I am so grateful for the work of Paul Ricoeur. It helped sustain my faith during my PhD at Claremont and now it helps me translate what I learned at Claremont back into an evangelical context.
Ricoeur, for me, is like the 2×4 in the wall. His work frames so much of what I do but it wouldn’t be helpful for most people to see it. In fact, he is one of those big thinkers that I recommend reading about rather than actually reading directly. For instance, Stiver’s book is on google books.
Here are the 2 concepts that I use often:
- Surplus of Meaning
In any symbol as rich and full as the ones found in the Christian faith, there is bound to be an overflow of meanings and interpretations. Think of communion or even the three little letters g-o-d. The symbolism of the communion table and the symbol g-o-d have not just one meaning but have a surplus of meaning!
We have inherited a terrible tradition in Western thought of reducing something down to its ‘essence’ or even its lowest common denominator. We boil things down to their most rudimentary form and simplify them. This leads us to argue about which denomination, what translation of the bible, or what baptism formulation is right.
This reductive move strips symbols of their richness and fullness. It makes things one-dimensional and linear. In trying to boil things down they end up being lifeless and bland.In fact, when this doesn’t work, we often get flustered and say “well then none of the interpretations can be right”. People use this ‘logic’ to complain about the number of views of God, churches, denominations, and translations of the bible. With so many views, how can any one of them be right?
Surplus of meaning recognizes the multiple, the plural, and the overflowing nature of possibilities.
Think of all of the different names for God in the Hebrew Bible. Think about all of the sermons you have heard on ‘the prodigal son’ parable. Think of all the worship songs that have written about the crucifixion. Symbols are rich and overflowing with meaning!
I use the surplus of meaning for everything from Christmas festivities to new church plants. I don’t want to reduce things down – I want to expand them and breath life into them. Christmas isn’t just one thing. In fact, I am under the conviction that we have under-done Christmas and have barely begun to explore and express how amazing the incarnation was and is.
Any symbol as rich as the cross, the communion table, and even the 3 letters g-o-d are going to be overflowing with meaning. It would be impossible to exhaust the possibilities or to reduce it to one thing.
- Second Naivete
Ricoeur encourages us to pass through desert of criticism to come back to our faith (or reading the text) again … but differently. I like the saying:
‘Jesus wants us to have the faith of a child but not a childish faith’.
Ricoeur knows that we have to grow out of our childish naivete about God and the bible but that many of us never round the corner into a mature and developed faith.
Faith is a journey. The dangerous gutters to be avoided on either side of the path are cynicism on the one side and certainty on the other. It is difficult to pass through the desert of criticism. A lot of people lose their faith along the way and give up. We live in an age of cynicism and it can be tempting to give into calloused, jaded, and bitter doubts.
Second naivete is a grown up faith that comes back into community, the worship service, and to the Bible … this time with eyes wide open. It is a beautiful place of wonder (at the surplus of meaning) which allows us to embrace humility and mystery again.
This is my prayer for you today. That you would be encouraged in your spirit about the fullness and goodness of life and love and faith. This world can be a harsh place and we live in the age of the cynic. May see you see the overflowing possibilities in the world and may your faith round the corner into a place of honest appreciation for all that it means to so many people. May God’s spirit encourage your spirit as you navigate the tricky road between certainty and doubt.
You will never have the faith that you used to, but let’s be honest – it wasn’t working that well for you anyway. Go ahead and let it go and may you come into a place of beauty and plenty, overflowing with meaning.