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!