Book Notes: The Fall of Interpretation

The thesis of Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith’s The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic is simple and revolutionary: The necessity of interpretation — the impossibility of unmediated, perspective-free experience of a text or an event — is not a tragedy nor a barrier to truth, but an acceptable aspect of being a finite creature. Complete interpretive agreement, which history shows us is impossible, is not the only way to maintain the authority of a text such as the Bible or the Constitution. Smith argues that giving up the ideal of total, self-evident consensus will not lead to chaos because tradition and real-world experience constrain the number of interpretations we will actually find useful.

Hermeneutics is the branch of philosophy dealing with theories of interpretation. From Plato to today’s evangelical scholars and deconstructionist philosophers, there’s a common assumption that the necessity of interpretation is a fall from grace. In a perfect world, the theory goes, everyone would clearly perceive reality in exactly the same way. There wouldn’t be this diversity, uncertainty and incompleteness of interpretations.

Postmodernism contributes the insight that there is no pure encounter with the text, no alternative to our responsibility to choose among a plurality (though not, as Smith argues, an infinity) of plausible interpretive filters. So are our only choices a naive inerrancy or a despairing relativism? Not unless we are comparing our actual hermeneutic situation to a false ideal of perception unbounded by time, space, or the gap between self and object — in other words, measuring our perspectival knowledge against the direct knowledge available to an omniscient, omnipresent God.

Interpretation exists because we are finite creatures who cannot get completely beyond the space-time position where we find ourselves. Finitude creates a gap between two communicating individuals, and between myself and the object I communicate about. This gap produces the risk of mis-communication, and ensures that the sign can never capture the entirety of the signified.

Smith argues that the link between interpretation and fallenness contradicts the Christian belief that creation was originally and essentially good. To blame humans for not having a God’s-eye perspective is to say that finitude itself is fallen. In other words, we’re saying God made a mistake by creating individual humans with a diversity of cultures and experiences, instead of one undifferentiated God-being. This is unbiblical and, since it doesn’t fit reality, unhelpful. It produces hermeneutics that avoid self-awareness about their own limitations.

But wait, doesn’t the Tower of Babel story imply that linguistic diversity is a punishment for human pride? Smith daringly contends that God was restoring His intended diversity and squelching early humans’ totalitarian impulse to impose a monoculture. It makes a peculiar sort of sense: what would ever motivate God to make it harder for us to know Him? The fact that He brought pluribus out of unum suggests Smith is right that Christians should celebrate the polyphonic quality of human discourse.

Smith notes that “to say that everything is interpretation is not to say that all is arbitrary.” (p.163) The hermeneutics of the culture wars present us with a false choice between a single reading (of the Bible or the world) and an infinity of equally valid readings. Neither is actually an option for us. Interpretation isn’t infinite because reality pushes back. Our common experience in a shared world sets interpretive norms that “resist capricious construal.” (p.174) In other words, you can’t interpret your fist through a brick wall. Or, to use an example from Wallace Stevens, there may be 13 ways of looking at a blackbird, but there is also a real blackbird for comparison. “The blackbird is involved in what I know.”

Most of Smith’s book is taken up with tracking the false ideal of un-interpreted text through the writings of Augustine, Gadamer, Pannenberg, Heidegger, Derrida, and sundry other philosophers and theologians. If this is too “inside baseball” for you, I recommend Smith’s shorter and more readable Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?

Like many books that debunk a widespread belief, this one could have used less de-construction and more re-construction. The final section describing Smith’s alternative “creational hermeneutic” is tantalizing but too brief. The book would have vaulted from good to great if it had analyzed controversial Bible passages to show how his method can help the church live with diversity of opinion. The Anglican Communion needs you, Jim! Call your office!

14 comments on “Book Notes: The Fall of Interpretation

  1. Alegria Imperial says:

    A book review by Brian Welter published in B.C. Catholic, June 4, 2007, on “Jessus of Nazareth”, written by Pope Benedict XVI, seems relevant to this item. Welter describes the book as “fast-paced, an intellectually and spirtually challenging must-read. It centres on Jesus from the view that the Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament) Scriptures are united in their revelation about God and Jesus Christ.

    “Concerning the unity of the Bible, he (Benedict) writes, ‘Modern exegesis (interpreting the Bible) has brought to light the process of constant rereading that forged the words transmitted in the Bible into Scripture: older texts are reappropriated, reinterpreted, and read with new eyes in new contexts. They become Scripture by being read anew, evolving in continuity with their original sense, tacitly corrected and given added depth and breadth of meaning.
    ‘This is a process in which the word gradually unfolds its inner potentialities, already somehow present like seeds, but needing the challenge of new situations, new expereinces, and new sufferings, in order to open up.'”

    Welter then cites how this “elegant spirituality” that gave rise to Benedict’s words can be traced to a painstaking path “begun by Church fathers (Origen, St. Augustine), and brought to fruition in medieval France (Bernard of Clairvaux, the University of Paris, the great monastic movements of Cluny and the Cisterians) and later in Spain (Sts.Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola) and modern Europe (the Cure d’Ars, St. Padre Pio).

    “This depth-oriented practice requires patience and self-discipline, something most of us, Protestant, Catholic, or indifferent, no longer possess.”

  2. Hank Rodgers says:

    “…Everything is interpretation…The sign can never capture the entirity of the signified…”, and one must, necessarily, “…choose among plausible pluralities…”. I have kept and re-read this fine, reflective, commentary, for several days now, and enjoy it more every time that I read it.

    Jendi, maybe you should consider, even as you write your novel, writing a companion book about your “journey”; alternating your reflections of this kind with the personal story of your struggles, with your faith, the novel and otherwise. I am reminded of major, best-selling, personal stories with philosophical reflections, such as “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” and “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. You could probably write a wonderful book of this sort.

    The respective “plausibility of pluralities” certainly limits, if not eliminates, some of the more unlikely points of the Christian story; though many would say that “pure faith” and not “plausibility” is what is essentially required. This is, maybe, the source of the pain for the “seeker”.

    In the most anthologized poem of Dylan Thomas, the impossibility of the sign capturing the signified is beautifully illustrated; and in one of his other poems too, he illustrates the latter problem:

    “Faith in divinity would solve most things,/ For then the wrong wind certainly/ Would be the devil’s wind, and the high trinity/ Be guiltless of the windy wrongs.

    But ways have changed, and most ways lead/ To different places than were said/ By those who planned the obvious routes/ And now, mistaking the direction,/ On miles of horizontal milestones,/ Perplexed beyond perplexion,/ Catch their poor guts.

    (from “With Windmills Turning Wrong Directions”)

  3. Jendi Reiter says:

    I’m honored by the comparison to two memoirs that I admire so much, but even more by our ability to have this conversation across the differences in our spiritual opinions. Theological concepts are important but there is a reality beyond them (something I learned from my Buddhist husband) that cannot be known without the leap across the gulf from “plausibililty” to “pure faith” as you eloquently put it. And our attempts to speak of it when we return are always so imperfect that we cling to them too tightly, afraid of their deficiencies. My pain these days comes from being dissatisfied with the two versions of church community on offer: one that says there is no such reality beyond our concepts, and one that insists on their own concept as a perfect map to that reality, forbidding further inquiry. Well…at least I have a roof over my head and a cyber-soapbox…life is still good.

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