The above image is the cover of my first book, which I am very excited about having published. It is an academic book about the French philosopher Paul Ricœur. Yet writing it has been much more than an academic exercise for me. What I have learnt from Ricœur has enriched my approach to all kinds of intellectual questions.

Why care about Ricœur?

What led me to choose to study this particular thinker instead of anybody else?

My interest in Ricœur arose out of a prior interest in the Bible. We read the Bible every day in the Christian family I grew up in. I remember at age 5, at breakfast, hearing my Dad read the Beatitudes out loud to us. I didn’t know what the word ‘beatitude’ meant so I assumed it meant the ‘be attitudes’, i.e. the attitudes you should be. It was a good two decades before I was disabused of this notion, but it shows how pervasive the Bible was in our family culture.

When I became older and got to know Christians from outside my own church, I found that there was a lot of disagreement about what the Bible meant on certain topics. It is almost the definition of a controversial issue in Christianity that there are disagreements about what the Bible is saying or about how to apply it to today.

My first reaction to this was: oh, ‘Well then, I need to become a Bible scholar and then I can arbitrate these disputes and figure out who is right and who is wrong’. So went to study the Bible at a theological institution. But while I was studying, I became aware that even expert Bible scholars disagreed about how to apply the Bible for today. Being a Bible scholar didn’t seem to make you any more competent to talk about how to use the Bible in a present-day context, at least, not if consensus is any criterion to go on.

This problem landed me squarely in the questions belonging to the domain of hermeneutics, the theory of interpretation of texts. Hermeneutics is often alluded to in Bible scholarship but it is not part of the discipline as such, since Bible scholars are tasked with historical enquiry and hermeneutics is much bigger than purely historical questions. So I asked around: how do I learn about hermeneutics? And the answer came loud and clear: you have to read Paul Ricœur. He is the number one authority on hermeneutics in the twentieth century. He did more than anyone else to establish hermeneutics as a discipline and to provide insights on how interpretation works.

It turns out Ricœur is a hugely influential and important figure, not only in philosophy, but in theology, literature, historiography, social theory, and many other disciplines. He was a Protestant Christian in a Catholic country, during a time when philosophy was hostile to religion. He had a colorful biography, having been captured by the Nazis in World War II and sent to a Prisoner of War camp for five years. He got caught up in the 1968 riots – he was sympathetic to them but they weren’t sympathetic to him, and in the middle of the tensions he ended up resigning his post. Soon after that the University of Chicago offered him a prestigious chair – the John Nuveen chair in Philosophical Theology, recently vacated by the theologian Paul Tillich. I know no other author who published writings from both before World War II and after 9/11. To this day Ricœur remains one of the most influential and greatest French philosophers of the twentieth century, and this in spite of the huge disadvantage of his religious conviction in a period deeply hostile to religion and Protestantism in particular.

So that is Ricœur and how I first encountered him. But if you open this book you will find that it doesn’t really talk about hermeneutics. Why did I not write a book about Ricœur’s hermeneutics if that was what I started reading Ricœur for? Because I discovered that Ricœur’s theory of interpretation is itself dependent on deeper convictions about what it means to be a human being, about how human beings relate to God, and about what evil is and where it comes from. Those things lay the foundation for anything you want to say about interpretation of texts. The book I ended up writing was about these things: about what it means to be a human being, about the distinction between finitude and evil, and about the distinctively Christian approach to humanity that comes from the doctrine of creation, the doctrine that human existence is created with a purpose. In some ways you could say that it lays the foundations for hermeneutics rather than being itself about hermeneutics.

Summary of the Book

There are three key foundations that the book unfolds.

First, I found that Ricœur mediates between the finitude of an individual perspective and the universality of the truth. These two things have to be held in tension, you can’t let go of one for the sake of the other. Truth is universal. Everyone believes things that they think are true everywhere and for everyone. If racism is wrong it is wrong for everyone; if murder is wrong then it’s not just wrong for me. Yet at the same time I can’t prove that wrongness in universal terms. My universal beliefs are not universally demonstrable.

Second, Ricœur showed me that I’d been making a huge assumption about different interpretations of the Bible. I’d assumed that it was a problem and a bad thing that we interpreted the Bible differently. I hadn’t realised that there were two kinds of different interpretations: disagreements in which there is a conflict and two incompatible readings, and simple diversity where we all see different things in the text but this testifies to the richness of the text and the wonderful diversity with which God created all human beings.

In other words, your position on interpretive plurality contains an assumption about the distinction between finitude and evil, the finitude of one individual perspective, one distinctive reading of the Bible, and the evil of misreading the Bible, misinterpreting, misunderstanding, reading in a distorted way. The fact that there are different readings is not itself bad, but some kinds of different readings are bad. In fact, I began to see that we often confuse finitude with evil, thinking that our limitations and inabilities are somehow a result of sin, when they are often just a result of not being God. Your limitations are not a flaw or a failing. They are part of the way God created you.

And that leads to a third thing that pervades Ricœur’s philosophy. Ricœur showed me how the doctrine of creation can really work to transform our understanding of what it means to be human. As a human being, you are fundamentally good in your deepest constitution, because you are created by a good God. Your essential goodness is deeper in you than any sin, corruption, or flaw, and the work of salvation is not to erase who you really are but to restore it. This fundamental goodness, more fundamental than any evil, runs strong throughout Ricœur. Evil is there and it is real – Ricœur wrote a whole book about evil – but evil is not the first, and evil can never block or erase our access to the good and our ability to see and perceive the good.

That, in a nutshell, is what the book is about.

Beyond the subject matter: how to think as a Christian

But there’s more. As I read more deeply in Ricœur, I found in him an amazing role model for how to be a Christian intellectual, and it is this, more than his particular insights, that will stay with me. Ricœur exemplified for me three of the distinctive virtues of a Christian intellectual:

  1. Humble exposition: Ricœur exhibits the virtue of humility in a way that is surpassingly rare for famous intellectuals and thinkers. Everything conspires against humble people becoming famous. If you want to be a reputed intellectual, you have to act as if you have better insight and understanding than those around you, that there’s something you can see clearly that others can’t. As David Brooks puts it, you are paid to appear more intelligent and knowledgeable than you actually are. It’s hard to become famous if you’re humble, or to become humble if you’re famous. But I think Ricœur manages it. One almost never feels Ricœur has overstepped the limits of his argument or his expertise. You often have to wait until the last chapter to find out Ricœur’s opinion at all. He doesn’t start with his opinion, he starts by presenting the history of the question, key figures in the debate – and almost everyone who reads Ricœur feels that he has presented things fairly and represented people and movements as they would want to be represented. When he finally gets to his own opinion, you are ready to trust it so much more because you can see the context out of which it emerged and how much work he has done to get there. The final chapter of most Ricœur books packs a real punch, but you only get there after doing the hard work of slogging through many pages of preparatory build-up.
  2. Bold confrontation: Ricœur has a reputation for being an irenic thinker. He doesn’t launch violent attacks on people or ideas. He doesn’t disparage or demean. He is not aggressive in his way of treating other scholars. But this reputation has often been misunderstood to mean that Ricœur is timid, shying away from controversial or difficult questions or unafraid to take a stand. In that sense although it is true to say that Ricœur is not polemical, it is wrong to say that Ricœur doesn’t engage in polemics. He does engage in polemics. There’s no difficult issue that he hasn’t written about. He goes after the hardest and toughest problems there are and wrestles with them for years before writing about them. He seeks out the strongest arguments against his own position. He spent five years reading Freud, as he thought that Freud’s concept of the unconscious was the greatest challenge to phenomenology, and perhaps at a deeper level because Freudian psychology was one of the most sinister threats to religion and faith. He dares to go where most thinkers fear to tread.
  3. Fearless exploration: The third characteristic I learnt from Ricœur is something Ricœur says he learnt from his first ever philosophy teacher in high school, Roland Dalbiez. He calls it the ‘most severe lesson’ that he learnt from Dalbiez, and it took place in a context in which Ricœur began to realise that the study of philosophy would constantly bring challenges and threats to his faith. His teacher, who was also a Christian, said: ‘Never turn away from what you are afraid to encounter. Never avoid it, but confront it face on.’ Ricœur comments on this near the end of his life, and he says that he doesn’t know whether he’s lived up to this ideal, but all he can say is that he never forgot it. I think he did live up to it. I think he shows this characteristic of what it means to be a Christian academic: that you gain nothing by avoiding the strongest and most powerful arguments against what you believe. You learn nothing, your faith remains fragile and weak. It is the kind of faith that is afraid it might, actually, be wrong after all, and clings to ignorance as the only saviour. I don’t think this is the sort of faith Jesus wanted us to have, I don’t think this is what Jesus meant by faith at all. Ricœur shows me an example of a faith that is fearless in the face of everything that threatens to undermine and destroy it. Yet this fearless confidence is somehow free from arrogance, free from presumption. He knows his faith does not amount to certainty. He knows he could be wrong. He combines courage and humility in an incredible way. He left me an example that I want to follow.

I can’t say I have always or will always live up to Ricœur’s example, but I am enormously glad to have it as an ideal to strive for. He provides for me a model for the rest of my academic career, so even when I am writing and thinking about things Ricœur never wrote or thought about, his way of thinking about things will remain with me.

If you’re interested

The book is available to purchase here. If you find the price a bit steep (sorry about that!), try asking your local library to get a copy for you to check out. You will also notice a free marketing sample available at the above link.

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Barney is the lead editor for the site. A theology fellow at Oxford University, he also hosts a podcast called Faith at the Frontiers.