From Hermeneutics to Heuristics

This post should be read not as a finished and well polished theological thought, but rather as an attempt and an invitation to allow Christian experiences to find a path into theology. It’s tentative, open to further exploration.

Theologians of the Leuven school (K.U.Leuven faculty of theology) are well known for their excellent library (I am convinced it is the best in the world) and for their hermeneuticalapproaches that allow for a creative and faithful understanding of tradition, allowing a close interaction with concrete lived realities as well as for powerful interpretations of biblical texts and foundational texts from the tradition. The deep concern of this hermeneutical approach is to clarify that faith and tradition are really alive, that they mean something to people in today’s world – there is a deep concern here to communicate what Christians find most precious, their relationship with God in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, shaping their lives for the better and the happier.

Hermeneutics is a dynamic process, in which both our lives and our traditions are deepened precisely through their mutual interaction. That is why I like to call tradition an adventure – some will think this is paradoxical, while others may fear a betrayal of tradition here … but I don’t agree with them: when I read the lives of saints and of great Christians, I do this precisely because they inspire me to interact with tradition (the relationship with God through the relationship with Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, as transmitted from generation to generation precisely again through relationships) and to deepen our understanding of our lives and of tradition. The Christian tradition transmits a deep relationship with God who commits to us in Jesus Christ, and it does so by again and again involving us in relationships (building the church while receiving from it) that point to this foundational relationship and its deep work in our world.

In that dynamic sense, hermeneutics is heuristics: trying to “unearth” (the word is beautiful as it seems to refer at the same time to the importance of the incarnation, God’s commitment to the earth, and how the delving into the earth – becoming profoundly human, without escaping the world – allows us to move beyond the earth (“un-earth”) as God fills us with grace the more we commit, as Godself does, to the fullness of creation) both the meaning of life and of the tradition that embodies God’s commitment and graceful promise. Today, I am wondering whether we should not rather use this word “heuristics” instead of “hermeneutics”, particularly in view of the fact that young people today are facing a world that is changing so radically and rapidly, that they will need all their faith and faithfulness to tradition to commit to people, particularly to those who suffer from the profound changes that are happening. They have to re-discover how one lives as a committed Christian in a world for which the traditional ways of framing tradition do not anymore offer cheap security. The challenges for young people are enormous – they will need all the faith they can muster as well as the courage to entrust themselves to the relationship with God in Jesus Christ, a relationship which they will be able to discover, experience and transmit, to the extent that they commit as Jesus to the world, which has a very different face and complexity than it had in Jesus’ lifetime. The commitment of young people, to the world and to God, is a costly commitment – it doesn’t come cheap (cheap and costly grace are insights I gained from reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s work).

When I reflect upon what I want to transmit as a Christian and as a theologian to others – particularly to young people -, I tentatively would say the following: to commit to people and to the world, as God commits to the world and to people in Jesus Christ, and in that commitment that allows us to enter deeply into the world and into life, to encounter God as challenging us, in this world and in the faces and lives of people, to the “beyond the world and the people” that is, at the same time, the deepest intimacy of the world and the people. It’s complex to formulate and I don’t know whether I say it correctly. I recognize it in the mystical experience of one of the 20th Century greatest mystics, a Jesuit worker priest, Egied Van Broeckhoven, who entered into the world of factories to encounter people (incarnation in line with God’s incarnation) in such ways that in the intimacy of these encounters God reveals the very deep love that is God as Father, Son and Spirit. The movement towards the intimacy of the world is the movement into the intimacy with and of God: incarnation and Trinity strengthen each other.

I am not sure whether I manage to formulate this with sufficient theological sharpness, but I am convinced this touches the depth of the Christian experience, and it is an experience in which love for and from the world, and love for and from God, grow together in a mutual exploration and grace … an experience that is, to me, and particularly in a world that has become threatening and insecure in totally new ways, profoundly consoling and empowering.


3 responses to “From Hermeneutics to Heuristics

  1. the two words hermeneutics and heuristics confused me and you made the meanings clearer.

  2. Catherine Uffen

    Hermeneutics is an heuristic – and there are other heuristics.

    • According to my current understanding “hermeneutics” refer to studying of literature, to learn something from those studies. “Heuristics” could be based on those studies. “Heuristics” refer to givings of methodologies. Where “hermeneutics” refer to receipts of knowledge by studying, “heuristics” refer to givings of knowledge. Hermeneutics are therefore studying of heuristics.

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