Slow Motion Dash

The weather was adequate (ground was wet, but air was still and the temperature about 9°), my body was sluggish but not achey, and my mile came in at 10:39. I notice that I didn’t note Sunday’s run (I was fretful about the sermon for morning Mass); Sunday’s mile was 10:31, so it looks as though I’m establishing a new, slow plateau.

In Winter, Yet…

4°, ‘light’ breezes, 10:34. The good news (if there can be good news about running) is that the knot in my thigh has been receding over the last couple of runs. On the other hand, a mile hasn’t gotten any shorter, and my time hasn’t gotten any better. On yet another hand, I can now sprint a block and a half to catch a bus without getting winded.

Memo to Myself

I’ve been working through Paul’s letters with my ordinands in several different courses, and just now it hit me that scholars typically treat Paul’s interpretation of Abraham as a retrospective rationalisation in light of his satori concerning the Torah and ’justification’. That is, they start from the premise that Paul’s breakthrough concerned the importance of considerations other than law-adherence relative to the Gentiles’ inclusion; he saw the ‘insufficiency’ of the Law for making Gentiles righteous, indeed for making anybody righteous, and then sorted out the implications for this with respect to Abraham. ‘Look! It turns out that God blessed him before he was circumcised!’ This emerges as a knock-down rationale for including the Gentiles as far as Paul is concerned, and he moves on exploring his Law-free gospel in other directions.

But I wonder whether that may get it wrong way around — that Paul may have noticed, one day, that God reckoned Abram righteous before circumcision, and that that entailed the insight that Gentiles can be justified apart from works of the Law. This would fit better with my inclination to read Paul as the theologian par excellence of difference-in-harmony, and only secondarily as a theologian according to whom ‘reckoned’ justification comes to eclipse Law-adherent behaviour as the basis for inclusion in the People of God.

I am not a Pauline specialist (IANAPS), so I’m probably missing somebody who thought this before me, but I’m ready to argue it provisionally as the best explanation for the trajectories of Paul’s thought. Until, that is, someone who knows the literature better sets me straight.

On Correctness

When I read papers or give presentations about hermeneutics, people always ask me, ‘If you’re right and there is no intrinsic “meaning” in texts about which to be right or wrong, are all interpretations equal? Aren’t some interpretations just plain wrong? I mean, you talk about The da Vinci Code all the time as an example of terrible biblical interpretation…’. (Note: actually, they don’t always ask me about The da Vinci Code, but they could use that against me if they wanted.) I’ve resisted giving a specific answer to that question, since what counts as ‘bad biblical interpretation’ depends on where and when and why and how you’re offering it. Still, there is a sort of über-answer, and it goes this way:

Any proposed interpretation [of anything, not just the Bible] rests upon a thick network of conventions and inferences pertaining at least to the medium of the thing being interpreted (text, painting, fossil, hairstyle, hand gesture). Assuming a linguistic text, the conventions of semantics and syntax provide one dimension of interpretive validity. If I say, ‘Dogs typically land on their feet when they fall,’ you might intelligibly respond ‘Surely you mean cats usually land on their feet.’ You have soundly inferred my claim to be coherent with respect to the norms of English grammar and semantics; you have no argument on that point. You point, however, to a divergence between my observation and demotic knowledge of animal life: people take it for granted that cats always land on their feet, such that one can make a joke by suggesting that if one ties buttered toast to a cat and drops it, the elemental forces of nature will be rent asunder since the creature will either land on the toast (‘Toast always lands butter side down’) or its feet (see above). My claim is sound with respect to the English language, but unsound with respect to demotic knowledge of mammalian behaviour.

(Excursus: this, it seems to me, is the only viable way of construing ‘the literal sense’ — that is, as the grammar and semantics of the utterance. Even these do not foreclose plurality in interpretation, since individual words are subject to ambiguity and equivocation, and much more so phrases and sentences. Still, one can imagine two opposing interpreters arriving at an agreed grammatico-semantic interpretation of an utterance while at the same time disagreeing fervently about the reference and implications of the utterance in question. When someone wants ‘the literal sense’ to do more work than ‘the minimal agreed sense of a text’, they will always inevitably be infusing claims about literalness with codicils that favour their particular interpretation. The literal sense has to be as close to trivial as is possible under the circumstances.)

In the example above, we judge my claim as valid in one respect, and invalid (or at least questionable) in another. But supposing I said, ‘Your puppy’s vaults risk no malign defeat / Like others of its sort, it lands upon its feet’? One might then judge my claim literally sound, demotically unsound, and a cracking rhyme. And you might criticise the scansion — the ‘of’ doesn’t want to be stressed, weakening the iambic pentamenter.

This example points toward my general response to interpretive soundness: that is, the stronger the interpretive fit with a particular interpretive discourse (that of English language, of demotic zoology, of rhyme, of meter), in the greater quantity of discourses, weighted toward discourses of greater importance,* with greater intensity of this convergence, the more convincing the case for the soundness of the interpretation.

In other words, the more dimensions of discursive intensity back up your interpretation, the likelier you are to be ‘correct’ (where ‘intensity’ designates the convergence of widely-acknowledged discourses).

Some interpretations will divide otherwise-homogeneous sets of readers. English-speaking readers of popular fiction include both those who find Dan Brown’s literary style almost as atrocious as his understanding of the Bible, but also demonstrably includes many millions who think he’s ace on one or both fronts. But there’s no way ever to compel the latter group to come to their literary or historical senses. They like to hear about the conspiracies that historic Christianity has perpetuated on a hapless populace, and they want to think it all merely a cynical charade. But the role of desire in interpretation comes up in my contribution to Biblical Exegesis without Authorial Intention? (ed. Clarissa Breu; Brill, 2019), and will also play a role in the monograph on which I’m currently working.

* Of course, different interpreters will assess the importance of different discourses differently; this accounts for a great proportion of the disagreements over textual interpretation. The ordering of discrusive importance is not, however, simply given or natural or necessary; they are always subject to contestation.

Ice Ice Old Man

5°, breezy, and drizzle. This will not be fun.

OK, to be fair — it wasn’t really drizzling at all. The breeze wasn’t much bother, except that I had to run north on Magdalen Road into a headwind. My body was just still tight and dead, resistant to opening up and running flat out. So another day of 10:42.

Truth And Consequences

The pavement in our garden attracts (a) slugs, especially when wet, and (b) curled-up leaves that look like slugs, especially when wet.
As a consequence, I spend a lot of my walking time, especially when it is wet, either (a) treading hypercautiously on what turn out to be curled leaves, or (b) treading incautiously on what turn out to be wandering slugs.

A Dash of November

This morning dawns — well, not quite dawn yet — 7° and dry, 93% humidity. I woke up early to allow a bit more warming-up time than I have allotted in weeks past. We will see what happens.

Well, not much. I ran 10:51 — much of the mile, my muscles were resisting, and my gasping was more acute than usual. Oh, well…