How reading Hans-Georg Gadamer prepared me for heartbreak (Theological memoir #3)

Ted Grimsrud—July 29, 2019 

When, at the age of 17, I decided to become a Christian, the main motivation that I remember was that I wanted to know the truth. I realize now that that was more an emotional than intellectual motive. It took me some time, though, to discern the nature of this “truth” that I sought. From the start, I did not focus on finding a secure resting place nearly so much as on understanding more and more. As it turns out, of course, a quest for truth-as-understanding never ends.

Glimmers of uncertainty

The first lessons I learned on this quest had to do with Christianity being the one true faith. I didn’t have objections to that notion; I really did want to be part of the truth faith and if there was only one I was okay with that. However, I did not instinctively gravitate toward Christianity because of exclusive truth claims; I just didn’t know there were different notions of “true religion.”

At some point I did learn that indeed, the truthfulness of Christianity is contested. At first, I learned that from Christian exclusivists who insisted that their version of Christianity was the only true faith in contrast to other versions. They did inform me, though, that theirs were not the only views (even if the other views were wrong). I have mentioned Francis Schaeffer, the “evangelist to intellectuals,” as an important thinker for me at that time. Schaeffer taught me about the “Christian” notion of absolute and exclusive Truth.

I remember a couple of moments that opened my eyes a little. A mentor of mine in the small non-denominational church I had recently joined talked with me about end-times theology. He introduced me to what he presented as the two main options: “dispensational” and “covenant” theologies. These were new terms for me, but I was clearly in the dispensational camp (though I had thought it was simply the only true view; it was kind of like going through life and only later on learning that one speaks in “prose”—you’d been doing it all along but never had a word for it). The stunning moment came when my friend told me that in fact most Christians followed the covenant view. Whoa! This was the first time I realized that what I had been taught was not the only viewpoint, not even the majority viewpoint. That realization was an important step in coming to realize that my quest for understanding truth actually meant that things were pretty wide open. I didn’t simply have to accept the one view I was taught. As it turned out, I soon realized that I no longer wanted to accept the dispensational perspective as truthful.

The second moment came a few months later. I was part of a kind of stealth evangelism project. A small group of us raised some money and weekly bought ads in the student newspaper at the University of Oregon where each week we’d make an argument for the truthfulness of Christianity. We didn’t identify ourselves but provided an address for readers who might be interested in further conversation. We weren’t real successful; in fact I don’t remember that we ever had anyone write to us and want to talk about converting to Christianity.

However, I do remember one eventful contact. A graduate student in biology wrote to us asking for a conversation about our ad that argued for creationism. He said he was part of a local evangelical church that we were familiar with. My partner and I met with him, and in our 45-minute conversation he explained why Christians can, and should, affirm evolutionary theory. I was stunned—and convinced. Again, I realized that I had been taught as fact just one particular perspective. And, again, this perspective did not hold up to scrutiny.

Around this time, I was becoming acquainted with the “radical Christianity” being espoused by people associated with the Sojourners movement. One element of this new perspective for me was helping me realize that the message I had received about American exceptionalism was another case of being presented a particular (and problematic) perspective as absolute truth. I now realized that the American empire was a force for injustice in the world.

I made the move from a “Schaefferite” to a “Sojournersite,” but still with a strong sense of certainty. I had entered Christianity seeking truth, a disposition that made me vulnerable to a Christianity centered on upper-case-T Truth that approached life as a kind of contest between static, absolute Truth and falsehood. Moments such as those I mentioned and my growing political awareness turned me against the ultra-conservative Christianity I was part of (though I should note that the intense politicization of evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity hadn’t quite emerged in the days I was part of it; the Moral Majority and Francis Schaeffer’s crusade against abortion happened just about the same time that I took my sharp turn toward radical Christianity ala Sojourners).

A couple of additional important moments during this time were my rejection of the theology of biblical inerrancy that I wrote about in my previous post and my first encounter with the politics of Christian antipathy toward gay and lesbian people in 1979. It took several years for my commitment to a theology of welcome for sexual minorities to clarify. However, my confidence in the moral absolutes I had been taught after becoming a Christian was pretty much ended when I experienced the intense hostility of a political campaign in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon, that successfully sought to overturn the city council’s adoption of human rights legislation that included sexual orientation.

When Kathleen and I attended the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries in 1980 to study peace theology, we had pretty much completed our movement away from conservative evangelical politics and theology. But I still would have understood myself to be operating with a strong commitment to absolute truth—my truth had now to do with the pacifist teachings of the Bible and a commitment to social justice.

Truth without foundations

I started my doctoral program in Christian Ethics at the Graduate Theological Union in 1984. My classmate Matthew was a bigger influence on me than any of my teachers. Through many conversations and the reading of many of his recommended books, I began to recognize that the kind of truthfulness I actually wanted to seek was very different than the absolutes and certainty-oriented truth I had been educated in as a fundamentalist and evangelical Christian.

A key idea was the rejection of “foundationalism.” The notion of unchangeable truths (“foundations”) that exist outside of history and never change became problematic (i.e., the “absolutes” of Francis Schaeffer). But I also realized that I didn’t have to abandon my quest for understanding; in fact, embracing a non-foundationalist sense of truthfulness actually made growth in understanding more possible.

Because I retained an optimism about discerning truthfulness (even it wasn’t about unchanging absolutes), I shied away from what seemed to be extreme relativism in, say, Foucault and Derrida (who Matthew did like). And I didn’t have the philosophical chops to get much out of directly reading Wittgenstein and Heidegger. I got my non-foundationalist philosophy through popularizers such as Richard Rorty (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature), Stephen Toulmin (Wittgenstein’s Vienna and Cosmopolis), and (especially) Richard Bernstein (his book Beyond Objectivism and Relativism was particularly important for me). I took a class on Gandhi’s thought and practice as well that helped me to see that the quest for truth may mainly be about peaceable living.

I also took a deep dive into the thought of Hans-Georg Gadamer, the German philosopher of hermeneutics. His book, Truth and Method, became a central part of one of my comprehensive exams. I compared Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics with Latin American liberation theology and argued that the two approaches are quite compatible. Both insist on knowledge as perspectival and conversational. We can’t (and shouldn’t) hope to stand on an ahistorical, totally objective foundation that removes us from the give and take, historical, limited and finite nature of truth in actual life. Liberation theology challenges us to enter into this give and take on the side of justice, standing with the oppressed. Gadamer’s hermeneutics challenges us to remain careful not to assume our own truthfulness to the point that we coerce those who disagree and close ourselves off from learning from even our opponents.

I realized that Gandhi’s model of being engaged in social justice work while also recognizing the ongoing need to listen and learn and evolve combined the best of both approaches to understanding. What Gandhi added that I found most attractive was an overt commitment to love and nonviolence. That seemed the best way to combine commitment to social transformation with commitment to openness and growth.

Putting the new perspective to the test

Upon completing my doctorate, I took a pastorate in a small Mennonite congregation in a West Coast college town. The discipline of regular preaching along with engagement with pastoral care challenged me to continue to think about my post-foundational take on truth. One aspect of that thinking was to consider how best to think about God. I increasingly recognized that in my new understanding, God was not all-powerful and in control of everything. It struck me that there was a necessary correlation between seeing truth as perspectival and as something that emerges through engagement in peace work and recognizing that we can’t simply sit back and let God take care of everything. That is, my belief in human action and freedom linked with a belief in a non-deterministic and dominating God. Our task as Christians, I came to see, was to discern and imagine and construct and discuss and evolve and grow as we engage our world in healing ways.

As it turned out, I was soon to gain even more understanding about the practical relevance of my emerging theology. Rather unexpectedly, I faced a major trauma, one that shook me profoundly. For my purposes in this post, I don’t think the details of the difficulties matter. It was, though, something that threw me back onto my deepest sense of reality. As my friend Howard Zehr suggests in writing about victims of violent crime (those who survive and the loved ones of those who didn’t), a key element of the trauma is that is stimulates an urgent process of sense making. People who face trauma need to try to understand themselves and the events in ways that allow them to put back together meaning and coherence in their lives.

My experience was not one of violent crime, but I suspect that for all profound trauma the dynamics are somewhat the same. A common element of this distressed sense making process is to wonder about God. Where is God in my trauma? How can such hurtful things happen to me? What does the experience of deep pain tell us about whether we can imagine God as a God of love? These kinds of questions arise pretty automatically, and they can add their own dimension of trauma. If one has a settled faith that provides an important part of one’s self-identity, and that faith is radically unsettled by trauma, then the disorientation of the events can be deepened by a disorientation in one’s belief system. Our faith, which would hopefully be a resource for comfort and guidance, can actually turn out to be another source of pain when our beliefs are contradicted by our experiences—as in, for example, belief in a protecting God who then disappears just in time for the trauma to strike.

In my memory of those events now nearly 30 years later, my sense is that my theological reorientation happened just in time. Intellectually, I had come to believe that God is not an all-powerful God who has a specific plan for my life and nor a God who I could count on to keep me safe and whole. In fact, one of the main attributes of the post-foundationalist God was that of being one who provides comfort to the afflicted, a God of presence amidst tribulations; not a God who protects from tribulations or actually causes the tribulations in order to further “his” inscrutable purposes. In my sense of panic at that time, I did not turn to God in the way I probably would have a few years earlier—asking for an intervention to help. Hence, when no intervention was forthcoming, I did not hold it against God.

By and large, amidst my distress and disorientation, my expectations of God were pretty low. I tried to open myself to comfort and encouragement where I could find it; friends and family were helpful. And I tried to think, to reflect, to seek to learn what I could, and when opportunity arose, to find ways gradually to find some healing and resolution to the problems. It took time, for sure, but progress was made.

The “weakness” of love

As I reflected back as time went on, I tried to deepen my theological analysis. I found that I was never tempted to hold God responsible for what happened and hence did not experience the distress as a theological crisis. I was somewhat prepared to experience the seeming randomness of the trauma as genuinely random and not as something that was in tension with or even contradicted the view of God I had constructed. Prior to my embrace of post-foundational theology, I would have struggled a lot more, I think, and had my trauma exacerbated.

A number of years later, I read a helpful book that seemed to encapsulate much of what I learned from that experience—John Caputo’s The Weakness of God. Caputo contrasts a theology of God as weak, not in control, not the source of top-down power with what he calls an “ontotheology” (or, a foundationalist theology) of God as all-powerful. As I read Caputo, I realized that if I had retained my ontotheology, my experience of trauma would have been much more devastating as a feeling of being abandoned by God would have been added on top of other crushing experiences.

I have come to realize that in a universe where God is a God of love, we should expect to experience God in weakness, not strength. We should expect that there is no discernable purposeful will that moves even traumatic experiences to happy endings. But there is love, fragile and temporal, non-controlling and easily resisted, a resource to provide glimmers of healing amidst traumas and not a resource to take trauma away. That sense of God and love seems like the best kind of theology for finding what healing there is to be had in the midst of trauma.

[The “Theological Memoirs” series of blog posts]

9 thoughts on “How reading Hans-Georg Gadamer prepared me for heartbreak (Theological memoir #3)

  1. I’m enjoying all of your “theological memoirs,” Ted, but this particular entry was especially interesting and informative. I learned some things about your intellectual faith journey that I didn’t know before – especially the influence of certain philosophers. The movement from “foundationalist” to “non-foundationalist” may be a useful way to parse my own journey. But for me it was Brunner (and later Barth) who were (and remain) pivotal. My own way of thinking about God these days has become much more difficult to describe than it may have been in the past – in large part because I both agree and disagree with Barth on many things. Most important for me is that the God of the Bible encounters me (us) through the Scriptures, but doesn’t leave us there with concepts with which we can then master God (or others). I guess all I am saying is that Neo-Orthodoxy did for me what the Nonfoundationalist philosophers did for you.

    1. Thanks, Dan.

      I suspect if I had read Barth’s theology (I had read his sermons with great pleasure) before I read Gadamer I might have been more attracted to the Barthian project. Of course, it seems that there are those who read Barth in a more foundationalist way, too (he seems to be a favorite of many evangelicals). I suppose a big issue is whether or not, in fact, Barth’s use of the scriptures does leave us with “concepts with which we can then master God (or others)” or not?

      If I could read Barth as affirming the “not” at the core of his theology and not as a rhetoric of “humility” that disguises a quest for mastery (which is what I suspect a lot of “Barthians” do), I would read him with great sympathy.

      1. I can only talk about how the Barthian/Neo-Orthodox understanding of informs my own readings of Scripture. I get the sense that Fundamentalists see the language of Scripture to be univocal, an absolute correspondence between the meaning of the language about God and the God to whom that language is referring. Barth’s understanding is that such univocality reduces God to a mere human notion, a mere concept of God, lifeless and dead. Since we (supposedly) fully understand God and have God in our hands, so to speak, our theology can very easily become a weapon. Barth’s understanding is that God’s speaking is always God’s own action. It never becomes our own. We can acknowledge God’s speaking God’s truth through Scripture. But it is always God’s truth, not our own. It does not become our possession. It is a truth we must seek from God again and again. I think this seeking, non-possessive attitude has deep similarities with the sort of dialogical openness that you seem to be indicating. However, Barth would never be able to agree with you that God is not almighty or in control of all things. But I didn’t mean to suggest that you and Barth would agree on all things, only that there are aspects of Barth’s theology that could lead one (such as myself) to non-foundational conclusions.

  2. But is the continuation of language of “weakness” really the best option for a liberative approach? Yes, fragility/pain/vulnerability language helps us name real experience. And then we take back the language of insight, power-with, strength, safety, empowerment, etc. in a constructive way precisely through this moment of lack. Why are you letting the devil get all the good tunes?

    1. Great to hear from you, Phil!

      I guess I have assumed that if we talk about the weakness of God, we are implying a taking back of “the language of insight, power-with, safety, empowerment, etc.” But I guess I’m not sure that is Caputo’s intent. Maybe for him there is no difference between “the weakness of God” and bare weakness.

      I find “weakness” to be helpful when applied to God—with the sense that it’s powerful weakness. That is how I would characterize my own experience.

  3. Ted, I am enjoying reading your reflections, but keep wondering why I never see anything you say as suggesting that you think there is living God with whom you interact. I know, that is perhaps a bit too confrontationally dialogical, but …. your saying that “we should expect that there is no discernable purposeful will that moves even traumatic experiences to happy endings” just flies in the face of the hope of the gospel, seems to contradict not just the faith that Jesus expressed, but also the faith of those who witnessed to their own faith in the God who resurrected Jesus and hence expressed their very explicit hope that through faith in Jesus there would be a VERY HAPPY ENDING.

    1. Thank you again Ted, for recounted your story, it helps me see my own in a different light but also helps me see a possible way to further my understanding of God

  4. Ted. I imagine that You are well versed in Harold Kushner’s “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”? Kushner closes with acknowledging the need to forgive God – having discovered that God, in the context of the finite life, is not functionally all powerful, all knowing or all good. In New Testament language We are at once the Children of God and Human Children… the Son of Man hanging on the cross… and the Son of God rising into the heavens. We are empowered to enter into the co=creation of the reality we share wherein we carefully, mindfully and painfully craft our joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, gain and loss… and finally life and death, so as to enrich our experience of Being Together in the context of Eternal Life.

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