Reading and Difference

The fundamental condition of interpretive practice is difference. Thus, every heremenutic that aims at — or takes as its founding premise — a correctness or identity (in the sense of a an interpretation that attains conceptual homology with a given criterion, ordinarily ‘the intention of the author at the moment of inscription’) begins in the wrong direction, and inevitably arrives at sound conclusions only in unpropitious, roundabout ways, if it arrives at sound conclusions at all.

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  1. While I agree with the general pull of the idea, the initial assertion would probably benefit from being solidly built up. And then I get the feeling that I *really* should find the time to read ch. 5 of “Faithful Interpretation”…

    In traditional Muslim theology, the idea of the “uncreated Qur’an” needs to be put down humanely but without qualms. I’ve been trying to put together a convincing argument towards that goal; a few items of it are relevant to your post:

    – hermeneutics are often driven from sociology issues, and we shouldn’t discount the need of people for social coherence and group assent, beyond its trappings of “correctness”;

    – postmodern textual criticism has done away with any form of authority regarding interpretation, and yet the more liberal our societies are, the more dire the yearning for authority; I’m afraid authority will be the major theological question of our time…

    – I’m getting more and more skeptical of the idea that we are able to soundly reason about hermeneutics (and more widely, about theology) outside of or independently from the pastoral context (an extremely Anglican idea, isn’t it?);

    – and finally, we still haven’t managed to put forward a cogent and convincing argument about the central standing of doubt within faith; or if we have, we have been doing a terrible job of convincing people: parishioners keep expressing major guilt and pain arising from doubting this or that point of dogma; whoever eventually manages to make people forgive themselves will be a definite saint in my eyes.

    Mmm…. I probably should apologize about this unwarranted foray into apologetics! 😉

    (Trying hard to be intelligible, but English is clearly not my native tongue, sorry!)

    1. Your response is pellucid, Thomas-Xavier; much better than my French would be (alas, for decades of rust on my conversational French).

      Point by point:

      — Yes, and when I recompose this into my next monograph, more of the background argumentation will be clear. Still, it would be odd to look at the history of interpretation and propose that it reflected a history of unanimity (or even concord). Oh, and copies of Faithful Interpretation make excellent holiday gifts for friends, enemies, baristas, postal workers…

      — I don’t know enough about Muslim hermemenutics, though I did supervise a Muslim PG student at one point who [professed that he] felt that my own work was helpful in his efforts to articulate interpretations of Abraham at the convergence of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

      — Oh, I’m all in favour of acknowledging the effects of social forces on hermeneutical deliberation; that’s part of what I tried to bring out into the open in my essay on Romans 7 in Biblical Exegesis Without Authorial Intention?. The next roiling pool of murky water and frightening marine life is the role of desire and affect on interpretation (already attested in various colleagues’ work, but usually not made an explicit feature of hermeneutical reflection).

      — ‘postmodern textual criticism has done away with any form of authority regarding interpretation’… Here I would disagree; postmodern thought has tried (and in many quarters, has tried with negligible effect) to undermine the simple appeal to ‘the text’, or to ‘what the text actually means’, or to ‘what the author intended by the text’, but many forms of authority remain.Partisan hero-citation remains a staple of interpretive discourse, for instance, and appeals to some sort of encoded real meaning persist across the interpretive disciplines. But yes, also ublic discourse does cry out for ‘authority’ all the more furiously when familiar modes of authority, demystified, begin to lose their lustre.

      — I wouldn’t privilege a pastoral context, but would simply argue that all interpretive discernment is always contextually-saturated. The effort to distill ‘meaning’ from the impurities of context, or to identify one particular kind of context as the correct, ideal, authoritative one, that is a claim to power more than an actual philosophical analysis of how expression and uptake play out. There are ways of being Anglican that take account of this and that allow for play over against those who would insist upon structural rigidity in the church system, but equally there are Anglicans who would furiously repudiate the notion that there can be room for more than one interpretation of a contested text.

      — I suspect the obloquy against doubt is an unhealthy hangover from the Reformation, with contemporary anxieties about needing to police borders amplifying the problem. People who feel guilt about ‘belief’ demonstrate that they care enough about the faith to bother with doctrine at all. We need to relieve them of their guilt, and revivify teaching such that people can understand more clearly what they assent to (or what they don’t) and why, and how this affects their relation to ecclesiastical formations. It’s not that ‘doubt’ is no big deal, but it’s only a big deal in a context where we can talk freely about what the Church teaches (what the churches teach), how the Church (churches) invites us to appropriate chrurch teaching, and how the Church (churches) deals with people who want what the Church (churches) offers, but do not want to cooperate with churches that respond out of the integrity of particular missions. The pervasive liberal canard that everyone ought to be able freely to participate in any given shared endeavour should be allowed, encouraged, to wither away as promptly as possible.

      Lovely to communicate with you, Thomas-Xavier!

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