Eventually I will move beyond this philosophical and epistemological level to reading the Biblical text and thinking theologically as part of the Stone-Campbell tradition, but it is important to lay some foundations as these considerations will impact what is said down the line. So, bear with me for another post or two.
We are hermeneutical creatures but finite and also sinful (finite and sinful are not, however, the same thing). Our hermeneutical wiring is designed to bond us with others, value the diversity that enriches us, and draw us into community with one another. The interpretative act is not only necessary (we can’t think without interpreting–we are hardwired for it) and a created given (we interpret everything–and we are supposed to) but it is also a created good. That is a brief summary of posts one and two. Whew!
Not every interpretation, of course, is a good one. Some interpretations are power-plays; they are exertions of control and domination. So, valuing diversity does not entail accepting every interpretation as if every opinion is just as good as any other or just as true as any other. The sinful human condition entails that some of our interpretations are sinful as well.
Smith’s Fall of Interpretation offers several lines for discerning between good and bad interpretations. They are helpful starting points and they provide some legitimate epistemological boundaries. Within those boundaries there is room for significant diversity as varying perspectives are taken up into the communal interpretative act.
The first discerning line is empirical reality itself. There is a certain giveness to the world. For example, my house has a front porch with a swing. While the meaningfulness and significance of a porch is relative to each interpreter, the reality that my house has a porch is something that norms every interpretation of my porch. Any interpretation that denies that my house has a porch would be false, but almost everyone would have a different interpretation of my porch relative to their own situation, needs, and perceptions (too large, too small, too open, who cares?, etc.). There is no normative interpretation (a single universal truth about my porch), but there are interpretative norms about my porch (it is there).
This is fundamentally a phenomenological criterion. It precludes an infinite number of interpretations but it does not prescribe a single, absolute, universally correct interpretation. This truth (what you think about my porch) is relative to the interpreter but it is not totally left to the interpreter’s private discretion because there is a front porch on my house. As Smith points out, this is similar to Husseral’s “inter-mediacy,” that is, there is an objectivity to interpreted reality that norms any interpretation by a subject (there is something there) but nevertheless the subject still construes the object in a certain way (sees it “as” something, construes its meaning in a particular way). It is “inter-mediacy” because it is our subjective construal of an objective reality yet it is inter-subjective because we all construe the same object. Thus, the object provides the possibilities of intersubjectivity–a process by which we come to value how each other sees the object which we are all interpreting. The reality of my porch imposes a truth upon the mind but that truth is then subjectively interpreted or construed in a certain way. This is the “language game” we all play because it is the only game in town. But the game has rules and boundaries as we all play on the same field. There is objectivity and subjectivity. The interplay between them creates the opportunity for intersubjectivity as we live in relation with each other.
The second criterion that Smith offers is an ethical one–a hermeneutic of love. Smith suggest that interpretation is not so much about correctness as it is responsibility. The interpreter has the obligation to do justice to the otherness of what is interpreted. In Christian theology this ethical responsibility is rooted in the first and second commandments: to love God and love our neighbors. This love resists manipulation, power and greed as we engage others (or a text) through interpretation. We love God in our neighbors as we listen and learn about the world through them. A plurality of interpretations is no threat if they contribute to the divine mandate to love God and love neighbor within the boundaries of empirical reality (creation itself).
A third criterion, according to Smith, is a hermeneutic of trust. This trust is, at one level, the trust of our senses–a kind of Reidian (Thomas Reid) acceptance that we believe unless there is reason not to believe. Trust is an act of faith. A hermeneutic of suspicion is still legitimate in a broken world where power manipulates reality through interpretation but the more fundamental–created–hermeneutic is trust. There are reasons not to believe (thus suspicion has a role), but we believe till there are such reasons and we are fundamentally oriented to trust our created senses. Empirical reality circumscribes the suspicion because the interpretative act is normed by empirical reality (creation itself).
But trust goes much deeper than that. It is not simply at the empirical level. More fundamentally, trust is linked to pneumatology, the Holy Spirit. God is at work in the world through his Spirit to guide his creation (are not the developments of science such as medical breakthroughs the common grace of God?) and God is at work in the human heart to transform, guide and empower. Indeed, the Spirit is at work to sanctify our rationality and guide us in the use of reason. Along with Anselm, I confess that we believe in order to understand. Trust (faith) precedes reason. Trust creates room for the Spirit to work and to work in diverse and multiple ways. The Spirit creates, as Smith argues, space for diverse–and at the same time true–interpretations. The Spirit enables us to hear and value the diversity of the perspectives and angles with which humans view reality (and Scripture).
Not all diversity is good. But diversity that contributes to community and interdependent relationships in conformity to the divine goal is good. It is the work of God by his Spirit to fill his community with diversity and diverse interpretations. When Babel sought to conform everyone to one thing, God reintroduced diversity for the sake of his goal. At Babel God reversed conformity with diversity. Pentecost empowers diversity for the sake of the goal. The Spirit unites us by working n us but also gifts us in our diversity with diversity–including diverse interpretations (perspectives).
Hermeneutically, it is important to recognize that there are diverse but true interpretations–it is a form of perspectivalism. Finite creatures have limited, situated perspectives. We see the Truth (God) from a limited angle and consequently we need the communal process of interpretation to help us see the fuller reality (the whole Truth). We need each other–past and present. None of us grasps the whole Truth and the sum total of finite experience would never comprehend God (Truth) as he really is in himself.
Yet, we are on a journey of discovery–discovery of the world, each other and ultimately God. We need each other for that journey (none of us can see all or understand all). We need history (others have been interpreting the world–and Scripture–before us). We need tradition (others have practiced the faith before us). We need culture (others have formed us and given us the perspectives we believe are so important, but there are diverse cultures with addtional fruitful perspectives to which we need to listen).
Hermeneutics, then, is a pneumatically empowered process by which finite creatures discover their world, each other and God toward the goal of enjoying the unity of diversity and the diversity of unity. It is a never-ending journey into the life of the Triune God who is the ground of unity in diversity, three in one and one in three.