Thursday, September 01, 2011

Superman and the Hermeneutics of Continuity

Latin hymnody is nice enough, but what really get Father Anonymous going in the morning are comic books. And not your arty Daniel Clowes-Marjane Satrapi stuff, either. (Well, not only). Here at the Egg, we follow the same Golden and Silver Age superheroes who thrilled us in childhood, and whose lore we are passing on to our offspring. This includes some fairly obscure stuff -- Preschooler A. spent the morning demanding more adventures of Earth 3's Crime Syndicate. But at the heart of the mythology are characters known all over the world: Batman. Captain America. And above all, Superman.

So imagine our concern when DC Comics, one of the two major superhero publishers, announced plans to reboot its entire "universe," the shared imaginary world in which its characters interact. Oh, we understand the need: when you have been telling stories about the same characters for 70 years and counting, there is an inevitable need to freshen things up, not to mention sort out the conflicting versions of a single storyline. This may or may not be an artistic necessity, but it is certainly a commercial one, if new readers are ever going to understand what is going on. And the reconstruction of a universe is by no means the end of the world. DC did another major reboot in the late 1980s, for example, with decent results.

Fans, however, are generally uncomfortable with reboots. We have spent years following the characters, and mastering the obscure details of their imaginary existence. (Yes, it's just like soap operas. But with more robots.) We love these stories -- most of them, anyway -- and the thought of seeing them revised, often revised out of existence, fills us with a sense of loss. Anticipation, sure -- we all want new and better stories, and for that matter we want the ailing comics industry to survive -- but also loss.

The reboot begins today, with the release of a new Justice League of America series. It will reveal, among many other things, Superman's new costume (similar to the one featured in the forthcoming movie). The fanboy internet is in an uproar. For our part, we only wish that the nearest comics shop weren't ... well, soooo far away.

But all this has us thinking about theology, and most especially about Pope Benedict XVI. He is not, despite the red boots, Superman. But he has addressed, in language surprisingly clear for the Vatican, one of the critical challenges faced by any religious community, not least the Roman church: how to reconcile the needs for continuity and reform.

Since the late 1970s, theologians have often talked about an "hermeneutic of suspicion." The term is adapted from Paul Ricoeur, who used it to describe a post-Hegelian philosophical condition, in which all theories of meaning must be confronted with the biases of the theorist. It was borrowed by, for example, feminist Biblical scholars to describe a particular method of reading Scripture (and other Christian documents) with a lively awareness of the male-dominated culture in which they were written. We have since seen the method, or at least the term, applied to other studies as well, including that of Hinduism. And why not? As any historian knows, documents often say as much about their authors (and mises-en-scene) as about their subjects.

To the hermeneutic of suspicion, some writers have proposed radical alternatives: hermeneutics of generosity, of faith, and -- especially in the last few years -- of continuity. These, they propose, are safer ways for Christians to read the Bible, as well as other documents constitutive of our tradition. Rather than assume the authors are somehow deceiving us, they say, let us assume that they are telling us the truth, not between the lines but in the plain sense of them, and as that sense has generally been understood by the Church. And, again, why not? It was Luther himself who argued against speculative interpretations when common-sense grammatical ones were ready to hand. Occam's Razor, yadda-yadda.

Of these Ricuoerian spinoffs, the hermeneutic most adverted on the internet, at least among conservative Roman Catholics, appears to be that of continuity. (Examples here, here, here.) Indeed, one popular blog has adopted this as a title. As a quick Google search reveals, the phrase is commonly associated with Pope Benedict. And -- yet again -- why not? Benedict has continued the task undertaken by his predecessor: to establish a definitive interpretation of the Second Vatican Council which reads the Council as an expression, rather than a disruption, of the Catholic tradition. Of course, the council itself made just this claim. But its most enthusiastic interpreters, in the early years, seem to have seen Vatican II as a license to rewrite history and redefine tradition. (So do its most bitter detractors, which means that the SSPX looks dimly upon the effort to "save" Vatican II for traditionalism.)

It is worth noting that Benedict himself, in his now-famous Christmas 2005 address to the Curia, did not talk about "suspicion" versus "continuity." At least according to the official transcript, he spoke rather of "disruption" versus "reform." The difference is not vast, but stil noteworthy.

Here is Benedict's analysis of the difficulty his church has faced in implementing -- and even understanding -- its most recent council:

On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call "a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture"; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the "hermeneutic of reform", of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.

The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church. It asserts that the texts of the Council as such do not yet express the true spirit of the Council. It claims that they are the result of compromises in which, to reach unanimity, it was found necessary to keep and reconfirm many old things that are now pointless. However, the true spirit of the Council is not to be found in these compromises but instead in the impulses toward the new that are contained in the texts.

In contrast, Benedict argues for a literal and minimalistic reading of the conciliar documents. This is what pleases many of his readers, since such a reading presumes a continued celebration of the Latin Mass in its older form, not mention (among many other things) the Daily Office said in Latin, at least by those competent to do so. He wants to assure the faithful that "the Church, both before and after the Council, was and is the same Church, one, holy, catholic and apostolic, journeying on through time ...."

We're all for the general approach. But we are intrigued by the idea that it is a matter of reform, rather than -- mere -- continuity. In that word, there is the explicit admission that the old thing, the ecclesia quo ante, was deformed, in need of judicious reconstruction in order to express its original intention accurately. In a very general way, of course, this has also been the approach taken by some of the Reformation churches, or at least some members within them. From Melanchthon to the Petris to Charles Porterfield Krauth, there have been those who attempted to develop Protestant theology as an expression of Catholic tradition. (Of course, there have also been those -- from Flacius to Schmucker and so many, many more -- who have treated Protestant theology as a replacement for Catholic theology, and indeed of the supposed "Protestant Church" as a replacement for the Catholic one.)

The same impulses which Benedict sees in the appropriation of Vatican II can be seen, by anybody willing to look, in the far longer and more complex effort of Protestants to understand their own Reformation. All of which means that Evangelical Catholics, and Anglo-Catholics, and any remaining adherents of the Mercersburg theology, or even Methodists in the Order of St. Luke, ought to pay close attention to the intellectual leadership that benedict offers to his own community. We suspect strongly that Benedict has learned something from his observation of Anglicans, at the very least, and probably of Lutherans as well. Even if we disagree about the details -- the precise content of the tradition -- we can learn from his approach to it. He is, in this sense, our brother.

All of which brings us back to DC Comics and the big Justice League reboot. We will be curious to see, over the next few months, how these new versions of old stories are accepted by readers, and then modified by the editors and writers. The new Superman -- with his short sleeves, his high collar, and his lack of underpants on the outside -- certainly looks different from the one we have been used to since Granpda was in seminary. But will he be all that different? Is the "new universe" a radically Protestant one? A Bugnini-style liturgical one? Or will it be, after all, something more readily identifiable to the initiates -- one that exists in continuity, however tortured, with the world we have known and loved?

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