If you were curious and confused as I was when Law started talking about the "second naïveté" on our Ricoeur episode, check out this page for a quick explanation. We start out (with the "first naïveté") taking all these religious fairy stories at face value. We then grow up and acquire critical distance, which not only involves applying what we've learned by actually dealing with the world (e.g. you wouldn't believe your spouse was cheating on you without adequate evidence, so why would you believe in this stuff?) and from science, but also applying the insights of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud to look at your beliefs from these different points of view. But the agnosticism (at best) that typically results from this isn't the end of the story.
Fundamental to authentic religion (for any religious existentialist) is spiritual, i.e. emotional engagement, which when it comes to Christianity at least has to do with "being called." While the hermeneutic strategies to "open up the text" that Ricoeur presents are not simple or childlike, they're only the first step in engaging with the ideas. If you understand "the meek shall inherit the earth" as a radical idea, what do you do with that? How do you apply it? How do you let it change you? Following Gadamer, we're supposed to put ourselves at risk, allowing the possibility that the text could be life-changing.
I got to try this in preparing for episode 113 on Jesus's Parables: Could I, by learning about the original circumstances (so far as they can be reconstructing) of their delivery and then their recording, really listen to them? Well, you'll have to wait for that episode to see whether you think I got the message. For the most part, I'll confess that I'm not sure how one is really supposed to institute such a "naïveté." As Gadamer said, the only handle we have on a text is our own foreunderstandings, and though we can try to improve these by learning more about history, and literary tropes, and other topics, the end result of this is not in any sense a dropping one's guard. Surely this can't be referring simply to the very first necessary step of not writing off the text out of hand, of admitting that there is some value in listening to the text at all.
According to the summary of Ricoeur linked to above, the naïveté involves being able to approach the symbols in the appropriate manner, keeping in mind (as per the Jaspers bonus discussion), that they don't point actually point to any specific thing. This is what the summary refers to as the "mystic stage," so it sounds like it's a matter of being open to a certain kind of religious/mystical experience: putting your mind at peace, clearing it of thoughts, focusing on your senses, your breathing, all that jazz, as one would have to do perhaps to enjoy certain types of jazz or other music that doesn't obtrusively jump out and grab you ("catchy" music). But doing this only works if you've already done the prior work to understand (whether or not you can articulate it) the musical language involved (see our Goodman episode). The system of symbols for a given religion is still conventional, and not merely a matter of seeing the infinite another person or nature as Buber describes. But what system of religious symbols am I equipped to understand? I went to church throughout my youth, waving palms and lighting candles and singing in front of a massive, room-filling organ, eating the croutons and drinking the grape juice, listening to the stories and the homilies and the calls to be closer to God and follow in the example of Jesus. That's the language I learned, and its symbols are simple and to my adult eyes basically unhelpful; they've long since been replaced by music and love and certain movies in putting me in touch with that feeling that I used to call religious by seems well enough described nowadays as ASMR.
It's easy to accuse anyone defending a mature version of religion as still just trying to covertly defend a set of much less mature, less admirable sentiments; the suspicion that Ricoeur brings to bear is more than welcome. When I hear the call to put one's presuppositions at risk in reading the Bible, I hear "suspend your disbelief." I hear "well, how do you know that miracles don't really occur? Scientific laws are just generalizations of the observed, and can't disprove divine exceptions." I hear "lower your arrogant countenance in the presence of the divine!" These are the fore-understandings with which I approach such apparently enlightened approaches to Christianity, and the call for me to become impossibly naïve does not allay my suspicions. Will nothing short of a full seminary education, or a Ph.D. in religion, actually qualify me to read the symbols and so allow me to get the desired result out of my open heart?
Image credit: Ratna Sari
Michael Burgess says
Oh, Mark you New Atheist swine.
Seriously though, I think there is “a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens”, including authentic hermenutics. Perhaps you should play around with theism for the purpose of reading the bible, but perhaps not for the purpose of deciding what exists and what doesn’t. But its possible that whatever the bible “has to teach” requires theistic-play, even if afterwards we return to earth.
Your mention of “fairy tales” is somehow useful. There is an emotionality involved in dealing with religious texts, especially amongst academicians who for various social, economic, political commitments cannot really see a religious text as text. We can indeed apply hermeneutics to fairy tales, towards which we feel no special emotion one way or another, and which do not prick our post-enlightenment sensibilities, and come away with rich understandings of how these stories play on human experiences, cosmologies, fears, and aspirations. So treat religious texts as fairy tales, and just as scholars treat fairy tales, Mark. There is no reason to fear or expect that a Ricoeurean hermeneutic properly undertaken will cause you to adopt a Christian worldview any more than a hermeneutic of Cinderella tales will cause you to don a princess dress and play castle. Not to diminish people who do that sort of thing of course 🙂
Chris Eyre says
It occurs to me that reading Alain Badiou’s “Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism” and/or Slavoj Zizek’s “The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Heart of Christianity” might offer you more answers than it does me (I’m currently a member of a group on Homebrewed Christianity studying those two, having got there via Jacob Taubes “The Political Theology of Paul”. You stand FAR more chance of understanding postmodernese than I do. (Trying to correct a huge deficit of philosophy in my education chiefly via PEL and online lectures at the moment…)
Situating myself, I was a reductionist scientific materialist atheist by the time I was 11, but at 15 had one of those peak unitive mystical experiences out of the blue: it was sufficiently good that I went looking for ways firstly to repeat it and secondly for ways in which to articulate it. I finally (many years later) found myself back where I’d rebelled against in the first place, namely Christianity. I will grant you that it isn’t necessarily the best fit for a panentheist mystic (best description without being prolix), but it is at least one with some practitioners in my neck of the woods (which isn’t very cosmopolitan), although virtually none who really see eye to eye with me.
One result is that I’ve been spending time working on the more important Christian doctrines seeing not whether they’re reasonable or whether they’re based on fact (heh – I’m still methodologically naturalistic), but what they do for those who believe them, and seeing if they might, somewhat differently understood, do something for me. This is pretty much akin to treating them as myth, but with possibly an added dimension. I suppose you could equate that to “second naïveté”.
I got there largely by finding ways to talk simultaneously with a group of atheists and a group of conservative Christians, and found that by and large the supernatural element of any story in scripture was, once you left on one side (“bracketed” is probably the correct term) whether it convinced you or not, in terms of it’s *meaning” to both these groups something which could actually be discussed without WWIII breaking out. Which was my job as a forum moderator at the time…
I will grant that I had more difficulty with the atheists on that count than with the fundagelics, as it proved that I could discuss things easier with the atheists as if “the force” from Star Wars were real than I could as if the feeding of the 5000 were making points about communal generosity and living in the moment (which is what I consider important) – people kept getting stuck on “it couldn’t have happened”, ignoring the fact that once past that hurdle, the fundagelics weren’t talking about anything which offended even the most hard core materialists…
The same principle, I found, came if I used tales from other traditions, such as the “Oven of Akhnai” from Judaism – the atheists could cope with the meaning of the story when stripped of its supernatural elements far better than they could with the Christian ones. Apart from the Jewish atheists, who had problems…
Remember it took me a long time to return to Christianity? That’s, I think, because 11 year old me was a distinctly *Christian* atheist.
David Buchanan says
Reading the Bible as fairy tale seems like pretty good advice. The myths in Christianity make a lot more sense when you read them as myths, compare them to similar myths, and otherwise read them as symbolic. The story is very much like other stories and the “truth” of it isn’t apparent until you stop believing it in any literal sense.
This comparative approach doesn’t seem to agree much with the call for us to “put ourselves at risk, allowing the possibility that the text could be life-changing” because it sort of assumes the Bible offers something special or even unique in having something important to teach us. It’s really not. Orpheus is basically the same story as Christ but it has music (including a singing head) and wild, wild women, which suits my tastes much better.
Wayne Schroeder says
Your last statement says it all: “Orpheus is basically the same story as Christ but it has music (including a singing head) and wild, wild women, which suits my tastes much better.” Men loved darkness rather than light. So, it really has nothing to do with whether you think Jesus Christ and Orpheus are identical. Your heart is obviously tuned into perversity. I don’t expect you to accept or even understand the supremacy of Christ.
Wayne Schroeder says
Holy Crap: “Will nothing short of a full seminary education, or a Ph.D. in religion, actually qualify me to read the symbols and so allow me to get the desired result out of my open heart?” (Mark, with great humbleness)
Oh, good: “There is no reason to fear or expect that a Ricoeurean hermeneutic properly undertaken will cause you to adopt a Christian worldview any more than a hermeneutic of Cinderella tales will cause you to don a princess dress and play castle.” (Brian, with great humor.)
Ok: Greater than secular or sacred, perhaps there is a hermeneutic that can reach all: Reality. Holy Shit, how can that happen? Well, maybe if we get our minds together, rather than prejudicially separate, we can come up with Reality? It is what is. Not what should be? No, how is it? Well, lets see: hermeneutic presuppositions to the fore: I only know what I believe to be true. Well, I have been subscribing to PEL for several years, so I believe what I know to be true. Well, we can’t both be right! What if we appeal to the symbolic? Then what we believe to be true is converted into “like this” rather than “this is.” Yeah, that sounds good, kind of like the difference between the is and the ought? Yes. Well, let’s do that. Ok. And they lived happlily ever after.
But that is not the whole picture–there is some kind of religious necessity to the ought, like I ought to believe this or that. True that–so what if we just drop the religious necessity and respond to what is? Do you know what is? Not necessarily. So let’s just look at what is and see what we find? Surely it can’t be that easy. Of course not, but it may not be that hard either.
Christ or Cinderella anyone?
I think an interesting philosophical question (leaving aside the soul saving) is how is it that something comes to strike us in a truly novel and gripping way, such that our habits/cognitive-biases don’t automatically turn it into more of the same? As you have discovered one can’t really consciously choose to be open, or not-know, or even to adopt a kind of ironic distance (as Rorty wrongly preached), but are there other ways (perhaps indirectly as Kierkegaard suggested) to try and engineer such
Is the second naivete when you open yourself again to enjoy the ambiguity of words and consider how it might be possible to embody the words you love instead of only using words to make unambiguous mental constructs?
Sean Nelson says
Thanks for this post. The idea of a second naivete (that begins to look like religion, as this post would have it) in hermeneutics as an approach to life is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, in other terms. I’ve been reconsidering my atheism over the past week because I ran into a hard problem: how to reconcile my, admittedly old-fashioned, belief in a necessary connection between beauty and truth without resorting to a teleology that presupposes a God. I’ve come up with some psychosocial answers that I’m not particularly satisfied with, and I think the idea of panpsychism is just goalpost moving. So it’s either jettison my belief, which I don’t want to do because my experience has always confirmed it, and academic arguments to the contrary have always struck me more as posturing or self-aggrandizing, or return to, basically, Methodism, the religion I was brought up in and which I still find attractive. But on the second naivete question, I recently read G. K. Chesterton’s “The Ethics of Elfland,” which seemed to me to make an incredible argument for so-called fairy tale thinking when approaching the world, and at a minimum, seemed to me to indicate the right way to live one’s life, whether one accepted the religious aspects of Chesterton or not.
Benjamin Feddersen says
Not to be too cheeky towards my philosophical betters, but there is a great deal of effort expended by skeptically-minded religious believers to justify something resembling religious belief in a way that doesn’t contradict their understandings of what it means to think critically. I think to really “get” the second naivete, you need to already be committed to religious belief and find a way to hold that belief simultaneously with the understanding that the language of the Bible is highly removed from a familiar or tangible context.
I feel like vast tracts of the Bible have simply become unintelligible to us because of how dependent they are on a theological and cultural context that have simply eroded into dust. That’s not really a big deal for me; I feel the same way when I read the long-winded barbecue instructions in Homer. But were I committed to a belief system that was ostensibly founded on such a text, I think giving a name to the massive cognitive dissonance between what I expect the text to say and the words I’m reading would make it easier to deal with. I think that’s Ricouer’s “second naivete”.
Great discussion! My understanding is that the second naivete isn’t going to come through cognitive reasoning, that would keep one in the critical distance stage. Rather, finding alternative embodied ways to be with the religious principals may, over time or instantaneously, open up the second naivete. Religion is more than a set of stories. Ritual is incredibly important. The deeper one’s participation the deeper its impact. Perhaps instead of receiving communion, giving it. I also wonder about engagement through arts, performance, or embodied meditation.
Rucks Smith says
The second naivite coincides closely to the change phase in psychotherapy which is stage two. Stage one is the bonding phase which would be the first naivite. Stage three is the self-realization phase, this is where you develop awareness. Dr. Patrick McNamara’s Neuroscience of the Religious Experience details what happens in the brain. As far as psychologically a good psychotherapy book or psychologist will detail the process as it happens mentally. All religions, and I mean ALL religions, try to help their believers through these three stages.