Once In A Lifetime

Quadriga You may ask yourself — Why is this guy trying to hard, in so many ways, to disabuse us readers of the notion that there subsists a “meaning” as a property of a text, such that we correctly interpret that text by replicating as closely as possible the text’s subsistent meaning? This is not my beautiful text! This is not my beautiful meaning! You may ask yourself, but if you ask me I’ll reply, “Only when we recuperate from the misplaced premise of subsistent meaning can the innumerable benefits of taking an alternative approach come into clear focus. Only when we realise that we’ve been managing perfectly well without subsistent meaning can we see how much better we get along without that distraction.”

Once you accept the possibility that the extremely powerful consensus of language-users accounts sufficiently for success in linguistic communication (apart from any subsistent meaning) and, indeed, accounts much better for linguistic change and other phenomena, myriad implications crowd to mind. To take one example (one I used in my essay for Yale Div School’s Reflections), one can make the sound argument that the wisest interpretation of the Matthean Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats is not for an ageing white academic to write an article about the nature of parables, whether the sheep, goats, and recipients of charity are Gentiles, disciples, or any other group, but rather simply to go out and offer a meal to a hungry person. The practiced interpretation does not eclipse or invalidate the technical interpretation — and I’ll continue pursuing the more academic kind anyway, cos I just am that way — but discerning the meaning and applying the meaning aren’t necessarily separate processes. Moreover — and here we touch on a residual comfort of conventional subsistent-meaning hermeneutics — one can arrive at practiced interpretations clumsily, misguidedly, wrongly; but the same applies, as it turns out, to technical exegetical interpretation, and separating the latter out as the primary function of interpretation hasn’t demonstrably diminished the amount on interpretive “error” in churches and culture. It is more complicated than that — as is interpretation-as-practice — and neither exegetical diligence nor practical activism precludes the possibility of error. Nothing will protect you from error, or insure that you have the right interpretation that will authorise you to compel others to abide by your (that is, “the Bible’s”) command.

On Meaning, the all-in-one page