Perpetua and the Hermeneutic of Suspicion

I have spoken here before of the need for a ‘hermeneutic of love’ in dealing with patristic writings, drawing on NT Wright’s work on the concept (and now glad to see Miroslav Volf’s criticism of the ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ in Captive to the Word of God). I was recently reminded of how important yet — perhaps — uncommon a way of reading this is.

I am auditing a class on Early North African Christianity, but can only make it to the fortnightly post-graduate seminars attached to the class. The first set of texts discussed in this class were the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs and the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity.

When these were discussed in the mixed class with both post-graduates and undergraduates, apparently some of the undergrads had decided that suspicion and mistrust were the best ways to read ancient Christian literature.

People said that Perpetua was ‘un-Christian’ for allowing her father to be beaten and her child to be raised without its mother — that she was being selfish in pursuing her desire for martyrdom at the expense of others.

As well — and this happened in the postgrad seminar as well, but more subtly — this martyrdom account was likened to militant Islamic suicide bombers. No joke.

And at the postgrad seminar, one of the people there noted that he was concerned over the fact that here we had an older, charismatic man leading a group of enthusiastic youths to their deaths in martyrdom. He also felt that the text was imbalanced and produced a troubling picture of Christianity since all it talked about was martyrdom.

So. Here’s the hermeneutic of suspicion in full swing.

As regards Perpetua being ‘un-Christian’ in allowing her father to be beaten rather than recant her Christian faith, one of my friends pointed out that, according to our earliest Christian traditions and writings, what she was doing was the most Christian thing, for Jesus said that he would divide families and that we are not to love our earthly families more than him.

I reckon that an overemphasis in certain ecclesiastical groups within Scotland on the need for social action and that social action is what makes the true Christian has produced this result.

To compare Christian martyrs with suicide bombers misses the point of each type of death. Suicide bombers seek not just their own deaths but the deaths of those around them. Theirs is a tactic of fear and terror; suicide bombing is a form of terrorism, of violence on the part of the so-called ‘martyr.’

Martyrs who die for their faith, who die because they refuse to engage in the religious practices of others or because they refuse to recant their faith or because they refuse to give up practising their own faith — whether they have sought to be killed by the authorities or not — are in an entirely different circumstance. When they die, no one else dies with them. They may choose death, but they choose death because they have been given the options of denying their religion or dying. And so they die for a very modern, contemporary reason — religious freedom, a basic human right.

Concerning the older, charismatic man leading the youths, who else in Roman society would? Saturus, Perpetua’s catechist, was a man versed in the faith and who was instructing these young people in the faith. They were arrested. Did they put themselves forward for martyrdom? Were they informed against? The text does not say. It simply says that they were arrested.

The hermeneutic of suspicion says that this charismatic man manipulated them and made them drink the Kool-Aid.

The hermeneutic of love says that they came to faith freely, and when that faith was tested, he helped them stay firm.

Finally, the criticism that the text is imbalanced is just ridiculous. All Christian texts are, therefore, imbalanced. The Rule of Benedict does not talk about evangelism; is it imbalanced? St. Leo the Great, discoursing about Christology in the Tome, does not discuss ethics; is he, on that score, imbalanced? Luther’s 95 Theses have little to do with anything other than indulgences; are they thus imbalanced? The Book of Revelation has little to give us in terms of how to live — is it imbalanced?

Books are, to borrow from Miroslav Volf’s Captive to the Word of God, social relations. Someone, somewhere, is using the medium of writing, using that particular book, to communicate something. In the Passion of Perpetua, that something is the martyrdom of Perpetua, Felicity, and their fellows. Why should we expect a full view of the Christian life, of normal ethics, of worship, of prayer, of distinct belief? I do not expect a martyr story to give me these.

In fact, apparently only spurious martyr stories give us these things because the Roman judges were not concerned with them; the martyrs had no chance to discuss the ins and outs of daily Christian life and belief.

So Perpetua. It is sad to see someone who should be an example of faith treated with such suspicion, to see a text that should give us strength scorned in such a way. If there is to be a specifically Christian reading, should it not seek to treat not just the living, but the writings of the dead, with love?

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The Strangeness of the Patristic Legacy: Saved by the Hermeneutic of Love

Let us, for the moment, restrict “Patristic” to the first five centuries, even though the likes of me push the boundaries to Sts. John of Damascus and Bede the Venerable in the mid-700s. As Phil noted in the comments to this post, setting out to read the Fathers for oneself can be a bit of a strange experience. Indeed, I am tempted to say “bewildering.”

This is unsurprising, given the fact that 500 years covers an immense span of history and the Mediterranean world covers a variety of cultures, no matter how Romanised or Hellenised many of the writers in question were. Even if we imagine those bits of the Patristic legacy that are more or less Graeco-Roman in outlook, reading them is not exactly the easiest thing one can do.

More than 1500 years separate us from these authors. They think in different categories much of the time. There is an uncomfortably strong undercurrent of misogyny in many of the Fathers, along with an uncomfortably strong feeling of Judenhass.* Even when we would probably agree with their morals, we find them thinking like Platonists or Stoics — or, at least, what looks to be Platonism and Stoicism in Christian garb.

For those with a Classical background, the Fathers are less jarring.

Without such a background, I would like to recommend a particular way of reading that would be especially good for the Fathers. This way of reading is what NT Wright in The New Testament and the People of God refers to as the “hermeneutic of love” rather than that of suspicion:

In love, at least in the idea of agape as we find it in some parts of the New Testament, the lover affirms the reality and the otherness of the beloved. Love does not seek to collapse the beloved into terms of itself; and, even though it may speak of losing itself in the beloved, such a loss always turns out to be a true finding. In the familiar paradox, one becomes fully oneself when losing oneself to another. In the fact of love, in short, both parties are simultaneously affirmed.

When applied to reading texts, this means that the text can be listened to on its own terms, without being reduced to the scale of what the reader can or cannot understand at the moment. If it is puzzling, the good reader will pay it the compliment of struggling to understand it, of living with it and continuing to listen. (64, read the whole paragraph to get the idea; I hate long quotations on blogs)

The hermeneutic of love allows the Fathers to be strange; even to remain strange. But it says to them, “Ah, but you are my fellows on the journey with Christ! You are my brothers in the faith! You have experienced Him too, and your experience has in it wisdom to enlighten my own!”

This wisdom is sometimes hiding in places that need a lot of love to be unlocked, as in my occasional forays into demonology show us. However, the meaning of demonology for virtue, ethics, and the battle against evil in all its forms has been unlocked by a loving, attentive reading of Patristic hagiography.

With a good introduction and persistence, the Fathers become less strange — or, at least, more comprehensible. I promise that the more you bear with them, having adopted the hermeneutic of love, the less strange they become. If you are here and thinking that you’d like to check out an introduction to the Fathers, a good single-volume introduction that does not mince words and even has a reading programme at the back is Beginning to Read the Fathers by Boniface Ramsey.

*Lit. “Jew-hatred”, the German word for “anti-Semitism”; I picked it up from Dave Sim’s comic book of the same name and greatly prefer it because anti-Semitism is too antiseptic for the brutal evil that racial violence is.