Saturday, February 15, 2014

These Essays: Three Reasons for Healing Interpretation

I hope that I have shown that our own interpretations of Scripture may gain salutary force on three different levels. The first is on the general level of fidelity to Scriptural content. Scripture provides us with a vast array and depth of resources for understanding humanity psychologically, relationally, existentially—in our entirety as human beings.

It also suggests visions of human health and thriving which the secular world does not necessarily contain. Interpretations which understand and convey this wisdom would stand a very great chance of being to our benefit.

The second is on the level of appreciation and appropriation of Scriptural form. The Bible comes to us affectively and holistically, through an entire structure of language and symbol, archetype and metaphor. This resonates within us on conscious and unconscious levels, and may be most fully understood and conveyed in similar fashion.

Certainly, interpretations which affectively convey to us the kindness of God revealed in Scripture, for one small example, might gain salutary force by actually being kind themselves. This may lie in an interpreter carefully choosing which words and images might gently reach an audience.

But Christian interpretations of Scripture may also gain salutary force by being honest interpretations, by recognizing the disquiet of the hermeneutical task, the “is” and the “is not” of the revelatory nature of Scripture. However sharp, however true, however good, the most an interpretation can do is speak to a people at a particular time and in a specific place.

It may not reach the same audience again, and will not in any case affect or be understood by any two people in precisely the same way regardless. And it may reach an entirely different audience later, in an entirely different way. Regardless, interpretation may gain salutary force by following the nature of Scripture and of interpretation alike, leading interpreter as well as audience from one moment of understanding to the next. Such interpretation will be always eager, always restless, and never full or final but always changed, always transformed by the encounter between Scripture and lover and beloved.

Christians ought to prefer those interpretations of Scripture which have salutary force because they are, at least for Christians, actually better interpretations. This may sound quite strange to those who adhere only to the first-tier criteria of interpretation, those concerning only fidelity to the texts’ structural, grammatical, or historical content.  Those have little or nothing to do with us.

But my claim for salutary force, for the healing capacity of a Scriptural interpretation, has always been that it is of another tier of criteria. This second tier of the criteria of  various Christian traditions have concerned themselves with Scripture’s ultimate theological purpose. 

This, indisputably, despite many disagreements as to the specifics of God’s Scriptural program, does involve us. Whatever the potential reasons that we might discern, Christians believe that God gave us Scripture for some good, rather than evil or arbitrary, purpose. Scripture is for us. That is something of the definition of scripture in the first place.

So there is some reason to generally prefer those readings of Scripture which regard its theological purpose. We have the texts as Scripture because we believe they have in some sense disclosed to us what Wilfred Cantwell Smith has called the transcendent. And, because we also believe that that transcendent which has given us Scripture is good, it makes some sense to opt for those interpretations of Scripture which have positive effects, so that as much of the divine nature as possible may be disclosed.

That is the purpose of our criterion of salutary force, because the other second-order criteria were too ambiguous to be predicated with any great specificity to any particular Biblical interpretation. But we hope that healing transformation will be more generally if not immediately discernible, and thus more predicable to specific interpretations than the other second-order criteria of love or reconciliation or the regenerative will of God.

We have seen this through our appropriation and critique of Augustine: caritas fails because it forces analogical or other readings that sacrifice fidelity to first-order aspects of Scriptural texts. And these are aspects to which we must attend. Whether or not a text has healed ought to be a more fluid and phenomenological consideration that sacrifices no fidelity to a Biblical text, but should in fact flow from it. 


Daniel Rudisill said...

I think this is a brilliant appropriation of/expansion on Augustine's hermeneutics as outlined in "On Christian Doctrine." To what extent is your hermeneutic informed by Ricoeur? Or perhaps a better question is, who is most informative to your hermeneutical thought?

Curious Monk said...

Thanks, Daniel. Augustine was my strong and clear entry into hermeneutic thinking; I once even tried to develop a hermeneutics of love!

My hermeneutic has since become more Ricoeurian, though indirectly through Schneider's "The Paschal Imagination."

She has been the most influential for these essays: it matters what we imagine Jesus imagines, and how we imagine Jesus, to the point of empathetic engagement with the text. Kind of world of the text to the nth degree.

I depart from Ricoeur, though, in that I'm trying to allow a super-textual criterion to weigh between interpretations. Ricoeur would insist you always have to argue it out solely on the basis of the text.

I'm trying to be more practical, because I think that's actually impossible to do.