Friday, September 19, 2014

WSPK 3: Meaning is understood locally.

I have started a series, "What should a pastor know about the Bible?" In the first two posts, I have suggested the following hermeneutical points for starters:
  • The words of the Bible in themselves are susceptible to multiple interpretations.
  • The Bible as Scripture is as much transformational as informational.
  • We are always unaware to some extent of how much of "us" is in our reading of the Bible. Our default is to assume it means as it appears to us, not how it actually was originally.
  • The books of the Bible say they were written to people who have been dead a long time. To read the Bible literally is pretty much to read it as someone else's mail.
  • These books were first written to address many different times and places over many centuries in three different languages. The "y-o-u-s" of the Bible were not originally anyone alive today.
  • The Bible is more like a library of books than a single book. It was not one book originally.
  • For the most part, each book of the Bible was first written to stand alone, not to be read as part of a bigger book.
With this post, I want to end these preliminary observations of hermeneutics. Their implications will resound in profound ways in everything that follows. But I am almost ready to dive into the details.

1. The word "pre-modern" is not entirely helpful. For one thing, it sounds like a put-down. For another, as I define the word, we are all inevitably "pre-modern" and can never not be to some extent. I use it in reference to the fact that we all impose meaning on the world on the basis of our pre-understandings without knowing it. We are all "unreflective knowers" to some degree or another.

The term is often used to speak of a transition that took place in the 1600s in philosophy to what is then called "modernism." But not only has this supposed transition been heavily critiqued, but obviously not everyone in the 1600s suddenly changed hats to become modernists. Nevertheless, the basic concept, as I use it, refers to the fact that we tend to see meaning "in" things when in fact we are the ones projecting meaning onto them.

That isn't to say that there may not be factual aspects of the world that play a role in the meaning I ascribe to them. It's just that there is always a whole lot more of me in my interpretations of the world than I realize. This unreflectivity about the meaning I see in the world is what I mean when I speak of a pre-modern interpretation.

So when we unreflectively read the Bible as one book, not a collection of books, that is a pre-modern reading. We are making it one book in our minds when these were actually separate books written over the course of hundreds of years. When you unknowingly assume that Revelation 22:19 is about the whole Bible ("If anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this book"), when it was really about the scroll of Revelation itself, that is a pre-modern interpretation.

Now you can knowingly read the texts as one book too, a "post" modern reading. You can knowingly take Revelation 22:19 in relation to the whole Bible. You might call this a return to a "second naivete." What I am calling pre-modern is when you do it without knowing you're doing it.

2. In the end, I am inevitably the one who understands meaning in things. Meaning inevitably takes place in my head, not in yours. The meaning I see in the Bible is inevitably a meaning I see. It cannot be otherwise. You can communicate your interpretation into my head, but once you do so, it is--as it always is--now an interpretation in my head.

I spent two months in Germany in 1995. Let's just say my German wasn't up to speed at that point. There may have been many a brilliant lunch conversation while I was there, but I don't know it. They just weren't able to get into my head. I used to say that my friends knew more about my time in Germany than I did.

In the same way, from a practical standpoint, it doesn't matter how fantastic the truth of the Bible is on its own time. It will never be more brilliant to me than it is assembled in my mind, at least as far as its informational aspect goes. Meaning is inevitably a function of my mind, and all meaning is understood locally.

3. What does this have to do with reading the Bible? Let's apply it to the first meaning of the books of the Bible. Each word of the Bible had a local meaning for them too, for the Israelites, Romans, and Corinthians.

2 Thessalonians 2:4-5 make help us begin to understand what this fact implies: "He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things?"

Who is the "you" here?  It's no one reading this post. It was presumably some Christians who lived in Thessalonica in the first century. I am not the one to whom Paul was writing. [1] They had information, referential information, that I don't have. Paul was not with me a few months ago.

So what is the temple here? There was one standing in Jerusalem when this text was written. Is that what Paul was referring to? Am I to see this "man of lawlessness" in 2 Thessalonians 2 through the eyes of some Left Behind novel I've read? Or is there information Paul and Thessalonians had in common that I don't know, meanings local to them, to which I am just not privy?

4. This is an easy example. We just lack enough information to know for sure what Paul was fully saying. But here's one place that this whole conversation leads:
  • There are meanings the words of the Bible had that do not correspond to any words in English or concepts in our world. 
You just can't translate the books of the Bible straightforwardly into English or any other existing language today (including modern Greek and Hebrew). We just don't have the words. We just don't have the concepts. In ways we cannot even know, the meanings their Greek and Hebrew words had involved elements of their ancient world to which we are not privy and that we are not equipped to understand fully.

Take the idea of sacrifice. We can say, "A sacrifice was killing an animal to propitiate and please the gods." But that doesn't mean we really understand sacrifices. Frankly, the notion of sacrifice was so primal, so deeply ingrained on the subconscious of the ancients, that I'm not sure they even knew how it worked or what it was all about.

There is a "deep structure" to the meaning of sacrifice, requiring a "thick description" of the ancient psyche. I would like to think we can come close to understanding it, but I guarantee you the English word sacrifice doesn't come close. In a world that doesn't offer sacrifices, it's going to take some doing for us to understand sacrifices.

Here is the end of today's post:
  • The first meanings of the books of the Bible was a function of the way words were used at the times and places when those books were written, and those meanings were largely if not entirely a function of their ancient worldviews.
  • My default interpretations of their words are not some timeless, universal meaning. Rather, my default interpretations of their words are also a function of the way words are used in my time and place, and the meanings I see are largely if not entirely a function of my modern worldview.
  • Meaning is always understood locally.
So could not God have inspired them to write universally instead of locally, for all time instead of for their time? This sounds like a pious answer, but it is really asking one of the following questions:
  • Couldn't God have inspired the Bible so that it was irrelevant to the people to whom it was first written and only became totally relevant when I came along and understood it from my modern perspective? or
  • Couldn't God have inspired the Bible so generally that it fit in all local contexts? In other words, so that it really doesn't give much specific help to any one culture but just gives really general information, the kind that would apply anywhere?
The first meaning would be highly self-centered. The second just isn't what we find in the Bible. It's a lot more helpful that that. When we dive into history, we find that these words made total sense at the specific times and places when they were written.

This turns out just to be a defensive reaction that won't hold up against examination. It is a pre-modern perspective in transition to a contextual one.

[1] I'm ignoring for now debates over whether Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians and, thus also, whether it was actually written to Thessalonica.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow. Powerful conclusion that makes me think even though we likely share a very similar perspective of scripture.