More On Hermeneutics

That’s “more on.”

If I try to respond to David Weinberger’s notes to me about the hermeneutics post, I may find myself coming round to a more satisfactory way of addressing Tom’s enigma. He pokes me about the extent to which revelation, the divine illumination by which biblical writings bespeak truths that reach beyond run-of-the-mill human knowledge, affects my account of hermeneutics. After all, he points out, one wouldn’t necessarily treat the authorial intention that shaped the menu at a California restaurant the same way one might treat the authorial intention that shaped Genesis.

Terrific point, and (actually) one of my strongest impulses toward differential rather than integral hermeneutics. Why? After all, some of my integral-hermeneutics colleagues argue that the unity of God’s will and its realization in the composition of Scripture require the ascription of a unitary meaning in Scripture (and the concomitant integral hermeneutics). Moreover, they suggest that the idea of God offering an ambiguous or plurivalent revelation contradicts the idea of revelation itself.

Sed contra (as my Dominican teacher used to say), experience teaches us that the Bible has indeed provoked a panoply of divergent interpretations among unquestionably earnest, diligent, intelligent, devout interpreters. On the account of integral hermeneutics, we are obliged to reckon that one among these scholars has been right, the others incorrect — but without any manifest way of determining which. If we subscribe to integral hermeneutics, we find ourselves taking a crapshoot on which spokesperson truly divined what was to be revealed in the Bible. Especially where interpreters divide diametrically, as interpreters have from time to time in Christian history, integral heremeneutics simply fails to give an adequate account of how we might ascertain to whom we ought to listen.

Differential hermeneutics, however, can locate revelation not in the text by itself, such that we’re left to assay the content of an unambiguous revelation that we can’t get at. Instead, differential hermeneutics can locate revelation in the shared practice of interpreting the Bible under the social, liturgical, communal, ethical conditions of participating in life under the Law, or under the Cross. Judaism (as David has pointed out) already demonstrates the theological cogency of a tradition that recognizes plurality of insight within a shared commitment to a very specific Torah. Christianity offers too many examples of “our way or the highway” interpretations of Scripture—but araen’t those schismatic gestures warranted, if not outright required, by a rigorous application of integral hermeneutics?

By contrast, the pre-Reformation Western tradition, and many aspects of the Orthodox traditions to this day, preserve an appreciation for the extent to which the Bible may engender divergent harmonious interpretations.

One last thing before I crash for the night. David’s question about a difference between sacred and secular hermeneutics favors a differential approach in another way, too. Although English departments may shelter some of the most erudite, persistent, articulate practitioners of integral hermeneutics, few if any would ground their practice on theological premises. But that’s just what certain sorts of integral hermeneutics suggest that they ought to do. If one does not believe in a Triune God, for instance, why should one be especially moved by the trinitarian resonances of the author-text-audience triad? (And what if one adhere’s to Kenneth Burke’s schema for interpretation; would that oblige one to proliferate divine Persons?) Differential heremeneutics offers both an account of why people read the Bible differently from their dinner menu (because they do so under different conditions, with a different stake in what they’re interpreting, and different goals in taking on the interpretation) and a (unitary?) general account of why people interpret texts as they do.

More tomorrow; this felt good, and I think I’m getting at some of what I’d been hoping to say to Tom.

DRMA: “Mothership Connection,” Parliament; “You Are My Sunshine,” Norman Blake; “Christiana,” Prince Nico Mbarga and the Rocafil Jazz; “Desert Blues,” Leon Redbone; “Immigrant Song,” Led Zeppelin; “I’ll Never Be Your Maggie Mae,” Suzanne Vega; “Shake It Up,” the Cars; “Don’t Keep Me Wondering,” the Allman Brothers (a propos in several ways); “Shhh/Peaceful,” Miles Davis.

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