Jamie Smith has come out with a newer version of his book, The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic but I’m going to be using the older version because that is the version I have, though I will probably get the newer on Kindle in the not to distant future.
Jamie speaks of “interpretation” or “hermeneutics.” Now there is a school of hermeneutics which on a basic level has to do with the application of scripture. That is, the question is asked, why do we apply this thing or that thing literally to our situation but not this thing over here or that that thing over there?
For example, Will Webb in the introduction of his book, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis asks:
“Which of these instructions from the Scripture are still in force for us today exactly as they are articulated “on the page?” (either in total force or moderately). He then gives scriptural examples (of which I will only point out a few),
“God…said to them [Adam and Eve], “Be fruitful and increase in number” Gen 1:28
“Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.” Matt 10:5-6
“Bless those who persecute you…If your enemy is hungry, feed him.” Rom 12:14, 20
“I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer…I also want women to dress modestly…not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.” 1 Tim 2:8-9
Now, Webb comes from what is called, “A Redemptive-Movement Model” or a “trajectory of scripture” model. While there are some problems with this approach, ie., how far does the trajectory go or how far beyond the Bible will you take the trajectory, the model deals mostly with ethics, what would this ultimate ethic be and isn’t one believing in the ultimate ethic beyond the text instead of what is advocated by the text? (As you can see, before we even get to the Bible we have approached it from a particular methodological bent).
We won’t concern ourselves with these questions nor this type of hermeneutic in this post (though this isn’t completely separated from our discussion). What we want to do is look at interpretation or hermeneutic as it concerns itself on another level–the issue of hermeneutics with regard to reality. That is, do we have immediacy to the world “as is?” And of course this could be a world in which God might or might not exist.
Smith comes from the Augustinian tradition in which we need symbols ie., language itself, predominantly in the form of writing, to “get at” what is there. The example that Jamie used was a cup sitting on his desk. There are things we could call this “object” that is there. Jamie would not say that there is nothing there for we are describing SOMETHING. What Jamie would say is that some interpretations will be better than others. Is it a cup? A tea kettle? A car? A plane? What is it? In Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (The Church and Postmodern Culture Smith uses an example from the movie, “The Little Mermaid.” Here is what he says:
“This world, of course, is not her own, and she has difficulty navigating her way through the experience (on top of learning to walk). She when she is seated to dine and finally recognizes something familiar in this strange world, she is eager to demonstrate her facility with this cultural artifact. What does she spy there–can it be?–a dinglehopper! Immediately she seizes the item and begins brushing her hair with the flair of a long time user. The prince, as you can imagine, is puzzled by such a strange employment of a fork!
This thing–this strangely shaped piece of metal–even when we find it sitting on the table right in front of us, is subject to interpretation. Given our horizons of experience, our past history, what we’ve been told, and thus a whole host of presuppositions that we bring to the experience, we immediately see it as anything but a but a fork. But for Ariel–with her different history, different experience, and thus different presuppositions–the item is interpreted as a dingle hopper. While it might seem as though we don’t even interpret the object, we actually go through the interpretive process so quickly, without even thinking about it, that it seems as if we’re not engaged in interpretation. But the speed with which the object is construed as a fork does not negate the fact of interpretation or the interpretative process involved.”
It’s important to understand what Smith is saying here because we bring the interpretive process to our reading of the Bible and to our religion ie., the Redemptive-Movement Model above. We think we are reading the Bible with a plain-clear understanding. But if this is the case, then why are there so many variations and interpretations of “something that is there” in Christianity?
Could it be that truth is not uniform (solitary) but pluriform (many)?
In closing, I’ll quote from Alister McGrath. In “The Nature of Confession” Alister is critiquing George Lindbeck who is a post-liberal.” McGrath says that Lindbeck thinks we should reject as
“…voluntarist, intellectualist, and literalist, even making the suggestion that those who ‘perceive or experience religion in a cognitive fashion’ are those who ‘combine unusual insecurity with naivete.’ A hesitation I have about this criticism concerns its reliability: it appears to be based on a questionable understanding of the cognitive-propositional approach.”
In other words, Lindbeck isn’t into “propositional truth” ie., the Bible doesn’t teach “doctrines” per se. For to do so it would be uniform, absolute and timeless.
McGrath has problems with this understanding of propositional truth (as do I) because it is not evidently true because it fails to take into account the
“…ability of proponents of this approach to reformulate, amplify or supplement doctrine in response to changing historical circumstances.”
And further down…
“It would be absurd to suggest that words can adequately capture experience. Ludwig Wittgenstein, who lamented the inability of words to describe or convey the aroma of coffee, has ensured that we are fully aware of this point. Yet is this such a significant matter? Words may not be able to provide a totally comprehensive description of the aroma of coffee; nevertheless, words are good enough to let me know where to find coffee and how to ensure that what I have found is indeed coffee, so that I can experience its aroma. Cognitive theories of doctrine recognize that words are on the borderlands of experience, intimating and signposting the reality they cannot capture. To apply pejorative epithets such as “intellectualist” or “literalist” to the cognitive-propositionlist approach is to fail to appreciate the power of words to evoke experience, to point beyond themselves to something inexpressible and to convey an experience that their author wishes to share with his or her readers.”
In other words, in summary, we have symbols in the form of words, these words combine into sentences (combination of the symbols), these sentences combine into paragraphs, which convey thoughts. Some of these thoughts are propositional in nature, ie., they give you more than mere experience ie., the smelling of the coffee contra what coffee “actually” is. They actually tell you what the coffee is. But while these may capture what is there, they don’t capture what is there comprehensively. Well, this applies to faith and the Bible in that the doctrines and teachings we produce in the form of propositions by the use of these symbols contra describing truth via a painting, for example, describe or capture reality to some significant degree though not comprehensively. Which is to point us in the direction of the pluriformity of truth. A Catholic will see this truth differently than I as a Protestant will see it. An Orthodox will “interpret” truth or “what is there” differently than a Catholic or Protestant will. A liberal will see something different than a conservative and vice versa. This is why I don’t think we should live in isolation of one another.