The hermeneutic cycle for seekers

The hermeneutic cycle

Whenever we are engaged in the activity of knowing, we are involved in a process proadly known as “hermeneutics,” or the art of interpretation. Most of what we “know” is the fruit not of raw, direct experience, but of learning from others. When we learn from others, we are engaged in a process of trying to grasp the meaning of what they say, and whether that meaning complements or challenges our own meaning.

In the spiritual realm, this is especially true of “seekers,” who have engaged in the journey of questioning what they had originally been taught, and want to “own” their faith and their spiritual journey in a very real and intentional manner.

The process through we both learn from our communities and influence them is known as the “hermeneutic cycle.” What follows is a very simplified version of Bernard Lonergan’s “functional specialties,”1 originally designed to explain the complexity of the communal theological enterprise. I believe we will find this especially useful as we develop our “theologies from experience” as a result of our spiritual journeys and as we try to engage with others in sharing our faith.

I will call the description of knowing the “hermeneutic cycle,” It is “hermeneutic” because it recognizes that all our knowledge deals with “meanings” and that our task as knower is to constantly interpret the meanings we receive. It is a “cycle” because each set of tasks calls up the next, and we keep going round and round as we deepen our understanding of our own experience and as we try to make sense of others’.

The hermeneutic cycle described below provides a framework for understanding what is involved in the relationship between me, my experience and my tradition, and others in my community.

A. The hermeneutic cycle: summary description:

a) Why “hermeneutics” matters:

Every time I try to understand what you are saying, or what my culture, or my society, my community, my group, my institution, is trying to tell me, I am engaged in hermeneutics. From the time I wake until I sink into sleep I am “interpreting”: I interpret the meaning of the two hands which point to symbols on the “clock”; I recall the name of the day, the month, the date, all of which are cultural artifacts. I familiarize myself with the events of my world through newspapers that are themselves interpretations, and, in turn, need to be interpreted. I review in my minds what my day will be like: the meetings (all interpretation!), the courses (“what does she mean???”), the encounters (“where was he coming from?”). As I meet and greet people, I interpret their gestures and their words; I interpret our roles within the institution for which I work, which itself is a cultural artifact.

My culture is not something “out there” like an object I can analyse. I live “in” my culture (or cultures); these cultures address me. In fact, they provide ready-made frames of understanding for my experience. But I am not passive with regard to these cultures. I engage with them; I challenge them. I try to understand them. I must risk my personal ‘world’ if I am to enter into the life-world of the traditions that are passed on to me. My task with respect to my culture(s) is to decipher them, to understand the meaning of what is passed on to me. In turn, I am engaged in changing that culture in light of my own experience, interpreted though it may already be in terms of it.

The basic epistemic task is thus one of “translation”. My parents’ values, the cultural world of my church community, the heroes and stories of my ethnic background are all “foreign” and strange, and must be made intelligible to me by a process of translation into the medium of my own language. What do I carry forward, and what does this mean in my terms today?

b) The hermeneutic cycle:

The steps in this process of dialogue with my cultural background and my more immediate experience have best been described by Bernard Lonergan with the notion of “functional specialties.”

Our religious and spiritual life situates itself within a process of “tradition” whether we like it or not: we live within a context provided to us by previous generations. There are two phases of any tradition, corresponding to the two aspects contained in the etymological origins of the term – “handing on.” There is the transmission of beliefs and values, and there is their reception.

Each of these two phases engages every aspect of our cognitive activity. Corresponding to the four cognitive functions of experiencing, understanding, judging and deciding3, are four functions involved in “receiving” a tradition.

Let’s follow a typical experience through the whole cycle: The first four have to do with “receiving”: (1) Typically, I start by asking myself the question “What is my experience?” (2) From that experience, I typically ask “What sense do I make of my experience?” (3) This naturally leads me to ask “So what do I think is really the case? What’s really going on? What is the truth of the situation?” (4) When I first share this with others, I am essentially sharing my story – the process of how I got to where I am on this matter. And I am listening to others do the same. We are each asking ourselves the question “Where is the other coming from?” At this point, (5) I am ready to reassess my own position. This is the pivotal point in the hermeneutic cycle and moves me from “receiving” to “transmitting,” the “passing on” we talk about in “tradition.”
In this “transmission” phase of the hermeneutic cycle, (6) first, I state the basic foundational assumptions of my spiritual, religious, or moral life, (7) then I transpose the findings of my Foundations into propositions that I can talk about, (8) next I organize my vision in a systematic fashion in order to promote insight in other people, and (9) finally, I try to make my ideas available to others as experience for their Research.

1. “What is my experience?” (Research):

The first stage of the cycle is termed “Research,” and refers to what I do as I gather experience. At this early stage, I am merely gathering and assembling a wide range of experiences relevant to the matter at hand, including what others have said about it; how it is seen by others; what are the relevant interpretations on the matter; what is the history of this issue, etc. What I am looking for are stories, examples, cues, symbols, myths, theories about the issue I am interested in. The key cognitive activity in this stage is “experiencing.”

2. “What sense do I make of my experience?” (Interpretation):

While one never truly exhausts any stage, there comes a point where I think I have had enough experiences that I feel I am ready to move on to the next stage which Lonergan calls “Interpretation.” This refers to the various acts of understanding that go into making sense of the data. I am thus converting all my experiences – direct experiences as well as what I have heard or read – into some organized meaning. The key cognitive activity here is “understanding.”

3. “So what do I think is really the case?” (History):

Lonergan calls the third task “History.” This refers to the functions involved in judging, i.e., attempting to establish the “facts” of the matter. Just because I’ve managed to make meaning out of my experiences does not mean that I have figured the truth of a situation. My task now is to judge what really happened. I do this by making sure I have answered all the possible questions about the situation at hand. This task is much like that of an historian, who is trying to figure out what really happened, and to do this without allowing her own biases to get in the way. “History” focuses on determining the facts of the situation beyond the interpretation. The cognitive function used in this task is “judgment.”

4. “Where am I coming from? Where is my conversational partner coming from?” (Dialectic):

There is a final stage in the process of knowing: deliberating on the value of what I believe I know. This process of determining the “worth” of my knowledge is communal and involves mutual sharing with others. Lonergan calls this stage “Dialectic.” With this stage, I am preparing myself to take my own stand. Dialectic recognizes that, while others have also engaged in the same stages of Research, Interpretation and History as I have on the same issue I have been studying, for a host of reasons, both personal and cultural, we may not agree on what we have found. Dialectic investigates and goes to the root of our differing views. Ideally, this is not about arguing and winning. This is about an honest and open attempt to let others help me discern my blind spots, and to allow me to help others discover theirs. Together, we are trying to discern the bases for our differences: each of us is exposing ourselves as responsible learners who believe they have gathered all the pertinent data, attempted to make sense of them, and who have attempted to judge what in fact is the case. The key question we ask of each other is “where are you coming from?” The key cognitional activity in this stage is deciding.

5. “So, in light of that conversation, what do I really believe now?” The summit of the hermeneutic cycle: the conversion experience:

The apex of this hermeneutic cycle is the personal moment of choice and decision. It is the moment when I take a personal stand. I have experienced, understood, judged, and weighed the merits of my position and that of others. I can now make up my mind. As a result of Dialectic, I have become aware of some of the assumptions I might have been operating under; I may have become more clearly aware of my biases – cultural, class, race, gender, sexual orientation, religious views, etc – and I might have to reassess what I had determined to be the case of the event under review.

Once I have taken that stand on the matter at hand, I can begin the downward part of the cycle where my decision, the stand I take, becomes part of the stuff which others after me must deal with as data: this is the essence of the “transmission” dimension of tradition. My position enters the community as data that others will need to take into account when they begin their hermeneutic process of Research, etc.

6. “What can I say about my basic beliefs?” (Foundations):

“Foundations” states the basic foundational assumptions of my spiritual, religious, or moral life that I affirmed or reaffirmed in the last stage of the hermeneutic cycle. It states my personal stand, and establishes the basic personal categories in terms of which I will elaborate my spiritual, religious, or moral life. Basically, it selects the “Doctrines,” values, principles, visions, symbols, and ideals, from among multiple choices presented by Dialectic. This stage uses decision as the prime cognitional activity.

7. “How do I state the theology I have developed from my experience?” (Doctrines):

Doctrines are individual judgments of fact and value. The specialty “Doctrines” transposes the findings of my Foundations into propositions that I can talk about: my spiritual, religious, or moral vision, my ideals. Within the framework set up by my foundations, Doctrines are statements about what I think to be the case. These are “I hold….” statements. At this point, I am taking a stand on an issue, after the process of dialectically examining and stating my basic assumptions. This step is no longer simply a passive and/or personal restatement, but an entry into history by making a difference; it includes a movement toward action, because it leads to statements about “what I am going to do with what I have learned..” Judgment is the prime cognitional activity at this stage.

8. “How do I explain my beliefs so others can understand?” (Systematics):

Lonergan calls “Systematics” that functional specialty of transmission which elaborates the level of understanding. Here, I am organizing my vision in a systematic fashion in order to promote insight in other people. This is where I “give reasons” for what I believe in and for why I do what I do. Systematics is an attempt to articulate in a coherent fashion the unity of what I hold to be true. It is what typically gets called upon in moral or religious discourse and involves an attempt to explicate the intelligibility of one’s position. I primarily use understanding at this stage.

9. “How can I communicate my beliefs to others – through my words and my actions?” (Communications):

“Communications,” finally, corresponds to the level of experience where I am, in fact, creating learning situations to provide experiences for others. This specialty covers my actions – whether they be verbal or physical or interior. This is the stage where I contribute to the spiritual, religious or moral community of which I am a part. Communications is the process by which I try to make my Doctrines, mediated by my Systematics, available to others as experience for their Research. It is a movement to results; the step of transposition, i.e., the change brought by my personal cognitive cycle to the problem at hand. It implies both an action and a verbal communication.

This cyclic process occurs all the time. We don’t often realize the steps we take. But if we watched ourselves carefully as we experience, as we try to make sense out of our experience, try to figure out what really happened, and as we share our conclusions with others and listen to their differing viewpoints, as we go back and take a personal stand, and then try to state this stand, explain it and help others use our conclusions as raw data for their own experiencing and subsequent processing, we would recognize the stages of the hermeneutic cycle.