The full meaning of the Biblical words was not disclosed once and for all. Every hour another aspect is unveiled. (GSM, p. 273)
The meaning of the Bible is not a given. Heschel states “Revelation is not vicarious thinking;” that is, revelation and its meaning do not come to us pre-assembled. Revelation is not a “substitute” for our thinking abilities. (GSM, p. 273) This isn’t to say that revelation can and must be reduced to that which is rational. Reason has its limits. Revelation is not inherently rational, nor is it intended to be understood with only our natural faculties. Revelation is meant to be interpreted through means that are often supernatural, namely through faith. Heschel writes that the prophets did not speak to deliver a timeless, monolithic, and conclusive message, the meaning of which is inhospitable to the changes of time and culture.
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’ve been reading the Jewish philosopher and theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book God in Search of Man. Wonderful book. Here’s some bits from a chapter on revelation.
Incomprehensibility does not imply an illusion.
Revelation should not be rejected because of its being incomprehensible. It is not the only fact that is impervious to exploration, unverifiable by experience. That which is incomprehensible must not be considered unreal. Can we explain how being came into being? Can we describe exactly how the tense power of a spirit glides on the strings of a violin, creating a world of delicacy out of nothing? Is the cry and anguish of six million martyrs theoretically comprehensible?