Integral and Differential, Again

Picking up near where I left off, oneof the aspects of the whole discussion that flummoxes me involves the extent to which the argument tends to presuppose a Protestant-vs.-Catholic worldview, with no room left for anyone else. I would have a hard time imagining the same vigorous arguments against plurivalence in the context of Judaism or Eastern Orthodoxy (I don’t know enough even to guess about other traditions). Judaism isn’t the exotic rain forest of unchanneled meaning that some critics in the 80’s made it out to be; we are talking about the Torah, after all, not a capricious textual free-for-all. Even the Catholic tradition embraced some plurality of interpretive meaning through Medieval exegesis. Once the Reformation took root, all parties to the dispute over theological authority felt the need to say, “The Bible supports us and not them,” and at that point plurality in meaning can only complicate the power moves that the advocates of Rome or Geneva or Augsburg, or for that matter Canterbury or Westminster or Plymouth, felt the need to make.

But authority in Judaism and Orthodoxy devolves more directly on performative criteria than on the theoretically exclusive textual correctness of one party’s interpretations. (By “performative,” I don’t mean to refer to Lyotard’s attention to the crtierion of performative productivity in The Postmodern Condition, but to something more like what Raoul Eshelman describes in the article wood s lot recently blogulated for us: testing truth-claims by living them out). This, too, may make a connection to hermeneutics in Judaism (and in Christianity outside the West?); questions of interpretation often resolve themselves the more clearly by trying them as part of life. As such, and permit me some emphasis here, my “postmodern” differential hermeneutics is intrinsically, inescapably ethical. Bad interpretation isn’t only a matter of insufficient cerebration—it’s a moral failure. Good interpretation isn’t a matter of being smart enough, but of interpreting with spiritual wisdom.

It doesn’t follow that someone we think good will always interpret rightly, or that being smart is irrelevant to interpreting well. It does imply that there are as many ways to interpret well as there are to live well.

[Brief interval as I’m overcome by the urgency of implementing relative font sizes in my blog template. Either I’m not an adequate direction-follower, or something about Blogger and CSS and the way I implemented the HTML dysfunctioned, so I went back to the old fixed sizes, with apologies. Movable Type will be here some day, I’ll begin working directly with Dorothea’s version of my template, daisies will bloom, relative sizes will work, we’ll get just the right amount of rain and heat, and I’ll have a sabbatical.]

So I just argued that differential hermeneutics is so far from being a-moral that it’s radically ethical (not that being a partisan of differential hermeneutics makes you ethically praiseworthy, but that it is, as Nate would say, all about ethics.

In this context, the Tutor’s question — plaintive, were it not so thornily pointed — “What must I do to be saved?” should find its native habitat in the differential approach to hermeneutics. Now, I anticipate that some readers, if not the Tutor himself, would like a single, unambiguous answer—and will reject any reluctance to provide that simple injunction as mere deconstructive stammering, unwillingness to commit oneself to the plainly-marked narrow gate that leads to salvation.

On the other hand, Jesus tended to respond to such questions indirectly, with parables or prophetic actions or aphoristic deconstructions of the presuppositions on which the questions seem to rest.

“What must I do to be saved?” First, neither I nor you can determine that you be saved — right? Salvation depends not on our efforts or on your or my wise advice. Salvation as a free gift from God comes not by way of diligent good behavior or (certainly not) from good advice from an online theologian, but always only as a gift (I ran through this same set of premises way back on the “forgiveness” topic).

Do I then mean that there’s nothing to it, that we can shrug our shoulders, kick the homeless beggar at our feet, and laugh all the way to the pearly gates? I would not dare suggest so. At the same time, it does imply an awareness that salvation comes not through our power—and “power” marks one of the cardinal points in the conflict over interpretation. So here, too, I would urge a benefit of differential hermeneutics, as an approach to interpretation that duly observes the humility befitting fallible followers of a God who blesses not the exercise of coercive force (whether social, interpretive, or military), but patience and resolute faithfulness and integrity.

Now, there’s more to be said about these and many other dimensions of the topic (as readers moan), but not tonight.

DRMA: “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday (I can hardly listen to this, but I make myself; it feels as though this recording, once made, ought immediately to have converted the hearts of anyone who ever hears it); “One Day,” Dixie Hummingbirds and Angelic Gospel Singers; “When I See His Blessed Face,” Sister Wynona Carr; “All This Useless Beauty,” Elvis Costello (a live version wherein he pertinently observes, “People are always asking me, ‘What does that song mean?’ and if I could say it in other words than are in the song, I would have written another song, wouldn’t I?”); “I Want to Go Where Jesus Is,” Ernest Phipps and his Holiness Singers; “I Thank You Lord,” James Bignon and the Deliverance Mass Choir; “Heartbreak Hotel,” Elvis Presley; “Balm in Gilead,” Sweet Honey in the Rock; “The Girls Want to Be With The Girls,” Talking Heads; “Sunken Treasure,” Wilco; “I’m Someone Who Loves You,” the Roches; “All of Me,” Billie Holiday; “Here at the Western World,” Steely Dan; “Function at the Junction,” Shorty Long; “People Say,” the Meters; “Opening” from Glassworks, Philip Glass; “Watching the Wheels,” John Lennon.

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