Wednesday, September 25, 2013

These Essays: Two Wrong Answers

" Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man." - The Dude 

          So there are at least two wrong answers to the question of interpretive validity - on what makes an understanding valid. And they are both common in America today. The first is that, whatever one’s opinion, a text can have only one true meaning, usually what the author intended, and it is our job to sort through all the fuss and figure out what that is. The second wrong answer is that, whatever the facts, all interpretations are equally valid because we all come to a text from various limited perspectives. So, everyone has an equal right to his or her own point of view, and the best we can do is quiet down and listen respectfully.

          Now anyone who has tried to communicate a complex message can see that the first answer is too narrow. What one writes can and will be taken in various ways by diverse persons. And not all of these will be incorrect simply because they differ, especially as one cannot even convey the entirety of one’s own intention. Language is both limited and limiting. 

         More, though we certainly should listen respectfully to one another, the mistake of the second answer is even easier to see. What one writes can clearly be misread, interpretations can go egregiously wrong, and readers of a text can miss the point entirely. Such readers can have little basis for their misunderstanding – or worse, no basis at all other than their own iniquity, greed, or contempt. So a right answer to the question of interpretive validity may well lie in some uneasy tension between these two errors: more than one, but hardly all, interpretations must necessarily be valid.

          So: what are be the rules? What are the criteria? What makes some interpretations more valid, and others less so, or not at all? Christians, as it happens, have a long tradition of developing interpretive criteria. They were developed for reading Scripture. So if Christians are good Biblical readers, they will try to reach certain benchmarks with their interpretations:  appropriateness, fecundity, consistency, comprehensiveness, and responsibility of methodology, among many others. And those criteria are not wrong. 

         But they may not be sufficient. You see, these “first-tier” criteria are mostly of a kind. They are technical, procedural, secular criteria that consider the production of some form of the “best possible” interpretation. Now such a goal can hardly be ignored, but for Christians it has not always been sufficient.

         Rather, those who believe in God have often considered what the interpretation of Scripture must itself be for. And the various religious traditions have arrived at many different answers: Scripture is for determining God’s regenerative will (Calvin), for building up the love of God and neighbor (Roman Catholic), for hearing the Word of God spoken through Jesus Christ (Lutheran), for bringing about the reconciliation of God and humankind (Orthodox). 

        But through all of these we can see that throughout the bulk of Christian history, Scriptural interpretation has not been an end in and of itself. That is actually a recent invention of modernity and the Enlightenment, which assumed that we ourselves deserve to know the truth and that knowledge is as high a concern as anyone need have. But the words of Scripture and of Christ  encourage us to look beyond the processes of interpretation to include, even as we interpret, the purposes and ends of our interpretation.
         The problem with these second-tier criteria is that they are, by their very nature, quite broad. They try to comprehend the whole of Scripture rather than those particular texts to which an interpreter might be attending. So it has not always been clear how one’s interpretation might build up the love of God and neighbor, discern God’s will, or bring about reconciliation. 

          In fact, Christians interpreting Scripture have quite often produced understandings that had precisely the opposite effect. They have condoned slavery, supported the subjugation of women and foreign and domestic peoples, legitimized horrific and brutal wars, and aided many other evils. Such outcomes cannot reasonably have been part of any of the good purposes toward which Christian traditions have pointed interpretation in the first place.

         So we have something of a problem. The technical considerations of the first tier can only tell us whether or not such interpretations have been correct, and not whether they have been wrong. Remembering the second tier of criteria long proposed by Christian tradition, this seems insufficient. Yet, at the same time, history would indicate that the dogmatic criteria of the Christians traditions have been too broad, or at least too easily forgotten, to have been authoritatively persuasive among interpreters of Scripture. What we need is a criterion that rises above technical considerations but does not escape the rigors of confronting actual Scriptural texts. 

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