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Kenneth A. Reynhout, Interdisciplinary Interpretation: Paul Ricoeur and the Hermeneutics of Theology and Science, 2013

Hermeneutics, in the sense of practice and methodological theory of interpretation and understanding, has changed theological methods quite a lot. Especially when we deal with intercultural theology or comparative theology we need to get as close as possible to the foreign culture or religion concerned. In many cases, especially non-European cultures are better understood when we carefully look at rites, symbols and art, i.e. not only texts but also and especially paintings, literature and music. Art tells a lot about how a foreign religion is “inculturated” into a new cultural and religious context. Besides, no religion expresses itself without context. Over several decades this has become more and more common sense in systematic theology and mission theology as well as ecumenical theology and religious studies.
Meanwhile, as far as natural science is concerned, we know that it is neither neutral nor objective. There is always the “observer standpoint”. No science is without context either. That means that hermeneutics could be as important for science as it has long been for theology. Furthermore hermeneutics could function as a bridge between interreligious/intercultural dialogue and the dialogue between theology and natural science.
This is exactly what for me personally is so exciting about Kenneth A. Reynhouts’ study “Interdisciplinary Interpretation” – that it crosses borders between disciplines so far not in dialogue with each other and shows similarities i.e. analogies between different interdisciplinary dialogues as well as between the dialogue between theology and natural science and interreligious dialogue.
Reynhout is adjunct instructor in philosophy and religion at The College of New Jersey. Formerly he was co director of the Science for Ministry Institute at Princeton Theological Seminary. In “Interdisciplinary Interpretation” he constructs an alternative understanding of interdisciplinary theology based on the hermeneutical thought of Paul Ricoeur.
Reynhouts’ main concern in this book, and all that will be reviewed here, is the role of hermeneutics in the interdisciplinary dialogue between Christian theology and the natural sciences.  His main thesis is that interdisciplinary theology fundamentally involves a form of cross-disciplinary interpretation. It is developed on behalf of theologians seeking to engage in the natural sciences.
But: “Building on Paul Ricoeur’s extensive work in philosophical hermeneutics, the framework I develop in these pages has likely implications for how we understand scientific practice, for theology’s interdisciplinary engagement with disciplines beyond the natural sciences, for the broader dialogue between science and other religions, and for how we conceive of interdisciplinarity and cultural dialogue in any context” (p. IX). Reynhout hopes that (t)his hermeneutical approach to the interdisciplinary question will help systematic theologians to reconsider the importance and viability of interdisciplinary engagement.
Beyond that he tries to provoke those already participating in the religion and science dialogue ”…to consider adopting a hermeneutical discourse for reflecting on the nature and current state of our discipline, which will require  greater  attention  to  the  continental  tradition  of  philosophy”  (p. XVI).
Chapter one: Hermeneutics and the Interdisciplinary Question
Reynhout starts by pointing out that a largely unacknowledged discourse about hermeneutics is present in the religion and science dialogue. He then proceeds to explore how hermeneutics intersects with four current treatments  of  the  interdisciplinary  question  –  namely  in  the  work  of  Ian Barbour, Wolfhart Pannenberg, David Tracy and Wentzel van Huyssteen. He finds many important connections between hermeneutics and the interdisciplinary question in all of them. Of the many issues arising in his investigation he points out three especially important ones:
1. What is interpretation?

Here we can learn from Barbour, that it plays a positive epistemic role by connecting the observer with the real world. Pannenberg takes up the wholepart distinction between understanding and explanation from hermeneutical philosophy. So he can argue that all academic disciplines engage in the search for meaning. Tracy shows the more comprehensive role of interpretation beyond theological texts to include a better understanding of contemporary culture’s shaping of the situation. And van Huyssteen, from a postfoundational point of view, brings epistemology and hermeneutics into a creative fusion. Nevertheless, for Reynhouts a rich and precise understanding of hermeneutics and interpretation nevertheless is still missing. To develop it in conversation with Ricoeur is the task of chapter three.

2. Is interpretation involved in the natural sciences?
Although, of the authors cited, only Pannenberg refuses to locate interpretation in the natural sciences, many scientist share this resistance. The question will be further addressed in chapter four.
3. How is interpretation important for theology’s interdisciplinary dialogue with the natural sciences?  There are hints at possible answers in all the four works. Reynhouts however will construct his own theory of interpretation in conversation with Ricoeur in chapter five.
Chapter two: Ricoeur and the Expansion of Hermeneutics
Before getting to the above three questions in chapters three to five Reynhout first examines Ricoeur’s general approach to philosophical hermeneutics in this chapter.

From the hermeneutics of symbols over the hermeneutics of texts and hermeneutics in the human sciences towards the hermeneutics of the self Ricour’s hermeneutics of course have many facets. “Following this chronological development, from symbols to texts to actions to the self, there is a detectable expansion of the scope of hermeneutics” (p. 59). But with this expansion more questions arise:

1. Is there a limit to it?

2. Is Ricoeur’s hermeneutics itself so polysemic that it is, after all, at variance with itself?

Chapter three: Interpretation as Understanding through Explanation
Chapter three goes back to the question “what is interpretation?” Reynhouts’ definition, related to the sciences, as the dialectical process of understanding through explanation is developed under Ricoeur’s guidance. It is then rather a process and no longer so much an object. Yet it is also based on a slight modification of Ricoeur’s argumentation for the text as a paradigmatic hermeneutical object and for human action in analogy as well. But “…Ricoeur initially argued for the paradigm of the text on two fronts: that the text is a model object for hermeneutics and that text-interpretation is a model methodology.” Of these, Reynhout, embraces the latter and defines interpretation at first through the distinctiveness of its operation. One can then go on – as he does in chapter four – to focus on the dynamics of natural  scientific  practice  in  specifying  the  process  of  interpretation  at work.

Chapter four: Interpretation and the Natural Sciences

Chapter four begins in demonstrating how Heidegger’s insights brought to light the hermeneutical dimension of experimental practice in the natural sciences, Then it investigates Ricoeur’s differentiation between a narrow epistemological view of science and sciences as theoretical practices (in perceiving the lifeworld) – a differentiation which took shape under the in- fluence of Husserl`s phenomenology. Reynhout concludes “…by sketching two different, yet related forms of interpretation in the natural sciences. The inner hermeneutic involves the interpretation of instrumental data characteristic of experimental practice. The outer hermeneutic takes the perspective science as a theoretical practice, which involves the way in which theories are interpreted as meaningful contributions to broader ontological self- understanding of the scientist” (p. 130). This is not at all the relativist and subjectivist hermeneutics so many scientists are strongly against. Tradi- tional realistic and objective aims of scientific practice are affirmed. But without a naïve realism or presumptuous objectivism in forgetting that science is nevertheless a cultural practice and therefore has to have hermeneutical dimensions.

Chapter five: Interdisciplinary Interpretation
Now, what if non-scientists, especially systematic theologians, interpret and appropriate the meaning of science? Reynhout concludes: “Such is my own answer to the interdisciplinary question: the character of theology’s interdisciplinary engagement with the natural sciences is fundamentally hermeneutical. That is, it involves a form of interdisciplinary interpretation, the process by which a theologian appropriates meanings from scientific concepts and applies them in a theological context” (p. 167).
Reynhout again examines Ricoeur’s commentaries on interdisciplinarity and theology and finally suggests a novel combination of Anselm and Ricoeur: a hermeneutical and interdisciplinary vision of systematic theology as faith seeking understanding through explanation.
“We should not expect to find any easy consensus in this dialogue, not only because even well-understood scientific concepts are open to multiple interpretations of meaning, but also because these meanings must be connected with our theological self-understandings, which are significantly dif- ferent one theologian to the next. While this may frustrate those who long for a utopia of integrative harmony between religion and science, the potential diversity inherent within interdisciplinary hermeneutical practice may also be a boon for systematic theologians seeking creative freedom to articulate a rational, coherent, and hermeneutically responsible vision of God and God’s creation in our contemporary context” (p.168).
Besides the objection in focus, that the religion and science dialogue is either too abstract or too methodologically restrictive, which has been overcome by defining systematic theology as faith seeking understanding through explanation, there have been two other objections:

1. There is too much diversity of opinion

2. There is not enough diversity and not enough attention has been paid  to other cultures and religions.

As to the second objection Reynhout makes it quite clear that “…theologians of all faiths must continually redescribe the core content of their beliefs in light of the best available knowledge of the world….” (p. 174). I personally may add that especially Buddhist philosophy (maybe not to be really called theology) and its unique “epistemology through the law of emptiness” – if I may choose this description of Buddhist teachings of Sunyata and Pratityasamutpada – should be further inspired and acknowledged in its dialogue with natural sciences. There might be quite a bit to be learned from it for systematic Christian theologians as well.
The first objection Reynhout suggests, that for example “…Tracy’s hermeneutics of conversation was aimed at supporting a responsible interreligious dialogue that respects pluralistic differences without giving up hope for asymptotic agreement” (p.174).
Also van Huyssteen’s tertium quid between universal ideals of founda- tionalism and endless pluralism of nonfoundationalist relativism is helpful at this point – as is van Schrag’s transversal hermeneutics. Full consensus has to be seen, as Pannenberg suggests, rather eschatological.
And Ricoeur, from a similar angle, brings in the idea of attestation, describing it as a kind of hermeneutical “certainty”, the assurance of being myself, never realized however in isolation but only in relation to others and their relation to me. And so there is hope that there is truth to be found amidst perspectives so diverse.
Again let me personally add, that I call this “hermeneutics in responsible interim”, always aware of the need to differentiate confessional language and describing language and that I follow my teacher Yagi Seiichi in speaking of “continuity in discontinuity” as far as the realisation of this attestation is concerned.

Sybille C. Fritschte-Oppermann
Private scholar

Reprinted from ESSSAT News and Reviews, n. 26:1 (March 2016), pp. 29-33.