Paul Ricoeur & Youth work – in search of the sacred.

Following on from my previous articel ‘Youth Ministry-In Praise of the Beards’ – here as ‘promised’ is a piece on the writings and thoughts of Paul Ricoeur. I hope to inform, inspire and whet your appetite for thinking philosophically about the contemporary philosophical & theological context of youth ministry – by starting with one philosophical perspective on the nature of humanity, from someone with a keen eye in both the philosophical and theological camps. or if nothing else point you in the direction of someone worth grappling with further.

So… Paul Ricoeur.  This wasnt an easy task:

Image result for paul ricoeur


Details of his Early Life & Background (skip this bit if you just want to hear about what he said)

Paul Ricoeur (1913–2005) was a distinguished French philosopher of the twentieth century, one whose work has been widely translated and discussed across the world. In addition to his academic work, his public presence as a social and political commentator, particularly in France, led to a square in Paris being named in his honor on the centenary of his birth in 2013. In the course of his long career he wrote on a broad range of issues. In addition to his many books, Ricoeur published more than 500 essays, many of which appear in collections in English.

A major theme that runs through Ricoeur’s writings is that of a philosophical anthropology. Ricoeur came to formulate this as the idea of the “capable human being”. In it he seeks to give an account of the fundamental capabilities and vulnerabilities that human beings display in the activities that make up their lives, and to show how these capabilities enable responsible human action and life together. Though the accent is always on the possibility of understanding human beings as agents responsible for their actions, Ricoeur consistently rejects any claim that the self is immediately transparent to itself or fully master of itself. Self-knowledge only comes through our understanding of our relation to the world and of our life with and among others in time in the world. (taken from Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy

Top 5 Key Themes/Ideas of Paul Ricoeur (taken from Stiver D, Ricoeur & Theology, 2012)

  1. Phenomenology:”Ricoeur developed further the sense in which all such description is inescapably interpretative or hermeneutical” (Stiver, 2012)

2. Hermeneutics, Ricoeur developed the emphasis of both Heidegger and Hans Georg Gadamer, that people do not just ‘do’ hermeneutics from time to time but are hermeneutical all the way down, as it were, which Ricoeur saw as ‘Ontological Hermeneutics’ (Ricoeur 1991a:63)  Stiver suggests that “this is the basis for a powerful critique of modernity’s desire for a presuppositionless beginning, as well as the Cartesian demand for clarity and distinctiveness. We always start reflection too late, the unconscious, the involuntary and our immersion in culture and tradition always already accompany the conscious and voluntary” (Stiver, 2012, 10)  We are in a sense as reflective all the way down as we are hermeneutical, life and understanding go hand in hand.

3. Personhood, Ricouer – as suggested above, understood the self to be primarily and deeply hermeneutical. It was also that he regarded the self, not as a thinker ( I think therefore i am) , but as a doer, a mixture of the voluntary and involuntary, freedom and nature.  The self has an embodied desire to exist, yet at times it exists as a wounded Cognito, that is not fallible in its objectivity. For Ricouer

“the human identity is formed by narratives and myths, which likewise are irreducible to theoretical prose” (Stiver, 2012, 12),

Self identity is an open ended story, that is interwoven by other stories that we encounter. The self, for Ricoeur, “is not only in dialogue with personal others but is inescapably enmeshed in larger communities that call for a sense of justice”

4. Religion. For a major Philosopher, Ricoeur unusually writes extensively on Religion, notably Christianity, Old and New testament. He labelled himself an apprentice Theologian, and in ‘Figuring the Sacred, 1995’ describes his own link between Philosophy and the discourse of Religious language, as it is from his philosophical discipline that he interacts with theology, with exegesis. His interaction with theology from philosophy is fruitful (according to Stiver) suggesting that theology is deeply hermeneutical and philosophical as it deals with the interpretation of texts.

For the Christian, for the Youth worker then, Ricoeur is significant. His views on Personhood, developed from the European/German philosophical tradition of Gadamer and Heidegger, influenced by his own sympathy with the Christian tradition and its own philosophical writings in the Bible should inspire the faith-based youth worker, or even the non ‘chrisitan’ faith based youthworker for his considerations of humanity alone.  For the youth worker not in sympathy with the Christian faith, then look away now, or at least bear with me a little for the next part, as I am going to share a few key quotes from Ricoeur about his thoughts on the Christian faith, or you might be inspired to start thinking about the Christian faith from this deeper philosophical angle, where there is rich treasure to be found.

The following are taken from ‘Figuring the Sacred’ (Ricoeur, 1995)

“The first task of hermeneutics (understanding the Biblical text) is not to give rise to a decision on the part of the reader ( ie what should they do/’WWJD’?) but to allow the world of being that is the issue of the biblical text to unfold. Thus above and beyond emotions, disposition, belief or non belief is the proposition of a world that in the Biblical world is called a new world, a new covenant, the kingdom of God, a new birth” (p44) … persuing this line of reasoning to its logical conclusions, must we not say that what is thus opened up in everyday reality is another reality, the reality of the possible?”

About Culture and humanity, Ricoeur argues:

“One fact about culture is that we live in a desacralized world,  human beings have moved beyond the sacred cosmos, nature is no longer a store of signs, the cosmos is mute. Modern persons no longer have a sacred space, a centre, a temple, a holy mountain. The Sacred world today is archaic, the sacred is the archaic. ” (italics mine) (p61)

Yet positively Ricoeur says that; “One of course can find remains of the sacred in our culture”  it may be camouflaged in a range of myths, of stories and behaviours, it was not deliberately forgotten  as the elevation of technology nd science to rank as more dominant in the public consciousness.

“The only religion whose message is to be heard is the one that has the resources to survive, but to also accompany the decline of the sacred in a positive manner” (p62) –

If modernity has desacralized the world of interpreting the text, and as Ricoeur states and Biblical interpreters have desacralized the text to its deemed rational aspects and constructs, then the playing field between Science and Religion is less levelled but that Religion plays second fiddle. What of the renaissance of the Sacred , asks Ricoeur, asking further “Is Christianity without the sacred possible?”

and if Christianity is in need of it own sacred renaissance – where might youth ministry connect young people to the sacred? the wonder and the cosmos? 

If these are important observations of culture and the place of faith within the current culture then it worth closing with a few more gems from Ricoeur about the Biblical texts;

If Genesis 1 is to be read in a narrative sense, as a prologue, the vision of the creation of the world has its pinnacle in the creation of Man, therefore;

“The miracle of creation is a miracle of redemption”  (1995, p131)….  The highest form of immediacy is between God and humankind, the latter appears not just created by the word in a general sense, but by a solemn resolution from Gods own heart”

and finally; “The God of beginnings is the God of hope. And because God is the God of hope, the goodness of creation becomes the sense of a direction” (1995, p. 299)

Undoubtedly i have done a complete injustice to Paul Ricoeur, his influence, work and writings. His writing is both extensive. My key reflections, having been writing this article for a week on and off, in the aspects of Ricoeur that i have grappled me in my thoughts, have been the sense of a return to the sacred in the world, in the world of the church, and also in the world of working with young people from a faith perspective, whether ‘in’ or ‘outside’ the church.

When Ricoeur writes that the sacred has been lost in society – and as I’ve written before- Healy questions ‘ what does the church offer that no other agency can? ‘ – then surely an awakening of the sacred, connections with the abundance of creation, the recognition of the symbol, the signs in nature, and the opening up of the profound are surely potential domains for the church in its prophetic sense. To be a conduit of the deep and mysterious that is God, God that young people connect with in his/her sacred sense.  Deep church, deep youth ministry might provide spaces of the sacred. This is one reflection, there are undoubtedly others.  I must admit, for a long while the sense that working with young people outside the church starts with ‘doing good’ practically has been what i have tried to do – yet how might those kind of spaces, on the streets, in the parks, be also windows for the sacred?



References and Further reading:

Ricoeur, P, 1995 – Figuring the Sacred, Religion, Narrative and Imagination

Ricouer, P, 2013 – Hermeneutics (trans by David Pellaur)

Ricouer, P, 2004 – Memory, History, Forgetting

Stiver, D, 2012 – Ricoeur & Theology



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