destination that technology often cannot provide. The effects, uses, and reappropriation of technologies create a muddied teleology for even the most straightforward technologies. Also, progress and development are used to describe even those technologies whose stated purpose is to dehumanize others and destroy the environment, as is the case with weapons of war.

            To counter this, an evaluation of religion and technoscience can emphasize change and flux without immediately or uncritically ascribing progress. A more fair and development critique and analysis must first clearly take into consideration the intentions, ends, and values and prospective unintended effects. ‘Progress’ must be determined in the outcomes and precedents that a technology creates with primary consideration given to those who demonstrate the most ill-effects from a technology. In practical matters, this could include residents of Appalachia who suffer health and environmental damage because of coal technologies or the people of Republic of Congo whose lands are ravaged by war due to mining elements such as Coltan or Tin Oxide necessary in computer components. Historically religion has functioned as cultures’ transmitters of values and concerns and using a theological lens to ‘read’ technology is necessary, although incomplete. Beyond an abstract theological lens, compassionate and mutually vulnerable dialogue must occur across communities to determine when ‘change’ is regressive or progressive.

            This being said, there are occasions when the determination of a technology’s value is more discernable. The matrix of complex outcomes and precedents at times are more clearly available to discernment. This perspective balances the previous point made above that discourse and enlightened inspection are necessary to evaluate a specific technology. If this perspective alone informs evaluating technology, it is likely to fall prey to the fallacy that technology is value free and communities only later negotiate its meaning. Technoscience is shrouded with the myth that it, by dealing with objective facts, carries no pre-loaded social or ethical value. Despite the popular misconceptions of technoscience being unblemished from cultural situatedness and foundational premises, there can be no innovation, methodology, or inquiry that does not carry with it cultural assumptions. The value of handguns is exemplary: that an individual may take the life of another without any consensus or deliberation other than the flex of a finger is the value expressed in handguns’ existence. An artificial heart is another example: one’s life is not dictated by biology and processes of nature but by the decision of an individual and others.

            This essay has undertaken to queer the rigid distinctions between technology and religion by emphasizing their connection as cultural expressions grown out of the imagination, as supplying meaning and myth, and prescribing avenues towards a more fully lived humanity. Seeing how an uncritical attention to technology by some can lead to a spiritualization or divination of its applications which enforce patterns of its blind acceptance. It also used examples from pop culture to find larger theological and ideological frames that can exist latently and implicitly in technology, its use, and the lessons it teaches us. It brought a lens of inquiry to the technoscientific that is especially needed in light of exponential innovation, and its saturation into nearly every reach of culture has included that of faith communities.

In the desire to deconstruct modes of oppression, and celebrate the human spirit’s venturing, people of progressive faith must be especially wary of the appeal of the technologically novel. Between neo-luddite escapism and an unwise leaping ahead in the desire for solutions for injustice and tyranny, there is a discerning critical vision that can create, disseminate, and use technologies for the betterment of all. Newman writes, this “spiritual vision is not only a protection against technology and progress but a way of invigorating them.”[16] In the practice of exegeting culture in all its characteristics, including the often invisible technologies and implicit religious worldviews present in them, religions and technologies will be better into dialogue and able to inform one another. In this way, our popular ‘ways of life’ whether technological or religious can better actualize in communities whatever might be called ‘divine’.   


[1] Jay Newman Religion and Technology (London: Praeger. 1997), 146.

[2] Jennifer Cobb Kreisberg A Globe, Clothing Itself with a Brain

[3] Jennifer J. Cobb Cybergrace: The Search of God in the Digital World (New York: Crown. 1998), 85.

[4] Thomas Friedman Is Google God?

[5] Thomas Friedman Is Google God?


[6] Thomas Friedman Is Google God?


[7] Tim Weiner, New York Times Week in Review, Sunday, July 21, 1996, page 5.

[8] Jennifer J. Cobb Cybergrace: The Search of God in the Digital World (New York: Crown. 1998), 120-121.

[9] Jennifer J. Cobb Cybergrace: The Search of God in the Digital World (New York: Crown. 1998), 167.

[10] David Downs “Video Gaming for Academic Credit” East Bay Express March 11-17, 2009 Vol. 31, issue 22

[11] John Paul II, Sollicitudo rei Socialis, n. 38.

[12] N. Katherine Hayles How We Became Posthuman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1999), 283.


[14] One Laptop Per Child

[15] Jay Newman Religion and Technology (London: Praeger. 1997), 98.

[16] Jay Newman Religion and Technology (London: Praeger. 1997), 103.

Next Page »