The Need For A Diacritical Ecumenical Hermeneutic

Post by
Alvin Rapien

Dialogue and the art of questioning is itself an acknowledgement of difference, a movement toward understanding the Other who sees from a different horizon, a different perspective.


It is not uncommon to see theologians from either the “Western” or “Eastern” schools criticize those on the other side based on theological differences rooted in differing historical developments.  Sometimes, theological arguments between the West and the East are centered around how a certain word or phrase is initially translated into another language, commonly interpreted within that language, and then said interpretation is systematically conceptualized by influential theologians.  

At some point, one party is essentially blamed for not sharing the same theological language and grammar of its critics.  This does not just happen at the lay level, but is unfortunately present within academic settings.  Such engagements often lack nuance, charitable interpretations, and any openness to the Other.  Such openness is labelled as the “heresy of ecumenism”; that is, an uncritical (“soft”) approach to intercommunion with others despite doctrinal, ecclesial, and dogmatic differences.  But ecumenism need not be uncritical nor simply an open dialogue: it must be diacritical in order to recognize both the theological differences and overlap between parties.  We need a diacritical ecumenical hermeneutic.

What does a diacritical ecumenical hermeneutic entail?  Richard Kearney, in his work Strangers, Gods, and Monsters: Interpreting Otherness, defines “diacritical hermeneutics” and its aims.  Neither falling into optimistic hermeneutics of romanticism which endorses something akin to objective interpretations nor the pessimistic view of postmodernism which emphasizes the differences between the self and the other as ultimately a state of inescapable alterity, diacritical hermeneutics opens up the exploration of “possibilities of intercommunion between distinct but not incomparable selves.”[1] Kearney explains:

“The diacritical approach holds that friendship begins by welcoming difference (dia-legein). It champions the practice of dialogue between self and other, while refusing to submit to the reductionist dialectics of egology governed by the logos of the Same. Between the logos of the One and the anti-logos of the Other, falls the dia-logos of oneself-as-another.”[2]

Kearney suggests that diacritical hermeneutics advocates for charitable interpretations – understanding the Other on their own terms – while maintaining a critical eye.[3] No doubt this is a difficult balance.  However, the difficulty should not be a deterrent, but rather an indicator of the state of dialogue and dialectic: many are not able to charitably listen and respond to the Other.

The mid-twentieth century philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer asserts that true dialogue occurs when parties are engaged with the “art of questioning even further – i.e. the art of thinking.”  However, there are certain conditions to be met in dialogue for it to be true: first, the other person “is with us,” with both parties allowing each other “to be conducted by the subject matter to which the partners in the dialogue are oriented.”[4] Gadamer continues:

“It requires that one does not try to argue the other person down but that one really considers the weight of the other’s opinion. Hence it is an art of testing. But the art of testing is the art of questioning…  A person skilled in the ‘art’ of questioning is a person who can prevent questions from being suppressed by the dominant opinion. A person who possesses this art will himself search for everything in favor of an opinion. Dialectic consists not in trying to discover the weakness of what is said, but in bringing out its real strength. It is not the art of arguing (which can make a strong case out of a weak one) but the art of thinking (which can strengthen objections by referring to the subject matter).”[5]

Dialogue and the art of questioning is itself an acknowledgement of difference, a movement toward understanding the Other who sees from a different horizon, a different perspective.  However, returning to Kearney’s diacritical hermeneutics, sometimes an understanding of the Other leads to understanding true differences and the need to be critical (again, with the balance of hospitable interpretations).  A diacritical ecumenical hermeneutic has an end-goal in mind: understanding and critiquing the religious Other and their theological positions as well as being open to their critiques with the hope of coming together in some type of communion.  Here, I am admittedly more indebted to romanticism than to the radical hermeneutics of postmodernism since I still find Gadamer’s arguments persuasive.  However, the critical element is often overlooked in hermeneutics rooted in romanticism and is crucial for any ecumenical legitimacy.  Cheap ecumenism is not ecumenism at all.

Perhaps such a diacritical ecumenical hermeneutic is espoused by David Bentley Hart in his essay “The Hidden and the Manifest: Metaphysics after Nicaea.”  I quote Hart at length due to his incisive critiques and wise insights:

“In any modern engagement between Christian East and Christian West, we begin from the long history of an often militant refusal – on both sides – of intellectual reconciliation; more to the point, we begin from very different theological grammars, and with terminologies that can achieve only proximate correspondences, and from within conceptual worlds whose atmospheres are not perfectly congenial to one another’s flora, and from a settled tradition of mutual (and frequently willful) incomprehension.  All too often, moreover, this incomprehension takes the depressing form of a simple and deplorable failure of imagination: an inability to appreciate that, in order to understand another intellectual tradition, rooted in a different primary language, it is not enough to translate its terms into one’s own dialect and then proceed to interpret them according to the rules of one’s own tradition.  And the consequence of this is that, as often as not, ‘ecumenism’ between East and West consists in little more than a relentless syncope of category errors: the drearily predictable alarm and indignation with which traditional Thomists find that Gregory Palamas, transposed into Thomas’ Latin, is not a Thomist; the deep and slightly macabre delight with which earnest Palamites discover that Thomas, read through Palamite lenses, proves to be no Palamite; arch dismissals of eastern understandings of grace as ‘semipelagian’ by doctrinaire Augustinians; the reckless intensity with which a particular kind of Orthodox polemicist fixes upon some single principle found somewhere in Latin theological tradition – like ‘subsistent relations’ or ‘created grace’ – violently misinterprets it, and then uses it to diagnose a fundamental deformity in western theology that must estrange it forever from the wellsprings of Orthodox truth; and so on… It would be humbling indeed to discover that many of our most finely wrought systems of thought possess many accidental elements, peculiar to our particular cultural sensibilities or native tongues, or that perhaps our ways of depicting the truth to ourselves might be only partial and corrigible approximations to a truth that others, under extremely different forms, have approached with equal or better success.  More terrible yet is the possibility that many of our differences will prove to be only differences of sensibility and language, and not of substance at all, thus reducing our systems to relative expressions of the truth, rather than the pristine vehicles of truth we wish them to be.”[6]

Here, Hart is both critical of Western and Eastern renderings of the other’s theological system.  Hart points to a core issue between traditional Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox polemics: reading Aquinas in an attempt to fit him in with Palamas and reading Palamas to fit in with Aquinas.  Both theologians are claimed to be representative of a theological tradition, with Aquinas in the “West” and Palamas in the “East.”  However, there are some presuppositions often at work in being a self-proclaimed Thomist or Palamite, with the most dangerous one being a fatal hermeneutical mistake.  The mistake is reading the Patristic corpus through a strict Thomist or Palamite lens, which will no doubt obscure the differences among the Church Fathers.  

For example, in Andrew Radde-Gallwitz’s review of David Bradshaw’s 2004 Aristotle East and West (wherein Bradshaw points to the theological superiority of the Eastern tradition and its fidelity to the Church Fathers), Radde-Gallwitz criticizes Bradshaw for “read[ing] Palamas back into earlier sources.”[7] Bradshaw’s aim to track energeiai from Aristotle to its Christian reception in an “East vs. West” format that deliberately champions the Eastern tradition, is representative of the Eastern Orthodox tendency to read particular Church Fathers, the Cappadocians especially, as proto-Palamites.[8]  Thomas Aquinas is himself critical of certain statements made by the Church Fathers, sometimes “correcting or refining certain statements by the Fathers,” thus placing a question mark after any Thomistic assertion that Aquinas is a pure heir to the Church Fathers.[9]  

All of this is to say there is much more work to be done in critically assessing one’s own theological presuppositions, the polemics that sustain division, the repeated arguments based on either lack of evidence or gross misreadings, and whether or not we are actually hearing the other party when they speak.  Thus, the need for a diacritical ecumenical hermeneutic.

[1] Richard Kearney, Strangers, Gods, and Monsters: Interpreting Otherness (London: Routledge, 2003), 18; cf. 15-17.
[2] Ibid., 18.
[3] Ibid., 18, 99.
[4] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. 2nd rev ed. (London: Continuum Publishing Group, 2004), 360.
[5] Ibid., 361.
[6] David Bentley Hart, “The Hidden and the Manifest: Metaphysics after Nicaea,” Orthodox Readings of Augustine, eds. George E. Demacopoulos and Aristotle Papanikolaou (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimirs Seminary Pr, 2008), 192-193.
[7] Andrew Radde-Gallwitz, “Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom (Review),” Journal of the History of Philosophy 45:3 (July 2007), 494.
[8] Andrew Radde-Gallwitz, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 222.  For a helpful article on assessing the difficulties of whether St Gregory of Nyssa is a “proto-Palamite,” see Fr Aidan Kimel, “Was St Gregory of Nyssa a Proto-Palamite?,” (accessed 1/3/2017).
[9] Leo J. Elders, “Thomas Aquinas and the Fathers of the Church,” The Reception of the Church Fathers in the West: From the Carolingians to the Maurists (Volume I), ed. Irena Backus, (New York, NY: Brill, 1997), 341; cf. 339-342.  Jean-Pierre Torrel, O.P., claims that “Thomas regarded himself as the legitimate heir of the Greek Fathers” (Saint Thomas Aquinas: Volume II: Spiritual Master, trans. Robert Royal [Catholic University of America, 2003], 127).

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