Today involved several surprises. The first was that I was still in bed at 6:27 AM, when I thought I had set the alarm for 6:00 (I had started the radio a few minutes before the alarm was supposed to go off; the alarm was set to “radio”; hence, there was no change to hear when alarm-time came). Not a big deal — I hustled through my shower, gathered my notes and supplies, and sprinted to the car.
The second was that I hadn’t put my clergy collar on. Luckily, I noticed before I had driven more than a few blocks.
The third was that three times as many people showed up for clergy day as I had been told to hope for (four times as many as I8’d been told to expect). That sorta shot my “small seminar-like discussion” premise to pieces. (I’m leaving out the cavernous pothole I hit on Lake Shore Drive. That was the next surprise, but really, I should have expected potholes on Lake Shore.)
The fourth was that once I got rolling, I had way more material to work with than I had time to squeeze it into. I was surprised; Jane was not.
The fifth was that the whole day went much better than I expected (especially better than I expected when I saw how many more people showed up than I was prepared for). They had invited me down to talk about Biblical Hermeneutics in light to present ecclesiastical stresses, so I tried to talk about how we all might think through our disagreements in ways that made room for the Holy Spirit most easily to bring about clarity and reconciliation. That entails acknowledging that difference in interpretation is not an intrinsic problem, and if we talk as though difference were intrinsically problematic, we impede the work of reconciliation. Second, I urged us not to just invoke the name of an admired authority figure who says what we like; that amounts only to choosing up dodge ball teams, not really to giving reasons for our hope. There are card-carrying experts who propose all sorts of silly ideas about the New Testament; invoking the name of an author whose work you like doesn’t advance a mutual exploration of contested ideas. Third, I proposed that patience — uncomfortable though it be — provides us the surest way of ascertaining the Spirit’s guidance. (Bishop Little threw me a hanging curve on that one by referring to the Nicene Creed; that gave me the chance to point out that the creed we call Nicene wasn’t simply the product of the first Ecumenical Council, but it preceded a widespread relapse into Arianism, all of which provoked an extended process of deliberation and negotiation at the end of which the church devised the Nicene-Constantipolitan Creed. Plenty of ardent defenders of Nicene theology died before they had the chance to see their arguments vindicated. Patience.)
Then we had a mass (worship often stirs in me the spirit of Ernie Banks, so that I want to burst out “Let’s pray two!”) and ate a delicious lunch that actually included a tasty vegetarian chili.
After lunch, I grasped the nettle and argued that “the literal sense” or “the plain sense” doesn’t solve hermeneutical problems. Partly, that’s an empirical observation. If we’ve gotten into an argument about things, it’s hardly ever because someone hadn’t noticed what certain expressions literally (or “plainly”) mean. It’s also partly a historical argument, since people like Thomas Aquinas argued that “the literal sense” itself engendered multiple meanings. The Doctors of the pre-Reformation Church generally saw multiplicity in interpretation as a good thing, and many taught that “the literal sense” was at least duple, if not multiply various. It’s perfectly fine to regard something as the literal meaning of a text, but our job in controversy is to explain why we regard it as the literal sense. I had a bunch more to say, too, but Pippa’s about to get out of choir and I have to hurry away.
But the big surprise was that it all went so very well, thanks to the patient and charitable participation of fifty or so wonderful Northern Indiana church leaders. Thanks!