Rowan Williams, David Weinberger, Joel Green, and Edward Tufte

No, this is not an arcane exercise in “which of these does not belong?” Earlier I projected that I’d write something up about Rowan Williams’s Larkin-Stuart lecture (endowed by St. Thomas parish and Trinity College) concerning the right interpretation of the Bible in the church. Earlier I indicated that I had some quibbles, that I hadn’t had a chance to read it carefully, but I’d come back later. I still haven’t had the opportunity to read it carefully, but this makes at least two careless skims, so that will have to do.

Quibble number one: Williams endorses Ricoeur’s heuristic device of talking about “the world in front of the text,” “the world of the text,” and “the world behind the text.” Okay, it’s a metaphor, and we all know roughly what it means: that as we read, we can pay attention particularly to the background of the text, that which makes the text possible, what it takes for granted, its historical infrastructure (“behind”); or we can attend to what the text’s apparently saying (“of”); or we can imagine how the text impinges on our own lives and our futures (“in front of”). But I’m persistently opposed to critical readers using that metaphor in their reasoning about interpretation, since it bootlegs in presuppositions about text and interpretation that influence the outcome of our deliberations. Texts don’t have fronts or behinds, though (in the sense the metaphor requires), and the background, the text “itself,” and the responses it subsequently evokes are all implicated in one another. It’s a quibble, but I’m sticking with it.

That being said, I appreciate Williams’s attention to Scripture under the rubric of “communicative act,” though you don’t need his stage-dressing of oral/aural contextualization in order to make that work. I affirm his suggestion that we “imagine that historically remote audience as not only continuous with us but in some sense one with us,” and his proposal that we ask “What does this text suggest or imply about the changes which reading it or hearing it might bring about?” Those seem like plausible, theologically sound hermeneutical gestures (though they’re already particular to the church, not disinterested principles of all interpretive activity).

The two examples that Williams chooses make sense to me. In both he selects texts that often serve as linch-pin proofs of particular positions, John 14:6’s apparent advocacy of the exclusivity of Jesus’ salvific agency (on one hand) and Romans 1’s assertion of the immorality of same-sex intimacy (on the other). Williams reads both passages carefully not just for the explicit points they make, but for their role in the broader rhetoric of the sources. He concludes in the first case that, in the context of John’s farewell discourses, Jesus appositely reminds/instructs the disciples that the path to his crucifixion is necessary, and that he is preparing a way that they in turn will have to go — not that Jesus is claiming a unversal, exclusive role in brokering God’s presence. In the second, he reads Paul as invoking the example of same-sex relations not for the purpose of reinforcing the Old Testament proscription of such activity, but specifically to indict those who find homosexuality a paradigm case of immoral conduct. I think he’s on plausible ground with both interpretations and with his interpretations of the interpretations: that in both cases the author presumably assents to the notion in question (Jesus only, and no gay sex), but that those notions aren’t the point. (He emphatically insists that he’s not deprecating these texts as evidence for theological claims against pluralism or blessing same-sex unions, but indicating that their usefulness as evidence is beside the point.)

So I also approve of his articulation, by way of Peter Ochs and Kevin Vanhoozer, of theological interpretation as a process of working out how we continue to live by the revelatory word that constituted us as a people, that instructs us on the shape and meaning of our lives.

David demurs from Williams’s lecture on the basis that “Although non-Jews often don’t give this full credence, Jews are a people. You are a Jew by birth, not by belief. (It’s more complex than that, but what isn’t?) Thus, the community isn’t created ‘out of nothing.’ ” (Is this a long way round saying that “existence precedes assents”?) I’m in no position to teach David why he should side with Williams, but I construe Williams as proposing that the people born into Judaic identity are so born by virtue of a calling and a covenant that precedes them, that made a “no people” into “God’s people.” By continuing the argument over Torah, interpreters born into that people-hood bear forward the identity of the collective. (Williams is also, of course, alluding to Christian theological investments in creatio ex nihilo as a doctrinal point — but I think his hermeneutics don’t depend on the allusion to a doctrine from which many prominent Jewish thinkers dissent.) But maybe I’ misreading you, David.

I don’t see Williams as evacuating people’s prior identity altogether as does *Christopher), or that “[Williams’s] ‘out of nothing’ in his reading of Scripture within the context of the Eucharist threatens to make of the community gathered in Eucharist itself a totalitarian hegemony or imperial enterprise by refusing to recognize the plurality of different subjects convoked by the Spirit for some sameness or nothingness too easily filled up and filled out by the scripts of those in authority or regaled with superiority who then determine the meaning of the Scriptures within the community.” Williams draws on 1 Peter 2:10 (where the author is apparently addressing Gentile readers, “Once you were no people, but now you are god’s people”) and invokes the two examples he chooses, I take it, to call into question two common interpretive moves that move directly against the kind of plurality that *Christopher commends. The essay in question does not, so far as I can read, include any assertion that “we’re all the same, ‘out of nothing’, meaning like me and interpretted by me” — but if we catch Williams making such a claim, I expect that I’ll gladly and vigorously join *Christopher in resisting it.

*Christopher’s concern resonated in my ears as I read Joel Green’s review of my book, a review written from a distinctly different ecclesial location from that which I inhabit. Joel very generously allows me my difference from him without making that an explicit point of contention — though I think that our difference also comes to expression relative to the queries he addresses to me. When Joel suggests that I ought to explain “how to adjudicate among not merely different but indeed competing and mutually exclusive interpretations,” I’m not sure that such “adjudicating” is the point. After all, as *Christopher points out, people tend to read the Bible as though it were about us, with our presuppositions intact and unquestionable, but calling their presuppositions and morals into question; on what basis could anyone promulgate the interpretive method that might satisfactorily adjudicate? Who would decide what would count as evidence? What disinterested party could function as a judge? (On these issues I continue to bear the impress of Jean-François Lyotard’s reflections on justice in The Différend and Just Gaming.)

And to draw the last of my title quaternity into the discussion, Edward Tufte proposes as a “grand truth about human behvior that, as Van Wyck Brooks said, “ It is a principle that shines impartially on the just and the unjust that once you have a point of view all history will back you up.” Other readers of his site contributed comparable observations: “ ‘What a man wishes, he will believe’ – Demosthenes” and Ben Franklin, “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a Reason for everything one has a mind to do.”

Quite so.

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