Tuesday, November 5, 2013

These Essays: Moving on from Augustine

            An amended Augustine must be, of course, a bare beginning of these essays. But it contains the components of authority and empathy which I argue compose the criterion of salutary force. And Augustinian interpretation contains the degree of cohesive holism which most commends the antique understanding of interpretation to our fractured society.
            What Augustine’s enormously valuable thinking lacks is, perhaps, a certain amount of sophistication. Our understanding of the authority of an interpretation has become more complex than determining the author’s intent. Now, we ask ourselves if an interpretation’s understanding maintains fidelity to the nature and contents of the Scripture itself, about which we have learned a great deal.
            Likewise, our understanding of empathy has grown more intricate than the noble and laudable good of loving one’s neighbor as oneself. Now, we ask ourselves if an interpretation’s understanding enables us to empathize with the experience of the people of Scripture and their actual and imagined world, to see if we ourselves can learn from them. Of course, neither of these has happened because our knowledge has overturned Augustine’s dictum but because his forays would make more nuanced understanding possible.
           Am I, then, proposing an Augustinian hermeneutic? I suppose it would be more accurate to say that I propose a hermeneutical criterion within an Augustinian tradition. I do not agree with Augustine on all accounts. But I ask no question that I believe he himself does not venture. I share his understanding that understanding connotes authority, trust, and love. And I certainly include the interaction between rhetor and audience in my understanding of empathy; I, too, take the sermon as something of a proving ground—if it works there, it may work elsewhere.

           And I believe that, ultimately, I propose nothing that Augustine would vehemently object to. For what I mean to be most clear in my own criterion is also most implied in his hermeneutic: validity gauged by an interpretation’s effect, and not solely on its content, and not solely on its explicatory strength. The growth of love cannot be predicated in advance. Neither may salutary force. All must wait to see how the audience reacts.
            At the same time, neither I nor Augustine write for reader-response. I share through my notion of textual fidelity what Augustine cautions us about with his concerns of authorial intent. Scripture comes to us bearing contents. These contents matter. Indeed, the wisdom of Scripture may well be one of God’s greatest gifts. How we hear it in its own voice and on its own terms while maintaining our own anxieties and concerns will be the focus of the next chapter.

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