FINDING THE WAY Part Two: Biblical Hermeneutics
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. (Matt 7:24)
Part One of this article looked at what scripture and the monastic tradition of the desert may have to teach us about reading the Bible. The aim here in Part Two is complementary to the explorations in Part One; though perhaps more theoretical and heuristic: here we shall explore the question of just what interpretation is, and offer a model of the interpretive process.
The problem of biblical interpretation is, as we saw in Part One, very complex, and quite old, as evidenced by what the Bible itself has to say about itself. Moreover, the complexity of biblical interpretation has been accentuated with the passage of time because of what has been lost by temporal distance and what has been accumulated with historical accretion, to say nothing of the complexity created by the mix of cultural contexts in which the scriptures have been and are being read. Consequently, various approaches and methods have been developed for the study of the Bible (as for the study of other ancient texts).
But the Bible is not merely history nor science nor “literature” nor just another ancient text. It is certainly not “history” in the modern sense of that word since it does not deal with factual accounts of the past, presented in objective chronological order; which is of course not to say ipso facto that there is no history in the Bible. It is merely to assert that the Bible is much more than history, in the sense of historiography: it is “trans-historical”. The Bible tries to say something true, and at a profound level, about the perennial present, about the world and humanity as it is and can be, especially in its relationship to God. It is “historical”, then, in the most radical sense of that word only: it has to do with the unfolding story of humankind from its roots in the ground of its making; and it is therefore historic in the most transformative sense of that word: it changes history by orienting it towards its trans-historical end.
To say that it is not science is, perhaps, less contentious; but it, too, needs nuancing. The Bible’s account of creation, for example, is the basis for a theology of what coming-into-being is about – a “subtle science” of metaphysics; but it is, in no way, the “hard science” of physics, chemistry, geology, palaeontology, etc.
But perhaps the assertion that the Bible is not merely “literature” or just another “ancient text” is the most controversial and easily dismissed (or suspect): it seems so obviously both, and simultaneously. The qualifiers “merely” and “just another” are crucial here. The Bible is certainly “literature” insofar as it is a written work; but it was written, as was argued in Part One, to be studied, and studied assiduously, not merely “read” reclining in an armchair while sipping sherry before a cosy fire on a cold winter’s afternoon. And it is not “just another ancient text” since no other text – ancient or modern – has done as much to shape cultures, civilizations, societies, structures, minds, hearts and souls, to say nothing of other texts. While the Hindu Vedas and the Upanishads are texts of inestimable value; and while the Buddhist sutras continue to engage and enlighten; while the Koran and the Book of Mormon have given rise to new communities and expressions of faith that stem from the biblical text, none of these is what the Bible is.
So, what exactly is it? The question is surely too big to try and give a definitive answer – beyond calling it “the word of God”. But, since it is also “in the words of men” and their work, perhaps one useful way to describe this complex and enigmatic collection of world-shaping texts is to see it as a kind of “narrative theological anthropology” – a story of humanity in relation to God struggling to understand itself, its world and its God. That, at least, is the approach to the biblical text (as divinely inspired humanly constructed text) adopted here as we attempt to develop a model for its interpretation.
Every text must be interpreted in its context. There are, in fact, several contexts that shape our interpretation of the Bible that have to be taken into account when trying to understand what it is that the Bible may have to say to us now. They fall into two main categories:
- the internal context of a particular biblical text, composed of:
- its intra-textual (narrative) context, and
- its inter-textual (canonical) context;
- the external context in which the Bible developed, composed of:
- its original (historical) context of inception, and
- its actual (historic) context of reception.
This brings us to the complex question of hermeneutics: What is interpretation? What happens when we engage in the process of interpreting? These are not merely “exegetical” questions about methods for reading a text: how do we interpret this or that text? They are hermeneutical questions of methodology: what is actually happening in the process of interpreting? They are properly epistemological and existential questions: How do we go about trying to understand understanding and to interpret interpreting? And why would we want to?
These are some of the more basic hermeneutical questions asked both within and beyond traditional academic circles in every age, though not always in the same way or with the same urgency. One of the characteristic features of our own so-called “postmodern age” is that we no longer take ourselves, our ways of knowing and being, for granted – or even very seriously. As modernity – mythologized as the so-called “Enlightenment” and embodied in the “Western World” – was marked by a critique of the deeply held prejudices of an inherited authoritarian “other”, so postmodernity is marked by a self-critical recognition of our own prejudices, a questioning of our own worlds/words: a plethora of competing interests, ideologies, beliefs, “selves”, in a cacophony of discordant voices asserting conflicting, confused, and confusing claims. Such a situation makes it increasingly necessary to state as clearly as possible where we stand in relation to these questions of meaning and the search for understanding: to give a “hermeneutic account” of ourselves.
The main thesis of Part Two of this article is quite simple – and by no means unique – namely that:
- the roots of interpretation are to be sought and found in being (ontology);
- the structure of interpretation is in the nature of understanding (epistemology);
- the process of interpreting is a deliberate act of seeking meaning (methodology).
I hope to elaborate this thesis by outlining a hermeneutic model, and bring it into dialogue with what scripture and the monastic practice of interpretation as explored in Part One of this article have to contribute to the discussion. However, in order to do so we first need to be clear about the distinctions and connections between the key terms “hermeneutics” and “interpretation” as these are understood and used here.
Hermeneutics and interpretation
Hermeneutics is about interpreting. It comes from the Greek words, hermeneuein, to interpret, and hermeneia, interpretation. This should not lead us to conclude, however, that “hermeneutics” is merely a synonym for “interpretation” (although that is how the word “hermeneutics” is often used). Strictly speaking, hermeneutics is about interpreting. It is a theory of interpretation, a systematic explanation of what happens when we interpret. It is not, therefore, merely another, more mystifying word for interpretation (or, at least, it ought not to be).
The words hermeneuein and hermeneia are often said to be derived from the name of the mythical messenger-god, Hermes, whose task it was to bring to humanity an understanding of the sublime:
Significantly, Hermes is associated with the function of transmuting what is beyond human understanding into a form that human intelligence can grasp. The various forms of the word suggest the process of bringing a thing or situation from unintelligibility to understanding. The Greeks credited Hermes with the discovery of language and writing – the tools which human understanding employs to grasp meaning and to convey it to others.1
Whether Hermes gave his name to, or received it from, this process, is a moot point. What is significant is that the three nuances of the verb “to interpret” – that is, to say, to explain, and to translate – point to three important aspects of interpretation: that it has to do with language, meaning and understanding.
So what is interpretation? In what sense is it a function of language, the search for meaning, and an event of understanding?
Interpreting is what we do; it is an activity. Interpretation is an event, a process by which we come to understand what we do not understand but want to understand (however consciously or otherwise). It is both an event and an act. It is an event in that it happens to us. And since its driving force is our wanting to understand, it is also an act of will, a search for meaning. Both the search and the meaning sought are conditioned by language, the matrix mediating both meaning and being. In other words, interpretation is a lot like living – in fact, a lot more like living than is often given credit.2
If all this is true of interpretation, then it is also true of hermeneutics, the interpretation of interpretation – that is, the deliberate process of coming to understand the deliberate process of coming-to-understand.
Given this broadly philosophical approach as a backdrop, hermeneutics has nevertheless had a more traditional relationship to texts. This relationship needs to be considered more closely by exploring the deliberate nature of the interpretive process, and the relation between interpreting, meaning, and understanding (as well as that between texts and contexts), to give us a fuller working definition of “hermeneutics”.
A deliberate process
All coming-to-understand is an interpreting activity (though not all understanding is: some, for example, is instinctive); and all interpreting is to some extent an activity of consciousness (though, once again, not all understanding is: we can understand implicitly, intuitively, “unconsciously”). However, not all interpreting can be said to be self-consciously deliberate. Indeed, most interpreting occurs without our being conscious of ourselves doing anything special – perhaps because we are not doing anything “out of the ordinary”. In interpreting an all-too-familiar world, we normally take little or no notice of the process of coming to understand it. Therefore how we come to understand tends not to be thought about if we do not feel the need to make an effort to understand. In fact, the more familiar we feel our world to be, the less we feel the need to make an effort to interpret it. Familiarity tends to reduce both our fascination with the “other” in its “otherness” and our readiness to try to make sense of that “other”. And perhaps that is just as well! If we constantly reflected on every act – the ever-flowing activity – of interpretation, we would not get very far in the daily activity of living. Thinking about interpretation is time- and energy-consuming, and is done deliberately and self-consciously only when that is felt to be necessary (such as in an article on biblical interpretation).
So, while interpretation may be a deliberate, and even a conscious, activity of coming-to-understand, it is not necessarily conscious of itself as such. However, when it is a self-conscious activity that deliberately seeks to understand the process of coming-to-understand, it is called “hermeneutics”.
Interpreting, meaning, understanding
We constantly interpret the data we receive through our senses: the smell of smoke, we say, “means” something is burning, the taste of sweetness “means” the fruit is ripe, a knock on the door “means” that someone is there, and so on. Of course, each of these events could mean any number of other things as well; and these are only some of the possible meanings these events may have. The point, however, is that we do not deliberately and consciously apply an interpretive method in order to understand them. Understanding happens in the course of living.
And yet, understanding does not “just happen”. It happens because we interpret on the basis of previous experience and knowledge, or “pre-understanding”. For example, to the extent that I understand a language, I will be able to understand what is said to me in that language; to the extent that I am familiar with mechanics, I will understand the workings of an engine; and to the extent that I share someone’s experience, I will be able to understand that person. All knowledge is built on some previous knowledge. It cannot “be”, it cannot “exist”, without a context.3
Context is where meaning is possible, where understanding exists, where interpretation happens: it is the matrix of meaning. The extent to which I am aware of my context and am actively part of it, the extent to which it permeates my consciousness, is the extent to which I will be able to make sense out of the events that happen, the flow of reality of which I am part. In other words, to the extent an event of understanding is a deliberate act “producing meaning” it is an activity of “interpretation”.
For studying the scriptures as holy scripture, the context is always an encounter with the “holy other”; and for monks, that “holy other” is always “wholly other”:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts;
neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa 55:8-9)
Hence the reluctance of monks to speak too easily and readily about the scriptures:
Abba Daniel used to say this about [Abba Arsenius]: “He never wanted to reply to a question concerning the Scriptures, though he could well have done so had he wished …” (Abba Arsenius, n. 42)4
“If you can’t be silent, you had better talk about the sayings of the Fathers than about the Scriptures; it is not so dangerous.” (Abba Amoun, n. 2)5
Context is essential for an understanding of texts; and texts are, strictly speaking, the primary object of hermeneutics. However, texts are not only objects but also events, “contextualized happenings”. They come fully into being only in the process of being read “here and now”6) – something the desert fathers understood very well:7
The brethren came to Abba Anthony and said to him, “Speak a word; how are we to be saved?” The old man said to them, “You have heard the Scriptures. That should teach you how.” But they said, “We want to hear from you too, Father.” Then the old man said to them, “The Gospel says …” (Anthony, n. 19; emphasis added)8
The interpretation of a text is at least as much a participation in an event as it is contact with an object. In fact, a text might be better understood as being an interlocutor than as an object – an equal partner in the process of making meaning, rather than a passive, malleable thing to be shaped by the will of an omnipotent reader, or the tool of some manipulative mastermind called “the author”.9 As interlocutor the text neither promotes meaningless chaos nor unilaterally predetermines meaning. As my “interlocutor” – someone who speaks with me – it has to follow the same rules of language that I follow if I am to understand it.10 It has to speak about things and events of which I have some understanding if I am to listen to it and pursue the conversation.11 And it has to allow me to add whatever I feel is relevant to the conversation from my own experience, in order to bring out more fully the meaning for me of what I think it is saying to me.
The only verifiable and meaningful context for a text is the “space” opened up by the mutual respect between text and reader. With regard to the text, an essential part of that respect means recognizing its “otherness” (as was argued in Part One of this article); and with regard to the reader, it means recognizing the limitations of interpretation within the limits of the reader’s actual context: what is and what is not possible given who, what, and where the reader happens to be at the time of reading. In other words, the actual context of the text as interlocutor is the “location” of the encounter with the reader; and the “location” of that encounter is determined by the “coordinates” of the reader’s world.12
A text’s “actual context” is not to be confused with its “original context”, therefore. This is particularly significant in the interpretation of ancient texts. A text can only mean what it means now, irrespective of what it might have meant once. A text written in an unknown language “means” nothing anymore; a text on how to “heal” people with leaches means something very different now from what it might have meant in the seventeenth century; and whatever it was that I meant by “love” when I was a teenager, I know it means something quite different to me now. None of these “texts” have changed in what they “said” since the time of their inception, but their meanings certainly have. In other words, whatever a text might have meant in its original context, its only verifiable and meaningful context is the present, that is, its actual context. (This is not to deny, of course, that what a text might have meant and what it means could be identical; or that knowing what a text meant has no effect on its present meaning.)
Hermeneutics is a deliberate, conscious and systematic attempt to understand the deliberate, conscious and systematic process of coming-to-understand a “text” in its actual context.
Having given this “definition” with the intention of developing it with the help of a model, I nevertheless hasten to add that such a definition of hermeneutics – particularly its focus on texts – is not universally acceptable. But then, no definition of a dynamic process and the models that develop it can be as absolute as the word “definition” and the solidity of a model might suggest.13 As O’Toole elaborates:
… beware: this model is not objective truth, no universally valid definition…. though it does sit still conveniently and authoritatively upon a page, a thing to be received or analysed. It is certainly not processual. To try and comprehend cognitively, as a series of statements embodied in a book and diagrammatic models, a dynamic form which its participants apprehend both cognitively and affectively, subjectively and objectively, implies a major structural and epistemological transformation of that form where the processual is removed from the process. Both diagram and book are nothing more than a temporary and potentially misleading holding form, through which, however, we may perceive … [the] process sufficiently for some of its operation, its underlying structures and its social and ideological functions to become evident.14
A Model of Interpretation
Interpretation is a creative process. It happens in the interaction between interpreter and interpreted. When the two are a text and a reader, they are interpreter and interpreted simultaneously. The reader interprets the text, and the text “interprets” the reader. Each time a text is read, the process of reading it reveals something to the reader about the text and about the reader. Therefore it changes the reader; or, to be more precise, the reader is changed by the reading, in however small and subtle a way – which is, of course, the rationale behind the monastic art of lectio divina. Each re-reading is based on a changed perception of the text. Perhaps not dramatically, or even obviously changed; but certainly not the same.15 That is to say, pre-understanding shapes reading, as re-reading shows.
But, we might ask, what then is it that shapes, conditions, informs, and gives us confidence in our “pre-understanding”?
Basic Faith Stance
All interpreting, indeed all understanding, is ultimately based on a “Basic Faith Stance”, a stance that has no “bottom line”, that is not itself based on anything else. If there is something beneath it we are not capable of grasping it, of “under-standing” and naming it. Basic Faith Stance is itself the “bottom line without a bottom line”.16 It is not to be confused, therefore, with a worldview, much less a philosophy, or ideology (in either the pejorative Marxist or the non-pejorative sense), each of which is to some extent definable or limited.
Basic Faith Stance is a combination of those fundamental categories and structures of meaning (what we might call the “epistemic complexus” which makes possible all our knowing) which are both “spoken” and “unspoken”, conscious and unconscious; and of those that are unconscious, both those that are available to consciousness (the merely “unspoken”) and those that are not (the “unspeakable”). In other words, Basic Faith Stance is the matrix (womb/mother) from which come, not only presuppositions, prejudices, ideas, and ideologies, but also personal identities expressed and formed in and through deepest convictions and actual, concrete commitments. It is not so much what I say I “believe”, but what I do, what I live, and so can truthfully say: “I do believe” – because I do.
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. (Matt 7:21)
A Basic Faith Stance is a giving given: an inexhaustibly mysterious given that itself gives meaning. It is the source of meaning insofar as it is the life-giving source of identity (who I understand myself to be), and, deeper still, of personhood (who I am). It is the “groundless ground” on which I stand. Not the surface I see, but the deep creative source of my being and meaning communicating itself to me:17 “deep calling on deep in the roar of the waters” (Ps 42:7). It is, in other words, the “realm of the Spirit” – not a Hegelian “Geist”, but the biblical ruach. It does not belong to us; rather we “proceed” from it, “be-come” out of it, our living selves – “ex-ist”.18
Awareness of Basic Faith Stance – this “groundless ground” of existence – can help to call our hermeneutical pretensions to heel; or at least into question. Ideally, it invites a “hermeneutical humility” – that is to say, honesty – where I can say: “I do not understand. But I want to understand. So, how can I come to understand, given who, where, and what ‘I’ really am (Basic Faith Stance), and who, where, and what I think I am (Worldview)?”
Worldview and Ideology
Worldviews are formed on the foundations of what is actually and actively believed, that is, on the basis of a Basic Faith Stance; and Ideologies are articulations of those Worldviews.19 While there is, therefore, an essential continuity between Basic Faith Stance and Worldview/Ideology, there is also an important distinction. The latter is, and can only ever be, a partial profession of the former: only insofar as I am aware of what I actually believe and am willing to acknowledge it to myself and to others. What I say I believe may or may not be in accord with my actual faith stance – that which I do, and therefore really believe. Ideology can be honest, self-deceiving (and perhaps still “honestly held”) or dishonest. Therefore a rigorously critical “hermeneutics of suspicion” (Habermas) has, in this “postmodern”, “post-critical” age, become “ideology self-critique”.
Let us take for example the Christian preferential option for the poor and marginalized, “the victim” and “the other”, in order to illustrate what has been said so far about this model. The preferential option for the poor and marginalized is, in the non-pejorative sense of the term, an “ideological” option made consciously on the basis of a belief that it is right to stand with the poor and marginalized as a matter of priority. Why? Because “deep down” (in other words, without being able to adequately and exhaustively explain it) one is convinced that it is right to do so. Of course, that does not mean that we can give no reasons for this choice. We can; and some of the reasons are very sober and rational. But how do all these “reasons” work together to give the necessary confidence to believe so firmly in the rightness, and even the necessity, of making such an option? And what gives the necessary confidence to believe in the “reasonableness” of the reasons that can be given for it? The honest answer is: we don’t know. There comes a time when one can say no more. The ground beneath the “there is no more that I can say”, “there is no further ‘why’ that I can give”, is the groundless ground of faith. This groundless ground of faith is the epistemic base of meaning, the foundation of all our knowing.20 (Clearly “faith” here does not mean exclusively religious faith.)21
How then does this example help to clarify the connection and the distinction between Basic Faith Stance and Worldview/Ideology? A decision to make the preferential option for the poor and marginalized is ideological: it is a deliberate and conscious attempt to give concrete expression to the complex and ultimately mysterious conviction which motivates it in the first place. That is the connection.
The distinction becomes obvious when there is a serious inconsistency between what one actually does with respect to the poor and marginalized, and one’s claims of making a preferential option for them – whether or not we accept the Ethiopian eunuch’s invitation to “come up and sit with me”. For example, if I claim to make the preferential option for the poor, but work for the unjust world of the rich and powerful, then my claim is a lie, and belies my actual Basic Faith Stance – that is, what actually gives meaning to my life as I really live it. What I profess to believe – my ideology – can be deeply at odds with what I really believe (that is, on what I actually base the concrete decisions and actions of my life).
Of course, what we say, our ideology, can, and ideally should, be in accord with what we actually believe and live. When it is not, it has been called “false consciousness” (Marx). When it is, it is a mark of “sanctity”. However, as the “masters of suspicion” (Marx, Nietzsche and Freud) have shown convincingly, and as the saints in their humility acknowledge only too readily, what we say we believe, our “ideology”, is rarely, if ever, in perfect accord with what we really believe, with what in fact gives meaning and motivation to our lives (hence the pejorative use of “ideology” as “false consciousness”, and the saints’ keen awareness of their own sinfulness). Unfortunately, none of us, neither the “masters of suspicion”, nor the saints themselves, is free from this danger.
But need it be such a terrible “danger”? Perhaps not – if we can harness the energy a self-critical openness can release as we engage in the interpretive process of meaning production; if we can be humble enough to know we do not know and acknowledge that we do not understand (“How can I, unless someone shows me?”). In fact, if we are willing to enter into the interpretive process as a dialectical and dialogical encounter with a text as “other”, that encounter can be an experience of creativity, purpose, and even life-giving meaning.22 If we come to the text in order to hear it as “other” speaking to who we actually are, questioning us, and being open to our own questions, the encounter will change both us and the text. If we are willing to hear what the text has to say to us in our world and to be questioned by what we read, our “world” can be brought more sharply and closely into view and our prejudices, presuppositions, motives and beliefs can all be “unconcealed” and “critiqued” in order to be either lived or rejected. The irony, of course, is that the only way to those prejudices, presuppositions, motives and beliefs, and the “world” they hold together, is by being willing to acknowledge them in the process of interpreting the “other” in its otherness speaking to us in our “world” as it still is.23 This is clearly, therefore, a difficult and delicate process, one which never ends since we can never achieve “perfect consciousness” – see the face of God … and live. Ideology is here to stay – as long as there is a world to be seen (ideo) of which a conscious and deliberate expression (logos) is to be given.
This may be a good time to pause and bring together some of the threads of this exploration, relating them directly to hermeneutics. Taken together, Basic Faith Stance and Worldview/Ideology form an “epistemic base” for the work of interpreting as coming-to-understand. They do so in a dialectical relationship. There is both continuity and difference – or, différance24 – in a relationship of mutual refinement. Basic Faith Stance, as matrix of meaning and identity, is, in a dialectical relationship with Worldview/Ideology, the epistemic base for interpretation, which nevertheless defers the absolutizing tendencies in actual worldviews and ideologies: their “ground” is in the “groundless”.
As dangerous as static metaphors for dynamic processes are, perhaps the best way to explain this distinction is to extend the building metaphor a little further. If we want to build a house, we would do well to build it on “firm rock” rather than “shifting sands” (cf. Matt 7:24-27). In other words, it is better to believe with confidence, and to have something to believe which inspires confidence, than to (claim to) believe in nothing – which, in practice, is impossible. Whether we build on rock or sand, however, we have to build our “world” on and with the stuff of the ground we stand on, the “earth”.25) We neither create the ground as bedrock, nor as the stuff with which we build. Rather, both the ground and the stuff of our building blocks are given. However, we do build our own floor for our interpretive structure; and we take from the ground to do it. We construct our World(view) from the given “ground”, our Basic Faith Stance, while at the same time building on that same “ground”; thus changing, to whatever extent, both the base, and the material we take from it, in the process of building our interpretive structure.
Our building metaphor may begin to fall down at this stage under the weight of its own “constructivism”. Apart from being somewhat too solid, it may be suggesting rather more power and control for the “builders” than is actually so. We may be able to salvage it, however, if we keep in mind that most well-built structures are not only built on a given foundation, but that they also follow on from other people’s experience (tradition), sometimes on the very same foundations; and can only be built with the cooperation of others (community). In other words, the “world” we create for ourselves is always more “ours” than “mine”; it is never as static as our vision of a “final product” may suggest; and while we certainly build and shape our world, we do so within the limitations of our own givenness, our “createdness”.
So, with these provisos in mind: the actual interpretive structure built on these epistemic foundations is what is meant by Methodology in this model of interpretation, and the interpretive process is the actual Reading, the interaction between Text and Reader.
This “structure” is, however, more organic than architectonic. It is “processual”; and is itself refined in the process of reading, or interpreting. Therefore “methodology” is not merely a more impressive word for the methods used in interpreting a text. Rather it is a theoretical statement which includes a consideration of:
- the general “approach” to the text as text (which a reading of the text inevitably refines), and
- the more specific methods (or “tools”) we use in the actual doing of the task, the interpreting.
A few examples may help to elucidate the point: a historical approach to the biblical text might use such specific methods as source criticism and redaction criticism; a literary approach might use the specific methods of narrative criticism and rhetorical criticism; an approach which combines literary with historical ideas about texts might use specific methods such as form criticism, philology, sociology, etc. With the help of these methods we read the text, interpreting it on the foundations of our “epistemic base” (that is, the dialectic between our Basic Faith Stance and Worldview/Ideology), and in the context of the “epistemic complexus”, the “meaning-giving matrix” of being.
Reading is both the process, the very activity of interpreting, and, more specifically, the circularity of that process, the interaction between Text and Reader. This “circularity” is at once the most obvious insight and the most complex aspect of hermeneutics (and beyond our scope in this brief article).26 We can all see that interpretation requires a movement between “interpreter” and “interpreted” – a speaker and a listener, a reader and a text, an actor and a part, an audience and a performance, a conscious subject and an event. What leads us to call this movement “circular” is the fact of its “being in time”, interacting with its “being (somew)here”. What determines the coordinates of context, and how this interacts with the temporality of being, has, in one way or another, been the critical issue in hermeneutics, certainly since the so-called “Enlightenment” (and, alas, that too is beyond our scope here).27
Theory is often presented before practice, with the claim that theory enables practice. In reality, theory usually follows practice: it is the “second act”. A good theory enables the refining of further practice, having been forged by the process of trial and error that all human practice must be, at least to some extent, as the circular nature of reading and re-reading demonstrates. Part One of this article was a practical example of what Part Two sets out in more theoretical form: a reading of the scriptures in search of a theory for reading the scriptures (which is why it was placed first). The claim – or “thesis” – of Part One was that the church’s scriptures are best understood from within the ecclesial context for which and in which they were written, which the Bible itself clarifies by situating reading in a dialogue between the “insider” who has an “outsider’s perspective” and the marginalized other who begins reading by acknowledging the “otherness” of the text. The basis for this thesis is the belief that to understand anything “other” (such as a text) we must respect that “other” in its otherness by never assuming that we will understand it at first glance and without making considerable effort of deep listening. That “deep listening” includes taking into account the various contexts in which we encounter the other: where it comes from, where we are coming from, and where we find ourselves now as we encounter one another in dialogue. The hermeneutic model presented in Part Two outlines the process of interpretation by showing the relationship between the ontological roots of interpreting (Basic Faith Stance), its epistemic foundations (Worldview/Ideology) and its actual methodology (Reading). The circularity of the actual reading and re-reading process points to the essentially transformative purpose of the whole process: we read in order to change, for to change is to live – and that, in the end, is the whole point of reading scripture: to find life. Of course, scripture is not where we will make that discovery. In fact, it is only a witness to the Wholly Other whose “word” it communicates if we “have ears to hear”.
Forgive me if I suddenly depart from the more formal academic tone of what precedes (hence my calling this an “epilogue” to the article as a whole). My purpose in writing this article is not primarily “academic” but personal – though no less intellectually serious for being personal. My purpose, as I hope is obvious from what was said in Part One, is to encourage a reading of the scriptures as something far more than merely academic, much less esoteric or intellectually elitist. What I said in the first part of this article is that scripture read as holy scripture is an encounter with the wholly other, which will change us if we let it: if we accept the invitation to “come up” and “sit with” the marginal other reading this revolutionary text in dialogue with “the ecclesial insider with an outsider’s perspective”. That claim flows from my own experience, indeed, from my “basic faith stance”, which, in the words of Saint Paul, is nothing less than the life I live in Christ – the life I live, not the beliefs I hold. The set of beliefs that flow from my life and that I do indeed “hold” – though more as a gift continually being given than as a possession held tightly – is the “blueprint” that determines how I see the world I live in and shape by my actions, choices and ideas: it is my “worldview” and “ideology”. The concrete form of my worldview and ideology is, at its heart, the “deposit of faith” my own tradition calls “revelation”, namely the word of God in scripture and the living tradition of faith and practice. It is out of that worldview/ideology that I approach all texts, including the texts of scripture and tradition. The particular approach to the text of sacred scripture that I take is that it is just that: “holy”, as in “other”; and I do so for two reasons: out of respect for the text as an interlocutor in a dialogue, since it presents itself as such to me; and because engaging it thus has “changed my mind”, which is to say I have learned new things, things I could never have known had I not opened myself to the “other Other” I encounter in and through this text. It is this Holy/Wholly Other whose word resonates in our own being, transforming us until we become what we hear:
One of the monks, called Serapion, sold his book of the Gospels and gave the money to those who were hungry, saying: I have sold the book which told me to sell all that I have and give to the poor.28
- Richard E. Palmer, Hermeneutics (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1969), 13.
- Cf. Terry Eagleton, The Significance of Theory (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 74ff.
- Cf. Sandra Schneiders, The Revelatory Text (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1991), 158, on the function and nature of “pre-understanding”.
- The Desert Christian: Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, trans. Benedicta Ward (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc., 1975), 18.
- The Desert Christian, trans. Benedicta Ward, 32.
- As Stephen Moore observes: “Indeed, the object model [of texts] is undermined every time the Bible is read liturgically.” (Literary Criticism and the Gospels [London: Yale University Press, 1989], 120.
- Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 19.
- The Desert Christian, trans. Benedicta Ward, 5.
- Cf. George Steiner, Real Presences: Is There Anything In What We Say? (London: Faber and Faber, 1989), 156, on approaching the “other” with a “fundamental act of trust”.
- Cf. Steiner, Real Presences, 158, on what he calls the “second stage of philological reception”.
- Cf. Steiner, Real Presences, 162, on what he calls the “third stage … that of the semantic”.
- Cf. Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), 284; The Act of Reading (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), 27-38; Steiner, Real Presences, 156, speaking of “accurate audition”.
- So Steiner, Real Presences, 164-5.
- John O’Toole, The Process of Drama (London: Routledge, 1992), 5.
- Steiner, Real Presences, 163, speaks of the reading context as “at all times dialectical”.
- Cf. Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983), 229-34.
- See Walter Ong, The Presence of the Word (London: Yale University Press, 1967), 117-22; Steiner, Real Presences, 134, 201, 202, 214.
- See Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1977), 45ff.
- Cf. Schneiders, The Revelatory Text, 170: “[ideology is] that entire generalized theoretical structuring of reality through which one experiences all of life.” While I am far from comfortable with any neat separation between worldview and ideology therefore, I nevertheless believe a subtle distinction can be useful.
- “Epistemic”, coming from episteme meaning “knowledge”, which is itself related to pistis, meaning faith. On “faith” as the basis for science, see Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolution (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1970), 157f.
- See Steiner, Real Presences, 89; however, as Steiner says later in the same book: “A semantics, a poetics of correspondence, of decipherability and truth-values arrived at across time and consensus, are strictly inseparable from the postulate of theological-metaphysical transcendence. Thus the origin of the axiom of meaning and of the God-concept is a shared one. The semantic sign, where it is held to be meaningful, and divinity, ‘have the same place and time of birth’ (Derrida)” (119).
- Cf. Steiner, Real Presences, 202, 203-4, speaking of “begetting”, “poiesis” and “counter-creation”.
- Cf. Steiner, Real Presences, 210, celebrating the creativity and freedom of that otherness.
- A word which signifies both to differ and to defer.
- Cf. Heidegger’s use of the distinction between earth and world: “Earth represents for Heidegger the inexhaustible mother, the primordial source and foundation of everything…. ‘On earth and in it historical man grounds his dwelling in the world.’ In art the construction of a work out of earth creates a world.” (Palmer, Hermeneutics, 160.
- For an excellent treatment of this subject in relation to the desert fathers, see Burton-Christie, Word in the Desert, 160-72.
- Among the many good treatments of the subject, one of the very best is Schneiders’ The Revelatory Text.
- Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert  (London: Darley Anderson, 1988), 37.