In the beginning was the Word. (John 1.1)
And because the Word was in the beginning, so was hermeneutics, or, interpretation. Words are just noises that we make or scribbles on a page unless we first attach meaning to them and after that interpret them as a whole. Words require interpretation. Interpretation is the art of turning words into thoughts, beliefs, and actions. That interpretation is a primal event and undertaking is the assertion that Richard Kearney puts forward throughout his own philosophical project. This also seems to be the reasoning of Abraham Heschel when he refers to the Torah, the word of God revealed through the prophets, as a “call for continuous understanding.” (GSM, 273) What I am interested in doing is looking at how Heschel’s “continuous understanding” and Kearney’s hermeneutics affect how we understand the biblical text (or any sacred text for that matter).
In a three-part CBC Ideas interview featuring Kearney discussing his book The God Who May Be, and his overall interpretation of religion, Kearney begins with the statement from which I derive the title of this post.
In the beginning is [hermeneia], interpretation in the beginning is the Word. Not a stone. Not a certitude. Not a God you can put in a bottle and bring out every so often on festive occasions to prove that you’ve got the absolute truth and nobody else has…and as we know words are dialogical and you’ve got to listen and to respond.
Interpretation is perhaps one of the most primitive human acts. Before there was written and spoken language, there were symbols. Communication was through imagery and gestures. Progressively communication could be accomplished through utterances and more specific symbols. But in each situation, meaning had to be created in order for there to be any sort of coherent communication to take place. Of course, this meaning was not perfect and thus interpretations could vary. Whatever the case, interpretation became necessary. Communication became possible only through interpretation. And it remains that way today. You will read these posts and will interpret them. You are engaging in hermeneutics.
I believe Kearney is referring to revelation, in a general sense, when he says “in the beginning was the Word.” It is not immediately clear to me if he is referring to something more specific, namely the Christian revelation of Jesus as the Word-Incarnate. Whatever the case, Kearney seems to be suggesting that there is a general principle common throughout religious traditions that there is always some sort of “Word” that is received from a source outside of the world (but not necessarily apart from the world).
Even in the act of receiving this Word (or words), interpretation comes into play. What about non-textual hermeneutics? Kearney argues that the act of faith is itself in the realm of interpretation. One has the choice to interpret the Stranger who they encounter as God or not God. This is a “primary scene” of religion. (Anatheism, p. 7). Moreover, one can take the memories, event(s), symbols, sacraments, images, liturgies, songs, and other poetic summaries of the Stranger, and to believe or not believe. “Poetics makes hermeneutics possible,” writes Kearney. (Anatheism, p. 11) The individual, or group, receiving the word, has the choice to interpret their experience as a gift from Otherness or simply an experience that emerges from within their consciousness. Previous experiences, cultural norms, political wills, religious dogmas, and other convictions will inevitably colour one’s interpretation and affect its outcome.
III. Texts and Interpreters
Turning to sacred texts, specifically the Bible, one is faced with the responsibility to interpret. And not just to interpret, but to interpret well. There are good interpretations and there are poor interpretations. Heschel remarks, “there has, indeed, been so much pious abuse that the Bible is often in need of being saved from the hands of its admirers.” (GSM, p. 275)
He who says, I have only the Torah, does not even have the Torah. (GSM, p. 274)
To use vocabulary from my Evangelical background, Heschel argues against a solo scriptura understanding of revelation. As the age-old adage goes, history has a way of repeating itself. So is it any surprise that there is a sect within Judaism, called the Karaites, who “claimed to adhere to a purely Biblical religion”? (GSM, p. 274) Fascinating, but that is a topic for another day. What is important here is Heschel’s assessment of Judaism as not being a religion of only the Torah. While the Karaites reject the oral Torah, Heschel views the oral traditions of the Jewish rabbis as being indispensible to the interpretation of revelation in each and every moment of history. The leaders of the Jewish faith interpreted and explained to their people the meaning of the Torah. Without the oral Torah, the written Torah remains “often unintelligible.” (GSM, p. 274) What Heschel says next is quite thought-provoking: “…Judaism is based upon a minimum of revelation and a maximum of interpretation, upon the will of God and upon the understanding of Israel.” (My italics; GSM, 274)
Revelation is a two way street; interpretation is human participation in revelation. Revelation and interpretation are a partnership between the Divine and the Human (GSM, p. 274). The interpretation of revelation is just as necessary and just as important for religious life as the revelation itself. Heschel believes the prophets’ and sages’ interpretations are not secondary sources that are to be consulted when a roadblock is run into during interpretation. They are essential to the task of interpretation and they are indications of the Divine-Human partnership in revelation. (GSM, p. 274) Heschel explains this as a participation in the act of creation: “He created the earth and we till the soil; He gave us the text and we refine and complete it….The Bible is a seed, God is the sun, but we are the soil.” (GSM, p. 274) Thus, interpretation is an act of worship, Heschel gathers. Mere receipt, assent to, and compliance with the divine revelation, in Heschel’s words commandments, is not enough. Interpretation is a “supreme duty” that is an invitation brought on by the Torah itself.
Heschel contends that Scripture is not an “intellectual sinecure” meaning that we must come to the Bible with the awareness that we’ve got some heavy-duty reading and thinking to do. Heschel observes that interpretation of the Torah “was acquired at the price of a millennia of wrestling, of endurance and bitter ordeals of a stubborn people, of unparalleled martyrdom and self-sacrifice of men, women and children, of loyalty, love, and constant study.” (GSM, p. 275) Interpretations can oppress or liberate, kill or give life, shame or love. In other words, interpretation is difficult because not only are we dealing with complicated texts that have layers and layers of meanings, but we are also dealing with people. Interpretations differ amongst people. That’s nothing new. But interpretation must also be difficult for the very reason that ultimately our interpretations will affect people. Easy interpretations are often the fruit of indolence, ignorance, arrogance, or something more sinister, the desire for power.
Read Part Two.