Sunday, May 07, 2006

Description or Prescription in D.Z. Phillips Hermeneutics of Contemplation

In his Hermeneutics of Contemplation, D. Z. Phillips further elaborates on his methodology for doing religious studies. Finding the traditional methods either short-coming or too problematic, Phillips offers the hermeneutics of contemplation as an alternative that is able to avoid the theological and apologetic natures of the more conservative traditional method, the hermeneutics of recollection, and the reductionism of the naturalistic hermeneutics of suspicion. This new methodology, however, is not free from criticism. In this paper I will summarize the hermeneutics of contemplation and show how it differs from the traditional methods of religious studies. I will then address the criticism that while the hermeneutics of contemplation is supposed to be merely descriptive, it is actually prescriptive and either theological or critical in nature. I will show that this criticism arises both from a misunderstanding of Phillips’ method and a confusion from failing to distinguish the method from its reception and appropriation by those within a religious (or non-religious) framework.

Traditionally there have been two primary approaches in religious studies to interpret or understand religion. The first of these is what Phillips calls the hermeneutics of recollection. This method, according to Phillips, “is sympathetic to religion, since it assumes that believers are in touch with something real. Its task is to recollect, in the sense of retrieve, this ‘something’ for our age, convinced that there is a message which we need to heed.”[1] This method begins with the assumption that propositional claims for a religious belief correspond to the ontological reality of the world. The duty of the hermeneutics of recollection is to then expound on, or defend, these religious beliefs. This method up until the last few centuries was the primary means of interpreting religious beliefs. The systematic theologies of Aquinas and other theologians, as well as the plethora of apologetic works, all arise from this conservative method.

Following the Enlightenment, the other primary method of doing religious studies arose. Coming from an entirely different perspective, the hermeneutics of suspicion “denies that there is a divine reality in religion;” this divine reality merely being “the product of illusion.”[2] Unlike the hermeneutics of recollection, this method begins with the assumption that religious beliefs do not correspond to the ontological reality of the world. There is nothing for the hermeneutics of recollection to recollect. Instead, the hermeneutics of suspicion is (as the name indicates) suspicious of religious beliefs. Because they do not have a divine source, this method seeks out to examine the origins of religious beliefs and practices. This method is often referred to as naturalistic or reductionist because it assumes that religious beliefs can be reduced to natural phenomena, void of religious content. Freud’s psychoanalytical explanation of the belief in God is one of the more famous forms of this method.

How these methods are used can briefly be shown in the following examples, as they are applied to the LDS belief that each human being “is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents.”[3] Someone using the hermeneutics of recollection would begin with the assumption that this belief is a proposition making a true claim about the world as it really is. The result would then be either theology utilizing and expounding on the belief (i.e. what does this say about the nature of humans and God?), or apologetics defending it from criticism (i.e. using exegesis, philosophy, and other theological tools to thwart off attacks from Protestants). On the other hand, the hermeneutics of suspicion begins the skeptical assumption that there are no ‘heavenly parents’ and other explanations must be sought out as the origin of this belief (i.e. it is an ideal theology created to support traditional families).

Phillips’ hermeneutics of contemplation provides a methodology which is able to avoid the problems of becoming theological, apologetic, or reductionist. Arising out of the philosophy of the later-Wittgenstein, the hermeneutics of contemplation rejects the correspondence theory of truth that the traditional methods were dependent on. This is the idea that the truthfulness and meaningfulness of religious beliefs were dependent on a correspondence to an ontological reality. The hermeneutics of recollection seeks out to defend or elaborate on these beliefs which are propositionally true of reality, while the hermeneutics of suspicion denies any divine reality and needs to find other explanations which correspond to the naturalistic reality. Instead of attempting to correlate religious beliefs with a pre-conceived notion of reality, the hermeneutics of contemplation “waits on the role concepts play in human life.”[4] Instead of defining or explaining religious beliefs, this method seeks out to understand those beliefs by examining and ‘contemplating’ how they play out within the framework of beliefs and practices of a religious adherent and community.

In the example of the LDS belief in humans being children of divine parents, the hermeneutics of contemplation would seek to understand what this belief means by observing its practice among adherents, as well as by seeking to understand it in relation to other LDS beliefs. One would try to understand the belief of divine parenthood by both observing how this belief played out in the lives of those who affirmed it, and by also seeking clarity to clear confusion and misunderstanding. One could ask what it means to say “I am a child of heavenly parents.” Does it have the same meaning as “I am a child of my earthly parents” (meaning I was conceived by copulation when DNA from my father’s sperm fused with DNA from my mother’s egg, resulting in cell that contained both of my parents genetic code which multiplied and grew into a fetus in my mothers uterus, which eventually was pushed out through her cervix, etc)? If not, then further waiting, examination, description, and contemplation would be required to understand what this belief means for its adherents.

One of the common criticisms of the hermeneutics of contemplation is that it is merely “the hermeneutics of recollection in disguise.”[5] This same criticism could be further taken to claim that it is not only disguised apologetics and theology, but that it is also used to veil naturalistic criticisms… all in the innocent name of description. In other words, while Phillips claims the hermeneutics of contemplation to be merely a method of understanding without being explanatory, apologetic, or doing theology, it is in actuality doing those very things. The purported descriptions are merely veiled descriptions. This criticism would claim that by describing points of possible confusion in a religious framework, one is actually stepping beyond description and prescribing theology. In the LDS example of divine parentage, by pointing out the possible discrepancy between two different notions of a children and parents, one is then advocating a theology with a different understanding of what it means to be a child of heavenly parents.

This criticism is largely based on a misunderstanding of the methodology of the hermeneutics of contemplation. It arises when one fails to recognize that there is a difference between the description by one employing the method, and the application of the description by the religious body. As Phillips puts it, it results from not recognizing that to “contemplate possibilities of sense is different from advocating those possibilities. . . Philosophical, conceptual elucidation is different from, and wider than, personal appropriation.”[6] While the latter appropriation may be a result of the description given by the hermeneutics of contemplation, it is not part of the method, but rather a perhaps probable, but unnecessary, by-product.

The hermeneutics of contemplation seeks to clarify and understand the framework of beliefs and practices of a religious community. If points of confusion arise, then they must be addressed. To ignore the confusion would be contradict the method because one would then not understand what is sought to be understood. Furthermore, one engaging in the hermeneutics of contemplation will always seem to be pointing out apparent contradictions and confusions. This is not because the method is attempting to be suspiciously critical, but because seeking understanding demands the points of confusion to be examined. For explorers to map unknown lands, they must move into the unknown and reference the unknown to points already understood. Staying in the same location will never increase the breadth of the map. Similarly, for one to understand a religion, that which is confused and not understood must be explored and examined. Merely repeating and describing what one already understands does increase the breadth of understanding. Also, just as the ability to explore the unknown may require the explorer to do some speculation as to what the unknown may be, the ability to clear up points of confusion may require the student of religion to speculate as to what might clear up the confusion. However, neither the speculation of the explorer nor of the student of religion, determine what the terrain of the land or the framework of the religious community consists of. Their methods (and even speculations) are purely descriptive of their understanding examined to expand even into further understanding.

The misunderstanding that the hermeneutics of contemplation is a veiled theological, apologetic, or critical method arises when there is a failure to distinguish this description of the religious framework from its subsequent appropriation or application by the religious community or adherents. When the LDS belief in divine parentage is examined using this methodology, it remains descriptive such that it is only restating the belief and articulating points of confusion for further clarification. The belief states that all humans are children of heavenly parents. What does that mean? Is it literal or metaphorical? Is the belief analogous to children of earthly parents? In what ways? Could it be more like a child-parent relationship via adoption? Etc. Notice that there is no apologetics trying to defend or justify the belief. There is no criticism attempting to belittle the belief. While it may appear that some theology is being prescribed, they are merely cues further articulating the points of confusion. The methodology is descriptive.

The point at which the description may become a prescription is when it is taken up by the religious community. It is they who apply the description, appropriate it, and turn the description into a prescription. When the adherents of a particular religious framework are approached by one utilizing the hermeneutics of contemplation (or when someone within the framework applies it to their own beliefs), they may acknowledge the description with its accompanying points of confusion in one or more of several different ways. The first (and most likely) response is that they would provide clarification to the language which expresses the belief’s current understanding, thus removing the confusion. A Latter-day Saint may clarify the belief and say that ‘when we say parents we are talking about the nurturing relationship that a parent has with a child, not the genetic or biological relationship.’ The second response could simply be that more beliefs already within the framework are provided which clear up the confusion. The LDS person may provide the already existing belief that there are both a male and female deities who have a spiritual type of genetics, and that the human spirit is conceived, gestated, and birthed spiritually in heaven, just as it is done physically on earth. The third response would be to do theology which would then clear up the confusion. Instead of providing existing clarifications or beliefs as in the previous examples, should the appropriate clarifications or beliefs not exist, an LDS adherent could theorize and provide those or similar responses. Fourth, the adherents could respond by assuming that the description is not done for understanding, but is rather a vicious attack of their faith, responding with silence or apologetically attacking the methodology itself. The Latter-day Saint could merely ignore the description, or critique the method with such claims that it is impossible for non-adherents (or those who lack faith) to understand spiritual truths. A final response (in a similar vein) could be provided by a non-adherent wishing to use the description to use as apologetics to attack the religious framework and support their own. An anti-Mormon might attempt to utilize the description to attack LDS beliefs of God and humans and support their more traditional understanding of deity and humanity.

In each of the preceding responses, it is not the methodology which is theological, apologetic, or critical. Rather the jump from descriptive to prescriptive is made when the adherents (or non-adherents) appropriate the description and decide themselves how they will apply it in their framework. The claim could be made that the methodological distinction between description and prescription is dissolved when the individual using the hermeneutics of contemplation applies the description in a way that is theological, apologetic, or critical, and then defends herself by claiming she is merely being descriptive. However this is actually a criticism of the individual and not of the methodology. This does not show that the hermeneutics of contemplation was actually a veiled motive of another sort, but rather that the individual used the method as a veil to cover her theological, apologetic, or critical motivation. The claim that the description was used as a prescription itself indicates there is a distinction between ‘the description’ and ‘the prescriptive use of the description.’

In conclusion, Phillips’ hermeneutics of contemplation is a valuable methodology for religious studies. It allows religious frameworks to be examined and understood without the problematic motivations of apologetics, theology, and explanatory reductionism. The criticism that this method is actually the hermeneutics of contemplation (or suspicion) in disguise is invalid. It results from a misunderstanding of the descriptive nature of the method, as well as a failure to distinguish the description from its appropriation into a prescription by persons within a religious framework.

[1] D.Z. Phillips, The Hermeneutics of Recollection (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 102.

[4] Phillips, Hermeneutics of Recollection, 4.

[5] Ibid., 5.

[6] Ibid.

1 comment:

  1. This is long, but b/c it is on my mind it brings out some things in your paper as well as some other things that i have been thinking about.

    I think you do a good job defending Phillips from accusations of prescriptions. It's hard for me to be too critical though, b/c i have strong intuitions that support Phillips' project.

    here are some things that I think can bolster that thesis though...

    1. Phillips doesn't shy away from criticizing conceptual confusions that he does find. Yet, his critiques are not based on reductionism, but on an analysis of language and concept formation. So I think that he shows a way to be critical w/o falling into the hermeneutics of suspicion. This is important b/c the criticism that he is being prescriptive may be motivated by an awareness that he offers less criticisms than defenses of religious practices.

    2. I also think that it is important that Phillips wants to open up the possibility of a transcendent reality. This itself could be seen as an apologetic response to naturalism, but it fits very well with his overall "suspicion of suspicion" routine. But if it is stated and shown to be unapologetic then that would bolster the claim that his method isn't implicitly apologetic.

    3. I also think that Phillips could have emphasized the tension that the hermeneutics of contemplation would have with a believer. Although the believer would welcome an academic who wasn't dogmatically reductionist, still the believer should, at times, take a different stance than Phillips Wittgensteinian analysis. I think these tensions should be brought to the surface.

    Finally, I am somewhat confused by your assertion that criticizing Phillips as prescriptive entails a distinction between prescription and description. I think a strong criticism of your thesis would be that the distinction between prescription and description ultimately fails. I think that the fact that Phillips produces a normative thesis, i.e. that this is the way that religious studies should be done, opens him up to this criticism. It seems that one of the implicit assumptions of this distinction is the fact/value dichotomy. Pure 'descriptions' rely on a distinction between 'descriptions' and 'normative claims'. So I think that the deeper issue is important to at least bring up.

    So for example, I could see the argument going this way...(this is not in complete deductive form, obviously)

    1) There is a distinction between descriptions and prescriptions for x,y,z reasons.

    2) Descriptions have x,y,z criterion, while prescriptions entail 1,2,3.

    3) Phillips Hermeneutics of Contemplation share x,y,z and does not include 1,2,3.

    4) Therefore the hermeneutics of contemplation is not adaquetly grouped under the category of apologetics or suspicion.


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