Monday, March 10, 2014

These Essays: The Kindness of Scripture

Scripture also knits the kinship of those who read it. That is, the practice of the interpretation of Scripture calls us to trust its author, its wisdom, and the knowledge of those who read it with us. It employs all of our assumptions and builds on all of our experience and intuition, using all the best reason that we have.

 Scripture moves. Its best interpretation provokes discussion, thickens relationship, and helps humans see their way toward forgiveness and reconciliation. Reading Scripture is for the broken-hearted. It speaks the fullness of experience in a fount of many tongues and celebrates our very existence – not because we should be proud but because the vital goodness of God swears on our behalf, saying that we do not deserve everything that happens.

 The interpretation of Scripture welcomes us into the fold, showing that, though misunderstanding is inevitable, true understanding can occur – again, not because  we ourselves are wise and wonderful, but because in this world finitude is the field, the foundation and funding of all our understanding. That is the empathy of Scripture.
 You can reverse the order of these events, authority and empathy. You can wrap them around each other. You can interweave them until one person might find one at any given time, and another its opposite at precisely the same moment. You can say that one is strongly a majority, and the other clearly a minor note.

 You can apply them to individuals so that the course of a life becomes a series of farewells and welcomes, a succession of illness and vitality in tune with the beating heart of Scripture. You may call these events law and gospel if you must, though along with the Eastern understanding of grace I prefer to speak of pathology and health.
 But what one must do regardless is conceive these events in motion, because the honest interpretation of Scripture is a process that means to build up others, whether it’s through accurately diagnosing spiritual illness or through properly modeling, recognizing and celebrating spiritual health in whatever degree it may occur.

 That is why I speak of transformation in these last essays, and the integration of authority and empathy in the interpretation of Scripture. Interpretation demands moments of ingress and egress, to and fro, certainly – but faith means that that motion must go somewhere, that it cannot be enough that we will always be wounded readers, but that somehow, real life awaits us somewhere – and because of that, here and now it has already begun.

 Because we have read rightly, we have become more human.

I realize that I have been throughout the course of these essays relentlessly positive about both the nature of Scripture and the ostensible purposes of those who turn to it. There are certainly those, quite possibly many, who would use Scripture to justify their selfishness and ignorance.

And there are certainly Scriptural texts which seem to excuse, overlook or even flatter the cultural, ideological, political and personal faults, biases and iniquities of those who produced and originally read them. But I hope I have shown to the first that they are faithful neither to the body of Scripture nor to our best understanding of the interpreting mind.

And I hope I have at least successfully suggested of the second that an ultimate purpose may make sense of an immediate one. After all, our criterion of salutary force says that, all else being equal, helpful interpretations which maintain their trust in God’s beneficent purpose are still preferable, on theological and hermeneutical grounds, to those interpretations which may compound the hostilities of a text. Christians remain irretrievably invested in an alternative account, a different hermeneutical event, than those who would read Scripture with first-tier criteria alone.

I said in my introduction that more than one, but hardly all, interpretations must necessarily be valid. I hope I have shown in the course of these essays what those valid interpretations might have in common: a quality, an aspect, a characteristic of doing good, of aiding people along their path toward God, of helping them become, indeed, more human.

I will not enumerate how large we might expect this group of interpretations to be, or what the ever-shifting details of that aid might become, only that there must be some of such interpretation, and their aid must be effective, or we suppose that Christians would have renounced faith in Scripture and its interpreters long ago. 

If God indeed offers Scripture in beneficence, we do not propose that we ourselves are quite potent enough to entirely overcome that intent, anymore than we believe that we are wise enough to exhaust Scripture’s final meaning.

So I do not entirely disagree with a more conservative theorist such as E. D. Hirsch, who champions the thought that interpretation is the process of choosing from an ever-narrowing narrowing field of interpretations. I imagine this to indeed be part of the hermeneutical task.

But I cannot believe, especially given the form of the Bible itself, that that final number can be one, that any person other than Christ or any one meaning of a text could contain or fully convey the purposes or goodness of God. Rather, we imagine that Scripture has more than one help to give, and that our interpretations can convey them.

Validity of interpretation will be plural but limited, just as salutary force will vary by degrees owing to time, place, and circumstance. So we trust, from moment to moment of understanding, that the powers of interpretation and discernment given us by God are flawed, but also reliable and rewarding.

We pray this just as we pray that the gift of Scripture, given to us by God through creatures every bit as flawed as we know ourselves to be, carries the ever-present possibilities of our hopeful transformation.

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