Sunday, November 15, 2009

The hermeneutic comma

The Rev. Avery Dulles, a Jesuit priest and son of the arch-Presbyterian John Foster Dulles, once spoke at a church that had one of those trendy velvet banners on display, proclaiming:

God is other people.

Taking a marker, Father Dulles altered the banner to read thus:

God is other, people.**

If you cannot simultaneously hold both views, you have no business in theology.

*Swell headline for search engine optimization, don’t you think?

For the benefit of those of you who were out sick during theology class, hermeneutics is the theory and methodology of interpretation of texts. Originally applied to Scripture, it has more recently been adopted in the rarefied atmosphere of academic literary criticism in an attempt to increase the dignity of the enterprise.

**I had this story from a member of the clergy, so its veracity cannot be established.


  1. In seminary my hermeneutics professor told us that hermeneutics gets its name from the Greek god, Hermes. Hermes was half god, half human. Greek gods couldn't speak human, and humans couldn't speak pantheonese. Hermes was the only one who could speak both. So, he interpreted the messages of the gods and likewise interpreted the prayers of the humans.

    Makes sense to call the interpretation of sacred texts hermeneutics. But what does it say about writers to call literary criticism the same?

    Chaplains (somewhat tongue in cheek) occastionally call the work of interpreting what doctors tell patients and what patients are telling patients the hermeneutics of healthcare... :)

  2. I read this post to my husband, who asked, "What about a third view: God is, other people"

  3. Well then, what do we call interpreting what policitians, and those who would be politicians,tell those who would be voters? (Please don't say "journalism." That term has such a loose definition during these tryin' times.)

  4. A small point: Presbyterians do not use the title "Father" when referring to their clergy. In the church I grew up in, we always referred to the minister as "Rev. Smith" (no "the") or, if appropriately degreed, "Dr. Smith"; "Pastor Smith" was also acceptable, I recall. For this reason, I first thought the "Father Dulles" in your anecdote referred to John Foster Dulles, who for some reason vandalized the banner at the church where his son was preaching.

  5. As a former Presbyterian myself, I thought that identifying Avery Dulles as a Jesuit would eliminate any ambiguity about the reference to "Father Dulles." Apologies for any confusion.

  6. It should have. For some reason the "arch-Presbyterian" completely blinded me to the Jesuit.

  7. any self-respecting "arch-Presbyterian" reference should...

  8. I doubt the Jesuits would concede being blinded by anyone, particularly the Presbyterians - arch or not.