Paul Ricoeur: In Memoriam

Tricycle remembers philospher Paul Ricoeur with this interview of sociologist Robert Bellah from the Fall 2004 issue.Paul Ricoeur, among the most prominent philosphers of the twentieth century, died last Friday at the age of 92. According to the New York Times, “Dr. Ricoeur's work concerned what he called 'the phenomenon of human life,' and ranged over an almost impossibly vast spectrum of human experience. He wrote on myths and symbols; language and cognition; structuralism and psychoanalysis; religion and aesthetics; ethics and the nature of evil; theories of literature and theories of law. These diverse subjects informed his lifelong study of 'philosophical anthropology,' an exploration of the forces that underpin human action and human suffering.”


Tricycle contributing editor Andrew Cooper discussed some of Ricoeur’s work with prominent sociologist Robert Bellah in an interview in the Fall 2004 issue of Tricycle:


Andrew Cooper:Years ago, I attended a retreat with a renowned Theravada Buddhist meditation master and scholar. His mastery of the scriptures and commentaries was impressive, but the idea of studying a text critically - for example, questioning its claims to historical authenticity - was completely foreign to him. A statement was true because the Buddha said it, and we know the Buddha said it because tradition says he did. End of story. Although this was at first disconcerting, I later came to understand that his approach was entirely the norm in traditional religious scholarship—which was also disconcerting, but in a different way. This approach sharply contrasts with modern notions of religious scholarship, which view religion with critical distance and, to use the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s term, suspicion. The traditional approach affirms religious truth but does so by retreating from any substantive dialogue with the realities of the modern world; the modern approach opens religious study to the world but undermines faith and the value of tradition. What are the essential characteristics of an approach to the study of religion that is both affirmative and critical?


Robert Bellah:Ricoeur has the answer to the doubt he raised. First, he speaks of “primary naivete,” such as your Buddhist meditation master’s unquestioning acceptance of religious authority. Next, he describes criticism, which arises on several levels from the modern pursuit of suspicion of all received truth. Then he outlines a third perspective, which he calls “second naivete.” Modern criticism is suspicious of received truth as a form of domination, class interest, or psychological self-delusion—the “masters of suspicion” are Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. Second naivete accepts the critical process, yet “in and through criticism” it lets the symbols and narratives embedded in tradition speak again; it listens to what they are saying. From the position of second naivete, one opens to the possibility that these traditional forms arise not from reason but from the immediacy of experience, and that their depth and meaning is inexhaustible. I believe that modern critical inquiry actually deepens our understanding of the tradition. It helps us see how different the world of the great texts was from our world, how hard it is for us to listen, how easy it is for us to read our own presuppositions into the text. I think criticism increases the power of the texts to open us to what we don’t know, to make us realize we must change our lives and not conform to the culture of individualism that surrounds us.


Andrew Cooper:You’ve said that fundamentalism and the New Age are two sides of the same coin. How so?


Robert Bellah:We live in a disorienting world in which all the traditions have been called into question. But the need to make sense of the world is as urgent as ever. Those struggling to get ahead in a world that doesn’t make sense find fundamentalism attractive. It gives them clear and pat answers, and it helps them discipline themselves for the task of upward mobility. For those of privileged backgrounds for whom “making it” seems senseless but individualism is unquestioned, New Age religion seems to give them exciting possibilities to pursue their “personal spiritual journeys.” The path you take is determined in considerable part by social class. Unfortunately, neither fundamentalism nor New Age spirituality have any valid answers to the problems posed by our incoherent culture. Only a reappropriation of the great traditions through second naivet� has any chance of doing that.


Andrew Cooper:Where do you as a religiously minded person find hope, guidance, or inspiration in engaging the dilemmas of our contemporary dialogue with religious tradition?


Robert Bellah:This question would require an essay I am not at the moment prepared to write. If I had any inspiring examples that I could easily describe, I would do so, but most of us are just struggling in the dark. I’m afraid I must leave your readers to do the same.


Andrew Cooper is a writer and editor living in Oakland, California. He is a contributing editor toTricycle.


Click here to read this interview in its entirety





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