Wednesday, June 22, 2005

On interpretation and meaning of texts

Eric Cowperthwait posted a very good response to ”The case against originalism”, by none other than the lovable lefty…dadahead.

The crux of the issue is whether the US Constitution is a “living document”, the meaning of which being fluid and subject to “interpretation” by whichever Congress and/or Judiciary happens to occupy power, or rather a fixed set of principles that articulates a rule of law and a respect for the natural rights of the individual, which may be amended, provided the requisite supermajority gives consent via ratification. Suffice it to say that I hold the latter to be the case.

Those for whom a “living document” is preferable tend to have a “modern liberal” political philosophy, not to be confused with “Classic Liberal” (libertarian). The usurpation of the “liberal” label in politics is not dissimilar to the evolution of theology, particularly since Constantine institutionalized the Catholic Church in the 4th Century. After roughly a thousand years of homogeneity and subsequent to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century, Christianity has splintered considerably. Over the last five hundred years, dozens of unique Protestant sects have been established, each with its own particular “interpretation” of the Bible. So, I’m reluctant to refer to myself as “Christian”, because that moniker has become a mile wide and only an inch deep. Of late, I’ve used the term “theist”, but perhaps “Classic Christian” is more apt.

Now, I’m relatively familiar with the world-view of those that read my blog, and certainly those that comment with some regularity. Among them are atheists and agnostics, as well as few different sects of Christians. Therefore, rather than delving into a recitation of the nuances of theology as I understand it, I’d like to propose a thought experiment that is relevant to the topic at hand…namely: interpretation of texts.

My purpose here is not to demonstrate the existence of God or the veracity of the Bible, but rather to explore the art and science of textural interpretation. That said, the Bible, like the Constitution, is literary in nature and contains various prescriptions that pertain to human society. Additional similarities include: respect for the author(s), a supposed authoritative quality and seemingly endless disputes about original intent and correct meaning. As it happens, I’ve recently been engaged in just such a dispute in the comment thread of an entry at my friend Hammer’s blog.

The commenter with whom I disagreed is UK John. His position, although he insisted it was not, is reminiscent of ”higher criticism”, which is a branch of literary analysis that attempts to investigate the origins of a text, especially the text of the Bible. Higher criticism in particular focuses on the sources of a document and tries to determine the authorship, date, and place of composition of the text. It sounds innocuous enough, but this technique was used by 19th Century “liberal Christians” who sought to “demythologize” the Bible by essentially declaring that it is the subjective product of mere mortals and therefore cannot be said to have any objective meaning. I attribute this to John because his line of reasoning is consistent with “liberal theology”. For example, when I wrote: …"While disagreements about meaning arise from limited human faculties, logic and particularly the “law of non-contradiction” must not be disregarded. Christians ought to reason together in love, but not tolerate competing contradictory interpretations."…John responded thusly:
OK, we have a few problems here. First, many disagreements will, of course, arise from our limited understanding and wisdom. And we ought to reason together in love. However, the problems are, first, in your "law of non-contradiction". I'd love to know exactly what you mean by this, and where you get it from. Because there are plainly many places in the Bible that *do* contradict one another, forcing us to elevate one reading above another.

Second, and more seriously, your idea that we must "not tolerate competing contradictory interpretations". Even if this was our ideal, how is it possible? If two parties are both convinced that they are right (or, at least, are not convinced that they are wrong, which is hopefully a more likely state), how are we to decide which is the "right" interpretation and thus the one that we must force on everyone? We cannot simply say "mine" (from any faction of the church) because that assumes that we have full insight into God.
Completely befuddled by the implications of John’s response, I answered in kind with what I thought was common knowledge: …”The law of non-contradiction is one of the more basic principles of logic. It states that two opposing concepts cannot be simultaneously true, in the same circumstance and/or the same relationship (X is X and cannot be non-X). With respect to exegesis and hermeneutics, logic and the tools of literary interpretation (e.g. context, author’s intent, style, word usage, etc.) are determinative.”

Whether or not the Bible is divine in origin and therefore inerrant or simply pure fantasy; whether the Constitution is as brilliant as its author and the men that conceived it or merely the product of an obsolete philosophy; these are not the primary questions to ask. Before the issue of quality can be properly assessed, the content of any text must necessarily be apprehended and understood. In other words, what a document says must be ascertained before an accurate value judgment can be made. It seems to me that many modern liberals, be they religious or secular, try to “reinterpret” two of the most revered documents in history to suit their tastes, instead of becoming acquainted with each document and then offering an informed critique, in conjunction with a rational case for their ideology…if indeed such a case can be made.