Coming to the Table: part 2

Posted: March 31, 2011 in Hermeneutics

In my first post I introduced this subject and argued that people (and communities) find meaning in the telling and retelling of their narratives and that it is in the perception of their lives as narrative that people make sense of their lives. I went on to make the connection between the practices of people (and communities) and their interpretive lenses. Within the context of the Christian community (the Brethren in particular) the practice of the symbols (ordinances) was an essential formative experience for both the individual and community and that the community’s hermeneutical lens is fundamentally affected as the community is drawn into conformity with the biblical narrative (having looked back at what I wrote, I now see that this wasn’t at all clear and I assumed too much). If what I have posed in the previous section is so, then practices (and even behaviors) are implicit contributors to a community’s hermeneutical lens. Thus practices and behaviors contribute not only to how we fundamentally perceive the reality around us, whether written or live, but it affects the perception of the identity of the community itself, i.e., in as much as a community can articulate its perception of that identity with any possible consensus.

This expresses the extent to which practices (and necessarily behaviors) as narrative events in a person’s life should seriously be considered when talking about community life and identity. Much confusion is created when a community makes statements regarding its beliefs (both on an individual basis as well as the community as a whole) and then proceeds to act (practice and behave) in a contrary way. For example, anytime a community that proclaims to be a church with a democratic (or theocratic) form of organization which then proceeds to function in a hierarchical way causes confusion among the members. Not only does the organizational practice contradict the narrative identity but begins to put in place a new and contradictory narrative that forms the identity and ultimately affects the hermeneutical lens. Admittedly within any organization there is some diversity and to some extent narrative tensions as stories are not merely merged (in a McIntyre way) but to some extent they become competing stories which essentially expand the foundational (or identity-narrative of the community) narrative. Nevertheless, the practices are formative and affects the interpretive lens of the community.

Yet the organizational structure of a community is but a small part of the larger foundational narrative. A believing community’s foundational narratives are the sum of stories and experiences of the community’s life together as it is integrated within the larger metanarrative. It is that story which begins with the origin (of the community) narrative and the story of the communities growth and development. This narrative serves as the foundation for the community’s identity. Within this context liturgical practices (inclusive of symbols) serve to cement the foundational narrative within the metanarrative. In one sense the community is re-enacting particular portions of the metanarrative in the first person (mimesis). As such they enter into this grand narrative as participating actors analeptically enacting biblical narrative events (in a participatory way) in the present. The practices of these events formatively affects the community’s identity and thus reshapes its hermeneutical lens. In another sense these practices formatively affect the individual believer’s faith and identity both in becoming part of the larger community (both as seminal ceremony and as formative rite) and through immersion into the metanarrative.  These practices are essential to drawing the individual into the corporate memory and thus the foundational narrative. In much the same way these practices fundamentally shape the hermeneutical lens of the community as well as the individual within the community. As the community practices the symbols regularly they become conditioned and formed to interpret from the perspective of a character within the foundational narrative. Even as the symbols find their narrative form in scripture and require interpretation, the narrative community affects both the interpretation of the hermeneutical community as well as the individual as part of the narrative community. For example, a community emerging out of the Anabaptist story will be a Christocentric community as it will also emphasize the centrality of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in all hermeneutical matters. As the community begins to interact with the reality surrounding it, it will begin to perceive the reality in ways which correspond to the gospel narratives (in addition to the rest of the New Testament).

I will close with just two observations regarding the implications of this. First, as to the practices of members of the community when members cease to participate in the essential practices of the symbols, these practices are then substituted with other lifestyle practices. Thus, for instance, instead of being formed by the biblical narrative through this participation, the individual is then most likely to be formed by whatever competing narrative exists in proximity (culture, political, etc.). The results then become obvious as the person affected as such will no longer resemble metanarrative from which the foundational narrative emerged and in which it is anchored. Secondly, even as practices affect the individual they likewise affect the hermeneutical community. As the percentage of the community ceases to participate in these symbols the community’s foundational narrative becomes diluted with competing narratives which not only undermine the core identity but affect a community in such a way as to lead it to re-interpret its own self-perceived identity.

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