Last night in the pub I asked my once Humanities studying friend if he'd heard of Arthur Marwick (1936-2006). Yes, he'd heard of Arthur Marwick and was he some sort of revisionist. Well, no; he was no Marxist though. He was an empiricist historian, for whom history is science, based on not what historians do but on what documents show. He did look at the common person, and championed film as primary source material (primary sources are the only reliable sources - created for the purpose of direct recording) of history.
I knew of Arthur Marwick because I am of the generation who stayed up watching BBC 2 when it went to The Open University programmes and there was the long haired beareded Scot who would talk about the witting and unwitting testimony. Now I related that to overt and covert motivations in sociology, though he wouldn't because he hated sociology as so much speculation. No doubt he would have thought the same of theology.
People like Arthur Marwick check my tendencies towards postmodernism, and I make a bad postmodernist. He would have nothing to do with that either. All other schools of history, Marxist, social scientific, narrative, French (from Geography!), postcolonial, ethnographic (anthropological), gender, quantitative, learn from empiricists the importance of primary documents.
So what are we to make of something like Radical hermeneutics, of John D Caputo? He seems to fascinate my online friend at Belper. This is about we are not God, so we are all interpreters from within our own settings: the writers had their settings and we have our settings. He is accused, like others of this kind, therefore, of relativism and not having objectivity.
It is no surprise that Marwick regarded history as a science, but Caputo argues that all science is interpretation, and religion is interpretation. The scientists have a theory and the religionists have an imaginative and poetic approach. They don't conflict.
But one is not relative and the other is. One says, actually, not just a theory but a testable theory, and a theory that can come with a response from a test that disables the theory. Theories or paradigms set up tests that begin to demonstrate it as falsifiable. Of course paradigms are subject to language, selectivity of what to test, interests including economic and social, institutional issues of approval, ignoring important aspects, and the speculation of mathematics into beautiful equations. But there is still a goal there of rationality, impossible to achieve perhaps but a distant possibility.
The imaginative and poetic can be anything. Can continuing deconstruction make any distinction between what is divine and human - of course not because the words collapse into each other. The human is divine and the divine is human (the material embodiment). In Christianity the notion that God was a human adds to that confusion, and indeed secularisation is often regarded as Christianity burying itself.
Being may end up as becoming, but then becoming what? Bonhoeffer had a Christian who was too busy to ask questions, and with Barth's shadow this approach ended up in Harvey Cox's The Secular City. I couldn't understand where this left 'believers'; at least with Paul Tillich they asked questions, even if he did provide all the answers. Such a closed system Caputo would pull down.
Why should an ethical response (humility, for example) be the result of a chaos of meaning? I much prefer the Buddhist programmatic view: if one arrives at emptiness then that produces a calm, and therefore an ethical response. That's because the Buddhist retains a form of metaphysic - it might not be the stacked up Western kind but it follows from practice. It means what happens due to the human effect of worship or meditation. This is why worship practice makes a religion - because the divine is human and it is we who alter.
There is more than a suspicion that these radical hermeneutic types want it both ways. If you want to maintain an open perspective on mystery, that there is a divine, then you need some basis of order in the text and in the process of being religious.
This is why I am a liberal, because in the end there is a point of settling, a (dare I say) critical realist point of reference, and order that is in the practice through the art of religion - an interpretation that goes far and wide in terms of sacredness and texts available, but one which says we by doing this practice do religion rather than just do philosophy.
However, when it comes to specific texts, a touch of the Marwick does no harm. Having scholars vote with coloured balls for the historical reliability of the text (like the Jesus Seminar does) just won't do. It is not about historians. Apply the Marwick test to these faith texts like the New Testament and you get remarkably little from them. Of what do they constitute evidence? (At very best something of the proto-orthodox Early Churches). Larry Hurtado says they show a rapid escalation of the titles of Jesus even among early Jewish believers towards binitarianism. He might well be right, if the documents do show this.
Yes, they are poetic and artistic for us, though of course the writers didn't think so, with their different view of reality from ours. Actually, I like a touch of the ethnographic approach to history, so a bit imaginative in time travelling to the Jesus end-time beliefs and small society, then Paul's bigger picture end-time univeralism, the charismatic excitement fast moving beliefs of early believers with authority structures drawing on the 'resurrection', a crustier dogma-supernatural and backward looking faith centuries later, and our every day common rationality based on technology.
My view of radical heremeneutics is that they get us nowhere fast, and the only way some texts like the New Testament or Bhagavad Gita can be made sacred is through a pre-decision of sacredness applied, and that is to make an exception of them from a drilled down never ending reinterpretation that doesn't refine.
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