Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Essay: The Healing of Interpretation

When I tell people about my thesis - that we would pray that all our interpretations heal - they immediately ask at least two very wrong questions. And they are "do you mean this is something we should do or something that happens anyway" and "do you mean this to just be for Christians, or do you think this is all interpretation." And they're wrong questions because they presuppose things that I do not, though I often have trouble articulating what they are. 

Because I don't think in the way that leads to those questions, and I think my thinking is so basic to me that they always throw me because I haven't thought enough about this. But I would like to, because I believe my thesis matters, not only to me, but perhaps to anyone who cares about interpretation. And I can't believe that either Christians know the truth exclusively or everyone knows it universally. What I believe instead is that Christians are simply first adopters of the truth. Insiders are just the first outsiders who showed up. Or, to be technically correct in the line of Abraham, the second group of outsiders to show up.

But if Christian don't believe that we have stumbled into something - the revelation of Christ or the freely given love of God or the forgiveness of sins - something that the rest of the world hasn't gotten to just yet, then I don't know what we would be doing here, or why we would call ourselves followers of Christ in the first place. And that's not arrogance because it's not our doing. And it's not exclusive, or at least not essentially so, because we believe that what we have, absolutely everyone on earth can have, too. We don't know anything that anyone else can't understand, and we have been given nothing that we can't convey to others. Indeed, that is why we have been given it in the first place. Our understanding is understanding-for-others, and that may well be the only reason we have ever had it.

So I think you can see why the Christians-or-the-world question throws me. And I think if I think about it a little more, I can see why the prescriptive or descriptive question throws me, too. Because if Christians are early adopters of the truth, then we must certainly have learned something, however imperfectly, that not everyone has yet adopted, and that perhaps we have not yet fully adopted ourselves. And yes, that's mostly luck, or, as the faithful would have it, the grace of God. Even a blind camel sometimes finds a watering hole.

So if some of our interpretations heal right now, and I believe they do, then there should be at least the possibility that they all would heal in turn. Prescription is the proper response, after all, to accurate diagnosis. And further prescription is the best logical response to treatment that has already begun to work. Christians have to believe that the truth we have is truth-for-others, unless the word evangelical has utterly lost its meaning.

Now I should amend that I don't believe we can say up front which of our interpretations will heal. That's the peril of early adoption. Augustine wrote that if your interpretation builds up love, then you have not erred. Past tense: by their fruits you shall know them. And that is why I include the prayer that all our interpretations would heal. Surely approaching texts with questions of health in mind would change the way we interpret them, be they sacred texts or no.

Because interpretation is the act, or at least an act, of making whole. Right? We have the facts, we have our points of information, our given datum, and then we piece them together to make, if not a story, then at least a coherent concept or idea. That ought to be, in its own way, an act of healing; the process of making something whole must surely make us more whole as well, but my thesis would ask the question about what kind of wholes our interpretations make, or mean to make. Do we mean them to support ourselves, or do we mean them to lend aid and edification to others? I get the sense that this may not often and naturally be our foremost hermeneutic question when we sit down to interpret.

We are much more concerned with getting it right, with our interpretations being correct - or, more flexibly, faithful to what is actually the case, what most aligns with the information. And I do not want to miss this or even to eschew this, but I do want to raise the point that this has not been the only interpretive question for most of history. As I said above, Augustine believed that our interpretations should love, or should result in love. Augustine believed that information took a backseat, from time to time, to formation. And it was not that accuracy or fidelity to texts did not matter, it was rather the case that accuracy and fidelity served a greater purpose than themselves: for building up in Christ. Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.

My thesis would simply state that we should see where we have been set free, and thus we shall discover when we have known the truth. It is, I know, a backwards way of thinking, and I realize that I've come dangerously close to conflating healing with love and truth and freedom in turn, but I think the same pattern prevails, and that perhaps modern ways of thinking geared toward the future serve us less well hermeneutically than historical or communal ways of thinking geared toward memory of salvific moments and liberating narratives.

Salvation. The Greek, of course, connotes healing as well as deliverance. And I swerve toward healing rather than love to convey its sense of concrete transformation over what have become the contested abstractions of classical theology. Every evidence indicates that when Paul said love, he meant something that could not be referred to without action, without decision. Paul, after all, believed in participatory atonement - that salvation was less something that happened to you and more something that picked you up, that told you to get up and walk.

By the end of my first semester of seminary, I had learned the basic precepts of more than thirty schools of interpretation, everything from Historical Criticism to the New Critics to Post-structuralism and Post-colonialism. Remembering my contention that more than one, but clearly not all, interpretations must certainly be valid, I would dare to offer in this age of bewildering information that formation matters not less, but more than ever before, and that that archaic concept of wisdom, sapientia, can help us sort through the hall of mirrors that hermeneutics has become. And remembering my second claim that truth runs in families, I would dare to assert that, even in retrospect, a geneology of healing would help us divide helpful from unhelpful thinking.

And yes, I would offer that asking ourselves, praying through ourselves, that our interpretations heal, even as we approach our interpretive task, would be likely to bring more healing fruit, not less, from the hermeneutical tree.

The Curious Monk

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