The hermeneutical foul

If you’ll indulge me, I want to say a little bit more about the recent debate that followed that Jonathan Leeman article.  The article and the aftermath raised important questions about how we read and hear what others are saying, including God’s Word but also how we read and hear what each other are saying. That’s what “hermeneutics” is all about.

As I mentioned here, Jonathan Leeman was accused both because of the article and because of the conversation around it of being “spiritually abusive.”  I’ve written already about that accusation and bluntly I don’t want to get into a detailed discussion about whether or not the accusation was true. That’s because simply as my original article shows the accusation was vexatious and doesn’t deserve a further airing. I don’t think there was a case to answer.

However, I do think that the way that the accusation was discussed gives us a little bit more of a window into the very problem with postmodern hermeneutics that Leeman raises in his article.

First of all, one basis for the charge against Leeman was that the accuser claimed to be a faithful hearer and representative of those who have experienced spiritual abuse. His argument was that they are able to recognise when someone is being abusive because of their own experience.

There is something true and helpful in that. You see, there is something about trauma that our whole person, body/mind/emotions seems to remember and that’s why certain events/episodes etc can trigger post traumatic stress.  If as you find yourself in particular situations, hear voices, see the facial expressions or physical stance of others you experience things like a kind of brain fog seizing you, a pounding heart, shortness of breath (in effect a form of panic attack), that may well signal to you that what is happening is that the experience is triggering deep seated reactions to past events.  And so it is helpful to be alert to how survivors are responding to a current situation.

What that reaction tells us is two things. First of all, it tells us that the person themselves may need some pastoral care and support. Just as when a friend experiences overtly physical symptoms we encourage them to “get it checked out”, so too my advice here is “get what you are experiencing checked out with someone qualified and experienced.

Secondly, it tells us that we need to look carefully at how we are acting and what we are saying. We need to be alert to the way in which our words and actions, even unintentionally may be affecting others. This does not mean we are to blame for their reaction but it does mean we have to take responsibility for ours. 

However, what it does not mean is that the person(s) reacted to are abusers or that the situation is abusive. The abusive person(s)/situation is the one that the survivor is subconsciously recalling. We need to remember that there is fallibility too. Indeed one of the evils of abuse is that it distorts and destroys other relationships. 

The second part of the example is this. When challenged on what he’d said, Leeman’s response was to defend himself and to attack those who disagreed.  One person referred to his accusation as unqualified. Now the word “unqualified” could either qualify the person meaning they are unqualified to make an assessment, or it could qualify the word “assessment” meaning specifically

“without reservation or limitation; total.”

I think the context made it obvious that the  second use was intended but Howard assumed the former leading to the following defence.

Now here’s the thing. I’ve checked Howard’s biography, like me he has qualifications in theology and pastoral care. Like me, he reports experience of practice in this area.  The question is not about qualification it’s about whether or not his assessment was correct and appropriate.  Relying on his qualifications as the basis for his defence missed the point. Indeed it took us into a power game. I guess those he disagreed with could have flourished their CVs too.  I hope that he would at least recognise that someone who also has post grad level qualifications in Theology and pastoral care as well as significant experience of pastoral work with a variety of abuse victims at least has permission to take part in the conversation.  I might add as well that as someone with legal qualifications I had a perspective on the legal and ethical implications of how the accusation was framed.

In a further point of irony, as he delivered the second of those tweets I also was knee deep in exegetical work on the very subject.  All that this proves is that we both were writing stuff, nothing more, nothing less.

But the point is this.  It doesn’t matter whether or not he or any of us he disagreed were more or less qualified. What matters is whether or not his assessment was correct. There were two parts to that. The first was whether his observation of events was accurate. The second was whether or not his definition of abuse was correct, in other words, did Jonathan Leeman do the things he claimed and did that make Leeman guilty.  This is the equivalent to a court case where those adjudicating have to decide on both the facts (did it happen) and the law (was it wrong).[1]

The third part of his defence was an attack first on a friend of mine and then later on me. Apparently the reason why we were disagreeing with him was because we were racist.

When I pushed back against how he was speaking to others his response to me was:

Now notice what is happening here. Once again an accusation is thrown out without evidence. It’s a particularly nasty accusation because it’s intended to shame, it’s an accusation that attacks motive and character and could risk other relationships and standing such as employment.  Such accusations in effect silence the debate.  No-one wants to hear from racists.

Here we see the exact problem that Leeman identifies at work.  It doesn’t matter whether my definition of spiritual abuse is right and Howard’s is wrong what matters is two things. Who holds power and who has victim status. Notice too that this means that someone can deploy both controlling stories. At one and the same time power is exercised “I am the expert”

The result of all of this is that the arguments are not heard and that is saddening, heart breaking even.  You see, in my experience most Christians are not actually that tribal and often when given the chance to talk, challenge, question, disagree we find that we love each other in the Lord, agree on a lot more than we realise and can learn much from each other.  Yet when this kind of tactic is deployed, in effect playing the man instead of the ball it invokes a kind of scorched earth policy. The conversation becomes toxic and people give it a wide berth. 

So much for the problem of the “post-modern hermeneutic”.  In a future post I’m going to talk about something called “The hermeneutic spiral” and why it is much more helpful.


[1] In criminal cases those responsibilities are divided between jury and judge respectively.

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