BOSTON — At a recent New Testament seminar, a scholar dared to disagree that the story of Mary Magdalene, sitting at the feet of Jesus, had been added to Scripture by early church fathers to keep women subservient. He suggested to colleagues instead that Mary Magdalene was occupying a place of honor, as typical in Hebrew culture.
In a pointed rebuke, the scholar, a pioneer in the study of women in the early church, was told he had "sold out." His colleagues charged he had failed to bring enough "critical suspicion" to the story.
Over 25 years, critical interpretation based on a "suspicious" reading of texts has gained prominence in America's intellectual centers. To study religion and the liberal arts in college today is to be highly aware of possible "biases" encoded in traditional texts of Western culture, from the Gospels to Shakespeare to T.S. Eliot. Students learn how texts have been used as instruments of social oppression or exploitation. They are taught to read with relentless suspicion.
Yet in recent years a small but growing band of thinkers are becoming suspicious - of too much suspicion.
Across a broad range of the humanities, a few voices are arguing for a change in the way readers study text - one that involves greater trust, humility, and even the occasional suspension of judgment. In the field of religion, more scholars seek to enable readers to experience what Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards called "spiritual sense" - letting the text reveal hidden dimensions of meaning and light.
These thinkers are challenging, however modestly, the intellectual groundwork laid in the 19th century by the so-called "masters of suspicion," Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche. They are in a pitched battle over a crucial area of modern thought - hermeneutics, or the method by which we interpret and know what it is we know.
This eclectic group is found in every field of the liberal arts, on both the left and the right. For them, the tendency to overemphasize a "hermeneutic of suspicion" blocks readers from realizing important dimensions and experiences in the classic texts, such as the poetry of literature or the capacity of Scripture to inspire and illuminate.
"There's a counter move in academia today to challenge an ethos of suspicion," says Garrett Green, an expert on theology at Connecticut College in New London and the author of "Imagining God." "You see it in vigorous meetings of young scholars who aren't captive to ideology and have a freer reading of things. They go to the big conferences as a way to keep their small groups alive."
But in challenging the prevailing approach to study, they are objecting to a methodology born in part of an awakened sense of the injustices of history. "No biblical patriarchal text that perpetuates violence against women, children, or 'slaves,' should be accorded the status of divine revelation," says Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, a preeminent feminist biblical scholar at Harvard University's Divinity School.
Political correctness under fire
Partly the trend is a challenge to political correctness. The challengers don't want Shakespeare's "The Tempest," for example, taught only as an instance of colonial exploitation. Nor do they sympathize with the head of the New Testament department at a West Coast seminary who teaches the Gospel of John as a sexist document with male language and symbols that make it a "suspicious" text.
Rather, they advocate being "vulnerable and open" when reading. They advocate a "hermeneutic of trust" that will allow Scripture, for example, to speak in new ways, to be a vehicle for intellectual and spiritual experience. They feel the loss of trust in text is corrosive and unhealthy both for churches and society at large.
The challenge is not only one of how the next generation of students will interpret the central texts of the culture. In some circles, it is also about whether divinity or a higher intelligence exists that can be accessed through reading.
"A hermeneutic of suspicion hangs over the seminary today," says Herman Waejten, a Paul scholar who recently retired from the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, Calif. "While suspicion is often a good thing, I think today it is closing our ability to be astonished by some of the truly radical aspects of the letters of someone like Paul, who challenged everything about the worldly powers and customs of his day, including slavery and [treatment of] women."
"At bottom, the question is whether texts actually can and do speak independently of our private interpretations," says Richard Hays, a New Testament scholar at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "Can any light come through that is not conjured by the reader, but that comes via something we call truth? I think so, which is where I advocate a faithful or trustful approach, though not in a literal or blind sense."
Next fall in Princeton, N.J., Dr. Hays and 12 Bible scholars will meet in a new endeavor called The Scripture Project. The group will spend three years reading and discussing the Bible together - and suspending their own very different critical approaches to the Good Book so that they may encounter it afresh.
Not all the fuss is coming from seminaries. William Pritchard, a Shakespeare scholar at Amherst College in Amherst, Mass., recently taught a seminar on the Bard that deliberately avoided looking at the plays from the standpoint of theory and focused on the quality of expression in the lines themselves as poetry.
One common complaint is that too much theory puts 20-year-old undergraduates and 30-year-old PhD candidates in the false position of critical and even moral superiority over writers from other eras.
The absurdity of this position caused one former radical critical theorist, Frank Lentricchia of Duke, to recant his earlier views. In "The Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic" published in Lingua Franca, Dr. Lentricchia notes that his own students have ceased to read books, reading instead mainly criticism of books. The self-righteousness of the literary critic's position eventually became unbearable to him. He describes the superior attitude of the critic this way: " 'T.S. Eliot is a homophobe and I am not. Therefore I am a better person than Eliot. Imitate me, not Eliot.' To which the proper response is. 'But T.S. Eliot could really write and you can't.' "
'Structure of meaning'
The main battle in the current war is over hermeneutics. The word comes from the messenger-god from Greek mythology, Hermes. It has to do with the relationship between a message and its interpretation. In a sense, hermeneutics are to the critic or scholar something like software is to the computer owner. It is a highly sophisticated structure of meaning that readers use to open up the text. Hermeneutics owe much to Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche, who laid out new ideas about the role of the unconscious, of class, and of power in the way humans conduct themselves.
In recent years, their intellectual offspring have been the French deconstructionists Foucault, Derrida, and Lacan, who argue that all interpretation is subjective, and that humans can claim no real truth, no real presence, and no real ground of being to stand on. For deconstructionists, tradition, memory, history, and authority are fatted calves.
"The 'masters' argue there is no god out there other than what we project," says Dr. Green. "For them, religion is a human projection, the great illusion, the human being treating itself as the object of the sacred. That is also where hermeneutics are today."
Many of the new critics of suspicion are not asking to do away with it. They instead want a balanced approach in which the reader employs suspicion, but then surrenders it to an attitude of trust, much as a moviegoer might suspend disbelief when going to the theater.