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Hermeneutic Labor!

I've often talked and taught about hermeneutics in my role as a pastor, but was pleasantly surprised to see the term appear here in an article on dating, and the coining of a new term "hermeneutic labor"!

P. S.  I can also talk about emotionally stunted men, but we'll save that for another time.

The academic paper on Hermeneutic Labor is worth a perusal too.  

Hermeneutic labor is the burdensome activity of: understanding and coherently expressing one's own feelings, desires, intentions, and motivations; discerning those of others; and inventing solutions for relational issues arising from interpersonal tensions. 

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Related to emotional labor but distinct from it, hermeneutic labor is the burdensome activity of a) understanding one's own feelings, desires, intentions, and motivations, and presenting them in an intelligible fashion to others when deemed appropriate; b) discerning others’ feelings, desires, intentions, and motivations by interpreting their verbal and nonverbal cues, including cases when these are minimally communicative or outright avoidant; and c) comparing and contrasting these multiple sets of feelings, desires, intentions, and motivations for the purposes of conflict resolution. Hermeneutic labor is related to emotional labor because it works on the emotions—and, more broadly, the emotional domain of interpersonal life. Yet it is distinct from emotional labor because it pertains to explicit processes of interpreting emotions (as well as desires, intentions, and motivations) through cognitive processes, such as deliberating and ruminating. 

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According to hermeneutics, the work of interpretation is a complex and learned skill, one element of which is understanding one's own prejudices as one investigates various layers of meaning. This requires skills in self-reflection, as well as nuanced and often intimate acquaintance with the meaning of cues from others. Hermeneutics recognizes that communication happens within a world of interpreters with cognitive biases, and thus encourages actively resisting the illusion that individual expression will be transparently received as intended by the person(s) to whom it is expressed. “A hermeneutically trained consciousness” must be sensitive to alterity (Gadamer Reference Gadamer, Weinsheimer and Marshall2004, 271).

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The skills involved in emotional labor come into play primarily in rapid responses to dynamic social situations with other people in real time. By contrast, hermeneutic labor primarily involves patient, deliberative reflection, and is generally undertaken in solitary rumination and/or in conversations outside of the situations on which it labors, as in conversations with friends or counselors. Hermeneutic labor reflects on social encounters after they occur, and prepares plans for future encounters. This may include reflecting on how they made one feel—and whether that feeling was appropriate to the situation—as well as reflecting how others may have felt in the situation, and whether one should respond to others differently in similar situations in the future. It also often involves attempts to infer another's mental and emotional state and make judgments about their personality by synthesizing multiple impressions one has received from another person over time. Emotional labor is the nurse extending a warm smile and squeeze of the hand as an elderly patient recounts a story from their past that the nurse has heard many times already; hermeneutic labor is the nurse wondering on the ride home whether her response was appropriate, and whether next time she might be able to tell the patient that she's heard the story before without hurting the patient's feelings.


An Ending & A Beginning

And Ending & A Beginning

Luke 21:5-19

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

13 November 2022

            Today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel is noticeably different from everything else we’ve read this autumn.  It isn’t a parable.  It isn’t really a story about Jesus.  It is Jesus giving answers to questions about end of the world.  Particularly here about the end of the Temple and how that relates to the end of time and the coming reign of God.

            This sort of discourse is known as “apocalyptic.”  The common understanding of the word apocalypse suggests catastrophes at the end of time.  But the literal translation of the Greek word into English is “unveiling.”  Apocalyptic discourse, then, lifts back the veil to expose what’s really going on—how history and the cosmos really function as a contest between good and evil.

            So, with those words of introduction, let’s listen to Jesus:

            Luke 21:5-19

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”  And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’  Do not go after them.

“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”  Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.  This will give you an opportunity to testify.  So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.  You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.  You will be hated by all because of my name.  But not a hair of your head will perish.  By your endurance you will gain your souls.

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God within us,

For the Word of God among us,

Thanks be to God.

            A month ago Katie and I were in Sioux City, Iowa for the Joint Annual Meeting of the Nebraska, South Dakota, and Iowa Conferences of the United Church of Christ, our denomination.  This was our first in person gathering since June 2019, so there was much warmth, joy, and celebration as we actually saw people in the flesh, rather than a Zoom box.  We got to hug and shake hands and share meals and drinks and laughter.  And you could just feel the strengthening of connections, the relaxing of tensions, the sense that we had come through some difficult days together.

            As usual, a table with books for sale was there in the exhibit hall.  I’m a sucker for such a thing, of course.  And I walked away with a small stack of books, including some new children’s books for our children’s library here at church.

            One volume I was deeply interested in, and have already read, is a collection of essays by prominent theologians entitled Doing Theology in Pandemics: Facing Viruses, Violence, and Vitriol

            In her foreword for the book, Pamela Lightsey states, “This book makes clear that a pandemic is a kind of apocalypse—a revealing.” 

            As I reflected on this idea and the ways it is fleshed out in the book’s essays, it became clearer that we’ve lived through an apocalypse in both senses of that word—a major catastrophe that ended the world as we knew it and a moment when the veil is pulled away and hidden truths are revealed.

            Think of what all was revealed.  The failures of governments and health care systems.  The health impacts of systemic racism.  The way different socio-economic classes were impacted.  How refugee meat packers and minimum wage store clerks died so that others could be safe and comfortable at home. 

How fraught and fragile our systems of childcare and education are.  How unprepared each of us was.  How at risk we were for mental illness, and how little prepared society was to support those needs.

How supply chains do and don’t work and what the impacts of those disruptions would be on normal life.  How workers had had enough and quit.  How sectors of our economy are now rapidly adjusting.

How much we can and cannot trust our family, friends, neighbors, or fellow citizens to put the common interest above self-interest.

And without all the normal escapes and distractions to occupy our attention, we were able to watch when George Floyd was murdered and so there was a massive uprising against police brutality and systemic racism, a major reckoning impacting every sector of society, and the ensuing backlash.

And in these years we’ve been compelled to pay more attention to the effects of the changing climate and how we’ve come so close to the brink of catastrophe so stupidly.  How governments seem incapable of effectively dealing with all of the major dangers we face.

And piled on top of all of that a rise in autocracy, a senseless and brutal war in Europe, and threats of more war in the Pacific.

“Permacrisis” was picked as the word of the year by a British dictionary.  I’ve also seen the word “polycrisis” recently. 

So, this reading from Luke, which a few years ago would have seemed to us kind of crazy, doesn’t sound so crazy anymore.

This summer, while on my sabbatical, I read a lot on how we as a community can be faithful and resilient as the climate changes and impacts everything about lives.  It was sobering reading, some writers more hopeful and comforting, and some less so.  The theologian Timothy Gorringe opened his book with the question, Is a dark age coming? And came to the conclusion: “I think we have to say that civilizational collapse is likely.”  His subsequent chapters do lay out what we might do to prevent it and what we should do to survive it, as faithful followers of Jesus.  His main advice is a “rigorous return to the traditions, practices, and virtues that Christians have nourished for so many centuries.”  For the small communities of the church to focus on being the church and doing what we do best because that’s what we can do “to keep human beings human in the dark ages already upon us.” 

He sounds a lot like the final verse from today’s Gospel, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”  Vital to our faithfulness will be remaining grace, generous, hopeful, and joyful in these times.  That is the gift from God we give ourselves, our fellow congregants, and the wider world.

The great theologian Rita Nakashima Brock contends that what has happened to all of us is a form of moral injury.  Our moral consciences have become “ungrounded from our pre-catastrophe identities.”  And while she provides some insights in how to care for ourselves and heal from the trauma, she also believes this apocalypse is an opportunity to change things for the better, and we absolutely must take the opportunity.

“How do we feel our way through an apocalypse?” asks Cody Sanders, the American Baptist chaplain at Harvard.  Because we’ve been living through the end of the world as we knew it, Sanders says we have been overwhelmed by fear, anger, and sadness.  All of these are appropriate emotions, but he worries that they might become pervasive moods.  In order to avoid that, we need to care for ourselves and one another.  We need to care for these emotions.  How?

First, he gives us a dose of reality—this “Isn’t the first ending the world has faced, and there are many endings yet to come.”  Which is the value of reading this crazy passage from the Gospel of Luke.  Jesus’s listeners did live through apocalyptic times, when the Temple was destroyed, and then a generation later Jerusalem itself was laid waste.  Christians lived through the fall of Rome and the sacking of Constantinople.  My grandparents and great-grandparents dealt with world wars, the Great Depression, and the Spanish flu. 

In other words, we’ve been through these times before.  And we can look to the past for wisdom and guidance.  And be reminded that the world can be made otherwise, that we can create a better world, that times like these are also vital opportunities, and, thus, periods of hope and growth.

So, we need to cultivate other emotions that care for the fear, anger, and sadness, we are feeling.  We need to grieve our losses, we need to practice gratitude for our blessings, we need to cultivate a sense of wonder at what is good and beautiful in the world.  And he recommends that these skills are best acquired in communities, like the church. 

Where does Jesus leave his questioners and listeners?  In typical biblical fashion he reminds them, “do not fear.”  Be aware and be realistic of what is happening.  Times will be difficult, but we can do difficult things.  And the reason is because God is with you.  Jesus says he will give us the words and the wisdom we need.  And “by your endurance you will gain your souls.”

As faithful followers of Jesus, we have felt all the emotions, as we’ve lived through this apocalyptic time.  We’ve been afraid, angry, and sad.  And as faithful followers of Jesus, we aren’t going to get stuck there, are we?  We have been grieving our losses and are cultivating a rich emotional and spiritual life, full of gratitude, wonder, generosity, and joy.  This is a time of opportunities, a time for vision and mission.  This is a new beginning, and we Christians are the “eternal beginners.”  W are beloved children of God, called to serve, with gifts to give the world.   


Doing Theology in Pandemics

Doing Theology in PandemicsDoing Theology in Pandemics by Zachary Moon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a profound essay that opens this volume, Rita Nakashima Brock contends that the pandemic "created the conditions for an apocalypse, an unveiling of moral truth in the midst of the collapse of powerful malevolent systems."

She goes on to write about how we have all experienced moral injury during the pandemic and confrontations against racial injustice and police brutality. Her essay is the best theological reflection I've read yet on the pandemic.

The other excellent essay in this collection is Cody Sanders's "Feeling Our Way through an Apocalypse." He grapples with the emotions elicited from the end of the world as we know it. We care for our anger, fear, and sadness by cultivating wonder, gratitude, and grief, in community.

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More Responses

Jill Lepore wrote a powerful piece at The New Yorker showing how poorly the justices are using history.  As one of our best historians, she knows history. Her piece focuses on the gun case.  If you couple this piece with the Adam Serwer Atlantic article I posted the other day, you get a good sense of the most profound confusions of these rulings.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Rubin has been on a roll over at the NYTimes with what feels like 2 or 3 columns a day.  Her latest calls for a "pro-privacy movement" to fight against the Christian Nationalism of the court majority.


Deaths of Despair

Deaths of Despair and the Future of CapitalismDeaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism by Anne Case
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Case & Deaton were alarmed by numbers related to the opioid epidemic and further researched showed a rise in white middle class mortality in the United States after a century of decline and with no corresponding rise in comparable nations. What to explain this?

They conclude a loss of a way-of-life that brought meaning and economic stability.

And for them the primary cause is neither globalization or inequality, though those are both part of the narrative, but the American health care system.

The book concludes with their ideas on what we need to do.

The analysis is interesting and persuasive. I scored the book lower because it's not really an enjoyable read. It also seemed longer than necessary.

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Apollo's Arrow

Apollo's Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We LiveApollo's Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live by Nicholas A. Christakis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In one volume Christakis helps to make sense of the year we have all just endured, approaching from many angles. Here is a review of the medical science and our quickly developing understanding of the virus. He also presents the history of the outbreak beginning last fall in Wuhan and spreading around the world. He sets this virus within the broader historical setting of other plagues and pandemics. He reviews the various kinds of public health measures, evaluating their use this year and their justifications. And he also discusses the wider social and moral impacts, how the virus has impacted mental health, economics, education, racial disparities, etc. He shows how plagues are accompanied by epidemics of grief, fear, and lies. He also shows how our species has evolved critical tools to respond to plagues and how we have marshalled these tools this year in ways that will bring the pandemic to an end. In the final chapter he discusses the difference between the medical and social ends of the pandemic.

I found this an important read for drawing together in one place so much of the disparate information and impacts of this pandemic.

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Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own

Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our OwnBegin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This books is two things at once and does it well, since the one thing is in service of the other. It is a presentation of the thought of James Baldwin in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. Baldwin's earlier books are his most popular and often read. His later work after the assassinations, the rise of Black Power, and then the conservative backlash has been less examined and has generally been criticized from all sides. Glaude sets about to right these wrongs and demonstrates that Baldwins ideas are rich and fertile.

The second thing the book is is a commentary on our own times and what we need to do to begin again with a more just society. In this goal, the book is one of many books from the last few years attempting to do this work. Glaude achieves this goal through the first goal of the book. Baldwin's later ideas are fertile for helping us to understand America in 2020 and for guiding us in how to begin again.

A worthy read combining literary criticism, historical analysis, social critique, and insights on contemporary public policy.

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Intimations

IntimationsIntimations by Zadie Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Smith's sketches of life during the early weeks of the pandemic are more phenomenological than analytical. There are moments of brilliance. The essay on suffering is the best in the book. Other parts were less engaging. The final sentence is powerful (I won't copy it here). So a good record for the future to give some sense of how bewildering the moment was.

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