The Danger of ‘What This Really Means’

At some level we’re all Nietzcheans now. During online debate and interaction with those whom we disagree, we often default to a “hermeneutic of suspicion” associated with Nietzsche, Marx, Freud and their later disciples Foucalt and Derrida. For those happily unaware of what that phrase means, it’s essentially a way of interpreting and reading everything with a certain level of skepticism, concerned to uncover the real, hidden motives behind any argument, statement, or position. It rejects the face-value reading, because “what this really means” is probably something else, mostly an attempt maintain hidden relations of power or control.

friedrich-nietzsche-540x304For instance, claims about maintaining the order of the family made by a politician are “really” about supporting the material interests who profit from current structure of society. In the religious realm, a claim by a pastor about the nature of church government is about maintaining his own clerical position of authority.

When it comes to debating the hot-button issues of the day, it’s quite tempting to resort to “what they really mean” stories about our opponents. For instance, are they opposed to gay marriage? Then it’s not really about the Bible, but about maintaining their own righteousness by comparison. Are they in favor of it? It’s not because of a moral stance, but it’s really about their inability to stand up to the culture for Jesus.

Actually, a hermeneutic of suspicion is necessary at times. Often we see that claims to truth really are pragmatic masks worn by those looking to sell something or increase their own power. There’s a reason nobody trusts politicians. There is good reason to query claims made by “experts” in commercials trying to sell us things. One of Kevin Vanhoozer’s 10 rules of cultural interpretation is this: “Determine what ‘powers’ are served by particular texts or trends by discovering whose material interests are served (e.g.. follow the money!).” In fact, as Christians, we’re called to exercise a sort of hermeneutic of suspicion against our own self-serving hearts, the claims of the world against the truth of the gospel, and so forth.

That said, there are some problems with our stumbling rush to decode the hidden motives of our interlocutors.

Seeing Through Can Lead to Blindness

The first is one that C. S. Lewis pointed out years ago in his classic The Abolition of Man:

But you cannot go on “explaining away” for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on “seeing through” things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to “see through” first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To “see through” all things is the same as not to see.

When we are constantly straining to “see through” the arguments of our neighbors, we run the risk of never actually seeing them. If we’re constantly tuning our ears to the background hum of power-plays and manipulation, we’ll soon find we’re deaf to anything else. If we’re only ever listening to unmask, we’re never actually listening to understand.

How, then, can we have anything like meaningful dialogue? With a strict “what that really means” mindset, all that’s left is a flurry of counter-accusations and cloud of knowing suspicion between opponents trying to pull the wool over each other’s eyes. In this kind of atmosphere, nobody’s actually open to new information, new arguments, or any kind of intellectual rapprochement, but only victory over the enemy. In fact, this is precisely what we see all around us in the culture, with both sides confidently talking past each other, sure of their own vindication, without ever actually grappling with the other side’s arguments. 

If we only hear people by “hearing through” their words, we’re failing to treat others as we’d like to be treated. We want our speech to be taken seriously and our thoughts honored as an extension and expression of our selves. And few things can make us feel more disrespected than to be interrupted, ignored, or misinterpreted.

Hiding From Our Own Heart 

The next danger is self-deception and spiritual pride. Jonathan Edwards wrote about the blinding danger of spiritual pride in his work Some Thoughts Concerning Revival:

‘Tis by this that the mind defends itself in other errors, and guards itself against light by which it might be corrected and reclaimed. The spiritually proud man is full of light already; he does not need instruction, and is ready to despise the offer of it. . . . Being proud of their light, that makes ‘em not jealous of themselves; he that thinks a clear light shines around him is not suspicious of an enemy lurking near him, unseen: and then being proud of their humility, that makes ‘em least of all jealous of themselves in that particular, viz. as being under the prevalence of pride.

When I’m playing the “what that really means” game, there’s often a hidden motive lurking within my own heart, which I am looking to avoid by projecting the malice on my opponents. Maybe I fear my own reasons aren’t all that strong, or I’m worried their points are stronger than I’d like to admit. Or maybe I simply can’t countenance the idea that I’ve been wrong this whole time, since I’ve built my identity around this ideological position. And so, instead of interrogating my own heart, my own reasons, I impute false motives to my opponents in an effort to protect my own pride.

Listen to Others, Question Self, Then Question Others

Without abandoning the call to be discerning, I want to reaffirm the need for greater humility in this conversation. Again, we learn from Edwards:

But if this disease be healed, other things are easily rectified. The humble person is like a little child; he easily receives instruction; he is jealous over himself, sensible how liable he is to go astray; and therefore if it be suggested to him that he does so, he is ready most narrowly and impartially to inquire.

Humility does the hard work of actually listening to others. What’s more, humility teaches us to question ourselves. Martin Luther wasn’t afraid of calling out the self-serving interpretations of the medieval indulgence-sellers and pretensions of papal power. Yet he wisely said, ”I am more afraid of my own heart than of the pope and all his cardinals. I have within me the great pope, Self.”

We need not worry that such humility merely invites Christians to go soft on sound doctrine. Because true humility also requires us to test every argument, our own and those of our conversation partners, against the Word of God.

  • Ian

    spite running the risk of engaging in the behavior you critique, I don’t know what you want people to take away from this article. You say you want to “reaffirm the need for greater humility in this conversation.” Are we to take “this conversation” to be something outside the four corners of this article? Are you asking us to employ the principle of intellectual charity when engaging with prescriptive propositions? That’s fine, if unambitious.

    Maybe it would help to note that different hermeneutics are suitable to different social contexts; it may be more appropriate to approach a politician’s speech one way and a friend’s kind rebuke another.

  • Pingback: The Danger of “What This Really Means…” (TGC) | Reformedish()

  • Nate B

    I really liked this article because this article shows a common position that I see many people (intellectual and people who never went to college) take today.

    In graduate school I often found that many students would use this “hermeneutic of suspicion” and I can see how it was related to Freud. Frued’s position always seemed to question people’s motives for everything and relate it to something very strange about a person.

    I also noticed while getting my English grad degree, that Marx was quoted very, very often. Just curious, but does Marx’s “hermeneutic of suspicion” relate to his tendency to relate all things to capitalistic “oppression” or the desire for money? I am curious to how Marx plays into this. People’s constant fascination with Marx was somewhat troubling to me in graduate school. While I am sure there are Christian apologists wrestling with Nietczhe’s claims in relationship with God, I always felt there should have been more apologists investigating Marx’s claims that contradicted Christianity. If you had any insight into this, I would be interested.

    What bothers me about today’s intellectual climate or even today’s online comment board climate/culture—–is the position of the debunker/critic. Everybody seems to be out to debunk the next guys. I think you are hitting on the root of this stance/nonstance. Thanks for writing this.

    • Derek Rishmawy


      I’m glad you found it helpful. I’d say a great little book to take as a crash course in all of this is Merold Westphal’s “Suspicion & Faith.” He takes a more positive view of the hermeneutic of suspicion and its uses for robust Christian faith, than I do here. Actually, I think it’s less of a contrast, than a difference of angle. But, ya, it’ll give you Freud, Marx, Feuerbach, and Nietzsche.


  • Pingback: Links I like()

  • Pingback: Question Everything? | Free Canuckistan!()

  • ShannonLee66

    I love, love this post, Derek, and both sides (liberal and conservative) have much to learn from your words. However, I’m surprised to see it on The Gospel Coalition’s site. I appreciate your humility which is so lacking in some conservative circles today.

    • Derek Rishmawy

      Hey, glad you liked the article. I appreciate the Editorial team here at TGC for encouraging me on the piece.

  • Pingback: This Week’s Good Reads – Pastor Dave Online()

  • Pingback: CAPC Podcast #19 - Kids and Screen Time, The Hermeneutic of Suspicion - Christ and Pop Culture()

  • Pingback: First Links — 3.31.14 - Hardcore Catholic()

  • Pingback: Obsessed With Hidden Meanings | CURATIO Magazine()

  • Philmonomer

    Ironically, there is a good example of this up on the The Gospel Coalition’s website right now:

    In that blog post, Keven DeYoung basically says those who change their mind about homosexuality are doing it merely because “they blow with the cultural winds,” and not out of sense that it is morally right thing to do.

  • Scott Harmon

    Ditto what Shannon says – bravo. A good educational grounding in philosophy is so important to the mission of the church, especially as it pertains to the grounding of the faith of her young people. How many youth pastors can expound what the gospel has to say back to the likes of Nietzsche, Foucalt or Derrida? If the first they hear of these things is when they arrive at university and take up liberal arts study, they often conclude they’ve been kept in the dark by an anachronistic institution. I doubt that will happen to your charges.

  • Rob

    “Hermeneutic of suspicion”, and no mention of Ricoeur?

    • Derek Rishmawy

      I know, I know, but there were already too many names and I figured that would start to take us too far afield.